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Permission to Narrate: Palestine in the American Academy

Session X-03, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
The discourse around Palestine has seen undeniable shifts in recent years. Globally, long overdue critical engagement and grassroots organizing efforts around issues like racism and racial supremacy, Islamophobia, militarism, imperialism, settler colonialism, indigenous rights, environmental justice, and others have opened the space for criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in unprecedented ways. Yet the university campus, especially in the United States, has traditionally served a tenuous role in advancing any narrative supportive, or even inclusive, of Palestinians or critical of Israelis. Long before Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released painstakingly detailed reports about the crime against humanity of apartheid being practiced by the Israeli state against Palestinians, college students around the United States were organizing Israel Apartheid weeks to significant pushback. Campus events featuring Palestinian speakers or topics have been cancelled or disrupted. University faculty and staff have lost jobs for being too critical of Israeli actions, and ethnic studies departments across the country have been subject to overt scrutiny and even calls for their dismantling, in part due to their role in teaching Palestinian history. Academic organizations and departments that have supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, while increasing in number, are routinely criticized. Even innocuous, evidence-based statements supporting Palestinian human rights, such as the hundreds released by academic units during the May 2021 Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip, are seen as radical and outside of the role of academia in some circles. At the same time, academic departments such as New Directions in Palestinian Studies at Brown University, the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University, and the newly formed Palestine Program at Harvard University (in partnership with Birzeit University) have persisted in supporting programming and scholarship focused on all aspects of Palestinian life and history. In this roundtable, we ask the following questions: 1) How has the landscape in academia changed for those scholars and departments assessing Palestine in the United States? 2) As the cultural conversation around Israel and Palestine shifts, what role does academia play in future scholarship and advocacy?
  • As a graduate student, I was discouraged from focusing my research on issues related to Palestine, even by a Palestinian mentor at my university. “It's too hard; it's too controversial; there's no funding; you won't be able to find a job.” For too many academics, this has unfortunately proven true. Yet, I was continuously encouraged by the institutions and scholars who continued to do the work and by the student groups who engaged in Palestinian advocacy. Indeed, many persisted despite significant threats to their careers, which undoubtedly has had a chilling effect on the broader discourse. However, in recent decades, as awareness of global inequities and the systems of oppression and supremacy that produce them have become more widespread across academia, so too has critical analysis of these systems as they apply to Palestinians. As part of the roundtable, I will draw on both my personal and professional experiences as a Palestinian studying Palestine as an academic within the United States. I will discuss both the implicit and explicit efforts to stifle the Palestinian narrative in academia, including by top-ranked journals. I will address the impact of these efforts on early career scholars who might be interested in pursuing research on Palestine, as well as the generational shifts in what emerging scholars today feel empowered to study and how they interpret the purpose of their work. I will describe ongoing efforts within academia, including in professional associations, educational institutions, and through scholarly outputs, to bring Palestine into the conversation across academic disciplines while also de-exceptionalizing Palestine and rightfully situating it within broader contexts of settler colonialism, militarism, and racism. Lastly, I will consider how to reconcile that while scholarship on Palestine has progressed, the situation on the ground has become significantly worse for Palestinians and a just resolution seems highly unlikely in the current political climate.
  • I’ll provide a bit of background on our history to contextualize the rest of the roundtable and give us a bit of a boost by acknowledging our accomplishments. My reflections are informed by 16 years working with an organization formed with the specific purpose of encouraging, facilitating, and funding research on Palestine, the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC). In 1998 when PARC was founded, there were scant funds and few funding organizations that would favorably consider proposals from scholars and doctoral students to pursue research on Palestine. Indeed, scholars were actively discouraged from working on Palestine not only by disinterested or hostile departments and institutions but even by their supportive mentors. Working on Palestine was considered not only fraught with difficulty but also a career dead end. Yet trailblazing scholars driven by purpose and commitment persisted. Many of them received their first research grants from PARC. Because of the excellence of the work that these scholars produced, these small funds from PARC ended up being gateway grants to larger funding from prominent foundations and grantmaking organizations opening important access to research funding and paving the way for other scholars and doctoral students. PARC’s small funding for research, its home base for researchers in Ramallah, and a critically important group of supportive colleagues, have assisted scholars working on Palestine in their ongoing battles. Importantly, these battles, characterized by the continuing, expanding, and persistent efforts to silence voices on Palestine, are no longer fought alone. Scholars began reaching across their departmental divides with scholars from American Studies, African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, and a host of others turning their gaze to ground-breaking work from scholars on Palestine. To develop, encourage, and expand this dialog, in 2010 PARC began bringing delegations of academics to Palestine who were not experts on Palestine but eager and curious to learn more and immersed them in an intensive two-week seminar. Many of the alumni from these seminars are on the front lines in support of the voices of Palestinian scholars. So scholars on Palestine are now at the table, they have a voice, and they have supporters surrounding them. But the fight continues.
