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Conversations After Reading Friel (Part Four)

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IV. On the Subject of Apartheid

Jim Hicks: In framing our next discussion around Friel’s useful comparison, and drawing out of the parallel, between apartheid in South Africa and the recent history of Israel and Palestine, because of the subject of Adam’s work, I was no doubt mainly thinking of hearing what he would have to say on this. But once again, contemporary events have drawn us in, and now this topic is a topic for all of us academics. I just came back from the MLA, and I’ve been a member of the American Studies Association for a number of years as well, and, well, let me just repeat that so this comparison is now part of all of our discussions. In the exchanges leading up to today’s conversation, Amanda, you mentioned that, regarding the question of the academic boycott of Israel proposed by the ASA, you were of a deeply divided mind, or something like that. Since I myself often feel that way, I’d like you to tell us more about that.

Amanda Minervini: Yes. I’m still trying to make up my mind. I’ve been reading and talking to people. For instance, I was talking with a long-time ASA member; I’d read his book, and I like his work very much. We’d also discussed some of my work on St. Francis. So we had an intellectual conversation going on, and, at some point, he told me that he is actually against the boycott, because he thinks that it’s a limitation of academic freedom. And I think, like other people, that there’s something to that, a message that needs to be heard, but I don’t fully understand the substance of the ASA proposal. I read their information, but I don’t understand how it would affect individuals within academia. Does it mean that if I get a scholarship to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem I shouldn’t go? I know that it’s not meant to be against single scholars, but how do we do distinguish single scholars from Israeli academia in general? My concern is that, if we’re not very clear about the nature of this boycott, we may end up affecting the few people who are actually against current Israeli policies. There is a percentage of Israeli scholars who are very critical, and who have been publishing, who have been very active on such issues. So I’m very confused.

Jim Hicks: I’d also have to say that, in reviewing both the ASA’s call for the academic boycott as well as what various members from the ASA have said about it afterwards, the distinctions that they make—that it’s calling for a boycott of institutions not individuals, as well as other ways of framing the debate—I understand, logically, the distinctions they’re making, but I’m not really sure I see those distinctions in the proposal itself. They may be clarifications of what the proposal is intended to do, but I’m just not sure where those intentions are brought to bear in the proposal itself.

Amanda Minervini: Yes, I think it needs to be framed more clearly, yet I do agree we need to do something. I don’t know if you saw the Chronicle of Higher Education report on this. The first quotation given was from the President of Amherst College.

Jim Hicks: One thing that does seem clear to me is that if what we’re concerned about is academic freedom, then we can’t only be concerned about the academic freedom of people within the Israeli university system. We have to worry about the academic freedom of people within the occupied territories as well. One argument that was made during the MLA discussion is that the academic boycott should be opposed, and I think this is the AAUP’s line, because all academic boycotts should be opposed. Although the AAUP was also said to have supported the boycott of South Africa, but because it was part of a much larger movement, and not simply directed at universities—not simply an academic boycott, but an economic and politic boycott as well. The response to this comment (which I found instantly persuasive) was that this is a ridiculous characterization of what’s going on with the very Palestinian Boycott, Sanction, and Disinvestment movement that prompted the ASA’s proposal in the first place.

Amanda Minervini: The article from last week’s Chronicle (January 10) is called “Backlash Against Israeli Boycott Puts American Studies Association on Defensive.” And the first quotation is from Carolyn Martin, the President of Amherst College. She says that “Such boycotts threaten academic speech and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect.” I was surprised that it was the very first quote. Then there’s another, from Stanley N. Katz, “a higher-education policy expert at Princeton University and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies,” no less. He says that, “Why anyone should care what the ASA thinks bewilders me. It is not a very large academic association, and it is not one that characteristically has a big impact in the academy." So, on the one hand, they criticize the boycott because it’s against academic freedom and free speech, and, on the other, we shouldn’t care, because the ASA is minor.

Jim Hicks: Well, if we shouldn’t care, why are there well over a hundred university presidents who care enough to make headlines by speaking for their institutions within a matter of days or weeks during a period in which the rest of their faculty aren’t on campus?

Adam Sitze: I too don’t come to this easily, but my emphasis might come down differently from what you’ve said. First of all, in terms of Friel’s book, I was quite persuaded by his detailed and careful summary of the recent history of the term “apartheid” in the US. That to me was one of the most cosmopolitan elements of the book, one of the elements that most departed from the constitutional patriotism I otherwise saw informing his approach to legality. The fact that this Afrikaner word, “apartheid,” was codified in international law implies that it should not apply only to one case, to the case of its origin. No, it implies that in principle it should be citable or iterable in contexts outside of South Africa. The 1973 Convention for the Suppression of Apartheid lays out in great detail why apartheid is not just a historically specific, culturally specific moment in the legal history of one country, but in fact a general crime that ought to be of concern for anyone who thinks seriously about international law and its history.

