When reflecting on the week-long visit to Occupied Palestine and Israel — the delegation organized by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) — in some ways, the meeting that was the most provocative was with the Palestinian academics who hosted us at a public policy research center in Haifa called Mada al-Carmel: Arab Center for Applied Social Research. There we encountered critical and incisive perspectives on the academic boycott by Palestinian citizens of Israel that showed how the politics look different from their social location. Their penetrating critiques and our productive dialogue ultimately strengthened my understanding of the situation of fragmentation on the ground in Palestine, and of the need to grapple with this complexity to address what is, after all, one occupation.
This meeting took place on the second day of our trip. To reach the Center, we left the West Bank for Haifa in a taxi van with our host Magid Shihade on a journey that itself demonstrated the situation of apartheid. Haifa is a historically fraught city located in Israel. To get there, we had to go through one of the more than 500 police and military checkpoints that regulate Palestinian movement between the occupied West Bank and the state of Israel — referred to by the hosts of the delegation and many Palestinians as “’48” as an insistent reminder that Israel’s history as a state dates back only to 1948 and involves Palestinian dispossession. We first made our way through an inspection, which included six Israeli soldiers surrounding the van with automatic rifles ready to shoot as they peered in through the windows of the van, then rode on a segregated highway — part of an intricate network of settler roads, bridges and tunnels that continue to surround Palestinians villages and towns to break up territorial contiguity by separating them from each other.
Haifa sits along the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, and as we entered it, on what happened to be the day of the Orthodox Christmas, the tree in the middle of town with numerous Stars of David and Israeli flags hanging on it stood as a reminder of the violence through which the city was claimed as part of Israel. The 1947 UN Partition Plan designated Haifa as part of the proposed Jewish state. Since it was the major industrial city and oil refinery port in “British Palestine”, control of the city was critical in the ensuing Arab-Israeli war. As Ilan Pappé explains in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, on April 21, 1948, British forces in Haifa redeployed and withdrew from most of the city while still maintaining control over the port facilities. Very soon after, Moshe Carmel led a brigade of the Haganah (a paramilitary organization that was the precursor to the Israeli Defense Forces) in Operation Bi’ur Hametz (also known as the Battle of Haifa), which caused a massive displacement of Haifa’s Palestinian population. The refugees’ flight in the wake of mass evacuation was via the port of Haifa. After the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 Haifa became the gateway for Jewish settlers into Israel, where, after the war, they were resettled in vacated Palestinian houses enabled by the violent “de-Arabization” of Haifa.
Mada al-Carmel, which was founded in 2000, is housed in an apartment that a Palestinian family managed to keep in 1948. Nadim Rouhana, the founding director, pointed to the window from which we could see the port, and explained that Palestinians were evacuated from there during the war. Being in the apartment itself vividly conveyed to me this history–its recentness, its violence, its continuity, and also Palestinian resistance to dispossession.
Mada al-Carmel is a Palestinian institution and is not linked to any state agencies or Zionist organizations. It is NGO-funded and 100% financially independent from the Israeli government, unlike all the other academic institutions in Haifa – including the Israel Institute of Technology, University of Haifa, Gordon College of Education, Sh’anan Religious Teachers’ College, WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education and Tiltan College of Design–or, for that matter, in the rest of Israel. As the director explained, the center is under close watch by the state; they must submit mandatory reports and regularly navigate bureaucracy that has oversight over every minor detail, and they have been under financial siege since it was founded.
Rouhana explained to us that the scholars at Mada al-Carmel co-authored the Haifa Declaration (2007). This document was produced to convey the collective vision of Palestinians in 1948 “of their collective future and status in their homeland, the major challenges facing their society, and their relationship with their people, nation, and the state of Israel.” It emerged from a project that began in 2002 that sought to create a forum for Arab citizens of Israel from a broad social and political base. The Haifa Declaration was followed by two other declarations – Future Vision, developed under the auspices of the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel, and the Democratic Constitution, which was developed by Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and a consensus developed. These developments galvanized Palestinian academics who teach at Israeli universities, as well as graduate students, to come together and form an intellectual and political space. As we were told, Mada al-Carmel is the only place they can gather, speak freely, and use Arabic to exchange ideas with other Palestinian intellectuals and scholars.
The director explained that after introductions and informal presentations about our research, the agenda for the meeting was to discuss the question of boycott as well as the Palestinian experience in Israel. He noted that those around the table held a variety of views on the issue of boycott, and so we would have an open dialogue. We met select staff members as well as several affiliated scholars. Having served on the advisory board for USACBI since it was founded in January 2009, I have been asked to explain my affiliation many times by US-based scholars, but now I was in Israel being invited to discuss this particular political commitment to Palestinian scholars who study and teach at the very institutions I advocate boycotting. When it was my turn to speak, I expressed my view that US-based scholars have a responsibility to expose the massive US funding of the state of Israel, to challenge the attacks against academic freedom for those of us who dare criticize Israel in the US academy and elsewhere, and to help build solidarity with Palestinians from a US-base.
One concern that emerged from two scholars during our discussion was the question as to whether the boycott might further isolate them since they study or teach in the Israeli academic institutions being boycotted by the campaign. Importantly, they highlighted the contradictory situations they are subject to; one asked how he was supposed to support a boycott of an institution where he is enrolled as a graduate student, and another pointed to the irony of working at an Israeli institution that does not want Palestinian scholars there at all. I thought about what Amy Kaplan has called the “de facto boycott of Palestinian academe” regarding scholars in the Occupied Territories in her essay “In Palestine, Occupational Hazards.” Considering her point in light of what we heard from the Mada scholars in ’48 brought the fact that the boycott does not target individuals or scholarly exchanges with individual scholars into sharp relief — the campaign is focused on Israeli institutions. Related to this, another scholar stressed the importance of working with Palestinian intellectuals to produce different discourses, narratives, and knowledge rather than calling attention to Israel’s violations. He argued that the terms of the boycott should not accept the political reality as defined by Israel and the US. Together their comments spoke to a longer history of exclusion that ’48 Palestinians have been deeply impacted by, including in their academic work since they cannot travel to all Arab countries or any countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, for study, scholarships and conferences.
