In the past few years, I’ve become something of a counselor. I have no formal credentials and a bad track record at the very thing I’m supposed to help others avoid. How can I be critical of Israel, friends and strangers ask, without losing my job or getting into trouble? I’m flattered to be approached in this way, I am. But I can’t help but think: me? You’re asking me how to manage a career in academe while being critical of Israel? I’ve lost two jobs in the past three years because of my sharp criticism of Israel and I’m a month away from being unemployed again. I mean, I’ll try, but if you want to ask me about how to get into trouble in academe, I’m on better footing.
I recall one such inquiry from a colleague last month. It was a routine, even banal, question, nothing that would normally require a halting answer. And yet, as is often the case with ordinary things, the question was filled with a world of complexity.
My colleague wanted to know if she should join a delegation of scholars to Palestine. A well-respected organization offers a development seminar on Palestine for US professors, including a short visit to the country. It’s a nice opportunity: participants get a trip to the Mediterranean, where they will be treated to visual beauty, warm hospitality, and wonderful cuisine. They will have an opportunity to interact with sharp intellectuals and activists and to visit the holy sites so grandiose in humanity’s imagination.
This kind of trip is common for scholars, who visit places around the world with sponsorship from research groups or universities. There is only one instance where the question “should I go?” needs to be raised: in relation to Palestine. My friend wasn’t concerned about safety or other fantastical perils, but about the possibility of being condemned by Zionist groups and damaging her chances at tenure. She was right to be worried.
We had a long conversation weighing the benefits of the trip against its potential pratfalls. It’s a fun adventure. You’ll come back with plenty to write about. This is important to your research. The networking possibilities are attractive. But. A number of organizations torment anyone who goes to Palestine unless it’s to serve in the IDF. Incorporating Palestine into a program of radical scholarship has potential to tip the balance from “I’m wary of her” to “she’s gotta go.” Universities are filled with individual faculty who relish punishing colleagues who don’t express adequate fealty to Israel. They certainly exist on your campus.
I had no easy answer. Palestine has a way of reaffirming a person’s most empathetic sensibilities, so I was confident my friend would come back invigorated. But I wasn’t certain she would remain unscathed.
“Just go,” I finally declared. Then I felt guilty for the next two days.
It was an exemplary moment of existential silliness. After all, why is it even a question if somebody should go to Palestine? It’s a terrific place to visit. Overzealous Israeli authorities are the only real threat to visitors. Travel, however, isn’t neutral. It’s always a political choice even when it has hedonistic ambitions. The question, then, isn’t rhetorical. Understanding why going to Palestine is inadvisable allows us to discard the silly notion that we’re free to do as we please because of pluck or protocol.
The episode illuminates the special status to which Palestine is subject in US academe. Professors will be lauded and rewarded for visiting certain places, but Palestine isn’t one of those places. It doesn’t offer the sort of war porn that titillates the political imagination. How countries and regions come to be understood as worthy of adulation or sympathy depends on a constellation of policy conventions, institutional cultures, power dynamics, narrative orthodoxies, and economic interests, all of them variously in concert and at odds with one another. That the possibility of visiting Palestine evokes consternation suggests we have a case where those phenomena are largely aligned.
It also illuminates the depth of pressure certain students and faculty experience on campus. Two years ago, a joint report by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights found nearly 300 cases in which speech or activism around Palestine was suppressed. Those cases included disciplinary action for campus activists, the suspension of student groups, employment termination, and the cancellation of course sections.
This suppression goes beyond campus, too, though its tentacles manage to slither into our well-manicured spaces. Numerous states have introduced legislation criminalizing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS], a highly effective, nonviolent strategy for opposing the Israeli occupation. Whatever one makes of BDS, it is indubitably a form of protected speech, as affirmed by dozens of court rulings. That so many politicians and legislative bodies are willing to make it illegal shouldn’t be understood simply as constitutional negligence, but as evidence of a political culture that values power over mobilization. Countries such as France and the UK, not to mention Israel itself, have pushed to criminalize BDS. Suppressing Palestine is a transnational industry.
