Perspectives on BDS: UK Initiatives

28.04.22 

Editorial Note

After years of advocacy, the BDS, which initially focused on the Israeli “occupation” and “apartheid policies,” has evolved into effort to discredit the existence of the Jewish State.

The United Kingdom, a country with dozens of BDS initiatives is a case in point. The SOAS Palestine Society, which works within the School ofOriental and African Studies (SOAS) University, recently published an announcement on Twitter, stating that, “Acknowledging Israel as an Apartheid state didn’t start with recent Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch & B’Tselem reports – all of which turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel’s Apartheid practices are tools of maintaining its settler-colonial regime since the 1948 Nakba.” 

In other words, the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, that is, the failure of the Palestinians and their Arab allies to dismantle the nascent State of Israel, is the real focus behind BDS. It is not about the consequences of the Six Days War but rather Israel’s founding. 

The SOAS’ Palestine Society has also urged SOAS University to end a partnership with Israel’s Haifa University because it provides degrees to the Israeli army. The school administration ordered the security personnel to forcibly remove the students who occupied the university premises. The university’s Palestine Society demanded a boycott of Haifa University and for SOAS to cut ties with a “settler-colonial state.”

Worth noting that the University of Haifa is also the home of a large number of Arab students.

Particularly glaring is the involvement of academics in spreading initiatives through Arab media. For example, the New Arab, also known as Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, is a pan-Arab media outlet headquartered in London. It was launched in 2014 by the Qatari company Fadaat Media, by former MK Azmi Bishara who succeeded in escaping Israel after espionage allegations.  

The Young Arab published the following articles, written by academics and students in the past month. 

In “BDS is the key to academic freedom,” Samar Saeed, a PhD candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University, wrote.  “The historic passing of BDS by The Middle East Studies Association should be celebrated for strengthening academic freedom and countering Israel’s implication of institutions within the oppression of Palestinians.”

Samar Saeed published another article, “Standing with Palestine requires challenging the myth of ‘non-political’ institutions Perspectives.” In this view, the MESA vote for BDS provides “a framework for MESA to uphold the BDS call released by Palestinian civil society in 2005, which includes enforcing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.” MESA’s scholars and students have been actively laying the groundwork for this moment for many years, according to Judith Tucker, professor of history at Georgetown and former MESA president. “In 2015, we passed a resolution which aimed to position BDS as a central theme of conversation in MESA’s organized conferences, panels, and debates,” Tucker said. Amending MESA’s bylaws was also necessary. “MESA’s bylaw stated that the institution was non-political and therefore when we started debating BDS, the bylaws did not allow us to adopt it. We started working on changing that.” 

Yara Derbas is a Palestinian undergraduate student in Social Anthropology at SOAS. Her dissertation focuses on the fragmentation of the Palestinian political movement in Britain. Derbas published the article “Defending the radical tradition of Israeli Apartheid Week.” She wrote that “In the face of rampant government and institutional repression, university students across the UK must uphold the political roots of Israeli Apartheid Week and sustain the struggle for Palestinian liberation year-round.” For her, “The time comes every year for students to begin planning for Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at their respective universities, with the intention of raising political consciousness around Palestine on campuses.”   In other words, delegitimizing Israel is a tool for preventing the fragmentation of the “Palestinian political movement.”

The Young Arab also published articles on BDS efforts beyond the UK, such as BDS struggles in Leiden University in the Nederlands and a call to boycott a cultural festival in Australia that hosts Israelis.   

An analysis of the initiatives clarifies that BDS is a dual-purpose tool.  Its propaganda masquerading as scholarship serves to delegitimize Israel in the community of nations.  But it also serves as a tool to build identity and cohesion among the Palestinian diaspora in the West.  Maligning the “other” is a time-honored way to stop the identity erosion of second and third-generation Palestinians who have no personal recollection of their “lost homeland.” Paradoxically, without the “Palestinian struggle for national liberation,” nothing would be left to tie them together.

References:

SOAS Palestine Society

@SOAS_Palestine

Acknowledging Israel as an Apartheid state didn’t start with recent Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch & B’Tselem reports – all of which turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel’s Apartheid practices are tools of maintaining its settler-colonial regime since the 1948 Nakba

10:59 AM · Mar 17, 2022·Twitter

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/bds-key-academic-freedom

BDS is the key to academic freedom

Samar Saeed

19 Apr, 2022
The historic passing of BDS by The Middle East Studies Association should be celebrated for strengthening academic freedom and countering Israel’s implication of institutions within the oppression of Palestinians, writes Samar Saeed.

Student activists have been crucial in BDS victories within academic institutions.

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last month endorsed the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel. MESA, the most prominent association representing scholars and students studying the Middle East and North Africa, ratified the resolution by referendum. Nearly half of all members participated, which is the largest voter turnout in MESA’s history, and 80% of those who did voted in favour of BDS.

