Sunaina Maira, Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine (University of California Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sunaina Maira (SN): While there has been journalistic and activist writing, and some edited volumes about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) movement generally, there is barely any scholarly work that offers an analysis and history of the academic boycott or theorizes the boycott in the context of current debates about human rights and social movements. I am, myself, an academic boycott activist and one of the founding organizers of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).
The book is published in a series, American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present, co-edited by Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, both of whom are leading American Studies scholars and past presidents of the American Studies Association which endorsed the academic boycott in 2013. The goal of the series is to provide short, accessible books on political flashpoints and current political debates, so the book had to be written very quickly! But this gave me an opportunity to distill insights gleaned from my years in the Palestine solidarity movement and of organizing academic boycott campaigns, as well as my experiences while living and doing research in Palestine. I had been too immersed in BDS organizing to have time to step back and write about it, even for the media; this project allowed me to finally sit down and reflect on what I had learned as well as to interview other activists involved in the movement. Of all the books I have published, I feel this book is the most meaningful to me, and I was thrilled that the University of California Press published it! This is, in itself, a sign of the rapid growth of the movement and its significance to the US academy.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SN: My research draws on interviews with scholar-activists involved in the US academic boycott movement as well as academics and activists in Palestine, demonstrating that the academic boycott has a significant impact in Palestine as well as in the United States. I demonstrate that the principles on which the boycott and BDS are based enshrine a decolonial, antiracist critique of Israel and, implicitly, of the Zionist project. The book traces the history of the academic boycott movement in the United States., from the founding of USACBI in 2009 and the historic resolution adopted by the American Studies Association (ASA) in 2013, which was a turning point in the academy, to current academic boycott and BDS organizing in the Trump era. Weaving in insights from boycott organizers, it explores the sea-change in discourse about Palestine in the US academy and the ways in which the academic boycott has ruptured the lockdown on critical discussion of Palestine-Israel. It also touches on the links between academic boycott and academic labor organizing, as well as student activism focused on BDS. The rise of the BDS movement has propelled a new framework which centers Palestinian rights as integral to progressive politics and social justice movements, rather than as an exception.
This book focuses on the growing campaign for the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions, situating it in the history of other boycott movements in the United States, as well as in Palestine. It analyzes the academic boycott as a transnational social movement that has generated profound intellectual and political shifts, and is at the center of struggles over issues of censorship, campus governance, and neoliberalism in the university. The book explores how Palestine is often the funnel of academic repression, analyzing the confluence of powerful conservative (and Zionist) groups and university administrations that have undermined democratic campus governance and created a class of fugitive scholars. The deformation of research about Palestine-Israel, due to fears of discipline and punishment under pressure from the Israel lobby and university administrators, has been challenged by the public critique enabled by boycott campaigns that frame the Palestine question in relation to settler colonization, militarism, and indigenous sovereignty. The boycott has thus emerged in the context of paradigmatic shifts in the field of Palestine studies and transnational American studies. The book also discusses the backlash against the academic boycott as illuminating the culture wars around Palestine, Zionism, race, and neoliberal capitalism. Boycott! explores the movement’s implications for antiracist, feminist, queer, and academic labor organizing and theorizes the boycott in the context of debates about rights-based politics, academic freedom, and decolonization.
The book draws on literature about earlier boycott movements in the United States and in Palestine to illuminate boycott as a political tactic: when it is effective, why it is deployed, and how the academic boycott draws on, as well as departs from, other boycott campaigns; for example, the Montgomery bus boycott, the United Farm Workers grape boycott, and the boycott and divestment movement challenging apartheid in South Africa. It also draws on work about the lesser known history of the boycott in Palestine, and examples of civil disobedience that have been a central part of Palestinian resistance. The book analyzes the BDS movement in the context of the political crisis in Palestine since the Oslo Accords of 1993, and the decline of mass mobilization, as well as the fragmentation of Palestine due to Israeli policies of enclosure. The BDS movement, I argue, is a revival of third worldist internationalism and grassroots activism that both rests on, and exceeds, the language of human rights.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SN: The book builds on my previous research focused on social movements and Arab/Muslim American politics, extending my earlier work on Palestine solidarity activism and activism in Palestine. My book, The 9/11 Generation, was an ethnographic study of Arab, South Asian, and Afghan American youth in northern California that included an analysis of the Palestine solidarity movement and issues of repression and censorship on campus and in the community, as well as the possibilities and limits of interfaith activism related to Palestine. The book’s exploration of the tensions in human rights activism focused on Palestine informed some of the analyses of the BDS movement in this book, as well as in my own organizing.
