Academic Boycotts and Re-Colonization by Theory

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First the Association for Asian American Studies, then, most publicized, the American Studies Association (ASA), followed by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), and now, most recent of all, the Modern Language Association (MLA), have discovered it in their province to stand in political judgment on Israel. The first shame in the acquiescence of these associations io joining academic boycott and other campaigns against Israel is in the very nature of acquiescence itself. I call it “acquiescence” despite the known truth that political activists from outside the organizations – from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – and within the associations have actively pushed for these political resolutions. For in this drive to politicize scholarly research and, in the case of the MLA, the study of languages and literature, the members of these august bodies have succumbed to a most common, non-scholarly impulse – the impulse to be reductive. While ordinary thought simplifies, true scholarly thinking elucidates complexity; while politics are complex; politicization breeds simplification. Yet in these resolutions and the claims offered to support and defend them, the one practice their authors completely fail to exhibit is scholarly practice. Even before they betray the truth, the scholars betray themselves.

How does the ASA, for example – an academic association of American studies – explain its decision to opine on a political contention in the Middle East? In its “Council Statement on the Academic Boycott of Israel,” the ASA offers, “We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel.”

By such flaccid reasoning, given the breadth of U.S. interests and active foreign policy, the ASA might just as well take a stand on the sovereignty of Taiwan in the dispute with China, might more critically boycott actual American universities and academics who engage in scholarly exchange within a host of Middle Eastern nations where religious and gender discrimination are endemic. In the ASA’s actual “Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israel,” it claims, completely erroneously, that “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation.” As is well known, there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Israeli students and scholars in Saudi Arabia, or even for non-Israeli scholars who attempt to enter Saudi Arabia with a passport that indicates prior travel to Israel. The MLA’s radical caucus cites “arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics.” Aside from the falsity of the claim, how much more offensively arbitrary could Saudi Arabia’s policy be? Even now, an Egyptian military regime that deposed a democratically elected government is arresting protesting students on campuses and jailing them.

But such argument is all a show, we know. I offer the obligatory, minimal counter-argument in opposition because the activists in these organizations have put forth the standard bogus arguments in support. In truth, they target Israel for boycott because – precisely – Israel is their target. Said ASA president Curtis Marez, notoriously, in feeble assent to the feeble explanations of why Israel of all nations was the subject of the ASA’s first such resolution: “One has to start somewhere.”

Why not, then, of course, start with the world’s only Jewish majority state?

Leaving aside, however, questions of anti-Semitism – overt, covert, effective or other – is there another reason not based on the merits to start with Israel? In truth, there is, and we can most clearly identify it, and examine its theoretical corruptions, by focusing on the least noted of the offending academic associations so far, NAISA.[1] The inciting theoretical constructs that lead to the targeting of Israel are influential in all of these academic associations, and others, but it is NAISA whose actual field of study is actually germane to the colonial history and postcolonial scholarship that generates the theory.

Indigeneity and Settler-Colonialism

While the current political vocabulary that has emerged from postcolonial theory and culture studies is replete with cant-like jargon, certain phrases are more prominently and repetitively used in relation to Israel, among them “apartheid, ”indigenous,” and “settler-colonial.” With the first usage, we see the effort to assert continuity between institutional, internal South African racial segregation and the post 1967 complexities for Israel of controlling external, disputed territory inhabited by a belligerent and self-governing population that refuses to make peace. This is in order to falsely brand Israel, like apartheid South Africa, as a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.

However, the analogy to South Africa is also intended to impress upon others the understanding of Israel as a colonial state, with its Jewish inhabitants an alien, immigrant, settler population, like Afrikaners. The persistent use of the “indigenous” label for Palestinians, but not for Jews, and “settler-colonial” for Jews, provides the sharp point of the canted spear. Another role of cant is to throw up a screen before efforts to communicate. Its repetition generates impenetrability, even for the employer of it, so that not only are interlocutors blocked out, but speakers of the cant imprisoned by it. Take David Lloyd, for instance, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, a member of both the ASA and MLA and, according to Inside Higher Ed, “a member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.” Lloyd was one of those who hijacked the fourth issue of the American Association of University Professors’ unfortunately titled (under the circumstance) Journal of Academic Freedom, in order to promote, along with Omar Barghouti, the academic boycott of Israel. What does Lloyd say in the JAF? That “in the time-honored manner of settler colonialism, a powerful and well-armed state seeks to extinguish the cultural life and identity of an indigenous people.”

