Stathis Gourgouris’ Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics, English, and Comparative Literature & Society at stathis photoColumbia University. He is the author of Dream Nation (1996); Does Literature Think? (2003); Lessons in Secular Criticism (2013); and editor of Freud and Fundamentalism (2010). He also writes regularly in internet media (such as The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books,  Al Jazeera, Open Democracy, The Immanent Frame), as well as major Greek newspapers and journals on political and literary matters. A collection of such essays on poetics and politics, written in Greek over a period of 25 years, is forthcoming in 2016 with the title Contingent Disorders. He is also an internationally awarded poet, with four volumes of poetry published in Greek, most recent being Introduction to Physics (Athens, 2005). His work has been translated into French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, and Hebrew. He has served as Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia (2009-2015); President of the Modern Greek Studies Association (2006-2012); and at the Board of Supervisors of the English Institute, Harvard University (2006-2009).

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 consider my support of BDS the realization of my most elementary democratic responsibility. In the sense that the ranks of my profession internationally constitute a demos of which I am a part, I cannot possibly sit aside and allow a specific constituency (the Israeli state and its institutions across the board) to exercise violence against the basic liberties of another (the life of Palestinians across the board) year after year for decades with total impunity.

My support of BDS against the Israeli state and its institutions is not directed against the people of Israel and surely not the Jews of the world. Nor does it stop me from collaborating with Israeli colleagues on specific projects.

Let’s keep in mind that the call for BDS emerged from the ranks of Palestinian colleagues and students whose very lives are conducted daily under the guns of the Israeli army. To call these life conditions a “violation of academic freedom,” although entirely factual an assessment, is almost absurd in its formalism. When people are being killed systematically, their homes and means of livelihood demolished, their prospects of living and flourishing ruined, their basic rights trampled daily, all on top of a whole history of their land having been stolen, occupied, reapportioned, bought and sold, and their people dispossessed, expelled, and exterminated, to speak only in terms of academic freedom is to touch on the barest elements of the issue. Nonetheless, as academics who take seriously our democratic responsibility, this is the very least we can do in light of an unjustifiable situation.

Critics of BDS point to what they call the exceptionalism of the action, namely that Israel is singled out as a target, and in that sense they charge BDS with anti-Semitism. Nothing can be more deviously misleading. On the contrary, BDS testifies precisely to the fact that no exceptions are being made. Just like boycott and divestment actions in which I have participated in the past – César Chavez’s pioneering action in California and later the boycott of South Africa’s apartheid policies – BDS against Israeli state policies of violence means precisely that Israel cannot be allowed to be an exception.

I participate in the international call for BDS against Israel with the same conviction I took to my recent participation in international actions against the Turkish state’s arrest of academics and students for exercising their right to criticize their government or against the Saudi state’s condemnation of the poet Asraf Fayadh to death on charges of blasphemy. I make no exceptions when it comes to state violence against people, whether indigenous or neighbors to the land, and the Israeli state is one of the worst such violators in contemporary history.

My support of BDS against the Israeli state and its institutions is not directed against the people of Israel and surely not the Jews of the world. Nor does it stop me from collaborating with Israeli colleagues on specific projects. Support of such Israeli colleagues and students especially who engage in actions against their state, often with dire consequences against them and their families, I consider imperative.

Nor, moreover, does my support of BDS keep me from being critical of certain actions conducted in its name which I consider politically misguided. The boycott of the extraordinary West-Eastern Divan Orchestra project, created by Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said, is one such case I criticize. But this is precisely the point. BDS is a movement whose ranks are heterogeneous and engaged in democratic action and self-critique. It is not an ideologically blind movement – people in BDS are constantly thinking and rethinking their position. To support it does not mean to temper in the least one’s exercise of unbounded (self-) critique.

BDS is the very least we can do in this climate of both overt and tacit support (especially in the US) of Israel’s abhorrent policies of extermination of Palestinian life which have been going on unfathomably for decades on end. The recent wrathful response of certain institutions, both in America and abroad, against BDS testifies to BDS’s importance and effectiveness. As an MLA member of 35 years, I consider endorsing BDS to be essentially pertinent to the Association’s basic values in favor of academic freedom. Let us not cower before the insidious backlash from institutions we otherwise fight against every day in our workplaces and in our lives.