Academic Journals, CUNY, and Counterinsurgency

By Iker Suarez

What is the role of academia in repressing our opposition to colonization and genocide? How are CUNY, the Graduate Center, and academic journals embedded in larger political projects of liberal counterinsurgency and “reform” amid our collective militancy, continued mobilization and organized outrage?

Much of humanities and social science scholarly production might give the impression of being aligned with forms of radical critique and opposition. An example of this is the journal Settler Colonial Studies—perhaps the foremost academic forum on all things settler colonialism. It has published many critical accounts and histories of past and present colonial formations in the US, Australia, Canada, and Palestine. This is a journal that, at face value, is dedicated to the critique of settler colonialism and, one would expect, in opposition to it. But what function does it serve amid mass anti-Zionist, anti-colonial mobilization across the the US?

Under its radical veneer lies a behavior that is telling of academia’s ongoing role in counterinsurgency. After nearly 3 months of (archetypically settler-colonial) genocidal onslaught, on January 2nd, Settler Colonial Studies released a statement. Despite being a journal that prides itself on rigorous historical analysis, it starts the narrative of the current genocide on October 7th, and uses neutralizing language to speak of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Like much of liberal and mainstream media, it emphasizes the lack of “complexity” of many analyses and calls for “nuance”—during a genocide.

Importantly, the statement recognizes the settler-colonial character of “Israel.” But this doesn’t prevent the editors from clarifying that they “do not dispute any nation’s right to defend itself, just as we support the rights of Indigenous groups globally to pursue their sovereignty.” This bewildering exercise of both-sides-ism effectively amounts to not only the normalizing call for a “two-state compromise,” but to  the watering down and deradicalizing of the analytic of settler colonialism. The journal, then, presumably an important bastion of anti- settler-colonial critique, uncritically reproduces colonial and colonizing discourse.

It doesn’t end there. The statement bluntly states: “We also hope Palestine’s leaders strive for sovereignty in a peaceful manner.” Forget that the history of settler colonialism is a history of violence, and that nearly all decolonization struggles have necessitated violent armed struggle to achieve their aims. To say this as a journal supposedly committed to historical and sociological “rigor,” is simply mystifying—part of what abolitionist insurgent scholar Dylan Rodriguez calls “the magical thinking of reformism.”

But to say this after three months of genocide is simply absurd. You “hope” Palestinians resist their mass murder through… peaceful means? By calling for “peaceful” resistance amid unrelenting genocidal attack, the journal is effectively conveying that they “hope” Palestinians die. Effectively, they’re asking Palestinians not to resist their own elimination by any means, because some means are not acceptable.

In other words: the continued elimination of the Palestinian nation is more acceptable than its attempts to resist. “Reform,” perversely couched here in the seemingly radical context of the journal, acts as “merely another way of telling [Palestinians] that they must continue to tolerate the intolerable” (Rodriguez, 2020). Some lives continue to matter more than others—even in the supposedly “radical” academic establishment.



We ought to understand this—and, by extension, the protracted role of academic journals—as what Rodriguez calls liberal-progressive counterinsurgency . For the most important effect of the statement is “to undermine, discredit, or otherwise disrupt” anti-colonial liberation struggle. When Settler Colonial Studies condemns the “loss of life on all sides,” it not only “obscure[s] and reproduce[s] normalized conditions of terror” (Rodriguez 2020). It at once, and perhaps most crucially, delegitimizes the struggle against colonization, occupation, and genocide.

This goes beyond the particular instance of an editorial statement. A contributor to the journal  is Arnon Degani, who also penned the 2016 Haaretz article “Israel is a Settler Colonial State – and That’s OK.”  In another excellent example of liberal Zionist both-sides-ism, Degani justifies settler colonialism on the basis that it tends to “progressively forgo oppressive forms of rule and achieving a modus vivendi between settler and native,” pointing at the many “democracies” with settler colonial histories as examples.

Among other things, Degani is also the author of one of two entries on Zionism in the authoritative Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, at the same time as he is fellow at MOLAD: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. Like the journal’s statement, his Haaretz piece disconnects “settler colonialism” from the radical critique it entails, praising the two-state solution and acknowledging that “Israel” most closely approaches the case of apartheid South Africa—but “that’s OK.”

“Rigorous [settler colonial studies] scholars,” he states, “need not subscribe to a political agenda committed to the end of the State of Israel. ” Liberal counterinsurgency strikes again: the analytic of settler colonialism is pacified to enable a genocidal status quo . The message here is that our radical analyses of domination need not entail militant organizing and action, but complicity; that anti-colonial language demands not action, but accommodation.