Yet Lloyd stated to Inside Higher Ed about the ASA resolution, “Once the blockade on open and free discussion of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is lifted, as it has been in the ASA, then people begin to listen to actual arguments rather than rhetoric and accusation.” Note the metaphorical adoption of the Gaza “blockade” terminology to accuse those who will be the subjects of boycott of themselves of preventing free discussion. And “rhetoric and accusation”? One might wonder whether such ideologues can actually hear themselves but for all the evidence that they cannot.

Still, for these academicians, the project is clear; the creation of Israel will be construed as the last gasp of a half-millennial-long colonial conquest and the Palestinians as their indigenous victims. NAISA is the association among those so far passing resolutions whose members are dedicated to the study of this victimization. Thus, its role in this process, and its choice to promote a boycott resolution is most curious and revealing of all.

It is often thought that there should be a natural historical kinship between Jews and indigenous people – as the latter are, in the post-Columbian era, generally reckoned to be. They share profound histories of conquest, persecution, and genocidal victimization, of dehumanization and of dispossession from their land. As it happens in scholarship, however, definitions are, as some academics like to say, contested terrain, and so it is with the word “indigenous.” In fact, the one presiding international convention on the subject of indigeneity, the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989, as well as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, working from the ILO Convention, specifically refrain from defining the term. What the Convention and Forum purport to do, in a conceptual and linguistic operation demonstrating all of the earmarks of a definition except the label of one, is identify “criteria for describing” indigenous (and “tribal”) peoples.

One need pause and consider the possible reasons for this demurral from definition. Why decline to offer one?

Two reasons I suggest are politically instructive, in general, and in light of what I will now call the far left, theoretical campaign, founded in postcolonial theory and culture studies, to strip the Jewish people of their own indigeneity on their native lands and to delegitimize the state of Israel, founded in that indigeneity.

Both reasons reflect a proper regard for the nature of the domination to which post-Columbian and similarly conquered indigenous peoples have been subjected – not only military subjugation, but spiritual, cultural, and even mental domination. First, international organizations founded by, ruling national governments with dominating cultures and historically subjugated indigenous populations were properly sensitive to the prospect of themselves defining the identity for them of those people they had historically subjugated. Second, arising from this sensitivity, it was declared that “self-identification is considered as a fundamental criterion for the identification of indigenous and tribal peoples.” In principle, such a fundamental criterion can act as a wholly uncontrollable wild card, permitting much contestation. In reality, though not without controversy, it has aided indigenous groups in managing the complexities of post-conquest and colonial effects on their populations and culture. Much like Jews, religiously and with respect to eligibility for Israeli citizenship, Native American tribes, for instance, sometimes controversially, have determined membership, on a tribe-by-tribe basis, based on their own self-selected treatment of lineage and blood quantum degree.

As a matter of international justice, however, conceptually distinguishing and crucial in consideration of what constitutes an indigenous people have been the following characteristics, developed for the Working Paper on the Concept of “Indigenous People prepared for the U.N.’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations:

  • Priority in time, with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory;
  • The voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, which may include the aspects of language, social organization, religion and spiritual values, modes of production, laws and institutions;
  • An experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist; and
  • Self-identification, as well as recognition by other groups, or by State authorities, as a distinct collectivity.

It is obvious that Jews wholly match the distinguishing characteristics.  They do so no less or more so in any one respect than another, yet one may say that in the historically outstanding nature of Jewish survival during an unparalleled, near two-millennium Diaspora, “voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness” and “self-identification” have played especially important roles. I note this to emphasize the self-identification component offered by the international community in thoughtful respect to the self-determination of indigenous peoples.