Jim Hicks: I would even say, on just this point, if Friel had done nothing else, it alone would make this book absolutely essential. I was just blown away by this, only a small part of which I knew—though I’m sure Adam did. Still, it’s wonderfully done.

Adam Sitze: Yes, so let’s set aside, for a moment, the arguments which have been made for and against the boycott and ask a different question, one that’s implied in this controversy, that seems to me even to govern it, but that has yet to fully emerge as a problem within it. What, really, does it mean to listen to a voice we’re not prepared to hear? What does it mean to hear a word, such as for example “apartheid,” that we’re not prepared to understand—or, more to the point, that for a host of reasons we’re positively determined to misunderstand, to refuse to grasp and comprehend?

On the one hand, when it comes to apartheid, few people know better what apartheid means, what the word itself means, and few people are more authorized to speak about what apartheid is than Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of South Africa’s Truth Commission from 1996 to 2003. In this capacity, he listened to the testimony of thousands of South Africans of every race speak about apartheid. So what should we think when we hear someone like this say that what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank is apartheid? Dershowitz to my knowledge is not a scholar of South Africa; I have not seen him attempt a sustained study of South Africa. By what right can he claim to know better than Tutu what this word means, where to iterate it, and what its iteration implies?

It’s not difficult to conjure up an answer: Dershowitz rejects this word because it seems to him to be a word that stings, a word that hurts, a word that burns. It seems to him a word that matters primarily because of what philosophers of language would call its “performative force,” its status as a speech act, as an utterance more akin to an act than to speech. But perhaps precisely the opposite—to be able to hear, in this speech act, speech more than act—is what it means to be able to listen, to strain to hear what we don’t want to hear. To find sense and meaning in what at first seems to us a mere action, and a hurtful action at that—perhaps that’s what it means to hear the claim of someone who’s saying something we don’t want to hear, something we want to believe is not true.

That’s the first thing that I would want to say. For those who experience the word “apartheid” not only as a speech act, but more precisely as more act than speech, it burns the ears to hear Israel discussed as an apartheid state. But once we can hear the speech in this speech act, once we let the red burn of outrage in our ears subside, then we can hear in this discussion an important corollary, even a promising corollary. In apartheid South Africa, after all, we witnessed bitterly opposed enemies come to a negotiated settlement. We saw a new social compact and a new constitution whose appearance came as a surprise to almost all of the country’s closest observers. To refuse to hear the word “apartheid” in discussions of Israel seems to me to refuse the South African path as a possible future for Israel and Palestine. To refuse the iterability of the word “apartheid” seems to me to refuse the iterability of the South African transition to democracy. It seems to me to refuse the notion that there exists a future other than endless war for Palestine and Israel. Why would we want to do that?

So even though it burns the ears of some, and even though its iteration in the US is certainly politically incorrect, this is a word that actually contains the trace of something deeply hopeful. South Africa’s own transition is of course far from perfect, and I’m not romanticizing it. But surely it’s preferable to what many people thought was going to happen to South Africa in the mid-1980s, when states of emergencies, illegal detentions, targeted killings, and torture were part of daily experience. Those who refuse to listen when “apartheid” and “Israel” are placed into contact seem to me to be resigned to the idea that a daily experience of that sort is the most we can hope for in Israel and Palestine. Friel does not share this resignation, and I hope people pay special attention to this part of his book.

Now take the ASA. A colleague in American Studies once said to me that people who try to talk about Israel and Palestine in America get reduced to four labels—terrorist, anti-Semite, Zionist, and self-hating Jew. How true. Okay, but now suppose that you oppose the notion that Israel should have the right to build settlements in an occupied territory, which is clearly against international law. But suppose as well that you are against the violence of Hamas and Hezbollah, suppose one you are against firing rockets into Israel and so forth. What then are the paths open to you? What sorts of positions are available to you? You can’t go through the UN, because everything you try there will be vetoed. How then do you begin to criticize Israel’s violation of international law without being silenced, without having your speech and action reduced to a pre-existing slot?

To me that’s one of the questions for which the ASA’s action is the answer. Here’s another: What should we do when a coalition of groups from Palestinian civil society—up to and including our academic colleagues in Palestinian universities—asks us to consider an academic boycott? What does it mean, in other words, that it’s the moderates in Palestinian civil society who are asking us to think about taking this step?

