Ania Loomba is Catherine Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes on early modern literature, race and colonialism, and South Asian literature and culture. Her books include Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (OUP, 2002), Colonialism/ Postcolonialism (Routledge, 1998; second edition 2005, third edition, 2015), Gender Race Renaissance Drama (1989), as well as several edited collections on South Asian and early modern feminisms, early modern race, and postcolonial studies.
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 urge you to support the MLA resolution in favor of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. I recognize that many of you feel a boycott of Israel is an extreme step, and others may feel that it is likely to be ineffective, or that it is divisive for a body like the MLA to even discuss academic boycotts. Precisely the same arguments and hesitations accompanied the boycott of apartheid South Africa, and like that earlier movement, the BDS movement is not an attempt to muzzle academic or artistic freedom, or contact across borders, or a clampdown on individual rights, or an expression of anti-Semitism, as its opponents allege. On the contrary, it is a plea to recognize that intellectual, personal and religious freedoms simply cannot be exercised alongside the systematic brutalization of an entire people.
As teachers and students of literature we deal with the most controversial of issues, and we cannot shy away from this one. I teach and study histories of race and colonialism. It is impossible for me to do so and not see how Palestinians today are an unfree, colonized, and thoroughly oppressed people.
As a feminist, it is impossible for me to ignore the appeals of Palestinian women to the international community for protection from the “constant attacks, excessive and indiscriminate use of force used by the Israeli oppressive apparatus, acts of violence and daily terror committed by Israeli Jewish civilians, including settlers.” As an academic, I hear the plea of my Palestinian counterparts to consider the boycott of “companies and institutions that help Israel to commit its crimes.” Israeli academic institutions are increasingly implicated in military and security industries of that country. Our Israeli colleagues are not free agents, but part of this state establishment. We can talk to them, we can meet them in conferences, we can write papers with them. The boycott is against a repressive state, not against intellectual connections and debate.
When I was growing up, my Indian passport was stamped: “Not valid for travel to South Africa or Israel.” Newly independent India aligned itself with other anti-colonial movements, the South African anti-apartheid movement, and stood against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. This did not come in the way of intellectual exchanges between people. I myself established contact with anti-apartheid Shakespearian scholars in South Africa through publishers in London, and we started a dialogue in spite of the difficulties involved. As in India, Shakespeare had been used both to suppress freedoms in South Africa and to amplify calls for liberty. After the dismantling of apartheid our conversations could finally become face to face. In 1994 a conference in Johannesburg gathered Shakespeareans from the US, England, many countries of Europe, India and Israel to reflect on Shakespeare, race and post-colonialism at that point of history. Today, there are Shakespereans in Israel who support the BDS movement, and we can work with them to imagine a similar conference in the future in Israel, one in Palestinians can participate as equals.
That India in which I grew up has changed. Over the last two decades the Indian state has turned away from the pro-freedom and self-determination stance it adopted after decolonization. Now it eagerly buys arms from Israel; according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “India is now the No. 1 export target of Israel’s defense industries.” Indeed, Israel has become one of the world’s largest exporter of arms because of India’s patronage. (See Jeff Halper, War Against the People: Israelm The Palestinians and Global Pacification London: Pluto Press, 2015: 214.) India has not only acquired drones and radars from Israel but set up a joint “anti-terror” commission with it. India is also eager to learn surveillance and policing methods from Israel as it quells discontent and human rights within its own borders, especially Kashmir where the situation has eerie echoes with that obtaining in Palestine. In 1947 when India became free, Muslim majority Kashmir was promised a plebiscite to decide whether it would remain with Indian or join Pakistan. But the promise never materialized, and especially over the last two decades, Kashmiri demands for freedom have escalated and been expressed in intifada-like uprisings. The Indian state insists that those demanding freedom are simply “terrorists.” Under a Hindu majoritarian government today, India is anxious to position itself as a participant in the “global war on terror.” Kashmiris have been tortured, disappeared, and killed in the thousands. The recent use of pellet guns on ordinary citizens including children has been compared to Israeli actions against Palestinian civilians. Just as we cannot invoke India’s anticolonial past to justify the actions of the Indian state today, and we cannot invoke the history of the Holocaust to justify Israeli occupation. Our attachments to these entities—India, Israel or indeed any other nation—cannot be expressed as justifications of the nation state and its repressive mechanisms.
A powerful discourse of Israeli exceptionalism has ensured that the same people who supported the boycott of South African academic institutions today bring up all sorts of questions—ranging from efficacy, to the academic freedom –when it comes to Israel. But as many of our South African colleagues did, many of our Israeli colleagues too are fighting the policies of the Israeli state, policies that are mirrored within the universities. A boycott would strengthen the hands of these colleagues. It is neither anti-Semitic nor against the interests of ordinary people in Israel to boycott those institutions that perpetuate such oppression. Above all, it is time to think about the rights of Palestinian and Israeli-Arab academics, artists, students and teachers.