On Friday night, September 12th, 2014, the CUNY Graduate Center’s Doctoral Students’ Council (DSC) had their first Plenary meeting of the Fall semester. On the agenda was a resolution for an Academic Boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which after much discussion was tabled to another meeting.
(That’s me in the bottom corner eating vegan Indian food)
There are many things to say about the occupation of Palestine, the role of universities in Israel in the continued occupation of Palestine, the DSC structure, process and resolution and the events of the actual meeting. I will only be focusing on the issues to which I feel I have the most to speak on and where others have not already made these points. These are not necessarily the most important things, but just what I can speak to best. Many others can speak to the actual content of the resolution better than I could. In fact, I’d like to quote Chloe Wyma’s statement, read aloud during the meeting, at length because I think she perfectly captures the reasons for the resolution:
I read over the proposed BDS resolution and do not oppose the GC students’ proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, divestment from Israeli companies, and the end the partnership between Baruch College and the Rishon LeZion College of Management Academic Studies.
While it may sound extreme or exclusionary to some, the argument for an academic boycott, in my view, is not unreasonable. A nonviolent campaign responding to the calls of Palestinian civil society, BDS pressures the Israeli state to grant basic rights to Palestinians in accordance with international law. Because academic institutions play an active role in producing the scholarship, technologies, and discourses that support and legitimize Israeli state policies, it makes sense that the boycott would extend to universities. By partnering with weapons manufactures and developing new military technologies, discriminating against Palestinian students and curtailing student activism, building on confiscated land, and by explicitly and/or tacitly supporting their government’s policies (according to the ASA, no Israeli academic institutions have petitioned the Israeli government to protect Palestinian rights to education), Israeli universities are complicit in a system that normalizes the economic, political, and social disenfranchisement of Palestinians.
It is important to clarify that the proposed boycott is not a blacklist. It targets institutions, not individual scholars, professors, or cultural workers. Nor does it attempt to foreclose dialogue between U.S. and Israeli scholars. To quote the DSC resolution: “the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is not the boycott of or prohibition of collaboration with individual Israeli scholars, nor does it engage or support any other ethnic or religious discrimination.”
The question– why single out Israel when so many other governments (including our own) have contributed to violence around the world?– is important. I think the answer has to do with the United State’s political and financial support of Israel, which is the single largest recipient of American foreign aid. To critique the actions of the Israeli government isn’t to unfairly target Israel, but instead to hold it to standards commensurate to its position as the only democracy in the Middle East.
My position isn’t not rigid or dogmatic. I’m still defining my opinions about this issue as the political situation changes and develops. For now, though, I believe that BDS could ultimately further academic freedom, understood not the privileges of a professionalized elite, but more generally as the intellectual and expressive freedom of all people. I agree with Judith Bulter when she wrote that “academic freedom can only be exercised when the material conditions for exercising those rights are secured, which means that infrastructural rights are part of academic freedom itself… given that no Israeli will be discriminated against on the basis of citizenship, and that increasing numbers of Palestinians might well enjoy academic freedom for the first time if the occupation is brought to an end, we can safely conclude that the principle of academic freedom will be more substantially realized through the support of BDS than by opposing it.”
Since others, like Chloe, have spoken eloquently to that issue, I’d like to focus on why student government matters, and why I’d like my representatives on student government to vote in favor of an academic boycott of Israel.
I’d like to start with a simple observation not yet commented on overtly: men’s voices dominated the discussion on both the pro and anti boycott sides. Women did the labor of negotiating the middle, undecided. Thus, who has the privilege of having a strong opinion? (It’s men, btw). During the meeting men told us the truth of the situation. Some men’s truths were different than others. Particularly heinous were the men who were anti-boycott from the philosophy department who have the rational insight that I apparently lack, as a woman and a queer. For example, “the facts” on the issue could be simply attained by googling, which is apparently where all the facts are, if we would just be reasoned and rational, we too could find the facts there. Men told us theirs and other men’s opinions and scoffed that we might think we were smarter than those men. Their comments were largely for-men-by-men, as the women became invisible in the room. We were told if we didn’t agree with certain men, like Noam Chomsky, that we must think we were smarter than them, and apparently that kind of arrogance is only reserved for a certain kind of person. I wondered could a woman be smarter than Noam Chomsky? This said, there were several men who spoke respectfully and this is not a statement of misandry but it was an aspect of the meeting worth noting because of the larger gender dynamic at play in this issue. The DSC steering committee is currently made of up 10 women, some of color, and one man of color. They do the hidden labor so that men can come and take the stage, telling the women what to think and do.
