David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California-Riverside, presented this paper at the 2015 AAA Convention in Denver.
It is six years almost to the day, and two further violent incursions, since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead rained the firepower of one of the world’s most advanced military forces on the open-air prison of Gaza. Some 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in that act of collective punishment, and at least 23 educational institutions were destroyed or severely damaged. In response to this extraordinarily disproportionate offensive, the US congress passed a Senate Resolution in support of Israel that was a tissue of mendacity and half-truths. Only four very courageous representatives dissented. In the summer of 2014, none did.
Appalled at the brutality of Cast Lead and observing the utter closure of the political sphere to any serious criticism of Israel’s policies and practices, a number of US academics concluded that it was time to endorse the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions and invited their colleagues to do likewise. Where the political process is blocked by money, power or influence, we have no option but to activate a civil society movement to educate and change the discourse. The divestment movement did just that in the 1980s when the Reagan administration was committed to “constructive engagement” with South Africa. Now, six years since Cast Lead, several scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, together with religious groups and unions, have endorsed that call for boycott, and begun to prove the effectiveness of such a grassroots movement.
In the furious responses to these endorsements, with their resort to authoritarianism, intimidation and spurious legal threats, what the boycott actually calls for has often been misrepresented, sometimes maliciously. But you will know, whether you have read the ASA’s statements or those of PACBI itself, or those produced by AAA’s boycott proponents, that what is called for is a boycott of institutions whose complicity in Israel’s regime of discrimination, occupation and dispossession is a matter of well-documented record. Complicity is not a vague charge, but a description of the operative involvement of Israeli institutions of all kinds but not excluding its universities, in the maintenance and furthering of occupation, dispossession and discrimination. Universities do not get a free pass in the name of an academic freedom they neither respect nor uphold when it comes to Palestinian scholars and students.
Nonetheless, the boycott does not call for, and does not espouse, the boycott of individual faculty in Israel or anywhere else. Not only does it not prevent intellectual and scholarly exchanges, it positively encourages them. Indeed, since the movement for academic boycott has gained visibility, public discussion and debate about an issue that was too long the “third rail” of academia as of politics has become not only possible, but even normal. Is it this discussion that Israel and its supporters see as such an existential threat?
In the short time that I have, I do not wish to defend the boycott movement. A non-violent, human-rights based movement for freedom, equality and justice, one that opposes a regime of exceptional and systemic inequity, exclusion, dispossession and brazen colonial expansion, needs no defense. But I do want to say what I think this movement actually represents.
The call for BDS, issued by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society movements in 2005, takes seriously the fundamental moral and political principle that rights cannot be doled out in full to some and only partially to others on the basis of ethnicity, religion or other ascriptions of identity. Accordingly, it seeks the recognition of the human and civil rights of all Palestinians, those in the occupied and blockaded West Bank and Gaza, those within Israel, and those in exile in the diaspora. The furious outcry that insists that to turn to the time-honored strategy of boycott infringes on the academic freedoms of Israeli scholars serves to disguise what should be the glaring outrage, that the freedoms of Palestinians—and not only their academic freedoms—are daily violated to maintain the privileges of one ethno-religious group. More insidiously, on account of this simple and surely unexceptional demand to be considered fully human and therefore deserving of rights, BDS has been accused of covertly intending the “destruction of the state of Israel”, with all the connotations of genocide or expulsion that that phrase more or less openly invokes. But if a state cannot exist without the denial of those rights—as even liberal Zionists now admit—then surely it is for that state to justify itself, and not the movement that pursues those rights.
But it is no secret that what BDS seeks is no more—and no less—than Israel’s transformation. It asks Israel actually to be what it pretends to be, a normal democracy, a state of and for its entire people, and a state that respects its obligations under international law and human rights norms. It does not ask anyone to leave or to accept less than equal rights. It asks only that Jewish citizens of Israel be willing to live on equal terms with non-Jewish citizens, with the Palestinian citizens of the state, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular, and to live in a land that belongs to all its citizens, free of legalized racial discrimination. That would be real belonging, not colonial settlement.
This is an invitation, not a threat. It is an invitation to Israelis, and to all people, to realize the emancipatory potential embedded in every struggle for justice and in every act of local or international solidarity with those struggles. It is an invitation to free oneself from the painful contradiction of advocating democracy and defending and supporting oppression. It is an invitation to step out of the meshes of a colonial Zionist project that has become a nightmare, ever more rigid and repressive, and to embrace the possibilities and the risks that true democracy entails. It is, for us all, an invitation to bring home the lessons of the Palestinian struggle for the right to education, freedom and justice and to fight for them here also.
Settler colonialism is a system of differential privilege. We should recall that for a peace process to begin, white South Africans had to stand down from their exclusionary racial privileges. In Northern Ireland too, Protestants had to relinquish their monopoly on rule in order for the peace process to begin. Some have called these the costs of peace making. Perhaps it would be better to think of them as the gifts peace brings to those willing to contemplate cohabitation in a just society based on real equality. Furthermore, in my experience, to receive that gift has already been an intellectual as well as a political lesson: over and over again, working in and with the boycott movement has confirmed something that one already knew, if only as a supposition: activism is not only the extension of thinking into the world, but the reciprocal transformation of thought by an active engagement with the world. A movement like BDS, that is growing and adapting even in the face of increasingly ugly efforts to repress it and all it stands for, obliges invention and creativity. It becomes, as I have witnessed again and again, and am witnessing once more here at AAA, the crucible for new thinking about ends and outcomes, possibilities and potentialities. Unlike Zionism, it is not becoming ossified and rigid, but continues to reach beyond itself, to critique its suppositions, to imagine what it could be, not only for Palestinians but for all of us, to live otherwise. Such for me is the full meaning of the boycott.