An Invitation to a Critical Conversation
A genocide is taking place before our eyes. We feel outraged and horrified. We see the images of an unimaginable devastation, and we read the news of an unbearable suffering. We go to protests, use social media to express our indignation, sign and circulate statements of condemnation, urge our governments to call for a ceasefire, and all the while we try to overcome an overwhelming sense of impotence. As the events continue to unfold, we are also confronted with the direct and indirect links between the horror in Palestine and what takes place in the very spaces in which we live and labor. We witness a rampant silencing of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices, and we fight back against a McCarthyite campaign of harassment and intimidation that aims to interdict criticism of Israel.
For those of us who wish to stand in active solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle, the important work of protecting free speech in our spaces of life and labor ought to be matched with the equally important work of subverting the structures that enable Israeli occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which was launched in 2005 by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society groups, provides a clear framework for doing the latter. It empowers us to turn our moral outrage into concrete action, and to translate our sympathy with the victims of oppression into solidarity with the indignant oppressed.
Reflecting on two statements on the crisis in Gaza from the United States-based Association for Iranian Studies (AIS), this essay considers the limitations of sympathy when it is unmatched with solidarity. A comprehensive analysis of these statements would need to adequately situate them in the broader contexts both of the politics of the Iranian diaspora, and the politics of discourse on Israel/Palestine in Western, particularly North American, academia. Although it briefly notes these contextual factors, this essay, I readily admit, is far from comprehensive. Nevertheless, I offer this critical reflection, hoping that it will serve as a starting point for a conversation among AIS members not only on BDS, which the association does not currently endorse, but also on how our academic institutions may be implicated in the existing structures of oppression and violence.
Anti-Politics and Abstract Moralism
The AIS was among the first academic societies in North America to issue a statement on the Hamas-led October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, and the ensuing Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip. The October 12 “Statement on the War in Gaza,” issued by the AIS’s governing body known as the AIS Council, condemned Hamas’s attack while simultaneously expressing sympathy with the Palestinian victims of the carnage in Gaza.
In a climate where the dominant voice in many North American academic institutions has been that of unqualified support for Israel, the AIS Council statement’s acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering may be read as a counter-current intervention. And yet, a closer reading of its text reveals a distinctly anti-political underpinning, which stimulates sympathy with Palestinians while forestalling active solidarity with their struggles against occupation and apartheid.
Despite its fervent condemnations of violence, the AIS Council statement’s (ultimately depoliticized) account of what it condemns renders its moral message fruitless, and its expression of sympathy hollow.
Obscuring power asymmetries between the oppressor and the oppressed, the statement entertains abstract questions about the difficulty of measuring “different experiences of suffering” and of imagining what it means “to mete out justice;” concrete questions about the source of, and ways for bringing an end to, violence and suffering are thus altogether avoided. Even as it mentions the “burdens of occupation and dispossession” that Palestinians endure, the statement falls short of making a direct link between Hamas’s attack and Israel’s 16-year-old siege of Gaza, or the decades-long military occupation of Palestine.
The absence in the AIS Council statement of any serious engagement with the structural causes of violence stands in contrast to a statement on the conflict from the Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA). The latter, while defending “the equal rights of Palestinians and Israelis to live in dignity and safety,” draws connections between the attack by Hamas and “the structural violence of Israeli rule.” The anti-political tenor of the AIS Council statement becomes even more evident when it is contrasted with a statement from the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS), which explicitly links “today’s crisis” to a “long history of settler colonialism, occupation, and persecution of the Palestinian people,” insists on the right of the Palestinian people to resist their subjugation, and demands “an immediate cessation of Israeli genocidal violence.” Or consider the statement from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which identifies “Israeli apartheid and occupation” as the root cause of the recent tragedies, declaring that uprooting the sources of violence begins with holding Israel and its allies to account.