The historic vote is a testament to collective organising carried out by faculty and graduate students over the past decade—producing critical knowledge on Palestine and Israel across academic disciplines, educating colleagues about Israeli settler-colonial policies in Palestine including at Israeli universities, and insisting that academic freedom for all also means academic freedom for Palestinian students, teachers, and academics.

Opponents of BDS have previously accused MESA members who support the movement of “violating the key tenets of academic freedom” and “prohibiting faculty from engaging their Israeli counterparts.” Both claims distort the strategies and intended aims of BDS, and of its supporters within MESA.

”In a recent attack on Palestinian academic freedom, Israel’s defence ministry decided it will be the sole attributor of who can and cannot teach in Palestinian universities, and what disciplines are permitted to be taught. Such infringements are compounded by the fact that Israel already controls who can leave Palestine.”

At its core, the BDS resolution is about ensuring academic freedom for all, including Palestinians. It is not, after all, an abstract or neutral concept; it does not exist in a vacuum. As Amahl Bishara notes in her work on news production on Palestine, invocations of neutrality and “balanced objectivity,” including within academia, often obscure unequal relations, institutions, and power brokers constantly shaping the production of knowledge. Facts and knowledge are products of specific political contexts.

In Palestine, Israel’s settler colonialism implicates academic institutions in the process of subjugating Palestinians. These institutions are not free from state politics but are entangled within a broader system of settler colonialism. When BDS opponents speak of academic freedom they obscure the enormous power asymmetry between Palestinians and Israel and conceal the role Israeli academic institutions play in silencing Palestinian speech, ideas, and knowledge. They decontextualise colonialism and mischaracterise the strategies of political resistance against it.

The BDS movement does not target individuals. It instead focuses on institutions implicated in the ongoing hindering of Palestinian freedom, through land theft, dispossession, and holding hostage Palestinian bodies.

The Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) systematically raid university campuses in Palestine and arrest and shoot students. In January 2022, the IOF raided Birzeit University campus and arrested five students. They shot and injured Ismail Barghouti as he tried to escape.

In a recent attack on Palestinian academic freedom, Israel’s defence ministry decided it will be the sole attributor of who can and cannot teach in Palestinian universities, and what disciplines are permitted to be taught. Such infringements are compounded by the fact that Israel already controls who can leave Palestine. In 2021, Israel prohibited more than 10,000 Palestinians from traveling abroad, including students and academics.

These restrictions on Palestinian academic freedom are not new and Israeli universities play a central role in the colonisation of Palestine and the violence that it entails. One example is the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which was developed by the Tel Aviv University-affiliated think-tank Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Its name comes from Israel’s indiscriminate attack on military and civilian infrastructure in Beirut’s southern neighbourhoods in 2006. This doctrine of disproportionate force was subsequently adopted in the Israeli military attacks against Gaza. In 2014, several Israeli universities also publicly supported Israel’s war on Gaza, joining the bombardment efforts by collecting donations in support of the operation.

Additionally, contrary to claims made by BDS opponents, MESA’s resolution on BDS does not infringe on scholars’ academic freedom in North America. It instead protects the academic freedom of scholars of Palestine who have long been targeted in the academy through personal and professional reprisals.

Examples of academic freedom violations include denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University, firing Professor Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, denying tenure to Cornel West at Harvard University, and withdrawing an offer of employment from Valentina Azarova at the University of Toronto.

The BDS resolution also highlights the value and importance of student activism on campuses across North America. Student groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, continue to push for divestment campaigns targeting companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s colonisation.

”The vote by MESA shows that many of its members are committed to scholarly work grounded in collective freedom, liberation, and justice. They acknowledge that their work has social and political implications. The vote offers a way to build and nurture active solidarity with other groups experiencing injustice and violence.”

At colleges and universities where divestment campaigns have taken root, school administrators often try to quash these initiatives—ironically infringing on students’ academic freedom that their institutions purport to uphold. At McGill University, for instance, the administration threatened to suspend funding to its student society that passed a BDS resolution, further exposing the persistence of the Palestine exception to academic freedom.

MESA’s vote not only helps advance BDS but also supports and further legitimises student expressions of activism and solidarity with Palestinians through BDS campaigns.

The vote by MESA shows that many of its members are committed to scholarly work grounded in collective freedom, liberation, and justice. They acknowledge that their work has social and political implications. The vote offers a way to build and nurture active solidarity with other groups experiencing injustice and violence.

In the past few years, university administrators have been forced to reckon with decades of various forms of institutional racism including anti-black, anti-Asian, and anti-indigenous. The MESA BDS resolution and the Palestine student activism taking place on US campuses should be seen as part of this reckoning.

Faculty and students are demanding that university administrators no longer punish those who speak for Palestinian freedom. The BDS vote reinforces commitment to academic freedom for all. It gives us hope that persistent collective organising connecting Palestinian, black, and indigenous liberation will continue to challenge administrators’ biased, exclusionary, and distorted treatment of minority and oppressed groups in the academy.

