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Challenging Knowledge Production in the British Academy: Who Can Speak on Palestine?

[Excerpt from [Excerpt from "Nothing Normal About It," by Ethan Heitner and Tanya Keilani, 2011]

Earlier this month, a British university hosted a conference on the fiftieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation, one of many being organized this year. The conference sought to reflect on fifty years of the “longest standing military occupation in the world,” focusing on “its implications not just for Palestinians, but also for Israelis.” Although academic, the conference promised to include non-academic representation including activists.   

In the lead up to the conference, the initial program of speakers changed, with a notable decrease in Palestinian speakers. Asking around our networks, it seemed that some of these people felt uncomfortable with the framing of the conference and panel titles. This conference and a troubling incident that occurred after it has lead us, two female Palestinian PhD candidates, to ask some serious questions about knowledge production on Palestine in the British academy. 

Epistemic Erasure

To begin with, the representation of Palestinian voices was noticeably limited at the conference. Indeed, there were twice as many Israeli presenters as there were Palestinian, despite the fact that a significant number of Palestinian academics work on Palestine and the Israeli settler-colonial project in the United Kingdom.  In addition to this, several panels included presentations which addressed Palestinians in a fundamentally racist manner, including deeply offensive objectifications and denial of Palestinian identity. A few presentations failed to acknowledge Palestinian existence all together, and/or appropriated formative parts of the Palestinian experience in service of the Israeli narrative. One discussed the physical presence and experiences of settlers in the West Bank with not a single mention of the Palestinians; another discussed the destroyed Palestinian villages as signifiers for Israeli identity with no reference to the refugee communities that are their original inhabitants; and one legal scholar discussed representation of refugees in the “foreseen Palestinian state” with no mention of the inalienable right of return. Unfortunately, the lack of Palestinians was also noticeable in the audience and was reflected in the question and answer sessions, where the same few Palestinians were raising the issues of contention. Taken separately, perhaps every incident seems minor, some are even well meaning. Taken collectively, the content centered on the Israeli experience, effectively erasing Palestinians out of knowledge production circuits. This raises fundamental questions on knowledge production not just at that specific university, but also the wider British academy.

The British academy continues to produce deeply problematic knowledge on subaltern and colonized groups of people. More recently, however, we have seen concentrated efforts to marginalize Palestinian voices and silence criticism of Israel.  The University of Southampton attempted to host a conference in 2015 entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism.” Permission for the conference was withdrawn by the university administration after pressures from Zionist lobby groups and citing security concerns. A year later, the administration agreed that the conference could go ahead if the organizers came up with twenty-four thousand pounds to cover policing and security for the event. Unable to meet such financial demands, the organizers moved the conference to the University College Cork, Ireland, where it went ahead without issue. Also in 2015, a conference at the University of Exeter entitled “Settler Colonialism in Palestine” faced similar pressures. Indeed, the conference organizers were accused of failing to maintain “balance” and eventually were pressured into holding a second debate a few weeks after the conference on Palestine and Israel, giving a platform to Zionist voices. On both these occasions, “balance” was used by the administration as a tool in an attempt to maintain the marginalization of Palestinian voices. At the conference attended earlier this month, “balance” was used by the organizers themselves to defend presentations which ignored Palestinian existence/experience or presented them through a racist paradigm.  

These notions of balance and neutrality make the assumption of a level playing field or two equal sides, but of course in the case of Palestine and Israel this is simply not the case. Many Palestinian academics live under military occupation or as second-class citizens, and often they struggle to get visas to live and work abroad. Many more Palestinian academics have never set foot in Palestine, living in forced exile as refugees, whilst Jewish Israeli and Jewish colleagues are able to live in historic Palestine, visit its appropriated archives, and conduct research freely. Similarly, most international academics are able to conduct research in Palestine relatively easily whilst those Palestinians who live there, or are able to travel there, face awful and humiliating border procedures and continue to face the daily hardships that come with settler colonialism. Even for the authors of this paper, raising concerns about the conference in question both on the day and in this article, face potential consequences that Israeli and other non-Palestinian academics will not face. Something that is frequently overlooked in the academy is the emotional labor required of Palestinians working on Palestine. Palestinian academics not only write about a traumatic situation, they also live and breathe it. Of course, there are some excellent Israeli academics who work critically on the settler-colonial project in Palestine, and their work is important to producing knowledge which can contribute to decolonization. However, critical scholars in the academy must understand that as long as the Israeli settler-colonial process continues, Palestinian academics will constantly be marginalized and disadvantaged. It is, therefore, necessary to work against this and privilege Palestinian voices working on Palestine over others.

