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Substantive Erasures: Essays on Academic Boycott and the American Studies Association

[Graffiti from the Palestinian side of the separation wall in Bethlehem. Image by Neil Ward, via Flickr.] [Graffiti from the Palestinian side of the separation wall in Bethlehem. Image by Neil Ward, via Flickr.]

Introduction [by Noura Erakat]

Members of the American Studies Association (ASA) first considered an academic boycott seven years ago, discussed it openly four years ago, and presented a resolution to endorse it a little over one year ago. As with most boycott, divestment, and sanctions efforts (BDS), opponents made little noise about it assuming that it would disappear quietly under the crushing weight of establishment opposition and explicit threats to professional advancement. But it did not disappear.

As this year’s annual ASA conference began in Washington, DC, it became apparent that the possibility of boycott was very real. By the third day of the conference, and at the open session designated to discuss the resolution, the possibility of an academic boycott became imminent. Membership support for the resolution was overwhelming and an affirmative endorsement of boycott seemed inevitable. The opposition slowly began to lift itself from its laurels. Once the National Council unanimously endorsed the resolution and submitted its endorsement to a membership-wide vote, public opposition to the initiative began to cascade. Since sixty-six percent of the ASA’s membership voted for it, the opposition has been relentless. 

In protest of the resolution, Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg have withdrawn from the ASA. The ASA’s leadership as well as the public proponents of the boycott have received letters and phone calls threatening death and less fatal consequences. Non-ASA members far beyond the academy have inundated the ASA’s activism caucus blog with violent and acerbic commentary. As repeatedly noted by ASA scholars, however, none of this is surprising. To the contrary, these intimidation tactics pregnant with threats of tangible consequence are precisely the kind that have infringed on the academic freedom of US-based scholars daring to speak against the orthodoxy of Israel’s sanctity within the academy and beyond.

The so-called measured responses have hardly been more noteworthy. The critique of boycott has been redundant and unimpressive, yet as with all matters that reflect the establishment status quo, it has received an inordinate amount of mainstream attention. 

The basic arguments are summarized as follows:  

1.     Academic boycott infringes on academic freedom; [See Judith Butler’s rebuttal

2.     The boycott is biased because Israel does not have the worst human rights record globally and does not deserve this particular scrutiny; [See David Lloyd’s rebuttal

3.     The boycott is anti-Semitic because it singles out Israel; [See Steven Salaita’s rebuttal] and the most recent argument is 

4.     The boycott is wrong because it is not limited to Israel’s occupation but targets Israel’s “systematic discrimination of Palestinians” writ large. [See my Storify twitter rebuttal

What is troubling about these arguments is that they are all premised on the exclusion of Palestinian subjectivity and agency. Palestinians simply do not exist, have not suffered, cannot speak for themselves, and cannot legitimately call for international solidarity.

To bemoan the infringement of academic freedom as a result of the boycott is to assume that only Israeli scholars and students are entitled to it. It is to neglect the grisly experience of US-based scholars who have dared to speak on Palestine. Moreover, it is to completely erase the material reality of Palestinian students and scholars who are not eligible to enjoy academic freedom because of the limitation of their movement by checkpoints, the criminalization of their dissent, and death. Between 1972 and 1993, Birzeit University was closed on fifteen separate occasions amounting to over seven years. In 2004, due to the Bantustanization of the West Bank, there was a one hundred percent drop of students from the Jenin Governate who could register at Birzeit- meaning zero students could register because of movement restrictions. From September 2000-2004, Israeli military violence killed one hundred ninety-six students and thirty-eight teachers.

Allegations that academic boycott unfairly singles out Israel and is somehow anti-Semitic deliberately denies and rejects Palestinian calls for solidarity. The ASA did not initiate a boycott against Israel by swirling a spherical globe of human rights abusers “to start somewhere.” Palestinians initiated the boycott first in a call to scholars and cultural workers in 2004 and then more broadly in a call in 2005.  The baseless charge that the ASA boycott unfairly targets Israel necessarily erases the role of Palestinians in leading their own movement for freedom, dignity, and liberty. ASA scholars did not single out Israel; they simply listened to Palestinians.

