Robin D. G. Kelley
If there’s one thing the Palestine solidarity movement and Israel lobbyists can agree on, it’s this: American college campuses remain a potent battleground when it comes to the politics of Israel/Palestine.
One group, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), certainly recognizes this. And one way to advocate for Palestine on campus is to get professors on board the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Five professors recently back in the U.S. after a USACBI delegation to Palestine have taken that leap, releasing a statement (published on the Electronic Intifada in full) that describes what they saw in Palestine and that calls on their academic colleagues to join the BDS movement. Mondoweiss caught up with one of the professors on the delegation, UCLA’s Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, and discussed BDS, the delegation, Kelley’s new project, black Zionism and much more. Kelley is the author of eight books including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination and 2009’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.
Alex Kane: To begin with, talk about yourself, what you do and what your research focuses on.
Robin Kelley: I am a professor of American history at UCLA, and for the last 25 years really, my work has focused on social movements, the African diaspora, radical change, and–it’s sort of a side issue–but I’ve also written about music. My last book was about [the jazz musician] Thelonious Monk. But my academic work, you know, links up to the political work largely because I got into this business as a historian/scholar, through activism and through recognizing, or experiencing or watching social injustice both locally and globally. I’m a product of the 1980s, and the main critical issues were both domestic, in terms of police brutality, Reagan policies on poverty, rising racism in the United States and global issues–the anti-apartheid movement was formative in my own political awakening, the struggles in Central America, the struggles in post-colonial Africa and the Congo, and Palestine, which brings us full circle. The point I’m trying to make is, the issue of Palestinian self-determination is not a new one. It always sort of rebirths (laughs), but it’s not a new one. And so for people of my generation, the Israel-South Africa nexus, dispossession of Palestinians–even back in the days when people talked seriously about the two-state solution, whatever that is–these were the key questions for anyone politically active in the 1980s.
It’s not an accident that Jesse Jackson, for example, whose presidential campaign in the 80s was really formative as well, that his right-hand man, Jack O’Dell, had led a delegation in the 1970s to meet with PLO members and to go to the West Bank and to meet with Palestinians there when the PLO was in exile. And so, there’s been a long tradition after 1967 of various black liberation movements trying to build a connection to Palestine.
AK: And so that brings us to the second question: talk about the trip you recently took to Palestine, why you went and what you saw.
RK: In 2009, I was invited to join the board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. And as a board member in USACBI, I did my part in terms of trying to get the word out about supporting and enacting the cultural boycott. The opportunity to travel to the occupied territories came up over the summer through USACBI and through scholars at various universities and Muwatin, which is an independent think tank that focuses on the study and implementation of democracy in Palestine. And so they invited a number of scholars to come, and I jumped at the chance because I always wanted to go and missed other opportunities. So five of us agreed to go in January, and I stayed longer than the rest of the group because I’m actually doing research for another project.
So we go there hosted by Muwatin, and they arranged an incredible visit. I won’t tell you everything we did, because it would take too long. We went to Ramallah, met the president of Birzeit University, we met with other faculty, the founders of PACBI. We went to East Jerusalem to visit Sheikh Jarrah and some of the families that have been dispossessed from their own homes. We went to Hebron, and visited and talked to Palestinian merchants, and witnessed a level of racist violence that I hadn’t even seen growing up as a black person here in the States (laughs), I have to say, and I’ve been beat by the cops. The level of racist violence from the settlers is kind of astounding. We visited Aida refugee camp just north of Bethlehem, and we went to Bethlehem as well. On my own, I went to Nablus and visited the Balata refugee camp. We also went to Haifa, and we met with a group of Palestinian-Israeli scholars and intellectuals to talk about the boycott.
