The US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel: Unsettling Exceptionalisms

On July 1, 2011, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), sent a letter to several scholars at US universities, inviting them to join a historic delegation to Palestine. The letter began:
We invite you to join a delegation that the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) is planning for a trip to Palestine in winter 2012. As you know, solidarity work on the question of Palestine has a long and rich history among academics and cultural workers in the U.S. Our campaign responded to the Palestinian call for academic and cultural boycott during the brutal assaults on Gaza in 2009 and has been trying to garner support from scholars and cultural workers in the U.S.. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement has been growing rapidly, as the discourse on Palestine shifts in the mainstream public sphere and colleges begin to call for divestment for Israel.
We believe the call to stand on the boycott picket line with Palestinians is a crucial part of our work as academics and activists working for social justice, and against occupation, apartheid, incarceration, warfare, and colonization. As the brutality against the indigenous population of occupied Palestine continues unabated, our mobilization around the boycott becomes even more urgent. In addition to the list of endorsers we have been able to gather (now exceeding 500), we have been a part of several campaigns in the U.S., both related to the academic and cultural boycott, BDS in general, and solidarity campaigns with other communities and movements (see our website for reports and newsletter).
The delegation was one of the most visible campaigns organized by USACBI, which was launched in response to the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars, intellectuals, and activists. The Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was established in 2004, but it took five years and the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, including the destruction of Palestinian schools and universities, for US scholars to officially call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. There had been several attempts to mobilize around academic boycott during the preceding years, but the massive and well-orchestrated campaigns of censorship and intimidation of those who dared to criticize the Israeli state made the heavy silence around the Palestine question a difficult one to rupture, including for academics. Scholars who challenged Israeli policies and propaganda lost tenure, in some cases, or had to fight to defend themselves against attacks and defamation, often by off-campus groups. The red herring of allegations of anti-Semitism was unleashed indiscriminately so that many scholars, and also artists, simply censored themselves.
This climate began to shift slowly after the horrific violence — including chemical weapons such as white phosphorus–that rained down on hundreds of thousands Palestinians trapped in the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip in winter 2008-09. Operation Cast Lead was one of many wars, and many massacres, that the Israeli settler colonial regime had inflicted in plain sight on its Palestinian subjects, but this 21st century settler colonialism and apartheid was finally becoming more difficult to evade in the U.S., even within the academic portals of the state that funded and legitimized Israel’s military occupation, wars, and racist policies. The Freedom Flotilla that attempted to break the siege of Gaza and Israel’s murder of international aid activists on board the Mavi Marmara in 2009 further fueled global outrage, including among U.S. scholars, about Israel’s exceptional impunity. A small group of scholars who belonged to a network called California Scholars for Academic Freedom began a conversation about organizing an academic and cultural boycott campaign in early 2009, which expanded to include other academics across the nation. The campaign began with a call to academics and cultural workers to endorse the principles of PACBI and to implement an academic and cultural boycott until Israel complied with:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
Yet, despite Israel’s brutal assaults and violations of international human rights law, launching USACBI was not an easy task. In addition to the usual trump card of anti-Semitism that was hurled at the boycott movement, organizers were met with resistance from scholars who thought that it was not the “right moment” to talk about boycott (when is the right time to challenge apartheid and settler colonialism? how many people must be slaughtered or subjected to living death? Among other questions one could ask). Some detractors acknowledged, implicitly, the difficulty of challenging the dominant consensus in the U.S. academy, even as it was slowly crumbling, and it is very likely many were afraid to publicly support the boycott for fear of reprisals and backlash. Other academics argued that it was more “strategic” to focus on divestment, given that such campaigns had already emerged on U.S. campuses, and had been successful at colleges such as Hampshire.
Academic and cultural boycott is one prong of the larger BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, so clearly all tactics and methods can be used simultaneously. Boycott is a tactic that, in essence, acknowledges that all else has failed to stop the targeted state’s violence and violations of human rights and international law, and that international pressure and withdrawal of support from an oppressive regime is the only tool left. Other critics of the boycott asked: why not China [or X repressive regime]? Apart from the fact that there is regular criticism of China’s human rights violations in the US academy and media, and no US scholar has been attacked for criticizing China, let alone denied tenure, the answer is simple: the US does not send billions of dollars of aid and technologies of death to China to aid in colonial and racist policies–nor does it lends its complete diplomatic, economic, and military support to any state other than Israel.
