I want to put together a set of remarks about the political implications of the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel (PACBI), and of BDS more generally, within the U.S. academy; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne (UIUC) firing of Steven Salaita on the grounds of his use of twitter as a form of political expression; and the academic-as-scientific integrity of Native/Indigenous studies.
I do so in order to think through the prevalence of anti-Indigeneity within anti-Palestinian arguments (and vice versa), the perniciousness of which fuels all kinds of rationalizations for state-sanctioned programs of Native/Indigenous genocide and dispossession in the United States and Israel. These rationalizations excuse international human rights violations by state governments as well as states from having to adhere to their own constitutional and federal laws while denouncing the political and intellectual work of Native/Indigenous peoples against those violations as “non-science.”
They Said This
In his ongoing criticisms of PACBI, USACBI, and BDS politics more generally, Cary Nelson (UIUC) writes that:
I do not support the “right of return,” in part because the adults who lived in Arab-owned homes [sic] in what became the state of Israel are now almost all dead….The right to return to some place you have never been seems rather chimerical, mainly a form of political combat by other means, designed to undermine or eliminate the religious character of the Jewish state.
In support of UIUC’s firing of Palestinian scholar Steven Salaita, Nathanial Zelinsky (History Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge) writes that:
Salaita also chose time and again to integrate his politics with his academics. He was a loud proponent of the campaign for the American Studies Association to support the BDS movement. His views on Israel have a real bearing on his ability to be an objective teacher and researcher. In many non-science fields like “American Indian studies,” politics and academics are sadly interchangeable. The buzzwords of what “theoretical framework” someone chooses to employ really means to “what ideology” does he or she subscribe. Nixing Salaita on academic grounds alone was more than appropriate, because his anti-Israel comments were his academics.
They Mean This
Nelson and Zelinksy are not making especially original arguments but more importantly they are not making arguments that are neutral, objective, or scientific in the context of PM Netanyahu’s call for vengeance, Israeli elected officials call for the murder of Palestinian mothers, Israeli academics’ call to use of rape as a “terror deterrent,” or the Israeli military assault of Gaza and murder of 1,940 Palestinians, the majority of whom are civilian, and 67 Israelis, the majority of whom are soldiers.
Instead, their remarks dismiss the very real consequences of Israel’s violent exceptionalism in Palestinian lives. This exceptionalism disguises the Jewish-only religious provisions of Israel’s land laws and the racist anti-Arab policies and practices on which those laws are carried out. These include forced evictions and confiscations of Palestinian lands and homes, the detention and torture of children, the restriction of travel and communication, and the outright ethnic cleansing of Arabs from the occupied territories.
Nelson and Zelinksy condone these actions on the grounds of the “the religious character of the Jewish state” and, ironically, the veracity of scientific rationalism in the determination of what counts for legitimate academics.
Implied and Implicated
Corey Robin, David Palumbo-Liu, and David Lloyd provide excellent analysis of the implications of Nelson’s and Zelinsky’s arguments in relation to BDS politics and the current situation in Gaza. For here, I want to consider the implications of Nelson’s and Zelinky’s arguments in relation to US and Canadian based anti-Indigeneity efforts.
For Nelson, there is no legitimate claim to the right of return under international law for Palestinians because their and/or their parents were forced to leave their home(land)s under the conditions of war and then forbidden to return under the conditions of statehood. In other words, for Nelson, since 1948 Palestinian refugees have lost any credible claim to their home(land)s because Israel effectively killed or dispossessed them of those home(land)s. The only thing they can do now is to accommodate themselves to the “religious character of the Jewish state” predicated on their disenfranchisement and homelessness.
In profound ways, this exact same argument has been made for hundreds of years against Native/Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, First Nations/Indians, Metis, and Inuit have all been told–directly and indirectly–that their treaty and constitutional rights to sovereignty and self-determination were either nullified or eliminated a long time ago by the fact of their conquest. That they need to “get over” their pasts and “move on” to the realities of the present, where United States and Canadian corporate profit and development preside over the final vestiges of their lands, waters, and other natural resources.
Unwittingly or not, Nelson’s arguments about the Palestinian right of return are co-produced by the discourses of anti-Native/Indigenous rights arguments in the United States and Canada. This is most powerfully coded by his remarks about the dead Arab, a figure of imminent discursive fluidity in anti-Indigeneity logics that render the Indigenous culturally and so legally authentic only on condition of their being stuck in a far-distant historical past to which they can never return and consequently renders them rightless in the present.
For Zelinksy, Native/Indigenous studies–like other “non-science fields”– are nothing but political ideology at its worst because it offers that ideology in the name of scientific-as-objective theory. I imagine Zelinsky links all of critical race and ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies together in his “non-science fields” category and the real social sciences of history, anthropology, and the like as doing legitimate, scientific-as-objective work.
These are very familiar refrains of anti-intellectualism that believe proper theoretical and methodological approach renders one’s work relevant to scholarly debate and public policy. They offer a familiar binary that divides between the legitimate and illegitimate in incredibly racialized, gendered, and sexed ways that are about disguising the faith, bias, assumption, and disagreement within the ‘sciences’ for objectivity and immediate social relevance.
It is an argument that has been made for a very long time about Native/Indigenous scholarship and scholars to render insignificant their critical attention to the structures, operations, and practices of US, Canadian, and Israeli colonialism. It is an argument made in anti-Native/Indigenous movements and scholarship that have maintained that Native/Indigenous international, treaty, and constitutional rights amount to nothing more than a double-standard that advances reverse racism and discrimination. These arguments pretend scientific objectivity and rationality in discerning political motivation and cultural bias in the “non-science” gibberish and cultural gobbledygook of Native/Indigenous peoples.
Historical experience has taught Native/Indigenous peoples very well that what passes for science in the academy is often overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, and nationalist and deployed with specifically political goals in mind that seek to rationalize and even incite genocide and land fraud in the name of advancing the more superior civilized society’s rights over and against the savage.
Historical experience has also taught Native/Indigenous scholars that unless you speak/write the party line of scientific theory and methodology you risk your career and professional reputation. Because if you dare to challenge the credibility of science and its very political ambitions at directing, advising, and legitimating state policy, you risk the efforts of those who need to trivialize your work–either by making you crazy or dogmatic– in order to conceal the way they have benefited from and within the current structure of US and Canadian imperialism and colonialism.
It remains to be seen what response UIUC is going to have in regards to Salaita, but it is very clear that the Zionist contingent in United States, Canadian, and Israeli academics are working very hard to justify his firing. It also remains to be seen whether or not Palestinians will get any kind of redress through the International Court of Justice for Israel’s latest war crimes. However, Nelson and Zelinsky can rest assured that their remarks will be protected as expressions of free speech and Salaita’s have not.