My latest for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology

I spent much of winter break working on an analysis of the UAW 2865 BDS vote, where the movement in the US stands today, and how it’s already succeeded in shifting the terms of debate on Israel-Palestine – that article is now up on the Berkeley Journal of Sociology website!


24 and Zero Dark Thirty helped sell Americans on torture

A new Pew poll says Americans approve of CIA torture by 51%-29%, so bringing this out again:

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some haveclaimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.”

Some thoughts on the UAW BDS result for the Intifada podcast

I checked back in with Nora Barrows-Friedman the morning after the UAW 2865 BDS resolution passed by an overwhelming 65%-35%. That interview is now up on the Electronic Intifada podcast.

I’d recommend listening to the whole podcast – it’s not just about activism; Nora and the rest of the EI crew consistently amplify the voices of solidarity activists while never decentering what’s going on in Israel-Palestine. They do amazing work.

I debate the UAW 2865 BDS resolution on KPFA

Tomorrow, members of UAW 2865 (the union for 13,000 graduate student workers in the University of California system) will vote on a resolution calling on UAW International and the UC to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.

I debated the opposition to the resolution yesterday on KPFA – listen 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