David Simpson is Distinguished Professor of English at University of California, Davis; he received the G. B. Needham Endowed Chair in English in 2008. He previously he taught at Columbia, University of Colorado, Northwestern University, and Cambridge. He is a member of the editorial boards of Cambridge Studies in Romanticism and Modern Language Quarterly. Simpson is the author of numerous books, including Situatedness; or Why we Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (Duke U P, 2002), 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (U of Chicago P, 2006); Wordsworth, Commodification, and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity (Cambridge U P, 2009); and Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger (U of Chicago P, 2013). He has received numerous scholarly awards, and in 2016, he became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. In summer 2016, he traveled to the West Bank.
Sign the “Open Letter” calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only the signatures of (former or current) MLA members will be included.
I have just returned from my first trip to Israel-Palestine. I went as a committed supporter of the BDS campaign, so yes, I was predisposed to feel judgmental. And even during a period of relative calm, with the IDF in (mostly) stand-down mode for Ramadan, the atmosphere of oppression was palpable. I will spare you numerous anecdotes of and insights into the mechanisms of occupation, from the relatively petty to the outright fatal. Suffice it to say that there is no significant freedom for Palestinians, either in Israel or in the West Bank (Gaza was of course off limits: no one can get in or out except illegally and at real personal risk). And without basic freedom there is no academic freedom, which is after all what we scholars are supposed to care about. The nuts and bolts of day to day oppression and persecution will be the topic of another narrative. Vividly as they were brought home to me, they are not news to those who have been following the situation with any attention.
. . . no one said anything to suggest that the decisions of academic groups like the MLA were other than extremely important. They are watched especially closely by the Palestinians, and are taken as tangible evidence that the situation of Palestinian scholars is not forgotten, that they are still regarded as members of an international academic community . . .
Here I want to write not about what confirmed, over and over again, and made more visceral and immediate what I already knew from the recounted lives of others, but what surprised me. I came to realize that I have been functioning with a not uncommon cynicism about how much (i.e. how little) it matters that armchair activists thousands of miles away are trying to draw attention to the plight of faculty and students seeking to pursue first and higher degrees and minimally flourishing careers in conditions of coercive, racist oppression and outright violence. Who really cares, I have been thinking to myself, if the good folk of the MLA do or do not pass a resolution in support of BDS? What difference will it make, in a world governed by ruthless neoliberal values and an international security industry to which the Israeli government has hugely contributed and from which it continues to profit, if a few humanities professors bang their shoes on the table and express polite dissent? I had felt a strong obligation to support BDS, but had no clear sense of its impact or likely success. I felt I was doing the right thing, but very much for its own sake.