Hope is a radical act, maybe especially in academia. We should insist on being hopeful that more tangible outcomes will materialise to demand that academic freedom applies to all.

Samar Saeed is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University.

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/defending-radical-tradition-israeli-apartheid-week

Opinion 

Perspectives Defending the radical tradition of Israeli Apartheid Week Perspectives 

Yara Derbas 

25 Apr, 2022

In the face of rampant government and institutional repression, university students across the UK must uphold the political roots of Israeli Apartheid Week and sustain the struggle for Palestinian liberation year round, writes Yara Derbas.

The time comes every year for students to begin planning for Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at their respective universities, with the intention of raising political consciousness around Palestine on campuses.

Along with political education, IAW was initially established to carve out time during the year for grassroots organisers and organisations to mobilise people to join political campaigns, such as campaigns for BDS.

For students, creating this space on campus on an annual basis has mobilised a significant and tangible shift in the discourse around Palestine over the years, with various issues surrounding Palestine/Israel now finding themselves on the tips of tongues.

“In the span of my time at university and the IAWs I have attended and organised, I would argue that there has been a decline in the desire to politicise and mobilise students on campuses across Britain”

Events on the ground in Palestine now regularly influence student activity in Britain, the most recent catalyst being the Palestinian uprisings that sparked last summer. However, based on my own observations of the way student organising for IAW has unfolded in recent years, I feel that there is a disparity between the intended purpose that this week was meant to serve and the current reality that IAW has become.

In the span of my time at university and the IAWs I have attended and organised, I would argue that there has been a decline in the desire to politicise and mobilise students on campuses across Britain. I have noticed that Palestine societies tend to focus on “raising awareness” about Palestine, but often this seems to be the extent of the work that the societies do.

This seems to be a rising phenomenon in student politics, particularly given the value we place on social media and visibility, but I think there are more pressing factors which are contributing to this issue. 

I would attribute much of this depoliticisation to the increasing repression of Palestinian activism by the UK government, which has manifested in the forms of fear-mongering, hyper-securitisation, silencing and censorship.

The implementations of the Prevent Duty (2015) and the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism have attempted to stifle political dissent when it comes to speaking out about Palestinian liberation, and the links between government policy and university procedure are crucial for us to connect.

To give an example, a recent student occupation at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to pressure management to adhere to student and staff demands, including those relating to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestine, was violently shut down by private bailiffs who were called by SOAS management. The recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a stark example of this and how our universities operate in a microcosm of the state’s wider agenda to crush the right to protest.

Another budding governmental policy designed to extinguish Palestinian activism, which would undoubtedly be enforced at universities, is the anti-BDS legislation, which has been looming over us for a while. While students have remained steadfast in the face of such extensive repression tactics, it has been essential for us to account for the specific local context of each university when it has come to planning for IAW this year.

The opposition that Palestine societies face from hostile bodies such as university administrations or student unions is more severe at certain universities than others, and these organisations therefore require more support and alternative avenues for organising IAW. This hinders students’ ability to participate in, and promote, a more radical political orientation, which then coerces many Palestine societies to adopt a softer stance and appeal to the concept of “neutrality”. 

While this violation of free speech and academic freedom has affected students’ ability to organise freely, I would differentiate between the ability to organise and the desire to organise. Without a doubt, these repression tactics can be very demoralising, however, I identify this as separate to the lack of effort students are willing to put in to politicise and mobilise other students on campus during the year.

For IAW, Palestine societies plan events throughout the week, which often garner lots of attention during the week itself, but there will be little to no sustained activity in the society throughout the academic year. There is a pattern of unsustainability in student politics, due to the nature of changing student bodies every year, which I think is a key reason that many students have little desire to build and grow campaigns at the start of the academic year.

“For IAW, Palestine societies plan events throughout the week, which often garner lots of attention during the week itself, but there will be little to no sustained activity in the society throughout the academic year”

I am a strong advocate for students to be proactive about prioritising longevity of their society. Archiving the work being done by the Palestine society should become integral to the functioning of the society and its campaigns, allowing for lessons to be learned from present and past mistakes.

This is essential for students who want a long-term vision and focus, rather than sporadic events which are planned purely out of obligation. Sustaining a campaign is also difficult to do unless there is collective power in the group that is sustaining it. Campaigns cannot be singlehandedly run by one or two individuals, otherwise this leads to the campaign eventually fizzling out, and the leaders experiencing burnout.

In activism, burnout is an important issue that is often overlooked and neglected, due to the very nature that it is only the select few who experience it, by taking on all the work. IAWs can and often do turn out to be incredible for the masses who get involved with it, and this year we definitely managed to reinvigorate some of the energy that has been lost, but it tends to come at the expense of the welfare of its organisers, which is not sustainable.