Barbarians and (Imperfect) Victims
The AIS Council statement came following a week of incessant claims by Israeli officials - and their apologists in Western governments and media - alleging that Palestinian militants had decapitated babies, captured children in cages, burned concert-goers alive, and sexually assaulted women. While many of these allegations have now been debunked or remain unverified by news agencies and independent observers, they continue to be repeated by a chorus of media commentators seeking to justify the criminal violence that has been unleashed on the people of Gaza.
Rather than drawing on their academic competence to demonstrate how the colonially constructed image of the rapist and baby-killing Palestinian works to legitimize Israel’s colonial violence, the authors of the AIS Council statement frame their own intervention as an act of speaking out against “inhumanity toward babies, women, children, teenagers, the youth, the disabled, and the elderly.” Reproducing a language that has long been used to dehumanize Palestinians, the authors invoke the Orientalist imagery of the uncivilized colonized in their condemnation of the “barbaric attacks and brutal tactics of Hamas against defenseless Israeli civilians.”
The invocation of this Orientalist imagery by a group of academics whose own scholarly works have contributed to a critical reshaping of the fields of Iranian and Middle Eastern studies is peculiar and regrettable. To illustrate by way of contrast, the statement condemns Israel’s violence, and yet in this case violence does not descend to the level of barbarism. In fact, despite its denunciation of the use of violence against people on both sides, the statement never explicitly identifies Israel as a perpetrator of violence. In its recognition of Israeli suffering, the statement names both the act of violence (i.e. “massacre in southern Israel”) and the perpetrator of that violence (i.e. Hamas). When it comes to Palestinian suffering, however, the statement names the act of violence (i.e. “indiscriminate bombardment of, and carnage in, Gaza”), but it leaves unnamed the perpetrator of that violence (i.e. the Israeli state).
To be sure, moral consistency requires us to oppose the killing and hostage-taking of civilians be they Israeli or Palestinian. But an invitation to moral conduct is compromised when its language validates further and even greater violence. Likewise, the type of abstract moralism that demands perfect victims winds up concealing structural violence and eroding the possibility of active solidarity. In this way, the AIS Council statement’s naming of Hamas as the sole perpetrator of “barbaric” violence may be seen as a discursive device legitimizing the failure to translate sympathy with the victims of oppression into solidarity with the indignant oppressed. Apart from its condemnatory mention of Hamas, the statement’s references to the Palestinian people conjure up the image of passive and helpless victims (e.g. “helpless Palestinians who have nowhere to flee” or “victims of systemic discrimination and slaughter”). Whereas the statement from AMEWS speaks of “resistance” and “solidarity,” in the statement by the AIS Council there is no mention either of the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation and apartheid, or of the ongoing and varied manifestations of Palestinian resistance, nor is there any mention of the global solidarity movement that supports the Palestinian struggle.
The erasure of resistance and solidarity allows the AIS Council to limit its position to one of calling for “compassion” and “pray[ing] for peace,” thereby absolving itself and its members of the “moral obligation to … work toward peace, tolerance, and justice,” the very thing the statement calls for. It also allows the AIS Council members to leave unacknowledged their own positions of relative power and privilege, and the responsibilities which such positions entail. All of the current AIS Council members reside in the global North and work at elite academic institutions; most of them are tenured professors, some are department chairs and/or university administrators. Of the twelve AIS Council members, nine are based in American universities, and the rest hail from universities in Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands. And still, there is no acknowledgment either of the parallels between Israel’s colonial project and North American settler colonialism, or of the complicity of the United States and other Western countries in aiding and abetting Israeli occupation and apartheid, or of the ongoing intimidation and censorship in the United States and elsewhere, of students and academics who dare to speak in support of the rights and struggles of the Palestinian people.
Reclaiming the Public Sphere
Amidst an escalating McCarthyite curtailing of free speech and academic freedom in relation to discussions on Israel and Palestine, any expression of sympathy with Palestinians may seem subversive. At the very least, one might suggest that the AIS Council statement helps to create a necessary (albeit insufficient) space for discussions on and around Palestine in the field of Iranian studies. It is, furthermore, important to situate the AIS Council statement in the context of an ongoing contestation between two reactionary forces vying to dominate discourse on Palestine in the Iranian public sphere.