So to me what was important wasn’t just passing through checkpoints, it wasn’t just witnessing the day to day oppression, acts of dispossession, the expansion of these settler communities in the hills overlooking and intimidating Palestinian villages. It wasn’t just that. That was a very, very important part of the trip because what it did in some ways made tangible the kind of oppression, the nature of dispossession, that we read about and knew about. We were prepared. What was important equally was our conversations with active members of Palestinian civil society, our conversations with activists who are organizing against the wall, our conversations with scholars at Haifa, at Birzeit and independent intellectuals. Because what it produced for us wasn’t just a fact-finding mission, you know, as these things often are. It wasn’t just, you know, “occu-tourism,” visiting and seeing for yourself. That wasn’t, to me, the key thing. The key thing was the kind of engagement that helped us better understand why the boycott is central, the complications in pushing for boycott, and how can we sharpen our political critique. Because what we came away with is recognizing that this is a kind of joint, collective venture–that we are not advocating on behalf of Palestinians, but partners with Palestinians for the right to self-determination. And the leadership comes from the Palestinian people. So we’re supporting that movement, and recognizing that what’s happening there is not exceptional, but rather part of a larger global process of late colonialism and neoliberalism, and that what happens in Palestine is going to have an impact on the rest of the world.
Two other things were striking about the trip for me, and I’m only speaking for myself, not for the whole delegation. One is, it’s one thing to see day to day oppression, it’s another to see the efforts Israel puts into and invests in normalizing the situation there. I was in East Jerusalem, after the delegation, on my own, and staying at a Palestinian-owned hotel called the Jerusalem Hotel. And basically, in the Arab quarter near Salah ad-Din street and in this [area with] Palestinian markets. And I took a stroll up the hill, and found Jaffa road, and I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was like I was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or the Grove in L.A. It was just the strangest thing to see the juxtaposition, of the largely Jewish and tourist center of commerce with all the chains here, Coffee Bean, Yogurt Land, jewelery, clothing, ATMs at every little corner, granite paved roads, and then of course running through the middle of Jaffa street is the illegal Jerusalem Light Rail system. So to recognize that this space is normalized, a Western so-called bureaucratic capitalist space, a space of high consumerism is an eight-minute walk from what is essentially a ghetto in an occupied territory. That, that to me is even more shocking then seeing 20-something year-old Israelis looking through people’s passports and IDs and deciding whether or not you’re a threat. To me, that emphasis on normalization is one of the more dangerous things, because if they succeed in convincing the world that this is not a state of war or occupation but rather this is really the heart of the kind of Western democracy that’s like the rest of the world, the Western world at least–then in some ways that’s how they try and win. And part of what the boycott does is it delegitimizes the claim that this is a normal situation. It’s not a normal situation, it’s a settler-colonial situation, a situation of oppression.
The second thing that blew my mind, and I just wrote about this, is going to the refugee camp, particularly Aida, and seeing the cultural and artistic revolution among young people. Occupation is something that is a political act as well as an ideological and psychological imposition. And there are whole generations of young people, and older people, that will not accept the occupation. They will not accept normalization of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or the ethnic cleansing taking place. They’re not only creating and documenting a kind of collective memory of Palestinian history, Palestinian struggle, what the impact of the Nakba was on that community, but also I think prefiguring what could be a new society, what could be a post-Zionist society. And to me that’s probably the most dangerous thing. It’s one thing for Israel to use walls, barbed wire and a blacked-out media to keep, to try to normalize Israel by making invisible the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians. It’s another thing to hide what could be a new vision for a different kind of society, a new generation of people who are not accepting a second-class state or second-class citizenship, [saying] we want the nation, we want our nation back, and if you want to be part of it, well we’re happy with that. To me, that’s what’s so exciting about what I see in the refugee camps, what I see in terms of the cultural work being done. This is the third intifada, right before our eyes.
AK: You mentioned this earlier, but I wanted to draw it out more. What sorts of connections do you see between the sort of work you focus on and the current situation in Palestine?
RK: Well, I’m sort of of two minds. One perspective is that if I did nothing but wrote about, you know, Mozart, my investment in the struggle of Palestinians for the right to return, the right to self-determination, the right to full citizenship–these are things that as a human being, I really have no choice, I can’t look away. I can’t pretend that, you know, I want to live in a just, safe, beautiful world and not be concerned about this issue because to me, what Israel constitutes is the most blatant example of existing settler-colonialism in the world right now. And so even if my work had no connection whatsoever, this is something that I think I, and anyone who supports social justice and self-determination, needs to be aware of and involved in.