Critique of the boycott for its failure to distinguish Israel from Israel’s occupation silences Palestinian narratives describing a singular history of forced removal, dispossession, and displacement. It attempts to co-opt boycott as a tactic to challenge Israel’s occupation for the sake of benefitting Israel and sparing it from international isolation and de-legitimization. Like the dissidents alleging that the ASA is singling out Israel, these critics reject Palestinian agency to set the terms for their own self-determination.   

This erasure has been the most violent feature of the opposition’s onslaught of the ASA. It has been compounded by the dearth of Palestinian voices in the coverage of the boycott. The leading members of the ASA boycott initiative have been too aware of this and have insisted that media requests be fielded to Palestinian scholars. Despite these intentional efforts, rehearsed critique of the boycott resolution remains salient in its mainstream coverage. It seems that substance is not what is being sought after.

In the midst of this ongoing debate, it is worthwhile to revisit some of the cogent arguments made at the ASA itself. The following essays are lectures delivered at the ASA’s Town Hall entitled The United States and Israel/Palestine. The lectures address academic freedom, the erasure of Palestinian narratives, the allegation of hypocrisy, and the legacy of the question of Palestine within the intellectual left. It features Alex Lubin, Director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University in Beirut; Steven Salaita, Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech; J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Wesleyan University; and Jasbir Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.

[The following essays were delivered at the 2013 American Studies Association Conference at the Town Hall.] 

Alex Lubin

What happens when a peace process justifies an occupation?  What happens when academic freedom justifies un-freedom for some?  In my talk I want to explain the conjuncture between the Oslo Peace Accords, US-led neoliberalism, and the formation of academic un-freedom across Israel/Palestine.  I do so in order to argue that an academic boycott is a non-violent means to oxygenate, rather than stifle, academic freedom.

Hailed in the Western press as a meaningful stage in negotiating a final and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords enshrined the logic of “limited self-government” as a framework for partial Israeli dis-occupation from Palestinian territory.  Within the United States, the Oslo Accords were read as the successful formation of a “pax-Americana” in the Middle East that would garner new legitimacy for the United States in the region for the post-Cold War world. 

The Oslo process enabled Israel and the United States to implement neoliberal governance as a substitute for overt colonial occupation.  Under Oslo, a non-elected Palestinian National Authority (PA) was installed as the governing authority in small portions of the West Bank.  The PA was granted limited authority to encourage social responsibility among the Palestinian population; it could police areas under its authority and supervise education and culture, health and social welfare, taxation, and tourism in the West Bank and Gaza.  In exchange, Israel would withdraw military powers from limited areas of the West Bank and Gaza while maintaining control of key resources and infrastructure, including water, electricity, and all security and borders. The borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, the question of the Palestinian refugees’ rights of return, and the question of water rights were to be decided after a five-year interim period, provided the PA could demonstrate responsible governance–which, translated, meant that the PA could undermine Palestinian popular rebellion. 

Oslo partitioned the West Bank into areas of Palestinian and Jewish settlement and authority. Only two-to-three percent of West Bank land was transferred to full PA control (area A).  Towns located in area A are non-contiguous and are de-facto enclaves in a sea of Israeli control.  Twenty-six percent of the West Bank falls under area B, a zone of limited sovereignty in which the PA has only civil and police powers while Israel maintains internal security.  In area B, Israel continued to confiscate Palestinian land and to enforce severe policing and imprisonment of Palestinians.  The remaining seventy percent of the West Bank was designated area C; this is a contiguous landmass that surrounds areas A and B in their entirety.  Area C, comprising the water-rich and border areas of the West Bank, is fully under Israeli authority.  Moreover, Oslo did not restrict the expansion of settlements on Area C and hence Israel has been free to develop bypass roads connecting a vast network of illegal outposts and settlements.  These bypass roads have enabled Israel to expand greater-Jerusalem into the West Bank and to make West Bank settlement into what Ehud Olmert called as “a permanent part of Israel.”

