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Demanding Equality: Interview with Steven Salaita on the ASA Academic Boycott

[Steven Salaita] [Steven Salaita]

The American Studies Association (ASA) recently became the second US-based scholarly association to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The 800-member Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) was the first. A group of ASA scholars proposed the boycott resolution to the ASA’s Community and Activism caucus in November 2012 after visiting Palestine and Israel on a delegation organized by the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). After deliberating the resolution at its most recent conference in Washington, DC, the ASA’s National Council unanimously endorsed the resolution. In contravention of its traditional practice and presumably to deflect backlash, the National Council put its endorsement to a membership wide vote. On Monday 16 December 2013, the ASA announced that sixty-six percent of its membership voted in favor of the boycott. The backlash to the affirmative vote has been tremendous. Notably, the mainstream debate has excluded Palestinian voices. 

Steven Salaiata  served ASA's Community and Activism Caucus that successfully put forward the recent boycott resolution and is one of the leading Palestinian voices on this successful initiative. Salaita was born in West Virginia (yes, you read that correctly) to a pretty multicultural household.  His mother was born and raised in Nicaragua, but her parents are from Palestine.  His father is Jordanian, from the Old Testament town of Madaba. For the past six years he has taught English at Virginia Tech, but starting in the fall he'll join the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He writes regularly for Electronic Intifada and Salon.  His most recent published book is Israel's Dead Soul, but he's working on a project that compares necolonial narratives in the New World and Palestine. 

This interview with Salaita is also featured on Jadaliyya’s December edition of ‘An Jad/For Reel, its monthly audio podcast.  

Noura Erakat: Welcome Steven, thank you for joining me on 'An Jad/Jad For Reel, Jadaliyya's monthly audio podcast.

Steven Salaita: Thank you for having me.

NE: So, there's a lot of exciting news in the air. We just found out that the American Studies Association membership has endorsed the National Council's resolution for the academic boycott of Israel by sixty-six percent, which is a supermajority. Obviously, this is a big deal, though the way that it has been framed is a bit curious, because it is not the first academic association in the United States to endorse an academic boycott--that was the Asian American Studies Association. It certainly is not the first globally as we know. For example, the University of Johannesburg cut all of its ties with Ben-Gurion University in 2011. Yet, it has been framed as a game-changer. You have been significantly involved in leading this effort for years and through this last stretch. Can you tell us a little bit about why it is such a game-changer? 

SS: I think there are a few things going on. The size of the ASA as compared to the Asian American Studies Association (AASA) is significant. This association has more of a national and international profile. Also, there was a level of opposition within the ASA that was loud and ended up getting a lot of media involved and created interest. So, I think that with the AASA, it passed unanimously and it passed rather quietly. They faced a good amount of backlash and criticism but in the weeks leading up to their adoption of a boycott there wasn't this media brouhaha that the ASA was subject to. So, with the interest of a lot of outside media, with a lot of the international profile and stature of a lot of the scholars that were helping to organize the resolution, all of those things created a tremendous amount of interest. In the United States, the very notion of isolating Israel or singling out Israel or targeting Jews and these sorts of nonsensical narratives that are coming from the other side carry a lot of weight in people's imaginations. So, a lot of curiosity got evoked around the idea of “why are people doing this to Israel?” This has been great, because it has given us an opportunity to explain what the boycott is about and to explain what it does and does not do.

NE: You have done a tremendous job at that. You have continued to churn out op-eds that have been featured in Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss, Salon, and you have responded to these nonsensical arguments. These nonsensical arguments have said the boycott singles out Israel, that this targets Israel, or targets Jewish people, that this infringes on academic freedom. What we noticed is that these arguments kept being repeated ad nauseum despite the responses to them, and that they all look similar to one another. This, for me, indicated a weakness in their argument. Can you tell us about your responses to them and your observations about their tactics?

SS: I agree with you completely. It almost sounded like a collection of automatons, sort of repeating the same talking points, and there was no real engagement with the issue. As you know, and as all of us know, there were some really solid and well-rendered arguments raised in opposition to the resolution from a number of scholars and we addressed those, we engaged in conversation with those people. Some of them, including Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical), changed their minds and took a pro-boycott stance because of that engagement, but the majority of responses seemed to be from people reading from a pre-approved list of ADL/StandWithUs talking points, and it's very difficult to engage in a serious conversation with people who are reading from a script and who show very little ability to critically think and discuss or even have a basic ethical strategic conversation.

I want to be very careful about choosing my words here, but I think the idea that we were targeting Jews is so pernicious, so false, that I find it troublesome on so many levels. Not merely because a lot of Jewish people, some practicing, some secular, of all stripes are involved in the boycott resolution and boycotts in general. But again, that's where the problem comes in, and it's where I wish they would make the connection. By equating Israel, a nation-state, with the Jewish people, an international, highly diverse, heterogeneous population, they are recreating the same sort of ethno-nationalism that we're standing opposed to, and it is a grave mistake from a geopolitical standpoint, and from my point it is a mistake for the Jewish people, because it singularizes them and homogenizes them and it does no cultural or religious or ethnic community any good to be associated with the behavior of a nation-state. I would never associate my ethnic background, which is Jordanian and Palestinian, with the behavior of the PA or with King Abdullah, and I don't think anyone should associate Jewish culture with the state of Israel.