So, having said that, my own scholarly work has always been shaped by the political investments and political experiences that I’ve had over the years. I’m actually writing a book about a woman named Grace Halsell, who was a white woman born in Texas. She spent much of her late life as a journalist trying to figure out how white supremacy, racism and other forms of domination actually work; how it feels to actually endure that. So in 1969 she wrote a book called Soul Sister, where she passed as a black woman. She darkened her skin and lived as a black woman for about six months and wrote about it. And it wasn’t so much to claim that “I know what it’s like to be a black person,” but really to try to understand the outward and subtle manifestations of racism and sexism. Then she wrote another book called Bessie Yellowhair where she did something similar, where she became a Navajo woman and worked as a domestic for a white family in L.A. and wrote about it. Then she passed as a Mexican immigrant, and crossed the Rio Grande and interviewed other immigrants in the late 1970s, when anti-immigration sentiment was rising, to sort of understand state power and immigration and how it is experienced by every day people.
So this leads us to one of her great masquerades. She decided to go to Israel/Palestine in 1979, and she basically wrote a book called Journey to Jerusalem, where she tries to understand the lives of essentially four people, four groups of people: Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, Sephardic Jews and the settlers, a settler family. At first she thinks, “this is not political, I’m just trying to tell the story of these three faiths, basically.” And it ends up being a very political book because she’s very critical of Israel. And this was 1980-81, and she was sympathetic to Palestinians. She’s on the Birzeit campus at a time when Israeli forces were shutting down the campus, beating students–she’s witnessing all this. And she is learning Palestinian history, and trying to write a little bit about it before a lot of Israeli historians are kind of discovering al-Nakba. She writes this book, and as a result of that book, her career as a kind of high-level journalist kind-of ends. She’s still liked, but she can’t get contracts the same way.
In the next book, she masquerades as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and travels with Jerry Falwell’s group, and writes a book about Christian Zionism and the nexus between Israeli nuclear policy–and she’s saying that, you know, the Christian Zionists, the right-wing fundamentalists, are pushing Israel to use its bombs because they believe Armageddon is inevitable and eventually Israel will destroy itself and Christians will take over the holy land. So she writes this book in 1986. And so I’m writing a biography of her, and I’m convinced that everything she experienced–as a white woman being black, being Native American, Mexican–in some ways prepared her for a kind of empathy and identification with the Palestinians when she got there. When she got there, and wrote about what she saw, it changed her life profoundly in ways that being black, Native American or Mexican did not. And she devoted the rest of her life to writing about the Middle East. And she ended up doing a lot of work for Americans for Middle East Understanding, and supporting their work.
There’s a whole set of other writing I want to do. I’m incredibly disturbed by the way AIPAC and Israel is recruiting black students from historically black colleges.
AK: You read my mind–that was my next question.
RK: This is the thing that I’m actually trying to write: this is pretty astounding and yet, there’s a logic to it. I’m actually planning on writing an open letter to the so-called Vanguard Leadership Group, which is the group that has collectively made strong statements against Students for Justice in Palestine, and is basically in the pocket of AIPAC and Israel. In some respects, it’s a very dangerous position, because what AIPAC is doing is using black students as a moral shield to make the case for Israeli impunity, and that AIPAC is finding, and really developing, cultivating, a whole group of black allies as a way to shield Israel so that they can’t be seen as racist.
Now, the disturbing thing about this, you know, is that when you really start to scratch the surface, there’s a very long history of African American support for Zionism, going back to before there was an Israel as a state. The [Marcus] Garvey movement basically adopted Zionism, a certain form of black Zionism as its sort of mantra, and had actually gotten money from Zionists in the early 1920s. When Israel was founded in 1948 as a result of dispossession, you look at the black press, and you see all these folks across the board, black leaders, who were celebrating and supporting, encouraging Israel, because for them, they saw European Jews as themselves a dispossessed people, an oppressed people, who finally found the capacity to build a nation. So for them, it’s a kind-of heroic story that would encourage African Americans–it’s not exactly the same, but really to mobilize in defense of themselves. And that’s how they saw it.