The Oslo accords were not merely a form of neocolonial governance over Palestine, but also a neoliberal intervention into Israel.  During the five years after Oslo the labor government committed to privatization of key portions of the Israeli economy related to social safety net services, healthcare, and education.  In the wake of neoliberal reforms, and in exchange for austerity, foreign investment in Israel boosted Israel’s economic growth to 5.8 percent.  As Joel Beinin points out, by the mid-1990s, “nearly one-hundred Israeli firms were listed on US stock exchanges,” demonstrating one linkage between occupation policy and United States-controlled economic globalization.

In addition to providing economic support to the occupation, the United States has given diplomatic cover to the Israeli policies within international bodies such as the United Nations and the Human Rights Commission.  Forty-one times in the last forty years, the United States has been the only UN Security Council Member to veto a resolution critical of Israeli colonialism.  In this way, we can see that United States support for the occupation draws each and every one of us into a position of complicity.

The partitions of Palestinian sovereign territory under Oslo, expanding Israeli settlements, the security wall, as well as increasing racialization of Palestinians in Israel has made impossible academic freedom for Palestinians.  Road closures, bypass roads, check-points, the wall each restrict movement, preclude travel to conferences, and foreclose certain archives from Palestinian students and professors.  But the occupation and Israeli nationalism also police what can be said about Israel within Palestinian and Israeli academe.  In 2012 Israel criminalized use of the word “Nakba” (which means catastrophe) while facets of Arab Palestinian history and culture have been delegitimized and erased. 

Within the context of Oslo neocolonialism academic freedom is an empty category that is used to justify Israeli higher education’s complicity in a neocolonial occupation.  At the same time, Western appeals to academic freedom often remain entirely focused on Israeli freedoms – to produce the knowledge that serves occupation – and regularly overlooks the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian scholars and students.

The status quo is one in which appeals to academic freedom sanction violence, often in violation of international laws and norms, just as the so-called Oslo Peace Process wages ongoing war and ethnic cleansing in the name of peaceful negotiations.  In this context, in which academic freedom sanctions Palestinian un-freedom and peace processes sanction war, an academic boycott becomes a non-violent route to creating new conditions of possibility within which a just solution might be imagined.

Steven Salaita

The traditional, perhaps appropriate, thing for me to do would be to appeal primarily to your sense of propriety as scholars by reciting all the ways that arguments against BDS fall short of convincing.  But I would like to do something a bit untraditional, though I hope it will not be inappropriate.  Rather than appeal to your sense of propriety as scholars, I would like to appeal to your sense of probity as human beings. 

First, let me point out that advocates of decolonization, from Indigenous peoples to Palestinians to Israeli Jews, and from scholars to novelists to artists to students to musicians, have answered all arguments against BDS, and have answered them well.  For in the end, the issue is not how BDS can be justified, but how any person of conscience can justify rejecting clear, cogent calls for solidarity from Palestinian civil society. 

This is the major element of BDS to keep in mind.  Yes, it is a nonviolent tactic.  Yes, it joins us in a brilliant tradition of resistance.  Yes, it highlights the American-funded brutality of Israel’s military occupation.  But in the end, it is a response to the appeals of a suffering, colonized population.  In the face of terrible injustices before which they feel helpless, people often ask “what can we do?”  Well, in the case of BDS, the Palestinian people have given us a very clear answer.  I accept their authority as it pertains to their liberation before I accept the authority of the various Western entities that put forth tendentious standards of professional conduct, most of which, in any case, are complicit in Palestinian suffering. 

It is instructive to think of BDS in relation to similar boycott movements, both contemporaneous and in the past.  Very few people here would argue that the boycott of Apartheid South Africa was counterproductive, unethical, ineffective, disingenuous, or unfair to the white minority.  Likewise, when calls were issued to boycott Arizona in the aftermath of its profiling legislation, I saw nowhere nearly the same level of concern or hesitation as that generated by Palestinian BDS in the conversation among scholars.  Indeed, much more stodgy and conventional associations than the ASA refused to hold conferences in Arizona for years when the state would not recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

It is my observation that boycotts in themselves are not especially controversial among academic communities.  In other words, BDS is not controversial.  Criticism of Israel is controversial. 

