We Are All Uncomfortable: On Academic Boycott & What is Productive

[this post originally appeared on Jadaliyya and was re-posted by AnthroBoycott as part of a series of reflections composed by Palestinian anthropologists in commemoration of Nakba Day, May 15, 2015.]

by Dina Omar, Yale University

On 10 May 2015 Israeli forces shot dead Saji Sayel Jarab’a, a nineteen-year-old student at Birzeit University—he is one out of twenty-six Birzeit University students killed. On the same day, the New York Times published a front-page article characterizing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) debates taking place on college campuses nationwide as “divisive,” emotionally charged, and arguing that some Jewish students are made to feel uncomfortable as a result.

In one context, academic freedom is the ability to go to school without being shot. In another context, academic freedom is the ability to not have Saji Sayel Jarab’a’s death intrude on one’s comfort.

Since last fall 1,130 anthropologists have signed a petition to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. In response, 416 anthropologists have signed a counter-petition. Much like the New York Times article, the anti-boycott statement describes academic boycotts of Israeli universities as “a refusal to engage in a productive dialogue” and undermining “the principles of academic freedom.” It characterizes the whole matter as “unproductive.” But it is crucial to ask why Palestinian civil society has since 2005 decided to bypass the conventional gatekeepers of what is “productive” and “unproductive”: the Netanyahu regime, the US Congress, the Palestinian Authority, and now the 416 anti-boycott anthropologists.

It is worth mentioning that there are over 10,000 members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), meaning that over 8,450 professional anthropologists have yet to offer their opinion on the matter. It is inevitable that several will remain uninvolved. Perhaps you do not know what is going on “over there” in Israel/Palestine; perhaps it is not your “area of focus,” or you would rather not get involved in such a touchy debate. Or perhaps you are, like me, afraid. Maybe you have read the stories about David Shorter who was “warned about his Israel opinions” at UCLA, or Reverend Bruce Shipman who was pressured to resign from his position as Chaplain at Yale University for criticizing Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, or Steven Salaita whose tenured professorship was terminated over the “tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza.”

There is a culture of fear, self-censorship, and retaliation that polices freedom of speech generally, and academic freedom specifically. This culture works to safeguard Israeli and US decision makers. The anti-boycott statement is correct that many “Israeli academics … have been leaders in advocating peace, non-violence and the end of the Occupation,” and it is true that “they are seen as a threat by the political right which hopes to maintain control over Palestinians.” However, the statement rejects academic boycott entirely, dismissing the whole endeavor as “unproductive.” Reading the statement would lead someone to conclude that Israeli academics will inevitably suffer harms because of the boycott, as if some of them might not also find BDS to be potentially generative. For a more open view, I would encourage people to read a statement signed by over forty Israeli anthropologists who have smartly pointed out that mischaracterizing and stigmatizing the BDS movement precisely stifles “productive dialogue.” The forty Israeli anthropologists welcome open discussion and are curious to see if these discussions are a step in the right direction. What is not mentioned in the anti-boycott statement is that many outspoken academics in the United States and in Israel are explicitly targeted for criticizing Israeli policy and quite literally “monitored” by creepy websites aiming to harass and narrowly define the boundaries of the speakable in the name of academic freedom.

BDS proponents are envisaging new possibilities for dialogue. Whether you support or oppose a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, it is important to acknowledge that there is a concerted effort to thwart potential discussions about it from even taking place. Currently, “acceptable” or “productive” dialogue means that we are only allowed to say what privileges and affirms Israel’s security and domination over the Palestinians at every conceivable angle. Yet, many are starting to challenge this policing of speech, including members of the Jewish community in the United States and Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has endorsed the 2005 BDS call; a student-led campaign has established Open Hillel because Hillel International refused to widen its narrow stance on what is “acceptable dialogue” with regards to Israel. Many Jewish students and Jewish academics are charged with being self-hating, encouraging anti-Semitism, or oftentimes shunned or ignored by their communities. The long series of attacks against students that participate in Palestinian solidarity activism as well as the lobbying efforts used to “contain” the BDS problem and free speech on campuses, are just a few of the issues that have been brought to light as a result of BDS initiatives.

It is important to note that the anthropology boycott initiative is non-binding. There is no way to enforce a boycott other than by applying public pressure or requesting that people abide by guidelines that we, as a community, may or may not decide to uphold. Compare this to recent attempts made by state legislators in Illinois who are likely to pass a bill that would monitor investments made by state pension funds and prohibit them from holding contracts with any “business that boycotts Israel.” Although similar attempts in California and New York have failed, federal efforts to penalize foreign governments that boycott Israel are gaining traction despite pushback from within the US Jewish community, including the pro-Israel group J Street.

For those concerned, like I am, about the effects a boycott would have on individual Israeli anthropologists, we should consider what the state of Israel is doing to protect intellectual and political expression. The anthropology boycott initiative, on the one hand, may have some minor, albeit bothersome, consequences for Israeli academics; however, the potential effects are, by design, limited with the intention of not causing harm to individuals. On the other hand, the Israeli government passed a law, which the High Court recently upheld, sanctioning steep fines against and withholding funds from individuals and groups that endorse BDS. And recently elected Israeli politicians have suggested that Israel will attempt to make BDS illegal altogether. These laws target individual Israelis and civil society groups to protect the interests of the state, whereas BDS initiatives target the state, large companies, and institutions to protect the interests of individuals and civil society groups.