Then, of course, there was the argument about academic boycott as somehow curtailing academic freedom (an argument also used by the AAUP in officially opposing the academic boycott, in the case of Israel). The question USACBI asked in response was: Whose academic freedom? When Palestinian scholars and students face restrictions on movement that block their access to higher education; racial segregation that curtails their mobility and travel for research, conferences, and education abroad; and military violence, illegal detention, and torture, as do all other Palestinians, can there then be “academic freedom” in Palestine-Israel? USACBI insists that it is the academic freedom and the right to education of Palestinian subjects that needs to be foregrounded, but also their right to live a livable life, their right to freedom and the inalienable rights accorded to all humanity. It must be noted here, too, that USACBI, like PACBI, is an institutional boycott and not boycott of individuals, so it does not oppose the freedom of individual scholars to travel to Israel, do research, or engage in conversation or collaboration with Israeli scholars. But the rationale for a boycott of collaboration with and sponsorship from Israeli academic institutions is that these institutions have consistently supported the Israeli state through providing research for its occupation and military apparatus and through general agreement with its policies of displacement and annihilation of Palestinians. Those (few) Israeli scholars who oppose this collusion and these policies, in fact, support the boycott and some have even left Israel. Of course, no such counter-arguments are made when discussing the boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Thus, it is Israel that continues to be treated as an exceptional case — boycotting Israel is taking a stand against the exceptionalism of Israel in the U.S. academy and public sphere.
In this context, many U.S. (and Israeli) scholars have understood that the academy is a key site of contestation over the legitimacy of the Israeli state as a presumably democratic member of the Western family of nations. In fact, as the BDS movement expanded, Zionist think tanks described the boycott as a “strategic threat” to Israel, while others claimed that the academic boycott would only be an “existential” threat if it was endorsed by 500 endorsers. Well, 500 academics eventually signed on in support of USACBI by the spring of 2011, and as the tide of public opinion about Israel-Palestine has begun to shift in the US, so has it slowly shifted in the academy–though not without vicious reprisals by pro-Israel scholars and groups.
Yet, beyond the issue of numbers of signatories to USACBI, it was apparent that there needed to be a shift in the politics of solidarity within the US academy. USACBI had been founded against the grain of censorship and silencing, but many of its endorsers and supporters still struggled with campaigns of defamation and harassment that were relentless, tiring, and diversionary — all intended effects. In 2011, Kēhaulani Kauanui, an indigenous studies scholar and member of USACBI’s Advisory Board, suggested organizing a delegation of scholars to Palestine to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinian scholars and cultural workers, and to bring back a greater knowledge of the struggles in Palestine still missing within the U.S. academy and in the cultural arena. USACBI decided that this would be an important project, politically and also intellectually, that would hopefully help to push further the shift in conversation about Palestine-Israel that was unfolding in U.S. universities, and in particular, to highlight the role of scholars working on issues of colonialism, imperialism, racial statecraft, labor, and feminism.
We were particularly interested in bringing scholars of color and indigenous academics to Palestine, and in fostering a circuit of conversation and collaboration linking these academics and fields to scholars and universities in Palestine. In fact, the USACBI delegation was preceded and followed by a delegation of feminist and indigenous scholars and one comprised of queer scholars, respectively; there is a new paradigm that has emerged that focuses on the colonial and racist nature of the Israeli regime and the need for anticolonial, antiracist, and queer solidarity, specifically. The delegation was thus designed to contribute to a paradigmatic shift that has been taking place in approaches to Israel-Palestine (euphemistically described as a “conflict”), framing it as a problem of settler colonialism and Western, racist modernity.
In response to our invitation to visit Palestine in January 2012, nearly all of the scholars we contacted immediately agreed. A few had to cancel later due to personal reasons, but we were quite stunned by the unwavering commitment of these scholars to the project and the willingness to invest time, energy, and resources to take this trip to Palestine, all for the first time. The delegation was primarily coordinated by Sunaina Maira of USACBI, Rana Barakat and Lisa Taraki of PACBI, and Magid Shihade at Birzeit University in Palestine. The goal of the delegation was not to engage in political tourism to observe the occupation, or “occu-tourism” as it is derisively described, but to meet as many Palestinians as possible engaged in various forms of political and intellectual work and to see different sites of the settler colonial regime and the mechanism of control it inflicts on the native population.
During the six days the delegation spent in Palestine, they met with activists working on the ground such as Jamal Jum’a from Stop the Wall, Sam Bahour from The Right to Entry, Zacharia Odeh from the Jerusalem Civic Coalition, Anan Quzmar from The Right to Education campaign at Birzeit, and Fajr Harb and other young activists working to challenge Israeli limitations on Palestinians’ lives through direct action, such as the Freedom Riders’ campaign. This was a short trip but the scholars were able to travel to Ramallah, Birzeit, East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, al-Khalil (Hebron), and Haifa, as well as refugee camps such as A’ida in Bethlehem. They participated in two seminars with Palestinian scholars, one a public event in Ramallah organized by Muwatin (The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy) and the other in Haifa by Mada Al-Carmel, both research institutions run by Palestinian academics. The delegation also met scholars and administrators at Birzeit University, including the president of Birzeit University, Khalil Hindi; these proved to be important conversations where the participants learned about one another’s research and political work and discussed their experiences as academics working under different conditions.