  • As part of the roundtable discussion, I will discuss the evolution of discourse on Palestinian health in the medical and public health literature. I will also discuss the theoretical underpinnings, challenges, and opportunities of the recent development and launch of the Palestine Program for Health and Human Rights, which utilizes a partnership model between the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and the Institute for Community and Public Health at Birzeit University to engage in research, education, and community engagement to identify and address the structural determinants of Palestinian health. I will draw upon my decade experience in emergency care service delivery, research, and advocacy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to discuss the broad and systematic campaigns of censorship of Palestinian health narratives and the historical over reliance on biomedical and behavioral models that eschew the roots causes of poor health outcomes for Palestinians. I will discuss how the utilization of structural concepts including settler colonial determinants of health, apartheid, and decolonization in health are currently being applied to engage in ‘epistemic reconstitution’ and the quest for health justice in Palestine.
  • As scholars involved in speaking truth to power, when we write and speak about Palestine, we operate in difficult terrain due to Islamophobia, the long effects of the War on Terror, and neoliberal trends in the university that privilege commodifiable knowledge and marginalize knowledge that resists or undermines commodification. Professional associations can be gatekeepers for knowledge production as well as sites of struggle for the production of knowledge that leads toward liberation for Palestine. Organizing within professional organizations can entail outreach and organizing to colleagues within our subfields and beyond, as well as to organizational staff. Among anthropologists, one key element of this outreach has been to put this scholarly knowledge production in a broader context and to help others to consider how state power restricts knowledge production across borders. Israeli, U.S., and other state and institutional definitions of such terms as “antisemitism” and “terrorism” structure who can speak about Israel today and what they can say, well beyond the borders of individual states. Anthropology has a history of recognizing relations of power and responsibility between scholars and their interlocutors. It has been helpful to remind anthropologists that US scholars, who write with many relative comforts, are building on knowledge produced in struggle and under severe constraints. Israel’s designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations last year threatens these organizations’ survival and also endangers the ability of those around the world to grasp on the ground realities of Israeli oppression. As scholars, we have a responsibility to expose and confront obstacles to expression experienced by those with less structural power than we have and to be cognizant of and transparent about the debts we accrue as we conduct our own research, and professional organizations can be sites for collective action and outreach for those in a discipline. I will discuss in this roundtable how professional institutions fit into a broader terrain of knowledge production and how they can be a pressure point for addressing broader issues of free expression and the right to education within and beyond particular disciplines.
  • As a part of the roundtable, I will reflect on more than two decades of academic engagement with Palestine, including editing experience with two major English-language journals dedicated to Palestine (the Journal of Palestine Studies and the Jerusalem Quarterly), experience as a doctoral student working on Palestine, and experience teaching on Palestine and advising undergraduate students at a university that centers Palestine and Palestinians in its Middle East Studies program, even boasting an endowed chair in Palestinian Studies. In surveying the changes in the academic landscape around Palestine, I will reflect on the impacts of the Oslo accords and the failure of the so-called peace process. Scholarly engagement with Oslo’s failure has produced a rich literature that de-centers state-building and addresses Israel’s maintained (and tightened) control over Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. Yet scholarship on Palestinians living elsewhere in the region, including in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf, has atrophied. The return of settler-colonialism as a significant framework for studying Palestine has produced new connections with American Studies and scholarship on Anglo settler-colonies like Canada and Australia. But this framework also directs focus to the territory of Palestine and de-emphasizes regional dynamics. In this roundtable I will consider the costs and benefits of frameworks that facilitate U.S. students’ engagement with Palestine (by drawing comparisons, for example, to settler-colonialism in North America) but render it a regional exception—a particularly jarring move in the wake of the 2011 uprisings across the region, and the ensuing (and ongoing) waves of violence and forced displacement. I will thus reflect on academia’s role in shifting the cultural conversation around Palestine, but also in bringing Palestine into conversations from which it is now absent, thereby de-exceptionalizing it.
  • Title: "Ramallah-on-the Hudson": reflections on the academic role of the Center for Palestine Studies, Columbia University. Launched in 2010, the Center for Palestine Studies (CPS) at Columbia University, New York, is the first Palestine-dedicated center in a US academic institution. Its establishment honored the legacy of Professor Edward Said at the university where he taught for forty years. This contribution to the roundtable discusses the ways in which the original and continuing mission of CPS - to "promote the academic study of Palestine by supporting research, teaching, and intellectual collaboration among scholars and artists at Columbia, in Palestine, and across the diaspora" - has been maintained and developed within the shifting discourse on Palestine within U.S. academia, and U.S. intellectual life more generally, over the past decade. I will focus particularly on CPS' emphasis on the need to carve out an intellectual space within the university from where the collective faculty and its collaborators can engage with the full range of intellectual, artistic, and political issues pertinent to Palestine, enabling productive dialogue with, but not driven by political activism and advocacy.