Ironically, the more students volunteer to take on small tasks to help contribute to the realisation of IAW, the more desirable organising the week becomes for the collective – a vision I would trace back to the original aspirations of IAW. 

While these are difficult conditions under which students are organising, it is inspirational to see the resilience that continues among us. The UK government and the Israeli lobby have been persistent in their attempts to wipe out solidarity with Palestine for decades, but students have remained consistent in their message that the struggle for Palestinian liberation from Zionism will not be compromised.

Students have historically been at the forefront of social and political movements, and we will continue to confront these obstacles head-on so that we can experience our movement for justice to thrive.

Yara Derbas is a Palestinian student organiser, studying for her undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology at SOAS. She has been running the SOAS Palestine Society for the last few years and is involved with various other campaigns. Her dissertation research focus is on the fragmentation of the Palestinian political movement in Britain.

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/palestinians-arent-neutral-enough-do-their-jobFor Leiden University, Palestinians aren’t ‘neutral enough’ to do their job

Dina Zbeidy 

08 Apr, 2022

Last month, to mark Israeli Apartheid Week, Students at the Leiden University, in the Netherlands, organised an event on racism, apartheid and intersectionality. However, the university decided not to allow them to book a room for the event. The main excuse they used was that the chair of the event, me, did not possess a ‘neutral’ profile. The event therefore did not adhere to the household rules and could not take place at the university.

While the institution insists that the decision was made by the university board, the rejection first came from the security officer. I emailed the security officer asking him for clarification. At first, he informed me that he would not engage, then after I insisted, I received a long email arguing that due to my ‘outspoken’ profile he would not be able to guarantee the safety/security of all attendees. He ended our email exchange with an invitation for us to meet on neutral grounds, a place where I would feel comfortable, and talk over a cup of coffee.

Since then, a lot has happened. Students and professors started a petition calling for the university to reverse their decision and apologise to me. Newspapers have published about the incident, and an elected Parliament member raised questions to the Dutch minister of education.

”I have noticed that often, when an academic speaks out against global injustice, basing arguments on research and facts, they run the risk of tainting their professional reputation – especially when it comes to Palestine and Israel.”

In my email to the security officer I made clear that I am indeed not a neutral person, especially when it comes to topics such as racism and apartheid. Is a person who claims neutrality when it comes to social injustice actually neutral? What does a neutral profile even mean?

Nevertheless, I was sure that I would be able to fulfil my role as a chair in a professional manner. My job is to facilitate a productive discussion, ask the right questions, keep things running on time, and welcome critical questions and comments.

They apparently were not convinced.

I have noticed that often, when an academic speaks out against global injustice, basing arguments on research and facts, they run the risk of tainting their professional reputation – especially when it comes to Palestine and Israel.

I grew up with a Dutch mother and a Palestinian father in the Galilee, in a Palestinian town. I grew up under occupation, as part of a minoritised group that faced discrimination in most facets of life.

When it was time for me to decide what to study, I chose political science, sociology and anthropology. Now, 18 years later, I have a doctorate in anthropology. My academic career has always been part of my activism. I decided to study anthropology because I was critical of power. I studied Zionism, world history, feminism, indigenous politics and settler colonialism. Every bit of research I conducted was in order to expose injustice and oppression.

This is also why I decided to focus on teaching. I teach because I hope to play a part in educating critical students who think further than what they see in front of them. I don’t impose my own ideals on them, but hope to expose them to ethical dilemmas, and acquaint them with (in)justice. I talk to my students about the role of the Netherlands in slavery, LGBTQI rights, sexism, refugee predicaments. My work, my research and my teachings are my activism.

Why should academics continuously be pushed into showing their ‘neutrality’? Isn’t the university where revolutions and social change have often started? Why should standing up for a cause be a stain on you as a professional?

Or maybe the question should be – why does standing up for Palestine become a stain on your reputation? And how is this tied to global inaction in the face of Israeli aggression and the dehumanisation of Palestinians?

The fact that I was accused of not having a neutral profile did not bother me that much. What bothered me was the claim that I am not professional enough to act as a good chair, while I have ample experience and (as far as I know) never received any complaints. Additionally, the grave, and unsubstantiated, accusation that I was making people feel unsafe was very painful to me.

The idea of safe spaces on campuses has been historically important for racialised groups and minorities. I can identify with the need to feel safe on campuses, as a Palestinian Arab student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Not only was it difficult to study rhetoric that treats me and my people as inferior, but my actual safety was also put in danger. One example of this is when I was attacked by campus security and arrested for voicing my opposition to the siege on Gaza on campus.

Nowadays however, it seems that the claim of ‘safety’ has been appropriated in favour of accommodating any and all political opinion. Should it be a university’s concern to make racists or supporters of apartheid systems feel safe? I don’t think so. Should such people be able to ask questions at an event on racism and apartheid? Sure! They might learn a thing or two from the responses of the panellists. Is it my responsibility as a chair to ensure that exchange goes respectfully and smoothly? Certainly.

