Omar Sirri on Academic Precarity and Support for BDS

This piece is an edited excerpt of a longer essay to be published later this year. It is based on interviews with undergraduate and graduate students, and contract and tenured faculty, involved in the BDS movement. It was first presented at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Boston in November 2016, during a panel entitled, “Hey you, precarious worker: Are you afraid of BDS? Graduate students, untenured faculty, and the politics of political commitments.”

Salon Friday, Apr 22, 2016 http://www.salon.com/2016/04/22/one_of_the_defining_political_issues_of_our_time_nyu_grad_student_union_overwhelmingly_votes_to_boycott_israels_violation_of_palestinian_human_rights/
Salon Friday, Apr 22, 2016

The political-economic agenda of the neoliberal university, and the intentional decisions that advance it, has led to a dependence on cheap, precarious labour. But the roots of such academic labor are analogous to, rather than distinct from, Palestine solidarity and the BDS movement, contrary to many anti-boycott arguments. Graduate and adjunct instructors working in the university today are increasingly building this solidarity on the shared grounds of the racialized history of contingent labor in the U.S. and the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Nick Mitchell, at UC Santa Cruz, has uncovered the modern historical logics of universities’ reliance on precarious academic workers – a history that he argues is in fact quite racialised. For Mitchell, the roots of precarious academic labour lie in the university’s experimentation with university labour in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With increases in minority youth attending college, demands on the university were made for an expansion of the “epistemological foundations of the university. Or the contents of what was considered valid knowledge.”[i] With rising demands for black studies, women’s studies and ethnic studies, university administrations aimed to get them without paying for them, “by instituting experimental colleges in which students taught their own classes.” The point Mitchell is making is that the precariat – adjunctification in the university today – cannot be understood without appreciating the political-economic conditions and decisions made at the time of its inception. And those decisions were distinctly racialised.

This is one historical context that the BDS movement at universities today maps onto. Put differently, a line can be drawn from the racialised conditions in which the precarious adjunct was established within the existing political economy of the university, to the taking up of BDS by more and more precarious academic workers. Graduate student unions are increasingly making the connections between precarity, race and Palestine. In 2015, a protracted labour dispute between the University of Toronto and its graduate student workers and contract faculty resulted in a four-week long strike by CUPE 3902, ending in a decision to enter binding arbitration with the employer – one that certainly polarised the politically diverse union membership. Days after that decision, more than 90% of the members in attendance at the union’s annual general meeting voted to endorse BDS, and steps the union should take to explicitly advance the movement on campus. In that moment of heightened political-economic awareness among academic workers concerned with their long-term precarity, solidarity with Palestinians and their BDS movement was deemed necessary and ultimately linked with other, ostensibly discrete union battles.

Indeed, there are still particular kinds of economic pressure on precarious academic workers that must be acknowledged as obstacles to making those connections publicly. PhD graduates are experiencing a rough academic job market. It appears to be a market flooded with strong talent, where the slightest edge may mean stable employment, and a small slip up or second guess from the employer may mean another year of income uncertainty. The concern is that activism practiced by prospective job candidates is just too controversial and disruptive for campus life, indeed “too political;” this consciousness and discourse of course occludes the reality that almost all scholarship is made political by several factors, including what we choose to investigate, what we omit, the methodologies we deploy, and the conditions in which that knowledge is produced.

Academic associations too are increasingly wading into the BDS debate. Juliana Hu Pegues has recently analysed the language of three separate BDS resolutions passed by respective academic associations – American Studies Association (ASA), Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). While commending all three for their stances and for their attempts to critique the reinforcing structures of imperialism, racial oppression and settler colonialism, she suggests that the language of each resolution could go further in addressing how these intersections in turn can and must create “capacious” understandings of solidarity and resistance.[ii] She notes, for example, how the AAAS missed an opportunity to highlight how Asian migrant labour was used to facilitate “Native land dispossession” while building hegemonic liberal histories of American citizenship.

In March 2016, the National Conference for Black Political Scientists passed a powerful resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. The Whereas clauses include explicit references to the “negatively impacted working conditions of Palestinian scholars” because of the occupation; and the US “funding of Israeli militarism”, namely how it is “robbing Black communities of desperately needed reparations” and has “hamstrung the Palestinian economy causing premature deaths and astronomical incarceration rates”.[iii] The intersections of political economy and race are clearly on display in the resolution, including by citing recent Black Palestine solidarity efforts, specifically the high-profile campaign “When I see them I see us.” This is further example that enmeshed political geographies are increasingly being understood as such, what scholars of social justice across disciplines have been calling for.

The support from these various university interest groups suggests that BDS is shifting consciousness. This is because of the critical work that has been done and continues to be done by the founders and early adopters of the tactics and strategies of BDS – notably often women of colour – their educational activities highlighting, for example, the logics and mechanisms of Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid. Many of the tactics being used against BDS today – disrupting campus events discussing BDS, and the attempted discrediting and smear attacks on supporters through vicious claims of anti-Semitism – suggest that the opposition is finding it increasingly difficult to win on the merits of their arguments, which are indeed quite weak. But the backlash is still very real, if ever more desperate.

For example, Canary Mission is a website dedicated to outing students who support BDS, in an attempt to malign their reputations in order to jeopardise their professional prospects. The website is a fascinating expose in the kinds of flacid arguments made against BDS, and also of how more prominent and less precarious BDS backers are absent from the site. It suggests that these opponents are particularly aware of, and seek to exploit, precarity. These shady campaigns are sometimes joined by the exceptional resistance university administrations and academic staff practice against BDS on campuses. But censorship oftentimes is not so overt, and stems from forms of self-censorship that we as precarious academic workers sometimes practice. Contract faculty often must limit their BDS work to behind the scenes organizing. And tenured faculty, instead, take the more public lead and “take the heat” to protect the more precarious.

These lived experiences and realities – the increased support for BDS based on its convincing arguments; the stubborn threats against those who work to advance the movement; and the sometimes uncomfortable position precarious academic workers find themselves in vis-a-vis BDS – raise challenging questions about the praxis of politics in the academy.

Ultimately the percolating up of political interventions by concerned members in various institutions, from labour unions to academic associations, is having an important positive effect. For one, it has implicitly and explicitly attacked the underpinning of prospective political backlash against precarious academic workers: fear. Through scholarly, informed, and deeply rigorous analyses of history and its contemporary relevance to persistent injustices, those in academia who have endorsed the BDS movement are creating protected spaces for young scholars who are honestly grappling with their precarity and their ethical responsibilities to the region they study. There is no hard and fast rule for how these spaces are to be created; it depends in part on the site conditions. But there is certainly an informed and serious solidarity that is being practiced. A solidarity that rightly embraces the troubling of spatial boundaries, and one that is viscerally and appropriately offended by the circulation and organised logisitics of injustices between home and abroad. Rather than label this as ivory tower moralizing, it would be more accurate – indeed more scholarly – for us to consider more critically how and why the constructed political status quo has come to be, and how the increasingly successful and more inspiring solidaristic response can be further shored up.

[i] Nick Mitchell, “Theses on Adjunctification (for #NAWD),” Low End Theory (Tumblr), 26 February 2015, http://www.lowendtheory.org/post/112138864200/theses-on-adjunctification.

[ii] Juliana Hu Pegues, “Empire, Race, and Settler Colonialism: BDS and Contingent Solidarities,” Theory and Event 19, no. 4 (2016).

[iii] Resolution on Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), Adopted 18 March 2016, http://www.ncobps.org/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=840291&hhSearchTerms=%22bds%22.