Support for BDS is a Message of Hope

by Rami Salameh, Birzeit University

During so many days as a professor of anthropology at Birzeit University, I am reminded that Palestine demands a constant interrogation of our relationship to knowledge as anthropologists. In the terror and malaise of my students, I see the significance of these questions. Support for BDS is a message of hope, reminding us that we are not alone in our wait for justice.

On the morning of 26 January 2023, we woke to news of another Israeli massacre in Jenin refugee camp; ten Palestinians were shot dead during an Israeli incursion into the camp, located some miles north of my campus. I was scheduled to teach a class, “Modern and Contemporary Arab thought,” at Birzeit University in the West Bank. During that class, I was planning to cover two texts: Franz Fanon's “On Violence,” and a short story by Algerian writer Al-Taher Wattar, “The Martyrs Are Coming Back This Week.” For the first few minutes of that class, I was utterly paralysed; I was unable to find any meaning for academia or the idea of the university on this deadly day. Although both texts are relevant to the context, that morning's death and anger were overwhelming, rendering my students and me speechless. We couldn’t keep going, and we decided to end the class ten minutes after it started. 

The struggle to find meaning for our academic practices and knowledge amid this everyday death and dying is a heavy burden. It is a daunting task to be a specifically Palestinian academic. Teaching and researching in and from this part of the world entails specific challenges. Being Palestinian is not an identity but an experience and a process of becoming. Experiencing life as a colonized subject, constantly shaped by a colonial power, intersects with other oppressed subjects in the world. Questioning all aspects of our professional life, our take on knowledge, the theories we are addressing, and the topics we are discussing with our students—all these processes are existentially relevant to our daily lives. In contrast, thinking about our publications and our academic career is a privilege we can’t afford most of the time. Sometimes, all that work of the profession is meaningless in the presence of overwhelming death and grief. 

Our context of recurrent violence, ongoing since 1948, provokes a reconsideration of our relation to knowledge and academia. Is it about knowing, exploring, or understanding the world? Or is it about solidarity and empathy with human subjects and experiences? Is the purpose of our academic work to transcend realities, or is knowledge at the heart of our lived realities? Are our emotions and feelings part of our practices or detached from them? As anthropologists, those questions are at the heart of our praxis. Ethical questions are inherent to what we do. It could be much easier if we chose another discipline that seeks simplistic answers, but unfortunately, we did not. 

Our choice to practice anthropology is a great chance for an ethically and epistemologically grounded life. What Palestine could contribute to knowledge is far more than being a site of investigation or even a space of theorisation. It is, above all, a space for reformulating our relation to knowledge as anthropologists and academics. In a sense, knowledge is not confined to its relationship with power. Knowledge is also essential for constructing and evaluating an understanding that grounds and propels our ethical and moral positions in relation to those without power. This is especially true in contexts where power resides with institutions that commit crimes with impunity. 

Immanent within knowledge is a desire to actualise a promise of justice. But perhaps more importantly, knowledge also could impel moral and ethical positions that move beyond the violent boundaries of space and time and above the dispersion and divisions of “identities” and “cultures.” Thus, to stand for the promise of justice is a moral and ethical stance intimately linked to our discipline. Linking our discipline to justice gives Palestinians and oppressed subjects of colonialism, patriarchy, homophobia and xenophobia, and capitalism hope for a possible just world. 

In the past decade or so, students in Palestine have grown less interested in the great questions that ground disciplines such as philosophy or history or anthropology. As the world around them steadily closes, so does any horizon for the materialisation of justice. My students have turned to bare existence as a ground for constructing their sense of meaning in the world. They speak of the importance of family and friends, but they are disinterested in anything beyond “surviving with loved ones.” I have witnessed my classes going from heated debates about the world and how to change it, into a sense of disconnect, devolving into a sense that “nothing works.” The world beyond the intimate only brings headache, loss, imprisonment, and mourning. My students today doubt the relevance of learning critical theory or engaging in critical assessment of their place in the world. This lack of engagement with the questions of politics, society, economics, justice, and morality points to how intergenerational trauma has crept into today to form the way my students view this world. They view it as an alienating, hypocritical, terrifying, and uncertain place. This world offers no promise or hope for justice. To teach about the world in the context of a refusal to learn about this world has even crippled the education process and my classes. 

Within such a context, a message of hope coming from the frontiers of knowledge production provides a new lifeline for this promise of justice. This is why I see the support for BDS as central, not only to put pressure on those who made the world intolerable and enforce accountability. But, above all, to remind myself and my students that we are human beings/becoming before anything else. And there are other human beings/becoming who stand against injustice regardless of the distances between us. 

It might appear to many that it is taken for granted that an anthropologist from Palestine is calling for vocal support for the BDS movement. But let me surprise you by saying it is only part of my reasoning. It's not because I am Palestinian that I urge you to support the BDS movement. It is also the fact that I am also an anthropologist who is committed to a better future for humanity, and I see the BDS movement as an ethical, political practice. It is an expression of the expectation that those who commit crimes must be held accountable. But it is also because I am a teacher searching for ways to interest my students in the world, searching for means to teach again. 

A message from the AAA that the world listens to those who barely sustain life, to the wretched of the earth, is an important message. It also highlights our shared belief that justice, both as a promise and an actuality, is still possible.