Public Applaud, Private Hostility 

The structural issues in the wider academy were manifested in the composition and content of the conference; however, a particularly troubling incident that involved the authors of this piece after the event further highlighted these issues. During the final question and answer session, we raised the concerns and issues outlined above in a professional manner and appropriate space. Our concerns were validated by the round of applause we received. One of the organizers of the conference acknowledged the validity of our concerns by addressing them briefly and promising to address the issues in a “post-mortem.”

As is often the case, this public support and civility were followed by hostility in the private sphere. After the session ended, we made a collective decision to leave the conference venue quickly in order to avoid hostile conversations. As Palestinian scholars, we know too well from past experience that when we raise such issues, confrontation can occur. As we waited outside the venue for colleagues, an Israeli organizer of the conference approached us in an aggressive and hostile manner, demanding to know who we were and where we were from. We refused to identify ourselves, given the intimidating manner in which he posed the question. Indeed, this aggressive demand to reveal one’s identity is a tactic of intimidation often used by the Israeli security apparatus. The irony of replicating this power structure in a conference about the occupation was not lost on us.

The physicality and tonality of his attack were so aggressive, threatening, and hostile that other people witnessing it also had to tell him to back off and tone it down. The invasion of personal space was incredibly uncomfortable, particularly considering the gender, race, and professional seniority dynamic.   

The academic in question demanded to know whether we were activists or academics. The question implies an either/or, and yet, unfortunately, as female Palestinian scholars, we do not have that choice. That choice is reserved for the privileged, who can turn a blind eye to the role the Western academy plays in the continued oppression of people of color and its complicity in ongoing colonial projects. It is also a question which implies that political agendas can be separated from academic work, which is a slippery slope into ignoring those works that casually manage to erase Palestinians out of knowledge production. The academic in question also aggressively accused us of un-collegiate behavior, arguing that we should have come to him privately with our concerns.

The issue of public space and private space is very important here. On the one hand, the contentions were raised in public, and the attacked occurred in private, outside the purview of structural scrutiny and accountability. It is this that transgresses all lines of collegiality and freedom of expression in an academic setting. Raising these questions in public is not an easy thing to do. Indeed, we tried to raise our concerns in the form of anonymous comments placed in a question box, but our comments were not read to the room. As such, we had no choice but to question the structure of the conference in person on the final panel. Keeping in mind the power structures still present in the academy, as junior women of color scholars we know that this could have an impact on our future careers.

Allies and the Pat on the Back

The question of non-Palestinian academic allies adds another dimension to the issue of private and public space. Allies in the audience would pat our backs afterwards, thanking us for voicing the concerns they had in mind, and yet, during the space provided for discussion and challenge, many remained quiet leaving Palestinians to do the hard work. Contrary to what many think, as Palestinian women, we do not enjoy the perpetual position of "trouble makers." Indeed, during the aforementioned incident, one male academic joked that we were “always looking for a fight.” If only that was the case; the fight has been coming to women of color since time immemorial.

If academic allies spoke up more often, we would have to deal less with the political and professional ramifications of critiquing those who are in a more privileged and powerful position in the academic and political spheres. Some allies, and rightly so, are concerned with speaking over Palestinians and thus also adding to the silencing of oppressed voices. However, it is important that this concern does not mean that allies abandon us in our time of need, or stand around and watch as was the case in this incident. Speak alongside Palestinians; use your inherent privilege to voice your support of us. In physical incidents like the one mentioned earlier, allies need to stand alongside and check in with those being attacked. They need to ask what is needed of them. Our understanding of positionality is complex enough to allow, even necessitate, allies bearing some of the brunt of responding to settler colonialism in both its material and epistemic dimensions. This is the true meaning of solidarity and collegiality.

Palestinian knowledge production, having been marginalized for decades by the Western academy, must now be the foundation of our academic work. Particularly as knowledge production in the West remains structurally colonial. This not only means simply including more Palestinian voices, but also rejecting this false discourse of "balance." The situation in Palestine is one of a continuing settler-colonial project which seeks to eliminate Palestinians from their homeland. This continuing process of indigenous erasure takes place both on the material and on the epistemic levels. Including voices which seek to reinforce and defend this erasure is not a balanced position and should no longer be considered as such in the academy. Re-centering our views around the experience of the Palestinians is the only way we can decolonize knowledge production on Palestine/Israel. In our opinion, only with this premise we can build real spaces for Palestinians and non-Palestinian scholars to come together in a fruitful manner.

 

[Excerpt from Nothing Normal About It, by Ethan Heitner and Tanya Keilani, 2011]

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