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Racism in the Defense of a Racist State: Some Reflections on BDS at the Modern Language Association

It is beginning to seem as if the arrival of winter spells academic boycott season as well as the festive season.  This year in November, the business meetings of two major associations voted overwhelmingly to endorse the call of Palestine civil society to engage in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions until such times as they—and the state with which they are so deeply intertwined—respect the internationally recognized human rights of Palestinians.  Those associations, the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, voted to endorse the boycott by 86% and 88% respectively.  While AAA has yet to send its vote to the membership at large, those numbers are, as they say, major, exceeding by far even the American Studies Association’s vote in December 2013. 

This steady procession of endorsements, initiated in May 2013 by the Association for Asian American Studies’ unanimous vote for the boycott, suggests that the logic and justice of the Palestinian call for justice are making themselves heard more and more broadly in American civil society.  What was once the concern of the political left is gradually becoming to seem a moral imperative to more and more people, much as the divestment movement against South African apartheid shifted in the mid-1980s from being a marginal issue to becoming one of the defining social movements of the decade.  It would be hard now to find anyone who was at Berkeley or Columbia in those years who would not claim to have been part of the anti-apartheid struggle.  

Clearly, something similar is taking place around Palestine: activists with Black Lives Matter or for justice for the undocumented routinely make the connection between the violence and discrimination they confront and the situation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, systematic discrimination, and dispossession.  That most major US police departments have engaged in training exercises with Israeli security forces, or that the Israeli hi-tech firm, Elbit Systems, furnishes the surveillance equipment for both the apartheid wall that segments and annexes Palestinian land and the fence along the Mexican border are now common currency in the language of social activism.

That awareness is no longer confined to civil rights activists.  Religious organizations, trades unions, and civic groups are increasingly turning to endorse the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] and Jewish Voice for Peace has become the fastest growing Jewish organization in the country.  All this is taking place despite increasingly vigorous efforts by Israel’s supporters to suppress by legal or formal political means any criticism of Israel, labeling it, with mind-boggling cynicism, anti-Semitic.  Coercion, to which powerful actors resort when they know they have lost the debate in public, is not a very strong argument and, as ever, ordinary people with a sense of justice refuse to bow down and shut up when bullied or threatened by lawyers or demagogues. 

Meanwhile, the Modern Language Association—the largest association of humanities scholars in the world—continues to deliberate whether to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  The membership vote will not take place till 2017, but at this year’s convention its Delegate Assembly hosted two debate panels focused on Palestine and the question of academic boycotts and the conference itself featured numerous panels devoted to the topic, many of them sponsored by the MLA’s subdivisions or “forums”.  Next year will feature a town hall meeting on the boycott, preceding the business meeting of the Delegate Assembly that will decide whether to refer the resolution to the membership as a whole.

The effort to persuade the MLA to endorse means breaking new ground for the BDS movement.  It is no accident that the Asian American Studies association was the first to do so.  Almost without exception, the scholarly associations that have endorsed are ones whose disciplinary commitments have required the study of race, colonialism, and social justice: in addition to Asian American Studies and American Studies, one can add Critical Ethnic Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, the African Literature Association.  Anthropologists have long debated the discipline’s colonial legacies and largely committed to a more ethical relation to ethnographic study. Women’s Studies has over decades come to terms with feminists of color’s emphasis on the intersections of gender with race.  It is, then, hardly surprising that scholars whose work has been sharpened and enhanced by such debates should recognize the outlines of systematic racial discrimination, settler colonialism, and injustice in the case of Israel’s ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people.

That recognition cannot be taken for granted in the case of scholars of literature and language, despite the many forums in the MLA devoted to topics like postcolonialism, global anglophone literature, or race and ethnicity studies.  Such divisions are greatly outnumbered by the many other forums devoted to the traditional rubrics of literary study that reveal little sign of the way the discipline has been roiled and reshaped by the insights of critical ethnic studies or postcolonial theory as to how the whole edifice of literary scholarship and pedagogy was shaped by the racial formation of modernity itself. 

One might say, indeed, that the blithe disinterest of the traditional literary scholar, which remains the cherished self-image of all too many humanities professors, is the shadowy double of a white supremacy they would hasten to disavow.  It lays claim to an unearned universality of perspective, indifference more than ethical disinterest, which justifies disengagement from the world while ignoring the extraordinary historical and personal privilege that is the condition of that stance.  Disinterest in the face of injustice is the scholarly equivalent of the financial dividend that all white people have inherited from slavery and colonialism.  Not having to suffer from or contest injustice on a daily basis, living in relative social and institutional security, relying on those to conduct dispassionate scholarly research, are the gifts of fortune that enable scholars to enjoy but not to have to use the academic freedoms that opponents of the boycott claim to be defending.  Those privileges also enable the claim that questions of social justice, even in situations that our tax dollars and our elected politicians daily enable, are not the proper concern of individual scholars or their associations.  Properly considered, that claim appears remarkably and self-interestedly partial.

