The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie says,
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.””
I am aware of the resolution passed by the Association of Asian American Studies to support Palestinian civil societies call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. On the one hand, my heart is filled with warmth by the displays of solidarity. The backlash that has surely been experienced is of no surprise and the attacks on academics who have taken up Palestine must be situated as part of broader right wing culture wars on University campuses across the country that has been occurring for decades. Here, we can see Palestine work as a symbiotic reflection of, as Christopher Newfield argues, the decades long process to privatize our Universities, pursue neo-liberal economic and state power agendas, push people of color and working class families outside of the University space, stifle student movements, and limit the intellectual rigor and breadth of the Humanities.
On the other hand, as a Palestinian organizer living in the US, I find that the recent wind of support for the boycott is not only long over-due, but that it highlights a single story: the story of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), as definitive of the Palestinian struggle, or at least how one can and should be in solidarity with Palestinians.
As scholar-activists we must remain mindful that our work is only made possible by the continued oppression of our communities here and transnationally, their constant struggle for survival and freedom, and their heroic displays of resilience and steadfastness. However, there is so much that the BDS story cannot possibly detail for the struggle of the Palestinian people.
The single story does not recognize the proliferation of the BDS campaign and most recent forms of international solidarity being directly entangled with the vacuum of power among Palestinians themselves, both those of us in our homeland and in exile. It does not recognize that the widespread attention paid to Palestine today is also tied to the fact that conditions on the ground are rapidly deteriorating coupled with the obliteration of our national movement, fragmentation of our lands and people, and the proliferation of a petit bourgeoisie Palestinian leadership to act as the gatekeepers to occupation. It does not undertake the return of the refugees to their historic lands in 1948 Palestine. It cannot detail how the massacres of refugees in the camps, such as in the case of Yarmouk camp in Syria, is intrinsically linked to Zionist settler colonialism of Palestine.
The story of BDS cannot entirely account for our settler-colonial context, the destabilization of the region and the implementation of racial caste and segregation systems as a part of an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing. Without acknowledging this, how can the BDS story truly highlight the importance that the Palestine dimension, or what I would call, the Palestine analytic,* can bring to struggles across movements and places? The story of BDS does not explain how and why Palestinian and Arab people have continued to resist despite these deteriorating conditions. The BDS story cannot texture the experiences, aspirations, desires, voices and needs of Palestinian youth of my generation who are seeking a political framework outside of the exhausted political paradigm and vocabulary of Oslo. It does not give power back to them to be the protagonists of their own stories. It creates a single story, one largely shaped outside of us. Though it is a positive and an inspirational one, in the absence of space to explore the many stories, the complexity of collective consciousness and of transnational organizing, BDS alone becomes a place holding story. It has the power to flatten both those stories that constitute it and exist in its periphery.
For many the boycott is a streamlined, pragmatic, and relevant strategy through which allies can support Palestinians. For many of us Palestinians, it is a means through which we can locate power somewhere, and more specifically to locate it outside of the messiness of our own complicated colonial condition.
So, we chopped up our national liberation struggle, we made it simple, we made it easy, palatable, accommodating to Western liberal values and legal standards of humanism. But if we are to listen a bit more carefully, provide some attentiveness to those most vulnerable to Zionism, the notion of the single story collapses.
If you ask a five year old Palestinian child in any city in Palestine why they love the homeland, they won’t tell you that it is because international civil society said that it was more noteworthy than any other place or struggle in the world. If you ask an elder in the camps of Yarmouk, Dheisha, Shatila, or Wahdat, or exiled in any place in the world why they remember and want to return to Palestine, they will not say because UN resolution 194 said we had the right to. So why then, do we invoke exceptionalism, law, and rights, as the primary analytics through which we talk about Palestinians if this is not quite how Palestinians talk about themselves? What does it do, to make one story the universal solidarity story? How do the politics of pity and empathy reproduce the structures of colonial violence Palestinians continue to resist?
I believe there is a different way to do solidarity—not a new way and also not some creative campaign that got wind with the rise of social media, but the way it has always been done before Palestine became as chic as it has. Let me, as a Palestinian, one of millions of voices, one of the multiplicity of stories, tell you that I do not want solidarity from any one person or institution who cannot and does not see Palestinian liberation as central to their own. I do not want solidarity from anyone who cannot see how examining a Palestine analytic in their struggle and in their space, can create opportunities for more nuanced, effective and justice-centered intellectualism and movement work. Many of us Palestinians see our liberation as central to the liberation of other peoples and this is why we do not want to be made an exception.
It is those acts of solidarity that are not legible as solidarity these days that I value most. Engagement, process, and relationships are among the most important methods of building solidarity praxis. The relationship between Palestinian and Filipino/a students and youth are important sites to examine a true understanding of solidarity; one of shared movements and joint-struggle. This was the case for the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and the League of Filipino Students (LFS) at San Francisco State University during the years of 2003-2011. SFSU was our stomping ground. We joined each other in fights against U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, against fee hikes and budget cuts, against racism, sexism and Islamofascism on our very own campus and against attacks on Ethnic Studies programs and professors. Between 2004 and 2007, The League of Filipino Students (LFS) was among the first student organizations who supported the GUPS initiative to inaugurate the Palestinian Cultural Mural honoring Edward Said despite the severe forms of Zionist backlash and the three-year battle. The relationship that had been built through the University and extended then through broader community alliances became a lynchpin in providing the grounds for many of us Palestinian youth to re-envision social movements, justice, anti-imperialism, and youth and student mobilization entirely.