”I grew up with the taste of teargas in my throat, and the bruises from clashes with police and soldiers on Palestinian bodies. The accusation of making others feel unsafe by speaking truth to power and standing up for oppressed people – that is the true violence.”

Leiden University denies considering me un-neutral due to my Palestinian background. What they fail to understand though, it that even if my Palestinian identity didn’t play a part in their decision, they have contributed to the violence committed against Palestinians.

My father was a political prisoner for many years. On my ancestral land that the nearby Israeli settlement confiscated, I grew up in a house that had a demolition order on it. We were always unsure of when the police would show up again to arrest my father, or when the bulldozer would show up to destroy our house.

I grew up with the taste of teargas in my throat, and the bruises from clashes with police and soldiers on Palestinian bodies. The accusation of making others feel unsafe by speaking truth to power and standing up for oppressed people – that is the true violence.

Leiden University is complicit in creating an unsafe environment for exactly those people it should create a safe space for.

The security officer’s invitation to meet somewhere I would feel comfortable highlights what privileged people often overlook, that for many of us the world is not a comfortable place. For women and people of colour, among others, the most important skill we learn is how to stay true to ourselves despite the constant sense of insecurity. What I need is not a cup of coffee and a nice ‘neutral’ chat, but a serious engagement with the issues of oppression, inequality and power. And, an apology.

Dina Zbeidy is an anthropologist. She teaches social sciences at the Leiden University of Applied Sciences and is senior researcher Access2Justice.

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/dutch-university-attempts-ban-discussion-israel-crimes
Dutch university ‘tried to ban’ discussion on Israeli crimes against Palestinians

The New Arab Staff 23 March, 2022

A student-organised panel discussion titled ‘Apartheid, racism & intersectionality’ on Israeli crimes against Palestinians was barred by Leiden University in the Netherlands.

A student group at the  Netherlands‘ Leiden University was barred from organising a panel discussion on Israeli crimes against Palestinians on Monday, forcing them to conduct the event off- campus.

The university had initially agreed to host Students for Palestine’s ‘Apartheid, racism & intersectionality’ discussion, before backtracking on their decision just days before the event, according to Alice Garcia, Advocacy and Communication Officer at the European Legal Support Center (ELSC).

The event eventually took place at a cultural venue in the Hague, while other students protested in front of Leiden University.

A key difference between the students and university was reportedly the panel’s chair – Dr. Dina Zbeidy, an anthropologist with experience working for human rights groups in Palestine and the Netherlands, according to activists.

It is unclear why the university opposed Zbeidy’s attendance.

Leo Harskamp, head of security at Leiden University, who is reportedly close to the pro-Israel group Christians for Israel, claimed she was not neutral on the issue and therefore was unsuitable.

University rector Hester Bijl endorsed the decision to bar the event, despite tweeting: “Academic freedom lies at the heart of our university.”

Garcia slammed the university’s decision as an “arbitrary restriction to the rights of freedom of expression and of assembly of the students”.

“They (the university) provided no evidence on why Dr. Zbeidy would not be a good chair. They only vaguely referred to the university house rules without explaining why Dr. Zbeidy is not a ‘good chair’ as required per the house rules. Excluding her could amount to discrimination if the university did not apply the same standards to events recently organised on campus on other topics, such as Ukraine for instance,” she told The New Arab.

This is not the first time Students for Palestine has clashed with the university’s administration for organising events to raise awareness around the Israeli occupation, and is emblematic of a larger culture of censorship of pro-Palestinian voices, as detailed in an ELSC report from last year.

Layla, a Leiden University student and member of Students for Palestine, told The New Arab that the event was likely “not going to take place from the outset, and that the problem with (the chair) was just an excuse”.

“They (the university authorities) will never talk about the content of an academic panel, but they will find an issue with the structure of the panel – what they have power over,” she said.

Israel and pro-Israel activists have long dismissed accusations of Apartheid, however, the word has become increasingly associated with the Jewish state in public discourse.

Israeli forces have displaced thousands of Palestinian families from their homes since the country’s creation in 1948 and continue to occupy the West Bank and besiege the Gaza Strip.

Israel has built hundreds of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and its occupying forces routinely detain and violate the rights of Palestinians.

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/palestine-and-myth-non-political-institutions
Standing with Palestine requires challenging the myth of ‘non-political’ institutions Perspectives 

21 Mar, 2022 

Samar Saeed 

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in the US will soon vote on whether it will answer the call for BDS. As the largest academic body of its kind, the outcome could set the tone for the institutions worldwide, writes Samar Saeed

A boycott, divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution is currently being voted on in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in the United States. The association, established in 1966, is the largest academic body in the world that focuses on the study of the Middle East.

