Neutrality is not an option
is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University and a member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the main professional association of language scholars, with some 25,000 members worldwide. The MLA is currently considering a resolution in support of the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Here, we reprint Jani's statement explaining his support for the resolution.
IN HIS famous 1852 speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Frederick Douglass expertly uses rhetorical strategies to establish to his white, liberal audience that (1) abolition of slavery is a position supported by reason, and ought to be the position of anyone valuing democracy; but also that (2) when all the arguments have been made, and all the logic of this or that position has been debated, there is nothing left to do but to present the horrors of slavery once more, to point directly to the hypocrisy of a "democratic" country that suppresses liberty, and to conclude that disagreement in this matter is ultimately not just about debate or reason but about deeply-held political positions.
Once it is established that the slave is a human being and that human beings deserve liberty, Douglass argues, what is left to say but that slavery must be abolished? I'm sure you've come across these lines, or taught them in class:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Sign the "Open Letter" calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only signatures of members, former or current, will be included.
And so it is with Palestine.
I don't have the rhetorical flair of Douglass. I am not speaking with the force that Douglass generates as a formerly enslaved person speaking about abolition. I am not a Palestinian who has felt the iron heel of Israeli occupation. But I think his framework fits this debate very well.
What is left to say?
This is a moment in history in which the meteoric rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is headline news, in which Black Lives Matter activists have traveled to Palestine and embraced the cause in solidarity. This is a time in which discrimination against Black Jews in Israel has raised basic questions about the logic and practice of Zionist nationalism, with decades of racist hatred projected outwards against Palestinians and Arabs flowing back inwards, exposing ruptures in a supposedly homogeneous Israeli Jewish identity.
This is a moment when politicians are passing anti-BDS bills like HR 476 in Ohio, and school administrators are firing and pressuring pro-Palestinian faculty and students. The "Palestine exception" is in full force everywhere: even those who ordinarily defend freedom of speech and academic freedom exclude Palestinians and deny their basic rights.
At such a time, what sorts of rational arguments would it take to convince humanities scholars in the MLA membership, who often express a commitment to human rights and equality, to show solidarity with this anticolonial and antiracist struggle?
What must one say to a body that says it subscribes to the principles of diversity, that encourages and teaches critical thinking, that includes within its ranks, as a matter of course, fields and ideas that might be deemed "too radical" outside the academy, and that champions human rights--and yet equivocates when a living, breathing struggle against colonialism and racism confronts us, and demands our support?
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A Question of Politics
In their statements supporting an MLA academic boycott of Israel, our colleagues have addressed questions linked to various aspects of the proposal, from the specifics of the boycott itself to more general principles that are intimately connected to our work as academics, especially in the humanities.
With patience and thoughtful inquiry, they have explained:
-- That the boycott is not against individual scholars, but those directly representing the Israeli state;
-- That the boycott is essential to extending the principle of academic freedom to Palestinian scholars and students;
-- That cultural and academic institutions ought to be understood politically, not as neutral, autonomous spaces;
-- That the BDS movement parallels the boycott of apartheid South Africa
They have taken up:
-- The need for literary and cultural studies scholars to reject injunctions to remain "apolitical";
-- The surprising notion that criticizing Israel is only valid if one also, simultaneously, builds a campaign against every other settler-colonial state;
-- The false claim, central to the Israeli state's equating of Israeli identity with Jewish identity, that criticizing Israel is tantamount to anti-Jewish racism;
-- The need for progressives to value the voices of Palestinian scholars, Palestinian women, and so many others who are calling for an end to the occupation.
I encourage everyone to read these thoughtful essays, often coming from different angles and focused on different aspects of the question, but all coming together to defend the boycott proposal.
And yet, underlying every point is the core question of politics. I am strongly inclined to believe that those who do not support the boycott at this time are politically opposed to the severe critique of Israel and Israeli policy that the BDS movement represents. While it is possible to be uneducated on the issue, or to be opposed to the act of boycott itself on principle, I am convinced more and more that we have a basic disagreement on whether or not Israel is a settler-colonial state. And if we pursued this idea, we would find larger debates and questions about imperialism, racism and white supremacy, religion and resistance, and national self-determination itself.
This moment, then, is not only about the boycott but also about identifying what we stand for as the MLA, at the broadest, most basic level. In our classes and in our scholarship we repeatedly put forward what I will call the humanistic values of equality, equal treatment, acceptance of difference and diversity, questioning and rejection of undemocratic and unequal systems that suppress individual potential. (Indeed, those colleagues who reject the label "humanism" often do so because they feel it does not do enough to accept difference.) How is it possible for us to exclude an entire group like the Palestinians, whose testimonies, literature, and poetry are infused with experiences of marginalization and oppression that are rooted in the occupation?
Today, Islamophobia and racism are running rampant in the U.S. and on our campuses--and anti-BDS rhetoric and policy is quickly becoming a key node through which this repression is expressed. Antiracists defending Palestinian rights and dignity are being undermined by being called anti-Jewish racists, in a twisted strategy of divide-and-conquer that sees the U.S. university and the U.S. state as bastions of anti-racism.
How will we confront this? Failure to pass the boycott resolution has implications for us right here and will impact those of us for whom questions of colonialism, racism and targeting by the surveillance state are deeply personal and immediate.
As the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad put it in "First Writing Since," "Over there is over here." There is no escaping global politics.
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I know of no other way of making the argument except to turn to the political and human realities of Palestine--which includes the egregious denials of education and academic freedom that are going on, especially as they regard literary studies. If you're on the fence about the boycott but you stand for human rights, I implore you to examine, at the very least, the atrocities happening under the name of the "democratic" state of Israel and its biggest champion, the United States, and to consider their wider cultural and social impact.
