Teaching Palestine

The importance of bringing the Israel-Palestine conflict into the mainstream.
By Rana Jaleel

I teach courses that reflect my work in critical queer, feminist, and ethnic studies, security studies, and law. In all of my classes, I teach about Palestine. When I tell colleagues this, I tend to hear one of the following in reply:

1. That’s brave; I avoid it like the plague.

2. You are going to get in trouble.

But teaching Palestine is not about bravery or troublemaking. It is about academic freedom—about the ability to conduct research and teach about a topic of global import without undue constraint.

For any account of the historical and contemporary politics of race in the United States, the issue of Palestine has been and remains a significant, if at times overlooked, subject. US civil rights–era activist groups—including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers—advocated global racial justice platforms that viewed Palestinian problems as racial problems akin to their own. More recently, the Israel-Palestine conflict has emerged as a key element of the Black Lives Matter “Vision for Black Lives” policy platform (which calls for the cessation of US funding and military aid to the Israeli state and dubs its treatment of Palestinians “genocide”). The issue has also arisen in more conventional venues, proving contentious at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Yet despite the fact that the Israel-Palestine conflict is unequivocally a mainstream political and social issue, on many campuses, it is almost too fraught to mention.

BDS and Beyond

The AAUP categorically condemns academic boycotts on the grounds that they inhibit the free exchange of ideas and are therefore prima facie violations of academic freedom (although this position is a matter of no small amount of internal debate; see, for example, the lively exchange in volume 4 of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, published in 2013). But initiatives developed by opponents of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement have smuggled in proposals and regulations that undermine the very academic freedoms they purport to defend. These include campus policy and mission statements that equate anti-Zionist and other criticisms of certain Israeli state actions with anti-Semitism. Undertaken in the name of antidiscrimination, these policies can chill classroom discussion of Israel and Palestine—especially as nationwide legislative efforts to forestall BDS activism embrace this same logic.

Over the last several years, a groundswell of legislation introduced at the local, state, and federal levels has taken aim at human rights activism related to Palestine, specifically BDS. According to Jewish Voice for Peace, as of August 2016, twenty-two states had introduced or passed anti-BDS legislation that seeks to deny public funding to organizations that choose to participate in the BDS movement. This year alone saw anti-BDS laws enacted in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. Similar legislative initiatives are being organized in dozens of other states. Meanwhile, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an anti-BDS executive order, and in New Jersey, another anti-BDS bill passed the legislature. Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at Northwestern University who has consulted with groups advancing anti-BDS legislation, describes the turn to legal activism as an attempt to “use state contracting power to fight back against racism.”

These efforts have bolstered campus-oriented initiatives that deny the distinction between critical perspectives on Zionism or Israeli state policies and anti-Semitism. The same logic lends credence to projects like Canary Mission, the latest in a line of anonymous blacklisting sites designed to intimidate students, faculty members, and community activists engaged in Palestine solidarity work. Canary Mission has used Twitter to reach these students’ employers and prospective graduate departments, claiming that members of Students for Justice in Palestine are racist and anti-Semitic and that they support terrorists.

At the institutional level, in March 2016 the University of California Board of Regents proffered a document intended to reaffirm antidiscrimination as a core institutional tenet by restating the mission of the University of California. These “Principles against Intolerance,” however, identified only one specific form of discrimination (anti-Semitism), and early iterations of the principles essentially equated anti- Zionism with anti-Semitism. All ten UC academic senate divisional chairs as well as many individual faculty members cosigned a statement in response, noting that the document as written would be “counterproductive . . . insofar as it reinforces the perception that those in charge of the university take discrimination against some groups more seriously than discrimination against others.” The responding statement also urged the regents to refrain from altering the mission statement of the University of California system absent “the same tests and discussions as the mission of the 1970s,” which had included extensive consultation with systemwide faculty, staff, student, and other university community members.

Both Canary Mission and the “Principles against Intolerance” (and its incursions on shared governance) are the fruit of a collective unease about discussing Israel and Palestine that has been cultivated through the collapse of critique into (illegal) discrimination. In today’s climate, it is personally and professionally risky to participate in activist or academic work on Israel and Palestine in or out of the classroom. This situation endangers meaningful engagement with race, including the comprehensive study and discussion of global antiracist social movements. These tensions resurface each quarter in my classroom.

In the Classroom

Like it or not, discussion of Israel and Palestine is a necessary component of any course that aims to cover contemporary thinking in critical ethnic and queer studies. Critical ethnic studies scholars grapple with global racial solidarity platforms of the sort offered by Black Lives Matter and indigenous activists. Like certain US civil rights–era activists before them, these activists link the logic that fuels US racial injustices domestically with a global foreign policy animated by racial hierarchies, now including the US military funding of the Israeli state. Queer studies scholars—particularly those whose research involves sexuality and transnational social movements—have produced multifaceted works that follow what happens when gay movements, often historically oppositional or even antagonistic to state interests, succeed in wooing the state to their side. The recent and unprecedented successes of these movements have given scholars a lot to talk about: How are states now championing sexual rights in ways that can mask other forms of oppression, including racial and migrant oppression? What steps may democratic states take in the name of security (including the protection of sexual and racial minorities)? What are the possibilities and limits of contemporary global racial and sexual solidarity campaigns?