Even those who opposed boycott of South Africa or Arizona understood that the white folks were not the victims of inequitable economies and legal systems.  What sets Palestine apart is the persistent notion that the colonizers, those with nuclear weapons and land and resources and legislative power and the full support of the United States, are the oppressed party, that they largely suffer the pain and indignity of the conflict, that BDS is furtively anti-Semitic, that Israel is a special case in history, that it is distasteful to single out Israel.  Remove this insidious reasoning and most rationalizations for rejecting boycott go away. 

Here are the facts:  no evidence has ever been presented that the Israeli government is interested in a viable solution to the conflict.  Instead, Israel has persistently built illegal settlements, intensified its Judaization programs, shot and arrested children, appropriated land, destroyed olive groves, flaunted international law, funded reactionary counterrevolutions, and passed overtly racist legislation, all of it with indisputable, institutional participation from Israeli universities. 

More facts:  the people of Palestine have been subject to a project of settler colonization for nearly one hundred-fifty years, as long as the French occupied Algeria.  Over a million Palestinians live in refugee camps throughout the Arab World, many in severe poverty.  Palestinian citizens of Israel inhabit the lower-level of a two-tiered legal system that limits their rights to employment, land ownership, education, mobility, free expression, political participation, and public services.  The Gaza Strip is destitute and overcrowded, victim of an ongoing Israeli campaign to strangulate its economy with the express purpose of making its residents starve and suffer.  The West Bank is carved into hundreds of inaccessible geographies separated by segregated highways, settlements, checkpoints, military instillations, and concrete walls. 

Despite these horrible realities, this antediluvian system of biological determinism, we aretold repeatedly by those opposed to BDS that the desires of the colonizer supersede the rights of the colonized.  They rarely put it that way, but it is the primary assumption underlying the mistaken argument that BDS harms innocent Israelis, or is unfair to Israeli academics, or only makes the conflict worse.  By this logic, the black boycott of Montgomery’s bus system would have been unjustified because it might have harmed the drivers.  

The most innocuous-sounding but insidious of these colonial apologetics assails us about the need for dialogue, not rejectionism.  Yet BDS is not merely a tactic borne of ahistorical circumstances.  It is a movement for justice that has arisen from a need for action as a result of failures of dialogue over multiple decades, a dialogue utterly dominated by Zionist voices.  Besides, I would argue that BDS constitutes a form of dialogue, one in which the Palestinian people are finally able to participate.  Their contribution to this new dialogue is the announcement that they will never tolerate dispossession and will never accept their fate as expendable in the Zionist narrative.  

Finally, Palestinians haven’t asked for dialogue as a form of solidarity.  Nor have they—remarkably, considering the circumstances—asked anybody to shun others based on ethnicity or religion.  What they have asked for is quite simple:  that we honor their request to avoid validating, supporting, or engaging Israel’s profound colonial apparatus, of which the state’s universities are part and parcel. 

The obvious question for us is why should a scholarly organization like ASA endorse BDS, even if its members are willing to sign on individually?  The answer is equally obvious:  because ASA, to its great credit, has never avoided institutional positions vis-à-vis issues of great concern to its membership.  In 2010, for example, the ASA signed onto a statement, along with nine other scholarly groups, threatening boycott of Arizona.  In the same year, the ASA openly supported UNITE HERE in its struggle on behalf of mistreated Hyatt workers, pledging not to hold meetings or conferences at the hotel chain.  The list goes on and on.  So, the question is not why a scholarly organization like ASA should endorse BDS, but what possible reason it could have not to endorse BDS given its support for boycotts in the past. 

The only people singling out Israel in this debate are the ones opposed to BDS.            

