Steven Salaita on how ASA boycott vote “shifts the rules” for engaging on Palestine

Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza were given shelter in nearby schools after entire neighborhoods were flooded this week.

Ashraf Amra APA images

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

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Transcript: Rami Almeghari on thousands displaced in flooded Gaza

Rami Almeghari: Local authorities say that the total of houses affected by the storm was 1,500; 902 of them were damaged and the inhabitants were given shelters in nearby schools.

Khaled Hassouna is an UNRWA [the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees] teacher in Gaza and father of six children. They were given a temporary shelter at the Mos’ab Bin Omair primary school in the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood.

[Khaled Hassouna:] Water began rising into the houses in the lower parts of the neighborhood until it reached higher ones, including my own house, to the extent that the first floor was flooded with about one and a half meters of water. Then the entire area where I live became filled with large quantities of water.

In the meantime, the authorities are appealing to foreign governments and aid organizations to help the Gaza Strip. According to the Gaza-based agricultural ministry, the agricultural sector alone has lost about 7 million dollars due to the storm.

Israa Almodallal is spokesperson for the Hamas-led government in Gaza:

The main problem is the lack of fuel, lack of electricity and this is what we live now, a huge disaster for every everybody. The whole life of Gaza has stopped totally.

Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been subjected to a suffocating Israeli blockade, bolstered by Egypt, that in turn has hampered urban development across the region. In addition, the basic infrastructure of the territory has been severely impacted.

The latest storm in Gaza came while the sole power plant has been almost in-operational for more than six weeks. This week, the state of Qatar donated 10 million dollars worth of industrialized fuel to run the power plant. The majority of the population here can not afford Israeli fuel, which is double the price of Egyptian fuel. Cheaper Egyptian fuel is no longer available in the territory, after Egypt recently destroyed hundreds of underground smuggling tunnels.

End transcript.

Transcript: Interview with Steven Salaita on American Studies Association boycott vote

Read Steven Salaita’s latest blog post: “Why the ASA’s Israel boycott won”

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Talk about this boycott resolution, how big of a victory is it for the boycott, divestment and sanctions, BDS, movement, and why.

Steven Salaita: I think it’s quite important, on many levels. But mainly because the victory for the ASA resolution was very much in the public eye. And a lot of people were looking towards that association and its process to gauge what the mood around boycott and BDS, more generally, is.

I think a lot of folks on the Zionist left and right are displeased with how the result came out, because it speaks in some way to the type of momentum that the boycott is receiving as a form of nonviolent resistance, a form of nonviolent resistance that is also very difficult for them to contest with the usual remonstrations that they have.

So it was important politically, but I think also important symbolically as well.

NBF: You recently wrote a post about what the resolution does and does not mean, partly because there have been a rash of Zionist attempts to discredit and malign the academic boycott — including statements that it’s somehow a boycott of Jewish people. Can you lay out what this resolution does and doesn’t mean?

SS: Sure. It means, first of all, that the ASA as an academic organization would sever all of its ties with Israeli academe, with Israeli academic institutions or governmental institutions. To be clear, the ASA has never had — nor does it currently have — any of those associations to sever, any of those relationships to sever, but the resolution would prevent it from entering into those sorts of arrangements in the future.

It doesn’t have any binding power over its individual members, so the individual members who disagreed with the resolution can certainly continue to have relationships with Israeli academe, and receive Israeli funding — whatever they want to do. But the resolution does discourage its members from doing those sorts of things.

It also means that the ASA would not host any speakers who are emissaries of the Israeli government. And an emissary of the Israeli government would be somebody either directly representing that government, or somebody who is receiving state funding in order to go on a speaking tour, or a cultural program or whatever the case may be.

The boycott doesn’t affect any Israeli individuals. Only those who act in the context of an emissary of the Israeli government — so it would never prevent a citizen of Israel, Palestinian, Jewish, Druze or otherwise, from submitting research to peer-reviewed journals, from acting as a peer reviewer, from traveling anywhere that he or she pleases, these sorts of things.

So it’s largely an institutional thing, and it’s a way for the ASA to make policy of the fact that until Israeli academic institutions cease complicity with the Israeli occupation, the ASA doesn’t want to do business with them.

NBF: Steven, can you give us more of a sense of how Israeli academic institutions are working in collusion with the Israeli government, and what that means for policies on the ground, especially for Palestinians?

SS: Right. Just like in the United States, Israeli academe is a part and parcel of government programs. We know that a lot of research for the atomic bomb in the US, for example, happened at Harvard. And a lot of the centers for diplomacy and global studies are really in cahoots with the state in terms of making or influencing policy. And the same is true in Israel.

I think it might be even more brazen in Israel, in a sense that a lot of studies have illustrated clearly how both faculty and universities themselves as represented by their administrations have helped develop a lot of the gerrymandering policies Israeli uses to ascertain Jewish majorities, both inside Israel and of course in certain spaces in the West Bank, East Jerusalem particularly. It helps the IDF [Israeli army] develop military systems and tactical and logistical systems as well, the universities also help inform particular discriminatory policies that get carried out by the state policies on land ownership, education et cetera.

In fact, in terms of archaeology also, a lot of Israeli academics and institutions are complicit in inventing a sort of archeology that invents a Jewish past at the expense of a Palestinian one, as a way of back-dating a rationale for colonizations. Any of the major policies of Israel that you can think of that are objectionable, and there are lots of them, there almost certainly been found to be a connection to Israeli academe.

NBF: Finally, what do you credit to the extraordinary success of this boycott resolution, and what can people learn from this endorsement of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement?

