Scholars of African Literature Have Eyes Only for Israel

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The African Literature Association has thrown its insubstantial weight behind the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Opponents of the boycott movement should welcome this move. Unlike some of the other academic associations that have gotten behind BDS, the African Literature Association cannot even assert that it has, because of U.S. funding, a special interest in Israel. The ALA, though it is headquartered in the U.S. at present, is an emphatically international organization whose political interests, if a literary association must have such interests, are in Africa.

It is therefore striking that none of the ALA’s resolutions specifically concerns Africa. In South Africa, where the ALA met this year, Human Rights Watch has said that the government has refused to acknowledge “xenophobic attacks on refugees” from Somalia and elsewhere. But the ALA, though it explicitly complains of Israel’s treatment of African refugees, had nothing to say, as its members partied in Johannesburg, about South Africa’s record.

Here are some other things going on, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report, on the continent the African Literature Association purports to be concerned with. Human Rights Watch shares with the ALA an undue focus on Israel, but at least it has the consistency to notice human-rights violations elsewhere.

In Sudan, the government’s “indiscriminate bombing and ongoing clashes with rebels, and the obstruction of humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas since the outbreak of conflict in June 2011, have displaced tens of thousands within those states and elsewhere in Sudan and forced more than 225,000 to flee to refugee camps in South Sudan and Ethiopia.” Millions have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands are dead. The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In South Sudan, “the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, especially in Murle areas. Soldiers unlawfully targeted and killed Murle civilians and caused thousands to flee their homes out of fear of attack. Soldiers also looted or destroyed homes, schools, churches, and the compounds of aid agencies.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In Ethiopia, “arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in detention continues to be a major problem. Students, members of opposition groups, journalists, peaceful protesters, and others seeking to express their rights to freedom of assembly, expression, or association are frequently detained arbitrarily.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In the Central African Republic, the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel group that briefly controlled the government “killed scores of civilians who were trying to flee attacks. In some villages, every single structure was at least partially burned. The destruction was often accompanied by pillaging, leaving civilian populations utterly destitute.” Violence between the Seleka and armed Christian and animist groups continues and has displaced hundreds of thousands. The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In Somalia, in government controlled areas, “targeted killings of civilians, notably journalists, increased.” In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “the Rwandan-backed M23 armed group committed widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment of children.” In Nigeria, “security forces razed and burned homes and properties in communities thought to harbor Boko Haram fighters. In Baga, a town in Borno state, Nigerian troops destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and allegedly killed scores of people, apparently in retaliation for the killing of a soldier by Boko Haram.” In Eritrea, many “are denied fundamental human rights, including the right to express opinions, form associations and peacefully protest. Scores of people continue to be arbitrarily detained and imprisoned without trial at the whim of commanders and security forces; many are tortured.  Freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice is denied if the government disapproves of the choice.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In fairness, the organization has not been wholly silent on human rights in Africa. For example, the ALA’s president, in 2011, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to act on unspecified human-rights violations in Africa. But that letter was much less pointed and detailed than the resolution against Israel which, among other things, singles out Israel alone for working with repressive African regimes. They had nothing to say about their host South Africa’s close allies, China and Russia, both of which are known for exporting arms to nations, including Sudan, with poor human-rights records. Nor did they speak to South Africa’s refusal to support sanctions against Syria. About such things, the righteous scholars of the African Literature Association do not care.

We can thank the African Literature Association for making things crystal clear. When an association that exists primarily “to facilitate the attempts of a world-wide audience to appreciate the efforts of African writers and artists” and secondarily to support “the African peoples in their struggle for liberation” interests itself solely in Israel and has not a word for human-rights abuses in Africa, we can be confident that we are dealing with scholars in the grip of an anti-Semitic movement.

Scholars of African Literature Have Eyes Only for Israel

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Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and publishes in modern and contemporary political philosophy in journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, the Journal of American Political Science, and the Review of Politics. He is the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Marks also has written on higher education for InsideHigherEd, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. He blogs occasionally at Commentary Magazine.

Read all stories by Jonathan Marks