The global movement of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel is gaining momentum as the Israeli leaders brand the proponents and advocates of this initiative as “anti-Semites”!
Thus far, more than 1,200 prominent university professors in the United States have officially endorsed the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).
This movement is aimed at imposing sanctions on the academic events, including conferences, seminars and student exchange programs organized by the Israeli universities or Israeli academicians in an attempt to compel the leaders of Israel to change their violent treatment of the Palestinian people. There have been several instances where the American, British and European university professors rejected invitations to attend academic and cultural programs in the Occupied Territories. In May 2013, the prominent British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking joined the boycott campaign by refusing to participate in the Israeli Presidential Conference hosted by Shimon Peres held in East Jerusalem (Al-Quds).
The cultural part of the campaign also involves refusing to arrange artistic programs, including music concerts, photo and painting exhibitions and movie screenings in the Occupied Territories. Prominent artists such as British multi-instrumentalist and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, director and filmmaker Ken Loach and noted violinist Nigel Kennedy have joined this campaign.
One of the major voices in the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, part of the greater BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is Prof. Sunaina Maira.
Sunaina Maira is a Professor of Asian American Studies, and is affiliated with the Middle East/South Asia Studies program at the University of California, Davis. Her research and teaching focus on Asian American youth culture as well as political mobilization and transnational movements challenging militarization, imperialism, and settler colonialism.
Prof. Maira is the author of “Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City” and “Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire After 9/11.” She co-edited “Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America,” which won the American Book Award in 1997. She is a founding organizer of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and has been involved with various civil and human rights campaigns and antiwar groups in the United States.
In an interview with FNA, Prof. Sunaina Maira expounded on the boycott movement and how it is viewed by the Israelis.
“The spurious allegation that supporters of the academic boycott are by definition anti-Semitic is a red herring that serves to divert attention from Israel’s racial violence and discrimination, human rights violations and colonial policies,” she said.
She believes that the policies of Israel, especially in the besieged Gaza Strip, are being criticized globally as they get more aggressive and fierce. The following is the text of FNA’s interview with Prof. Sunaina Maira.
Q: You’ve been advocating for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel a means to convince the Israeli leaders to abandon their repressive policies against Palestine’s civilian population. Do you think this movement has achieved what it was meant for? The Israeli media call the university professors and academicians taking part in the movement “anti-Semites”, tout court, and many scholars are afraid of being assigned such a label, so they keep away from the academic boycotting of Israel. How do you see the whole picture and the Israeli designation of these academics as “anti-Semites”?
A: First, the academic and cultural boycott movement has been expanding rapidly and has already transformed the discourse about Palestine-Israel in the academic as well as cultural spheres in the US. From a situation in which explicit or unspoken support of Israel’s policies was the norm in the US academy, and scholars were scared to criticize Israel for fear of backlash, harassment, and loss of employment, we are now at a moment in which prominent, progressive scholars in a range of fields are coming out in support of the boycott. The reason that the Israel lobby and Zionist organizations unleashed a campaign of vitriolic attacks, legal threats, and defamation against associations such as the American Studies Association who adopted the boycott is because supporters of Israel understand very well that the boycott is succeeding in delegitimizing Israel. And a state that practices illegal military occupation, unethical racial discrimination, and constantly flouts international human rights law is vulnerable to criticism of its crimes. This is why Zionist organizations such as the Reut Institute have described the boycott as a strategic threat to Israel, given that the US is their special ally and donor, and they need US public opinion to back this unconditional support for Israel, at a time when it is facing global criticism for its policies, and its massacres and war crimes in Gaza.
The academic boycott movement, in particular, has been enormously successful in opening up intellectual, and political, space in the US academy for more open, honest discussion about Palestine-Israel. It comes as a shock to many colleagues and students outside the US that many academics and graduate students in the US are afraid to do work on Palestine, because it might undermine their academic careers. This has led to a deformed research agenda in Middle East Studies, and the boycott has challenged this exceptional repression and censorship; in fact, hundreds of leading and senior scholars of Middle East Studies have signed a petition in support of the academic boycott.
