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Speaking of Palestine: Solidarity and Its Censors

[Image source: Jewish Voice for Peace] [Image source: Jewish Voice for Peace]

Since October 2015, clashes, protests, and shootings have intensified in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As the Israeli occupation approaches its fiftieth year, many are calling the current wave of Palestinian resistance the third intifada. It is almost impossible to describe the complexity of Israeli territorial control that inhibits Palestinian movement, the scale of loss that families and villages have endured over decades of colonial rule, or the exhaustion and fear that dominate everyday existence. In the West Bank, basic quotidian routine is nothing short of energy draining, from which there is no respite. “Existence is Resistance” is an arduously lived and unrelenting truth.

On 3 February 2016, I delivered a lecture at Vassar College to a welcoming and enthusiastic audience. I shared some of my ethnographic research from a recent trip to the West Bank,[1] integrated with a published article on the generational effects of maiming and stunting of children in Gaza; these are confirmed medical diagnoses. Amidst other details of my visit, I made an effort to convey the affective distress and pain of families whose children’s bodies were held for months before being returned. In doing so, I relayed a simple ethnographic observation: “Some speculate that their bodies were mined for organs for scientific research.” This example was intended to highlight the daily terror that imbues Palestinians’ lives and the ways that fear for their bodily integrity animates every interaction with the Israeli state.

During the question and answer session, no one asked for further elaboration or clarification about why Palestinians might fear organ mining of their relatives’ corpses. I readily would have engaged the audience in a discussion about Palestinian documentation of their own experience of the occupation. My goal was to highlight Palestinian voices, and to amplify the speech of those who are routinely censored out of public awareness in the United States, and in mass media more generally. However, this lecture has now become the source material for a smear campaign that claims my research is anti-Semitic and that I am spreading “blood libel.” These claims have absolutely no merit

The fraught history of organ mining practices from both IDF soldiers and Palestinian bodies during the 1990s is well documented. During the second intifada, Palestinian bodies were held at the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine for prolonged periods without explanation. Even mainstream Israeli press such as Ha’aretz have reported on the collecting of illegally obtained organs at Abu Kabir. Recent ethnographic research by Donald Bostrom and Nancy Sheper-Hughes, the latter a forensic anthropologist at UC Berkeley and the director of Organs Watch, offers evidence that these practices continued until 2012, contrary to claims by the Health Ministry.[2] Israeli anthropologist Meira Weiss, Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written a book in Hebrew detailing practices at Abu Kabir that include taking “organs first from Palestinians and then from foreign workers.”[3]

This history is well known among Palestinians so it should be rather unremarkable that grieving Palestinian families might wonder and fear about the fate of their loved ones’ corpses. Why would they—or anyone—assume that the pervasive colonial exercise of control over the lives of an occupied population ends at death? The maintenance of an affective economy of fear is a pivotal modality of control in settler colonial regimes.

In my lecture, I made clear that I was not making any empirical claims about current organ mining. Rather, I was conveying a small part of the sheer terror of life in the West Bank since the uprising began in October 2015. I can only surmise that the charges of anti-Semitism and blood libel leveled against me were intended to discredit scholarship about the deleterious effects of the occupation on Palestinian daily life. It is as if those engaged in trying to smear me believe that Palestinians have no right to legitimate and very human emotions of grief, anguish, and historical trauma. Further, the manufactured controversy surrounding my talk was no doubt intended to derail the momentum of the Vassar BDS resolution, spearheaded by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. In the wake of this diversion, the Vassar administration threatened to withhold student activity fees from the Vassar Student Association if they voted to pass the BDS resolution—which they passed despite this threat.

That my descriptions of life and death in Palestine incited a smear campaign rather than raising concerns about how the Israeli state is treating the bodies of those they colonize is not accidental. Rather, it demonstrates how certain histories can be continually recycled and recirculated in order to repress and silence other histories. The histories of the quotidian realities of Palestinians in the West Bank, along with the scholars invested in understanding affective registers of living and dying under occupation, are immediately condemned by Zionists as anti-Semitic. This specious conflation of anti-occupation expression and anti-Semitism represents an intensification of both the occupation itself and the policing of scholarship about it. Not only is anti-colonial struggle branded anti-Semitic, but so, apparently, is feeling occupied. In order to square this circle, gatekeepers insist that critiques of the Israeli state can only be motivated by anti-Semitism, rather than a concern for human rights, colonized populations, and stateless peoples.