It is the case, given the politics of indigeneity among host nations, that nations will often challenge the indigenous claims of their internal populations. Most notable in recent times, four nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States – did not originally vote in favor of adopting the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The reasons for this reluctance were not difficult to fathom. All four nations had profound histories of conquest and significant indigenous populations whose claims – original, political, and economic – are supported by the Declaration. Ratification might also entail a difficult social and political coming-to-terms with disturbing historical truths, a process still not advanced in the United States. (Australia, by contrast, in 2008 issued a public apology to its indigenous population, delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a nationally televised address before the Australian parliament, with all but one living former prime minister present.) In the United States, Native American claims of territorial and sovereign rights are regularly resisted. The Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, for instance, of such history as to be famed for Pocahantas and its contact with John Smith and the Jamestown colony, and occupying, still, the oldest reservation in the country, predating the country, does not enjoy the benefits of federally recognized status. The Lakota actually won a 1980, 8-1 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court over the theft, in violation of two Fort Laramie treaties, of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, while the Court offered the Lakota financial compensation – which the tribe did not want and has refused – it did not offer the Lakota what it is they do want and still demand,  the return of their sacred Hills.

In contrast to these national challenges to indigenous claims, what one will not find is the international community – that is to say, the international legal regime and the left social justice movements that are so much that regime’s support – challenging those indigenous claims by aboriginal populations.

One will not find challenges to these claims, that is, except in the case of Jews.

Anti-Semitism and the Denial of Jewish Indigeneity

Fundamental now to the radical left assault on Israel’s legitimacy are fierce anti-historical falsehoods denying the indigeneity of Jews to the ancient land of Israel. Palestinians and their left Western supporters, as part of the campaign to delegitimize Israel, regularly challenge and even deny the historical origin of Jews in Israel. This is their challenge to the distinguishing criterion of “priority in time.”

The variations on these delegitimizing tactics are many, from genetic denial (Ashkenazi Jews are really converted Khazars) and misidentification (Jews are Europeans), to differing counterfactual claims: ignoring the unbroken presence of Jews in Palestine (the Old Yeshuv) and ignoring in the European claim that the majority of current Israeli Jews are actually Mizrahi and Sepharidic Jews.

Only for Jews, then, is the sensitive and respectful “fundamental criterion” of self-identification attacked by every kind of scientific, historical, and rhetorical fraudulence. With respect to Jews only does the ideological left challenge the integral identity in difference of an indigenous people. Whereas, according to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, “in almost all indigenous languages, the name of a group simply refers to ‘people,’ ‘man’ or ‘us,’” often with some indicator of place, such as “here” – thus distinguishing “the people” from those who are outsiders, those who are not “the people” – only with respect to Jews is the otherwise respected self-separation in “cultural distinctiveness” and difference misrepresented and traduced by some who would call themselves “progressive” as an ideology of racist superiority. In this gesture of disdain and, indeed, cultural superiority, does a so-called progressive dominant world view mimic the condescension with which European peoples conducted a genocidal assault on the resistant cultural and religious otherness of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Oceania.

Only now it is against Jews that such a campaign of cultural genocide is waged, not this time on the basis of a Christian slander of deicide or of Nazi physical extermination, but of a selectively post-nationalist secular religion and by a blind progressivism that begins to mirror its opposite.

It is now “theory,” the most highfalutin conceptualizing and rhetoricizing of the intellectual left, that moves this third great movement of Western anti-Semitism. It is NAISA’s own purported professionalism in indigenous studies that constructs the irony of this campaign against the Jewish state, and, as an exploitative by-product, the re-colonization by theory of other indigenous peoples.

Re-Colonization by Theory

The ILO’s and U.N. Working Group’s criteria include as one of those distinguishing characteristics of indigeneity the “experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist.” Of course, now, for Jews, in the establishment of, and in a Jewish state, those conditions do not primarily any longer persist. Yet in this qualifier – offered, clearly, against any distinction – postcolonial and culture theorists working from counter-constructs of power and the ethical standing of powerlessness nonetheless find  excuse to recast Jews as oppressors based on their recovery from powerlessness.