We need academic freedom to criticize Israel, but it takes more than academic freedom to contest the sites of power invested in protecting Israel from criticism. Most commentators, however, are too scared to name Zionism as a problem. People spend considerable time these days arguing about speech and disruption on campus, yet Palestine is shockingly absent from the conversation. Exploring the repression of ideas at universities while ignoring Palestine is like discussing LeBron James without mentioning basketball.
Palestine isn’t the totality, or the crux, of today’s debates about speech and resistance on campus. There’s too much repression preceding Palestine, and now in existence alongside it, for that to be true. But Palestine deeply informs the substance of those debates, and by recovering this sunken reality we can better understand the disputes around free speech and academic freedom that generate so much attention.
It is impossible to speak, or be heard, with a set of impartial senses. Free speech, in both philosophy and practice, is attached to structures of power (seen and unseen, discernible and oblique, steady and unstable). Despite the state’s professions of fairness and benevolence, free speech is never fixed or disinterested. It is prosecuted according to circumstance. It is reified based on the needs of the audience. And it is conditioned by race, gender, nationality, class, religion, ideology, culture, sexuality, and so forth.
Take UC-Berkeley, a longtime testing ground for these matters. Its administrators proclaimed that nothing short of a near-riot would compel them to cancel a recent lecture by right wing provocateur Milo Yianopoulis. Yet last semester the same university shut down a legitimate course about Israeli settler colonization offered by a Palestinian instructor. In the end, Milo’s lecture was disrupted and the course was allowed to proceed. It wasn’t the infallibility of a concept that changed the outcome of each situation, but an organized shift in relationships of power.
Free speech, in short, is a limited commodity pretending to be a universal ideal.
We can’t understand the importance of free speech in civic or academic settings unless we also engage the politics that precede its invocation. Rallying around free speech is easy, which is why arguing about it never solves any problems. Nobody opposes free speech as an ideal. The term is often a slogan or shaming device that can be summoned in order to safeguard a viewpoint or ideology without having to confront its ethical anatomies and material consequences. Free speech isn’t the actual site of contestation in our cantankerous debates. What we talk about matters more.
Here we can pivot back to academic freedom because its function on campus mirrors free speech in US society more broadly. The preservation of academic freedom as an end in itself isn’t the best allocation of intellectual energy. We still have to discuss, and, ideally, resolve, the issues that generate controversy because they supersede academic freedom. Given the serious problems now facing academe—corporatization, receding faculty governance, donor influence, decreased public funding, administrative bloat, systemic racism, obscene student debt, sexual violence—our campuses won’t survive current trends if we refuse to analyze the structural conditions that often get reduced to frames of ahistorical disagreement.
Suppose we desire any of the following: to liberate Black people, decolonize North America, destroy a neo-Nazi resurgence, get some economic justice, free Palestine. If we treat those desires merely as rights to be practiced in controlled environments, then academic freedom becomes a pretext to normalize conventional politics. It has potential to supplement transformative writing and organizing, but that potential must be created. Academic freedom isn’t inherently radical.
For Palestinians, any type of freedom, including the academic variety, is acutely unavailable. Living under military occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and as second-class citizens inside Israel, their lives are controlled by an unequal legal system that proffers rights according to religion (as defined by the state). Palestinians suffer extrajudicial assassination, limited movement, arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, home demolition, restricted speech rights, harassment and torture, land expropriation, and forced exile.
There are currently 6300 Palestinian political prisoners. 700 of them just began a hunger strike, in fact. 300 of them are children. The unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip is nearly fifty percent, the highest in the world. Real per capita income is $970. Eighty percent of the population receives some sort of social assistance. Almost forty percent live below the poverty line.
Gaza has been under a land, air, and sea blockade for ten years, which has reduced its GDP by half: Israel, in cooperation with Egypt, determines what comes in and what goes out. Israeli politicians speak of “putting Gaza on a diet,” that is, allocating a certain amount of foodstuff for the territory based on minimal caloric requirements. At other times, those politicians speak of “mowing the lawn” in Gaza, which means exactly what it sounds like. The cancer rate is unusually high. Life expectancy is dismal. Fishing boats, one of the lifelines of the economy, are sometimes destroyed, or their occupants are shot at. Citizens deal with extended power cuts. Schools and hospitals are undersupplied. According to both local and international doctors, the psychological damage from the blockade and Israel’s periodic war crimes has been extraordinary. The children of the territory suffer abnormal levels of trauma and anxiety. There is no developed medical apparatus to mitigate these problems.
