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BDS Is Professional Solidarity

[Logo of MLA Members for Justice in Palestine] [Logo of MLA Members for Justice in Palestine]

[This article first appeared on the author’s blog. The Modern Language Association (MLA) will be voting on a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions at its upcoming convention, to be held 5-8 January 2017 in Philadelphia.]

I endorse BDS as a strategy because it is one of the very few ways to use our position as educators to act in solidarity with Palestinian colleagues who have lived under military occupation for fifty years.

Fifty years. That’s how long it’s been since Israel conquered those territories of mandate Palestine it had failed to seize in 1948. Ever since, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under the grueling everyday circumstances of military occupation. We call it ‘occupation,’ but it is better called a siege.

The dynamics of this siege have changed over the decades. Sometimes it has been characterized by direct policing and unambiguous forms of domination. Sometimes by subtle forms of divide and rule or distanced, mediated regimes of command. But as any visitor to Hebron or Nablus can tell you: the system of control today is as tight and deadly as it has ever been.

During these five decades, Palestinian communities have been uprooted and subjected to a uniquely unaccountable form of violence. For fifty years, Palestinian leaders have been imprisoned, tortured and assassinated on the grounds that they were “terrorists.” For fifty years, Palestinians have watched as their lands were seized by an ethno-supremacist settler movement with deep roots and powerful patrons in the USA. For fifty years, Palestinians fought against their oppression even though this has meant confronting one of the most powerful militaries of the world.

The contrast with Israeli society could not be greater. Even though unabashed regimes of oppression always engender some forms of violence, Israeli citizens pay almost no price for the occupation. Israelis enjoy complete freedom of movement and robust civil and political rights within Israel and beyond. Indeed, for many Israelis, the fifty-year military occupation has been a source of opportunity and advancement. This is certainly true for the science and technology sectors, especially those that work closely with the intelligence and security agencies.

It is a source of personal shame for me to have watched as my elected officials—Democrat and Republican administrations and Congresses—trip over themselves to bankroll and celebrate the siege on Palestine. I have always been amazed by the generosity of Palestinians toward me despite this history, as well as their insistence on distinguishing between ordinary Americans and the governments we continually elect. The fact is that we do not deserve such generosity. Certainly we cannot expect it to last another fifty years, unless we—as private citizens—take tangible, real-world steps to show our dissent.

A vote for BDS is a real-world step that will mark our opposition to fifty years of US foreign policy on the occupation and the violence it has done to Palestinians. If for years we have failed to act or speak up, this will be a step towards ending our complicity and negligence. More importantly, it will allow us to act professionally toward colleagues who have long called for us to take a stand with them as they fight for their right to higher education.

Of all the wrongs in this history, it may seem odd to focus on the way the Israeli siege of Palestinian society tramples on the right to higher education. But since it is higher education that brings us together as professionals, it is fitting that we should single this out in our academic associations.

It is also fitting for another reason: the Israeli siege of Palestinian society has long included a draconian policy toward education. Checkpoints, closures, expulsions and the everyday violence of military occupation means it is very difficult to be a Palestinian student at any level. And it makes it very difficult to be a teacher, professor, researcher, scholar, dean or anyone else dedicated to the principle that Palestinians deserve education just like any other people.

For me, this is the heart of Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment: it is a call from colleagues living under duress and threat for help to break this fifty-year siege. The solidarity they ask for does not come from the fact that we share the same conditions of life, but because we share the same values, starting with the right to an education.

Admittedly, there is a paradox in the BDS position, since most scholars are by our nature prone to abhor policies that would place limits on intellectual movement, contact, and exchange. Indeed, it is precisely because such limits have been placed on Palestinian scholars, teachers and students that we need to bring them into question and make them a central issue of our professional solidarity.

And what, after all, is the fifty-year-old Israeli siege on Palestinian higher education? It is nothing but an unacknowledged and immoral form of boycott, divestment and sanction imposed by the powerful on the weak through military conquest. In contrast to this siege, our BDS campaign is based on transparency, non-violence, consensus and equality.