On the one hand, Iran’s Islamist rulers have, for decades, held the banner of opposition to Israel as a shield to conceal their domestic suppression and aspirations of regional hegemony. On the other hand, the reactionary forces in the diasporic opposition have aligned themselves wholly with the most racist and fascist elements in Israeli politics, and some of them are now pleading with Israel to follow the carnage in Gaza with an attack on Iran, which they call “the head of the snake” and “the eye of the octopus.” The modus operandi of such reactionary discourses, in which Palestinians are nothing more than accessories in the political games either of the Iranian state or its opposition, is further echoed by some scholars in the field of Iranian studies who reduce the whole history of Israeli colonialism and Palestinian resistance to a conflict between Israel and Iran’s regional proxies.
It is against this particular background that the AIS Council statement has been framed as part of a “progressive” position in the Iranian public. And yet, no consideration of the ramifications of an English-language statement issued by a North American-based academic society can be limited to its possible implications in the Iranian public sphere. Putting the AIS Council statement to the service of advancing progressive politics in the Iranian diaspora and/or protecting academic freedom in North America requires engaging in critical and public conversations about the statement’s capacities as well as its limitations. In the absence of such conversations, the statement’s anti-political underpinnings and its abstract moralism will undercut any progressive potential that it might otherwise promise.
In this vein of thought, following the publication of the AIS Council statement, the present author, who is an AIS member, drafted an open letter outlining some of the above criticisms. The draft was then sent to a number of scholars in the fields of Iranian studies and Middle Eastern studies. Some, a total of fourteen, lent their signatures. Others, however, while agreeing with the criticism, took issue with the strategy of publicizing it. One such response was that the AIS Council statement, despite its shortcomings, is a step forward in comparison to the organization’s past positions. It was also suggested that the AIS Council’s acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering is bound to receive pushback from the right wing of the Iranian studies community, and therefore this open letter may show discord among those in the community who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. Instead of “singling out” the AIS Council by way of publicly criticizing its position, it was argued, it would be best to welcome the statement and to work within AIS’s internal structures in order to promote incremental reform.
Without questioning their intentions, I find these arguments to suffer from at least three analytical shortcomings. First, the pushback against publicizing the letter, fixated as it has been on the internal dynamics of the community of Iranian studies, is yet to offer a clear strategic vision for those in the community who seek to build transnational and intersectional solidarities for justice and peace. Second, contrary to what has been argued, the AIS Council statement on Gaza is less a step forward than a withdrawal from a previous position. In May 2021, following weeks of Palestinian protests over forced evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the AIS Council issued a statement which, while condemning “the violence perpetrated against civilians by both the IDF and Hamas,” nevertheless declared “support for the Palestinian cause” and “solidarity for Palestine campaigns.” Although it came short of explicitly supporting BDS, the May 2021 statement called for “diplomatic, commercial and cultural” pressure to compel Israel “to move away from the hyper-militarized status quo.” The statement also lauded the initiatives taken by MESA and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), both of which have endorsed BDS. By contrast, and here lies the third analytical shortcoming of the position which insists on a united front in the academic community, the 12 October 2023 statement moves the AIS away not only from its own previous stance but also from the positions of MESA, BRISMES, and AMEWS; the statement is distinctly framed as a moderate (anti-political) alternative to the more (politically) subversive voices in the community of Middle East scholars. It is no surprise then that the statement has already been used to sustain a new type of good Muslim/bad Muslim binary, whereby AIS’s ostensibly “much more balanced” stance is juxtaposed against the supposedly biased position of those academic associations that endorse BDS and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Having become aware of the pushbacks, the coeditors of the platform, which had initially agreed to publish the letter advised that, rather than going public, the strategically expedient next best step would be to share the letter with the AIS Council giving its members a chance to respond. Separately, and while signatures were still being collected, I came to learn that the letter had been circulated among the AIS Council members, and that conversations were underway in the Council to issue a second statement.
