‘An Unprecedented Wave’ of Palestinian Solidarity Statements

Activists for Palestinian rights celebrate movement away from the “two-sides narrative,” but do the statements go too far in one direction?

June 2, 2021
 
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The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel said more than 300 academic departments, program centers, unions and societies worldwide have endorsed statements supporting Palestinian rights, and statements from individual scholars, staff, students and alumni have garnered more than 15,000 signatures in what the campaign describes as “an unprecedented wave of solidarity.”

The statements expressing solidarity with Palestinians and condemning Israeli policies and actions came in response to the recent outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas, which stopped last month after a ceasefire agreement was reached.

PACBI said in a press release that the majority of the statements of support “recognize Israel’s settler colonial and apartheid regime as the root cause of the violence.”

“The signatories of many statements reject the sanitizing language of ‘conflict’ and ‘clashes’ to describe decades of Israeli dispossession of Palestinians,” the press release, which links to many of the recent statements, states. “They also reject the ‘two-sides’ narrative that obscures the inherent power asymmetry between Israel as a major military colonial power and Palestinians resisting its structural colonial violence. The statements also stress the need to center Palestinian scholarship and voices.”

Some of the statements also pledge support for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions or the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel. The American Association of University Professors opposes academic boycotts and believes they violate the principles of academic freedom.

“What is significant about these pledges, aside from the sheer numbers and the institutional support for Palestinian rights coming from university departments, faculty unions and academic associations, is naming Israel’s oppression of Palestinians for what it is: a settler colonial regime that practices military occupation and apartheid,” said Stephanie Adam, a coordinator for PACBI.

“The global reckoning with racism spawned by the Black Lives Matter uprising, increasing calls for decolonization and equity and inclusion in academia, and the recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Israel’s most prominent human rights organization, B’Tselem, finding Israel guilty of the crimes of apartheid have contributed to greater numbers of scholars speaking out,” Adam said.

Some of the statements are signed by scholars, students and alumni linked to or affiliated with specific universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford Universities; the City University of New York; and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis.

Other statements are endorsed by one or more academic departments, including a statement endorsed by about 130 gender studies departments, 10 gender studies centers and three associations, including the National Women’s Studies Association. The National Women’s Studies Association also released a separate statement affirming Palestinian solidarity “as a feminist issue.”

Other academic associations that have issued statements include the American Anthropological Association and the board of the Middle East Studies Association.

Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, an organization of faculty and staff that opposes efforts to delegitimize Israel, said she was struck by the “hostile” language of most of the statements she read and their lack of references to the actions of Hamas or the rocket attacks it launched into Israeli territory.

“Where is the responsibility of Hamas?” asked Elman, who is on leave from her position as an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. “Where is that even mentioned? There’s no mention of the unjustifiable and indiscriminate rocket attacks -- how about one line to refer to that? Our view is that it’s what I call a soft bigotry of low expectations. It absolves Palestinians, Palestinian leaders, Palestinian organizations of all agency.”

“When you look at some of the words that are used in these statements, things like ‘brutality,’ ‘crime against humanity,’ ‘brute force,’ ‘racial supremacy,’ ‘eliminatory violence,’ ‘territorial theft’ -- this is alienating to people that have a different view of this conflict,” Elman added. “Even more so, how do these words contribute to anti-Semitism? When you’re demonizing and dehumanizing Israelis in this way, that can enable anti-Israeli hatred and violence.”

Elman said she is particularly concerned about departmental-level statements as opposed to those signed by individual scholars. Her organization released a statement in which it said it is aware of “a number” of instances in which faculty members working in programs and centers listed as endorsing the gender studies statement on Palestinian solidarity “do not support it and, indeed, were not made aware of it prior to their departments joining.”

“When there’s a letter or petition that speaks for the whole department and its purpose is to represent an official campus unit, it appears like it’s speaking for every member of that department,” Elman said. “Those kinds of formal statements that impose formal positions on all the members are oppressive.”

At least one department has taken down a statement of Palestinian solidarity.

Cynthia A. Young, head of the department of African American studies at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in a statement posted on the department’s website that she took down the statement after receiving an “email from the dean telling me that the provost’s office had received queries about our Palestine solidarity statement, specifically whether it represented the views of the entire African American Studies department.”

“To better answer such queries, the dean asked me to describe our process for gauging consensus on the statement,” wrote Young. “I relayed our process, and the dean responded that it wasn’t sufficiently democratic. Though no faculty have dissented, he asked me to list the individual faculty who supported the statement, rather than simply attributing it to ‘Penn State’s African American Studies Department.’ I responded that I felt doing so would put my faculty at risk. However, the dean would prefer that the statement be attributed to ‘the undersigned faculty.’ In light of the dean’s ‘counsel,’ I have elected to take the statement down.”

Young did not respond to an email seeking further comment.

Wyatt DuBois, a Penn State spokesman, said that the university “respects and encourages free speech for faculty, students and staff. Under policy AC64: Academic Freedom, the University recognizes that faculty have the right to express their own individual or collective views; however, it should be clear that they are not speaking for the institution.”

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