A Radical Vision of Freedom

2015 was the tenth anniversary of the official launching of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement by Palestinian civil society organizations, including over 170 political parties, activist organizations, trade unions, women’s groups, and other segments of the Palestinian national movement, which called on the international community to put pressure on Israel until it ended its violations of human rights. The call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel had actually been issued a year earlier, in 2004, highlighting the centrality of the academic and cultural front of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, colonialism, and apartheid. It took five more years for U.S.-based academics to launch a national campaign to mobilize support for this call; they formed USACBI (the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) in the midst of the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza. During that war on the besieged territory, Israel destroyed schools and universities and wreaked havoc on Palestinian society, including its educational institutions and academic life. This attack was part of an ongoing assault on the Palestinian right to education, which has included closures of Palestinian schools and universities, restrictions on freedom of movement, military violence and incarceration, repression and humiliation—and which has led to the state of scholasticide in Palestine.

The academic and cultural boycott is a tool that people of conscience the world over can use to refuse complicity with this scholasticide and sociocide in Palestine. For scholars living in the US–the state that has provided an economic and political lifeline to Israel and sustained its regimes of occupation, apartheid, and colonization—this solidarity is even more crucial. The U.S. academy has long been a space where the impunity of Israel was upheld and its rationalizations for settler colonization defended, implicitly or explicitly. While other states, be it China or Iran, have been (legitimately) criticized, the critique of Israel has been the third rail in the U.S. university. But as American studies and ethnic studies have generated important critiques of settler colonialism and empire, as well as increasingly shifted their focus to the international, these disciplines have now become the first to publicly and collectively confront the exceptionalism of Israel and its enduring alliance with the U.S. The boycott movement thus emerged from these intellectual and political shifts.

Based on writings by a delegation of American Studies scholars to Palestine organized by USACBI in 2012, Periscope published the first collection of essays on the academic boycott. That issue was followed by the historic passing of the first academic boycott resolutions by national academic associations in the U.S.: the Association of Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association both passed resolutions in 2013, after outreach and organizing in which USACBI organizers were centrally involved. The debates about the academic boycott since then have shifted given that it is, in many ways, no longer a taboo topic in the U.S. academy. This shift has opened up another set of questions about the political paradigms on which the boycott (and BDS) are based, the implications of the boycott movement for the neoliberal university, and how one fundamentally configures the question of Palestinian liberation in relation to the BDS discourse of rights. My essay will touch briefly on each of these pressing questions.

The political framework of USACBI, on which the BDS movement is based, is that there should be an academic and cultural boycott of Israel until it ends its violations of the human rights of the Palestinian nation, a nation currently fragmented into three groups: refugees denied the right of to return; those who live under illegal military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; and those who live within the 1948 borders of Israel and who subjected to systemic racial discrimination. The three core principles of the BDS framework thus unify the Palestinian nation that has been dismembered by Zionist policies of colonization, displacement, and enclosure as these have fostered political division among Palestinians. Furthermore, the logical outcome of these three specific demands is that Israel would have to cease its colonial and racially discriminatory policies, end its military occupation, and recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In effect, then, Israel would no longer be entitled to uphold the supremacy of Jewish citizens over non-Jews and no longer be a colonialist, apartheid, militarized garrison state. The core character of the Zionist state would have to be transformed (in theory) and the racist logics of Zionism dismantled in order to realize a society based on racial equality, rather than racial and religious hierarchies that regulate life and death. So while the boycott formally relies on a rights-based approach, and it is certainly true that human rights is embedded in a universalist framework of international law, the BDS principles actually promote an anti-Zionist and decolonial paradigm for liberation. This language is not used in the official BDS call (for strategic reasons, obviously), but in its de facto application the boycott paradigm enshrines a radical vision of emancipation. This point has been sometimes misunderstood or distorted–including by some left supporters of Palestine, for whom the boycott is not radical enough–even though the point has been acknowledged by Zionists, who have been increasingly panicked by the powerful threat that BDS poses to Israel. The vicious Zionist backlash, and the shrill claim that BDS aims to destroy Israel, is thus based on an understanding that BDS targets the fundamentally racist and colonialist nature of the Israeli state as we know it.

And yet rights are clearly not a politically neutral concept, but are claimed by specific groups in particular contexts in order to make visible forms of violence or acts of erasure. It is certainly true that international human rights institutions have failed Palestine, and the Palestinian struggle has generally not even been recognized as a legitimate human rights issue within liberal or mainstream U.S. discourse. So on the one hand, the rights discourse deployed by the BDS movement can productively highlight the rights of the rightless, and the power of those who can bestow rights and create exceptions. On the other hand, the underlying political paradigm of BDS exceeds the discourse of rights as such.

It is important to note also that the academic boycott movement, like BDS, is a grassroots, autonomous, and decentralized movement. This is what makes its politics of solidarity so powerful. Local campaigns can frame their boycott work in terms that they want and make links to other left movements or radical struggles, as illustrated by Kristian Bailey’s essay. This is one of the main reasons for the growing, and unstoppable, success of the BDS movement. For many, it has become the major global justice movement on U.S. college campuses (see Barrows Friedman, Abunimah), one which has made linkages to issues of militarization, policing, carcerality, racial and gender violence, and sexual politics at other sites.

The academic boycott movement has become a key front of organizing by U.S. scholars and graduate students in the last few years. More than just winning resolutions, the campaigns in various fields are significant for mobilizing academics and helping enlarge intellectual and political space to openly discuss Israel, Palestine, and slowly, also Zionism. That is, the boycott has spurred the expansion of academic freedom here, as well as there, a point that its opponents have deliberately tried to obfuscate. What is also important to note is that boycott activism by academics has led to intensifed confrontations between academic workers and students and the administrative elites and managerial class—university presidents, chancellors, deans—as well as state power, for example, state legislatures that have considered passing anti-boycott bills, over the right to boycott Israel and employment rights. The case of Steven Salaita, a USACBI organizing collective member and prominent boycott advocate who was fired by the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC), dramatically revealed the interventions of Zionist academics and groups in campus governance and hiring decisions. Academic precarity is greatest in the context of teaching and organizing regarding Palestine and BDS. Zionist organizations and activists have targeted the most vulnerable groups of academic workers, that is, untenured and contingent faculty, as well as students, and used blacklists and smear campaigns to foster a new McCarthyism. Thus, the struggle over the boycott and Palestine solidarity is also a struggle for democratization of the neoliberal university and a challenge to academic repression.

Lastly, I want to point out that the battle over Salaita’s position at UIUC was also importantly a contestation of the status and autonomy of American Indian and indigenous studies, the location of his hire. There has been growing solidarity activism linking indigenous activists in North America to Palestine, as well as transnational alliances between scholars, students, and activists that link the U.S. and Palestine-Israel, globalizing academic politics. The boycott is, fundamentally, a refusal of complicity with the imperial and settler university. The solidarity campaign with Salaita and the boycott of UIUC created networks of support for academics who have been expelled and become fugitive scholars due to the nexus of Zionism and neoliberal higher education. The academic boycott is an expression of the politics of refusal that is increasingly galvanizing masses of academics who are tired of being cogs in the neoliberal university machine and of working as alibis for settler violence in Palestine and here. The boycott is a political instrument for decolonization of the university and for liberation from apartheid, and it this radical vision of freedom that we must not lose sight of in this movement.

Sunaina Maira

Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis and a founding organizer of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). She co-edited The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Maira is author of Jil [Generation] Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture and the Youth Movement and The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror, among other works.