Letter to Amitav Ghosh

Dear Amitav Ghosh,

I read your response to our many notes with interest and empathy, but in the end, some bewilderment too. Earlier I had sent you a rather flippant note, assuming at that time that you would decline the award. Now, having read your response, I am reminded of many discussions I’ve had this past year with friends–particularly fellow members of Teachers Against Occupation (MN)–as we attempted to articulate our own often complex responses to PACBI. I too had earlier had some reservations about an academic and cultural boycott, but over the course of those conversations and readings, I changed my mind. I take the liberty of writing again in the spirit of those discussions, because for me, and for many of us, they were very helpful.

As you know, in matters that matter, there is no such thing as a simple and final “respectful disagreement.” If the disagreement is genuinely respectful, then it must be continually engaged–each side must continue to push, to argue, to think further in the hope of thinking together. I want to address here three questions you raise in your letter: first, the question of academic autonomy and complicity; second, the question of “severing connections;” and third, the question of Israeli exceptionalism.

The first, to my mind, is the most important issue. I agree with you that academic freedom and autonomy are ideals that must be defended–but perhaps their scope should be enlarged. I find Judith Butler’s analysis of this question instructive. In her reading of Omar Barghouti’s call for boycott, she prises out the two moves he makes: one, that we cannot think of the academic freedom in a selective manner that reinforces the status quo. We cannot, in other words, keep our focus only on the freedom of privileged institutions of learning, in this case those in Israel, to the exclusion of those in Palestine. Two, that academic freedom cannot be considered an *abstract* right, but must be thought in relation to other conditions that enable or destroy the work of academies. As she writes, “If the discourse of academic freedom cannot rise to this occasion, able to condemn widespread abrogation of rights, then to what extent is the discourse and practice of academic freedom involved in the shielding of such conditions, deflecting attention from them, and thus perpetuating them?” (I attach the pdf file of the entire argument).

From this perspective, I think there is no contradiction between striving for academic freedom AND acknowledging complicity. As long as we think that boycott is somehow a call to disavow complicity, even our own complicity, boycott remains a punitive and ultimately reactionary method. Boycott should not be a matter of saying: you are tainted because you belong to or support an oppressive system, and I will not let myself be tainted by association with you. It should rather be a matter of saying: we are all complicit, and academic and cultural institutions are ESPECIALLY complicit when they treat their work as existing in some more pure or ideal realm, while being intimately connected to state institutions at so many levels. Resistance becomes meaningful only after the acknowledgment of complicity. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that such resistance is the only way of interrupting a structurally adversarial and hence, perhaps static, politics. Acknowledging our own complicity, we should nevertheless continue to draw attention to the fact Israeli institutions are beneficiaries of the Occupation in very significant ways, and should therefore explicitly recognize and condemn the Occupation by word and deed. PACBI, as you know, calls for an *institutional* boycott–and especially of those institutions, like the Dan David Prize, which promote the sense that Israel is fundamentally a liberal, “cultured,” and enlightened society, the occupation of Palestine being merely an inconvenient aspect of its unfortunate location.

You worry that the boycott demands “the severing of connections with even the more liberal, more critically-minded members of that society.” I don’t think the boycott asks this. It says nothing about severing individual connection or conversations. As I read PACBI’s documents, they simply ask that we do not, by our actions, *endorse* and hence legitimize, Israeli institutions. Now of course we may wonder how our own employment within the US academy can be justified on these grounds. Here again, I can only stress that we have to take complicity as a given. One does not boycott from a position of putative purity. It is rather an attempt to express solidarity with Palestinian civil society groups who want Israeli civil society to recognize its own fundamental relation to the occupation.

The question of solidarity is central here. That is the only way to avoid the charge of acceding to prevalent notions of Israeli exceptionalism. The PACBI website states: “We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel”s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid…” Boycott is thus clearly a way to encourage civil society to play a broader political role–that is why it has the support of wide sections of Palestinian civil society. One of the most significant questions that call poses to us is simply this: how should we respond to this call from a postcolonial position? How could those of us who oppose militaristic politics not support such a call? Thus, perhaps one tactical purpose boycott clearly serves is that of education, of inciting thinking, re-thinking, and discussion. Even if it does nothing else, it helps to dispel the myth that cultural institutions can draw clear boundaries around their own founding and enabling histories.

Maybe you have already considered all this, and remain steadfast in your ideas. In that case, I only hope there will be further opportunities for discussion.


Simona Sawhney

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