Monday, January 6, 2014

Maira interview

Prof. Sunaina Maira

What follows is a complete transcript of an email interview I recently conducted with UC Davis professor of Asian American Studies, Sunaina Maira:

Rifkin: As you know, the members of the American Studies Association have endorsed the Association’s participation in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. You are listed as being on the ASA Council. I would appreciate your responding to some questions I have regarding the boycott:

Q. The ASA has no boycott against any other country in the world but Israel. Is it your belief that Israel’s human rights record is worse than that of all other countries?

A. The ASA responded to the call from Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as an act of anticolonial and antiracist solidarity, following the Association of Asian American Studies, the Association for Humanist Sociology, and now also the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. The response to this call from Palestinian academics, trade unions, and civil society groups has come after years of diplomatic negotiations and UN resolutions condemning Israel's illegal military occupation and war crimes have failed. 

Israel is the largest single recipient of US financial and military aid and receives unconditional US diplomatic and political support. It is the only country in the world that receives $3 billion annually from the U.S. Moreover, the US has singled out Israel for exceptional impunity in protecting it in the UN and despite its ongoing failures to comply with international law. The US mainstream media and academy has also helped maintain an embargo on free and open debate on Israel-Palestine through censorship. The Israeli state has been largely exempt from criticism of its human rights abuses, unlike, say China, North Korea, etc. A double standard has long been applied to Israel's human rights violations in the U.S. mainstream media and state policy. 

I should note that the crisis of academic freedom does not exist on any other geopolitical issue in the US at present. No academic in the US has ever been denied tenure or employment due to criticism of China or North Korea. Therefore the academic boycott is an *enlargement* of academic freedom for Palestinian, American, and Israeli academics alike, all of whom face reprisals for objective criticism of the Israeli state. So the issue was not just one of human rights, but also of academic freedom and repression.

Q. If you don’t think Israel has the world’s worst human rights record, would you support a boycott of the academic institutions in all countries which have human rights records worse than Israel’s?

A. If civil society or academics in other countries called upon US academics to engage in an academic boycott, yes, of course. Note that the ASA boycott resolution was adopted after years of discussion within the ASA and after an overwhelming show of support from the membership in the referendum, an unprecedented measure in the association. 

Q. What do you believe will be accomplished by the boycott? 

A. The boycott is a nonviolent, focused measure to oppose collaboration and complicity with Israeli academic institutions, none of which have condemned the daily violation of academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students; and which engage in military and intelligence collaboration with the Israeli state and expropriation of Palestinian land that helps perpetuate the illegal occupation. Numerous reports have documented the extensive repression, surveillance, and racial discrimination against Palestinian students in Israeli universities; for example, see Yet the US academy has till now been largely silent on this. The academic boycott specifically targets academic institutions because the academy plays an important role in legitimizing Israel's illegal occupation and racially discriminatory policies. It is part of a global, nonviolent civil society campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end this rogue state's daily human rights abuses, which have been provided cover by our own government and the lockdown on open debate in the US academy. 

Q. Do you believe there is a risk of harm, where academicians in Israel who believe in changing Israeli policy will be shut out of dialogue by your boycott and thus they will be less effective? 

A. The academic boycott promotes dialogue and collaboration. The false presumption that the boycott "shuts down" dialogue emerges from an obfuscation of the actual academic boycott resolution, which does not in any way prevent individual Israeli scholars from attending conferences in the US or collaborating with American colleagues. Israeli scholars who challenge Israel policy have for years been shut out of the Israeli academy; some have even been forced into exile due to repression and backlash, e.g. Ilan Pappe. The boycott resolutions will enlarge academic freedom by supporting Israeli scholars who want the illegal military occupation and apartheid policies to end and who support the global boycott movement. 

Yet it is striking that the US mainstream media coverage fails to mention Palestinian academicians who are shut out of not just academic dialogue, but sometimes out of the US and other places in their own country as well, given Israel's discriminatory travel policies, checkpoints, and restrictions on Palestinian freedom. 

Q. The head of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, has said he opposes the ASA boycott. Your reaction to this? 

