“My Friend, I Disagree.”

February 10, 2013, 1:36 pm

Shortly after yesterday’s post went up I heard from an old friend and colleague, Dr. David Shorter, who disagreed with my views about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and wanted an opportunity to respond to them in this forum. I immediately agreed.  Shorter is a professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at the University of California Los Angeles. His first book, We Will Dance Our Truth: Yaqui History in Yoeme Performances (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), unpacks the biases associated with writing in educational and legal considerations of Indigenous rights. Shorter’s digital projects, his work with indigenous language revitalization, and his other research areas are described on his website.

Recently, my friend and previous colleague, the Tenured Radical herself, penned a blog posting about the matter of BDS and Brooklyn College’s defense of academic freedom. As usual, her writing was both instructive and personal. I am a long time fan of her blog posts and frankly, a huge fan of her as a person. But I couldn’t disagree more with many of her points in her discussion of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Claire does not want to submit that Israel’s apartheid state is the “the great moral issue of our time.” That might be rhetorically useful to rely on such a hierarchy of values, but it actually relies on a theory of justice that if we can’t do everything, we shouldn’t do anything. To join Claire in her personal tone, I received death threats at my house and office for teaching Palestinian rights as indigenous rights (a United Nations and International Court of Justice designation, not mine solely). And these personal attacks on me were framed as “if you’re so concerned with justice, why not look to Somalia, Syria, Darfur, China, etc.” But is that really logical? If police can’t stop violence everywhere, then why try anywhere? No one from BDS or Students for Justice in Palestine (to take two roughly multi-faceted groups) have asked anyone to prioritize Palestinian rights above all others. To say that is how one feels says more about one’s moral conviction perhaps. Or more accurately, its cause celebre status is because it so richly accentuates differences between race, religion and nation, it asks us to consider colonialisms and settler colonialisms; it offers examples of pink, red, and black washing in the guise of tourism and heritage; it asks about national and collective identities; it helps us take a stand on academic freedom and the role of private funding in University missions; for me, it makes me think about the power of withholding art and labor for political purposes. But more importantly, it helps us hear and see and consider the suffering of others.

Claire goes on to decontextualize the violence against Palestinians as a matter of violence in general: “thousands of small tragedies.” Again, speaking for myself, I am critical of Israel’s policies (not Jewish people) and I am supportive of bringing the Palestinian issue to people’s awareness because that one thumbtack on the map is one of the most instructive ways to show how colonization looks in real time. I do so because if I could have, I would have protested my taxes to my country going to build “work camps” in Germany. I do so because the United States is tied economically to the colonization and ethnocide of Palestinian people as I write this. Millions of dollars will be sent over during the course of this dialogue.

And this small degree of separation is the number one reason why I personally support the BDS movement. I respect Claire’s choices as being emblematic of her conscience. But for me, I would prefer not to willingly and silently be a part of Israel’s humanitarian crimes. I would prefer not to support the institutions and companies that benefit financially from colonization and apartheid. The problem is that we already are supporting state sponsored apartheid by our government’s sense of financial responsibility to Israel. Claire’s post rightfully posts the actual numbers. So what is one to do? I can only speak for myself; and so I try to raise awareness of the issue and, again speaking for myself and not my University or colleagues, I commit myself to separating myself from the financial benefits of colonization of Palestine in those small ways I can, which are how I spend my money and where I contribute my intellectual or artistic labor.

(After writing such things, I regularly receive the contention, “But what about Palistinian’s crimes against the people of Israel?” This is another version of “what about other violence?” combined sometimes with “you must be antisemitic by not focusing on how Israelis suffer too.” Let’s end this here please. Criticisms of Israel state policy, as I’ve read them in the words of Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and others, tend not to be ignorant of very complex historical realities; just the opposite).

Claire asks about the individuals she is supposed to boycott. As others are surely going to comment, and hopefully in respectful tones, the BDS movement is not focused on those personal relationships. Yes, of course these matters will affect personal relationships but only in the ways they should. For one’s willingness to at least discuss the issues intelligently and compassionately, I hope to work with you. But I will not if it helps an institution that also benefits from what I consider an active campaign, if not an increasing campaign, of displacement and disavowal. To prove this point, I plan on taking Claire to the best Oaxacan meal in Los Angeles next time she visits, regardless of her stance on the BDS movement.

Claire makes some insightful remarks about the comparison to apartheid South Africa and whether Israel is a true resemblance. Immediately I wonder, “well, how true does it have to be to count?” But more substantially, apartheid in South Africa and in Israel (and the occupied territories) were and are legal systems of separation based on racial or national difference, maintained through policies affecting housing, schooling, jobs, civil service, education, and political involvement. Claire asks for more historical specificity. Yes, let’s compare the Group Areas Act of 1950 to the illegal wall. Let’s ask why the right of return is similar to and different than repatriation. The discussion will be fruitful in the ways it unpacks the specifics. Let’s talk about it. I don’t mind being challenged when done respectfully. I don’t suppose all my political positions are absolute and therefor worthy of choosing “a side.” But I do make decisions in context. And the current context looks like apartheid to me. You can see a more detailed use of apartheid as a/ framing of Palestinian rights here or here.

I thank my friend for her post because it enables, literally makes possible, this engagement and discussion. And her post enables me to confront directly and affirmatively one of the most often repeated contentions against the BDS movement. Claire and others elsewhere have written that they think the BDS movement is “silencing intellectual, academic and cultural workers.” And yet, if it were not for the BDS movement, we might not be in this conversation at all. Don’t you see that the conversation alone proves the worth? The people supporting the BDS movement are offering to speak at events, to respond to blog posts, and to pen editorials about BDS because it raises awareness and invites (along with death threats, it seems) an actually real moment of personal reflection about one’s moral commitments and about how we want “to be” in the world. Claire, you penned your blog post because of the BDS movement and the brave efforts of Judith Butler, Brooklyn College and Omar Barghouti to hold the space for critical engagement over the issues. I am thankful that in that same spirit, you agreed to post my response to your post. I speak for myself here, and not on behalf of any institution, organization, or community. And we should not assume that Claire’s posting this guest blog indicates her personal support of the contents of my post.


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