If Degani was included in two of the most authoritative critical sources on settler colonialism, what does this tell us about academic publishing?  Behind a radical veneer, editors  allow nothing less than a colonial apologist to write in their venues. If they are letting Zionist pieces masquerade as critical studies of settler colonialism, how much can we trust their perspective? How much can we trust their editorial work and selection of articles? How do we know they are not actively limiting the scope of what anti-settler-colonial critique entails and can mean? How do we know they are not, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, policing the radical imagination?

we ought to maintain a principled awareness of the functions that journals and their editorial processes can and do take

The answer is we don’t. Therefore their counterinsurgent function. This is not to say that all pieces in such journals are useless or untrustworthy. Rather, my argument is that we ought to maintain a principled awareness of the functions that journals and their editorial processes can and do take. And this not only as far as what we read, but also as far as what we, as writers, devote our efforts to. We must ask ourselves: how do these editorial processes make us tweak and police our words to please editors? Does that not amount to a repression of our insurgent writing? Is it not counterinsurgency in discourse, at the level of words?

Beyond words, examples such as these teach us that seemingly radical academic discourse means little if not accompanied by unwavering and organized opposition. To maintain an insurgent approach to our work, it is important that we channel an important part of our energies into real organization. For while naming settler colonialism is an important political act, it evidently comes with no political guarantees.

At the CUNY Graduate Center, liberal counterinsurgency has been on full display. I will only mention a recent example. Recently, CUNY for Palestine confronted GC President Brumberg in a “Community meeting.”  The action consisted in asking pointed questions about CUNY’s investments in apartheid and about the continued academic normalization of Zionist colonialism. Shortly after the meeting, Brumberg felt compelled to send an email to the entire Graduate Center.

In it, he emphasizes that we ought to behave in a “civil manner” towards different viewpoints. “Words matter,” he says, demanding that the GC remain “a welcoming place for all.” But who is “all”? Who had C4P’s actions made feel unwelcome—genocide apologists and profiteers? He calls for “civility” so that we are “sensitive to others with whom we may disagree.” I ask—how sensitive are Zionist bombs? How sensitive was the flour massacre?

With this I want to emphasize one main point that may be applied to higher education institutions across the city and Turtle Island. This is that the university would rather preserve the comfort of academic, bourgeois decorum and “civil manners” than the lives of thousands of Palestinians and other colonized peoples.

These priorities—white decorum over colonized life—are the expected institutional behavior of the university, which in itself tells us a lot about the normalization of colonized death  in liberal “multicultural” space—what some have called “multiculturalist white supremacy. But President Brumberg goes beyond the expected norm and doubles down on genocidal values. He feels compelled not to just deflect, but to follow up with an email to reprimand and police pro-Palestinian, anti-colonial voices.

the university would rather preserve the comfort of academic, bourgeois decorum and “civil manners” than the lives of thousands of Palestinians and other colonized peoples.

It is telling here that, in fact, C4P’s action was not directly disruptive in its format—it posed serious, well-argued questions in a forum dedicated to answering community concerns. So it is not that our ways were “uncivil”. Rather, it is that anti-colonial struggle, in whatever form, is “uncivil” in the white supremacist imagination.

Brumberg’s “civility,” then, can barely hide its racial and class origins in the policing of exploited, colonized and marginalized peoples. The university doesn’t want “civility”. It wants silence. It wants our insurgency to stop. Or—the “civility” of the university is nothing but another form of counterinsurgency.

Ultimately, the university and its bureaucrats want what we will never concede: the passive acceptance and normalization of colonized death . They would rather feel comfortable in a debate than protect Palestinian life from genocidal attack. Do you see how this is fascism ? How, as Black revolutionary George Jackson put it, it is “already here”?

In short, the policing of anticolonial discourse, anticolonial tone, and anticolonial action is a fundamental element of counterinsurgency—its prime act before touching any weapons. It is continuous with the academic journal that exalts radical critique while criminalizing radical resistance. Academia’s colonial decorum has never been useful to the colonized; it is instrumental to the perpetuation of their capture and the tightening of their yoke. Today, this function remains. Be it in journals or in emails, by editors or bureaucrats, direct or implicit, liberal or fascist, multicultural or not. Its function remains: to prevent us from demanding the absolute minimum. To prevent us from rising up against the intolerable. To prevent us from demanding what our kin rightfully deserve.

Because, make no mistake, our demand is the absolute minimum: that Palestinians be allowed to live.

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