Dialogue as Diversion

[this essay originally appeared on Savage Minds]

Fida Adely & Amahl Bishara

What types of engagement are needed to end decades of occupation and repression of Palestinian human rights? Some call for more dialogue and argue that if only those interested in peace on “both sides” talked to each other more, this conflict would end. However, dialogue by itself will never end occupation. Across academic, cultural, and political fields, calls for dialogue obscure the tremendous asymmetries between Israel and Palestinians. In this way many dialogue initiatives disguise the real issues of settler-colonialism, oppression, and occupation, and act as a kind of marketing tool rebranding the reality of separation and apartheid as a fantasy of “coexistence.”

FB cover shareable linkAt the American Anthropological Association (AAA)’s annual business meeting in Denver this November, members will be asked to discuss and vote upon a resolution that calls upon AAA to boycott Israeli academic institutions. This resolution builds on a growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement led by Palestinian civil society.[1] Opponents of an academic boycott against Israel, who call themselves “Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel/Palestine,” argue that boycott would shut down possibilities for dialogue. They have put forth a resolution calling for AAA members to “refrain from initiatives to boycott universities” and to promote “renewed dialogue among willing parties.”

As anthropologists of the Middle East, we have had decades of scholarly engagement on this issue, and we will continue to do so. However, the call to dialogue is riddled with contradictions and illusions. As Lisa Taraki (2011), a Palestinian sociologist at Birzeit University, succinctly argues:

Dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, which remains very popular among Israeli liberals and Western foundations and governments that fund the activities, has failed miserably… [It] presents the “two sides” as if they were equally culpable, and deliberately avoids acknowledgment of the basic coloniser-colonised relationship. Dialogue does not promote change, but rather reinforces the status quo.

Dialogue that takes place under the current system is simply not a free exchange of ideas.

The “peace process” is a paradigmatic example. The Oslo Accords were hailed as a prime instance of successful dialogue and mediation—a first step that many hoped would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet, what these accords actually did was to set in process more than two decades of intermittent negotiations that did not address structural inequalities between the Israeli occupiers and the Palestinians.

In the last 22 years of negotiations, Palestinians have suffered further loss of land and expansion of settlements, new and pernicious policies of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem, and the creation of an open-air prison in Gaza, among other grave violations. Continued negotiations under these circumstances has only meant an entrenchment of these policies. Meanwhile, since Oslo, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid have been devoted to the support of a “peace industry” with the goal of promoting peace and coexistence through dialogue and conflict resolution programs.

Dialogue on the terms we operate under today marginalizes Palestinians. Palestinian academic freedom is severely compromised, as the recent report of the Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine found, and as elaborated by Magid Shihade, a Palestinian anthropologist with Israeli citizenship teaching at Birzeit University. Even within Israel’s 1948 borders, true dialogue is limited by systematic discrimination that frequently punishes university students and others for expressing their thoughts on Facebookholding protests on campus, or even just for being Palestinian. These are the conditions of dialogue and expression that the academic boycott seeks to change.

Within the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the system of closure that Israel has built and intensified over the last 20 plus years serves as a limit on exchange. Palestinians cannot participate in many forms of dialogue because they are locked in an ever more draconian series of walls, checkpoints, and military operations. These include military operations against Palestinians on university campuses in both the West Bank and Gaza and shootings of journalists and protesters.

Furthermore while Israel’s defenders oppose boycott in the name of “dialogue”, the Israeli government itself is working hard to shut down the very discussion of boycott. In 2011, Israel passed a law to penalize people and organizations in Israel who call for boycott.

In the United States, too, possibilities for free expression and dialogue are compromised. Israel’s supporters have successfully pushed for U.S. legislation that targets those who boycott Israel. This legislation attempts to shut down non-violent protest through scare tactics. In the realm of interfaith initiatives, Omid Safi points to a pattern of excluding those who are critical of Israel. Safi himself was uninvited from an interfaith exchange because of his criticism of Israel’s brutal 2014 attack on Gaza. At the same time, another speaker was invited to speak, even though he defended Israel’s aggression with racist language. As Safi points out,

There is an asymmetry in the parameter of this dialogue. My experience is not isolated. Muslims are often excluded from these Abrahamic dialogues if they have made statements in support of Palestinians or critical of policies of the Israeli government, whereas the Jewish participants can have public records of staunch support for Israel.

Even interfaith dialogue takes place on uneven grounds.

The boycott as called for in the proposed AAA resolution is a boycott of institutions, rather than individuals. As such, it works to keep open possibilities for exchange. Still, it insists on highlighting the asymmetrical terms on which exchange currently takes place, and demands forms of engagement that seek justice. Israeli institutions of higher education are culpable, as recently argued by Nadia Abu El-Haj, and documented in the AAA Task Force report.

In contrast, the anti-boycott resolution proposes more of the same—dialogue, engagement, and research—without addressing the underlying systems of oppression or the urgency of this situation. The resolution assumes that there is a constituency of Israeli moderates empowered to act. Their primary proposal is a fund for “Scholarly Endeavors in Conflict Areas.” This fund makes no distinction between Israeli and Palestinian scholars and their different positions as colonizer and colonized. In any case, Palestinians do not need “aid” in expressing themselves. What Palestinians need is justice and equal rights, systemically realized.

Dialogue may sound reasonable and even progressive, but it cannot work alone to end colonial oppression. An academic boycott recognizes that exchange will not be free until Palestinians have their rights.

[1] Several academic associations in the US have heeded this call, including the American Studies Association, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Association for Humanist Sociology, as well many community organizations and unions. And both Jewish Voice for Peace and Friends of Sabeel have endorsed the proposed resolution for an AAA boycott.