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The American Studies Association is challenging a taboo in the American academy by speaking freely about Israel

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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I want to thank the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) for taking this position in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, though it is long overdue. Normally, the ASA Council, which is elected by the entire membership of the ASA, makes decisions regarding resolutions on its own. This time, however, after voting in favor of the resolution, the National Council returned the matter to the full membership for a ten-day voting period which expires Sunday, Dec. 15.   In doing so, the National Council is challenging a taboo in American academy by voicing opinion freely about Israel.  The issue before us today is not only about academic freedom for Palestinians in Israel/Palestine, but about ending the silencing atmosphere in the U.S. academy about Israel as well.

Classes held at an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank village Qalqilya, 2010 (Photo via Haitham Sabbah)

Classes held at an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank village Qalqilya, 2010 (Photo Maan news via Haitham Sabbah)

I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel and have gone through the Israeli education system. Consequently, I know first-hand how racist and demeaning of Arabs that system is. I never learned anything good about the Arabs in school.  To the contrary, we were fed plenty of Zionist propaganda, misinformation, and upfront racism towards those who were either not Zionist or anti-Zionist.

My education was blocked in the country, and it forced me, like most Palestinian citizens in Israel, to go abroad. It was only abroad that I learned about Arab philosophy, some of which I have been using in my work today.

My academic career is blocked in Israel because I am of Palestinian origin. Too many Israeli citizens, who are academics but of Palestinian origin, face the same fate. Only a few are hired at Israeli universities (which are almost all Government/State-owned universities). There is no single senior scholar in Israeli academia of Palestinian origin. When looking for employment in the U.S., I faced similar impediments to my career as pro-Israeli and Zionist faculty members are not in favor of hiring scholars critical of Israel and Zionism. Zionists do not like to see critical Palestinians around them in Israel, or anywhere else, and do not like to have such input heard.

Israeli universities do not offer equal access to Palestinian students. Additionally, when Palestinian students join Israeli universities (often majoring in subjects not of their choice), their voice on campus is silenced and repressed by campus administrations.  These are facts that are supported by studies done by different organizations in Israel itself (e.g., Adalah.org, musawah.org, and others). Israeli Jewish faculty members who are openly critical of state policies are also marginalized. Any research that they wish to do challenging Israeli historical propaganda is not supported. Some choose to leave (like Prof. Ilan Pappe), others remain there fighting for change, and many of them call for boycott against Israel.

At the moment, I teach at a Palestinian university in the West Bank (Birzeit University). Our student body is increasingly localized because students from other parts of Palestine either have a hard time coming to Birzeit due to Israeli impediments, or are not allowed (like Palestinians from Gaza). Our faculty members have difficulty going abroad for conferences. They have to ask Israeli authorities for permits to travel. If a permit is granted it is only at the last minute. Sometimes faculty members lose the airline ticket when they are not granted a permit to travel by Israeli authorities.

Students coming from abroad cannot study easily at Birzeit. Israel allows them only a visitor/tourist visa for three months.  If we get international students, we are forced to change the semester to fit the time they can be here by adding required hours for their daily meetings. That too does not allow these international students enough time to interact with the Palestinian community because they have to spend more hours daily on campus. Due to the same difficulties, we cannot readily have international faculty come to teach in Palestine. The three-month tourist visa forces many of them either to come only for a short time (just for conferences or limited visits), keep leaving the country every three months to be able to renew the visa, or not to come at all. There are also cases where Israeli authorities outright deny visas for visiting scholars.

ASA logo tiff (1) copyIt is not the Israeli educational system alone, but the entire Israeli system that is racist. Consequently, the ASA effort is an anti-racist campaign, a campaign to challenge complicity and silence regarding Israeli colonial practices.  Critically, it is one of the only methods by which to open up space for talking about Israeli policies, open the debate in the academy, and to take seriously the U.S.’s unique and exceptional complicity (i.e. military, economic, political and diplomatic support for Israel). Scholars critical of other countries are not similarly silenced, nor blocked from opportunities here in the U.S. academy. Neither is the U.S so complicit with any other country’s policies. Furthermore, there is no other country so complicit in repressive American wars as Israel is by being a proxy for arms sales in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and by pushing for wars in places such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

American citizens are already culpable for allowing such practices, but so far, with few exceptions, are silent about the role that the U.S. has in supporting Israel’s racist policies. I am, therefore, very pleased to see that the ASA is taking this position as it will help in opening more space for freedom of thought, discussion, and research. I hope that this case will be the beginning of much larger engagement by the academy with the racist policies of the U.S. itself and not just Israel.

From here in the occupied West Bank, I want to thank those who support this resolution. I hope that those who still do not support it, perhaps because they are not yet sure or haven’t seen the situation with their own eyes, will take a stand. For those who oppose it, I also wish the best. Some of them are typical pro-Israeli demagogues who knowingly or unknowingly repeat misinformation, make threats, and engage in standard pro-Israeli/Zionist misinformation and scare tactics. To them, I say, we are not afraid or confused. We are here for justice in Palestine and everywhere. We are here for freedom of thought about Israel and elsewhere. The hundreds of members who support this resolution are also concerned about injustice everywhere, including injustice in the U.S itself.

Supporting this resolution is to open space for discussion about Israel and U.S. complicity. It is also a way to open the way for the academy to take its role more seriously in making a real difference and to challenge long-held taboos here and elsewhere.  Finally, voting in support is a way to thank the ASA National Council for reflecting the majority’s wishes, including students and junior faculty, for taking such a stand.

Thank you all for your efforts. I hope we remain civil in our discussion and do not allow the misinformation and propaganda campaign to confuse any of us. There are so many reports and studies from Israel itself, in addition to many international ones, which testify to the validity of this resolution that members of the ASA can no longer argue that they were unaware of on-the-ground realities.  With such knowledge has come the determination to act in ways that should begin to pressure the Israeli government and academy to dismantle discriminatory policies and the occupation itself.

Magid Shihade
About Magid Shihade

Magid Shihade is a Faculty Member at the Institute of International Studies, Birzeit University, Palestine and a Visiting Fellow at the Middle East/South Asia Program at the University of California at Davis.

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3 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    December 13, 2013, 1:09 pm

    Thanks for your letter.

  2. Philip Munger
    Philip Munger
    December 13, 2013, 1:41 pm

    Is Prof. Shihade the existential threat ex-Prof. Larry Summers is so worried about in the column posted below this one? I think so.

  3. John Douglas
    John Douglas
    December 13, 2013, 3:04 pm

    The call for “academic freedom” is literally an incantation in the hallowed American academy used to justify a myriad of sins of omission and commission by faculty and as ammunition against administrators’ efforts at accountability. So we can expect these cries to be loud and numerous against the vote of the ASA. More information about the suppression of Palestinian academics and scholars, such as we read about in Professor Shihade’s letter, would be a counter to the pieties that we can expect about suppression of speech.

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