Ultimately, if BDS is outside the scope of the ASA’s purview, then the organization needs to be overtly apolitical, an outlook very few of us would accept, or it needs to maintain ethical consistency.  BDS is fully consistent with the ASA’s long tradition of support for struggling and oppressed communities.  It is therefore entirely appropriate—necessary, even—that the ASA solidify its commitment to the study and practice of decolonization by supporting BDS against the oppressive Israeli state.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui 

I want to begin by acknowledging the Piscataway Indian Nation and that we are in Tayac Territory. Also, today I recall that last year during the American Studies Association (ASA) meeting, the Israel Army launched a large-scale offensive on the Gaza Strip, codenamed “Operation Pillar of Defense,” from 14-21 November, and killed one hundred seventy-one Palestinians.[1] I should also be clear to state that my comments here are made as an individual ASA member and that I am not, in my capacity as a speaker in this session, speaking for the ASA National Council (although I am an elected official). 

For starters, answering the question “why Israel?,”  USACBI is a campaign responding to the call of Palestinian civil society to join the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS) against Israel, focused specifically on a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, not individuals, as delineated by PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel).[3] What I mean by Palestinian civil society includes over one hundred seventy organizations, federations, and unions that called for BDS in 2005. So, why Israel? Because Palestinian civil society has asked people of conscience all over the world to impose BDS until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with these three precepts of international law by 1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2) recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. Note that these three laws speak to three overarching conditions: settler colonialism, occupation, and apartheid.  

Israel is distinguished from other nations in the following ways: it is the largest recipient of US aid and weapons, now over $3.3 billion per year.[4] Israel uses US weapons and aid in the service of war crimes and crimes against humanity.[5] Israel has violated more UN resolutions than any other country in the world, and the United States has consistently protected Israel through its Security Council veto power. Israel engages in ethnic cleansing as well as policies that conform to international definitions of apartheid for the sake of territorial expansion.[6] And in the United States, Zionists aggressively silence and work to censor (and censure) critical discussions about Israel.

Now to the two charges: hypocrisy and inconsistency. Here the implication is that we in the United States should not criticize others for having the same faults as the United States. This spins off into the questions of inconsistency, posed as why not oppose other nations that abuse human rights? Or, why not call for a boycott of the United States then? To be clear, a campaign focused on Israel does not in and of itself contradict political commitments and struggles against the violation of human rights and the denial of humanity in any other context. That is what logicians call a false dilemma. But that point is linked to the charge of hypocrisy–the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform. My favorite is when someone says, People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones in order to suggest that one cannot criticize Israeli settler colonialism given that the United States was founded on the stolen lands of indigenous peoples. The politics of indigeneity bring much to bear on critical analyses of Israeli exceptionalism as it is bolstered and bankrolled by American exceptionalism that denies the colonization of Native North America.[7] Indeed, the connections between settler colonialism that enables the existence of the United States and Israel are not merely analogous–they are shaped from many of the same material and symbolic forces.[8] But examining those linkages is not the intention of Zionist apologists; for them the charge of hypocrisy is an attempt to provide cover.

In my scholarly and activist work exposing and protesting the US occupation of Hawai’i, I routinely challenge the US government’s legal claim, expose the roots of the United States as a settler colonial state, and critically engage the history of US imperialism in Native America and its military occupations and colonial subordination in Oceania (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as American Samoa) and in the Caribbean (the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico). Therefore, I find the charge of hypocrisy laughable, especially given that those who typically evoke it have no real interest in challenging US domination in any of these contexts let alone in the world at large through its imperial force. US settler colonialism, occupation, and apartheid (both legal and de facto in this country) all point to the why the US administration never condemn Israel. To do so would call into question the entire US American project.             

US-based scholars–including ASA members–have an ethical responsibility to expose the massive US funding of the state of Israel, to challenge the attacks against academic freedom for those of us who dare criticize Israel in the US academy and elsewhere, and to help build solidarity with Palestinians from a US-base. This includes mitigation against what Amy Kaplan refers to the “de facto boycott of Palestinian academe” regarding scholars in the Occupied Territories.[9] Scholars may worry that a boycott of any academic sort is a strike against academic freedom, but those of us who within the USACBI–as well as those from the Academic and Community Activism Caucus of the ASA who have submitted a resolution for academic boycott to the National Council for consideration–understand that there is no conflict between protecting that principle and boycotting Israeli institutions. Moreover, there is nothing within the guidelines of the academic boycott that prohibit, hinder, or condemn intellectual collaboration with individual academics from Israeli institutions, contrary to the misinformation and disinformation currently circulating about the proposed ASA resolution. And, as someone who has endorsed the USACBI, the fact that I am presenting alongside Ahmad Sa'di (a Palestinian faculty member at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which is most definitely an Israeli institution) on this panel should suffice as evidence of that.  Similarly, there is nothing in the campaign that would obstruct me from inviting an Israeli academic to the campus where I teach, nothing in the campaign that would denounce me from co-editing a book with an Israeli academic.

