[News] Speaking of Palestine and academic freedom

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 24 17:34:56 EDT 2017


  Speaking of Palestine and academic freedom

Steven Salaita - April 24, 2017

In the past few years, I’ve become something of a counselor.  I have no 
formal credentials and a bad track record at the very thing I’m supposed 
to help others avoid.  How can I be critical of Israel, friends and 
strangers ask, without losing my job or getting into trouble?  I’m 
flattered to be approached in this way, I am.  But I can’t help but 
think:  me?  You’re asking /me/ how to manage a career in academe while 
being critical of Israel?  I’ve lost two jobs in the past three years 
because of my sharp criticism of Israel and I’m a month away from being 
unemployed again.  I mean, I’ll try, but if you want to ask me about how 
to get into trouble in academe, I’m on better footing.

I recall one such inquiry from a colleague last month.  It was a 
routine, even banal, question, nothing that would normally require a 
halting answer.  And yet, as is often the case with ordinary things, the 
question was filled with a world of complexity.

My colleague wanted to know if she should join a delegation of scholars 
to Palestine.  A well-respected organization <http://parc-us-pal.org/> 
offers a development seminar on Palestine for US professors, including a 
short visit to the country.  It’s a nice opportunity:  participants get 
a trip to the Mediterranean, where they will be treated to visual 
beauty, warm hospitality, and wonderful cuisine.  They will have an 
opportunity to interact with sharp intellectuals and activists and to 
visit the holy sites so grandiose in humanity’s imagination.

This kind of trip is common for scholars, who visit places around the 
world with sponsorship from research groups or universities.  There is 
only one instance where the question “should I go?” needs to be raised: 
  in relation to Palestine.  My friend wasn’t concerned about safety or 
other fantastical perils, but about the possibility of being condemned 
by Zionist groups and damaging her chances at tenure.  She was right to 
be worried.

We had a long conversation weighing the benefits of the trip against its 
potential pratfalls.  It’s a fun adventure.  You’ll come back with 
plenty to write about.  This is important to your research.  The 
networking possibilities are attractive.  But.  A number of 
organizations torment anyone who goes to Palestine unless it’s to serve 
in the IDF.  Incorporating Palestine into a program of radical 
scholarship has potential to tip the balance from “I’m wary of her” to 
“she’s gotta go.”  Universities are filled with individual faculty who 
relish punishing colleagues who don’t express adequate fealty to Israel. 
  They certainly exist on your campus.

I had no easy answer.  Palestine has a way of reaffirming a person’s 
most empathetic sensibilities, so I was confident my friend would come 
back invigorated.  But I wasn’t certain she would remain unscathed.

“Just go,” I finally declared.  Then I felt guilty for the next two days.

It was an exemplary moment of existential silliness.  After all, why is 
it even a question if somebody should go to Palestine?  It’s a terrific 
place to visit.  Overzealous Israeli authorities are the only real 
threat to visitors.  Travel, however, isn’t neutral.  It’s always a 
political choice even when it has hedonistic ambitions.  The question, 
then, isn’t rhetorical.  Understanding why going to Palestine is 
inadvisable allows us to discard the silly notion that we’re free to do 
as we please because of pluck or protocol.

The episode illuminates the special status to which Palestine is subject 
in US academe.  Professors will be lauded and rewarded for visiting 
certain places, but Palestine isn’t one of those places.  It doesn’t 
offer the sort of war porn that titillates the political imagination. 
  How countries and regions come to be understood as worthy of adulation 
or sympathy depends on a constellation of policy conventions, 
institutional cultures, power dynamics, narrative orthodoxies, and 
economic interests, all of them variously in concert and at odds with 
one another.  That the possibility of visiting Palestine evokes 
consternation suggests we have a case where those phenomena are largely 

It also illuminates the depth of pressure certain students and faculty 
experience on campus.  Two years ago, a joint report 
<https://ccrjustice.org/the-palestine-exception> by Palestine Legal and 
the Center for Constitutional Rights found nearly 300 cases in which 
speech or activism around Palestine was suppressed.  Those cases 
included disciplinary action for campus activists, the suspension of 
student groups, employment termination, and the cancellation of course 

This suppression goes beyond campus, too, though its tentacles manage to 
slither into our well-manicured spaces.  Numerous states have introduced 
legislation <http://palestinelegal.org/righttoboycott/> criminalizing 
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS], a highly effective, nonviolent 
strategy for opposing the Israeli occupation.  Whatever one makes of 
BDS, it is indubitably a form of protected speech, as affirmed by dozens 
of court rulings.  That so many politicians and legislative bodies are 
willing to make it illegal shouldn’t be understood simply as 
constitutional negligence, but as evidence of a political culture that 
values power over mobilization.  Countries such as France 
and the UK 
not to mention Israel 
itself, have pushed to criminalize BDS.  Suppressing Palestine is a 
transnational industry.

