An hour with Nora Barrows-Friedman and me on KPFA

I was on KPFA’s Project Censored this week with the Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman to talk SJP activism (the topic of her new book) and BDS on campus. You can listen to the full hour of conversation here!


My interview with BTB organizer Lara Kiswani now up on Jacobin

As we prepared for this past weekend’s Block the Boat action in Oakland, I interviewed key organizer Lara Kiswani (who helped immensely with my last article for Jacobin) about BTB, direct action, worker solidarity, and the future of BDS.

An edited transcript of the conversation is now up on the Jacobin website – check it out!

My latest is now up on Jacobin

It’s been over a month since my last post but I’m very excited that my latest piece, on Block the Boat, organized labor and the future of BDS, is now up on Jacobin!

I also had an op-ed this week in the UC Berkeley student paper, the Daily Californian, on the academic boycott of Israel and the anti-BDS bill that died in a student senate committee thanks to the work of Cal SJP and other campus activists.

More to come soon (but not too soon)!

Letter from Jewish American filmmaker: I’m canceling UIUC screening over Salaita firing

This week, Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater, revoked the job offer of prominent Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita over his vocal defense of Palestinians and criticism of Israel, including its ongoing massacre in Gaza. Salaita, who left Virginia Tech to join UIUC’s American Indian Studies department, had been offered a tenured position.

In that article, Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s decision to nix Salaita’s offer at the last minute was affirmed by UIUC English professor Cary Nelson, who claimed Salaita’s “loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media” and “extremist and uncivil views” disqualify him from holding a faculty position.

I’ve been a regular reader of Salaita’s Twitter feed and have found the content of his tweets to be nothing more and nothing less than principled, unapologetic opposition to apartheid and ethnic cleansing, both in Israeli policy and Zionist ideology.

What irks liberal Zionists like Nelson the most (and sets him apart from many other academics who show solidarity with Palestinians) is his passionate and informal tone, which includes a willingness to antagonize those whose views he refuses to validate.

Tone is the last refuge of scoundrels. Defenders of apartheid and ethnic cleansing don’t like Salaita’s tone because he isn’t respectful in his disagreement with people who defend those things.

Wise faces a firestorm of criticism, including a strongly-worded letter from prominent academics like Joseph Massad and Judith Butler and a petition that’s gotten over 11,000 signatures since Wednesday (the 6th).

Now, Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins, a Jewish American academic and filmmaker, has canceled an upcoming screening at UIUC of his film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, which features interviews with Jewish Americans, young people as well as prominent intellectuals and artists, on their changing relationships to Zionism and the development of their views on Israel-Palestine.

In a letter to the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, which he posted to his Facebook wall, Robbins explicitly accuses Wise of McCarthyism, stating that “the decision that Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the University of Illinois administration reached to fire Professor Steven Salaita for his political views makes it impossible for me to have anything more to do with that campus, at least until that decision is reversed and Professor Salaita is reinstated.”

Robbins’s decisiveness is admirable. This is BDS in action! With his permission, I’m reposting his letter here:

Why This Jewish-American Can’t Visit Urbana-Champaign

Professors Lauren Goodlad, Michael Rothberg, and Matti Bunzl
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Dear Lauren, Michael, and Matti,

Grateful as I am for your invitation to screen my film, “Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists,” on the Urbana-Champaign campus in October, I am afraid I will have to decline. I am enormously appreciative of you all, for your scholarship and your solidarity with the projects of others. Thanks to you, Lauren and Michael, I spent a very exciting and rewarding two weeks in Urbana-Champaign as Mellon Professor, and I have benefited from your hospitality on more occasions than I can count. Nevertheless, the decision that Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the University of Illinois administration reached to fire Professor Steven Salaita for his political views makes it impossible for me to have anything more to do with that campus, at least until that decision is reversed and Professor Salaita is reinstated. I hope that will happen before October.

I will not rehearse for you the reasons why this firing is an outrage to anyone who cares about academic freedom or simple human decency. I’m sure you will already see them very clearly for yourselves. Professor Salaita spoke up privately, in his capacity as a citizen, against what history will surely agree (everyone outside the United States already does) was a massacre of the innocents in Gaza. In punishing him for speaking up by taking away his job, Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy, among others. I’m confident that history will deal with Chancellor Wise much as it has dealt with McCarthy. But she will not have to wait to be judged by history. Thanks to her, the Urbana-Champaign campus is going to become a no-man’s-land, famous for embarrassing itself in public. i’m sure I am not the only academic who will no longer want to be associated with it in any way.

