My Academic Career Has Been Characterized by Efforts to Prohibit Dialogue on Palestine and with Palestinians. For this Reason, I am Voting “Yes” in the AAA Vote to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

My Academic Career Has Been Characterized by Efforts to Prohibit Dialogue on Palestine and with Palestinians. For this Reason, I am Voting “Yes” in the AAA Vote to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

By Kyle B. Craig

I entered academia with a certain level of naivete. During my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, I became energized by a discipline I felt was dedicated to knowledge production not for its own sake but as a project of building more just and liberated societies. Universities, by extension, seemed to be bastions of critical dialogue and action in pursuit of these goals. Over time, I realized this was not always true, as my experience in US academia has been marked by consistent, coordinated efforts to suppress the academic freedom of Palestinians and collaborations between US and Palestine-based academics.

In 2014, during my first semester of graduate school, Steven Salaita visited my university to speak about his recent firing from The University of Illinois: Urbana Champagne, allegedly for a series of Tweets he sent during Israel’s bombing of the besieged Gaza Strip. The bombing that summer killed more than 2,000 Palestinians. Salaita, a prolific scholar of settler-colonialism in the US and Palestine, offered a profoundly heartfelt and devastating commentary on the images and narratives out of Gaza he was exposed to at the time he sent the Tweets in question. He also offered thoughts about his personal stakes in Palestinian freedom and the ethics of fairness and criticality that shape his pedagogical and scholarly commitments. To the pro-Israel faculty in the audience, neither Salaita nor the Palestinian suffering he spoke about seemed important or even legible. The Q&A following the talk felt like a trial after the sentencing. One of the first questions was from a pro-Israel faculty member, who dismissively asked, “Do you apologize for what you did?”

The event brought into relief that Salaita was not fired for Tweets so much as for breaking two rules incessantly enforced in US academia. First, Palestinians can only be angry if they are also silent. Second, discussion and analysis of conditions of unfreedom must always remain abstract and separate from the conditions themselves and those living under them. These two rules are regularly deployed to silence and punish critical discussions about Palestine in US academic spaces. So often, when it comes to Palestinians, the subaltern, in fact, cannot speak.

Salaita’s visit was one of the first of many efforts I’ve witnessed or experienced meant to curtail academic freedom around Palestine. I was initially admitted into an anthropology graduate program intending to examine the intersections of tourism and transnational activism in the occupied West Bank. Thus, in the summer of 2015, I enrolled in an Arabic program at Birzeit University and intended to spend the summer conducting exploratory fieldwork. Obtaining IRB approval for preliminary fieldwork was made extremely difficult, as university administration questioned my qualifications for doing this research and eventually called me into an in-person meeting with the review board. My most engraved memory from that meeting was when a board member interrogatively asked me what Israeli state authorities would think about my research. I responded that I didn’t consider this a relevant question. Once again, academic workers had positioned themselves as protectors of the Israeli state at the expense of free inquiry that centers the lives of Palestinians living under settler-colonialism and apartheid.

That summer, I flew to Jordan and made my way to the Israeli-controlled King Hussein border crossing into the West Bank. After stating that I intend to study Arabic at Birzeit, I was held at the border alongside an elderly Palestinian man and some other non-Palestinians who had raised suspicions. We were guarded by teenagers scrolling through their phones and presumably sharing common youthful gossip with machine guns hanging at their sides. After six hours and a series of “interviews” asking me questions about my father’s name, my religion, and why I would study Arabic when I come from a Christian family, I was denied entry. Israeli authorities made up a law to justify my denial, saying that because I was going to study Arabic, I needed to apply for a student visa.

Israeli Border Denial Paperwork (2015). Image by Author.

I was extremely eager to pursue language learning at such an important Palestinian institution while building a network of collaboration and exchange with Palestinian colleagues. However, the Israeli state actively works to render such partnerships impossible. The informal policy they used to justify my denial and that of so many others has recently been formalized with new regulations prohibiting international scholars from teaching and working in Palestine.

This policy is a boycott of individual academics meant to cut off Palestine and Palestinians from the rest of the world, deny them opportunities to participate in broader academic communities and prevent the spread of knowledge of Israel’s cruel system of settler-colonial apartheid. At the same time as I was denied entry, and every summer after that, dozens of US university programs offered students opportunities to participate in study abroad programs in Israel and at Israeli universities that perpetuate the invisibility of settler-colonial violence shaping the everyday lives and deaths of Palestinians.

Much of the current opposition erroneously frames the boycott as sanctioning individual Israeli scholars rather than the Israeli academic institutions directly complicit as an accessory to the apartheid reality. Opponents also claim the boycott is an attack on the mission of universities writ large as spaces of fierce critique and speaking truth to power. By sharing a small sample of my experiences, I aim to underline Alireza Doostdar’s ever-pertinent point that critics of the boycott assume that Israeli academics are our colleagues, whereas Palestinian academics are not. Given the vastly unequal treatment of Israeli and Palestinian academia, it is difficult to interpret opposition to the boycott as anything other than a rejection of academic freedom and the continuation of a world that treats Palestinians as exceptionally unworthy of benefiting from the values of critical and collaborative knowledge production US academic institutions and anthropologists in particular claim to hold so dearly.

Anti-Palestinian violence has only accelerated since I first entered academia. At the same time, I see solidarity with Palestinians and a recognition of their experiences as mirrored in global structures of colonial oppression as vastly more prominent among my generation of scholars than that of previous generations. These scholars understand the importance of rejecting the production of disinterested and extractive knowledge and instead apply critical and careful methods of inquiry as world-building tools. This point is essential not only to underscore that, as anthropologists, we can stand on the right side of history amidst a growing intersectional and international movement for Palestinian freedom. By rejecting the call from Palestinian civil society to support their struggle through boycotts, the AAA risks alienating upcoming generations of anthropologists that overwhelmingly acknowledge the importance of learning from and being led by those who bear the brunt of structures of oppression. This could have severe consequences for anthropology’s growth and perhaps survival as an innovative and relevant field of research.

Of course, I worry about what repercussions publicly supporting this vote might have on my prospects for academic jobs in a crumbling market. Academics who speak critically about Israel’s apartheid system are regularly targeted, harassed, fired, and denied opportunities, mainly when they are Palestinian or members of other marginalized groups. However, I don’t want to live in a world where my career was made possible through acquiescence to Palestinians’ unfreedom, academic or otherwise. For me to not stand with Palestine and my Palestinian mentors, peers, students, and the Palestinian refugees exiled in Jordan who allow me to do my research would be nothing short of academic malpractice.

This is why I’m voting “yes” to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

Kyle B. Craig is a Doctoral Candidate in Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. His dissertation research examines the intersections of youth temporalities, the affective resonances of urban material, and the politics of public aesthetics via graffiti and street art in Amman, Jordan.