Overcoming Fear: Negotiating a Position on the DSC’s BDS Resolution


The ESA voted in favor of the BDS resolution hours before it failed to pass in the DSC Plenary.

The ESA voted in favor of the BDS resolution hours before it failed to pass in the DSC Plenary.

On 24 October, 2014, the Graduate Center English Student Association (ESA) overwhelmingly voted to affirm the Doctoral Students’ Council’s (DSC) Resolution for the Endorsement of Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. Before the vote, members shared and argued their positions on the ESA’s listserv. Some persons suggested it wasn’t the ESA’s role to step outside the boundaries of research, writing, and teaching to engage “politics.” Others members affirmed those views, rejected them, or neutrally questioned them. In the end, it’s a widely held view that the ESA emerged as a stronger more relevant body. There is also an expanding sense of pride that someday scholars might locate this history of political-academic participation and analogize the academically activist character of its foundations alongside that of the many student groups of the civil rights era. Cheers erupted after the vote. My cheers were buried in the wetness behind my eyes. But I doubt I cheered for the exact thing many ESA members celebrated.

I thought long about whether I should have stated my position on the ESA listserv or whether I should have just voted at the ESA meeting on 24 October — voting quietly in order to secure a sort of invisibility. To not speak on the listserv, to speak privately with the ballot (because I thought that was how the voting would have been conducted), to speak invisibly is to speak safely and peacefully, I thought. To speak with visibility is an act I construed as dangerous. What are its ramifications? How might ideological passions and poisonous tongues of others clog the auditory channels that need to remain open to keep my speech clearly packaged as I intended to transfer it? I’m professionalizing myself as an academic, so in what ruined bucket will listeners automatically dump my testimony, ideology, and the memories they had held of me, and what they thought they had known of me? How might speaking openly brand my name in an erroneous fashion? Where will disgruntled others place my desires and me? Will these placement sites be suitable for me — for them — for the English program — the GC community — for our goals as young scholars to speak, to hear, to be understood, to network?

You might understand why the preservation of invisibility became most desirable to me. It seemed easy, safe even. It was harmony. When exchanged, the smiles of my peers would mean the same thing: I still care about you. I, however, decided to declare my position on the ESA’s listserv. I didn’t arrive at that decision because I was bold. I got there after observing the civility of the discourse and acknowledging the multiplicity of viewpoints and the care with which people researched information and explained it. The article in the previous issue of the Advocate, “CUNY and the Boycott” by Gordon Barnes and Conor Tomás Reed also gave me courage to speak. (I learned much from all these speakers; I felt proud to be a part of the actively speaking-and-doing Graduate Center communities.) I got there, too, because I realized there were many persons like myself, holding the same fears. Really, many were fears of consequences, fears of peer rejection, and fears of political retribution in our future careers; all based on decisions we would take that day. As well, I got there with increased conviction that I should allow no grave to hold my body down.

I intended not to make prescriptions for anyone; but I testified — that in my life time, fears had been the many graves that sought me, buried me, psychologically terrorized me, emotionally ruined me; and even my physical body, my skin, and the soul in my voice nearly dead. So many fears grew so huge and did those things to me. But a fire always kept burning in me. Sometimes mightily. Sometimes it was just a glow; but it kept burning — slowly destabilizing fear. Thus, graves should never hold me down forever, I often counseled myself, especially since I come from a tradition in which fear consistently mounted itself when I needed to make important decisions. But luckily, I always found a way to speak. For what remained most important to me was the very thing that troubled Audre Lorde in her dying days when she said what she feared most were the moments in which she was silent. Yes, I feared silence too — much greater than I fear what seemed to be consequences of my speaking visibility. I feared conscience would haunt me, given that there were people engaging in open-speaking labor — speaking so much wisdom in the ESA forum to me, yet I acknowledged history (and them) with silence. I feared my integrity (nobody else’s) was in jeopardy because I was compelled to speak but I engaged speech confinement. I was surviving upon the vulnerable backs of others! What’s my legacy, my response, to injustices against free speech? I was convinced there is “apartheid” in Palestine. I doubt I need to examine the historical architectures of apartheid, chart my findings, and then raise the question: Are these examples present in Israel and Palestine? Some persons might prefer a euphemism, than saying “apartheid.” But how could one deny the presence of a violent architecture, which human beings must confront, survive daily, or surrender their last breaths to?

Certainly, I acknowledged that the Israeli state has to keep itself safe. I also understood that some Palestinians groups have been hurling bombs into Israel. But I wondered — if I were a Palestinian denied clean drinking water, an adequate food supply, freedom of movement, human contact with the outside world — would I hurl bombs, too, to give a better future to my mother, brother, and babies? Or would I just lie low beneath a bed and pray, hoping that people in the United States and Europe would see how well behaved I was? Let’s hope that while I prayed, my babies’ body wouldn’t deteriorate too fast from starvation. Now, what would Americans call someone like me, if I were that woman, transgender person, or man, or any person in an oppressive situation?

I also understand Israel fears that social equality will give Palestinians too much political and economic power, and Palestinians might then use it to marginalize Israelis (the Jews). So yes, Israel has to protect itself and Israel has been protecting itself. But why are people afraid to conceptualize the framework of that protection strategy? Isn’t it clearly apartheid (or whatever you want to name it)? Isn’t it violence (or counter-violence?) perpetrated by Israel with the full backing of the United States’ political diaspora and war machine? I call it apartheid in order that I can move ahead and ask (but not answer; because I don’t know how to) — is apartheid ever a valid, moral, legitimate survival course of action?