To write this proposal off as extreme, as an obvious violation of academic freedom, to denounce it unconditionally, to treat it as antithetical to the values of academic discourse and free inquiry more generally, which so many university presidents have done—all of this seems to me to say to Palestinian moderates something like the following. “Extremism won’t work, we denounce terrorism, but, guess what? When your civil society speaks, when hundreds of your civil society organizations and trade unions get together and say, in a coordinated way, and after a sustained process of debate and deliberation, ‘This is what we want, here’s what we would like you to do,’” we say, ‘No, actually, that won’t work either!’ Your extremism is a problem, your violence is a problem—but by the way, your moderate proposals are a problem too! Your terrorism is a problem—but so are your alternatives to terrorism!” To me this is what many of the critics of the boycott seem to be saying, even if they don’t realize it. I think it’s more than a little bit symptomatic, more than a little bit inconsistent, and I think it should be cause for self-examination. If you know that Israel violates international law, if on those same grounds you’re opposed to violent opposition to Israel, but if you’re also opposed to the non-violent pressure on Israel proposed by Palestinian civil society—well, what is it exactly that you want?

That, to me, is really what the ASA boycott is about. Even if it is in some ways ineffective, even if some of the administrative details are questionable (and I find Amanda’s point compelling), the decisive problem still seems to me today to be: what does it mean to listen to words that one isn’t prepared to hear, that we desire not to hear? The ASA seems to me trying to listen to those who are speaking to us from outside of our interpretive horizons, who are using words that seem to us to be not words but acts, words which to that precise degree are undesirable or even impossible for us to hear. I think that should be praised.

As for academic freedom, what’s so interesting to me is that, when you go read what the AAUP actually has to say about academic freedom in its 1940 statement, you find important but vague references to the common good. Academic freedom is not an end unto itself, the AAUP seems to say in its famous statement. It’s not itself an absolute good, it’s a means to the end of another good, a deeper purpose, something called the “common good.” So when we talk about academic freedom together, one thing I think we should be clear about is the need to answer a question the AAUP leaves somewhat open: what really do we mean by the common good? What vision of the common good do we have in mind when we think about academic freedom?

To me, that common good has to include Palestinian colleagues. If they’re saying that we should consider a boycott as a means to the end of peace, which is a common good if ever there was one, I think we should take that very seriously. The opposite proposition—that the “common good” served by academic freedom must exclude our Palestinian colleagues and include only Israeli colleagues—seems to me highly political, if not the very logic of war itself. And this logic is what critics of the boycott seem to me to obey when they confidently say that it violates academic freedom. Their confidence seems to me predicated on the idea that, obviously, self-evidently, our idea of the common good doesn’t need to include Palestinian colleagues. And they also seem to me to be saying something like this. “Even though academic freedom has a deeper purpose, even though it is a means to the end of some common good, nevertheless there are still cases when academic freedom can serve as an end unto itself, when academic freedom can preclude our attempts at the common good. Academic inquiry serves the common good—except sometimes it can also replace the common good, sometimes it can become a good unto itself.” Doesn’t this argument defeat the very purpose of academic freedom? Critics of the ASA boycott have fixated upon its administrative difficulties—the impossibility of distinguishing people from institutions, and the invalidity of any boycott founded on that distinction. But don’t these same critics adopt a position that allows us to forget the whole point of academic freedom in the first place? In defending its branches, don’t they weaken its root?

Amanda Minervini: No, no, no. I agree with you. We should take it very seriously, and actually, instead of talking about academic freedom, I’d like us to talk more about academic influence on American politics, because I think the problem is there. I think we should be more radical; we really need to ask the United States to change, to pressure Israel to do certain things, to pressure directly the government, to require that international law is respected. So I think the boycott is somewhat strange, and that it’s not enough.

Adam Sitze: Here’s what I would say then. Take divestment in South Africa. The divestment movement took place in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was operating on a policy it called “constructive engagement.” Reagan was saying, “We need to keep talking to the apartheid government, you can’t break off ties,” while in South Africa the South African police are killing people on the streets. The anti-apartheid movement in the United States responded in a desperate but extremely original way. They decided that they didn’t need the federal government to make foreign policy, that they could work instead through stockholders, through multinational corporations, through university governance, through pension funds—that, essentially, they could cobble together an assemblage of different jurisdictions that, taken together, could make effective foreign policy at a moment when the federal government was trying to lock down emancipatory politics with diplomatic euphemisms.