As the conversation unfolded, one Mada scholar brought to the surface a radical critique that I did not see coming given what had been previously discussed, but immediately identified with. The scholar explained that although he fully supports the boycott, he felt that what was missing was the understanding of Israel as a colonial project and the recognition of needing to deal with it as such. He argued that the campaign frames the terms of the struggle in a way that risks normalizing the construction and existence of Israel. Although, he said, it might be easier to challenge the ’67 borders (and focus on statehood, the West Bank, and Gaza), the boycott needs to tend more to the colonial roots of the problem beyond the language found in the three precepts that demand Israel comply with under international law. These are for Israel to 1) End its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2) Recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) Respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. He pointed out that the campaign’s insistence that Israel comply with international law has the unfortunate side-effect of normalizing its existence as an independent State. Up until that point, I had been used to encountering Zionists’ claims that the boycott is designed to delegitimate the state of Israel, whereas this scholar was suggesting that the approach based on international law actually runs the opposite risk. The charge of “not recognizing Israel” is all too often hurled at anti-Zionists in the United States, but his argument is a more profound one that goes beyond this refrain since he was calling the entire project into question, weighing in on what Edward Said referred to as “Zionism from the standpoint of its victims.” He then stressed the importance of “taking colonialism seriously in all its forms”; saying, in essence, that it is one occupation.
The points he raised suggest deeper concern for the reality of the deliberate partitioning of Palestine – especially for those within ’48 who are cut off from other Palestinians and caught in a paradoxical position. Still, although the campaign rests on a rights-based approach that does not posit a particular state-based solution, several at the table suggested that if Israel complied with all three tenets, the state of Israel — a Jewish state built on colonialism, occupation, and racist apartheid — would necessarily be a different state. International law, if it were successfully enforced, would delegitimate the Zionist project and thereby pose challenging questions about how to think about an adjudication of claims, of refugees, of those under occupation, of those suffering discrimination, as well as those of the settlers themselves, many of whom have been in Israel for generations. In other words, it would necessarily transform an exclusive ethnocracy to an inclusive democracy.
What emerged from the conversation was that ’48 Palestinians are attempting to shift the discourse to the paradigm of settler colonialism emerging from their concern with the general framework of discourse around the Palestinian question. This approach to boycott insists on a reframing to open up connections with all Palestinians. I could relate to this. In my work fighting the US occupation of Hawaiʻi, I routinely challenge the US government’s legal claim to Hawaiʻi, expose the roots of the US as a settler colonial state, and critically engage the history of US imperialism in Native America and the Pacific Islands, insisting on the recognition of US empire as a form of violent, global domination.
I reflected on this exchange for the rest of the delegation’s trip, and continue to do so. The bottom line was the Palestinian people’s refusal to normalize Israel’s colonial violence — something that was repeatedly expressed to us during our entire trip. We heard it from faculty, including those who founded PACBI, and the president of Birzeit University. We heard it from elders in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem who are embroiled in a 36-year old court case to try and defend their property on land where they were settled by the Jordanian government in 1948. We heard it from members of a civic coalition for Palestinian rights, including representatives from Stop the Wall, Al-Haq (the right), Right to Enter, Right to Education, and Freedom Rides. We heard it from members of Hamas who were elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and who were holding a sit-in at the International Committee of the Red Cross for their own protection while the Israeli government tried to force them to resign and deport them. We heard it from a married couple with two children in Jerusalem who were effectively forced to demolish most of their own home — a penalty for building an extra room on their roof without a ‘permit’ that doesn’t exist, or else face demolition at the hands of Israeli officials and be charged the cost. We heard it from merchants in al-Khalil (also known as Hebron) who dodge bottles, rocks, urine, feces, and acid thrown down to their stalls by settlers who have taken over the apartments above them. And we heard it from attendees at a public event in Ramallah we participated in, hosted by Muwatin, The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.
The Palestinian experience of settler colonialism and apartheid is uneven given the distinctions between the Occupied Territories and ’48, which is a challenge that the academic and cultural boycott needs to — and indeed seeks to — overcome. What I learned on the delegation bolstered my commitment to the boycott as our meeting with the Mada scholars brought home to me the need to attend to this work by being mindful of the differences and the continuities among the various forms that occupation takes, and that bold resistance to it requires.
Mahalo — gratitude — goes to Circe Sturm, Cynthia Franklin, Sunaina Maira, Magid Shihade, Neferti Tadiar, and Nikhil Pal Singh for their critical feedback and political input on multiple drafts of this essay. Any errors and misinterpretations are my own. The author would also like to thank: the scholars at Mada al-Carmel for hosting the delegation; delegation participants, Neferti Tadiar, Nikhil Pal Singh, Bill Mullen, and Robin D G Kelley, for their important insights along the way and ongoing comradeship; the generous and inspiring coordinators of the delegation, Sunaina Maira, Magid Shihade, Rana Barakat, and Lisa Taraki; all of the educators, administrators, activists who met with us, along with the individuals and organizations who supported the delegation in various ways and made the trip possible – especially Muwatin: The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.