NE: I agree with you, Steven, but don't you think that part of their argument is, for those who are making that argument and are subsuming the heterogeneity of a global Jewish population, that they're mirroring the Zionist project as it has been deployed--especially in the United States by the Israel Lobby, where that collapse has been used as silencing tactic? 

SS: I couldn't have said it any better, that is exactly what's happening. So that response really juxtaposes itself with the very ethical basis for boycott. Every time they say that we're attacking the Jews, one of the thing that comes out of it is the conflation that we're contesting and pointing out the dangers of. And it's been a problem with Zionism since it's inception. 

NE: Along with many problems that we are slowing contending with. But back to the academic boycott specifically, it gained momentum in a way that, for many people watching, looked as if it came out of the blue, that somehow this was miraculous for the opponents. There were accusations that this resolution blindsided them, that we were just more prepared than they, and that's why this was such a decisive victory. Yet, for someone who's in the ASA, that's just not true. You have mentioned that this was a four year effort. Can you tell us a bit about how this came to be?

SS: Sure, but by the way Noura, did you see the ADL job posting in the Bay Area for an anti-BDS campaigner?

NE: No, I have not.

SS: I'll send it to you. So they have paid positions! I just want to point out that all our work is voluntary, and that really belies the accusation that we're some kind of organized juggernaut with funding and that they're just a poor, dispersed group of voices in the wilderness who have no organizational power. That is just ridiculous. I do not want to start naming names because I'm going to forget people, and I do not want to inadvertently insult anyone, but Marcy Newman tells me in fact that the first formal meeting about doing anything vis-a-vis a boycott at the ASA was seven years ago. In fact, I was at that meeting, and while I don't remember it being seven years ago, she tells me that it was and I believe her. All of the meetings in the Community and Activism Caucus from the where the resolution arises were all open and advertised and we never made any demand of ideology or politics on people. Anyone was welcome to join us and converse about it. Also, the ASA has been hosting panels and open sessions of various forms on academic boycott and on responses to Israeli aggression for a long time, so this was absolutely no secret. There was nothing stealth about it. It was featured prominently at this year's conference, in two member-wide sessions. So the idea that this was done in any sort of secret is nonsensical. 

NE: Can you say a little about the process, that this was mentioned seven years ago? The first time it was mentioned, there was significant opposition to it. So, there was a steady track, and something shifted in the 2012 meeting in Puerto Rico. People get the impression that they can launch a boycott campaign and that they can win it, and that's never how it happens. In the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), for example, it was first introduced in 2004. Now, in 2012, they were able to almost decisively win, and lost by a split hair, 333-331. Now, going into 2014, we might see a decisive victory. We are talking ten years in the case of the PCUSA. Not many people follow it that closely, and I think the ASA offers another great lesson in this steady trajectory of BDS organizing, that of an academic boycott being one of the most difficult and challenging of those efforts. Can you tell us about that steady trajectory within the ASA?

SS: Absolutely. I think with the church or a religious community that really has a profound sense of ethical commitment, not necessarily to the Palestinians but just in general, it is one thing. With academic associations, I think most professors are innately averse to anything that they might think would even remotely threaten academic freedom. So we had that added challenge, where people who in moral principle would be against Israel's behavior and military occupation might have trouble coming into support of boycott because they feel like it might infringe on people's academic freedom. The resolution does not do that, in fact it protects academic freedom. As for the process, I guess it takes a lot of commitment. I would remind people to try their best, and I'm guilty of this way more than I should be, not to get into snarky mudslinging matches. Because I think one tactic of the anti-BDS crowd is to sling a lot of mud, and no matter who quote-unquote wins the argument, everyone comes out smeared with dirt.

I would remind people to stick with the facts, and we have an enormous body of evidence available everywhere that illustrates just how aggressive Israel is and how aggressive the founding of this state was, so there's no shortage of materials. Stick with those materials and stick with the great need to emphasize the freedom of Palestinians, always talk about what they aree going through and how they are marginalized and how they are affected by Israel's occupation and racist legal system. Because the anti-BDSers always try to bring everything back around to how things affect Israel, or American Jews, or Israeli Jews, and this isn't about how things affect Israeli Jews. In fact, we have gone out of our way, the Palestinians have gone out of their way, to ensure that their struggles for freedom do not infringe on the freedoms of American Jews. All the Palestinians are asking for is democracy. They are not asking for anybody else to be marginalized, they are not asking for anybody else to be dispossessed, which quite frankly I find remarkable, given their circumstances.

