How to talk about Palestine without actually talking about Palestine

Want to show solidarity with Palestine at graduation while pleasing your boss? This guide is for you! 

 

This commencement season has taught us many valuable lessons. We’ve learned the number of giant canvas banners a single student can smuggle in under their robe. We’ve learned the volume of unamplified voices needed to drown out an administrator at a mic. We’ve memorized all the words that rhyme with ‘disclose’ and ‘divest,’ and we’ve counted the number of seconds a student can stand on a stage yelling those words before security manhandles them off. 

 

But there is another lesson, taught to us by our most distinguished professors. This graduation season, they’ve offered us a masterclass in one crucial academic skill: how to talk about Palestine without actually talking about Palestine. Here is a brief ‘how to’ guide based on the notes we have taken.  

 

1) Never say ‘Palestine’

 

Make sure you do not actually say the word ‘Palestine.’ Feel free to refer to the turmoil around the ‘world’ or the conflict around the ‘globe’; if you’re feeling risqué you might even want to edge a little closer with ‘Middle East.’ But do not mention Palestine, and certainly do not mention Palestinians. You might give the impression you think they actually exist! 

 

Similarly, DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, utter the word ‘genocide’ in the same sentence as Israel. Everyone knows that commencement is supposed to be a happy time; don’t be a downer! Anyway, any reasonable person knows that one cannot be certain something is really a ‘genocide’ until decades after, when the carnage has been allowed to unfold unimpeded and there’s nothing left for any of us to do except write evocative pieces about nostalgia, memory, and haunting. Yes, we see that Israel is slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians, targeting hospitals, schools, universities, and tents, cutting off fuel so that premature babies are left to rot in their incubators, systematically raping and torturing prisoners, all while continuing to starve two million people to death in an open-air prison of their own making. But we are academics; we must be careful with our words. 

 

Keeping this in mind, steer clear of loaded terms like ‘settler-colonialism,’ ‘Indigenous people,’ ‘massacre,’ ‘annihilation,’ and ‘ethnic cleansing.‘ As scholars, it is our job to avoid unnuanced views and appear neutral whenever it is risky not to. It is not our job to upset audience members (not to mention trustees!) whose feelings might be hurt by such allegations. Graduation (even and especially during a genocide) is no time to be divisive. Instead, opt for more viewpoint-neutral terms such as ‘conflict,’ ‘turmoil,’ ‘violence,’ or ‘war.’

 

2) Remember, ‘violence’ is the problem, not Israel

 

Violence is bad: that is something that every civilized person can agree on. So focus on violence without getting bogged down in its context: this way, you will be sure to win over your crowd. You might hear a little grumbling from the Palestinians in the audience, if there are any, who could point out that when a people have been at the mercy of a genocidal regime for 76 years, a violent uprising is not only morally and legally valid but also inevitable. But don’t worry about that. It’s safe to say most of those watching will never have contemplated these basic historical facts, so will be more than satisfied with your analysis. 

 

3) Always condemn Hamas

 

Remember, Hamas is evil, whereas you are rational and reasonable. You must therefore tacitly condemn everything they have ever done, will ever do, or may be imagined to have done in the lurid dreams of Zionists. 

 

Never, under any circumstances attempt to understand Hamas’s choices. For example, do not explain that Hamas took hostages on October 7 as a military strategy to bargain with Israel for the return of the now 9,300 Palestinian hostages languishing in Israeli prisons. Do not mention that Hamas has used this strategy successfully in the past, leading to the release, for example, of 1027 Palestinians in exchange for a single Israeli general, Gilad Shalit. Certainly do not point out that, despite the difficulty of their ordeal, those taken hostage in Gaza have reported being well taken care of (85 year old Yocheved Lifshitz), being allowed to play sports and games (Agam Goldstein-Almog), being fed Maqluba and offered sweets (Chen Goldstein-Almog), being treated with kindness and compassion (Danielle Aloni) and even having birthday cakes baked for them by their captors (Almog Meir-Jan). On the other hand, make sure to overlook the well-documented torture and abuse, including sexual abuse, of Palestinian hostages in Israeli prisons. In particular, do not mention the fact that Israeli officers have amputated the limbs of Palestinians and sodomized them to death at Sde Teiman desert concentration camp. Let’s keep it family-friendly! 