This gender dynamic is not unrelated to the other parts of the problem. Last week had been an incredibly difficult week for the steering committee of the DSC and they did an amazing job leading up to and facilitating the meeting. All have worked hard behind the scenes, and Co-Chair for Communications Dominique Nisperos did an excellent job fielding all the “communications” prior to the meeting, and an outstanding job as chair of the meeting. All this in the face of abuse and false accusations of unethical leadership and anti-Semitism in the week leading up to the meeting. The DSC also did not have adequate support from the Graduate Center administration, various members having urged the steering committee to change the date and/or time of the meeting because of complaints that the meeting conflicted with the Sabbath. The DSC has always taken process more seriously than the rest of the Graduate Center, particularly the administration and faculty of the GC (where are the minutes to the Graduate Council meetings, for example?). The DSC steering has fought tirelessly for years to push the Graduate Center to abide by the laws of New York State particularly Open Meetings Law. Open Meetings Law requires public announcement of meetings, as well as changes to time or location, at least a week in advance. The time of the meeting could not be changed after it had been announced. Though I see the rationale for not discussing this issue during the Sabbath, I do think that ultimately, only representatives will be voting on this issue, and they should all be present since the meetings are always on Friday nights. It’s also true that any member of a body that is using Robert’s Rules, as all New York State affiliated/funded meetings must, can bring a motion to the body, and if there is a second to that motion it must go to vote, regardless of whether or not this was on the pre-circulated agenda. Though the steering committee has much influence on the initial agenda, Robert’s Rules grants the larger representative body much discretion in what the ultimate agenda is. Therefore, no matter the agenda, time or date of the meeting, it would only take two representatives to motion and second to bring this resolution to vote.
I’m not sure what it says about the state of public universities when it has become important for students to push for what could be called bureaucracy as a way to preserve our rights and transparency, but it certainly is the case now that that is necessary. I was a part of the DSC steering committee when we were publicly called myopic bureaucratic hacks, amongst other insults, for our adherence to the bylaws. Now the current steering committee is paradoxically being accused of secrecy from their very measures of transparency. What is not being seen here is the labor of women, queers, and people of color in producing this transparency via bureaucracy that provides all services and advocacy to students.
The DSC is a highly structured, representative democracy—there are representatives from each program, who then elect the steering and executive officers of the DSC. This is how all student governments at CUNY function. There are problems with representative democracies. The DSC is not immune from these issues—one of these issues being the potential paradox or contradiction of a representative democracy as such. Is representation possible? When there are representatives the student body does not have a direct voice or vote on specific issues. Their voice and vote come when they elect their representatives. Is this frustrating? Yes, it is. Maybe the DSC, like all representative democracies is not fair. You elect a representative, but so does everyone else in your program. It is impossible for a representative to always represent their entire constituency. What should one do when they cannot represent everyone or they do not know how everyone would vote? Structurally this fact should always be assumed—one simply cannot represent. What should a representative do in those situations? Many representatives at the DSC meeting wanted to go back and talk to the students in their programs. But what then? When the program is split 50/50? When the program is divided 10 to 1, 100 to 1? Must a representative find consensus in their program to vote? If so, the DSC should call it quits now and all these hardworking women should take a break. On Friday, many people expressed the desire to go back to their programs and find out what the students thought. But what then?
The DSC is not a consensus based or direct democracy. But is run by a steering committee that is a group of hardworking students paid minimal stipends, many of whom from marginalized groups, who try and succeed at making small and large changes. The representatives of the DSC have an opportunity to participate in process that is not perfect but is one of the few spaces in the Graduate Center community where people are working hard to address issues not addressed widely in other spaces, in the most democratic and fair way that can be achieved at this point without large labor and effort and commitment donated by more people to offer an alternative. In other words, the steering committee, in the past and in the present, has stepped up to do some of the must non-gratifying and unrecognized work (learning all of Robert’s Rules, for example, and meeting with every administrator in the building, ordering food and drink for students and then cleaning up after them) in order to create a space in our community where we may have an opportunity to do something that matters. If you are a representative you have an obligation to either work hard to create an alternative structure, or to vote on issues brought to the floor. But tabling discussion because your program is not in consensus, and likely never will be, does nothing but mask that ultimately to table or to abstain is a no vote.
I’ll conclude with one final point about what this specific vote and how I hope for my representatives to vote if the resolution is brought up again.
“Stand on the right side of history” is a polemical statement thrown back and forth by both the pro and anti boycott speakers at the DSC meeting. This is a problematic and narcissistic statement from a masculinist and teleological point of view. This is not how history works. History doesn’t fall into sides. And, anyway, this issue isn’t about history or about you and the side you’ll fall on to. This is about Palestinians lives and freedom. It’s also an unfortunately naïve argument for academics to make–we who are supposed to know something about knowledge production since we are in fact knowledge producers. There is no truth of this situation, no right side. This is what the dreadfully arrogant male philosophers and historians with PhDs from Stanford (ahem) didn’t get in their self righteous comments at the meeting. There is no true justice, no linear path of history that has sides. We are struggling for and with power—not for the right side of history, not for the true or just path, but to have a history at all. This is not an issue, then, with two sides. This is not an issue where “both sides” should be throwing back at each other “stand on my side, this is the side of justice”. Israel does not need a movement to give it a history—it has been written; funded with US dollars and written again in the media that justifies the actions of the IDF and makes Palestinian children and adults disposable and killable. True academic freedom is not the ability to say what you think, but to say what you think and have it heard, to have your thoughts produced as knowledge. Palestinians deserve this ability, they deserve this academic freedom. As graduate students and academics we have an obligation to stand up publicly for this. Though you may never be able to represent the truth of your constituents because of the impossibility of representation (and the impossibility of truth), those with a vote have an opportunity to make an intervention, and help to shift the flows of power so that a Palestinian history may be spoken.