Should critical scholars live up to their writing? The case of the Palestinian Call for Boycotts

By Marcelo Svirsky

When it comes to scholars working with the tools of critical theory, the question of why many academics prefer to stay away from burning political problems becomes particularly pressing. The objects of their investigation and writing could not be closer to the world of politics and to the desire for social change. Indeed, the common denominator that unites the various fields in which critical theory is deployed is a wish to liberate our existence from the circumstances that enslave it, to use one of Max Horkheimer’s famous phrases.

But can we frankly research the sources of inequality and oppression in society, investigate how individuals and groups experience life-restricting boundaries in social organisations, and ask about how language and communication are used to oppress people  and at the same time remain unmindful of real picket lines set by oppressed communities? If concepts and research are inseparable from their producers, don’t scholars have a responsibility to connect our study of social change with the actual social world? As it may be safer to dwell in the ‘republic of letters’, critical theory runs the risk of becoming superfluous if its authors choose to ignore oppressed voices.

Gilles Deleuze and Palestinian scholar and activist Elias Sanbar co-founded in 1981 the Revue d’Études Palestiniennes in Paris.
In 1981, Gilles Deleuze and Palestinian scholar and activist Elias Sanbar co-founded the Revue d’Études Palestiniennes in Paris

With these questions in mind, a few days ago I approached a group of colleagues and asked them not to participate in a conference scheduled to take place in Jerusalem in December this year, sponsored by the Hebrew University. In my view, all academics should respect the Palestinian Call to boycott Israeli official academic institutions (PACBI). However, as a scholar working in the field of Deleuze and Guattari Studies, I was particularly anxious that distinguished colleagues seemed unconcerned. As someone who has been committed to the Palestinian struggle for many years, I felt that the decision to attend a conference in Israel, in violation of the boycott, was troubling and confusing because it points to a discontinuation between thought and action.

At times, we find ourselves in circumstances when our actions have a clear political value and impact on ongoing struggles for liberation. On these occasions, our decisions matter. This is the question I put before my colleagues. The facts are clear: a Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel has been in existence since 2004; the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is more than fifty years old and has only worsened; and there is extensive research detailing the complicity of Israeli universities with the oppression of the Palestinian people. Should we not, therefore, respect the Palestinian request and, as a sort of minimal ethics, seek not to affront the Palestinian people by actively opposing the call for boycotts? How many times are we settlers given an opportunity to redeem a piece of our broken and perverse subjectivity?

There are so many ways one can support an oppressed group, so many ways to refuse academic cowardice. That is the beauty of resistance. If you are asked to deliver a keynote at an Israeli university, you don’t need to march or protest. You don’t even have to write an angry letter like the one you are reading now. It is enough to respond as Bartleby did, “I would rather prefer not to.” Because our existence is so replete with colonial situations, from which we benefit, every decision that counters that reality is an important one.

The academic who does this would not be alone. The Palestinian academic and cultural call for boycotts is part of a broader peaceful protest movement calling the world to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel (BDS) in response to the Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land; to the discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel and to the denial of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. BDS is a movement for freedom, justice and equality led by the Palestinian popular resistance committees, political parties, unions, student associations, civil societies and other institutions. The activities of the campaign are organised and supervised by a Palestinian National Committee (BNC). Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Many academic associations, student unions as well as thousands of international academics now support the academic boycott of Israel.

For decades, Israeli universities have played a key role in planning, implementing, and justifying Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies while maintaining a uniquely close relationship with the Israeli military. Israeli universities are major, willing and persistent accomplices in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. They are involved in developing weapon systems and military doctrines deployed in Israel’s recent war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza, justifying the ongoing colonisation of Palestinian land, rationalising the gradual ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians, providing moral justification for extra-judicial killings, systematically discriminating against Palestinian students, and other implicit and explicit violations of human rights and international law. The Hebrew University has a long history of supporting Israel’s wars and is involved in the everyday maintenance of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Numerous special programs at the Hebrew University actively support the Israeli military and its personnel, such as the Talpiot Program. The International Court of Justice makes clear that these are active contributors to the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