SS: We can learn that it’s possible to put pressure — even in small ways — on the sites of power in Israel and the United States that contribute to the colonization of the Palestinians. That it’s possible to raise awareness of what’s actually happening in Palestine, and it’s possible also, and I think this is a really important thing, to shift the rules for engaging this issue in academe especially, where discussions of Palestinians have been verboten and has been really for a lot of people been a career-killer, it’s been a think that folks have been scared to do.

And one of our goals is not simply to put pressure on the Israeli state but also to open spaces of discourse in the United States, where people can discuss these issues without retribution, and where they can discuss these issues without facing the sorts of institutional punishments that so many of us have gone through and continue to go through.

It means also — more than anything — that we can only have as much momentum as the American polity is willing to provide us. And the fact that the American polity is providing us enough momentum to where we have made boycott of Israel a mainstream issue means that the Zionists have every right, from their point of view, to be upset and angry. It’s because they are ceding ground at a remarkable rate, and as long as we continue pushing for this form of justice as dictated by the Palestinians themselves, of course, but also by universal standards of basic ethical behavior, we can continue to push that momentum forward and get more people thinking about where their tax dollars are going.

End transcript.

Transcript: review of Flying Paper

by Sarah Irving

See the film trailer here:

In July 2010, approximately 7,500 children gathered on a beach at Seifa in northern Gaza to fly kites. They were aiming to beat their own record for simultaneous kite-flying, set the previous year at more than 3,000.

The loose narrative of the new documentary Flying Paper is the preparations of a few of those children for the record-breaking attempt. Abeer, a 16-year-old aspiring journalist from Jabaliya refugee camp, follows the story, while brother and sister Musa and Widad (egged on by their grandfather) compete to build bigger, better and more beautiful kites.

“Kites are like genes, passed down and nothing changes,” says grandfather Musa, reflecting the generations of experience poured into the incredibly accomplished way in which all the children seem to be able to throw a functioning kite together in minutes.

Shot in part by a children’s project and following the activities of these kids, this could easily have become another whimsical movie about an art project involving Palestinian children.

Some of these — such as It’s Not a Gun or Michael Franti’s I Know I’m Not Alone — are well-meaning but ultimately frustrating because they focus on art and “peace,” without sufficiently interrogating the political context.

More deeply problematic, however, are films such as Dancing in Jaffa, which depicts a project to bring Palestinian and Jewish children together in ballroom dancing classes, but expresses its narrative in terms of “transcending geographic and cultural boundaries” and “dealing with hatred,” without acknowledging or addressing the fundamental injustices which bring about such divisions.

Such initiatives may provide Palestinian youngsters with space to dream and heighten their confidence — but how does that help them if the occupation continues to be the defining context in which they must continue their lives?

For sure, such films increase awareness of Palestine, and humanize Palestinians to an international audience. But how many films about art and children do middle-class, film-festival-going Western audiences have to see before they realize that Palestinians are, in fact, human beings? And how many more must they watch after that to take some kind of action?

Fortunately, Flying Paper rises above these tendencies.

Yes, it features the engaging presence of innumerable small children as they bicker, giggle, compete, create and, in one memorable sequence, undertake a hair-raising climb up walls and drainpipes to disentangle an errant kite. We see girls and boys demonstrating their dexterity with their kites, and chart solemn, handsome young Musa’s project to build a huge kite, strong enough to carry a video camera up to film the record-breaking attempt from the sky.

But the focus on a specific small number of these kids allows the expected mentions of the ever-present Israeli military to rise above their usual function as a commentary on the blighted innocence of Palestinian youth.

Because we hear repeatedly from Widad, Musa and their companions, we encounter more detail. We know which little girl claims to have been more or less frightened during the raids and shelling, or what the sounds of bombs and shells sound like to a particular child.

And because we get to know these children, it is all the more disturbing to hear one announce that “they used to take my grandpa and uncles away.”

In addition, Flying Paper doesn’t idealize the Palestinian society it portrays. The children may talk about solidarity and nationhood, but Abeer — credited as a co-producer on the film along with Anne Paq of the political photography collective ActiveStills — acknowledges her fear that social restrictions may stop her from becoming a journalist.

And faced with a kite bearing the names of dreams such as freedom and dignity, one little girl says that of all her rights, she values equality most, because of the difference that some people try to enforce between boys and girls.

Flying Paper is blessedly free from the clichéd orientalist soundtracks of some productions, and the documentary feel is neatly tempered by animated sequences. These start off disarmingly naive, but soon darken in tone. In one, the kite whose progress we have followed so far gets entangled in a barbed-wire fence. In another, it is homed in on by an Israeli drone, and caught up in its computerized crosshairs.

Some of these sequences, though, do seem to wander in odd directions. In one — which accompanies interviews with a fisherman from the Gaza seaport, who pleads with the Israeli navy to stop destroying his livelihood — the Israeli vessels are replaced with a giant, dragon-like sea monster which bites and lunges at the kite.

Is this a reference to legends such as Perseus and Andromeda, or Jonah, which locate sea-monsters off this very same coast? Or is it an attempt to translate the terrors of the military ships lurking just offshore into childhood terms?

It would be predictable for the climax of this film to be the record attempt on the beach in northern Gaza, and we are indeed treated to some wonderful footage of this unique event, with thousands of multicolored kites fluttering in the sea breeze.

But it doesn’t end there. Instead, the film carries on following Musa and Widad, returning a full year down the line to Widad, now wearing the ornate headscarf of a young woman, and Musa, also teetering on the border between boy and man, talking about responsibility and work. Along with exams they have to contribute time to the house or the family farm.

A year ago, their world could be taken up by kites; now, they are rapidly approaching adulthood. And in Gaza, as we see in their already too-old faces, adulthood is a very serious business indeed.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).