With regret and, again, much gratitude to you as individuals,


Bruce Robbins
Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities
Philosophy Hall
Columbia University
NY, NY 10027

Every Senate Democrat just voted to fund Israel’s genocide in Gaza

I haven’t written since July 14 for two reasons: I can’t write about Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza when others (see: Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss) are doing it so well, but I can’t write about anything else while Palestinians are being slaughtered by a government that receives upwards of $3 billion a year in military aid from our own.

Yesterday President Obama made people mad with comments downplaying CIA torture and blaming Hamas for the astronomical civilian death toll in Gaza. I won’t link to them because I don’t really care what he said. I can’t believe we still have to convince people the Democrats are the worst of the worst.

More important than Obama’s speechifying are the actions of Congress, who (also yesterday) voted overwhelmingly to approve $225 million in additional funding to replenish Israel’s arsenal, depleted by a three-week-long offensive that has killed over 1600 Palestinians, at least 75% of whom are, according to the UN, civilians.

Let me repeat that: After the Obama administration single-handedly torpedoed a UN inquiry into Israeli war crimes, the Senate passed by unanimous consent (and the House voted 395-8) to rearm the Israeli military during an operation that its most tactlessly honest defenders admit is a genocide. This is a massacre that has prompted the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, and El Salvador to recall their ambassadors to Israel and the government of Bolivia to declare Israel a “terrorist state”.

What do those countries have in common? They all, to varying extents, have progressive governments willing to stand up to the US – a state sponsor and financier of terror if ever there was one. In taking a stand (however belated) against Israeli aggression, they stand in stark contrast to so-called progressives in the US government.

I’ve written a lot about issues on which Republicans and Democrats agree, but no issue makes a mockery of the “partisan polarization” narrative more than Israel-Palestine.

I recently argued that, should they run, candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (an “independent” whose independence from the Democrats is pretty tenuous) could pose a serious primary threat to Hillary Clinton, whose deeply conservative record is out of step with the Democratic Party’s “populist” base. On the issue of Israel-Palestine, a recent Gallup poll found that only 31% of self-identified Democrats think Israel’s actions in Gaza are “justified”.

Yet Sanders and Warren – along with every other member of Congress – voted not once but twice for symbolic resolutions endorsing Israel’s assault as “self-defense” and blaming the civilian death toll on Palestinians themselves. Both resolutions passed by unanimous consent: They were backed not just by mean old Republicans, not just by hawkish Democrats like neoliberal poster boy Cory Booker and Chuck “Bomb Iran” Schumer, but also by the party’s so-called left wing.

And now, leading House “progressives” like Barbara Lee and John Conyers joined their Senate counterparts (Ron Wyden and Al Franken, to name a couple others) to reaffirm yet again that, as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz once put it, there “will never be daylight between the two parties” when it comes to unconditional support for Israeli militarism and apartheid.

The 8 members of Congress – 4 Democrats and 4 Republicans – who voted against the additional funds are, on the Democratic side, Representatives Keith Ellison, Zoe Lofgren, Jim Moran, and Beto O’Rourke, and on the Republican side, Justin AmashWalter Jones, Thomas Massie, and Mark Sanford.

They took a serious political risk going against the pro-Israel lobby and their respective party leaderships. I’ve linked to the Twitter accounts of each above – if you’re on Twitter, tweet them a “thank you!”, and if you aren’t, their Twitter bios include links to their websites where you can do so.

Here’s the thing, though: That this many members of Congress voted “no” in such a rabidly pro-Israel political climate as Washington is a testament to how undeniably horrific the reports and images from Gaza have been. People on the ground say this attack is beyond anything they’ve seen in their lifetimes.

But Israel’s draconian blockade of Gaza, also a point of bipartisan consensus, had already made it an open-air prison that the UN projected would be “unlivable” by 2020. Israel counts calories to determine how much food can reach its prisoners, blocking everything but the bare minimum needed for survival: Items banned since the siege began in 2007 include shoes, paper, coffee, tea, wood, cement, and iron.

Despite the withdrawal of its Jewish settler population in 2005, Israel continues to control Gaza’s water, electricity, borders, airspace, coastline, and population registry. It has to approve (and often doesn’t) every person, every molecule of food or raw material, that goes in or out. Even during “ceasefires”, the so-called Israeli Defense Forces conduct deadly raids and airstrikes with no accountability.

Gaza is surely unlivable today, after Israel has bombed 4 hospitals, 2 UN shelters, and its only power plant. More than a tenth of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are now housed in the same UN shelters that have become targets for Israeli bombardment, and 1.2 million Gazans lack access to clean water. 