I have also done ethnographic research in Palestine on the Palestinian youth movement of 2011-12 for my book, Jil (Generation) Oslo, which included discussion of the implications of the BDS framework for grassroots activism in Palestine. My work as an ethnic studies scholar has always emerged from my own political activism and engagement with people organizing on the ground; I am indebted to the insights of many people involved in struggles which are ongoing and continue to deeply impact people’s lives and careers.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SN: The book is very much a work of engaged scholarship, offering information and analyses to activists in the movement as well as scholars and students. The aim of the series at UC Press is to provide resources for teachers wanting to address current political concerns and to engage a public audience, not just academics. In the case of Boycott!, specifically, it intervenes in a highly charged public discussion in which the BDS movement and the politics of Palestine solidarity activism are often distorted and (sometimes deliberately) misrepresented, and activists are targeted for defamation, harassment, and legal and career threats. The book was an invaluable opportunity to document the actually existing paradigms, goals, and strategies of the movement against the backdrop of attacks on this movement. I also wanted to demonstrate to those anxious about being involved in BDS activism or endorsing the academic boycott the ways in which the movement has already transformed the discourse about Palestine and opened up space for freer political and intellectual discussion, enlarging academic freedom and creating networks of solidarity.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SN: Currently, I am engaged in a new project focused on sanctuary activism in the Trump era and on migrant rights movements in an international context, based on preliminary research in the United States (San Francisco Bay Area) and Europe (Greece). This is an engaged research project funded by a Mellon/ACLS fellowship for public scholarship that will develop in partnership with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) in San Francisco, a progressive community organization led by a Palestinian activist, where I will be based this coming academic year. I will be collaborating with AROC on a study of Arab refugees in the Bay Area and have just returned from Greece, where I spent a month doing research with migrant solidarity activists and Palestinian refugees from Syria, as well as Greek activists in solidarity with Palestine. I am interested in highlighting the specific experiences of Arab refugees in the larger debate about borders, walls, and travel bans in the United States, connecting it to the struggles of Palestinian refugees locally and globally, in order to link the right to remain, the right to enter, and the right to return.
Excerpt from the book
Something unthinkable happened in the United States in the last few years: hundreds of academics, senior scholars and graduate students and untenured faculty, came forth in support of an academic boycott of Israel. Beginning in 2013, the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions expanded rapidly with one major academic association after another endorsing the boycott and adopting resolutions in solidarity with the Palestinian call for an academic boycott. But this movement emerged several years after Palestinian academics, intellectuals, and activists called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, in 2004—and after years of military occupation, failed peace negotiations, ever-expanding and illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, ongoing home demolitions, the building of the Israeli Wall, repression, and military assaults. All of these events and the military occupation of Palestine itself have been endorsed, defended, and funded by Israel’s major global ally, the United States. The academic boycott and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement are thus embedded in a significant aspect of the U.S. political and historical relationship to the Middle East, and in a particular cultural imaginary of Palestine, Palestinians, and Arabs in general, that has become an increasingly central concern of American studies.
What is the significance of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and academic boycott activism, in particular, for the U.S. academy and for social justice movements? What political paradigm is introduced by the academic boycott, and how has this transformed the debate about Palestine-Israel in the United States, and in the academy in particular? I focus on the academic boycott as a social movement that is at the intersection of antiwar, human rights, and global justice organizing in the university and beyond, and increasingly embedded in antiracist, feminist, and queer movements as well. This is a new perspective in the existing literature on the academic boycott, but I will show how it emerges from the politics of BDS when analyzed as a progressive social movement, and from its rich and dramatic history in challenging the status quo in the United States.
What Is the Academic Boycott?
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a call in 2004 for a boycott by academics and artists until Israel complied with international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the 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.
A year later, in 2005, Palestinian civil society organizations—including over 170 political parties, refugee networks, popular resistance committees, trade unions, women’s groups, and other segments of the Palestinian national movement—called on the international community to put nonviolent pressure on Israel until it ended its violations of human rights, by enacting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, based on the same three political principles, above. The fact that the academic and cultural boycott of Israel had actually been launched a year earlier than the BDS call is significant because it highlights the centrality of the academic and cultural front of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, colonialism, and apartheid.