So people like [civil rights leader] A. Philip Randolph sent a congratulatory note to Israel with almost no mention of Palestinian dispossession, of al-Nakba, of refugees. There were some exceptions to the rule, and every once in a while you see letters to the editor, people who would write these small pieces that would say, “well wait a second. What about the Arabs?” And it was Malcolm X, like a lot of the Muslims, who was ahead of the game. Malcolm was like, “wait a second, this is illegal.” I think Malcolm said, “imagine if the Muslims went to Spain and said we want our land back, start kicking people out and say we were here first.”
So there’s that history, and we have to come to terms with that history because in 1967, I believe there was really a sea change where because of the 67 war, because of the connection between that and other struggles for self-determination and national liberation in Africa and elsewhere, a number of black activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee said, “wait a second, we support the Palestinians.” And that was a shift in positions, and as a result of that, a lot of the support that SNCC and other organizations got from Jewish groups disappeared. There’s other reasons for that, but that was one of the reasons.
I think that by coming to terms with that history, but also coming to terms with the history in Palestine, that we have to have another sea change. African Americans who claim to be for social justice have no choice but to support the rule of law, to support the Geneva Conventions, to support the right of return, to end what is essentially an apartheid, ethnic state. It’s not sustainable. So, part of what I would like to do politically is to begin to build a conversation in African American circles, with people who were involved in anti-apartheid work in the past, people who are concerned about other places, to really pay attention once again to Palestine. I think that’s a critical point of struggle for our time.
AK: And so obviously you’re a proponent of the academic boycott of Israel. It’s one of the more controversial aspects of the BDS movement and has led to debate within the Palestine solidarity movement. How would you explain your support for the academic boycott?
RK: Well, there’s a couple of things. One of the key arguments against an academic and cultural boycott is that it suppresses academic freedom, and I vehemently disagree with that position. In fact, it’s a struggle for academic freedom, and what I mean by that is that Palestinians, both scholars, intellectuals and school children, do not enjoy academic freedom whatsoever. You have faculty in Gaza who cannot even be in the same room as scholars with West Bank universities like Birzeit and Nablus university. You have scholars who cannot attend international conferences without a permit, and if they do get a permit, part of what Israel does is use those international trips as excuses to block them returning. You have scholars who have been hired by universities in the occupied territories who can’t take the job because they’re denied entry. You have the criminalization of boycott itself, which is to me the most astounding thing, that to talk about, to produce literature about, can hold you liable in a civil court, maybe not the criminal court, meaning you have to pay damages for whatever and boycott is part of freedom of expression. Okay, there’s that.
The boycott itself was never, as Omar Barghouti put very clearly, was never directed at individual Israeli scholars or artists because what we don’t want to do is start to vilify individuals and do a kind of McCarthy test to see whether or not someone is sufficiently progressive or not. But that’s not the point; the point is that it is directed at institutions. The kind of individual collaborations can continue and in fact, we as a part of the boycott, encourage a certain level of collaboration and conversation as a way to build support, and we’re hoping that those Israeli scholars who really believe in academic freedom would support the boycott as well. In many cases, part of what this institutional boycott does is that it identifies and makes visible the role that universities have played in the violation of Palestinian human rights. We’re talking about universities on land that has been expropriated from Palestinians. We’re talking about lands that expand and create illegal colonies in places like Nablus. We’re talking about universities that host not only scholars that play a key role in designing the apartheid system in Israel and have theorized and implemented policies around questions of the so-called demographic threat, but, you know, we’re also talking about universities that have vilified and punished graduate students and faculty for taking anti-Zionist positions that are backed up with scholarship. Ilan Pappe is not there for that very reason, and he’s just one example.
So we’re saying, we want academic freedom, and that’s the whole point of the boycott, to struggle for the right of academic freedom. And finally, you’ve got this problem even outside the universities where, and again I don’t have to go into detail about this because anyone who picks up a book like Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside and Out, will see that you have schoolchildren who can’t attend school because of checkpoints and distances created by the apartheid wall. You’ve got the kind of unequal investment in education, let alone the conditions of life where people could be, kids could be detained at age 13. How is this a world of academic freedom, of intellectual freedom? So that’s one reason.