Boycott doesn't ask for any of these things. Boycott asks for the implementation of simple democracy, nothing more nothing less, simple equal rights, a juridical system that doesn't privilege one ethnic community over another. So you have to keep sticking with those points, keep putting those points forward, those arguments forward. Because you quickly begin to realize the counterarguments, as you pointed out earlier, are all talking points. They have very little substance behind them; in fact, the majority of opposition responses, ever since the news of the vote got released, have been bullying, screams of anti-Semitism, and threats of lawsuit. That is kind of what the other side has been reduced to. So, you can change people's minds, and the way you change people's minds is by showing them the facts, engaging them with Palestinian narratives, and by pushing forward and not being scared or intimidated.

NE: Absolutely, and that has actually worked in the past because those threats and intimidation have been made real on that promise, as we have seen with so many of our colleagues. Which is why this boycott was so remarkable. Even before the vote was in, to see the groundswell of support for boycott from junior scholars, undergraduate students, graduate students, and tenured scholars, as well as senior scholars, indicated that despite these material threats, there was a desire and a moral conviction to speak in favor of the resolution. I think for many of us bearing witness, this marked one of the fundamental victories involved in the process.

You mentioned something really important, and something that was mentioned to me, which is the importance of emphasizing the Palestinian narrative. I was told that was one of the most impactful things for those who were part of the deliberations, hearing from Palestinians speaking about how this affects Palestinians. I have been in this for so long, I tend to forget that it is true. The Palestinian narrative is not an issue when we discuss BDS. It becomes about how this impacts Jewish Americans, as well as Israel, but says Palestinians are already expendable. So, and you have done this really well in emphasizing the story of your grandmother being a refugee, and doing a lot of work to reinsert the Palestinian narrative in this struggle, why did you decide to do that and what has been the response to you doing that, in this case and in the past?

SS: Overwhelmingly positive. Of all the arguments I raised publicly, an emphasis on basic Palestinian humanity tends to evoke a very positive response whereas a lot of other arguments end up in debate. I think I am just bothered in general, from an intellectual moral and historical standpoint, that the Holy Land is at least implicitly seen to be a Jewish space, and that the Palestinians are somehow tangential to its future, rather than absolutely central and vital to its future. In the US especially, so much of the debate, even on the left, focuses on what this conflict does for Israeli Jews, what this conflict means to American Jews. I feel like Norman Finkelstein, for example, spends way too much time focused on the needs and opinions of the American Jewish community while ignoring the needs of Palestinians. So I think that when we focus on the Palestinians as central players in this conflict and central players, THE central players in my opinion, in that region's future, what we're doing is producing an important shift, and it is a vital component of decolonization to put the emphasis on the colonized rather than retaining our focus on the colonizer.

NE: I think that is absolutely right, to frame Palestinians as the colonized, when they've been framed for so long as just a security issue, for many reasons that have to do with domestic politics in the US, and obviously this was resurrected after 11 September 2001, that coming out of that security framework to have this discussion is somewhat of a milestone and sadly was about a matter of time. So, now we are also bearing witness to this last-ditch effort for a peace process where finally the world is on board with the two-state solution when the two-state solution is dead. One has to wonder: when will the consensus develop about the alternative for a one-state solution that needs a lot of work to be fleshed out before it finally develops as a consensus, and before it is too late?

SS: You are a veteran of the cultural wars around the Israel-Palestine conflict, so you know a lot better than I do about just how much the discourse has shifted and progressed. What I find remarkable about much of the debate around the ASA resolution was that we were not talking about whether Israel was guilty of these things, of this nasty behavior in the past and present. We were discussing whether boycott was a viable response to that behavior. That, to me, seemed really important, that we were no longer discussing “does Israel do bad things?” I find myself discussing more, “what do we do in response to them?'” We are seeing a lot of discussion on the Israeli liberal left about the two-state solution being dead and a lot of hand-wringing about needing a settlement because one-state is going to be the only viable option. We are even seeing some of that commentary coming from the Israeli right, also.

I think that, like BDS, that the movement towards a one-state solution is inevitable. I think that the horse is out of the barn, and we're not putting it back in. I do think that the notion of a one-state solution, as complex as it is, is a movement fundamentally focused on discourses of democracy, and so I do feel like it goes hand-in-hand with BDS as an activist movement. US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) does not take an explicit position on one or two state, so I am talking as an individual here, but I feel like the move towards a one-state solution and the move to pressure Israel via boycott are two sides of the same coin. 

NE: Any words on where this horse is going to next? Can you comment on how this movement has been expanding and the interest it has been generating amongst other scholars from other US-based academic associations?

SS: I have been so involved in ASA I do not know for sure what is going on elsewhere, I am really not being coy. But I know a lot of people shave reached out to me and others talking about the possibility of their organizing a similar movement within their own scholarly organizations or within their academic departments or on their campuses. I do not know where the horse is going to end up, but I do know that he is headed towards a place that Israel's advocates do not want it do go.

NE: On that note, we're all looking forward to the next rest stop and the next battle, as this is obviously continuing. Even as we celebrate this victory, Israel's settler colonial expansion is accelerating unabated. We cannot possibly move fast enough to compete with that process, so our urgency can't be overestimated. I'm so grateful for all the work that you've done and for joining us today on 'An Jad/Jad For Reel. Thank you Steven.

SS: Thank you, I appreciate it. 

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