‘Enforcing Silence’ in the academy

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Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel

edited by David Landy, Ronit Lentin, and Conor McCarthy
288 pp. Zed Books. Paperback $16.33 | Hardback $60.22

The following is the complete foreword authored by Dr. Rabab Adulhadi from “Enforcing Silence” and is reprinted with permission.

When Ronit Lentin invited me on 22 March 2018 to contribute a chapter to a volume she and her colleagues David Landy and Conor McCarthy were co-editing on academic freedom and the academic boycott of Israel, I was excited. I immediately responded on the same day, affirming my interest and asking for the concept paper and more details on deadlines.

I was as eager to tell ‘my story’, and share how I experienced bullying, smearing, and harassment by the Israel lobby and its partners at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and on other university campuses. I did not see my story as my private property or a particular experience; it reflected and represented the collective stories of public intellectuals inside and outside the academy who sought to speak up for justice in and for Palestine.

It seemed to be a no brainer. I had known Ronit for a long time through her work as a staunch anti-Zionist Israeli feminist. Along with Simona Sharoni, Ella Shohat, Orly Lubin, Lea Pipman, Lea Tsemel, Felicia Langer, and many others, I saw Ronit as part of my community – a community that jointly builds a different future in Palestine to replace the Israeli settler colonial racist project that made it impossible for us to even physically meet on equal grounds unless we saw each other outside Palestine.

The importance of discussing these issues was very clear. To my knowledge, this is the first volume that addresses the relationship between academic freedom and institutional academic boycott. This relationship has had a major impact on my life in different aspects – as a Palestinian who experienced first-hand Israeli colonialism, racism, and occupation; as an activist in the student, feminist, and peace and justice movement; as a scholar who, like others, subscribed to the principles of BDS before the Palestinian 2005 BDS call; and finally, as a direct target of Zionist groups who sought to exact a massive punishment against those of us who exercised our academic freedom by speaking up about justice in/for Palestine, including the call for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (ACBI) as a mechanism of accountability for publicly engaged intellectuals.

"Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel." (Cover: Zed Books)
“Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel.” (Cover: Zed Books)

I do not recall a time in my life when I did not experience bans on freedom of speech. I grew up under Jordanian rule and Israeli military occupation. I remember Jordanian soldiers roaming the streets of my hometown, Nablus, listening for incriminating evidence to punish violators of the ban on Radio Cairo. I remember the grown-ups defying the ban, albeit privately, as my parents, aunts, and uncles listened to Jamal Abdel Nasser speeches and other broadcasts. That defiance in the 1950s and 1960s was an extension of rejecting the erasure of Palestinian experiences of displacement and dispossession since the Nakba in 1948.

Boycott was also an integral Palestinian strategy of resistance as it has been in other anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, such as South Africa, the United States, Chile, farm workers, etc. After 1948, Palestinian teachers boycotted the Israeli institutions of higher education and refused to participate in perpetuating a colonial education. In the West Bank, where I grew up, we boycotted Coca-Cola and Ford cars before 1967. After the 1967 occupation, I recall that normalization of Israel’s rule was completely out of the question. My mother and her friends in the women’s movement boycotted Israeli goods since they first appeared in the West Bank markets. No one I knew talked to, cooperated, or dialogued with Zionist individuals and groups though anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis were always seen as integral to the Palestinian resistance and liberation movement.
The refusal to normalize Israel’s colonialism, racism, and occupation was a staple of Palestinian lived experience. This carried through the praxis of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and other mass institutions of the PLO throughout the world, including the GUPS US chapter in which I was involved. A similar praxis characterized our approach in Palestinian feminist and solidarity circles. While every single convention we held between 1986 and 1995 included more than just a token Israeli and Jewish comrade, UPWA (Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations in North America) resisted the normalization agenda that accompanied the 1987 Intifada.
We faced similar challenges of silencing Palestine in our work with the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). Zionists on the New York City Board of Education habitually intervened to cancel a space we had already rented or to claim that a bureaucratic error made the space unavailable. The officials in the Board of Education would veto the rental agreements we signed with the custodians of the school. A glaring example was the auditorium of the Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. High School near the Lincoln Center. In the mid-1980s we reserved and paid a deposit for the auditorium for our annual 29 November commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with the People of Palestine. To fight for the space and force the Zionists in the Board of Education to stop harassing us, Leticia Pena, a lawyer and a member of the National Executive Committee of PSC, called and promised to hold a press conference to expose their Zionist bias and violation of the contract if they did not back off. The Board of Education eventually did but not until they sent several undercover police officers to spy on us and harass our distinguished speakers.

