Palestine: The Vocal Complicity in the Silence of Academics

May 24, 2021
Demonstrators display a banner reading «Freedom for Palestine» during a pro-Palestinian protest in Berlin on May 19, 2021. John Macdougall. AFP

On May 14th I published a short text about the practices of «apologist academia» via one of my social media accounts. The text criticises the silence of academics and intellectuals working on the Middle East, especially those who focus on Palestinian literature and archives. I compare this harmful apologism to a necrophiliac desire that constantly prioritises the past or the already-dead over the present, the future, and the currently-alive. I touch upon the fetishisation of the construct of the archive for some and equate that to their fixation on studying Middle East histories while refraining from commenting on the collective corporeal presence that is currently in revolution.

The text was an attempt to share with others in my small virtual world the feelings of futility and deep frustration regarding the silence of academics, especially in the Western world. Yet, the fact that this short text has been since then been shared widely signifies an essential issue: people recognise the great harm that inheres the «neutrality» in the silence of academics and intellectuals regarding the fanatically increasing bloody violence of the apartheid colonial state. While the solidarity of academics has not been non-existent in Germany and other places in the Western world, the silence with which many academics and intellectuals are currently shrouded is disconcerting. This is because academics, especially in Germany, are expected not only to be vocal about the Palestinian struggle but to also rescue the Palestinian discourse and right to narrate from German guilt which barricades and terminates it. This includes the witch-hunt of scholars who humanise Palestinians, the most prominent of whom is Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbeme who came under fire in Germany in April 2020 with accusations of anti-Semitism. According to DW, Mbembe was «relativizing the Holocaust», critisising the Israeli Apartheid and signing a BDS. The article mentions that «the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely sensitive in Germany». One finds this confusing, if not shocking, precisely because of how emphatically vocal Mbembe is about Jewish suffering across history, especially in his seminal book Necropolitics (2019). In it, Mbembe compares the Israeli Apartheid to the South African one and concludes that the former is even more more complex and technologically advanced. He states that «the project [the apartheid] rests on a rather singular metaphysical and existential base. The apocalyptic and catastrophist resources underwriting it are far more complex, and derive from a longer historical horizon, than those that made South African Calvinism possible». Despite the fact that Mbembe puts Jewish suffering and struggles at the forefront of his discussion against necropower, Germany still found him guilty.

Refusing to engage in real-life events unfolding before everyone’s eyes could signal that as academics, we are above reality and so above the present.

By staying silent or intentionally avoiding any form of acknowledgement and discussion about what is really happening in Palestine and how the events of today are a mere extension of a genocidal settler colonial system, the tools of academia, especially in postcolonial and decolonial studies become, instantly, obsolete. That is, by staying silent on settler colonial genocidal violence and the potential in revolting against it, silent academics are not only enabling the continuation of this system but actively depriving Palestinians of the awesome manifestation of their agency against those systems. By doing that, they are implying, precisely through this silence, that postcolonial studies are purely theoretical and have no place in the «real» world. Thus, those studies, left to bookshelves, desktop folders and international conferences are transformed into mere ornaments in academic halls- an intellectual fantasy. Consequently, denying support for real-time active decolonisation and insisting on keeping it inside a sealed vacuum also implies that for those academics, academia is impotent by nature. 

Additionally, refusing to engage in real-life events unfolding before everyone’s eyes could signal that as academics, we are above reality and so above the present. This hints at the fetishisation of the archive in which the past and its cold, distant dissection becomes almost solely the space worthy of studying. Thus, the present becomes precarious and the future irrelevant. What is obvious about this choice of «staying out of politics» (even though this is directly and intimately attached to all spheres of Palestinian and Arabic life in general) is that for those silent scholars, it is a choice. That is, an immense privilege of choosing which current events to investigate (the Arab Spring gained real-time clout) and which to completely refrain from acknowledging. This is contrasted with an immense responsibility held by Palestinian and other scholars in the West to keep pushing this current process of decolonisation into the elusive academic sphere. This is more the case because this directly relates to the Palestinian people’s very existence and their emphatic refusal to be erased from the present.

This strolling around in the cities, cultures, histories, languages, arts, and movements of the Middle East without an active responsibility makes the apologist studying and investigation of the region a toxic flâneurship. This flâneurship further amplifies the privilege of silent academics in the West. The Middle East once again becomes an exotic space for academic investigation and the silent academic morphs into the new but old orientalist. Through this flâneurship, the orientalist ensures that the Arab always remains in the past; always a relic, and never an agent of their own reality performing an active reclamation of their looted histories.

The silence of academics might be connected to academic opportunities and privileges that would be revoked with the expression of solidarity with Palestinians. However, with the tides shifting regarding what is currently recognised as a settler-colonial apartheid state, the silence of those academics and intellectuals will not be forgotten. Scholars who are currently speaking truth to power do not do so impulsively. On the contrary, those scholars (myself included) are acutely aware of the potential backlash for being vocal about such a serious topic.

It is time for vital and directly effective academic practices. The study of Palestine and Palestinians should not be defanged and abstracted because of fear. The study of Palestine and Palestinians should not be relegated to the infinitely extending past. Palestine and Palestinians are not abstract. We are living in the present and changing history. And we will not be silenced.

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