Colin Dayan Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Colin Dayan is Professor of English, Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and Professor personal_photoof Law at Vanderbilt University. She works in prison law; the legal and religious history of the Americas; nineteenth-century American, French and English literary history; Caribbean Literature and African American Studies. The recipient of numerous awards including Danforth, NEH and Guggenheim fellowships she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. Her many publications include the following books: With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press in 2015); The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton UP, 2011), a Choice Outstanding Academic book; The Story of Cruel and Unusual (MIT/Boston Review Press, 2007); Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 1995, 1998), a Centennial Book; Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (Oxford University Press New York, 1987); A Rainbow for the Christian West (University of Massachusetts Press, 1977). Over the past ten years, she has written widely on prison rights, the legalities of torture, canine profiling, animal law, and the racial contours of US practices of punishment for The Boston Review, The New York Times, The London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera America, where she is a contributing editor.

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 attended college during the last gasp of the New Criticism. Every piece of literature stood on its own, unblemished by anything so vulgar as politics. When the multi-cultural and post-colonial turn came to literary study, its inclusion of so-called “non-Western” writers came with a cost. A newfangled language of theory wrenched texts out of their contexts. With the academic tools of the trade came a language that was often inaccessible, that leeched writers of their histories and specific locales. We silenced the very people we claimed to be speaking about. In those days—nearly thirty years ago now—the academy was a place of coercive if tactful training.

In Israel and in the United States, where threats both professional and private to those who dare to raise questions or debate about Palestinian human and political rights remain very much a reality, our political engagement and action within the halls of the MLA will send a message

What kind of freedom do we promise when we talk about “academic freedom”? To speak out against the obvious and open abuse and destruction of Palestinians is to be tarred with the brush of hatred, or worse.  In Israel and in the United States, where threats both professional and private to those who dare to raise questions or debate about Palestinian human and political rights remain very much a reality, our political engagement and action within the halls of the MLA will send a message that Israeli leaders will be the first to understand.

Summoning anti-Semitism as cause and effect of the boycott obscures the facts on the ground that led to the long history of the BDS movement in Palestine: the “legal” expropriation of homes by Israeli settlers—destroying thousands upon thousands of olive trees in the process; the “quiet transfer” of Palestinian citizens of Israel; the 30 ft. wall or “separation barrier”—just one of the many ways Israel has partitioned, quarantined, and blocked daily life; the imprisonment and torture of prisoners, often without due process or any process at all; the ever-expanding settlements; a punishing blockade and four unspeakable attacks on Gaza; the forcible removal of thousands of Bedouin living in unrecognized villages in the Negev, and I could go on and on … .

Most of all, our decision as an association to gather together, to speak up and take action on behalf of those places and peoples all too easily forgotten in the glitz and furor of profit and consumption is the most that we can do in these dread times.

And that is the point.  Apparently nothing can stop the escalation of atrocity and disregard.  Whatever happens in schools, on farms or at the checkpoints, on the by-pass roads or in the rubble, wherever, seems to be invisible or, to be more precise, unmentionable. Such immunity takes root.  It ensures that brutality and systematic expropriation continue unimpeded, greeted with acquiescence and silence, not only in Israel but also in the United States, its closest ally.  To support an MLA boycott resolution is to face off such polite erasure and raise difficult questions about racial superiority and genocide in the precincts of privilege. Most of all, our decision as an association to gather together, to speak up and take action on behalf of those places and peoples all too easily forgotten in the glitz and furor of profit and consumption is the most that we can do in these dread times.

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