I'm offering two sources: The Electronic Intifada's "Month in Pictures" series, to get a sense of what the occupation looked like in August 2016, and the "We Are Not Numbers" project, consisting of stories by young Palestinian writers from Gaza and Lebanon. My choice of these two different sources is a very deliberate attempt to break the fictional divide of the world of politics and the world of culture.
The clean and crisp images in The Electronic Intifada piece vividly captures how the occupation deepens its hold, impacting individuals and Palestinian communities on a day-to-day basis.
With the opening image of a Palestinian girls' protest, we are reminded that August 2016 was the two-year anniversary of the vicious 51-day offensive in Gaza, killing an estimated 2,300 people. The past is the present: the resistance movement actively keeps alive popular historical memory.
Four deaths from August 2016 stand out: Sari Abu Ghurab (24, shot by soldiers while sitting in a car), Iyad Hamad (38, shot by soldiers, unarmed), Muhammad Abu Hashhash (19, killed during a raid on al-Fawwar refugee camp) and Ahmad Izzat Halawa (50, beaten to death in custody). Images reveal the pain and suffering of witnesses to brutal violence.
We learn of a UN monitoring group's report that 79 Palestinians were killed in 2016 as of August 8, compared to 10 Israelis. We read about demolished homes--some as targeted punishment of activism, and dozens of others for lack of building permits. And that on August 21, Israel launched several airstrikes--the most intensive since the August 2014 ceasefire--injuring four Palestinians, in response to a harmless projectile fired into southern Israel. Subsequent Israeli firing has continued, leading to other injuries and work stoppages.
And that's one month: a vision of suffering and oppression on multiple registers. On the one side, police brutality and military violence, economic devastation and personal injury. And on the other, resistance, protest, and resilience--with deepening and lengthening scars whose effect will last long beyond the end of August.
"We Are Not Numbers" shows us what those scars feel like. The project offers snippets of the lives of Palestinians while supporting English-language writers with few resources.
In "Architistas Beautify the Walls of Gaza," Saja Elkhaldi describes her classmates' effort to beautify the university with art, like Van Gogh's A Starry Night. "If we Gazans think only of the aggression and destruction we suffer at the hands of Israelis," she writes, "then Gaza will never return to its original beauty. As architects, we believe that after any war or destruction, it is our job to rebuild. And we're starting with our lockers."
"When Friendship is Tested" by Fadi O. Al-Naji is about a fight between friends: a masculinist melee with punches and a drawn knife. But as the narrator makes clear, the context has everything to do with the fighting--these are government workers who have basically not been paid for 10 years due to infighting among Palestinian parties and the Israeli blockade. "With the beginning of every day, our obsession with leaving this place that felt like a prison became even deeper. We felt frustrated, suffocated and unhappy."
Narrating the lives of Palestinians from a variety of angles--depression in times of war, the escape of a brother with no future as a nurse in Gaza, the hopes of feminist internationalism, and so much else--the "We Are Not Numbers" project cannot fail to touch the hearts of anyone who stands against state repression and violence.
And in most of these stories, whether as part of the content or implicit in the genre itself, we hear the voices of youth who want to write, think, develop, explore, and transform the world, but whose education and opportunities are stunted by the Israeli occupation, border policing by Israel and its Arab allies, and repeated acts of war.
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Make it Plain: Which Side Are You On?
When you join a march for Black Lives Matter or sign a petition against environmental destruction by the North Dakota oil pipeline, you are taking a stand against an injustice despite the fact that you may have differences of opinion on how you understand the problem, the position you take on future strategies of protest, the opinions you have on the solutions, etc.
When you join the boycott of Israel, you are responding to a call from Palestinian civil society and saying that no, we, as part of a global community that is committed to human rights, will not be silent while atrocities under a military colonial occupation go on month after month, year after year. You may have questions about organizations, strategies, details, policies, and solutions--but you draw a line against colonialism and racism.
If you refuse to see this line, you are also taking a stand: for the status quo. You are free to do so, of course.
But then please don't speak to me about your antiracism. For the image of the Palestinian as always already a terrorist fuels every justification of Israeli violence as "security."
Please don't toss around words like "empire" and "colonialism." For the militarization of Israel (as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and other allies) is central to U.S. imperial ambitions today. For colonialism is nothing but the takeover of territory by military force, the constant encroaching on land and property, suppression of self-determination, and the complete legal and economic control over another people.
Please don't write about agency or "voices from below." For you shut your eyes and ears when the oppressed speak and mourn and protest and act, forcing themselves onto the stage of a history in which they are meant to suffer in silence.
Please don't say you are for nonviolent resistance. Because the BDS movement's call is precisely a tactic of those who value and propagate nonviolence.
And please do not speak of academic freedom. Because Palestinians are excluded from education and opportunity of all kinds due to the occupation.
In concluding his great speech on July 5, 1852, Douglass offers a hopeful internationalism that, in his view at that moment, is the product of modern progress technology, and commerce--and will portend the end of slavery and empire:
No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable.
But as we know too well, with the certainty of historical hindsight, there is no continuous march to a progressive future. The coming together of the globe over time has gone hand-in-hand with colonialism, national oppression, racism, imperial violence, and capitalist expansion. The occupation of Palestine is the ongoing product of this brutal history.
Internationalism is possible, but it is not at all automatic. We need to work for it. We need to take a stand, from wherever we stand, against the Israeli occupation.
First published at the website of MLA Members for Justice in Palestine.