Campus Politics and Free Speech

I stand by my research and scholarship unequivocally. Having participated in Palestine solidarity work for nine years now, I have had my fair share of hate mail—it comes with the job—and fiery debate during lectures with folks who have denounced my work simply because they do not agree with what they are hearing. I am more than willing, committed, and even happy to engage in dialogue and have insistently done so in many forums. But this latest episode involving my Vassar lecture is a new twist. The talk was taped without my permission or that of the people who had invited me, and the transcript was disseminated to right wing media, inciting hateful responses. There was a complete lack of engagement with the substance of my research. The person or people taping the talk did not ask a question or offer a comment during the question and answer period; their intention was to launch a smear campaign by resorting to pressure behind the scenes.

The exercise of free speech and academic freedom becomes extremely constrained in such environments, where any information or research about the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a priori characterized as anti-Semitic. This foreclosure is detailed in a publication by Palestine Legal titled “Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement under Attack in the US” which documents widespread campus censorship on the question of Palestine. Nationally, university administrations, alumnae groups, and other student organizations have targeted chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in order to repress BDS resolutions and other forms of Palestinian solidarity organizing. Vigorous and courageous student activists have fought for the space to debate the conflict; as such, the targeting of those speaking out has become more vicious and completely lacking in the principles of dialogue and debate.

These silencing and intimidation tactics are manifestations of desperation. The disdain and disregard for open debate betrays the fears of Zionists that they are losing. They are desperate to contain the popular movements of students, many of them Jewish Americans, galvanizing around BDS. The current Zionist strategy is simply to pre-empt and repress student activism at American universities, and to discredit those who research and speak publicly about Israel’s human rights crimes against Palestinians. This is also in part a generational battle, as increasing numbers of Jewish American students defy their Zionist upbringings by questioning familial fidelity to Israel.

The defense of free speech concerns not only BDS activists but the entirety of campus communities. The Executive Council of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a group made up of scholars and union leaders whose views span pro-Palestinian, neutral, and pro-Israel positions, released a bravado statement condemning uncivil responses to intellectual disagreements and reaffirming the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech. This action was precipitated by both the attacks on Steven Salaita and the egregious backlash suffered by Professor Deepa Kumar last summer, whose tweets about ISIS and the US “war on terror” were featured on Fox News and unleashed a torrent of hate mail. The Rutgers AAUP “Statement in Defense of Professor Jasbir Puar’s Academic Freedom” notes an increase in attacks on academic freedom in recent years targeting “faculty at universities around the country, as well as right here at Rutgers.” The rest of the text is worth citing at length because it exemplifies the kind of robust defense needed in cases where the exercise of academic freedom comes with severe repercussions:

We remind the Rutgers administration that academic freedom does not protect such personal attacks or any threats to individuals based on race, ethnicity, politics, or intellectual disagreements. Indeed, such implicit violence is antithetical to the free exchange of ideas that is at the core of academic freedom. In response to these threats to Dr. Puar, the Executive Council of Rutgers AAUP-AFT reaffirms that academic freedom protects all scholarly research and communication, including criticism of the actions and morality of any government or non-state actor. The Union offers advice, training, and legal protection to any faculty member facing similar attacks from within or outside Rutgers University.

As condemnation of the repression of free speech and student organizing at Jawarahalal Nehru University in India, and in South Africa and Turkey gets louder, we might want to note that the criminalization of dissent—not only that linked to Palestine—has a long trajectory in the United States and is currently intensifying. Six state legislatures are currently debating bills that would make critiques of the Israeli state illegal or punishable in some form or another. Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fisher have written an important article titled the “Greatest threat to free speech in the West is happening via the criminalization of anti-occupation activism.” Their analysis explicates the stealth with which western states are encroaching on freedom of speech rights while hypocritically condemning the repression of those rights in non-western locales.

What Hate Mail Does

Often, the charge of anti-Semitism linked to critiques of Israeli state policies is rendered in Islamophobic, anti-Muslim language. Those making the accusation of anti-Semitic, hateful, or irresponsible speech then feel free to e-mail the most astonishingly vulgar, racist, misogynist, homophobic, Islamophobic screeds. Some go as far as to threaten mutilation, sexual violence, stalking, kidnapping, torture, and death. These e-mails typically referred to the female body in a range of ways, including comments about my categorical dirtiness and ugliness, my genitalia, and even my mother’s genitalia. Several insisted that Rutgers terminate my tenured job, demand justification for allowing me to teach young minds, or avowed that they will start a major campaign to get me fired.

Many of the people engaged in hate speech against me assume I am Arab and/or Muslim—I am neither—thus projecting me, in racist fashion, into the ubiquitous brown terrorist body. In the press I have been referred to as a “raving crackpot” and as a “Scaredy Cat Bomb Thrower.” The escalation and normalization of Islamophobic slurs is a constitutive and sanctioned mechanism of the “war on terror.” Islamophobic expression on college campuses and beyond rarely causes concern. While there is plenty of public space and freedom of speech for Donald Trump’s endless racist screeds against Arabs and Muslims and Mexicans, a legitimate analysis of the horrors of the Israeli occupation lead to vicious forms of silencing and slander.