Zionists in the peace and justice movement similarly denied us freedom of speech and excluded us from different platforms. For example, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, we had no choice but to boycott the Left Forum after the organizers demanded to review the list of books we were planning to display before agreeing to rent us a literature table. Likewise, leading organizers of several national protests against nuclear weapons, US intervention in Central America, and women’s reproductive rights, refused to include speakers on Palestine. We argued for the relevance of Palestine, citing Israel’s atomic bombs, the arming of death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Contras in Nicaragua, and the large number of Palestinian women protesters who suffered miscarriages after breathing poisonous tear gas during the 1987 Intifada. None of the arguments we made succeeded in breaking the silencing of Palestine until our expertise on regional history and politics was crucial to making sense of the 1991 US Gulf War on Iraq. Even then, demarcation lines of what we could speak about and what was completely off the table were drawn.

The problem was even worse in the academy than it was in the peace and justice movement or in mainstream circles of ‘Middle East’ politics. For starters, the academy is much more consistent, and has perfected the bureaucratic game of seeking to enforce a false dichotomy between the research agenda and research questions, on one hand, and the relationship scholars have with the subject matter and with the communities at the heart of that subject matter, on the other. The academy is also notorious for compartmentalizing research agendas and separating what it legitimizes as scholarship and what it defines as falling outside research and relegated to activism, with the latter denigrated and assigned a lesser value in the neoliberal academic ‘market’ than the former. Additionally, what ‘cautious’ academics present as genuine claims for ‘neutrality’, and ‘lack of bias’, and respect for the privacy of ‘colleagues’ views’, only reifies the status quo, disciplines thought, and curtails critical thinking. The fear of losing the rewards administrators dangle before the eyes of academics they supervise forces the latter group to toe the line. Those who refuse such coercion are locked out of career stability and progression.

The neoliberal agenda uses ‘concern for students’ as a smokescreen to cover up the real motives to silence radical educators. For example, during my post-doc at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) at New York University, the Sociology Department refused to cross-list my course on ‘Gender, Identity and Society in the Middle East’ that I had also taught at Yale as a grad student (and won the top award) under the pretext that my syllabus displayed bias. They pointed to information sheets I asked students to fill out which included the question, ‘are you a feminist’ with options for students to say, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘I don’t know’, and explain their answers. Members of the same department also refused to participate in the faculty and student walkout in 2004 when US President Bush declared war on Iraq. While the walkout was largely symbolic, the faculty members who decided to cross the picket line justified their action through a conservative misunderstanding that the walkout would have been a reneging of the faculty’s responsibilities to the students rather than their obligation to teach students in ways beyond the classroom.

Members of New York University’s SJP protest. (Photo: NYU SJP/Facebook)

Millennial political developments in the US and Palestine tested more than ever the university–community constructed boundaries, posing anew the question of how scholars respond to neoliberal academic changes that threaten their careers if they choose to speak up. This became especially acute in the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center bombings and the 2002 Israeli reinvasion of Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps. The Israel lobby seized the moment to draw on Islamophobic and ‘war on terror’ public and official discourses to discredit the Palestinian struggle. Meanwhile Israel was busy trying to destroy the infrastructure of Palestinian social fabric, especially education. Once again, the Israeli military closed down Palestinian schools and universities as a form of collective punishment. During that period, the Israeli military destroyed over one million records of Palestinian high school examinations.

Doing nothing in the face of violations to Palestinian academic freedom was not an option. When intellectuals in Palestine initiated ACBI as an organized and collective form of holding Israel and culpable Israeli academic institutions accountable, and called upon me, I did not hesitate to join. During my post-doc at NYU, I served as the unofficial faculty advisor to the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who were planning an academic boycott inspired by Columbia University’s example. As we see with other cases discussed in this volume, my activism in ACBI, speaking up against the US war on Iraq, Islamophobia, and the war on terror, was not cost-free. The tenure-track position that was to materialize upon my completion of the NYU post-doc never materialized. Though NYU endowment was at a record high, the university claimed that it had no funds to initiate a joint search in Gender and Sexuality and Middle East Studies for which I could apply.

Students protest the San Francisco Statue University administration's decision to bar the General Union of Palestine Students, or GUPS, from erecting a mock apartheid wall on campus, May 14, 2015. (Photo: Rabab Abdulhadi)
Students protest the San Francisco Statue University administration’s decision to bar the General Union of Palestine Students, or GUPS, from erecting a mock apartheid wall on campus, May 14, 2015. (Photo: Rabab Abdulhadi)

SFSU repeated the same story almost verbatim in the aftermath of the 2008–2009 Israeli war on Gaza and the intensive lobbying by Zionist groups to silence Palestine. The immediate target was a planned lecture by Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the BDS movement, on the second anniversary of the Palestinian Cultural Mural honouring the late Professor Edward Said. The long-term strategy of SFSU and its Zionist partners was to preempt any potential for organizing a BDS campaign on our campus. SFSU was exhibiting deeper commitments to the neoliberal agenda and courting corporate sponsors, including Zionist donors. In addition to hosting Barghouti and my participation in co-founding USACBI, I was also developing the academic program in Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies that we saw as the latest chapter in decolonizing the curriculum, which started with the longest US student strike and what we refer to as ‘the spirit of 68’.

Immediately following Omar Barghouti’s lecture, the SFSU president cancelled the searches for the two tenure-track faculty positions in AMED Studies and then proceeded to defund the two lines altogether, leaving me since 2010 as a one-person program with no staff, operating budget, or faculty. To make up for SFSU’s hostility and lack of institutional support, we brought together a broad-based dedicated group of students, faculty, and activists from within and outside SFSU. Since then we have succeeded in institutionalizing AMED Studies in SFSU, with an academic minor, 22 courses, the Edward Said Scholarship, and collaborative agreement with An-Najah National University. However, defeating Zionist and neoliberal forces at SFSU only invited escalated attacks by the Israel lobby. This brings me to the reasons why I could not write the chapter I was so eager to contribute to this unique volume.

I received Ronit’s email while I was in Nablus, Palestine. We had just concluded the second of two inaugural international conferences on ‘Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice’ at Birzeit University and An-Najah National University. We were elated that we were able to organize, hold, and conclude the two conferences on such a high note.

At the same time, we were concerned that Israel might stop Robin D. G. Kelley and me from entering Palestine. The two of us serve on the International Advisory Board of USACBI and Israel had started to more systematically stop and turn back other advocates of BDS, such as leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Center for Constitutional Rights, in line with new Israeli legislation that seeks to prevent the Palestine solidarity movement from spreading further. Both Robin and I agreed that we would risk it and take our chances. We devised Plan B and Plan C for two alternative programs in Jordan and Lebanon if Israel prevented us from entering Palestine. Three young members of our delegation, a Palestinian and two African Americans, were stopped and interrogated by the Israeli military for several hours at the bridge (King Hussein according to Jordan and the world, and Allenby according to Israel). Eventually we were able to get on our way and reach our first destination in Ramallah on the eve of the Birzeit conference.

The next day, however, on Friday 23 March to be precise, I received an email from my university provost Jennifer Summit demanding that I take down the unofficial Facebook page of the AMED Studies program on which a statement by Jews Against Zionism (JAZ) was shared by one of our community volunteers. SFSU anti-Zionist Jewish student activists founded JAZ to express their opposition to Zionism; and agreement with my criticism of our university president who had just welcomed Zionists to our social justice campus. My right to academic freedom to criticize my university president is guaranteed to me not only by the US Constitution but also by the Collective Bargaining Agreement our faculty union, California Faculty Association, negotiated with our employer, California Faculty Association. Provost Summit threatened me with disciplinary measures and copied the university counsel on the email for reinforcement.

In what has now become a ritual and the norm rather than the exception in my academic career, I had no choice but to once again abandon my plans to write and instead compose my response to Provost Summit. She demanded a response by the next business day, having sent her an email on Friday night, and set Monday at noon as the deadline. The fact that she was on a 12-month contract compared to my 10-month academic contract and was not expected to work over the weekend (and received compensation when she did) did not matter. She had specifically mentioned ‘disciplinary measures’ and copied the university lawyer on the email for added emphasis. That I was on a university-approved trip on which the provost and other administrators (the dean, the president, and the chancellor) signed off also seemed irrelevant. Zionist ideologues demanded action and SFSU administrators were eager to comply. The Zionist tweets and other social media posts were circulating as I was making my way to Palestine.

These few examples show the intimate relationship between exercising one’s academic freedom to speak up and the academic freedom to boycott. This intimate relationship also emerged in the ways in which SFSU administrators weaponized free speech to protect Zionist and Nazi hate speech while suppressing our academic freedom. This tendency is reflected at the highest levels of the US government. White supremacist Richard Spencer perhaps captured it well when he stated, ‘I am a white Zionist’ and applauded Israel’s racist nation-state law. In this era of neoliberalism, the rise of the alt-right and the privileging of white supremacy, Islamophobia, and Zionism, administrators will find all sorts of ways to violate faculty members’ rights, to silence critics. To enforce transparency, accountability, and engage in the intellectual project of producing critical and justice-centered knowledge, the relationship between the rights of individual faculty to speak up and the collective (and individual) right to not treat injustice as business as usual go hand in hand. This volume promises to excavate these connections and demonstrate the many ways opaque alliances of injustice work and what we need to do to undo them.

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Here we see how effectively the system can be manipulated with political correctness and characterizing “the other”. Narratives are cultivated as weapons, as tools to discredit. They “game” the politics at which zionists are so organized,practiced and skillful. The “terrorism” narrative has been creatively developed as a tool to discredit Palestinian freedom efforts and subjugate them. Perhaps one day lone wolf violence will be criticized as providing no advantage even standing in the way of… Read more »