A. This is false as President Abbas never said anything about the "ASA boycott." But what the Palestinian president or PA thinks is not relevant to the academic boycott which is a response to the call from Palestinian civil society, and is an act of people-to-people solidarity, and academic-to-academic dialogue, not a response to any political parties. 

(Note: I am not sure if Ms. Maira is unaware that Mr. Abbas said in December he opposes boycotts against Israel or if she thinks that because he did not specifically discuss her boycott that he therefore is not opposed to it. Either way, her claim that he is not against the ASA policy is clearly wrong. And it should be said that, where the so-called civil society which she says asked her to boycott is unelected, Mr. Abbas is the democratically chosen leader of the Palestinian Authority and of his party, Fattah.)

Q. The anti-Israel sentiments (outside of Muslim countries) around the world seem to be rooted in left-wing politics (as opposed to anti-Semitic prejudice). Do you think the ASA’s boycott is a reflection of this left-wing attitude toward the Jewish state? And if so, does that suggest that there is a lack of political diversity in the ASA? 

A. The ASA boycott resolution reflects the organization's commitment to social justice, antiracism, and anticolonial and anti-imperial solidarity. If "political diversity" means being pro-racist, anti-justice, and pro-colonial/imperial, then that is a form of diversity that very few people would uphold-or so I would hope!

Furthermore, to assume that Muslims critique Israeli policies generally because of "anti-Semitic" prejudice suggests a gross misrepresentation of Muslim politics around the world and a denial of the impact of the Israeli state's anti-Arab policies on the region. 

(Note: Muslim anti-Semitism is in fact widespread and a serious problem. The Anti-Defamation League wrote this in 2013:

“Newspapers across the Arab and Muslim world continue to feature anti-Semitic caricatures and themes, with demonic depictions of Jews that include big noses, black coats and hats, large skull caps, and many promoting age-old global Jewish conspiracy theories, including blood libel themes, Nazi symbols and the use of animal imagery – snakes, vultures and sharks - to portray Israel as a sinister predator.”

Public opinion polls in all Muslim countries confirm a ubiquitous, nearly unanimous hatred of Jews by most Muslims in Muslim dominated countries, even those with no Jews.)

Q. Some universities associated with the ASA, including Brandeis, have withdrawn their participation in the ASA in reaction to the boycott. Would you support UC Davis withdrawing from the ASA or otherwise issuing a protest against the ASA over the boycott? 

A. It is the American Studies department at Brandeis that has withdrawn its institutional membership from ASA. This is very unfortunate, as it suggests that some departments are enforcing their own political or partisan views on their faculty and graduate students and depriving them of engagement with a professional academic association. This restriction of academic freedom is very troubling and entirely inappropriate, given that the ASA resolution is not legally binding on individual members so there is no reason for this backlash. 

Note also that there has been a massive campaign of hate mail, intimidation, and threats, including physical threats, to leaders and members of ASA and supporters of the boycott since the resolution. I am on the ASA National Council and I know many colleagues have received highly racist, homophobic, and offensive emails and letters, including myself. It is extremely disturbing that opponents of the boycott would resort to such tactics to bludgeon and terrify academics into silence.  

Q. Michael S. Roth of Wesleyan University recently wrote that “… the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.” What is your reaction to this? Would you feel differently if associations like the ASA launched a boycott of UC Davis because your university was built on land taken from American Indians and is thus UCD is considered by them a colonial institution oppressing indigenous people? 

A. Please see above response re: the twisted logic of academic freedom. What all these statements clearly illustrate is blind support for the Israeli state's illegal and racist policies and human rights violations. It is also hypocritical for university leaders and academics to call for a boycott of an institution that has called for a boycott!

It is misleading to presume that a boycott could take the same form if it were enacted in one's own country. The academic boycott of Israel was inspired by the boycott and divestment movement opposing South African apartheid, which was also an act of solidarity with Black South African and antiracist academics and movements there. If indigenous and Native American scholars or others at UC Davis asked for the ASA to take a programmatic stance on settler colonialism here, of course, we would. Many of us work on issues of settler colonialism, imperialism and indigenous rights and we do not see these struggles as pitted against those of indigenous Palestinians--nor does the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association which just endorsed the academic boycott. Social justice activism is not a zero-sum game.

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