The most high-profile smear against me appeared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar.” The authors, Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, and Ken Waltzer, addressed me repeatedly as “Ms.” rather than Dr. or Professor Puar. Such tendentious erasures of my professional credentials only serve to betray their bigotry and bias. One wonders whether a white male professor would be the target of such disrespect, or receive such lewd, violent messages, or be subject to such denigrating descriptions of one’s intellectual capacities and mental state. I am fortunate in that I have tenure and the complete support of our phenomenal union and my colleagues. But for those who do not have these safeguards, especially Arabs and/or Muslims who work on Palestine and are active in solidarity organizing, these Zionist intimidation tactics make the professional, economic, and psychological stakes of speaking up especially high.

The onslaught of e-mails and the deeply disturbing tone of several of them have led to the involvement of the Rutgers University Police Department with the Department of Women and Gender Studies. Their first visit to our department happened after faculty member Professor Brittney Cooper faced threats for writing publicly on issues related to anti-black racism in America. Harassing phone calls and e-mails first and foremost affect our staff, who are the frontlines of our communications, fielding telephone messages, forwarding e-mails, and compiling records of calls and e-mails for the authorities. Anonymous and cowardly threats create fear and worry not only for the stated target of these attacks, but more significantly for those who spend the most time in our offices, meaning our staff, the maintenance workers (who are the ones most often there after hours), work-study students, and our undergraduate and graduate students. In response to the campaign against me, the staff at Women and Gender Studies removed my name from the signs that announce our faculty and our officers. (I am currently serving as Graduate Program Director.) This was the first of extensive security measures, which I am not at liberty to further detail, that we were advised and also mandated to execute. The irony of turning to the police to investigate those policing our speech is not lost on anyone.

This abuse resonates with a tradition of scapegoating women of color who are seen as easy targets of campaigns to diminish our credibility. A solid majority of the community at the Department of Women and Gender Studies are gender non-conforming, of color, and are producing cutting edge interdisciplinary scholarship that continually insists on going against the grain. Our department has many scholar-activists who are committed to social justice movements and often speak in public intellectual forums about controversial political issues. The intellectual mission of the department is thus aligned with these politics: to question the status quo of dominant knowledge production.

When hate mail and threats of violence are sent to one person, they actually target an entire community, one that probably has many varied perspectives on the question of Palestine. Hate mail attempts to shut down not just a single voice, but rather an apparatus of diverse thinkers, student and faculty activists, and political spaces. Further, numerous unintended targets are made vulnerable by these violent attacks, including staff, students, visitors, and other faculty members. When university administrators such as those at Vassar refuse to take strong stances in defense of faculty and succumb to pressure from alumnae and donors, they implicitly sanction not only the repression of free speech, but also the terrorizing of entire communities of scholars. Providing and reinforcing safe, secure environments for the expression of free speech, especially that which seeks to communicate the experiences of those living in occupation and contribute to an international solidarity movement for justice, is a community issue, one at the heart of what the university must foster.


[Editor’s Note: Professor Puar will not respond to any press inquiries. Her entire corpus of published work is available on
www.Jasbirpuar.com. Neither the staff nor the officers of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies will respond to any communication regarding this matter. See the department statement on academic freedom at http://womens-studies.rutgers.edu/]

Notes

[1] In January 2016, I spent two weeks in the West Bank with a team of researchers, translators, and production folks as part of a film project. The film, tentatively titled The Coming Intifada and directed by Palestinian-American activist and artist Amin Husain and Nitasha S., also involves Professor Andrew Ross of New York University and Professor David Graeber of the London School of Economics. During our visit, we spoke with numerous families in four different refugee camps—Daeisha, Qalandia, al-Aroub, and Aida—about current conditions in Palestine. We also interviewed workers crossing checkpoints and met with medical practitioners, rehabilitation hospitals, disability centers, and people with disabilities. Part of this trip was dedicated to exploring the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the increase of war injuries resulting in permanent disability, which is the topic of my current book project, funded by a grant from the Rutgers University Research Council. On the last day of my visit, we attended a funeral of four young men, all from the same village north of Hebron, who were shot by the IDF in the same evening in two separate incidents. Three of them were cousins.

[2] Nancy Sheper-Hughes and Donald Bostrom, “The Body of the Enemy,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 19/2 (Spring/Summer 2013).

[3] Personal communication, 10 March 2016.

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