As Americans, we are deeply complicit, and more and more of us are waking up to that reality. The politics of Israel-Palestine in the US are changing, as evidenced by the Gallup poll showing only 25% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support “Operation Protective Edge”, compared to 55% of those 65 and up.

You can be on the right side of this 21st century struggle against colonialism, or you can sit idly by, congratulating yourself on how reasonable you sound talking about “both sides” and how hatred or religious divisions are the greatest obstacle to “peace”.

The greatest obstacle to peace in Israel-Palestine is apartheid, a racist system of segregation, discrimination, and expulsion. The greatest obstacle to peace is Zionism’s archaic project of an ethnically-exclusive state. The greatest obstacle to peace is the unconditional support of our government, including and especially its “progressive” darlings, for Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.

Empire rots from the inside out, and Congress will be the last domino to fall in the US-Israeli “special relationship”. Sooner or later, material support for Israeli terrorism will become a political dealbreaker. Make it sooner rather than later. Let your Congresspeople know: Enablers of mass murder and ethnic cleansing will lose your vote.

Whether or not you’re PEP – Progressive Except on Palestine – isn’t about ideological purity. It’s about whether you’re willing to stand up to evil when it really matters. Don’t call it evil if you don’t want to. Call it fascism, genocide – just don’t be silent. You’ll regret it.

“Blade Runner” deconstructed whiteness and masculinity before it was cool

It’s been a while since I’ve done any philosophy here, so I thought I’d pick up where I left off in January, on a sort of autobiographical note: In a threepart series, I drew on my own experiences and reflections, in dialogue with the critical race theory of Charles W. Mills, to give an account of what it’s like to be “Not Quite White” as an unapologetically Eurocentric Iranian American.

A lot of the memories and reflections had to do with the phenomenon of “passing”. Passing is usually understood as creating or maintaining the illusion that one belongs to a privileged group. But in my analysis, it becomes clear that people don’t just pass for what they are not – they also pass for what (they think) they really “are”. 

I basically conclude that while I and other Americans of Middle Eastern descent often “pass” as white, there’s also always a deeper and more unconscious form of passing at work, in which I actually pass to myself.

That is, I – for understandable and hardly unique reasons – convinced myself that my ethnic identity is stable and non-contradictory, a reliable and clearly defined reflection of myself that I can fall back on in moments of isolation and self-doubt. Over the years, I passed to myself as both “white enough” and as Iranian/Middle Eastern (which is to say, not white).

I think this points to something crucial about the very essence of identity – that all identity is constructed and unstable, even the dominant identities (white, male, heterosexual, etc.) we critique as being the “default”, “neutral”, or “universal”.

The only “default” identity is a painful lack, an inability to see and know for sure what it is you “really are”. The only universality is the impenetrable darkness at the core of our being.

I can’t think of a popular movie that illustrates this more vividly or powerfully than Blade Runner (specifically, the edits known as the “director’s cut” and “final cut”).

If you’re not familiar with it (warning: the rest of this post is one big spoiler), Ridley Scott’s loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts down four renegade androids (“replicants”) in the Los Angeles of 2019, which – like the rest of Earth – is a dark, polluted, overcrowded wasteland.

The people who live there are those without the power and privilege to escape to off-world colonies, where the elite use replicants as slave labor. They are identical to humans in every way, except for emotions – but as it turns out, replicants can develop those too. As a failsafe, the corporation that makes replicants designed them to have a four-year lifespan.

That precaution proves insufficient, though: These four replicants revolt, kill their masters, and travel to Earth to find their creator and make him change what he created. They don’t want to die. The immediate problem for them is that replicants are illegal on Earth, hence Deckard’s assignment. By the time their leader, Roy, learns that their genetic coding can’t be changed, they’ve been picked off one by one.

Throughout the film, the mutineers have to “pass” as human to avoid detection. There are plenty of examples that I won’t go into. Much more interesting, though, is the replicant Deckard meets when he visits the corporation: Rachael, assistant to the corporation’s head and chief designer, doesn’t know she’s a replicant. She’s so advanced that she almost fools the apparently foolproof Voight-Kampff test, which uses emotionally provocative questions to see if you’re human based on pupil dilations or something.

Unlike the other replicants in the film, Rachael has to come into consciousness, not of her essential humanity, but of her (supposed) lack of it. She lived her life as though she were just like everyone else when in reality, her very life on Earth is criminal.