The second statement came on October 22. Striking a more assertive tone than the previous one, it explicitly names Israel as the perpetrator of “brutal and inhumane” violence against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The statement’s call for an “immediate ceasefire,” its condemnation of the U.S. veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, and its opposition to “the further infusion of money and arms to be used to prolong this war,” read as moves away from the abstract anti-political moralism of the previous statement. And still, the anti-political tenor of the previous statement finds its way into the second statement. In one such passage, while condemning “all practices of systemic discrimination, racism, and apartheid,” the statement abandons a historical and political understanding of what it condemns, reducing the present situation to a “dispute” whose “historical and root causes” are “difficult to parse.” In so doing, the statement invokes the anti-political and anti-historical myth of an age-old conflict with no clearly traceable roots; the impossibility of concrete historical understanding validates a reluctance to parse responsibility and act in solidarity.
For all of its heartfelt expressions of sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian people, the new statement, like the previous one, neglects to acknowledge and stand in solidarity with Palestinian resistance. The only act of resistance which is acknowledged and praised in the AIS Council statement is the (unmistakably brave and noble) October 19 protest action by JVP at the United States Congress in Washington, DC. That Palestinians, in Palestine as well as in the United States and elsewhere, have been on the frontlines of mobilizing resistance against Israel’s genocidal violence does not seem to garner the attention and praise of the AIS Council. Palestinians, it appears, cannot exist outside of the two molds of helpless victims or barbarian perpetrators of violence.
A gravitation to anti-politics is also at play when the statement addresses the silencing and censorship, in academic institutions, of discussions on Israel and Palestine. The statement’s call on university administrators to protect the right of free speech and assembly for “those who speak out against the slaughter of Palestinians” as well as those “who sympathize with Israel” constructs a blatantly false equivalence. The increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab individuals and communities in North America is certainly alarming, and ought to be unequivocally opposed. This opposition, however, need not obscure the reality of a structural narrowing down of what is considered in North American universities as permissible forms of criticizing Israel and speaking or acting in support of the Palestinian struggle. The recent statements from BRISMES and the Department for Historical and Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto, show the possibility of supporting the right to free speech in discussions on Israel and Palestine, without resorting to false equivalence.
Matching Sympathy with Solidarity
The AIS Council’s willingness to receive, and act in response to, criticism is cause for optimism. But the lapses and limitations in the new statement illustrate the need for continued, and public, conversations in our academic (and otherwise) communities, in order to examine our situatedness in relation to the material and discursive structures that enable the violence that unfolds before our eyes. Against ongoing colonialism and genocide, these conversations ought to focus on what it means to turn moral outrage into concrete action and to match sympathy with solidarity. Building solidarity in the struggle for justice, Lila Abu-Lughod has reminded us, is the most effective antidote to the “overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of forms of global injustice.”
AIS members include many scholars who can offer their expertise to adequately contextualize the ongoing events, suggest ways for bringing an end to the cycle of oppression and violence, and dismantle—rather than perpetuate—colonial discourses, orientalist tropes, and Islamophobic and antisemitic rhetoric that serve to justify dehumanization. Furthermore, as an academic society with an expressed commitment to “freedom of expression ... without fear of intimidation and persecution,” the AIS should take an unambiguous and active stand in support of scholars and students who are being subject to intimidation and persecution for engaging in criticism of Israel. Finally, the AIS can give concrete substance to its expressed sympathy with Palestinians by listening to the voices of Palestinian civil society organizations, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), who, for nearly two decades now, have called upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to support the BDS campaign. The recent open letter from Birzeit University, calling on the international academic community to shun Israeli universities that are complicit “in the regime of settler colonial oppression and apartheid,” reminds us that meaningful solidarity with Palestinians cannot bypass Palestinian voices. The time has come for the AIS to heed these voices and to join MESA, AMEWS, BRISMES, and several other academic associations worldwide, in their endorsement of BDS.