On 2nd December 2021, during the MESA annual conference, 93% of the 444 voting members present at the business meeting voted to advance a resolution endorsing BDS, to a full membership vote in early 2022. The voting ends tomorrow, 22nd March 2022. If ratified, the resolution would provide a framework for MESA to uphold the BDS call released by Palestinian civil society in 2005, which includes enforcing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Passing this resolution was not a forgone conclusion. According to Professor of history at Georgetown and former MESA president, Judith Tucker, over the years, scholars and students in MESA have been actively laying the groundwork for this moment. “In 2015, we passed a resolution which aimed to position BDS as a central theme of conversation in MESA’s organised conferences, panels, and debates,” says Tucker. The resolution facilitated open conversations on BDS, despite the external political context that was actively demonising BDS and vilifying its advocates. The second concrete effort was amending MESA’s bylaws. According to Tucker, “MESA’s bylaw stated that the institution was non-political and therefore when we started debating BDS, the bylaws did not allow us to adopt it. We started working on changing that.”

”Academic institutions function within the social and political contexts in which they are emplaced. They are deeply embedded in the state’s systems of power and are implicated in its politics.”

In 2016, a resolution was passed to remove the wording of “non-political” from its by-laws. For the legal scholar Noura Erakat, the whole premise of a non-political organisation needed to be challenged. Not taking a stand should itself be seen as a political stance. As such, this was an incremental process that was concerned with transforming the association.

The BDS vote is a continuation of a trend that has been transforming US academia on the question of Palestine. Since 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Student Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the Middle East Section of the American Anthropology Association have endorsed BDS.

Meanwhile, the swift and popularly supported sanctioning of Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted activists to point out the hypocrisy when it comes to the US sanctioning of Israel. It demonstrates that the notion of boycotts being antithetical to our values, an argument commonly used by those who oppose BDS, is only true when it comes to Palestine. Indeed, unlike the Palestinian-led BDS movement which advances an ethical approach to targeting institutions and not civilians, we have seen discriminatory boycotts imposed on ordinary Russians, because of their identity. Some suggested expelling Russian students in the US. Russian athletes, musicians, and performers are also being punished. This is not meant to draw a parallel between Palestine and Ukraine but to highlight how the BDS movement is organised and targeted.

Academic institutions function within the social and political contexts in which they are emplaced. They are deeply embedded in the state’s systems of power and are implicated in its politics. An academic boycott acknowledges the place academic institutions uphold in politics and exposes the explicit role Israeli institutions play in Palestinian subjugation.

Israeli universities are built on confiscated Palestinian land and are the pipelines for knowledge, technologies, and weaponry that are systematically used to murder and uproot Palestinians from their lands. Even after death, they are utilised in the punishment of Palestinians by serving as a site to keep their bodies hostage. An example of this is the Greenberg National Institute of Forensic Medicine, part of Tel Aviv University.

Furthermore, the Israeli occupation forces systematically target Palestinian professors, students, and educational institutions. Students are arrested because of their activities on campus and their affiliation with student councils. According to the Right to Education Campaign, a group established at Birzeit University, 58 students were arrested by Israeli forces between September 2020 and July 2021. Beyond Birzeit, MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom has stated that Israeli authorities continue to detain more than 300 Palestinian students. Israel also punishes Israeli scholars who support the BDS movement.

As scholars of the Middle East who explore the relationship between knowledge and power, legacies of colonialism, and decoloniality, we should be explicit in our stance against the ongoing colonisation of Palestine and take concrete action against it, especially when we are asked to by Palestinians. Acting otherwise, while materially benefiting from producing knowledge on Palestine and the region, is not only self-serving but raises ethical questions about the purpose of the knowledge we produce.

Marya Hannun, a Palestinian-American historian on Afghanistan and the Middle East, says that “We are all complicit because we are all working at institutions that, in absence of taking a vote, normalise apartheid and occupation. To me, being a scholar of a region and not being invested in its future and in social justice is suspect. If we as scholars, think of our work as having some social good and some potential for impact then we have to take a stance.”

For Ahmad al-Sholi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stony Brook, the MESA vote is critical for its potential impact on Palestinian activism in the US. “Israel’s propaganda machine that fosters exclusions and accusation of antisemitism are working tirelessly to stop the vote. I received at least four emails from different Israeli groups and institutions, including the Hebrew University, against it. This resolution is part of an infrastructure that we as Palestinians should build in the US to advance the Palestinian narrative moving forward. We want a political solution and our demand for boycotts and sanctions aims to pressure Israel to move in that direction.”

A just political solution for the Palestinian struggle remains far away. However, MESA’s vote and its passing will be an important step forward. The academic field in the US has radically shifted over the question of Palestine in the past decade. The vote will be a testament to this change.

Samar Saeed is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University. 

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author’s employer.

