Mondoweiss

Can’t discuss Palestine on campus? Then disaffiliate.

Northeastern Students for Justice in Palestine protest a one-year suspension of their group, March 2014. (Photo: Northeastern SJP/ Facebook)

It’s an old story: a scholar criticizes Israel (harshly or haltingly, it doesn’t really matter).  In many cases, nobody pays attention.  Sometimes, though, pro-Israel groups catch wind of the offense, at which point any number of things can happen:  sanctimony, abuse, outrage, blacklisting, ostracism.  

Academic employers compound these unpleasantries by encouraging the mob.  Their encouragement isn’t always explicit, but it’s evident if only through inference.  Administrators rarely defend aggrieved professors on the grounds of academic freedom, an abdication of their professional responsibility.  And they never support the substance of anti-Zionist speech.  Even one-dimensional thinkers who send angry emails to strangers understand that administrative reticence signifies tacit agreement, or at least a lack of concern with harassment (whose racist, sexist, and homophobic content can be brutal).  

In turn, scholars who criticize Israel often abridge their biographies or add disclaimers that absolve employers of responsibility for controversial opinions.  Doing so doesn’t necessarily fend off punishment, but it’s still a wise move.  There’s no need to give administrators more excuses to pester anti-Zionists.  

Yet employers are happy to claim the type of work that generates prestige: refereed articles, conference presentations, keynote speeches, and so forth.  Management increasingly speaks of campus as a brand, in keeping with a general embrace of corporate culture.  With branding a predominant feature of the climate, image supersedes honest inquiry.  Faculty are to produce raw material for ranking metrics but avoid consuming politics, unless the politics align with state power and can thus be marketed as objective (or promoted as another brand-building exercise).  

Anti-Zionist faculty threaten a kind of messaging upper administrators carefully guard, one affixed on school pride, decorum, patriotism, civic responsibility, good citizenship, and other grand pronouncements that in practice reproduce the status quo.  Suppressing criticism of Israel isn’t simply an effort at messaging, however.  Universities authorize certain labor as bankable in ways that exclude anti-Zionism and other radical commitments—indeed, in ways that maximize efforts to strengthen the university’s reputation among donors, politicians, and businesspeople.  This exclusion is structured into reward systems and in turn is largely self-regulating.  

These moves lead to a compartmentalization of intellectual pursuits anathema to interesting and innovative scholarship (and arguably a detriment in the classroom, to boot).  No serious person writes using only a limited consciousness or by isolating personal commitments from professional considerations.  There’s no such thing as putting aside a political devotion for the sake of disinterested analysis. A professor who is a Zionist in his spare time, for example, will always manage to convey a reactionary viewpoint about decolonization, if only implicitly. As such, apolitical research is impossible.  Those who claim the ability to do it are either deluded or dishonest.  

Because of administrative disdain for Palestine, anti-Zionist professors are forced to disavow affiliation with BDS or Faculty for Justice in Palestine—that is, they must suppress important public and private obligations.  Professors should respond by refusing to grant the university legitimacy when doing things management deems respectable.  In the biography for your next book or article, don’t mention an employer.  If the university wants to dictate private commitments, then it shouldn’t benefit from expressions of public loyalty.  Publications and conference presentations can still be listed in annual reports, but the actual acts will have been performed in an individual capacity. That is to say, faculty can still get credit for their accomplishments for the sake of tenure, promotion, merit raises, and so forth, but don’t need to use those accomplishments to promote employers.    

This sort of disaffiliation has little practical effect.  It won’t do much to disrupt power.  Doing so is largely symbolic, or maybe a desperate attempt at principle, straight out of the “fuck ‘em” school of political organizing.  If anything, it feels satisfying.  In a profession whose most consistent traits are ennui and apathy, that’s no small achievement.  

But disaffiliation needn’t be limited to personal crusades.  It can be done as part of a larger project of pursuing community beyond the pro-Israel strictures of US academe.  Think of it as a worldview or a mentality rather than a feel-good tactic.  Failing to name an academic employer in a publication might best be described as dis-identification, but the gesture does deeper work when it informs a broader effort at detaching from the employer’s corporate sensibilities.  Where pro-Israel fanatics never stop devising ways of punishing anti-Zionists, and have no trouble finding pliant administrators to intimidate, we can seek ways to transcend and possibly subvert the spaces they control.  

The same is true of those working on behalf of any oppressed community.  I derive the idea of disaffiliation from long traditions of Black and Indigenous scholarship.  Since its inception, American Indian Studies has negotiated—and, in some cases, surmounted—the dualities of intellectual autonomy and institutional restraint, and tons of work in Black critical theory imagines fugitive sites of inquiry (a recent example influencing my argument is Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons).  

Disaffiliation follows a simple ethic:  we don’t need administrators to authorize Palestine as valuable or legitimate.  We will value or legitimize it beyond the structures that reward fealty to settler colonization.  At the very least, thinking about disaffiliation might help us better understand how Zionism remains strong in academe despite increasing pro-Palestine sentiment among students and faculty.  The short answer:  so long as Israel is a darling of the ruling class, it will maintain its status as normative on campus.  One needn’t identify as Zionist to cultivate Zionism.  

Recognition is an important currency in the academic economy.  Universities rely on it for a presence in the intellectual marketplace and to generate prestige, which more than anything is two parts propaganda and one part perception.  On the flip side, institutional affiliation affects a scholar’s ability to produce research, attain grants, enjoy career mobility, and impress people on social media.  Uncritically participating in that economy is getting harder to justify.  We can still participate in a robust intellectual life, however.  We must simply accept that, depending on the subject of inquiry, universities are likely to oppose the pursuit.  

I’m aware that my argument raises difficult questions and that dozens of exceptions and contingencies make it impossible to pass off as universal.  I’m thinking about the possibilities of preserving, and growing, Palestine as both an intellectual and political concern in hostile territories beholden to the fascist sensitivities of the pro-Israel punishment industry.  

If all else fails, disaffiliation can affirm that amid efforts to break us into constituent parts the university can then exploit, we are political creates with public commitments that facilitate our professional work, and we will never abandon Palestine’s freedom just to make administration’s job easier.  Like the nation on whose behalf we struggle, we fully intend to stay whole.