This became no more known than when Anak Bayan, Bayan, and Gabriella-USA invited Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) to attend their general assemblies as member observers in 2012 while also joining as founding members of the International League of People’s Struggles (ILPS) US chapter. They asked the PYM to deliver a solidarity statement for the struggle against imperialism in the Philippines.
For us, this was a moment in which we realized we had allies who saw us and the broader Palestinian struggle as integral to their own political project. They did not spend time developing a relationship with us because they pitied us. No. They cared what we had to say, and they felt like they had a lot to learn from us as well. That act of calling for solidarity was perhaps more of a gesture of solidarity toward us Palestinians; it was a gesture that raised our expectations of our own selves as social justice organizers. We now knew that movements relied on us, on Palestine’s liberation as central to their own. A feeling that we often felt toward other struggles but rarely felt ourselves.
Without dragging us through muddled debates regarding technicalities of language, they accepted an anti-Zionist position indefinitely. They did not request that we package or articulate our struggle in a more accommodating tone and language, an experience we Palestinians of the Diaspora have regularly in other solidarity circuits. Their allowing us to watch them through their general assemblies—to take avid notes on the importance of structure, building movement culture, and accountability—were among the great lessons as well. We envied them for their ability to mass mobilize, and yet we were inspired to believe that if we mobilize as long and hard that we too can change the tides of our struggling movement. They provided us an opportunity to re-configure what solidarity means, and to expand our commitment to justice, liberation, and peoples movements beyond the confines of powerlessness, ethno-centrism, ultra-dogmatic-nationalism, and liberal conceptions of nation-state sovereignty. More importantly, they allowed us to join them, and many of our other partners such as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, in struggles for dignity, justice, and liberation on local, national and transnational levels. Through all this, they have never blamed us for not having the material resources, capacity, time, and capital to organize at the level they could. Rather, they extended hands of support and recognized our condition without reducing us to an essentialzed victim status.
We can see here how the single BDS success story does not recognize different forms, histories, and stories of solidarity that are in fact less about “final solutions” and symbolic displays of partnership but rather about collective processes. If we are to consider a passing of a resolution to be the measure of success, the measure of the tide changing, or a measure of how much better things can get for Palestinians, then we have missed the point. This then becomes the single story that defines the Arab relationship with API communities and the Palestine analytic of Asian American Studies, American Studies and other fields, communities and movements.
It is only in thinking about processes that we can expand limitations of our academic disciplines and of our political loyalties. We can see our stories as multi-dimensional, as embedded in one another and learn from the process of creating stories.
So I ask all of us, can we think beyond BDS as the single story of the Palestinians? Can we understand it as embedded in a long history of (settler) colonialism, dispossession, and occupation that has taken various forms in the transnational context? More importantly, can we see embedded in each other, the stories of peoples’ movements? Can we recognize that the victories accomplished through BDS are not in fact the passing of the resolutions themselves, but the process through which we forge cross-movement work, share stories, and contextualize the importance of Palestine as a dimension and analytic in our fields of study and movements?
Only by asking ourselves these questions can we be able to recognize new opportunities made possible by the call for academic boycott. We will be able to see how, as Fred Moten says, “The call for solidarity is an act of solidarity itself” which can help us strengthen justice-centered approaches to our own critical discourse, movements and fields. In doing so, the greatest gesture of solidarity would be afforded to the Palestinians as well.
Loubna Qutami is a Ph.D. student in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is also General Coordinator of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), and former Executive Director of the Arab Cultural and Community Center of San Francisco (ACCC).
**Author’s note on a Palestinian analytic:
A move beyond thinking of Palestine as an isolated issue, ethnic or geographic based cause. Rather, the Palestine analytic works through the process of considering the particularities of Zionism as part of the genealogy of settler-colonialism and injustice transnationally. It looks at Palestine as paradigmatic of broader structures of (settler) colonialism, apartheid, racism, White-supremacism, hetero-patriarchy, dispossession, surveillance, bio-politics, necro-politics, repression, policing, arms trade and other forms of power and violence that socialize all people transnationally in a divided world of human and non-human, conqueror and conquered, enlightened and un-enlightened and other dichotomies of power and powerlessness in the twenty first century. However the Palestine analytic also highlights the contradictions of the neo-liberal, and humanist structures of neo-colonialism by considering the de-colonial methods of survival, resilience, resistance, and steadfastness displayed by multiple generations of Palestinians (both inside and outside of Palestine) in the face of sixty-six years of displacement and occupation. The analytic unearths current world structures of hegemony and colonialism that aim to mask colonial conditions as inherent and natural conflicts, human rights and or humanitarian crisis, civil wars and geographic aberrations. In highlighting a traditional (settler) colonial and apartheid model contested by its liberation and de-colonial based resistance, the Palestine analytic can inspire all indigenous and social movement workers of the world to consider that the mandates and opportunities that the moment of decolonization offers has not quite passed us. To an extent, the Palestine analytic can be understood as one lens in informing new ways of (re)building a transnational, trans-indigenous, third wordlist and or internationalist de-colonial process and project among peoples and movements across the world by situating the current moment as still fully capable and destined to be a broader transnational de-colonial moment. In this respect, the Palestine analytic offers an opening for engagement, point of departure and opportunity to revitalize justice-centered and de-colonial approaches in the age of “post-racial, and post-colonial politics,” multi-culturalism, human rights, neo-liberalism and developmentalism. The Palestine analytic returns us to the core of de-colonial resistance by engendering the pitfalls of previous frameworks, logics and movements that have brought about faulty “solutions” to other struggles of the world. It provides an opportunity to re-situate all struggles, despite their immense challenges in the age of rampant globalized capitalism, as part of the transnational context for de-colonial opportunity.