BDS is an effective and ethical element of popular resistance against Israel’s colonial occupation and apartheid system. Although the campaign rests on a rights-based approach that does not posit a particular state-based solution, if Israel complied with all three tenets, the state of Israel–a Jewish state built on colonialism, occupation, and racist apartheid–would necessarily be a different state. International law, if it were successfully enforced, would delegitimize the Zionist project and thereby pose challenging questions about how to think about an adjudication of claims, of refugees, of those under occupation, of those suffering discrimination, as well as those of the settlers themselves, many of whom have been in Israel for generations. In other words, it would necessarily transform an exclusive ethnocracy to an inclusive democracy. BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti has pointed out that advocates for Israel are trying to delegitimize the Palestinian quest for equal rights under international law by portraying the BDS Call’s emphasis on equal rights and the right of return as aiming to “destroy Israel.” In response, he rightly asks, “If equality and justice would destroy Israel, what does that say about Israel?”[10]

[1] “One Year Following the Israeli Offensive on Gaza: Justice for Palestinian Victims Still Denied, “ Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 13 November 2012, http://www.pchrgaza.org/portal/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9897:one-year-following-the-israeli-offensive-on-gaza-justice-for-palestinian-victims-still-denied&catid=145:in-focus.

[2] Institute for Middle East Understanding, “Fact Sheet; Operation Cast Lead,”http://imeu.net/news/article0021968.shtml.

[3] See the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott, http://www.usacbi.org/ and also the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott, http://www.pacbi.org/.

[4] As "How Much Aid to Israel?" (a project of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 380 organizations working to change US policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality) reports, in August 2007, the United States and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) outlining a ten-year (FY2009-2018) U.S. military aid package to Israel totaling $30 billion. See http://www.aidtoisrael.org/article.php?id=3016.

[5] “What are war crimes?,” International Criminal Court, http://www.icc-cpi.int/en_menus/icc/about%20the%20court/frequently%20asked%20questions/Pages/13.aspx.

[6] See Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007); “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948,” the International Committee of the Red Cross, http://www.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Treaty.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=1507EE9200C58C5EC12563F6005FB3E5.

[7] See M. Shahid Alam, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[8] For work on these linkages, see Steven Salaita, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan (Syracuse; Syracuse University Press, 2006).

[9] Amy Kaplan, "In Palestine, Occupational Hazards," Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 November 2010,

http://chronicle.com/article/In-Palestine-Occupational/125246/

[10] Omar Barghouti, "We — the global 99% — shall overcome!," The Daily Pennsylvanian, 3 February 2012,http://www.thedp.com/index.php/article/2012/02/omar_barghouti_we_the_global_99_shall_overcome.

Jasbir Puar 

I have been so incredibly moved and inspired by the numerous papers and conversations and panels on the Boycott that have been happening at the ASA during the last two days. My comments this evening are indebted to these dialogues and attempt to emphasize and extend the many brilliant points made elsewhere. I also want to thank the Activist Caucus for the tremendous work they have done to bring the conversation about BDS and Palestine to the center of the intellectual energy of the ASA. As Alex Lubin mentioned earlier this morning, given the long-term resistance there has been in the ASA towards these issues, what has happened at this ASA is very different from ASA of ten years ago. I would also add that it is a very different ASA from even two years ago.