Narrowing the focus to academe, Palestinian students and professors experience forms of institutional repression that on US campuses are virtually unimaginable. For decades, universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been bombed, invaded, looted, and closed for extended periods. Students, staff, and professors often can’t make it to campus because of checkpoints and unexpected curfews. Their political activity is closely monitored. Professors sometimes meet class in their living rooms. It is difficult to get permission to travel abroad for conferences and research symposia. And when students graduate, they enter into an economy devoid of skilled jobs. (In this, at least, the comparison to US academe is striking.) Compounding this problem, Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant discrimination in the labor market.
I studied at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in the summer of 2000. My best friend there was from Gaza, but didn’t have permission to study in the West Bank. Both territories, mind you, are said to comprise the same country. As an “illegal” student, he couldn’t travel to Ramallah, just down the road. The Israelis sometimes erected a mobile checkpoint between the two towns. In turn, he was stuck in the hamlet of Birzeit. Getting home to Gaza, fewer than a hundred miles away as the crow flies, would have required illegally crossing three borders, as he did to get to Birzeit in the first place. Many of the students from Gaza faced the same hardships. Plenty of students from the West Bank couldn’t travel abroad, or even to nearby Jerusalem. Those with Western passports were free to explore. The foreigner had greater rights than the native, a condition to which Palestinians were accustomed. Strangers, after all, have transformed their lives into a simulation of existence, where one merely bides time, with no place to go, while impatiently narrating the dream of actually existing.
These brutal realities inhabit campus speech and they are blithely minimized when scholars make Palestine contingent on Western sensibilities. In short, we shouldn’t compromise the seriousness, or the severity, of our investment in certain political sites, both geographical and imaginative, in order to accommodate the strictures of academic freedom as a self-contained phenomenon. Doing so actually limits the effectiveness of academic freedom by providing it a kind of philosophical autonomy that restricts its immersion into material politics. Academic freedom is only meaningful in relation to the sites of contestation that necessitate its presence.
When we think about the difficulties that Palestinians face in academe, then, it’s crucial to orient critique around the hostile conditions of repression rather than merely safeguarding ourselves against hostility.
My maternal grandmother died last year. She was my connection to Palestine, having lived through the nakba, the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, and the messy histories that followed. Her family’s home in Palestine was forever lost to Israeli settlers and she wouldn’t return to the country for four more decades, this time on a tourist visa.
She could be a difficult woman: stubborn and blunt and imperious. She wasn’t one for shows of affection, but from my childhood I remember very well the protective and efficient quality of her supervision. Neither I nor my cousins dared to disobey her, but we relished the fact that in her care nobody would dare to cause us harm. When I was in high school, she regularly visited us in rural Appalachia, a place ill-suited to her cosmopolitan predilections. We never spoke much, though she was delighted when I became competent enough in Arabic to hold a conversation. She adamantly disapproved of my fledgling attempts at facial hair and nagged my mother to buy me proper clothes.
Like all memories of this variety, they’ve evolved from moments of annoyance to subjects of affection. The original sentiment of one memory, however, has only intensified with time. I had driven my mom and grandmother to the grocery store. My grandmother unexpectedly opted to wait with me in the car. “My daughter talks too much,” she explained after my mom had left, a tacit condemnation of small-town culture. My fingers tapping the steering wheel provided the soundtrack for our tense silence. Then, out of nowhere, she began talking about Palestine. About 1948. About her village. About her displacement. About the pain that had never gone away. “These things, I never forget,” she concluded matter-of-factly. “No. I never forget.”
I was a kid in that moment, sixteen and preoccupied with teenage drama, but I understood exactly what she was telling me: that I could never forget, either. Academic freedom doesn’t preserve this memory. But it damn sure gives me the right to remember.