Before one rush to cite South Africa and answer Yes or No, I would caution one to return to an examination, not only of the architectural similarities but differences between South Africa and Palestine. On the one hand, the similarities must account for the brutalities in Palestine today. But then, a critic could argue that the brutalities referenced occurred in a nation-state — South Africa. Analogizing that to the Middle East, they would contend that most of the brutalities occur in Palestine — the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They would conceptualize those territories as not belonging to Israel, and therefore assert that apartheid is an act that affects only persons living within the nation-state. Violence or counter-violence shouldn’t be considered apartheid but as attacks on and sabotage to the enemy, they would maintain. Indeed, there is room to debate those blurring lines. But, at the moment, I emphasize and maintain that apartheid exists in both Israel and Palestine. Palestine has not been granted nation status. With the support and force of European and American led world power structures, Israel has been able to use its own national status to shape and sabotage the lives, movements, laws, and bodies, burials, and breathing qualities of Palestinians.

To leap from my unanswered question, I need to acknowledge that critics of Israeli policies are constantly attacked, harassed, and their careers are ruined; but I have also observed that Israeli policies are many times unfairly targeted by ideologues, most of whom fail to decode the differences between Palestinians with a desire for the recognition of nation state sensibilities and those thirsty for religious expansionism. As an atheist activist, I often grow unsettled by religious expansionism that is not sufficiently interrogated. Indeed, the extent of Christianity’s historical and contemporary violence continues to receive scrutiny in the United States. But when it comes to Islam, critics are increasingly told to shut up. Those who resist are labeled as Islamophobic, a label that draws no distinction between phobias of religion and nation-culture. No doubt, the post 9-11 paradigm has resulted in discrimination against Arab peoples. But it seems that the format for counteracting discrimination has been to shut down critiques of followers of Islam in the West. Nowhere has this been more blatantly demonstrated than years ago when persons responded to the Danish cartoonist (Kurt Westergaard). Then, many persons ignored the role of art in order to pacify religious sentiments — and the threat of religious violence upon Western people who dared to affirm art’s satire. Remember the many Muslim persons slaughtered by other Muslim persons that week? What was that? Responses of national diasporic solidarity or religious solidarity? We will never know enough, because availability of the post 9-11 card is posted on every bus stop in town. “Islamophobia!” it is. It many times springs from a default logic reminiscent of other local and international calling cards: “Sexist,” “Racist,” Homophobic.”

I went down the road to talk about religion in order to explain that I too was questioning what was my position liberating: Palestinians or Islamic sects? Have we deeply examined the blurring lines between Islam’s desire (for some followers) and that of Palestine’s national desire? What word should we use to critique followers of Islam: Islamist or Muslims? Are these desires the same? What does Israel think about these differences that we haven’t considered sufficiently? What are we responding to here in the West — the right for religious freedom or nation freedom or, is there no dividing line? If I am liberating diversities of Islamic sectarianism, that makes me uncomfortable; because with all my heart, I would love to see the force of Christianity and Judaism crippled. So why would I hope to give more currency to Islam, when returning to memories of diasporic movements like that mobilized around the Danish cartoon?

At the same time, I knew there are people in Palestine who are atheist like myself, but are their numbers significant enough to prevent Palestinians from using a new, non-apartheid state and unsettle Israeli democracy? Yes, I’m deeply concerned about Israel being allowed to survive in peace, for many reasons, including that Israel is the only place I can go and walk around freely in a dress if I please. Freedom matters to me. However, I cannot imagine freedom if its preservation not only breaks the dreams and bones of an entire group but dialogue about its formation, constitution, and agency is punished in the United States.

I explained to the ESA that I supported the DSC resolution, not fundamentally because it opposes apartheid. Let me emphasize that I cannot take a position on apartheid without knowledge of what will occupy its absence. I framed my position out of a desire to depart fear, to uncloak invisibility. I have long been afraid of criticizing Israel — afraid that what happened to persons like Judith Butler last year when she visited Brooklyn College in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and now Steven Salita. Will — when — will that happen to me? I’m afraid of America’s political leadership. As I see it, the ESA, DSC, and BDS erect opportunities to break the graves of political and literary discourse in America. I decided to hop on the bandwagon. BDS has stood up to oppose not only the violent culture in the Middle East but to also gather voices that destabilize the transnational machineries that replicate cultures of fear. I have no doubt apartheid exists in the Middle East, but I need more information to learn whether a system that has no apartheid will be safe for Israel.

More than six million Jews were killed during the holocaust. And anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism are still alive and well in Palestine. The argument that Israel needs to protect itself is a valid once. If one tries to ignore it or mock it, they will not change my position. Could a free Palestine enable another holocaust? This, I think, is a valid question. But if that research has already been done, I would question its depth, because enough political and academic currency have not been traditionally given to enough persons who can staunchly reject such an argument. In other words, I’m saying that I don’t have access to enough information that I trust to examine the merits of Israel’s explanation that justifies what I consider to be apartheid. However, for such a long time, I needed that information, but the political structure continues to hunt people who try to objectively produce it. Hence, my support for the ESA and DSC resolution was one designed to aid the disruption of the safe sites from which political establishments have censored free speech, particularly in the United States. Will this lead to the dismantling of apartheid in Palestine? I don’t know. But what I know is that my declared stake in the ESA/DSC/BDS resolutions holds promise that I will fear less in the future when I want to speak my mind about Israeli violence or Palestinian violence or Christianity’s violence or Islam’s violence.


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