This Palestinian-led movement uses the framework of “freedom, justice, and equality,” invoking international law and the simple axiom that “Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” The BDS movement is thus an antiracist movement calling for racial equality. Significantly, it has also emphasized that the oppression of Palestinians is due to an Israeli “regime of settler colonialism, apartheid, and occupation.” These key terms have helped shift the discussion about Palestine-Israel in the United States and provided a new framework. . . . the BDS campaign explicitly challenges Israel’s displacement and colonization of Palestinians since 1948, its occupation and fragmentation of Palestinian territories, its denial to Palestinian refugees of the right to return to their homes, and its system of racial discrimination subjugating Palestinian citizens of Israel. This denial of racial justice, freedom of movement, and sovereignty has persisted given the relative weakness of the Palestinian national movement in resisting the Israeli state and military, and also because of the failure of the international community to end this oppression. As the BDS movement’s statement observes: “Governments fail to hold Israel to account, while corporations and institutions across the world help Israel to oppress Palestinians. Because those in power refuse to act to stop this injustice, Palestinian civil society has called for a global citizens’ response of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.”
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This observation for the rationale for BDS points out importantly that while Israel’s hegemony is maintained by international collusion, it can also be challenged by international solidarity. Furthermore, it alludes to the powerful point that BDS is actually a strategy of last resort—an admission of failure, in a sense, that nothing else has worked to end Israel’s ongoing occupation, injustice, and warfare against the Palestinian people. Israel’s impunity is upheld by the support of other states (especially the United States) and international institutions that have either actively defended and funded Israel’s occupation and racist regime or refused to sanction it, in contrast to other undemocratic regimes whose human rights violations are routinely denounced by the international community (for example, China, Russia, Egypt, Syria, and Myanmar). It is true that numerous U.N. resolutions have been passed, criticizing the Israeli state’s actions and human rights abuses—for what those resolutions are worth, given the United Nations’ own limited powers—but the United States has consistently vetoed these. The U.S. government is the most powerful ally of Israel and has provided it with unconditional military, political, and economic support, regardless of which administration is in power. Concomitantly, the issue of Palestinian liberation has historically been suppressed and subjected to censorship in the U.S. academy and public sphere, so there is a legitimization of consistent support for Israel, regardless of its human rights abuses, in the intellectual and cultural realm. This is why the academic and cultural boycott is key.
The BDS movement has ruptured the sanctioned narrative about Palestine-Israel, which occludes the history of colonization and displacement of the Palestinian people. This dominant discourse has for years been established as the norm, which has made it “controversial,” including in U.S. universities, to speak about Palestinian national liberation or even, in some instances, to criticize the Israeli occupation. While the lockdown on criticism of Israel has been increasingly challenged in recent years, in the U.S. academy as well as the media, and while more critical research about Palestine-Israel has emerged, scholarship on the social movements that have accompanied these intellectual and discursive shifts is meager. There has been much public debate and media controversy about BDS and the academic boycott, as well as journalistic and activist writing and some edited volumes about the BDS movement, but currently hardly any scholarly work offers an analysis of the historical and political import of the academic boycott. This book is not an exhaustive account of the academic boycott movement in the United States, however, but rather an introduction to the core paradigms, key moments, and significant debates about the movement. It is written from the perspective of someone who has been involved for several years in academic boycott organizing, and in the Palestine solidarity movement at large, and also from the vantage point of a critical ethnic studies scholar who writes about social justice and transnational solidarity activism.
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This book theorizes the academic boycott in the context of current debates about rights-based politics, international solidarity, and academic abolitionism and addresses the implications of the boycott for antiracist, anticolonial, feminist, queer, and academic labor movements. To date, the BDS movement has not been adequately researched and analyzed as a social justice movement, which is an important theme in American studies. This book fills a gap in existing scholarship, drawing on interviews with scholar-activists deeply engaged with academic boycott organizing, as well as with Palestinian scholars and activists, about the core frames and key strategies of the boycott movement and its implications for the U.S. academy and, of course, justice in Palestine. The BDS movement at large has been the site of significant interracial and cross-movement coalition building, productively linking issues of colonialism, militarization, policing, anti-Blackness, indigeneity, borders, and labor. By all accounts, the boycott has fundamentally transformed the discourse related to Palestine-Israel in the U.S. academy and it has also generated important struggles over issues of censorship, campus governance, and neoliberal university structures.
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Omar Barghouti writes about the struggle for liberation, equality, and dignity waged through BDS:
The global BDS movement for Palestinian rights presents a progressive, antiracist, sophisticated, sustainable, moral, and effective form of nonviolent civil resistance. It has become one of the key political catalysts and moral anchors for a strengthened, reinvigorated international social movement capable of ending the law of the jungle and upholding in its stead the rule of law, reaffirming the rights of all humans to freedom, equality, and dignified living.
Our South Africa moment has finally arrived!