The spurious allegation that supporters of the academic boycott are by definition anti-Semitic is a red herring that serves to divert attention from Israel’s racial violence and discrimination, human rights violations and colonial policies. It is deeply disturbing, and ironic, that a movement against apartheid that is fundamentally anti-racist and aims to end racism, such as the boycott movement, is labeled racist. In fact, many Jewish American activists and academics are part of and deeply involved in the BDS movement. The accusation of anti-Semitism thus inverts the reality of racism, and is a tactic of silencing, one that often falls on sympathetic ears among university administrators, however, in a context in which anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab racism is hardly ever acknowledged.
Q: An analogy is being made by a number of scholars and politicians between Israel and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The proponents of the analogy cite the Israeli-built separate roads and sidewalks, unequal water resources, Jewish-only settlements and frequent checkpoints as testimony to their assertion that Israel is practicing apartheid laws against the Palestinian people. What’s your viewpoint on that? How close is the analogy to reality?
A: It is important to note that key South African leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle have made the linkage between South African and Israeli apartheid, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The latter has even said that in some ways, the situation in Palestine-Israel is worse than in apartheid South Africa. The point is that analogies highlight similarities but this does not mean the situation is identical; there are, of course, differences. But the condition whereby a regime imposes racialized restrictions on freedom of movement, residence, and opportunities for well-being on another population is at core a system of apartheid. Israel’s legal as well as extra-legal or indirect policies of discrimination against Palestinians in Israel and its matrix of control in the West Bank as well as control over Gaza’s borders, its bantustans that have fragmented and dismembered the Palestinian national community, and its encagement of Palestinians in “cages” or zones where Israel decides who can enter and for how long, who can work and where, who can marry whom, who can study, etc. are all features of apartheid.
Q: The Haaretz correspondent Gideon Levy published an op-ed on June 4, 2015 entitled “Israeli Propaganda Isn’t Fooling Anyone Except Israelis.” He had talked about the Israeli Hasbara or propaganda campaign, aimed at portraying a favorable image of Tel Aviv’s actions and practices through using such stereotypes as that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East”, the greatest army in the region, has many Nobel Prize laureates, is the land of cherry tomatoes and the pioneer of drip irrigation, etc. However, he said the Israeli propaganda won’t appeal to anybody outside the Israeli borders as the world judges Israel by its actions, not words. How effective has the Hasbara been, especially in the recent decade, when the Israeli military operations in Palestine intensified?
A: The Israeli state and Zionist organizations have invested a great deal of resources in the Hasbara program, including employing students and others to use social media to disseminate propaganda and to challenge critics of Israel through oft-repeated counter-arguments. However, new media and social media have also been conduits for many ordinary Americans and others to alternative perspectives and more facts about the reality on the ground in Palestine-Israel. It is true that there is an active Brand Israel campaign, for example, using the image of Israel as a gay-friendly and hence modern and democratic state – “pinkwashing”. But there are now campaigns and discourses springing up to counter these manipulative strategies; for example, Palestinian Queers for BDS and queer Palestine solidarity groups in the US.
Q: The blockade of the Gaza Strip has concerned many observers and actors across the world, including international aid organizations. Oxfam International has described the 1.8 million residents of the Gaza Strip as being “trapped” in the coastal enclave, “largely cut off from the outside world”. On its website special emergency page for Gaza, Oxfam says, “there has been virtually no reconstruction, there is no permanent ceasefire, no meaningful peace talks, and the blockade is still firmly in place” since the Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. What could be the possible reasons for the continued enforcement of the siege in Gaza? How do you see the living conditions of the people in the beleaguered sliver?
A: Gaza has often been described the world’s largest open-air prison. Israel controls the land, sea, and air borders of this besieged strip. The population imprisoned in this sliver of land has been sitting ducks for Israel’s regular attacks and aerial bombardment. The myth of a de-occupied Gaza and of the threat of rockets obscures the reality that this is a population that Israel is focused on devastating, starving, and annihilating. Israel wishes to maintain dominance over Palestinians by reducing the “demographic threat”, in the context of an expanding Palestinian population, and to undermine any possibility of unity between Hamas and Fatah and of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state.
The siege of Gaza co-exists with the cantonization of the West Bank, the peripheralization and Judaization of Jerusalem, and the repression and subjugation of Palestinians inside Israel. I view this as a condition of settler colonialism, where the settler colonial state aims not just at the displacement and dispossession but also the elimination of the indigenous population