Jeff Sacks Responds to Anthony K. Appiah Framing of MLA Boycott Debate

A recent post by Jadaliyya addresses the activity at MLA in connection with the impending Delegate Assembly vote on the resolution to endorse the boycott ofscreen-shot-2017-01-04-at-12-06-19-pm Israeli academic institutions. The Jadiliyya posting includes a useful summary of the MLA process leading up to Saturday’s meeting of the Delegate Assembly and an open letter by Jeff Sacks analyzing K. Anthony Appiah’s recent statements on the political character of the MLA and debate within the association on academic boycott.  Below is an excerpt from the Jadaliyya introduction to Sacks’ detailed and careful refutation of Appiah’s position.

But what is the role of the President of the MLA in framing the terms of the upcoming debate? The President’s letter presents itself as if it were merely reporting conversations he has had with various MLA members, and yet it sets a tone and, through that tone, it frames the debate in advance. The letter suggests that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is an issue of “contention,” but who is to determine what is contentious and what is not? Why should the MLA only respond to issues that have gained a measure of public approval, rather than respond in ways that are informed by its membership’s understanding of what the MLA Constitutions calls their “common interests”?

In an “Open Letter,” appended below, Jeffrey Sacks suggests that Professor Appiah’s blog post undermines those interests by tethering them to a particular understanding of whose freedom, academic and others, has value and whose does not. Perhaps more than anything, MLA members are uniquely positioned to exercise their freedom as they listen to and learn from colleagues who speak at the coming convention, and as they vote on the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

“The Right Not to Be a Perpetrator”: Ariella Azoulay’s Statement in support of BDS

Ariella Azoulay is Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Comparative Literature at Brown University, a documentary film director and an ariellaazoulay_bwindependent curator of archives and exhibitions. Her books include: From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950, (Pluto Press, 2011), Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012) and The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008); co-author with Adi Ophir of The One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2012). She directed the following films: Civil Alliances, Palestine, 47-48 (2012), I Also Dwell Among Your Own People: Conversations with Azmi Bishara (2004).

The following is an extract from an essay in the forthcoming anthology Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (eds. Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, Laura Raicovich: OR Books, 2017).”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a way to achieve three things: (1) to expose the mechanisms of dispossession, segregation, and legalized discrimination against Palestinians that are part of the Israeli democratic regime; (2) to publicly and internationally express solidarity with the Palestinians as a people, confronting the Israeli regime’s continuous efforts to fragment them into groups that are governed differentially within and beyond the green line; and (3) to mount pressure capable of impacting daily life for the privileged group of the governed population, i.e., Jewish Israelis, in order to radically alter the conduct of the Israeli regime or transform it altogether. A call for boycott is based on the assumption that sovereign states are actors in an international arena, and hence individuals, groups, institutions, and states can suspend their interactions with particular regimes until the justice of certain demands are recognized and adequately addressed. The Palestinian-led BDS movement thus aims to mobilize the international community to respond to a triple call from within that advocates: full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, an end to the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the right of Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 to return to their homes.

The boycott targets the Israeli regime, not Israeli citizens, unless they act as representatives of the regime. What, then, is the position of Jewish Israeli citizens with regard to this call? They may not be able to suspend their relations with the state completely, as BDS leaders themselves acknowledge. However, they can narrow them down. Occasionally, when they are able to mobilize certain symbolic power, they can publicly boycott particular events, prizes, and ceremonies, and avoid giving services that they are required to give. In this sense, their responses to the crimes and abuses practiced by their own regime do not come from an external position and hence do not consist of solidarity of the sort offered by citizens of other countries. Jewish Israelis are governed alongside Palestinians, and they are subjects of the same political regime; their citizenship is not external or incidental to the abuses of Palestinians under this regime, but its constitutive element. Unable to endorse the boycott from the outside, Jewish Israelis can still take part in it, and their participation, as citizens denouncing their own political regime, makes the BDS movement’s call a call to redefine the nature of their citizenship altogether. Continue reading

BDS and the Inversion of Victimhood

Submitted by faculty members in MLA-related fields at Israeli universities

The following statement is presented anonymously by Israeli academics who support the boycott of Israeli universities.  The faculty are forced to si

Israeli left wing activists hold signs as they demonstrate against the suggested boycott law, in front of the Justice ministry in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 10, 2011. The Israeli parliament is bracing for a fiery debate over a bill that allow damage suits against Israelis who call for boycotting West Bank settlements. The signs read in Hebrew: " Peace Now", " Fighting the Government of Darkness", The Right Silent Me" . (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli left wing activists hold signs as they demonstrate against the suggested boycott law, in front of the Justice ministry in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 10, 2011. The Israeli parliament is bracing for a fiery debate over a bill that allow damage suits against Israelis who call for boycotting West Bank settlements. The signs read in Hebrew: ” Peace Now”, ” Fighting the Government of Darkness”, The Right Silent Me” . (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

gn anonymously because of a 2011 law passed by the Israeli parliament that prohibits support for BDS among Israeli citizens.  According to the New York Times, the law “effectively bans any public call for a boycott — economic, cultural or academic — against Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense. It would enable Israeli citizens to bring civil suits against people and organizations instigating such boycotts, and subject violators to monetary penalties. Companies and organizations supporting a boycott could be barred from bidding on government contracts. Nonprofit groups could lose tax benefits.”  (NYT July 18, 2011)

As the MLA prepares to vote on a boycott resolution, many Israeli scholars have been recruited to speak out against it (and their discomfort may be understood). By contrast, the handful of Israeli scholars who support the Palestinian call for academic boycott are restricted by the Israeli boycott law which renders support of BDS illegal. Thus, practically all Israeli interventions in the boycott debate parrot state-sanctioned speech. The following brief statement attempts to disrupt this monopolization, albeit anonymously (because of these legal restrictions).

