W. J. T. Mitchell: “Palestine at the 2016 MLA”
W.J.T. Mitchell is editor of Critical Inquiry.
One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.
This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.
As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)
More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.
So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.
I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at: https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/
The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.