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/lessons-sydney-festival-boycott-grassroot-activism

Beyond BDS ‘victories’: The lessons of the Sydney Festival boycott for grassroot activism

Randa Abdel-Fattah 

07 Mar, 2022

The recent success of the boycott of the 2022 Sydney Festival not only reveals the power of BDS, but also how solidarity and community building is always necessary for victory, writes Randa Abdel-Fattah.

The cultural boycott of one of Australia’s major annual cultural events, the 2022 Sydney Festival is being described in international circles as the most effective, impactful and creative since the inception of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2005.

The boycott was launched in December 2022 because Sydney Festival refused artist and community calls to divest from its sponsorship sought from the state of Israel for the Sydney Dance Company’s production of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Decadence.  

The response to the boycott call was unprecedented. Over a thousand people signed our Artist Statement calling on artists, workers, organisations and affiliates to withdraw their participation in Sydney Festival for its partnership with an apartheid regime.  

In just three weeks, more than 100 artists, creatives and companies withdrew in solidarity, many patrons cancelled tickets. Publicly, there was an outpouring of support across social media platforms, and extensive national media coverage.

“From the outset, the campaign was based on grassroots organising and transnational movement-building, all underpinned by a praxis of anti-colonial, anti-racist resistance among allies”

Palestinians in Gaza who were literally being bombed by Israel when Sydney Festival’s board made the sponsorship deal in May 2021, were following the campaign on social media and sent photographs holding up messages of solidarity.

An anonymous artist painted a mural depicting the festival’s logo on a wall in Gaza, the word ‘complex’ painted above as an ironic gesture to the rhetorical avoidances deployed by so many. First Nations’ artists, arts organisations and communities in solidarity with Palestinians in a genuinely intersectional, intergenerational coalition were some of the first to boycott and produced the most compelling arguments for accountability of cultural institutions.  

Literally two days after the Festival closed, on 1 February, Amnesty International published its landmark report: ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians, Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity’. Sydney Festival’s board had tried ‘both-sides’ and ‘it’s complex’, and doubled-down on partnering with an apartheid state.

Whilst there are many, particularly in the “progressive except Palestine” camp, who confidently dismiss Palestinian voices, not so many would dare dismiss Amnesty International, a recognised human rights agency that enjoys the support in the liberal mainstream.  

2/3 @sydney_festival has officially crossed the human rights picket line and so Palestinian civil society and allies call on artists, organisations and festival goers to withdraw their support from the 2022 Sydney Festival and join the cultural boycott. pic.twitter.com/9LeNxayPib — Arab Theatre Studio (@ArabiStudio) December 21, 2021

From the outset, the campaign was based on grassroots organising and transnational movement-building, all underpinned by a praxis of anti-colonial, anti-racist resistance among allies who did not need an Amnesty report to remind them of what Palestinians had been experiencing and documenting for decades.

The boycott was a striking example of how activists negotiating multiple and inseparable identities on sovereign Indigenous land work together to formulate political demands and build transnational alliances in the service of justice.  

Praxis is key here. Transnational social movements share an intellectual and political language, but language is about more than fluency in vocabulary.   

Many academics, artists and self-labelled progressives parrot the vocabulary of social justice activism: ‘decolonial’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘anti-racist,’ ‘solidarity’. But if ‘solidarity is a verb’, the language of justice is practice. It is intellectual labour forged in concrete struggle. There is a difference between those who appropriate knowledge and theory, and those who produce it through action and experience, not mere academic citations or blue ticks.  

Language as praxis, even as it draws on the rich lexicons of global transnational struggles, will only make sense if it operates through local grammars. This was critical for us. Arab, Palestinian and non-Indigenous artists, organisers and academics understood that we campaign as racialized settler minorities on stolen land.

This is not to romanticise solidarity work. It is impossible to square the circle of fighting settler colonialism there as we live in an ongoing settler colony here.

Supporting a decolonisation project in Palestine means confronting settler colonialism and the task of decolonisation on this continent and holding ourselves accountable to a foundational principle: dismantling oppressive local and global power structures by pursuing transformative justice that centres Indigenous sovereignty.   

In our communications and meetings with Sydney Festival’s board, we were unequivocal in calling out the Festival’s performative co-option of the contemporary language of ‘acknowledgment of country’ and ‘Indigenous sovereignty’.

“Withdrawing from Sydney Festival— after two years of a global pandemic and funding cuts to the arts— came at a significant, painful cost for artists and arts companies”

The Festival insisted on doing business with an apartheid regime even as it applauded itself for programming Indigenous artists and performed a solemn acknowledgment of country on its website. In rejecting calls to divest from the partnership, the board claimed it was a ‘non-political’ organisation.   

In the Artist Statement calling for a boycott call consequently issued, such a claim was promptly exposed: ‘Existing on stolen land is political. Making art is political. Accepting funding from a settler-colonial apartheid regime is political’. Calling out the board’s obvious cynical performativity was not the point.