We need academic freedom to criticize Israel, but it takes more than 
academic freedom to contest the sites of power invested in protecting 
Israel from criticism.  Most commentators, however, are too scared to 
name Zionism as a problem.  People spend considerable time these days 
arguing about speech and disruption on campus, yet Palestine is 
shockingly absent from the conversation.  Exploring the repression of 
ideas at universities while ignoring Palestine is like discussing LeBron 
James without mentioning basketball.

Palestine isn’t the totality, or the crux, of today’s debates about 
speech and resistance on campus.  There’s too much repression preceding 
Palestine, and now in existence alongside it, for that to be true.  But 
Palestine deeply informs the substance of those debates, and by 
recovering this sunken reality we can better understand the disputes 
around free speech and academic freedom that generate so much attention.


It is impossible to speak, or be heard, with a set of impartial senses. 
  Free speech, in both philosophy and practice, is attached to 
structures of power (seen and unseen, discernible and oblique, steady 
and unstable).  Despite the state’s professions of fairness and 
benevolence, free speech is never fixed or disinterested.  It is 
prosecuted according to circumstance.  It is reified based on the needs 
of the audience.  And it is conditioned by race, gender, nationality, 
class, religion, ideology, culture, sexuality, and so forth.

Take UC-Berkeley, a longtime testing ground for these matters.  Its 
administrators proclaimed that nothing short of a near-riot would compel 
them to cancel 
a recent lecture by right wing provocateur Milo Yianopoulis.  Yet last 
semester the same university shut down a legitimate course 
about Israeli settler colonization offered by a Palestinian instructor. 
  In the end, Milo’s lecture was disrupted and the course was allowed to 
proceed.  It wasn’t the infallibility of a concept that changed the 
outcome of each situation, but an organized shift in relationships of power.

Free speech, in short, is a limited commodity pretending to be a 
universal ideal.

We can’t understand the importance of free speech in civic or academic 
settings unless we also engage the politics that precede its invocation. 
  Rallying around free speech is easy, which is why arguing about it 
never solves any problems.  Nobody opposes free speech as an ideal.  The 
term is often a slogan or shaming device that can be summoned in order 
to safeguard a viewpoint or ideology without having to confront its 
ethical anatomies and material consequences.  Free speech isn’t the 
actual site of contestation in our cantankerous debates.  What we talk 
about matters more.

Here we can pivot back to academic freedom because its function on 
campus mirrors free speech in US society more broadly.  The preservation 
of academic freedom as an end in itself isn’t the best allocation of 
intellectual energy.  We still have to discuss, and, ideally, resolve, 
the issues that generate controversy because they supersede academic 
freedom.  Given the serious problems now facing academe—corporatization, 
receding faculty governance, donor influence, decreased public funding, 
administrative bloat, systemic racism, obscene student debt, sexual 
violence—our campuses won’t survive current trends if we refuse to 
analyze the structural conditions that often get reduced to frames of 
ahistorical disagreement.

Suppose we desire any of the following:  to liberate Black people, 
decolonize North America, destroy a neo-Nazi resurgence, get some 
economic justice, free Palestine.  If we treat those desires merely as 
rights to be practiced in controlled environments, then academic freedom 
becomes a pretext to normalize conventional politics.  It has potential 
to supplement transformative writing and organizing, but that potential 
must be created.  Academic freedom isn’t inherently radical.


For Palestinians, any type of freedom, including the academic variety, 
is acutely unavailable.  Living under military occupation in the Gaza 
Strip and West Bank and as second-class citizens 
inside Israel, their lives are controlled by an unequal legal system 
that proffers rights according to religion (as defined by the state). 
  Palestinians suffer extrajudicial assassination 
limited movement 
arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention 
<http://www.btselem.org/topic/administrative_detention>, home demolition 
<http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.763331>, restricted 
speech rights 
harassment and torture 
<http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.773115>, land 
expropriation <http://www.btselem.org/settlements/land_takeover>, and 
forced exile 

There are currently 6300 Palestinian political prisoners 
<http://www.addameer.org/statistics>.  700 of them just began a hunger 
in fact.  300 of them are children.  The unemployment rate 
<http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.657712> in the Gaza Strip is 
nearly fifty percent, the highest in the world 
<http://gisha.org/updates/4388>.  Real per capita income is $970 
  Eighty percent of the population receives some sort of social 
assistance.  Almost forty percent live below the poverty line 

Gaza has been under a land, air, and sea blockade for ten years, which 
has reduced its GDP 
by half:  Israel, in cooperation with Egypt, determines what comes in 
and what goes out.  Israeli politicians speak of “putting Gaza on a 
that is, allocating a certain amount of foodstuff for the territory 
based on minimal caloric requirements.  At other times, those 
politicians speak of “mowing the lawn” 
in Gaza, which means exactly what it sounds like.  The cancer rate is 
unusually high 
  Life expectancy is dismal 
  Fishing boats, one of the lifelines of the economy, are sometimes 
or their occupants are shot at.  Citizens deal with extended power cuts 
  Schools and hospitals are undersupplied 
  According to both local and international doctors, the psychological 
damage from the blockade and Israel’s periodic war crimes has been 
extraordinary.  The children of the territory suffer abnormal levels of 
trauma and anxiety <http://www.sciencedomain.org/abstract/10267>.  There 
is no developed medical apparatus to mitigate these problems.