The other thing I think is, there is an effort on the part of those involved with the boycott to open up the discussion about what Israel and Israel’s security state has done to create instability in the region. Israel has kind-of controlled the discourse for so long, about how it’s the only democracy in the Middle East, how it’s a force for stability, when in fact on the contrary, because of dispossession, because of the oppression of Palestinians, it has been a source of instability. It has been a source of instability because it tries to resolve its problems with military build-up. And the largest factor in all of this is the United States of America. We live in a country where millions of dollars a day from the U.S. goes to supporting and propping up Israel. That’s an astounding fact, because without U.S. support, we wouldn’t be dealing with all of this. And to me, as an American citizen, as a U.S. taxpayer, it’s imperative that I take a critical stance against a U.S. foreign policy that puts the whole world in jeopardy, you know, and creates danger for many people. Not only that, but it supports an illegal regime.
It’s like, if I were driving the getaway car for a bank robbery, and I know it’s a bank robbery, and I’m still driving the car, then I’m complicit in breaking the law. And what Israel represents in some ways is the breaking of many, many international laws and the Geneva Conventions. The illegality of that regime and its practices and the fact that the U.S. props it up means we really don’t have a choice but to support an academic and cultural boycott to try to end the illegal regime.
When you look at the demands of the boycott, they’re very simple. They’re not complicated: Ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the wall, which of course the International Court of Justice said in 2004 was illegal. Second, recognize the fundamental civil and political rights of Arab citizens of Israel, that they should have full equality. It’s a myth that they do have full equality; they clearly don’t. And three, respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. That’s UN resolution 194. That of course opens up a whole can of worms about, return where? To their property, to their land? Should reparations be paid? Of course. But to return is to remake the nation, and that’s part of the invocation of all of this. The three points are all about respecting the rule of law, and that’s it.
AK: My last question for you is a little more personal. Have you received, or do you anticipate any backlash, from advocates of Israel on your campus or otherwise?
RK: Absolutely. I’m used to backlash. I’m a UCLA PhD, and I’m back at UCLA. When I was at UCLA in 1984, we organized a conference on imperialism, and we invited a PLO representative to come. And the Jewish Defense League showed up and they tried to intimidate us and shut it down, the administration got involved.
So in that sense it’s not new, it’s old, to me at least. I’ve gotten some backlash already, I’ve gotten backlash for just being on the board even when I wasn’t as active as I am now. That backlash is nothing compared to having to walk two or three hours to get to your school which is fifteen minutes away in a place where when you look at the future, it doesn’t look like you even have a nation. My backlash is nothing compared to that. And I’m a tenured faculty, I’m a senior person. There are people who have suffered much greater. There’s a whole list of people who have had lost their jobs and been forced out. That’s just part of the territory. And I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
But I know one thing: there’s always strength in numbers, and what we want to do with the academic boycott is to force our colleagues to recognize, if you remain silent, you are complicit. So what are you going to do? You want to be complicit, and have all the perks of your job and have a lot of time to do your work, or do you want to take a stand for justice, and be not just a human, but someone who believes in humanity. It’s a simple question.
I should add one thing, though. I’m very, very fortunate being at UCLA again, because even though UCLA is notorious for attacks on people who are critical of Zionism, I’m also in a department with some wonderful scholars, many of whom are Jewish scholars, some who are actually pro-Zionist, others who are extremely anti-Zionist, but we can have our debates and have our struggles within our department and no one goes crazy over that. I feel protected at UCLA, ironically, in a way because I have colleagues like Gabriel Piterberg, who wrote The Returns of Zionism, which is a powerful book–that book is just astounding. I’ve got people like David Myers, who is the chair of the department, who has written a book called Between Jew and Arab, and even though he is less sympathetic to boycott efforts than others, but he’s someone who really lets our flowers bloom. So, I can’t complain. Some people have it much worse than I do, but in the end I’m very proud to be part of this movement, and very proud to have made the connections I’ve made with a group of Palestinian scholars and intellectuals who I think are just some of the greatest minds on the globe right now. These are people who I think the world of, and I would do anything to support the struggle.