The Academy and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement

By Sunaina Maira, author of Boycott!: The Academy and Justice for Palestine, member of the Steering Committee of USACBI

Republished from: https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/34543/the-academy-and-the-boycott-divestment-and-sanctions-movement/

On December 6, 2017, Donald Trump shocked the international community by unilaterally declaring that the U.S. had anointed Jerusalem the capital of Israel, a city illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. The status of Jerusalem has been pending in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, which are already compromised by the unequal power relations between the two entities, and the extremely partisan role of the U.S. as Israel’s unconditional ally and largest funder. The decree on Jerusalem ruptured the international consensus that Jerusalem’s fate must be resolved through peace talks, given its occupation is illegal and has been condemned by the UN, even if this consensus is quite limited given its inability to condemn the usurpation of Palestinian territories that began in 1948. But demonstrating the outrage of the majority of countries around the world, the UN General Assembly voted 128 to 9 to condemn Trump’s declaration which provoked protest even from U.S. allies such as the UK, France, and Germany.

Using the bully logic of gangster extortionism, Trump threatened to punish countries that opposed his decision and decided to withhold tens of millions of dollars to UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency) that provides aid to Palestinian refugees, including in the blockaded Gaza Strip which has been enduring an acute humanitarian crisis for years as well as in refugee communities and camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The U.S. is the largest donor to UNRWA, appropriately so as the wealthiest country in the world, and so this massive cut would mean cutting off healthcare, education, and social services to Palestinian refugees that constitute significant segments of the population in Jordan and Lebanon. Some commentators argued that the strangling of UNRWA was an even bigger crisis for Palestine-Israel than the selling out of Jerusalem, given the heightened instability it would cause for the poorest and most insecure Palestinians in the region, and undercutting U.S.-Israeli security arrangements to police the Palestinians, including via cooperation with the barely sovereign Palestinian Authority (PA).

But the issue really is: how can Trump decide that Jerusalem should, or should not, be the capital of another nation-state? After the news broke, people who are not activists or leftists asked me how this was even possible, questioning the fundamental logic behind such a move. The logic, clearly, is a colonialist one and builds on a long history of imperial states intervening in and violating the national sovereignty of other peoples, going back to Lord Balfour’s role 100 years ago in the UK’s selling out of Palestine to Zionists and facilitating the establishment of a Jewish state on Palestinian land and the displacement and dispossession of indigenous Palestinians. The PA acknowledged and challenged this logic by a symbolic declaration that recognized Texas as part of Mexico, given its annexation by the U.S., announcing that it would move the Palestinian consulate from Mexico City to Houston. Intense protests erupted on Palestinian streets and Israeli soldiers continued their brutalization of Palestinian civilians, including children, with lethal weapons.

But really, what can the international community do to oppose this colonialist policy of giving away other people’s lands, and rights? How can we end the silence over Israel’s ongoing fragmentation and occupation of Palestinian territories and its creation of bantustans that would mean even an eventual Palestinian state would effectively not be viable? Illegal Jewish settlements inside Palestinian territory and the expanding Wall have led to the canonization of the West Bank and the encirclement and isolation of Jerusalem. In fact, right after the New Year, Israel announced it had approved the construction of over 1,000 new illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, a flagrant finger pointed at any future peace talks and an expansionism green-lighted, of course, by Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s stance on Palestine-Israel.

Palestinians have asked the international community, over and over again and especially in light of this latest blow for Palestine, to enact Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This call comes from Palestinian civil society, not a particular political party, in order to apply international pressure to challenge Israel’s impunity and ongoing and systematic violations of international human rights. As U.S.-based scholars, we must respond to the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel until it complies with international law and 1) ends its occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands and dismantles the Wall; 2) respects the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) protects and promotes the right of Palestinian refugees to return as upheld by UN Resolution 194. So a boycott of Israeli academic institutions (not individuals) would remain in effect until Israel complies with these three principles. In fact, Palestinian activists have noted that now is also the time to call for sanctions against Israel and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel, given the threat it poses to regional and global peace. But what is immediately in our power as scholars and students is the decision to refuse complicity with Israeli institutions which have upheld Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, directly or indirectly. We can refuse to participate in a conference at an Israeli university built on stolen Palestinian land or at an institute that develops lethal technologies for the Israeli military; we can stop participating in study abroad programs that whitewash the occupation and create false symmetries between colonizer and colonized; and we can reject awards or grants funded by the Israeli government. These are small, not radical, acts that require minimal sacrifice on the part of privileged U.S.-based scholars and students relative to our encaged Palestinian colleagues who cannot regularly get to campus, travel for research, freely engage in political activism, and in the West Bank, are tear-gassed more than any other population on earth. As I discuss in my new book, Boycott! The Academy and Justice in Palestine, the academic boycott movement draws attention to this systemic degradation of academic (and human) freedom in Palestine and has been an incredibly effective and growing campaign in the U.S. academy in recent years. It is also a movement that engages in joint struggles against xenophobia, militarization, border violence, police brutality, and carcerality and for justice, here and there.


Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

“In deftly demonstrating that Palestinian solidarity belongs at the center of all of our justice concerns, Boycott! both exemplifies the challenge of this moment and urges us to fearlessly rise up to it.”—Angela Y. Davis

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