Narrowing the focus to academe, Palestinian students and professors 
experience forms of institutional repression that on US campuses are 
virtually unimaginable.  For decades, universities in the West Bank and 
Gaza Strip have been bombed 
invaded, looted 
<http://mondoweiss.net/2014/11/israeli-university-academic/>, and closed 
<http://www.chronicle.com/article/Closure-of-Palestinian/88058> for 
extended periods.  Students, staff, and professors often can’t make it 
to campus because of checkpoints and unexpected curfews.  Their 
political activity is closely monitored.  Professors sometimes meet 
class in their living rooms.  It is difficult to get permission to 
travel abroad for conferences and research symposia.  And when students 
graduate, they enter into an economy devoid of skilled jobs.  (In this, 
at least, the comparison to US academe is striking.)  Compounding this 
problem, Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant discrimination 
<http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.550152> in the labor market.

I studied at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in the summer of 2000. 
  My best friend there was from Gaza, but didn’t have permission to 
study in the West Bank.  Both territories, mind you, are said to 
comprise the same country.  As an “illegal” student, he couldn’t travel 
to Ramallah, just down the road.  The Israelis sometimes erected a 
mobile checkpoint between the two towns.  In turn, he was stuck in the 
hamlet of Birzeit.  Getting home to Gaza, fewer than a hundred miles 
away as the crow flies, would have required illegally crossing three 
borders, as he did to get to Birzeit in the first place.  Many of the 
students from Gaza faced the same hardships.  Plenty of students from 
the West Bank couldn’t travel abroad, or even to nearby Jerusalem. 
  Those with Western passports were free to explore.  The foreigner had 
greater rights than the native, a condition to which Palestinians were 
accustomed.  Strangers, after all, have transformed their lives into a 
simulation of existence, where one merely bides time, with no place to 
go, while impatiently narrating the dream of actually existing.

These brutal realities inhabit campus speech and they are blithely 
minimized when scholars make Palestine contingent on Western 
sensibilities.  In short, we shouldn’t compromise the seriousness, or 
the severity, of our investment in certain political sites, both 
geographical and imaginative, in order to accommodate the strictures of 
academic freedom as a self-contained phenomenon.  Doing so actually 
limits the effectiveness of academic freedom by providing it a kind of 
philosophical autonomy that restricts its immersion into material 
politics.  Academic freedom is only meaningful in relation to the sites 
of contestation that necessitate its presence.

When we think about the difficulties that Palestinians face in academe, 
then, it’s crucial to orient critique around the hostile conditions of 
repression rather than merely safeguarding ourselves against hostility.


My maternal grandmother died last year.  She was my connection to 
Palestine, having lived through the nakba, the mass expulsion of 
Palestinians in 1948, and the messy histories that followed.  Her 
family’s home in Palestine was forever lost to Israeli settlers and she 
wouldn’t return to the country for four more decades, this time on a 
tourist visa.

She could be a difficult woman:  stubborn and blunt and imperious.  She 
wasn’t one for shows of affection, but from my childhood I remember very 
well the protective and efficient quality of her supervision.  Neither I 
nor my cousins dared to disobey her, but we relished the fact that in 
her care nobody would dare to cause us harm.  When I was in high school, 
she regularly visited us in rural Appalachia, a place ill-suited to her 
cosmopolitan predilections.  We never spoke much, though she was 
delighted when I became competent enough in Arabic to hold a 
conversation.  She adamantly disapproved of my fledgling attempts at 
facial hair and nagged my mother to buy me proper clothes.

Like all memories of this variety, they’ve evolved from moments of 
annoyance to subjects of affection.  The original sentiment of one 
memory, however, has only intensified with time.  I had driven my mom 
and grandmother to the grocery store.  My grandmother unexpectedly opted 
to wait with me in the car.  “My daughter talks too much,” she explained 
after my mom had left, a tacit condemnation of small-town culture.  My 
fingers tapping the steering wheel provided the soundtrack for our tense 
silence.  Then, out of nowhere, she began talking about Palestine. 
  About 1948.  About her village.  About her displacement.  About the 
pain that had never gone away.  “These things, I never forget,” she 
concluded matter-of-factly.  “No.  I never forget.”

I was a kid in that moment, sixteen and preoccupied with teenage drama, 
but I understood exactly what she was telling me:  that I could never 
forget, either.  Academic freedom doesn’t preserve this memory.  But it 
damn sure gives me the right to remember.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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