Still, we might pause to wonder, as any clear thinker would be driven by obvious questioning to wonder – but why, for NAISA, Israel and Jews?

Where are the NAISA resolutions in support of boycotting Brazilian universities, in protest of the destruction of the Amazon homelands of the smallest and most powerless of all indigenous tribes? Where is the resolution against Indonesia for the 1963 conquest and subjugation of the 250 indigenous tribes of West Papua, New Guinea, which those people still resist today? Where was the resolution, closer to home, to boycott Yale University prior to 2010, during the near century that it reneged on the deal with Peru to return the Quechua artifacts of Machu Picchu? Closer still, where were the resolutions against American universities in protest of the fourteen-year Individual Indian Trust Fund lawsuit, and of the Tribal Trust Fund suit, litigations against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the misappropriation of hundreds of billions of dollars held in trust for scores of tribes and hundreds of thousands of individual American Indians since 1887? Where are the resolutions in protest of the inadequacies of the Indian Health Service, of state and local violations of the tribal sovereignty offered by the federal government? Where is the resolution to boycott any law school that does not call for the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 decision by which the Court legally enshrined the conquest of Native America by right of European discovery?

We will not find them.

What we find instead, driven by the fashions of academia, the prevailing winds of cultural theory, and the shape shifting of anti-Semitism is the exploitation of the indigenous cause, and one more time, of indigenous peoples, only for the purpose of expropriating the terms of those peoples’ histories to be used not in the interests of the indigenous, but as rhetorical weapons against Jews. The political fashionistas of the Middle East and Orientalist theorizing – in support of Palestinian rejectionism, which is in order to oppose Jewish empowerment in Israel –  do not care about indigenous peoples. They merely use them, adopting the modern history of indigenous victimization as a banner to fly in the campaign against Israel. Worse, in this abuse, they attempt, in ideological solidarity, to draw in to a conflict not their own the very indigenous peoples these progressives pretend to champion as allies. Think of the French and Indian War in North America. How the British made promises to the Iroquois to protect the Ohio River Valley from European settlement. How the French must have whispered the music of mutual alliance into Algonquian  ears. How Omar Barghouti and some Americanist from a state university protesting settler-colonialism in Palestine play, by the mere utterance of a verbal truth-to-power badge, as if they stand in solidarity with West Papuans.

In 1988, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published a landmark essay in postcolonial studies entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Its status was established by the nature of its insights, variously welcome and unwelcome by its intended audience, and by the extent of its influence on the field. That influence has been, all depending on one’s perspective, both profoundly positive and negative. Among Spivak’s important insights and warnings (Spivak’s Marxist and deconstructionist theorizing is the kind that seeks to problematize a field, to interrupt a discourse) was the caution against first-world political radicals producing “essentialist” conceptions of the third-world subaltern powerless, i.e. conceiving of them as if they are all, from their varied cultures and histories, the same in their difference – representing them as possessing an essential, common otherness from those Western Subjects who make objects of them through study. This might mean, very simply, constructing homogenous postcolonial others out of Cherokees and Palestinians.

Another of Spivak’s warnings, significantly unheeded in practice, was against perpetuating in the radical postcolonial critique of imperialism the same Western power structures – the hegemony of Western modes of knowledge and discourse – that upheld imperialism. That is to say that Western theorists and radicals speaking on behalf of the subaltern is not the subaltern speaking. Rather it is a substitution of the same dominating institutional and historical discourse for – and here Spivak quotes Foucault – “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.”

What is the history of Western colonialism for indigenous peoples, beyond the physical onslaught, if not a history of the West’s disqualifying as inadequate “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”? How do we not see, even more than in the theory and its jargon, in the postcolonial activism itself – by exploiting the jargon in an effort to refashion reality from it, through vague verbal posturings in boycott resolutions by professional intellectuals – Western radicals this time, imposing, again, their own, alien historical discourse and conceptions, their own positive and negative self-regard, their own agenda on indigenous peoples?