Having recently returned from the American University of Beirut as the Edward Said Chair of American Studies, and having collectively marked the tenth anniversary of Edward Said’s passing, it seems an appropriate occasion to reflect a bit on Said’s perpetual struggles with the US academy regarding what he called “The Question of Palestine.” His legacy, his writing, and his frustrations with what could be called the secular academic left are instructive in addressing the question of academic freedom and speaking about Palestine in the academy. In a memorial to Said in the summer 2006 issue of Social Text, which historically has seen itself as reflecting the bastion of the US academic left, focusing on Said’s oeuvre as well as his scholarly and political impact, the editors of this special issue, Patrick Deer, Gyan Prakash, and Ella Shohat, trace Said’s particular relevance to the foundations of the journal. Social Text itself claims it “began its career with Said’s work” and published in its inaugural 1979 issue Said’s groundbreaking essay “Zionism from a Standpoint of Its Victims,” which later became a chapter of The Question of Palestine.[1] The editors of the 2006 issue avow, “Such a move at the time, when it was nearly impossible to utter the word ‘Palestine’ in the public sphere, was vital for the opening up of the debate in leftist academic circles.” Two issues later, however, Social Text published a rebuttal by Ron Aronson titled “Never Again? Zionism and the Holocaust.” Deer, Prakash, and Shohat critically reassessed this response:

The journal’s decision to publish a response that placed the Holocaust at center stage and marginalized the unfolding history of Palestine in the wake of Zionist settlement was indicative of the anxiety, tensions, and contradictions among leftists about the question of Palestine and Israel…Scholarly work on the subject, written from within such critical perspectives, has often been deemed “controversial”; its authors, of diverse ethnic or national backgrounds, often end up having to pay a high price professionally and politically. Although not a monolith, Social Text’s collective courageously introduced a debate into the heart of the intellectual Left but also manifested certain ambivalence toward that very decision. In the ensuing years, the journal’s editorial focus often reflected this tendency to shy away from addressing Zionism, Palestine, and the Middle East. While Latin American issues were prominent in the journal’s early days, it was not the case for the Middle East, despite the on-going and devastating United States’ impact on the region. [2]

The editors thus note that the tendency to subsume the plight of Palestinians to the narration of the horrors of the Holocaust and the affective disavowal of US imperial investments and activities in the Middle East are not bred of Zionist ideologies or positioning alone; rather, they are formative of intellectual Left circles in the United States, a proclivity that perhaps still haunts us today. The heralding, as well, of Said’s work—with the publication of Orientalism—as “preeminent in postcolonial studies,” only served to further reinforce an ambiguous disconnect to and from his work and political arguments about Palestine. Said’s book Orientalism went on to become the foundational ur-text of postcolonial studies and concretized the legitimacy of ethnic studies as well as area studies formations, while The Question of Palestine was largely left behind in terms of institutional, intellectual, and political developments.  

Said’s experiences with US academy suggests a long historical resistance to the Question of Palestine and implicates what tends to be considered the most progressive of left and liberal academics.  What is this leftist ambivalence towards Palestine about?  Similar ambivalent tendencies have marked the relation of the ASA to Palestine.  The American Studies Association embraces postcolonial, transnational, and anti-racist and anti-imperial scholarship and political movements as intrinsic and not extraneous to the ethos of the organization; and yet, Palestine, and the specific relation of Israel as a proxy state of the United States have been relatively absent as a central concern to our field until recently.  

The Boycott Resolution falls squarely within the established purview of alliances that ASA has to date enacted through a series of Resolutions and Statements. So for example, in addition to several statements on free speech, political dissent, and intellectual freedom in relation to student protests at the UCs, 11 September 2001 and the USA Patriot Act, and the Occupy Movement, the Resolution of the Academic Freedom in the Americas adopted in 2005 supporting “free movement of scholars in the Americas” responded to the denial of visas to Cuban and other scholars to attend the 2004 ASA annual meeting. A 2006 Resolution on the Iraq War calls for the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq in the name of compromised and threatened civil liberties. 

In light of these easily afforded stances of solidarity, why the lacuna in relation to Palestine? Why, for example, this separating out of the constrained mobility of Palestinian academics from the affirmed right to mobility for “scholars in the Americas”? Why the critical opposition to the war on terror but not to the US complicity with the Israeli occupation?