For example, the meeting at Mada al-Carmel with Palestinian academics, who are citizens of the state of Israel, raised several crucial issues about the academic boycott, some of which also reflect the mood among Palestinians in the West Bank about the utility of this tactic. Some scholars in Haifa suggested a more radical (we would say more accurate) framework for the boycott, emphasizing the need to use the paradigm of settler colonialism and to frame all resistance in relation to the origins of the Israeli settler colonial state in 1948, not just the occupation beginning in 1967. This framework is implicit in the three principles of PACBI and the BDS movement, mentioned above, but scholars in “1948 Palestine” have insisted on the need to foreground settler colonialism and the apartheid nature of the state in discussions of the Palestine question, while the boycott has been framed around rights enshrined in international law. It is not widely known that Palestinians in Israel have suffered a long history of “invisible” occupation, walls, and checkpoints, and also of exclusion from fellow Palestinians as well as from Arab societies given the restrictions on travel posed by their Israeli citizenship. This liminal position, deliberately created by the Israeli settler colonial regime, has meant that they no longer have the economic, academic, cultural, and political ties with Arab societies, for example, with Lebanon and Syria, that they enjoyed prior to 1948. Since the creation of the state that was built on the destruction of their own society, they have lived with the paradox of being “present absentees” in the eyes (and according to the policies) of the state as well as the larger Palestinian and Arab national movement. The meeting in Haifa ended with the hope that the boycott movement would move toward a framework that takes into account the historical structure of the Israeli settler colonial state as embedded in Zionist ideology and practices in Palestine since the early years of the 20th century, and contribute to the growing conversation between Palestinian scholars and academics elsewhere working on settler colonialisms.
The delegation had a glimpse into the everyday difficulties that Palestinians confront, such as restrictions on freedom of movement, enclosure, and interrogation as they traveled through Israeli checkpoints at Qalandia and Bethlehem and saw what it means to live encaged by the Wall. They also met with Palestinians who have suffered from Israeli house demolitions and settler violence and aggression in neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in Jerusalem. In Haifa, they talked to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens but do not have full citizenship, and live with the daily paradox of being citizens of a state that was built on the destruction of their own society, and continue to be treated with contempt and racism by the Israeli establishment, facing multiple forms of discrimination, repression, and exclusion.
The reflections of individual delegation members in their own essays in this volume will shed much more light on their encounters with Palestine and Palestinians, but there are two points we would like to highlight here. One of the themes that emerged from conversations with scholars and local Palestinians was the common experiences of colonialism, imperialism, and racism linking lives and struggles in the U.S. and Israeli regimes. Another was that for some members of the delegation, conditions in Palestine seemed much worse than what they had imagined, and worse than what had occurred under South Africa’s apartheid regime. It is important not to dwell on comparing suffering and parsing its classification, but the delegation was able to see that the Palestine issue is not about deprivation or even poverty as such, but about a modern, racist system of control that is bent on choking the lives of people simply because they are Palestinian — and non-Jews. The presence of Palestinians and natives disturbs the settler colonial structure within the territories colonized in 1948 as well as in 1967. In brief, Palestinian life unsettles the settlers.
Our hope is that scholars from the U.S., and elsewhere, who work in different fields and are engaged in various progressive political movements will continue to travel to Palestine. The issue is not just of witnessing and travel per se but of generating and expanding a political and intellectual space in the U.S. academy and highlighting the racist and dangerous realities of the latest settler colonial technologies in Palestine as implemented by Zionists and Jewish Israelis. These racial and colonial technologies continue to be supported by states in different parts of the West, as well as in the global South, and at this moment they receive  greatest support and legitimation by an older, Western settler colony and empire — the United States. Like many states in the West, the U.S. sees Israel, as does the Israeli establishment, as a Western front in the “non-modern East.” Regimes of racial supremacy have had many victims since the rise of Western colonial modernity, of whom Palestinian natives are just some of the most recent. It is in Palestine that this convergence and collusion of colonial and imperial forces is currently situated. And so it is in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle that one can hope for a growing coalition of resistance so that a different future is possible, not only for Palestinians but for every victim of Western racist modernity, and for those who pay its price even at the center of the declining western Empire — the United States.
USACBI wishes to thank the many individuals and organizations who supported the delegation in various ways and made this trip possible, especially Muwatin (The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy), for their generous financial support; Zacharia Odeh of the Jerusalem Civic Coalition for arranging travel to Jerusalem and around the West Bank; Morgan Cooper of The Palestinian Writing Workshop for her generous support and able assistance; Dany at the Royal Court Suites Hotel; and the restaurants (La Vie, Sangria, and Azure) in Ramallah who provided delectable meals.
Top image: Courtesy of the Palestine Poster Project. Artist: Yousef Katalo (2009).

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.