Academic Freedom, Ethics, and Responsibility: The Silencing and Censoring of Palestine in Western Liberal Academia

Posted on May 22, 2015 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

By Ruba Salih

A few months ago a story was published on the
Yedioth Hakkibutz magazine. The first page of the magazine headlined: “We have expelled, bombed, and killed” and recalled an interview with Mr. Kahanovich, a former combatant in the paramilitary underground terrorist unit Palmach. The interview contained Mr. Kahanovich’s confession about his role and participation in the expulsion and killing of Palestinian civilians during 1948. A few months before, Kahanovich was interviewed as part of a project carried out by Zochrot  (Remembering) an Israeli organization whose priority is to bring to light the silenced Palestinian memories and narratives of 1948, which Palestinians remember as the Nakba (catastrophe). In the interview Kahanovich touched upon one of the most dramatic aspects of the 1948 war: the killing in cold blood of Palestinian civilians who were seeking to go back to their villages after the Israeli military and paramilitary units had occupied the villages and expelled the original inhabitants, or made them run away in search for safety.

Kahanovich recounted how he was ordered to kill anyone who tried to escape from the refugee procession seeking to return to their villages. While seemingly showing some regret in parts of his narrative, Kahanovich insisted on not having had any choice as the orders of the military commanders Yigal Alon and Yitzhak Sadeh were clear: expel and randomly kill one, two, or three civilians, to deliver a clear message to the others. Destroying was the other instruction, as Kahanovich confesses: razing the “house of the Arabs” was essential to curtail their willingness to return: “If your house does not exist anymore, if your village is destroyed, there is nowhere to return to.”

There are various reasons why I choose to start my contribution by quoting this interview. The first and foremost is that it gives an honest reporting of the events that brought to the depopulation and destruction of more than five hundred Palestinian villages before and during 1948. Kahanovich clearly is a witness to what historians like Ilan Pappé have long ago disclosed: that expulsion and destruction were not accidental results of war events, as some Zionist historiographers would maintain, but that they were part of the precise design of the settler colonial project to ethnically cleanse the land from its indigenous population. A second, yet not less important, reason for quoting Kahanovich here is that the very presence of such frank accounts of ethnic cleansing in Israeli public spheres stands in sheer contrast with the increasing censorship and silencing that permeates European and north American academic and mainstream public spheres where, currently, the spaces for critical debates and intellectual mobilization on Palestine/Israel are dramatically shrinking. Attempts to censor, silence, threaten and discredit academics, journalists, students and intellectuals committed to expose the historical and ongoing injustices suffered by Palestinians are disproportionately mounting in Europe and the US. A small but significant example: in the last three months two academic conferences where many speakers (including myself) were invited to reflect on, and expose, the violation of Palestinian rights and Israeli historical responsibilities were canceled last minute by the host universities, under alleged direct pressures from the Israeli ambassadors and Jewish “communities” in both countries. BDS campaigns resulting from students’ and scholars’ mobilization are equally discredited. A successful vote proposed by the student and other unions at SOAS, my institution, to endorse BDS was represented in many national and international media outlets as an outrageous and unacceptable form of “anti-Semitism” that would lead to legitimizing calls for the destruction of Israel.

The simplest interpretation is that these rising pernicious forms of censorship and criminalization of academic activism are the result of power asymmetries between Palestinian and Israeli voices in the conflict camp. However, there are deeper explanations that go beyond the undoubted disproportionate power relations between the parts involved in the conflict and their off-shore supporters. How can we fully comprehend the mounting forms of harassment and curtailment in European and North American academic and media realms, the muting, self-censoring and marginalization (when not the sacking) of academics and journalists, the often victorious forms of intimidation towards vice-chancellors, rectors, and chairs that host conferences on Palestine which aim at exposing Israeli daily violations of Palestinian rights?

I would like to suggest that these censorships connect with and stem from a profound inability on the part of Western, supposedly liberal, public spheres to deal with the global scale paradoxes, tragedies and fallacies of the twentieth century. A history in which the almost century old conflict in Palestine represents, arguably, a historical and political protraction. The fears and ensuing silencing in Europe and the West towards scholars who expose the various ways in which Palestinians have been de-subjectivated, dispossessed, ethnically cleansed, killed since 1948 seem to disclose a deeper need to silence and neutralize the ambivalences of European modernity. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman reminds us in his fundamental work, modernity has simultaneously produced human rights and genocide; it has replaced chaos with order and emancipation for some, but denied fundamental freedoms to others. It gave life and freedom but at the price of the de-subjectivation of others.  It offered freedom, emancipation, rule of law, in parallel with colonialism, genocide, Nazi-fascism. These contradictions can help to explain the exceptional international impunity enjoyed by Israel, and the attempts to censor and silence critical knowledge and to curtail academic advocacy on Palestine, within Western academic contexts.

It is worth reflecting here on the rhetoric that supports this silencing. Increasingly, we are confronted with a curious positivist fundamentalism according to which engaging in radical and critical thinking on Israel and its politics translates into  “taking sides”, “having a political agenda”, or being “ideologically driven” as derogatory and illicit positionings. If we are anthropologists or historians we are accused of using sources politically and if we are close by roots, kin, or culture to Palestine, we are portrayed as too ‘emotionally’ involved to be able to teach or write “objectively” about it. In the United States, there have appeared proscription lists that attempt at delegitimizing academics who teach on Palestine/Israel or the Middle East and who support the BDS, on the basis of failing dubious "objectivity" criteria.

