It’s not the end of the world, it’s a necessary challenge to our cosmology: An Israeli Student on the Boycott

[this essay originally appeared on Savage Minds in the context of the 2014-2016 campaign]

When I was in first grade my teacher Ms. B. tried to teach us children a lesson on gravity. She drew a large round circle to signify the earth, surrounded by small stick figures placed all around it. ‘You see,’ she explained, ‘gravity works the same way all around the world, that’s why none of the people fall off.’ As citizens of the northern hemisphere we six- and seven-year-olds found this picture very perplexing. ‘We already understand gravity,” we insisted again and again, “we know we don’t float off the floor. We just don’t understand how people don’t fall off the bottom.’

When I hear progressive Jews and Israelis these days voice their heartfelt and terrified opposition to the proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions, I am reminded of this picture. I am a Jewish Israeli academic and my milieu includes, mostly, other left-leaning Jewish Israelis like myself. When my colleagues insist they genuinely care about and reject the horrors of the occupation, I know they mean it. We already know – not just intellectually, but, so we think, in our basic physical experience of the world – about inequality, about human rights, about injustice. But when it comes to shifting the cosmology so as to include true equality with our Palestinian students and colleagues, we are confused and panicked. The world is being upended by the boycott movement in a way we cannot stomach.

My colleagues often argue that the proposed academic boycott would muzzle the unique role of academics in critiquing or resisting Israeli colonialism. This is perhaps the weakest argument against BDS. My experiences as an Israeli graduate student have shown me that the Israeli academy is seriously lacking egalitarian intellectual engagement with Palestinians. Most of the time we (Jewish Israeli academics) don’t even notice how glaring this inequality really is.

Moreover, I suspect that the claims of “stifling our role” and “limiting dialogue” conceal a deeper, cosmological fear: the fear triggered by the fact that we Jewish-Israeli academics are being asked to let go of our special status, both intellectually, vis-à-vis the Anglo academic world we aspire to belong to, and as political beings in Israel/Palestine, where our superiority is inscribed by law. We expect the West to treat us as its primary interlocutors and interpreters. The ‘ontological predication’ of our academic culture — the part of our reality “where basic inferences are made about the kinds of beings that exist and how they relate to each other” (Descola, 2014) — is a racialized one. When Westerners whom we respect tell us so, and even dare to add that they can no longer tolerate it, we are horrified. It is especially painful for left-leaning Jewish-Israelis, because we believe so wholeheartedly that we already know about inequality, how bad it is and what should be done about it.

Does the Israeli academy treat its Palestinian members like regular, equal people? Does it stand up for them when their civil rights are trampled upon? Are researchers in social science departments free to work outside a colonial framework? Do students engage the work of Palestinian scholars in a mutual and respectful way?

If the answer to all these questions were a full-throated yes, then I would accept the argument by my colleagues that Israeli academia is an exceptional partner. But I don’t think it is true.

It’s not true, because of the number of Jewish and Palestinian scholars who have had to pursue their anti-colonial scholarship outside the Israeli academy.

It’s not true, because when a law professor at one Israeli university wrote a letter expressing concern for the welfare of his Jewish and Palestinian students during the war on Gaza last summer, he was met with a storm of rebuke and ultimately reprimanded by the dean[1]. Yes, reprimanded, for addressing his Palestinian students as regular people. (Just to explain: in the Jewish-Israeli cosmology, ‘Palestinian’ is often taken to mean ‘enemy’ or ‘terrorist,’ therefore people really thought he was being facetious).

It’s not true, because at this same university, the graduate program in conflict resolution  (!) was founded and run for many years by the president of NGO Monitor, a group whose primary mission is to discredit the work of humanitarian NGOs in Israel/Palestine.

It’s not true, because when the Israeli government passed a fascist law prohibiting commemoration of the Nakba at public institutions, Tel Aviv University stood behind the law rather than behind its students. Not only were they asked to move a student-led Nakba ceremony off-campus (onto the sidewalk, where they were heckled by belligerent protesters who made a mockery of this solemn event), but they were even asked to foot the bill for the extra security detail.

In social science departments across Israel all manner of academics are pursuing research ‘about’ Palestinian people: their histories, politics, identities, attitudes, narratives, their responses to peace education and conflict resolution efforts, and more. As the Task Force Report rightly notes, Palestinian faculty are disproportionately absent from advising, leading or framing such topics. Students cannot control this fact. But what about even just citing Palestinian scholars in their seminar papers? Say, when the topic of the paper is, in fact, an analysis of sociopolitical relations between Palestinians and Jews? I recently took part in a workshop where a Jewish-Israeli anthropologist presented such a manuscript. It did not include a single citation by a Palestinian scholar. No one in this progressive scholarly group seemed to notice or mind.

This cosmological fear is also at the heart of Prof. Dan Rabinowitz’s strange misunderstanding of the political vision of the BDS movement. Rabinowitz’s scholarship proposing “staggered and limited return” of Palestinian refugees to areas of 1948 Israel is, ironically, among the most sophisticated within the old Jewish-Israeli cosmology (2010). He understands the powerlessness and suffering of the refugees, he accepts that Israel is primarily responsible for the problem and he also empathizes with “Israelis’ anxieties about demography” and the feared end of their national project (p. 499). The proposal seeks to maximize the transformative symbolic power of return and to promote options for other kinds of compensation, while minimizing demographic changes inside Israel at every turn. This shows that Rabinowitz is not merely empathic with Zionists’ demographic fears; he truly identifies with their paradigm. It is no secret that BDS rejects this Zionist cosmology. In fact, that is precisely the point.

To my colleagues who fear that the boycott movement will restrict their work, I emphasize that we live in a technological age where no boycott can or should stop us from continuing to read, write, speak, engage with intellectuals and pursue the topics that interest us. We will still be able to do that, just not under a special status that comes at the expense of someone else. Furthermore, we can build partnerships outside the academy. There are many excellent local organizations where people not only conduct important social research in a mutual and engaged way, but crucially, share the privilege of setting the agenda for that research. These include: Mada al-Carmel, Sikuy, IPCRI, Ir Amim, Who Profits, Zochrot, the School for Peace at Neve Shalom ~ Wahat al-Salaam, De-Colonizer, and many more.

As a doctoral student in Israel I have not spoken publicly in favor of BDS, not only because it is illegal for me to do that and because I fear for the impact it might have on my career. I do recognize that its tactics are not incontrovertible. BDS is a means to change the reigning cosmology and to bring in its place an alternative that is better. If we recognize and accept this need, then yes, let’s have a discussion about the best way to go about it. But the primary question for me is still: Do we, Jewish-Israeli academics, really accept equality with our fellow Palestinian students and faculty?

On the day when Israeli universities protect the civil and cultural rights of all students and faculty, ensure that no one has to work in fear of harassment or retribution, encourage respectful engagement with the scholarship of Palestinian intellectuals, and ensure that agenda-setting power is shared, then I will accept the claim that the Israeli academy is an ally in resisting the colonial heritage that none of us has chosen.

It is time to promote an Israeli academy in which all members are full intellectual, political, and human beings.