The intimate connection between the partial defense of academic freedom and the defense of Israel’s systemically racist state became all too apparent during the debate panels at this month’s MLA convention.  It would be invidious to dwell on the breath-taking assertion let slip by one opponent of the boycott, that “Muslims are terrorists”, though it certainly revealed how swiftly indifference to the plight of Palestinians slips over into the scarcely concealed racism that underlies it.  But how could that not be?  Defense of the state of Israel, which labels itself  “the Jewish state” despite some thirty percent of its citizenry being neither ethnically or by religion Jewish, necessarily becomes imbued with racial discrimination. Peter Beinart is not alone among those who rather oxymoronically define themselves as “liberal Zionists” in admitting that he has to compromise his liberal principles if he is to defend Israel.  That flight from fundamental commitments to human rights and social justice is not a mere failure of rhetorical skill, but the inevitable consequence of seeking to defend what, in any other situation, would instantly be recognized as indefensible. 

The clearest symptom of that impossible contradiction, and not only at the MLA, is the complete discursive erasure of Palestinians and their experiences, intellectual lives, and simple demand for the acknowledgement of their rights.  One hundred and seventy Palestinian civic organizations, have endorsed the call for the academic boycott, including every teacher’s or students’ union.  Just as much as Israeli scholars, those are our colleagues and peers and should be embraced by the MLA’s commitment to academic freedom.  But never once was that fact acknowledged by opponents of the boycott resolution. In the course of both panels, they managed to invoke all of three Palestinians who opposed the boycott, including, rather disingenuously, Mahmoud Abbas, who was not only misrepresented as opposing a measure virtually unanimously supported by Palestinians, but is in any case widely despised and regarded as an unelected leader. The vast majority of Palestinians have, through their organizations, voiced their call to us to side with them and to rectify the vast imbalance of power between them and the Israeli state.  But that fact was drowned out in obfuscating rhetoric about how the academic boycott might impact the handful of liberal Israeli scholars who seek to continue the self-evidently bankrupt path of “dialogue” that has been going on for over twenty years while settlements have expanded, an apartheid wall extended, and more and more Palestinian land been expropriated.

Zygmunt Baumann once referred to the dehumanization of German Jews prior to their deportation and extermination as requiring their reduction to moral or psychological invisibility. Opponents of the boycott, even as they proclaim their liberal credentials, consistently engage in the moral eviction of the Palestinians.  Even Noam Chomsky, who should know better, will happily cite a slew of left-wing Israeli intellectuals while not mentioning a single Palestinian advocate of the boycott.  As Saree Makdisi noted on one panel at the MLA, this is the oldest colonial maneuver in the book.  And it was amplified by another opponent’s claim that “academic freedom is not a value universally shared” outside societies with liberal values, the implication being that Palestinians value neither academic freedom nor liberal values.  It is an astonishing claim.  It is an astonishing denigration of the Palestinians, who enjoyed one of the richest cultural traditions of the Middle East, whose books and archives were stolen along with their lands, and whose campuses were being invaded even as the MLA convention met in the peace and security of Austin, Texas.  Palestinian scholars are not fighting only for “academic freedom”, a right that is valued in any case in the advocacy of unpopular causes rather than in its hoarding as a private possession, but for the “right to education”.  They know that the ongoing Israeli assault on their institutions and on the simple right to travel freely to those institutions, is a form of “scholasticide” that threatens to destroy their capacity to reproduce and disseminate their intellectual and cultural life.  It is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o once described as colonialism’s “cultural bomb”, designed to obliterate not only the creative life but the social cohesion of a dominated population.

And yet, ironically, it is the Palestinians who have most directly and practically expressed their commitment to the universality of academic freedom.  In the midst of vigorous and often plangent defenses of Israeli scholarly rights, and amid dire prognostications as to the consequences of the boycott for scholarship and dialogue, never once did the opponents of the boycott acknowledge the extraordinary forbearance with which the Palestinian call respects the actual academic freedoms of all scholars.  Their guidelines regard as inviolable the rights that really do inhere in academic freedom—the right to research, to disseminate one’s work, and to travel in order to do so.  The same guidelines also respect the basic labor conditions of scholars, enabling scholars still to enjoy institutional perks, like grants to travel to conferences, as fundamental necessities of their work.  The institutional boycott, unlike the de facto Israeli boycott and blockade of Palestine, aims only at ending collaboration on an institutional level between our associations and institutions and Israeli academic institutions, all of which are directly tied to the maintenance and means of occupation, dispossession and discrimination.  While the boycott proposes only a temporary suspension of relations, Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians threatens to become permanent unless global civil society intervenes.

Increasingly, it seems, literary scholars are recognizing these elementary facts and are ceasing to be intimidated or confused by the monotonous reiteration of misrepresentations and half-truths, slurs and invective, that have been the unchanging mantras of Israel’s supporters.  Some 250 members of the MLA have already signed an Open Letter in support of the boycott resolution, despite the well-known risks of doing so publicly.  What was once a minority concern is rapidly becoming a moral axiom in the Modern Language Association as it did in American Studies and among the anthropologists.  Persuading the members of a largely conservative professional association, which largely functions as younger academics’ gateway into scholarly careers, to vote for the boycott resolution remains an uphill struggle.  But in the corridors of the convention center and the lobbies of hotels, it was apparent that support for the boycott as a means to seek justice and redress continues to grow, just as it does—to Israel’s increasing consternation—throughout the United States.   

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