What Rachael has to come to grips with is the same terrifying experience of identity-as-lack-of-identity that drove Roy and the other replicants to revolt in the first place: that they are not really what they “are”. Despite knowing that all they have in this world are implanted memories and a preset expiration date, they nonetheless have a subjectivity, a full personhood, that yearns for a freedom that will never come.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” Roy asks Deckard during their final showdown. “That’s what it is to be a slave.” Rachael’s earth-shattering realization that she, too, is a “slave” is only possible through unconscious passing: Every day of her life, she’s passed for human to herself.

What’s the message here? The “director’s cut” and “final cut” both contain versions of a sequence, commonly referred to as “the unicorn dream”, that makes it clear. After Deckard and Rachael hook up – and after she asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself – the “final cut” intercuts a scene of Deckard, awake and staring ahead in his apartment, with a sun-bathed vision of a unicorn galloping in slow-motion.

These cuts, like the studio release, also show a mysterious minor character called Gaff (seemingly a sort of middle man between Deckard and his boss) making little origami figures at different points in the film. When Deckard returns to his apartment after his showdown with Roy, he finds Rachael there; they agree to run away together, but as he leaves his apartment for the last time, he notices a little origami figure on the ground. It’s a unicorn.

The inclusion of the “unicorn dream” unleashes this final scene’s explosive implication: that Deckard himself is a replicant, with implanted memories and dreams well known to Gaff, the man responsible for keeping an eye on him.

Deckard’s plotline actually charts a steady undermining of the basis of his self-identification as human: While searching the apartment of Leon, one of the replicants, Deckard finds some photos, which Leon has kept despite knowing they’re of someone else’s life.

Later, the film cuts from the unicorn sequence to a shot of Deckard’s own photographs in his apartment. In light of the final revelation, this cut acquires a new meaning that was already latent: Deckard’s pictures, too, are really someone else’s, no less a fantasy than the unicorn implanted in his mind. He, like Rachael, learns that he’s been passing for human, not to his boss or his handler, but to himself.

It’s crucial to note that by the end of the film, there are no major characters that have not been “outed” as replicants, whether to themselves, to other characters, or to the viewer. Why does Leon keep his photos even though he knows he’s a replicant? Because the knowledge that he’s not “really” human doesn’t negate his essentially human desire for identity and connection.

That’s the radical lesson of Blade Runner: We are never fully who we imagine ourselves to be, and it’s precisely that gap that makes us who we are. That gap makes it possible for us to pass even for what we think we already are.

It’s a nice philosophical point, but as always we have to ask – why does it matter?

If we plot the film as a racial or gender allegory, Deckard and Rachael aren’t white people/men who learn they aren’t really white/male. They’re white people/men who come into consciousness of whiteness and masculinity as constructs, ideals that restrict them and that they inevitably fail to embody.

Their identities aren’t simply given as a default, but a social determination; their memories aren’t really their own, but the reflection of cultural memory. What this means for political struggle is that no identity, not even the dominant identity, is free from the oppression of the social construction of difference.

Our identities are most constructed and fragile in those cases where we think ourselves certain of belonging to a privileged class.

In other words, the struggle against patriarchy can’t claim as its goal a society in which everyone is treated like a man, and the struggle against white supremacy can’t envision one in which we are all treated like white people. It’s precisely masculinity and whiteness that are the biggest fakes of all – so our project has to include convincing those who identify with those constructs that their behavior is actually restricted, their sense of self mutilated, by the systems of domination that seem to benefit them.

Liberation depends, in part, on the realization of the oppressors that they too are not free.

No one’s really Ready for Hillary – except Wall Street and the war machine

To hear some people tell it, you’d think the Democrats had already nominated Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. But it’s 2014. This show has 3 seasons, and we’ve barely made it through the first episode.

The name of Clinton’s Super PAC – “Ready for Hillary” – suggests one of the main rhetorical bludgeons Democrats will use to enforce lockstep marching behind the former Senator: If you don’t want her to be president of the United States, you must not be “ready” to see a woman in the Oval Office.

But there are plenty of legitimate reasons why no one who calls themselves progressive or lefty should throw their support behind Clinton, a deeply conservative Democrat with the record – first as a Senator, then as Secretary of State – to prove it.

For one, she’s shown herself to be even more hawkish than Obama. While she was in Congress, Clinton vocally supported and voted for the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and even criticized the Bush administration for being too soft on Iran.