Whether the ambivalence is about the compulsive repetition of the return to the Holocaust or other factors, a particular instantiation of American Studies operates within the borders of the United States and repeats its Euro-American orientation through the deferral to the Holocaust as the ur-tragedy of our modern era. But American Studies as it is conceived of “outside” the United States—and there are numerous departments forming, especially in the Middle East—cannot afford to perpetuate such parochial repetitions. (And so now I am speaking from my experiences of being in an American Studies department in the Middle East). In provincializing the vantage point of the United States within the field of American Studies, we need to engage with and in some ways privilege what American Studies looks like from outside the borders of the United States, from outside the US empire—declining as it might be—which so thoroughly conditions our relations to the object of study that we claim to be critical of.  Said understood as much when he posited that an important part of challenging US imperialism could happen in American Studies Centers in the Middle East; and thus, shortly before his death, he became pivotal in efforts to establish American Studies departments in Lebanon and in Egypt.

What Said’s legacy also suggests is that we have indeed been singling out Israel and exceptionalizing Palestine. But not in the way the Zionists claim. We have been singling out Israel for special exemption from critique by excusing it from the kinds of accountability we demand from the US state and numerous other institutions.  Last night, an Israeli friend of mine, an anti-Occupation activist for more than ten years now who is an American Studies scholar, said to me: where have you been all this time? And this is the question that Said might pose to us today were he still alive. 

So the Zionists want us to stop singling out Israel, want us to stop exceptionalizing Palestine. And that is exactly what the Boycott Resolution does, by demanding that Israel be accountable to the political critiques that we routinely launch against the United States and though our anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic criticisms of the war on terror. In The Question of Palestine and also in Covering Islam, Said makes the links between the rise of Islamophobia during the decolonization era and the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, noting that the inability to complexly conceptualize Islam was due in part to the overlay of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict onto constructions of Islam.  The entwinement, then, of the global rise in Islamophobia and Israel’s complicit role in the production of Islamophobia is reflected in the eerie prescience of Said’s work, as if he already knew that the events of September 11th and all it impelled would demand an interrogation of the role of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine in the attempts to make legible the convergence of historical forces at work.  We have been singling out Israel from a broader culpability in relation to the war on terror; and exceptionalizing Palestine by allowing the ambivalence of the academic left towards Palestine to wax and wane, but never really resolve, for more than three decades now. It is time to stop. And to point out that ironically, the Zionist accusation that the state of Israel is being singled out is actually a projection of what they themselves are actually doing.

Finally, let us get real about academic freedom, about how this discourse works to obfuscate, if not provide a cover for so much violence. Academic freedom is a liberal fantasy available to very few in the US academy, one that is designed to protect the status quo. Most of us who are connected to anti-racist, anti-imperial political struggles—most especially that of Palestine—labor daily knowing that we might be denied tenure, investigated by Homeland Security, fired, pre-emptively, not considered for jobs, questioned about the legitimacy of our work and the topics we teach, forced to advise our graduate students that they risk professional ostracization when embarking on various projects, routinely receive hate mail from Zionists, and are otherwise subjected to forms of exclusion, bullying, and discrediting. While opponents of the boycott claim that endorsing the academic boycott will restrict academic freedom, the absolute fact is that no single issue has so damaged academic freedom in the United States as the suppression of debate on the state of Israel. No academic who speaks out against the state of Israel harbors the fantasy that “academic freedom” is about protecting them. Said’s history with the academic left in this regard is sobering and stands as an example of the difficulties encountered by one of the most established and well-respected intellectuals of our time despite the purported standards of academic freedom. This history also reminds us that we have to begin building towards academic freedom, which means standing in solidarity with the right to mobility for Palestinian academics among other rights, rather than insisting on protecting freedoms that do not actually exist for so many members of the academy. What accepting the Boycott Resolution will mean for the ASA, in effect, then, is the exact opposite of what the Zionists claim will happen: enlivened, rather than degraded possibilities for “actual” academic freedom and a more robust and inclusive public sphere of debate.

[1] Patrick Deer et al., “Edward Said: A Memorial Issue,” Social Text 87 (2006): 3.

 

[2] Ibid., 4 

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