This past week, Harvard’s program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) hosted a conference titled “The Molecularization of Identity: Science and Subjectivity in the 21st Century” (the full program is available). It was presented as an ordinary STS meeting whose goal was to explore the “complex ways in which the molecular realm is an emerging site for constituting human identities in the 21st century.” The conference’s premise was that biotechnology is “changing the way we imagine race, gender, kinship, citizenship, and disease risk” – and that this is “impacting the ways in which people are governed, how lives are lived, how groups are known, and how power is exercised.”
But this wasn’t an ordinary conference about the intersection of science and society. It was sponsored by The Israel Institute and The Safra Center for Ethics at Tel-Aviv University. Many of the speakers and the participants were Israeli academics who focused on Jewish/Israeli identity, a theme of the conference, from a narrow Jewish-Israeli perspective.
The Israeli occupation (let alone the viewpoints of Palestinians) was absent from the talks concerning Israel. The speakers who presented on Israel were either Israeli Jews, or otherwise framed their talk from that perspective. There was not a single Palestinian speaker.
Political topics were at the core of the conference, as is clear from the meeting’s description. In presentations that didn’t concern Israel, there was lively discussion about the ways emerging biotechnologies can privilege the rich and the white. It’s only when it came to Israel/Palestine that certain political lines couldn’t be crossed.
Perhaps it was considered impolite for the hosts to discuss the Israeli occupation in the presence of so many Israeli guests. It might have also offended the Israeli institutions who funded the meeting. As Noam Chomsky said of certain Harvard academics, they’re in part trained to “have polite conversations without talking about serious topics, but of course indicating that you could talk about serious topics if you were so vulgar as to actually do it.”
Some of the Israeli academics who attended are obviously aware of the brutality and scope of the Israeli occupation. Snait Gissis, for example, a veteran activist of the Israeli left who has been targeted by right-wing groups, participated in the meeting.
Therein lies the problem. The conference participants were able to set aside the single most important issue that looms over their studies. They instead approached matters from an internalist Israeli perspective, studying Israel as if it was some advanced European nation. That move, whether driven by ignorance or politeness, in effect whitewashes Israel’s occupation.
The refusal to confront the Israeli occupation and state discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel also produces poor scholarship in this case. It’s impossible to understand the debate in Israel concerning biometric IDs, as one researcher who worked at Bar-Ilan tried, without recognizing how these IDs are used to surveil Palestinians – and without considering the financial interests of companies like Hewlett-Packard that collaborate with Israel to develop biometric surveillance. It’s also absurd to dissect how “Jewish kinship” is defined in Israeli society without taking into account the Israeli government’s massive efforts to “solve” what they call “the demographic problem” – i.e., the existence of too many Palestinians – through expulsion and other forms of ethnic cleansing. It is similarly hollow to examine the Israeli law of return for Jews by comparing it to German law, without even noting the hotly contested issue of law of return for displaced Palestinians. Yet all of this was attempted, with the pretense of nuanced academic discourse, in this conference.
To: Ruha Benjamin, Ian McGonigle
Date: Sat, Apr 30, 2016 at 5:48 PM
Subject: Blind eye to Palestine in HarvardSTS conference
Hi Ruha and Ian,
I’m writing to say I was extremely disappointed and disturbed by today’s Harvard STS conference.
In the “Privacy” session, Michelle Spektor’s talk focused on biometrics. It neglected to mention the brutal Israeli occupation, now nearing its 50th anniversary, and the discriminatory state laws against Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. Surveillance is a crucial aspect of this machinery of oppression. This is why in the summer of 2014, the U.S. Presbyterian Church divested from Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Motorola, who develop surveillance technologies for the Israeli government to monitor Palestinians. HP manufactures the biometric IDs used to monitor Palestinians and even has a subsidiary company in the settlements . We also saw the role of surveillance early this year following the shooting in Tel-Aviv, after which Palestinians who hold Israeli IDs had their dorms and apartments searched.
Spektor’s talk was given from an entirely inward-looking Israeli perspective. How can we talk about biometric IDs without understanding that these technologies are designed to surveil Palestinians and tighten the grip of Israel’s occupation? How can we have this conversation without considering who manufactures and profits from these technologies? The talk sounded very sophisticated and nuanced when it came to the discourse of privacy. Yet the enormous, simple and ugly truth was omitted. This whitewashes the Israeli government’s crimes against the Palestinians and erases the Palestinian viewpoint. She also entertained, as if legitimate, the ludicrous hypothesis that biometrics are being developed because of the unreliability of Israeli IDs – which she referred to as just “laminated pieces of plastic”. (Again, glossing over Israel’s elaborate encoding of ethnicity and race in the ID system – see ). This is as credible as the claim that there’s widespread voter fraud in the US, which as you know is used to introduce laws that disenfranchise (mostly black) voters. The parallels between the Palestinian struggle and the Black struggle at various points in American history are strong and important.
I’m not surprised that this study came out of Bar-Ilan University, which has a rich record of doing Hasbara for the Israeli government. Spektor was studying Israel like it’s yet another European nation that faces the issues of civilian privacy in a technologically advanced age. This is exactly how the Israeli government would want it to be perceived.
Sadly, Spektor’s talk was representative of the conference. When it came to Israel/Palestine, we got a narrow Israeli viewpoint with glaring omissions and distortions. Not to mention the fact that not a single Palestinian, or Palestinian citizen of Israel, spoke at this conference.
The “Kinship” panel had similar issues. It fixated on the “positive” or “constructive” account of Jewish identity/kinship. I didn’t hear a word about occupation, expulsion, home demolitions – or Israel’s view of Palestinians as a “demographic problem” to be solved. In the state of Israel, kinship is defined in part by a “negative”: by eliminating the Palestinian inhabitants through land theft, expulsion and other forms of ethnic cleansing. For example, a law was recently proposed to expel and revoke the IDs of Palestinians who had family members accused of engaging in terror. It’s impossible to understand how “kinship” functions in Israel by only analyzing the nitty gritty of the procedures that determine who is Jewish by some DNA test and associated obscure laws. While Dani Kranz acknowledged the arbitrary nature of this complex and mostly secretive bureaucracy, she passionately pleaded that Israel needs an immigration policy so we (i.e. Israelis) don’t have to pay so much in taxes for individual court cases. Again, the inward-looking, Jewish Israeli-centric perspective. Israel cannot have an “immigration policy” while enacting an enormous operation of differential rule over the Palestinians, and while Netanyahu and his ministers are desperately trying to pass a discriminatory law that certifies Israel as the national Jewish homeland. It simply does not compute.
I raised my hand in both the Kinship and Privacy sessions to say this in person, but understandably didn’t get called on as there were many questions.
Please note that my issue with this conference is not from a ‘pro-BDS’ stand. From that viewpoint, this conference is illegitimate by design, but this isn’t my position.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the first day of the conference, but judging by the speakers and the tone of today I can’t imagine it was any different.
 HP’s role in biometric surveillance: