Campus Gaza: Academic Boycotts and Complicit Silence

In a previous post, “Accepting the Might to Exist: Some Israeli Lessons for Anthropology,” a close Trinidadian friend and non-academic collaborator, Guanaguanare, wrote what I thought was an especially penetrating comment on complicit silence from those one might look to for some guidance in understanding issues of conflict, human rights, on the human condition itself, from people who on other occasions and with other topics have been rather quicker in making judgments. I now have her permission to reproduce her commentary on the front page here. It is followed by links to discussions around an academic boycott of Israel, which I have previously been ambivalent about supporting, and am now forced to reconsider more favourably.

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Stepping Delicately Between the Butcher and the Policeman

January 7, 2009

[I] confess that apart from my small protest, I have not had the stomach or maybe the charity to try to assist others by elucidating or contributing a more consistent and earnest plea for justice.

What strikes me always is how much easier it is for me to direct my anger at the ones “responsible” for these man-made crises — world leaders, politicians, who by their scheming interventions or their despicable lack of action and lack of solidarity with the victims, allow the chaos to continue unchecked. I then do my “When will they ever learn?” shrug and turn back to my life. I entertain only briefly the suspicion that I am part of the problem but I guess the numbing factors of distance and my comfortable bed allow me to wash my hands and move on.

The fact remains though that I am part of the problem because I don’t raise my voice loudly and often enough when injustice is staring me in the face. I leave it to the politicians and leaders and the relatively few marching protesters to find a solution, the same politicians and leaders who I know are incapable of or don’t see any personal/national benefit in finding a fair solution. As long as we continue to distract ourselves and to let them act unquestioned, they are very happy to take advantage of our complicity. It is the biggest cop out ever and it is the game that most of us are quite contented to play.

I’ve been thinking about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a particular excerpt that really struck me the first time I read it many years ago:

“You can’t understand. How could you?- with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums-how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude-utter solitude without a policeman- by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong-too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil: the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil- I don’t know which. Or you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place- and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!-breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don’t you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in-your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business. And that’s difficult enough.”

I love the entire thing but it’s the subject of “solitude” that jumps out at me as being relevant to this situation…not so much what solitude can bring out in a human being but how we must all help each other to come out of that solitude in one piece (or ONE PEACE) and wiser. I think that on an individual level when we do not consciously address our own solitude and the demons we can encounter there, we do not advance ourselves beyond the passivity or self-delusion that we can fall back on to avoid the truth. Outside of ourselves, we do nothing to aid others in their solitude when we hang back and take refuge in passivity and popular delusions to avoid the truth. Israel and Palestine are so deeply alone now, so locked in the deepest of solitudes. Let us look at the most obvious of signs and that is the fact that foreign journalists are not being allowed into Palestine to report what is really happening. Other news agencies are buying into, for whatever reasons, the delusions that they’ve decided that we want to or should be fed. Israel cannot voice its wants except in the most guttural of tones, the sound of weapons. Palestine cannot voice its pain without a voice to express the anguish of a people who are being systematically displaced, dispossessed and murdered. On both sides, their mouths are opening in their solitude but no sound that can reach us is coming out…and we over here “with solid pavement under [our] feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer [us] or to fall on [us], stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman” we don’t read lips. We didn’t read the Jews’ lips when they were being eliminated by the Nazis and we didn’t read their lips as we chased their shiploads of refugees from our ports. We don’t read the lips of Palestinians continuing to bury their babies with no recourse but to bring many more into the world to continue the struggle.

We are all human beings and Israel cannot be left in its solitude to forget this. We have to tell it that we are seeing its turmoil and that it has gone terribly wrong and that their fear of persecution is self-fulfilling. The Palestinians are human beings and we cannot leave Palestine in its solitude to believe that we have forgotten this. We have to tell it that we are seeing its pain.

Since we cannot write it on the sky or command divine intervention or get our acts together just yet to speak with one voice, all we have for the while and hopefully not for too long a while, are people like you, Max — people who ask, and ask and ask only that the truth be told and that we start doing as we so easily preach.

“…the earth for you is only a standing place”Heart of Darkness/ Joseph Conrad


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The Academic Boycott of Israel Raised at Concordia University

Almost two years ago, I was surprised by the abrupt and seemingly unwarranted appearance in one of our campus publications of an article written by then “President” Claude Lajeunesse on June 21, 2007, denouncing any plans by academics to boycott Israel, as if any of us had really been considering it. The story was picked up by the national media (see: “Montreal Universities Take Stand Against Anti-Israel Bias: Concordia Takes on the UCU Over Israel,” Amy German, The Hour, July 5, 2007). At the time, I had two reactions: (1) this is a giant “hat tip” to Jewish donors, by an official engaged in a permanent hunt for cash, ignore it for its obvious obsequiousness; and, (2) this is an intrusion into the very sphere of academic freedom that Lajeunesse claimed to defend. After all, as academics, if we decide to act, we are perfectly free to do so, it is our civil and political right, and instructing us on what not to think in anaytical terms is absolutely not the place of the chief administrator. I would think that such a boycott would not be actively enforceable, mandatory for all academics, and come with punishments when breached. I had always understood it as a voluntary, collective act that did not commit any institution as such — perhaps others had more formal, institutional bans in mind. On the other hand, I would like to see our university divest from any holdings that work to support Israel — that is a bare minimum.

Ironically, since that statement, discussions have been held precisely to consider the nature and purpose of an academic boycott. See: “Academic boycott of Israel? Quebec-based groups reopen debate,” by Uzma Khan, The Concordian, 02/05/2008. Rita Cant, writing in Concordia’s independent student newspaper, The Link (see: “Something academic” January 2008) wonders why the boycott of South Africa received such strong support, whereas the boycott of an Israel that commits massacres, blockades, collective punishment, torture, and extrajudicial murders, does not. She notes that while Lajeunesse opposed any talk of boycotts,

others continued to insist that the disinterested professor with eyes only for research was a myth: that academics, like other citizens, should not be held above the policies of their democratically elected governments. They said rather than fetter intellectual debate, the boycott reinvigorated a vital discussion about Israeli policy, one that was fast becoming off-limits.

Cant also makes an extremely incisive observation about the current political economy of academia, one that challenges the dusty old myths about the existence of an “ivory tower”:

The economics of academics has changed utterly since the boycott of South Africa and the anti-war campus protests of the ’60s: corporations have more representation than teachers on university boards; lobby groups are funding research; cutbacks and new management are replacing tenured faculty with part-timers with terminable contracts; research is secondary to finding the funding; the end result is the meaning of academic freedom-and indeed that of the academy generally-is new and largely uncharted.

She ends with a quote from Noam Chomsky that is particularly important, in my view, as it strikes right at my own reason for ambivalence: Why just Israel? Chomsky says,

“One crucial goal of successful education is to deflect attention elsewhere — say to Vietnam, or Central Asia, or the Middle East, where our problems allegedly lie, and away from our own institutions and their systematic functioning and behaviour, the real source of a great deal of violence and suffering in the world.”

Indeed, why just Israel, especially when as we have seen discussed on this blog, there are myriad interconnections that fuse American academia with the national security state, with military and intelligence interests, and with private corporations?

And I admit, since the discussions about the re-militarization, or increased militarization of the American academy seemed to reach a zenith, I came to my own decisions: not to publish in American journals; not to send manuscripts to American book publishers; and, not to travel to or through the U.S. and therefore also not to attend American conferences. Then as if designed to taunt me, I received news that in 2011 the American Anthropological Association will be holding its meetings in Montreal. Jesus H. Christ.

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Link Snow

When I run out of time, I do this.

The Gaza War… on North American Campuses,” Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed, 12 January 2009.

Quick Takes: Ontario Union Wants Boycott of Israeli Academics…,” Inside Higher Ed, 07 January 2009.

CUPE Ontario to recommend support for ban on Israeli academics in response to Gaza bombings, 05 January 2009.

Ontario union wants ban on Israeli academics,” Josh Wingrove, The Globe and Mail, 06 January, 2009.

Statement on the Gaza Conflict, Canadian Association of University Teachers, 06 January, 2009. (I a member of this association, like all unionized full time faculty in Canada.)

University of Ottawa professor Costanza Musu: Why boycotting Israeli professors is wrong,” The National Post, 06 January, 2009.

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Polling readers

Would you personally tend to support a boycott of Israeli academics and their institutions?


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