In her time in the State Department during Obama’s first term, she personally pushed for the administration’s most aggressive and disastrous foreign policies, from the so-called surge in Afghanistan (which, according to the military, failed on all counts) and extrajudicial killings (which have killed close to a thousand civilians in Pakistan alone) to the bombing campaign against Libya (which ended in regime change and plunged both that country and northern Africa into greater turmoil) and the covert training and arming of militias in Syria (which was supposed to oust Iran’s regional ally Bashar Al-Assad, but succeeded only in triggering a catastrophic civil war).

And of course, throughout, Clinton remained steadfast in her support for Israel, never uttering a word or lifting a finger in defense of the victims of Israeli militarism and apartheid – to which the US government is financially and diplomatically indispensable. As a Senator, she was silent during Israel’s month-long assault on Gaza that killed some 1400 Palestinians (more than 700 of them civilians) in 2008-2009, and four years later declared her “110%” support for a bombing campaign that left 102 Palestinian civilians dead.

In the economic realm, things look just as grim. Despite going back on her support for the wildly unpopular NAFTA – championed by her husband – Clinton supported other “free trade” agreements under Bush and Obama (like those with South Korea and Colombia). As I’ve written before on this blog, “free trade” deals undermine local economies and protections for both workers and consumers while deepening inequality – both in the US and abroad.

She has touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most expansive and radically anti-democratic pact to date, which will severely limit the ability of nations to regulate and hold accountable the multinational corporations that operate in them.

In particular, Wall Street would be delighted to see the presidency of a Senator who, in 2001, voted to make it more difficult to erase personal debts through bankruptcy – a bill mainly backed by banks and credit card companies. And after helping Clinton and her husband make over $100 million since leaving the White House, the financial services industry know they’d have an ally (and probably a few of their own) in the next administration.

And herein lies the problem for the Clinton campaign: How can you pass yourself off to primary voters as a friend of the 99% when, in a single week, you made $400,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs?

Clinton may well stick to her line that she and Bill were “dead broke” after his second term. But the Clintons’ wealth and how they got it are no secret, and any rival, especially in the Democratic primary, is sure to pounce on her Romneyesque attempts at relatability. What is the “populist” Democratic base going to conclude about Clinton’s loyalties?

What, indeed?

It’s true, we live in a country where laughing maniacally about bombing Iran doesn’t put an end to your presidential aspirations. But we also live in a country where young people under 30 (who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats) have a more favorable view of the word “socialism” than “capitalism”.

We live in a country where you can’t deport a record 2 million undocumented immigrants – a policy Clinton says she would escalate even further – without fierce resistance from leaders and activists in your base and a sizable drop-off in support from Latin@ voters.

And we live in a country where Herman Cain once led the polls in the Republican primary.

The story that the Democratic nomination is a foregone conclusion has some holes – and the party knows it. Already, Democrats in the media and blogosphere are urging progressives to give Clinton a political blank check and pooh-poohing the chances of Senator Bernie Sanders (a self-identified socialist) in a Democratic primary with a defensiveness that betrays the true uncertainty of a Clinton cakewalk.

They’re less knee-jerk in their dismissal of an Elizabeth Warren candidacy – a former strategist for Al Gore’s failed presidential bid openly states that Warren could win a primary against Clinton – but I think that openness comes, in part, from a place of perceived security: At this point, it looks like Warren isn’t running.

But that could change. The smart money is clearly still on the Anointed One, but politics isn’t about predictions – it’s about possibilities that, all too often, aren’t obvious until after they’ve been realized.

And lest we forget, running to Clinton’s left has worked before.

The fact is, there are very few concrete policy differences between Warren and Sanders, and the willingness of party insiders to take a hypothetical challenge from Warren seriously suggests to me that the independent Senator from Vermont has a better shot than it may appear.

After all, an all-time-high 42% of US voters identify as “independents”: Whether they’re progressives, libertarians, leftists, or anything else, Americans – and young Americans most of all – have seen unconditional support for leaders in both parties bear the fruit of 14 years of endless war and a neoliberalism whose bubble has burst for good.

Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” It may look like the cult of personality around Hillary Clinton would make her an even “more effective evil” than Obama. It may look like 2016 is too close for a reasonably progressive candidate to mount a serious challenge. But we live in interesting times. And below the surface, people and ideas are moving in conflicting directions all the time, movements that are only clear in hindsight.

Probably the most realistic goal is a few left-leaning cabinet appointments and a civil society more willing to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire. There’s no need and no justification for optimism. But if we take our pessimism seriously, and not as an excuse for inaction, maybe we can make things a little bit better.