Palestine and Our University

On Friday, November 17, 2023, a group of PhD students in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto organized a teach-in entitled “Decolonization and the War on Gaza,” held during the annual AAA/CASCA meeting that was taking place in Toronto (Tkaronto), Canada. Disappointed by the lackluster response of the department to the ongoing genocide and attendant attacks on pro-Palestine students and faculty—while national Canadian media outlets designated our campuses centers of “pro-terror rot”—and in conversation with faculty members who had prepared an independent statement of support for faculty speaking out about Palestine, the students pointed in contrast to the department’s own stated commitments to decolonization and anti-racism. Fortunate to have several amazing scholars in town for the anthropology conference, the teach-in invited speakers Rana Baker, Amahl Bishara, Munira Khayyat, Sarah Ihmoud, and Muhannad Ayyash to connect their own research on Palestine and Lebanon to the broader question of decolonization, particularly in light of how this ongoing moment has revealed the extent to which decolonization remains a metaphor within the academy. In turn, the teach-in emerged not only from a desire to learn from our amazing panel of scholars, but also to take seriously our responsibility to insist on the kind of university we want. The following comments are taken from my opening remarks.  

It is difficult for me to find the words for what this moment feels like for so many of us. This us is not a collective that has ever run the university, but it is one that has carved out space for ourselves inside the institution. Some of us arrived here intentionally, having always been drawn to academic life, but many of us ended up here largely by accident. Horrified by the violence we saw around us in the world, compelled by the histories that had turned our lives into complex sites of internal displacement, international migration, and intergenerational trauma, we came to the university seeking first to understand, and then to create something in the world that did not depend on the annihilation of others. We found each other here, recognized that fire, felt that we would sustain each other even as the texts were disappointing and the people in charge didn’t represent us and the university itself often seemed like just another profit-seeking structure complicit in the ugly networks of global capitalism. Despite this, we built something, some collectivity to which we gave the name friend and comrade and ally and community, such that we could exceed the alienation of the first person pronoun and acknowledge the ways in which everything we think and write and feel in the midst of unbearable violence is made possible because we have surrounded ourselves by those who also believe that somewhere, somehow, the arc of the universe does indeed bend towards justice. And so we are the ones who have always known about Palestine.

The panel today is about the war on Gaza, the genocidal campaign that has brought that particular heritage of human development that has produced the technologies of aerial bombardment and siege warfare to bear upon, and let us pause here to really think about this for a second, that much discussed military target of a hospital. The cowardice and depravity of this Israeli-American campaign makes it difficult to find words, and I am grateful to our panelists who will help us think more closely about what is happening, and to put it in context of the war that has long been waged in Gaza and Palestine and Lebanon and across a global arena, what Rashid Khalidi reminds us is the Hundred Years War on Palestine. I want to open simply by situating this conversation in relation to the climate on Canadian schools and campuses where, at a time when we are beside ourselves in grief and rage, we are systematically being harassed and gaslit and silenced in the name of what is being called diversity. As Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities reads out the names of our students and colleagues in the provincial legislature in order to label them terrorists, it is unsurprising and uncoincidental that this moment reminds so many of us of 9/11, and what it felt like in our bodies to suddenly be the object of a global war on an abstract noun that looked like our uncles. Allow me to share with you a brief story.

On 9/11 I was in Grade 9 at Richmond High School in British Columbia where I grew up, and by the time I woke up on the west coast the footage was on TV and I understood that something major had happened. My first class was Spanish taught by Ms. Jimenez and the first thing she did was draw a map of what she called Israel on the chalkboard and then tell us about a man named Yasser Arafat who was a terrorist and was, without a doubt, responsible. For the rest of the day people in the hallways were crying and they were announcing counselors and grief support and it all felt quite strange but Spanish class was the lesson I never forgot, my young teacher’s hatred of Palestine. Over the years I have seen it constantly and without exception, that hard limit to feigned progressivism that arises around Palestine and Palestinian life. Even as I have transitioned from student to faculty, I have seen only continuity around this limit, the structured conditions of impossibility for speech about Palestine in places dripping with the hypocrisy of words like decolonization.

So let me be clear: Canadian educational institutions have never been places where we felt safe. And if the language of safety and equity and inclusion is now the language by which these institutions claim the grounds of their morality, and if diversity is the basis on which university administrators insist that this is a war with two sides and many very complicated opinions, then let it be known that ours is not a vocabulary that understands diversity as a grounds of silence. We have other definitions. And that is because our place in the university has always been embedded in our orientation towards the world, and if today we use the language of settler colonialism and land theft and apartheid and Indigeneity and BDS and resistance, then these are words we came to understand because first, before cultivating a precise historic and analytic discourse, we saw Palestine.

The university, we are told, is that which allows us to come together in understanding. Today, we have sought to create a space for those of us who know that Palestine is a name for being on the right side of history, for those of us who did not need videos of men and women singing to patients covered in wounds and under the rubble of their own homes but who nonetheless could not hold back our tears as they cover our screens, because once again and seemingly each time even more than the last, every single split-second frame of videos coming from Palestine shows more humanity than decades of Western so-called freedoms. Our intergenerational debt to Palestine and its people is so enormous that here, all the way at the University of Toronto, Palestine is once again allowing us to recognize each other, to teach us lessons about the gap between metaphor and politics, and to insist that history matters, that institutions must be accountable to the words they use, and that the ongoing project of anti-colonialism is a project that needs public education, and it is for this reason that we find ourselves together inside this university.

Cover image: Ghassan Kanafani, teaching Palestinian children of exile in the hills of Lebanon, early 1970s.

Sumayya Kassamali

Sumayya Kassamali is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. Her current research examines the urban afterlife of decades of dependence on African and Asian migrant domestic labor in Lebanon, tracing the emergence of new forms of intimacy and belonging among migrants, citizens, and refugees in what she calls "Black Beirut." Part of the South Asian-East African diaspora, Palestine was what brought her to the Middle East, and every one of her political and intellectual commitments remains indebted to Palestine.