The Israel-led campaign against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions rallies around the claim that if adapted it will hurt progressive Israeli scholars. Campaigners use this tactic to divert attention from the plight of the entire Palestinian population living under Israel’s elaborate system of colonial repression and injustice to a manufactured victimization of Israeli academics. This is a manipulative inversion of victimhood.

Palestinian academics have been working and living under harsh conditions for decades. Israel has systematically isolated and stifled the Palestinian academe by preventing academics from accessing their campuses, traveling to conferences, and welcoming international guests at their home institutions; by persecuting individual scholars; and by shutting down, attacking, and invading campuses. For Palestinians these have been daily realities that directly limit their ability to engage in academic activities.

Continue reading

John Berger (1926-2017) and His Historic Support of BDS

John Berger is gone; he passed away on January 2, 2017. A great silence has now entered the bergerr-528681816de175e7280c4ab69fa0de2dworld. There are few, if any, people today like Berger, who across the span of his life wove together in his creative and critical work aesthetic sensibility and political commitment that never succumbed to the cynicism of success or the apathy of the pessimist, even as he witnessed countless cruelties. While writers, artists and intellectuals came to be increasingly disengaged from politics in the latter half of the 20th century, Berger continued to sustain and expand the range of his commitments to the dispossessed and exploited, the refugee and the worker, the artist and the poet. A quiet and reserved observer, Berger saw the violence of modernity in our time, and also the possibilities for a different future. His art, fiction, essays and translations represented the quotidian brutalities of capitalism, and also the extraordinary beauty of resistance, that persistent struggle to overcome injustice.

At the center of Berger’s more explicit political commitments was Palestine. He was a co-translator of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry and wrote compelling essays about his visits to Occupied Palestine. In 2006 he published what is referred to as The Berger Letter, endorsing the cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. It reads in part:

Continue reading

Daniel Boyarin’s Statement of Support for an MLA Academic Boycott Resolution

Daniel Boyarin in his office at U.C. Berkeley photos/cathleen maclearie. Source:

Daniel Boyarin, a citizen of the USA and Israel, is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, UC Berkeley, a position he has held since 1990. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has held Guggenheim, NEH, and Ford Foundation Fellowships. He is currently in Germany as the holder of an Alexander von Humboldt Forschungs Preis.

I am on record, even on Israeli television, as a supporter of BDS and of a limited academic boycott as well. By limited boycott I mean that I do not countenance boycotts of individuals (Let he who is sinless cast the first stone) but of institutions and institutional cooperation. Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit with occupation and Israeli discrimination against Palestinians, and, as such fit objects for boycott. Israeli Apartheid is now quite similar structurally to its South African models and similar tactics and ethical, political justifications for boycott are fully in order. I support completely the MLA boycott resolution.

Judith Butler’s Statement of Support for an MLA Academic Boycott Resolution

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She served as220px-judithbutler2013 Founding Director of the Critical Theory Program. She is the author of Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (1997), Excitable Speech (1997), Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning (2004); Undoing Gender (2004), Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging (with Gayatri Spivak in 2008), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?(2009), and Is Critique Secular? (co-written with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, and Saba Mahmood, 2009) and Sois Mon Corps (2011), co-authored with Catherine Malabou. Her most recent books include: Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012) and Dispossession: The Performative in the Political co-authored with Athena Athanasiou (2013), Senses of the Subject (2015). Her book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, will appear in 2015. Her future projects include work on messianic gestures in Kafka and Benjamin, philosophical fictions in Freud’s work, and gender in translation. She is also active in gender and sexual politics and human rights, anti-war politics, and serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. She was the recipient of the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities (2009-13). She received the Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt (2012) in honor of her contributions to feminist and moral philosophy, the Brudner Prize from Yale University for lifetime achievement in gay and lesbian studies, and the Research Lecturer honor at UC Berkeley in 2005. In 2014, she was awarded the diploma of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Cultural Ministry.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is a non-violent tactic within a larger political struggle to achieve equality, justice, and freedom for Palestinians.  The movement seeks to address and rectify long-standing discrimination, dispossession, and the absence of substantive political and human rights.  Boycotts have a time-honored place in the history of political expression.  The BDS movement opposes discrimination on the basis of citizenship, and so opposes all forms of boycott that target individuals.  It has clearly opposed anti-Semitism and all forms of racism,  These principles constitute its official policy for more than ten years.  The boycott campaign addresses those institutions that support and help to reproduce inequality, dispossession, and injustice.  What it asks is that Israeli institutions become part of the struggle to realize political freedoms and international rights, that institutions oppose the Israeli government until such time as those important political rights, principles, and freedoms are realized through the dismantling of occupation, the institutionalization of political and legal equality, and the formulation of a just solution for those who, in accord with international law, have the right to return to lands forcibly taken from them.  BDS is a movement for freedom, a call for the realization of democratic ideals, the demand for a world in which co-habitation might one day become possible. It opposes violent solutions, but so too does it oppose those forms of collaborations that ratify the status quo take colonial rule for granted as an inevitability, or refuse to name it as such.  The BDS movement opposes all efforts to render normal or necessary inequality and rightlessness.  Only with a common commitment to freedom, equality, and justice is a life together possible – and that commitment can only be realized once the structures of inequality, dispossession, and institutional violence have been dismantled. Perhaps as this new year begins, we can all still hope for that day.