Op-Ed: Professor Thomas Abowd on his class ‘Colonizing Palestine’

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“The fundamental characteristic of the Israeli society is that it is a society of immigrants actively involved in a colonization process to this very day, which continues to base itself on a territory not its own and to live by the sword …”

It was not I who penned these words linking the Israeli state with colonialism, but rather the brilliant Israeli-Jewish feminist intellectual, Tikva Honig-Parnass. As a young woman, Honig-Parnass served in the Haganah in the late 1940s and has described quite feelingly — and with intense regret — the role she played in Israel’s expulsion of more than 700,000 indigenous Palestinians from their country in 1948. In her writings she has detailed how the state she has been a citizen of her entire adult life and Labor Zionism, of which she was once a strong adherent, have been implicated for many decades in the violent appropriation of Palestinian land and resources.

In the quote above, Honig-Parnass was, in turn, summarizing the perspectives of another Israeli intellectual, the late Baruch Kimmerling. He also wrote in detail about the various ways in which Israel was built overwhelmingly upon the land and even within homes stolen from those Palestinians made refugees. These two scholars, like thousands of others fighting for justice and equality in Israel and Palestine, have inspired my own intellectual pursuits and, indeed, the course I am teaching this semester at Tufts, Colonizing Palestine.”

The hostility to my class began to erupt in July 2018. Efforts to get Tufts to cancel the course and threats to my person have been generated both by those within this university as well as by members of outside hate groups. These include white supremacists and anti-Semites associated with Steve Bannon who, not so oddly, combine hatred for Jews with love for Israeli military occupation. It has emanated from bizarrely reactionary Zionists like those involved with Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch and, of course, from the anonymous smear artists at the shameful and discredited Canary Mission. Much of these folks’ antagonism appears to be driven by the title of my course, as well as what these critics imagine “Colonizing Palestine” would incorporate this semester.

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In late August, on the website of a notorious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate group, there were calls for Tufts to suppress my freedom of expression and to “take measures to greatly reform or retract” this class. Such efforts, I submit, are more appropriate for a Gilead-like fascist society — not a democratic one. Attempts such as these are in the proud tradition of the late Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Marine Le Pen and, yes, the orange-headed misogynist who rules us all today.

The author of the Tufts Daily op-ed of Aug. 29, “Where’s the Inquiry?,” is a member of Tufts Friends of Israel, a tragically misguided organization affiliated with Tufts Hillel. I have neither the space here nor the interest in answering many of the assertions made in that piece. To do so would be difficult not least because, after digging through its clutter of myths, inaccuracies and sentimental claptrap, I could not locate even one cogent argument.

But let me respond to just one of the author’s assumptions with a question or two: Does Mr. Zeff actually believe that because some members — not all — of one religious faith feel a connection to a particular territory, that they therefore have the right to displace and dispossess its indigenous populations? To deliberately and cruelly uproot a people whose existence in Palestine goes back hundreds of years before the rise of modern Zionism and its settlement programs? Palestinian Christians, Muslims, atheists and those of many other communities across the globe possess connections to this land — spiritual, territorial, national, familial, etc. Palestinian attachments, however, unlike so many others, are generally based on actual ownership of and historical presence in this land.

There is nothing wrong, let me be clear, about possessing or expressing religious attachments to a particular place. However, asserting a primacy of rights to a country already inhabited by and belonging to another people based on one’s spiritual beliefs, sacred texts and solipsism is, itself, a deeply colonial attitude. Attempts to represent biblical stories and myths as incontrovertibly historical (e.g. the myths around the so-called King David) and then to deploy them to legitimize the expulsion and denigration of another people in the 21st century are examples of classic colonial ideology. The very Native American lands upon which we all reside today have been — and continue to be — colonized with the aid of similar ideologies and parallel chauvinisms. Edward Said, one of the brilliant Palestinian thinkers taught in my class, “Colonizing Palestine,” long ago identified what he referred to as a “nexus of knowledge and power,” a set of cultural forces that has fueled colonial conquest for centuries, from New Delhi to New Mexico.

Several of my Jewish colleagues and fellow professors who read the op-ed by Mr. Zeff, conveyed to me that they were not a little repulsed that the author would speak in such essentialist ways about Jews — as if they were generally of one, unified view on questions like Zionist claims to Palestine, or, that all or most shared the idea that Palestine has always been principally the homeland of Jewish communities the world over.

To those on this campus and on hundreds of others who have sought to stifle academic freedom and who, in some instances, have physically threatened critics of Israeli colonial rule, I would want to say this: Let’s remember that we at Tufts are not living under Israeli military rule, where Palestinian freedom of expression has not only been brutally suppressed, but where Palestinian universities and schools have also been closed down for months and even years (e.g. in the late 1980s during the First Intifada). Though most of us live in and are citizens of arguably the most violent settler-colony in the history of modern settler-colonialism, the vast majority of us do not (yet) live under conditions where students and professors can be tortured, beaten and killed for expressing political views, as Palestinians as young as 10 and 11 have been for many decades.

It should be possible in the US and elsewhere, particularly on college campuses, to debate the relevance and appropriateness of colonial governance, colonial racism and colonial urbanism in the context of the Palestine-Israel conflict. These are, after all, conversations that are even had among scholars in Israel, including among the members of the group, “Academia for Equality,” which has written letters in support of my courses in recent weeks and in support of my job at Tufts, now under threat.

I would hope that we can all agree that denouncing a course would minimally require actually reading its syllabus before trashing it. Nearly every last critic of “Colonizing Palestine” who has publicly condemned it, including Mr. Zeff, does not know the first thing about its content. Those who would deride a course before it had even been finalized, before they had even seen its reading selections, are acting as foolishly and irresponsibly as those who would attempt to critique a film they have not seen or a speech they have not heard. They are, in fact, enacting textbook anti-intellectualism.

I stand behind the short blurb for the course, made available by the Tufts Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora Consortium in the months leading up to fall term and from which many of my detractors have been citing. But being only a few sentences long (by necessity) it could only have ever been a very partial — even provisional — sketch of the class. For those still under a different impression, please understand that descriptions of this sort never depict a course in its totality, nor can they serve as a substitute for its specific readings, lectures and requirements. Anyone who has ever taught and devised college classes (and so few of my critics actually have), know that they are typically works of continual and creative refinement. I had been preparing this new course for several months before the start of fall classes. It should surprise no one that over that period, its content evolved. Indeed, until early September, even I, the professor of the course, did not know precisely what “Colonizing Palestine” would ultimately encompass.

If opponents of this class had simply waited to read the syllabus, they would have seen a diverse range of Palestinian and Israeli sources. These are as varied as statements by the Israeli settler and terrorist organization, Gush Emunim, fine scholarly work by former Israeli Labor Party leader and historian, Shlomo Ben Ami (himself a Zionist), as well as the writings of anti- and non-Zionist Israeli-Jews like Ilan Pappé, Jeff Halper and Ella Shohat. Palestinian texts and films for this are equally rich. 

Having committed the unspeakable crime of choosing an “unnecessarily provocative” title for the course under consideration (as one organization on campus apparently referred to it), I end with what I hope is an even more provocative and incendiary intervention. Those who claim to “support Israel” and who do so by supporting the Jeff Sessionses, Steve Bannons and Mike Pences of Israel are actually doing precisely the opposite. Their behavior, I submit, is actually quite harmful to Israel — not just to the Palestinians. Providing aid and weaponry to racist and chauvinist parties and elements in the Jewish state, rather than solidarity with Israelis like Honig-Parness fighting to end the colonization of Palestine, is pushing that state ever closer to spiritual death and moral ruin.

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