Jacques Lezra Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Jacques Lezra is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at New York University, and a LezraJacques-210x244member of the Departments of English and German.  In 2016 he became a member of the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of California—Riverside.  His most recent book is Contra los fueros de la muerte: El suceso cervantino (2016), collecting articles and unpublished essays as well as translations of chapters from his first book, Unspeakable Subjects: The Genealogy of the Event in Early Modern Europe (1997).  His Wild Materialism: The Ethic of Terror and the Modern Republic appeared in 2010; the Spanish translation was published in 2012; the Chinese translation appeared in 2013.  Lezra is the co-editor of Lucretius and Modernity (2016).  With Georgina Dopico Black, he edited the unpublished manuscript of Sebastián de Covarrubias’s ca. 1613 Suplemento al ‘Tesoro de la lengua castellana’.  He has edited collections of essays on the work of Althusser, Balibar and Macherey, and on Spanish republicanism.  

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.

Dear Friends,

You’ve asked me to join other members of the Modern Language Association who have written statements about BDS.  I found it hard to take a public stand when the matter came up for me about two years ago: the fear of losing old, dear friendships weighed; of angering family.  Things in Israel/Palestine have changed since then, and here too, for me. Thank you for asking again.

I support the BDS movement, and I believe academic organizations like the MLA should vote to endorse the BDS motions that will come before them.  I support the movement for reasons similar to the ones that led me to support the boycott of South African goods during the years of apartheid.  Then advocates of sanctions were addressing in one way the scandal of an openly racist regime that sought legitimacy from and financial stability in the international community.  We hoped isolating, shaming, and to whatever extent we could manage financially constraining the apartheid regime would help bring about its end.  Matters in Israel/Palestine are different.  The dispossession of Palestinians and the juridical license to guarantee their subjection through any means necessary is not, with signal and repugnant exceptions, expressed or founded in explicitly racist terms.  The moral claim upon us, however, is not different from the claim made upon us by the violence of the apartheid regime.  Violence, systematic, structural and punctual, unceasingly exerted in every domain, supported economically and sheltered politically and militarily by the United States: this is the day-to-day experience of the Palestinian population under occupation.  I feel a special obligation to reject this state of affairs and to express my solidarity with the people of Palestine, because the country I live in and pay taxes in provides this support to the Israeli government.

“Because a boycott of Israeli academic institutions helps to bring into relief the role these institutions have in supporting everyday and structural violence in the Territories.”

I’m asked questions about my position.  Many of them are fruit of misinformation or fear. I answer them with some confidence and without claiming to speak for every supporter of BDS, a large, disaggregated movement with different tendencies and constituencies whose core principles and goals are routinely misunderstood and mischaracterized as eliminationist, anti-Semitic, naive, counterproductive, unfair, and so on.  Here are the questions I have the greatest trouble answering, for myself and for others.  Why would I, or any academic, support the boycott of academic institutions?  Surely we should encourage dialogue with colleagues who, after all, may be as repelled as we are by their government’s actions—more so, since they live with their consequences intimately.  Isn’t it exactly wrong, exactly counterproductive to close ourselves off to allies, or to the colleagues from whom we’d learn the most about the matter itself?  Let’s say we granted that an economic boycott would serve to isolate, shame, and financially constrain the Israeli state and its backers in the United States.  And let’s say that this might then have concrete political results.  Fine.  An economic boycott makes sense.  But why the universities?

Because it is in this domain that, as academics, we have some expertise, and thus the greatest responsibility.  Because the boycott may, as Lila Abu-Lughod has put it, push members of MLA “and their colleagues and friends in the US to think even harder about what else they might do about the relative privilege in which they work as academics and live as human beings. How could they help Palestinian colleagues achieve equality and dignity, not to mention helping other Palestinians?”  (Abu-Lughod has in mind anthropologists, but I see no reason to limit her argument to anthropologists.)  Because a boycott of Israeli academic institutions helps to bring into relief the role these institutions have in supporting everyday and structural violence in the Territories.  Finally, because the boycott and the discussion it provokes show up the role that academic institutions in Israel and in the United States—including professional organizations—have in normalizing that support: in making it a legitimate part of academic life.  It is not.

The answers don’t entirely satisfy.  It doesn’t satisfy me, for instance, nor do I think it’s fully possible, to draw a distinction between individuals—colleagues I’d collaborate with outside of institutional frames—and the institutions to which they and I belong, which pay our salaries and furnish us with the material wherewithal to carry on these extra-institutional contacts.  But distinctions don’t have to be drawn fully or categorically to be effective under particular circumstances.  Not all answers will satisfy us fully.  We bear this in mind, we acknowledge the provisionality and friability of our distinctions and the partiality of some of our answers, we hew to them as best we can.  They’re enough for me.

Dear friends, I find it discouraging and enraging that I feel the need now to lay out my bona fides—I feel shame: as if my background, the religion that my parents and sisters and I practiced, the company I’ve kept and sought over the years, my politics, where I’ve lived and how I’ve brought up my children—as if any or all of this could serve to explain my support for BDS, or make my support appear more legitimate or excusable, or could shelter me from gross accusations of anti-Semitism, of ignorance, of naiveté, or should help to persuade others somehow to adopt my position.  The situation in Israel/Palestine is on its face so clamorously wrong—the harm being done so clear, the imbalance of power so manifest, the complicity of many in the United States so brazen—that any such justification, any explanation that brings my life in particular into consideration, seems to trivialize my condemning that wrong.

“The means available to those of us in the United States—individual academics and our professional organizations—who are repelled by the policies of the Israeli government and who wish to support the Palestinian population are few and likely to become fewer.  BDS is one tool.”

So I won’t reach for those explanations; I won’t lean on my stories.  The means available to those of us in the United States—individual academics and our professional organizations—who are repelled by the policies of the Israeli government and who wish to support the Palestinian population are few and likely to become fewer.  BDS is one tool; it isn’t the only one, and it shouldn’t be imagined as an alternative, but as a complement, to the sorts of tools US citizens have, have used, and should marshal to seek change and redress in the US: the tools of democratic process, protest, information, education.  I support the BDS movement because I believe that it, in combination with other means, will help to isolate the Israeli government internationally; to shame those in the United States and elsewhere who support Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories; to help disclose the role of academic institutions in making possible and palatable to some the Occupation; to apply some small, but perhaps increasing, economic pressure; and thereby help bring about a just solution to the conflict.

All my best,

Jacques Lezra