There is also a vexing question here: How does an endorsement of BDS help break the siege on Palestinian higher education? But the logic is not as convoluted as sophists would have it. It is simply to make Israeli institutions begin to pay a cost for the violent occupation they maintain, and to bring our weight as an association to bear on the subject. By introducing a set of conditions on the associations we are willing to make with our Israeli colleagues, we are asking them to end their quiescence and complacency and to clarify their position with regard to the siege on Palestinian higher education.

If it is difficult to imagine the endurance and patience of Palestinian academics struggling against military occupation, then consider instead the career of the Israeli humanist, Menahem Milson. Milson was a Harvard-trained literature professor at Hebrew University when he was tapped in the late 1960s to serve in the military government of the West Bank. Later, during the 1970s, Milson oversaw Israeli policy concerning Palestinian higher education. It was Milson’s office that issued “Military Order 845,” which effectively put Israeli military personnel in charge of admissions and hiring decisions at all Palestinian universities, and became the basis for the closures that lasted months and years. The result was devastating—an entire generation was denied access to the university.

When Milson finished, he simply went back to teaching literature as he’d done before. Over the years, he enjoyed the experience of being hosted as a visiting scholar at American and European universities, and had a distinguished career as Department Chair, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities and eventually Provost.

Here is the point: it was our eminent humanist colleague, Milson, who launched the first assaults on Palestinian higher education, and his policies formed the artillery and battering rams of the fifty-year siege. While he toggled back and forth between his life as a civilian scholar and an officer of the occupation, the Palestinian students, teachers and scholars whose lives he governed never had it so good. Today, Milson is an emeritus humanities professor with time to oversee the odious “MEMRI translation project,” while his Palestinian victims still—decades later—struggle to overturn his destructive legacies.

If Milson’s example is too extreme, picture instead the quiescent and morally ambiguous position of the Israeli academy as a collective. At present there is not a single Israeli university that is not deeply imbricated in the occupation. Some even profit handsomely from it. This happens at the institutional level, and also at the level of individuals, providing crucial expert support for the occupation army, military intelligence and weapons design. 

Given this history, the collective silence of our colleagues in Israel is now deafening. It has gone on for half a century now. Which Israeli academic associations have extended gestures of decency and support, let alone professional solidarity, toward their peers living under occupation over the past fifty years? The list is not long.

True, there is an important history of dissidence within the Israeli academy, and it is not difficult to think of individual Israeli scholars who—by their research, teaching and professionalism—have worked against the grain of the occupation and have stood in solidarity with their colleagues living under occupation. But now, the few critics who remain in the Israeli academy are harassed and threatened routinely, quite often by administrators and colleagues at their own institutions. It is significant that most of these same dissidents have endorsed the call for BDS. So, in effect, the call for BDS is not just asking us to stand with our Palestinian colleagues as they face the siege. It is also to stand with those Israeli dissidents who have most resisted the occupation. 

There are colleagues who accuse BDS advocates of hypocrisy, with an insincere rhetoric of "whataboutery." They shout, "What about...?!" and ask why we are so silent about Saudi Arabia, China or Russia. When they do that we should remind them: we are not silent about other places, and we already do stand in solidarity with beleaguered colleagues wherever our principles and struggles converge . 

There are also colleagues who will suggest, as if they’d made a clever discovery, that the US academy might itself be targeted by BDS campaigns because of our collective complicity in American Empire. We should say to them: we would welcome sincere campaigns as signs of friendship and goodwill—because they would be nothing less than invitations for us to resolve the contradictions between the principles and values we claim to embrace as Americans and the way we work and live our lives in this country.

In the meantime, I join my colleagues at the MLA who have decided to stand with the Palestinian right to education. Anything less is to be party to the siege against our colleagues in Palestine.

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