To me something similar seems to be happening today. Right now, John Kerry is applying the most moderate pressure on Israel, and certain figures on the Israeli right are reacting by calling him all kinds of names, accusing him of being messianic and so forth. Today, although in a different way than in the 1980s, we’re locked down at the federal level, and, out of desperation, there’s a need to think through alternate jurisdictions for emancipatory politics. After years and years of this, fourteen or fifteen years, it seems to me that civil society in Palestine has finally said, “Look, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for your federal government to negotiate with Israel. Israel is build new settlements, month and month, year after year, and at a certain point negotiations will be pointless, there will be no land to negotiate over.” Palestinian moderates seem to have told us, in other words, that they don’t have the luxury of waiting for more constructive engagement. And so what I think they’ve said, out of desperation, is “Let’s look at South Africa, and the way that academic institutions served the anti-apartheid movement as an alternate mode of jurisdiction for producing an emancipatory politics when traditional political institutions were stalled in deadlock.” And you know, Jim’s right, this is part of a larger boycott. There are people calling for the boycott of all Israeli goods.

Jim Hicks: In fact, one of things I heard at the MLA is that the Netherlands did divest its pensions from Israel. So it is a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions call and the academic boycott is only a small part of it. And, just to go on the record on this, part of the reason that I wanted to hear the debate at the MLA, and to do as much reading about the ASA resolution as I could, is that my instincts were simply, “Of course this should be done.” But first I wanted to hear more about why there was this tremendous resistance and organized response. No academic institution, so far as I know, has supported the ASA. So part of what I wanted to hear was reasoning behind the outrage, because my initial, instinctual response, was simply that the ASA proposal makes perfect sense. And, frankly, I haven’t yet heard any argument that makes sense to me on the other side.

Adam Sitze: At Amherst College there’s been a lot of discussion about this between different faculty members. There seem to be two arguments against the boycott from the left: first, that this could further isolate internal critics in Israel. This could be a problem and it’s something to take seriously. The second argument is that the ASA proposal is a symbolic and ineffective move. But if this is so, as you say, why then was there such an inconsistent response? By “inconsistent,” I mean that the various leaders who went on the record—such as the Association of American Universities—went on the record saying that any abridgement of academic freedom on the basis of political considerations is intolerable. But by that standard they should oppose the occupation on the grounds that Judith Butler set forth seven years ago, namely, that the occupation itself is a manifestly political abridgement of academic freedom. If American universities are unconditionally in support of academic freedom, it seems to me, logically speaking, on Chomskyan grounds, they should be committed to a critique of the occupation. But they’re silent on that. What we have instead is outrage, a highly Dershowitzian outrage, one that’s excessively defensive of Israel but frankly whose excesses are not even in Israel’s own self-interest. In any case, I think that the outrage is symptomatic, and shows this is not just a symbolic position. Something very important is happening here.

Jim Hicks: To put a somewhat positive spin on it, this could be the beginnings of an actual debate, even if it doesn’t look much like a debate at the moment. As you said, something needed to happen in order to get things moving. Seven years, fifteen years. . . the situation is intolerable, and things really must change. So what is necessary for change to begin? At some level, it’s anyone’s guess, but this could conceivably be part of it.

Amanda Minervini: If I could add something. . . I would like to say that, although I think that this boycott is limited, although I think it should be taken into consideration more seriously, I am very glad that the American Studies Association decided to produce this document and stir up the debate. I thought that it would be more generally accepted by its members, but right now I’m worried that the ASA is going to split, and then the intellectuals who rightly spoke about this problem are going to be isolated themselves, they are going to be boycotted, in some fashion.

Today, a whistleblower like Edward Snowden, is indicted, waiting for some government (perhaps Brazil?) to grant him political asylum, while Dershowitz is happy and free to fabricate his arguments. Whistleblowers are paying high prices for revealing information that too many people still either ignore or feel incapable of confronting. What would MIT do today with a new Chomsky? Do we even have one? It takes incredible courage to say certain things, and an incredible scholarly record to be able to keep one’s job. . .

Link to Part Five

Amanda Minervini is Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian and German at Salem State University. She has published translations of Giorgio Agamben, Wendy Brown, and Carlo Galli, as well as essays on Saint Francis, Italian cinema, and the work of the philosopher Roberto Esposito. Her essay on the war years of Saint Francis and Pope Francis will appear in MR this fall.

Adam Sitze is Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College and author of The Impossible Machine: A Genealogy of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2013). He has also edited, with Timothy Campbell, Biopolitics: A Reader (Duke UP, 2013) as well as Carlo Galli's Political Spaces and Global War (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2010).



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