At earlier stages, Native Americans, when not resisting, sought strategies for survival in coexistence – in land concessions, in the adoption of European cultural forms, or in wartime alliance against common foes. No strategy succeeded. Now, searching for a manner in which to understand their predicament in a world that dismisses or disregards them, or makes cultural capital out of their historic otherness, some artistic, intellectual, and politicized indigenous people adopt the constructs of Western theorizing and ideological contest. They participate in the recent, appropriately much mocked American University of Beirut Transnational American Studies Conference, where, among myriad papers like it, a Navajo artist presented on the “long history” of “Zionist legal and economic intervention in the modernization, or development, of tribal domestic dependency in the United States.” Someday soon we will no doubt read of “the intersection of Mosaic and conquistador discourses in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.”

But if, as Spivak argued, the subaltern voice that is represented by Western intellectuals is not the subaltern voice at all, but a kind of ventriloquized “Self’s shadow” of the Westerner, what are we to consider any indigenous voice adopting, in the  manner above, the discourse of the colonizers, even be it the colonizers at war with themselves?

Conclusion: the Procedures of Re-Colonization by Theory

First, then, in this re-colonization by theory, today’s anti-Zionist Western radicals reject, among all claims to indigeneity, and against a fundamental precept of international indigenous rights, only the Jewish claim to indigeneity. Against common radical notions challenging the reality of race as a biological category (yet emphasizing race as a social construct when it serves the purpose of subaltern studies), it is asserted that Jews are white, European colonizers in the Middle East, which oddly repeats the slave-based racialist practice among whites, for African-Americans, and of Nazis for Jews, of assigning racial category for them. Jews shall be white Europeans because radical Western intellectuals in alliance with Arab rejectionists say they are. And, then, as Jay Corwin, a Native American Professor of Spanish at the University of Cape Town,  recently offered in The Times of Israel, about the suppressed identity of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in this politics, “No one could possibly mistake a Yemenite Jew for a European.”

Next, as a coordinate move, Arab rejectionists, with the support of anti-Zionist Westerners, claim not just their own indigenous status, but indigeneity in commonality with the victims of the post-Columbian European conquests. Yet aside from their vastly different histories, as Corwin asserts about the present, “Arabs are not like us. We don’t have a special seat at the United Nations, we don’t have billions given to us by the European Union and Arab states and we don’t have our own world-wide propaganda machine funded by oil rich Gulf States. We do not have perpetual ‘refugee’ status with our own UN agency.”

Finally, in this cooption of the indigenous cause, we see a truly shameless and shameful exploitation of the very people in whose behalf NAISA and other Western radicals, contra Spivak, claim to speak. In truth, says Corwin, “BDS silences Native American voices.” Radical Westerners attempt to burden 370 million indigenous people worldwide with the unique and complex history of the Israeli-Arab conflict, to no end that fulfills the needs of these many populations. This intellectual class imposes upon the politics of indigeneity Western conceptions and ideological contentions foreign to the traditions of the world’s indigenous populations. As in the past, Westerners attempt to infect the indigenous yet again. Writes Corwin, “Anti-Semitism is a European disease, and like good colonizers they are trying to spread it like smallpox to Native American communities.”

All in the reactionary and racist service of denying Jews their own self-determination, their right to an already existent and recognized state.

A. Jay Adler is Lecturer in English, El Camino College an Adjunct Professor of English, California State University, Dominguez Hills and Professor of English, Emeritus, Los Angeles Southwest College

This essay was written for SPME.

[1] In “Native American academics do not endorse the boycott of Israeli academics,” in The Times of Israel, Jay Corwin, a Native American/Alaska Native and Professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at the University of Cape Town, challenges both the Native identity and the professional status in indigenous studies of key NAISA leaders.


Academic Boycotts and Re-Colonization by Theory

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