This recourse to “objectivity” is grotesque, selective and anachronistic to say the least. It proposes epistemological criteria of separation between subjects and objects of research that have long been contested and overcome in the social sciences. Seldom one would find a social scientist convincingly arguing that his/her ethical, moral and political responsibilities stand in antithesis with his/her methodological rigor or disciplinary validation criteria. 

And yet, the same recourse to “objectivity” and the call for the preservation of the a-political nature of academia was mobilized during the last meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which took place in December 2014 in Washington DC. Here, a group of academics proposed a motion aiming at ending the debate on a potential endorsement of BDS by the AAA, on the basis that academia is not a space for ‘doing politics’.  

This shortsighted attempt to silence the debate was met with a mixture of bewilderment and anger by numerous members of the association. Especially touching were testimonies that reminded the audience of how the association had historically been a deputed site for such discussions. Rather unprecedented, instead, was the attempt to dismiss the discussion on BDS as an unfit topic for the academic association. Particularly poignant was the reflection of a recently retired American anthropologist who suggested that the AAA had always historically been a powerful arena to publicly utter vibrant protests against human rights violations resulting from the unending list of wars, violation of indigenous and minority rights, apartheid, neo-colonialism and occupations that characterized the last fifty years. The AAA business meetings, she recalled, used to last entire nights during the protests against the Vietnam War or at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as anthropologists felt the urge to express protest and indignation towards for the misuse of the cultural knowledge they had produced by the legitimizing narratives of war and conquest. Other reasons equally urged mobilization: the attempt to act and make a difference, in the light of the ethical and political commitment and responsibility that anthropologists felt towards the people and societies they worked with, but also often as anthropologists were part and parcel of those societies and experienced directly the oppression, silencing and violation of their rights.

The motion that aimed at preventing any future debate on the BDS at the AAA was defeated by a large majority of hundreds of anthropologists against an insignificant number of supporters.  It would be a serious mistake however to read this vote through a lens that opposes pro and anti BDS academics, or pro- Palestinians to anti-Israelis, as the proponents would like to put it. The vote for the legitimacy of the BDS debate in the AAA should be understood as a wider defense of academic freedom, a clear underlining of the fundamental civic and political responsibilities of academics towards the world they not only seek to understand and describe, but also act upon, a neat defense of the rights to dissent and protest in the spaces entrusted with the production and dissemination of knowledge.

It is easy to unveil the spurious nature of the “a-political character of academia” argument at another level. Far from being neutral and “politics-free”, academic institutions in Israel and Palestine are embedded in diametrically opposite ways with the occupation. As documented in many reports many Israeli universities are directly or indirectly supporting the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by investing in the military sector, by participating in scientific research on bio-political control and destruction of civilians’ lives in the occupied territories, by collaborating with academic projects and research in the settlements, just to mention a few examples.  On the other side of the spectrum, Palestinian universities are constant targets of Israeli occupation forces, which over the years have regularly destroyed higher education infrastructures, hindered students and staff mobility internally and internationally and, more generally, prevented a regular academic life in any dignified sense of the term.

The separation between culture, history, representations, critical knowledge and individual positioning is also anachronistic and bogus at many levels, but one more begs to be mentioned here.

When, in 1963, Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, which contains her courageous and anti-hegemonic reflections and analyses on the figure of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, it was not for pure philosophical interest. Her positionality as a Jewish woman, persecuted and exiled, her personal and political suffering, were the determinant drives of her passionate intellectual endeavor. As a Jew escaped from Nazi Germany, she spent considerable parts of her intellectual and political life mobilizing to help other Jews to escape from Nazi Europe. It was her positionality that made her first sympathize with and then reject Zionism as a form of exclusionary nationalism based on the erasure of the indigenous population. Other crucial intellectuals who induced paradigm shifts in the humanities and social sciences paid with death and exile their political ideas and positionings. Marc Bloch was thrown out of the Sorbonne under the racial laws of the Nazi Vichy regime in France; he became part of the resistance and then died killed by the Gestapo in 1944.  Zygmunt Bauman, mentioned above, was expelled from Poland and sent in exile for his anti-establishment Gramscian approach to communism.  

While we are seemingly over those dark times and can now celebrate the greatness of these intellectuals and grieve the victims of twentieth century’s genocides, others lives are however made dramatically ungrievable.  As Judith Butler reminds us in her Frames of War, the unresolved tragedy of contemporary political life is that some lives don’t count as others and are not given the dignity of full subjects. When Palestinian children are defined as human shields, she suggests, they are inscribed and confined in the realm of the non human, and are already transformed into legitimate targets of war. They are non-subjects, lives that can be lost to guarantee the life of those who exist. As Kahanovich states in his interview, the Palestinian, or the de-subjectivated ‘Arab’, is the non-life that could and can continue to be lost to protect those that have been upgraded to full subjectivity in European and western sensibility.

Clearly, academic freedom is an inviolable principle that should be defended, but it remains an illusion for the Palestinians under occupation since 1948. The BDS does not weaken supposedly neutral and liberal spaces of critical knowledge, as its moderate detractors often argue, it rather represents the beginning of a process that aims to extend freedom to all.

This article was originally published on Jadaliyya

[This post is part of a series of reflections by Palestinian anthropologists on the Nakba. It is being published in partnership with Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions.]

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