Each quarter, my classes engage with these questions in the US and Canadian, Western European, and Israeli contexts because these states and regions broadcast their embrace of certain LGBTQ issues to signal a larger dedication to democratic rule. Often, states undertake this signaling to refute legitimate criticisms of the state’s repressive policies against other marginalized groups, especially racialized minorities. Queer activists and scholars call this practice “pinkwashing” and use the term to mark the limits of who gets protected, whose and what types of “diversity” (racial, sexual, or otherwise) are valued within liberal multicultural democracy. The Obama administration, for example, has praised queer DREAMers even as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deports a record number of migrants and detains transgendered ones under deplorable conditions. Similarly, through its state-sponsored “Brand Israel” campaign, Israel seeks to establish itself as a “Mecca” and global destination for LGBTQ persons—unless those LGBTQ persons happen to be Palestinian. In short, the advent of same-sex sexual rights as a state agenda has opened new vistas of global activism and scholarship that require critical examination— not unthinking or automatic acceptance or rejection—in and out of the classroom.

But before introducing this scholarship in my courses, I have to establish and defend the necessity and propriety of speaking about Israel and Palestine at all. In the current political climate, some students come into the classroom already equating any criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to enter classroom discussions in which simplistic media representations of the Israel-Palestine conflict as a purely ethnoreligious antagonism are displaced, disrupted, or in any way complicated. Some classroom statements that have provoked shock, tears, deadening silence, and rage from students from a range of political and ideological persuasions include the following:

1. There is a Palestinian diaspora.

2. There are Jewish Arabs and Christian Arabs, Jewish Palestinians and Christian Palestinians. And there are Druze, Samaritans, migrant workers (who come primarily from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand and often labor in substandard conditions), and African refugees, among others, who reside in Israel and Palestine and are affected by their respective laws and policies.

3. Sharia is neither a uniform nor a unified body of law.

4. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are both severe social problems.

5. US-based social justice activism has historically linked and continues to link domestic racial oppression, including black oppression, to global racial struggles, including Palestinian ones.

These are statements of fact, well established by vast bodies of scholarship. What’s disturbing is not that students (and faculty) don’t know these particular facts. What’s disturbing is that clear moral lines have been drawn in ways that place facts beyond the discursive pale, where they have come to be seen as traumatic psychological triggers rather than as subjects of academic inquiry or political debate.

This has little to do with any shortcoming on the part of the students, who are overwhelmingly serious thinkers and above all striving to be good people, and everything to do with the political and cultural context in which we find ourselves—one that can perversely curtail academic freedom in the name of a hollow concept of antidiscrimination that supplants equity or justice concerns with behavioral policing and speech prohibitions. Here, a neutral civility (read: silence) in the face of Palestinian human rights abuse is recompense for an anti-Semitism that spans centuries. Here, the prescribed, purportedly antiracist response to the long-standing problem of global anti-Semitism amounts functionally to silence in the face of state violence.

Everyone researching, teaching, or otherwise engaged in any discussion of race at the university, however, deserves better. And some of the work to make “better” a possibility must start on our campuses and within our professional organizations, including the AAUP. Whatever one believes about BDS, faculty and other academic workers should be concerned with how the idea of its unlawfulness has at times transmogrified into the presumed incorrectness—even racist illegality— of discussions or analyses that do not begin and end with an at least tacit endorsement of the Israeli state. For some wings of queer studies, for example, this silencing essentially amounts to a silencing of disciplinary work. When one of the tasks of queer studies scholars is to analyze how certain notions of sexual freedom can become a vehicle (for better or worse) of state power, no state or institution can emerge entirely unscathed. And if a core tenet of a functioning democracy is robust political dissension and critique, no one should expect, desire, or require affirmation of or complicity with state action as proof of another’s nondiscriminatory bona fides.

For these reasons, when we talk about race on campus, Israel and Palestine should be considered. And in order for Israel and Palestine to be considered adequately, the AAUP must, in the name of academic freedom, continue to push back against legislation and campus policies that cast any critique or less than favorable academic assessment of the Israeli state as discriminatory. To insist on the academic freedom necessary to speak, teach, and conduct research about Israel and Palestine is to preserve a condition of learning. It is to ensure the intellectual space necessary to consider how to live in an interconnected world and how to produce the kinds of knowledge that can be responsive to and responsibly engaged with it. Most crucially, to insist on that academic freedom is to acknowledge and refuse to obscure a history of global antiracist work and social justice organizing premised on the core belief that people share interests that connect them across identity groups and state membership designations. That’s a lesson as good as lost if evidence of antiracist thinking on and off campus continues to require deference to, if not praise of, the state.    

Rana Jaleel is assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of California, Davis. She is also a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Women in the Academic Profession.