David Simpson is Distinguished Professor of English at University of California, Davis; he received the G. B. Needham Endowed Chair in English in 2008. He previously he taught at Columbia, University of Colorado, Northwestern University, and Cambridge. He is a member of the editorial boards of Cambridge Studies in Romanticism and Modern Language Quarterly. Simpson is the author of numerous books, including Situatedness; or Why we Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (Duke U P, 2002), 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (U of Chicago P, 2006); Wordsworth, Commodification, and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity (Cambridge U P, 2009); and Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger (U of Chicago P, 2013). He has received numerous scholarly awards, and in 2016, he became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. In summer 2016, he traveled to the West Bank.
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 have just returned from my first trip to Israel-Palestine. I went as a committed supporter of the BDS campaign, so yes, I was predisposed to feel judgmental. And even during a period of relative calm, with the IDF in (mostly) stand-down mode for Ramadan, the atmosphere of oppression was palpable. I will spare you numerous anecdotes of and insights into the mechanisms of occupation, from the relatively petty to the outright fatal. Suffice it to say that there is no significant freedom for Palestinians, either in Israel or in the West Bank (Gaza was of course off limits: no one can get in or out except illegally and at real personal risk). And without basic freedom there is no academic freedom, which is after all what we scholars are supposed to care about. The nuts and bolts of day to day oppression and persecution will be the topic of another narrative. Vividly as they were brought home to me, they are not news to those who have been following the situation with any attention.
. . . no one said anything to suggest that the decisions of academic groups like the MLA were other than extremely important. They are watched especially closely by the Palestinians, and are taken as tangible evidence that the situation of Palestinian scholars is not forgotten, that they are still regarded as members of an international academic community . . .
Here I want to write not about what confirmed, over and over again, and made more visceral and immediate what I already knew from the recounted lives of others, but what surprised me. I came to realize that I have been functioning with a not uncommon cynicism about how much (i.e. how little) it matters that armchair activists thousands of miles away are trying to draw attention to the plight of faculty and students seeking to pursue first and higher degrees and minimally flourishing careers in conditions of coercive, racist oppression and outright violence. Who really cares, I have been thinking to myself, if the good folk of the MLA do or do not pass a resolution in support of BDS? What difference will it make, in a world governed by ruthless neoliberal values and an international security industry to which the Israeli government has hugely contributed and from which it continues to profit, if a few humanities professors bang their shoes on the table and express polite dissent? I had felt a strong obligation to support BDS, but had no clear sense of its impact or likely success. I felt I was doing the right thing, but very much for its own sake.
These assumptions, I now understand, are the products of a demoralized national culture in which the role of the humanities sector of the academy is fundamentally defensive, one wherein we are constantly feeling obliged to defend ourselves against assumptions of at best our inutility and at worst irrelevance or outright negativity (remember the “nattering nabobs of negativity” and the “culture of resentment”?). Even when you don’t believe them, and I don’t, these things eventually get to you, much as advertising gets to you, by the numbing experience of sheer repetition. You just get tired of making the arguments, because the headlines have already been given over to the other side.
So what surprised me in visiting Palestinian universities? Being taken so seriously, and received with such hope and respect. Almost no one we met, from first year students to university presidents, evinced any sign of the cynicism that I had unconsciously brought along with me. There were indeed some Jewish Israelis who had doubts about the advisability of the boycott, or who disagreed with it completely. For them, it is felt both as an affront to the “liberal” culture of the academy (which seems barely to exist in Israel at the moment, where expressing support for BDS can cost you your job) or as a cramping of the lifestyle for those who are accustomed to coming and going without any accountability. Even though the BDS platform does not discourage the movement of individual Israeli scholars to events like MLA conferences (even when they are paid for by Israeli universities), a palpable social embarrassment is clearly being felt among the culture of conference-goers. But no one said anything to suggest that the decisions of academic groups like the MLA were other than extremely important. They are watched especially closely by the Palestinians, and are taken as tangible evidence that the situation of Palestinian scholars is not forgotten, that they are still regarded as members of an international academic community, all the more important as a virtual entity because they are, most of them, so emphatically denied physical access to conferences, workshops and visiting appointments. Reciprocally, it can be hard or impossible for some of us to join them in visits or exchanges. The Israeli government has now included organized opposition to BDS as part of a ministerial portfolio. They too take us seriously, and they are obviously rattled by the incremental international progress of divestment and the more and more widely-acknowledged evidence of the comprehensive involvement of their universities with the occupation as well as with the maintenance of second-class citizen status for Palestinian Israelis. My cynical side entertained the idea that perhaps our Palestinian colleagues have so little to grasp at for encouragement in these terrible times that any outside expression of concern, even from people like us, would be received much more warmly than it deserves. But that is it not what I felt after meeting so many students and faculty who believe in education and academic culture not as a forum for the furtherance of lucrative careers (that it is indeed a slim prospect in the occupied territories) but as a space for the cultivation of ethical life, humane dialogue and civic responsibility. This ideal persists in an environment where, for example, student leaders are frequently sent to jail under the “administrative detention” protocol (for renewable six month periods) without ever being charged with criminal activity: the point is to preempt the emergence of a culture of civic participation among the student population. (At one Palestinian university, five of the nine student council members are in jail). Particularly notable is the enthusiasm for learning English and for studying literature in English, and the desire to host more native speakers to teach in the universities, something that is made almost impossible by the restrictive visa regulations operated by Israel.
The lives of Palestinians inside “1948” Israel and in the occupied territories are even more difficult, encumbered and indeed threatened than I had thought them to be. I had not, for example, understood the complex restrictions on mobility within the West Bank, and above all in and out of Jerusalem. Nor had I fully felt the constraints of working in a university culture so completely deprived of access to the larger world. But these findings fit within the general frame of expectations. What I had not expected was the irrepressible enthusiasm and even optimism of the young, who are so often responding to an objectively desperate situation with a firm faith in the possibility of better days to come. There are no signs that Israel will act on its own to end the occupation or introduce full and equal rights for Palestinans within the 1948 borders, and many believe, especially after Gaza, that armed struggle, given the overwhelming military superiority of the state, will only make things worse. (Some, it must be said, do think that it continues to be an option among others). Among those Palestinians we met there was overwhelming support for the non-violent global initiative that BDS represents. In the words of one colleague: “If the choice is blood or boycott, I choose boycott.” They feel that the modest inconveniences for their Israeli counterparts occasioned by a boycott have the potential for enormous dividends in bringing about changes in their own radically diminished careers, and in the lives of all Palestinians, and thereby also of Jewish Israelis who are pressured to sustain racial discrimination. I now find myself rather ashamed of my former doubts, which of course will not disappear completely as I immerse myself once again in my own daily environment. But when they resurface, as they will, I will try my best to remember the real Palestinians I met, and not the ones merely of my imagination. They are asking for our support not out of bitterness or desperation but in recognition of the common values we take for granted and to which they aspire, values they still believe to be at the core of global academic culture: freedom of movement and expression, freedom from violence and constant intimidation. They are asking us to act as if the university really were a place for ethical behavior and awareness of the needs of others. I find this appeal irresistible not just for its own sake, but for theirs.