The Hebrew University administration restricts the freedom of speech and protest of its few Palestinian students, and it routinely allows the Israeli Police and security services to enter the campus and arrest Palestinian students. The University forbade a commemoration event for the invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli forces. On the other hand, like other universities in Israel, the Hebrew University offers special considerations and benefits to students who participated in that invasion as soldiers. The complicity of Israeli universities with the oppression of the Palestinian people needs also to be seen against the background of the brutal repression of the academic freedom of Palestinians in the occupied territories: Palestinian scholars and students are constantly arrested and their universities regularly closed down, blockaded and even bombed by Israeli aircraft.

Academic freedom does not mean engaging and collaborating with a militarised, racist, settler-colonial state, in order to cleanse its crimes. If one wishes to dialogue with more critical people in Israeli society, it does not have to take place within the framework of official Israeli academic activities. One can join academic and cultural events in a variety of alternative frameworks, preferably in cooperation with Palestinian civil society in Israel, but also outside Israel. In all honesty, the decision is quite simple: on which side do my Deleuzian colleagues prefer to be; with the coloniser or with the colonised?

There is nothing “complex” about the Israeli colonisation of Palestine. The ongoing military occupation, the persistent discrimination of Palestinian citizens, and the Israeli refusal to accept full responsibility for Palestinian refugees are situations that Israel has created by means of the ethnic cleansing of almost a million Palestinians during 1948-49. There are no “two sides” that need to be equally heard, neither is there any need to see things first hand before taking a decision to boycott. Academics are simply asked to take a stand on the side of the oppressed and the colonised, regardless of our own positionality, our doubts, and desires.

The “Walter Benjamin in Palestine” conference held in Ramallah, December 2015

While the minimum is to refuse to attend conferences organised by Israeli official institutions, on the academic front there is more that can be done. In 2015, critical scholars from around the world attended a conference on Walter Benjamin, in Ramallah. Aimed at breaking the repression of Palestinian academic life, the event was a direct response to the International Walter Benjamin Society’s decision to locate its annual conference in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

My indignation towards the participation of this group of Deleuzians in the Jerusalem conference is also motivated by the political commitment of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to the Palestinian struggle. It thus enrages me that the work of Deleuze and Guattari becomes a tool in the normalisation of Israel’s multiple forms of oppression of the Indigenous people of Palestine. This is not the first time this has happened as evidenced by the Israeli army’s appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus in their murdering tactics of “walking through walls”. It is hard not to see the participation of Deleuzian scholars in the Jerusalem conference as another example of the dilution of critical theory and its transformation into royal science.

At a time when the international movement to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions is gaining ground in response to Israel’s flagrant and persistent infringement of Palestinian human and political rights, scholars and professionals are urged to reflect upon the implications of taking part in a conference at a complicit institution, and to refrain from participation.

Marcelo Svirsky is a Senior Lecturer at the School for Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, Australia. He researches settler-colonial societies particularly Israel-Palestine, and focuses on questions of social transformation and decolonisation. He has published several articles in the journals Cultural Politics, Subjectivity, Intercultural Education, Deleuze Studies, and Settler Colonial Studies among others, and various books and edited collections: Deleuze and Political Activism (Edinburgh University Press, 2010); Arab-Jewish Activism in Israel-Palestine (Ashgate, 2012); Agamben and Colonialism with Simone Bignall (Edinburgh University Press, 2012); Collaborative Struggles in Australia and Israel-Palestine (2014); After Israel: Towards Cultural Transformation (Zed Books, 2014), and he has recently co-authored with Ronnen Ben-Arie From Shared Life to Co-Resistance in Historic Palestine (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017).

4 Comments

  1. Excellent article and the opposition and boycott are necessary now more than ever.
    Maurizia Natali Bensmaia

  2. You are absolutely right. Opposing the Zionist regime is the duty of anyone with a sense of decency; critical scholar or otherwise.

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