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Political Theater at Middle East Studies Conference

By TTN Blog

These are the opening paragraphs of a piece by Prof. Cary Nelson at the Telos site:The Middle East Studies Association Imagines Its Future“:

The large room at the Marriott Wardman Park was filled to overflowing on Sunday afternoon for a special session billed as “Thinking Palestine Intersectionally.” The seats were occupied and scores of others stood along the walls, sat on the floor in front of the stage, and spilled out into the hallway. For many it was clearly the highlight of The Middle East Studies Association’s November 2017 annual meeting of faculty and graduate students, held in Washington, DC. Perhaps 500 people were present to hear Noura Erakat, Judith Butler, Samera Esmeir, and Angela Davis be hailed as symbolic conquerors of the Jewish state. “The peace process is over,” Erakat began, and then affirmed “the entwinement of our liberation,” offering her own take on intersectionality. The real reason the United States blocked the “Zionism is racism” framework, she declared was “to prevent itself from having to pay reparations for slavery,” a claim that would have surprised the very people who fought against the 1975 UN resolution. The days of progressive advocacy “except for Palestine are over,” she concluded. It is time “to bar supporters of Israel from feminist movements.” Even this last agenda item, a call to cast out the female devils in our midst, met with loud applause.

Butler followed, mostly echoing arguments she has made for years. Israel merely “postures as a democracy.” “The charge of anti-Semitism seems now directed primarily at criticism of the Jewish state,” she added, perhaps surprising those troubled by the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or the painting of swastikas on the walls of campus buildings. But as always Butler is most notable when addressing Israel for inhabiting an alternative universe. “The boycott,” she apparently believes, “does not target Israeli citizens.” As to what the boycott actually is she was less clear, absolving it of the need to be “a full political vision or plan.” Determined once again to disentangle herself from her heritage, she rejected “the fallacy that the state of Israel represents the Jewish people,” but of course Israel is in complex ways entangled with Jewish identity worldwide. To be Jewish now is not the same as it was before 1948. The Israeli government does not literally represent the Jews of the diaspora politically, but whether we accept or reject the Jewish state it is part of who we are.

Esmier took aim at the academy’s falsely principled complicity in the occupation, as least as she sees it. “The version of academic freedom that opposes BDS is a freedom in harmony with anti-freedom.” It was not an eloquent formulation, but it set a further standard for casting out devils. She concluded with a call to extend the boycott movement to boycotting Turkish universities. Erdogan has nearly broken Turkish higher education against the fascist wheel. Americans and Europeans can deliver the coup de grace by boycotting them, denying their beleaguered faculty a helping hand.

Angela Davis was saved for last. “We are all meeting on colonized land,” she opened, and the audience whooped and applauded. It is a feel-good affirmation of guilt that does not require anyone actually to do anything. She too invoked intersectionality: “Neoliberalism seeks to treat particular struggles as isolated and discrete; it also treats all identity as individual.” It was not really a coherent talk, but the audience was not there to be persuaded of anything. They were there to honor the compelling figure she once was. “Palestine under Israeli occupation is the worst possible example of a carceral society,” she announced, and 500 people cried out and delivered a standing ovation.

Click here for the entire article.

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