The point was to reclaim the political, decolonial and intersectional approach from progressives who treat these words as platitudes, rather than embodied practice. ‘Solidarity’, the boycott call proclaimed, ‘is a practice and an ongoing commitment’.   

Key to this commitment is ethics and practice of care. Withdrawing from Sydney Festival— after two years of a global pandemic and funding cuts to the arts— came at a significant, painful cost for artists and arts companies whose withdrawal meant losing the publicity, reviews and exposure that comes with participation in a major festival.

Solidarity as practice meant supporting artists who had withdrawn their shows from the festival but were performing in other venues: using social media platforms and word of mouth to publicise the alternative shows, organising donations of tickets to encourage people to attend, organising tickets for reviewers to attend the shows, write and publish reviews.   

Arab Theatre Studio (ATS), a Sydney-based theatre company and the first arts organisation to withdraw from the Festival, put in practice an ethics of care in both visible ways and behind-the-scenes labour. One example of this embodied care was organising a group of First Nations Elders, First Nations artists and people seeking asylum to see the renowned Indigenous-intercultural dance company Marrugeku’s world premiere of Jurrungu Ngan-ga.

Extending on this sense of care and solidarity, a group of poets of colour publicly offered to support companies and artists boycotting shows by buying tickets, so through interconnected networks of artist activists, ATS was able to invite Indigenous Elders, artists, friends and allies to Marrugeku’s stunning performance that was now being independently performed outside the Festival.

“Whilst the boycott campaign is officially over, solidarity and community building is always ongoing for, in the words of Toni Morrison, ‘If we serve, we last'”

ATS organised transport to travel across Sydney and, in true Arab style, organised a pre-and post-performance charcoal chicken banquet lunch from one of Sydney’s renowned Lebanese restaurants for invited guests, allies, and Marrugeku artists and crew.   

Social movements based on relationships and commitments will always share a language that is real, embodied and impactful. Recently, Arab Theatre Studio, joined by organisers and allies, hosted a picnic to celebrate bonds forged and relationships renewed. Whilst the boycott campaign is officially over, solidarity and community building is always ongoing for, in the words of Toni Morrison, ‘If we serve, we last’.

Community is the alter-space, the place we go to imagine and dream; renew our intentions, reflect on our practices. It offers us the why for what we do, and will keep on doing, until we achieve justice and liberation from Gaza to Gadigal.  

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a DECRA Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching the generational impact of the war on terror on post 9/11 youth and the award winning author of over 11 novels

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https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/uk-university-removes-protesters-calling-israel-boycott-0

UK’s SOAS university ‘forcibly removes’ students protesting academic partnership with Israel 

The New Arab Staff 

04 March, 2022 

SOAS’ Palestine Society have called for an academic boycott, urging the London university to end a partnership with Israel’s Haifa University, which provides degrees to the Israeli army.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University has forcibly removed students who were occupying university premises in protest over the London-based university’s ties with Israel’s University of Haifa.

The student demonstration was undertaken on February 23 by a number of societies  – each of whom had been protesting for their own demands to be met by the university – as the protesters occupied the management wing of the university building.

The university’s Palestine Society demanded a boycott of Haifa University and for SOAS to cut ties with a “settler-colonial state”.

The university confirmed to The New Arab on Friday that “bailiffs removed the protesting [students] from the Main Building without injury or incident”, adding that “the [protesters] were given the opportunity to leave of their own accord and 10 were escorted out”.

SOAS is currently partnered with Haifa University – which provides academic training to Israeli army personnel – for a year abroad programme, in which students can study Modern Hebrew.

The university’s Palestine Society says the partnership is “insulting” to many students, with SOAS “[maintaining] material ties to a settler-colonial state”.

“Through the Haifa University contract, not only is SOAS complicit in the settler-colonial and apartheid practices of the Israeli state, but [it] is also actively involved in sending its students to a militarised zone,” SOAS Palestine Society said in a statement to The New Arab on Thursday.

“The student occupiers demand that the institution respects the call from Palestinian civil society for BDS by applying this directly to SOAS’ partnership with Haifa University and committing to an academic boycott,” the statement continued.

The society’s statement also said the university’s management “abused students physically and emotionally” during the student occupation, stating protesters had been “refused access to the toilets” unless they agreed to leave.

When The New Arab asked for more details on physical violence mentioned, the society referenced a report from The View Magazinewhich said that student protesters were “dragged… by their neck and by their hoodies”.

SOAS University maintained that the protesters had access to food, water and toilet facilities and were “treated without injury or incident”.

“SOAS is committed to retaining the Year Abroad as part of the Hebrew pathway, and decisions on this matter are taken on academic considerations,” the university statement said. “The Directors Group have sought to meet with the Students’ Union and the Palestine Society on this question.”

The University of Haifa was awarded in 2018 the first ever tender established by Israel’s ministry of defence, allowing it to be the first college to grant degrees to Israeli military officers.

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