 

4) Pay lip service to student demands, while completely undermining them

 

As an esteemed professor, you certainly want to appear to support your students. You agree, in theory, that no student deserves to end up in prison on trumped-up felony charges for protesting ‘world events.’ Still, you have to concede that what students are demanding of their universities- that they divest from occupation and genocide- is completely unreasonable. Support armed resistance? Never! And god forbid you endorse an academic boycott of Israel. Mention any of these things and the provost might not look favorably on your next email. 

 

This puts you in an awkward position. You need to pay lip service to student demands at the same time as you make them invisible. Here is what we recommend: improvise! Simply make up some other demands (we recommend  ‘ceasefire!’ and ‘release the hostages!’) and pretend that those are the demands of your students, then defend the students for making those demands instead

 

Not only will your administration-approved demands steer clear of taboo topics (occupation, genocide, ethnic cleansing), but they will also help you avoid the awkwardness of asking for things the administrators nodding along to your speech in the front row might actually have some say in. The chancellor and trustees could have some influence over university investments, but they certainly have no power over the fate of hostages or the implementation of a ceasefire! It’s far more reasonable to voice demands that have nothing to do with the people sitting in front of you, particularly those who gifted you the wonderfully cushy position you have enjoyed now for decades.  

 

5) Remember: it’s all about freedom of speech! 

 

Some fringe intellectuals may try to convince you that the encampments were about your university’s complicity in 76 years of settler colonialism, genocide, or ethnic cleansing. Don’t be fooled! They were about academic freedom, and academic freedom alone. What you are fighting for is the right of your students to say some absolutely wacky shit, just as you are really hoping your bosses might be willing to overlook you saying some *slightly* wacky shit tonight. As long as all your demands remain under the umbrella of peace, civility, and mutual respect, your place in the pecking order should be secure. Biden said it best— ‘dissent must never lead to disorder’—so make sure you remind students on all sides that they must ‘respect and be respected,’ no matter what opinions they happen to hold. This means not doing anything violent, or anything that might be perceived as violent in the fantasies of paranoid Zionists. Sure, some people want to uphold the right of a genocidal settler state to murder and maim indiscriminately, but it’s all just talk anyway: can’t we all just be nice to each other? Isn’t academia, after all, just a bunch of petit-bourgeois functionaries sitting around a room exchanging toothless theories about inequality, then going out to a fancy restaurant to gossip viciously about friends and colleagues because the university is footing the bill? Can’t we all just agree to honor our professional commitment to not giving a shit? If Palestinians had remained civil and polite, like you, they would have never created this mess in the first place. 

 

6) Imagination is the answer

 

Your role here tonight is a sacred one: as an academic, you hold the key to solving all the world’s problems, and you are here to impart the wisdom you have gained through decades of fancy dinners, sucking up to admin, and falling asleep in stale conference halls. What the world needs is imagination! See, the problem with bogeymen like Netanyahu and Hamas-the-evil-terrorists is that they can’t imagine otherwise. If only Netanyahu had paused to imagine other possibilities before he started bombing the crap out of Gaza! If only Hamas had read some theory or written some poetry rather than paragliding over the apartheid wall! Where were the artists and dreamers to guide them?! Thankfully, it is exactly this lost imagination that your teaching fosters and that you see shining through the faces of your students here tonight (though not the ones who occupied buildings, demanded boycott and divestment, risked their own careers, and haven’t clapped for you once during your unquestionably inspiring speech). Here again, you can demonstrate your commitment to your boot-licking protégés while distancing yourself from those little terrorists who dare challenge the status quo. 

 

And so you come full circle and end your address on a high note, to the thunderous applause of an auditorium full of people who feel great about themselves for having sat through a lecture   sort-of-but-not-quite about Gaza. The administration is smiling too, proud that they are open-minded enough to allow for this, this performance of harmless liberalism by a professor who, though naive, can be counted on to remain silent when it really matters, the batty old dear. And you, you can drift home on a cloud of applause and self-congratulation, and sleep tight in that expensive bed you bought after your last promotion, without having to think twice about all the US-Israeli crimes—and your university’s entanglement therein—you were too gutless to mention, all the Palestinians who will be murdered in their sleep tonight by American bombs, all the Palestinians in Gaza still dying under the rubble, all the Palestinians pooled in their own blood on dirty hospital floors, all the Palestinians missing parents, siblings, or children, all the Palestinians starving to death, all the Palestinians tortured in occupation prisons, all the Palestinians with infected wounds and amputated limbs, all those damned Palestinians. Damn the Palestinians for reminding you how empty a supposedly radical career can suddenly become …

 

‘Written by an anonymous group of Graduate Center students who helped organize for Palestine at the Graduate Center 2024 Commencement’

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