In terms of their effects, conversations about BDS are incredibly productive because they have exposed infrastructures of censorship. They have illuminated the internal contradictory logics of lawmakers and self-appointed “experts” claiming to know how to best define and limit freedom of speech. It has become clear however, the extent to which these experts and lawmakers are also foreclosing people’s ability to democratically determine what is productive for themselves.

Palestinians are terribly aware of the perils that result when what is “productive” is not determined as a negotiation between equals but by chauvinistic processes that render them as the other—incapable or prohibited from determining what can be represented. The BDS movement compels us to probe deeper into what Edward Said called the oppositional strain that ran against the currents of Orientalism, a tradition of horizontally deliberated representation, described by Laura Nader, in which “the other is not mute.” The Egyptian ethnographer Rif‘at al-Tahtawi, who lived in Paris from 1826 to 1831, wrote reflexively about his interpretations of French life alongside those of his others. He was able to see common grounds as well as differences. Nader calls for more attention to this tradition of “engagement that runs side-by-side or eyeball-to-eyeball,” that refuses hierarchies and recognizes “human beings as equal but malleable and therefore capable of difference.” In this spirit, and as anthropologists trained to think seriously and critically about the contemporary world, perhaps it would be beneficial for us to discuss why a hierarchical model of “productivity” is not productive for US citizens, Israelis, and Palestinians.

There is no moving forward if the conversation remains solely a meta-discourse on what is an acceptable or productive conversation to have. When people attempt to confront the radical inequality and intense violence that Palestinians are subject to, they are automatically considered a threat to Jewish students, an assault on Israeli freedom, and responsible for making everyone else in the room uncomfortable—told that they are not being “productive.” This line of argumentation forces anyone grappling with the Palestine question to always be on the defensive, contending with reductive identity politics, hypothetical scenarios and discussions about feelings that often prevent more substantive, and thus probably more uncomfortable, conversations from ever surfacing. How do we, as compassionate observers of the historical reality of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust confront the historical and stop the ongoing, crimes against the Palestinians? We will never be able to learn or to change if the conversation is not permitted to advance beyond existential questions about Israeli identity vis-à-vis Israeli state actions and endless competing claims to victimhood.

On 10 February 2014, Cary Nelson, Emeritus Professor at UIUC gave one of his now frequent lectures trying to link BDS to anti-Semitism. This was three weeks after the Israeli military raided Al Quds University. He ended his speech by arguing that because the Nakba is one or two generations in the past, that the damage is “metaphysical not material and can be unlearned especially if other benefits and possibilities can balance it.” He said this after affirming his belief that the Palestinians should have a state, whereas, he said, the BDS movement “poses an existential threat to Israel’s right to exist.”

While no one can deny that Israel does exist, Palestinian rights, let alone “Palestine’s right” to exist, are abstract and elusive concepts particularly when compared to more relevant, concrete words such as carpet-bomb, checkpoint, teargas, bullet, white-phosphorus, and wall. There is no shortage of people, who like Nelson, are willing to offer their emphatic support for Palestine’s right to exist—from Barack Obama to Hilary Clinton, Michael Oren and now the 416 anthropologists against boycott. They are all part of the chorus singing empty declarations asserting that the Palestinians should have their own state. But so what? Where have all these public outcries of support lead?

They have lead us to a place where an entire population is confined behind a thirty-foot wall, with 1.8 million people under siege in the Gaza strip—where a military onslaught is waged every 2.5 years on average over the last decade. A place where as soon as people start to clean up the ruins of their lives and rebuild anew, they see their world crumble around them again, what kind of place is this for academic freedom? The West Bank has had more than 200 illegal Israeli settlements built fully equipped with privileged roads and access to landfills and water, whereas Palestinians in the West Bank are made to maneuver between 522 roadblocks and checkpoints, faced with arbitrary search and seizure, where young people are routinely arrested without due process. This is a place where the latest fifty-day military assault on Gaza alone left twenty-two schools destroyed, six teachers dead, and nearly half a million children starting their school-year weeks late. The only Palestine that is allowed to exist is the one euphemistically truncated into one paragraph, appearing like an afterthought that we never have time to address.

Whenever I think I better be smart and refrain from writing articles like this one, a photograph comes to mind from January 2009. Three boys are sitting in a classroom on the first day of school, after war. There are three cardboard placards next to each of the boys and on each is the name of their recently killed desk-mate. Where should we place this photograph in relation to the more recent photograph from September 2014. An elementary school girl is writing on edge of a chalkboard hollowed out by a missile framing two other girls in the middle of a dilapidated classroom. What is acceptable to say about these pictures? Why pretend that a hurricane or an earthquake caused this destruction rather than a process delicately held together by individuals like you and me who, wittingly or unwittingly, actively or banally, consent to it? How does one react to these pictures productively? Amidst what James Baldwin called a “catalogue of destruction,” what is so “productive” about not discussing them at all? What do we say about what we’re not allowed to say?

When I think of these pictures, I am reminded that the Palestinians are not passive unaware victims here. Palestinians know one thing from another. They do not have absolute control to filter out what they prefer not to see. They do not have Iron Domes and legal shields protecting them from knowing what is on the other side of that wall. Some people may believe that boycotts are aggressive, unproductive, or uncooperative. But it is one of the few methods Palestinians have to assert that while the state may have the power to take away shelter, food, water, belongings, classmates, lives, they refuse to allow their sense of reality to also be taken. If the solidarities and aggressions that BDS has helped make visible are any indication, then what we are all facing is a kind of epistemological break. Because the language that is currently “acceptable” for us to use will not bear the weight of reality much longer.