Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Fantasy of Balance

Last month, my department at UCSD wrote a statement regarding the Israeli invasion into Gaza. It was posted on our department's website and within a few days our department chair was already getting "polite" harassing emails from pro-Israeli students who felt that their entire foundation in the universe had been shaken because somebody had dared to state a number of very obvious things about Israel and its colonial control over the Occupied Territories. Before continuing, I'm pasting below the statement in question:

Statement on Racial Violence in the Gaza Strip

The faculty and graduate students in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California San Diego condemn the most recent actions by the State of Israel in the Gaza Strip, commencing with the air strikes that began on December 27, 2008 and the ground invasions, which started on January 4, 2009. Both have resulted in the death and mutilation of a large number of Palestinian civilians. While Israel argues that it is targeting Hamas militants, the astounding number of civilian deaths (exceeding 900 as of January 13, 2009) shows a blatant lack of concern for Palestinian lives. They result from Israel’s targeting of hospitals, mosques, schools, residential buildings and other civilian locations, a practice that cannot be supported by the self-defense argument reproduced by media outlets and endorsed by the US government.

As critical scholars in the field of racial and ethnic studies we interpret these violent actions as an indication of how, in the global order, people of color and the places they live are irrelevant to international legal instruments and moral principles. In short, the most recent deployment of the Israeli military arsenal constitutes nothing more nor less than another episode of racial violence. For this reason, we believe that the current military aggression cannot be divorced from Israel’s overall policy of violence against Palestinians, which includes the strategies deployed during periods of “cease fire” such as tactics that deny access to basic necessities including food, water and health care for the Palestinian residents of the Gaza strip. The recent aerial bombing and ground invasions further this systematic practice of racial violence preventing the Red Cross, the UN and other humanitarian organizations from providing urgently needed assistance to the people of Gaza.

In this unique historic moment, on the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American president, we expect the United States government and the American people to condemn such practices of racial violence in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, we hear a repetition of the argument that Israel is exercising its right to self-defense. It is inconceivable that a society that prides itself on its respect for human rights, and now celebrates another milestone in the road towards racial justice, fails to recognize that Israel’s military objectives, the destruction of Hamas, cannot justify the indiscriminate killing of men and women, young and old, just because they live in the Gaza Strip, because they are Palestinians. This generalized construction of the enemy is at the core of racial violence. It criminalizes a whole population. It aliments existing representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Brown people in general as ‘criminal/terrorists.’ In sum, it justifies otherwise morally untenable acts of total violence.

We hope that the Obama administration will remain consistent with its call for change, that it will issue a forceful condemnation of Israel’s killing of Palestinians, and will review long-held US policies, cutting the military, economic, and political support that provide implicit and explicit backing of Israel’s practices of racial terror. We are convinced that only such a stance will reflect a true commitment to peace in the Middle East. More importantly, it will signal the seriousness of the call for change that is the hallmark of the incoming Obama administration. Any policy that accepts Israel’s right to self-defense as a justification for racial massacre, in this case the systematic extermination of Palestinians, favors complicity over change.

The department has written several statements over the years that I've been there, related to different current events or crises. In 2007 we wrote a statement regarding the fires in San Diego, and the racial ideology at work in the media's representation of California's (apa'ka)
success versus the (attelong) failures of New Orleans. In 2005, we also drafted a statement on Hurricane Katrina and the place of race in that crisis. There have also been statements on immigrants rights and academic freedom.

In order to keep our department chair from being a further target for rabid pro-Israel forces at UCSD, it was decided to create a department blog on which the statements could be posted and angry people directed to post their comments. A few weeks ago the blog was created and since, there has been a barrage of comments most starting with how people are dismayed or appalled that an academic department, full of supposedly educated people could ever say anything bad about Israel or what it does in the world. All the statements seem to tied together by the fact that, as educated people we are supposed to know that Israel is allowed to do whatever it likes, respond however it wants, and that any claims to it doing anything are supposed to be automatically rebuked through references to the Holocaust or anti-semitism. Perhaps, this is the curriculum in other departments, but I am grateful to be in a department concerned more with truth and analysis of power, rather than defense of America's racial and military allies.

There have been moments where I've wanted to intervene on the blog and join the discussion and try to instill a little bit of my perspective. It gets so irritating when people demand that an academic or a critical discussion has to be "balanced" and discuss both sides equally as if they are equals. While in every situation there are always at least two sides to consider, at least two, but always more, this in no way means that those sides are equal in terms of their meaning or power. Anytime some sort of violence like this erupts and there is a call to have things be balanced or unbiased or neutral, they make this call on behalf of the more powerful. It is a demand that benefits whoever is more powerful in the situation. Whoever has more troops, more forces, more bombs, more money, more resources, more influence.

I understand the desire to place this sort of framework on any given situation, to infuse some sort of sanity, to create a reasonable order, to be the rational observer who does not take sides in some bloody conflict. But to not take sides, to create this sort of equalized fantasy, is to take sides, it is to chose one over the other, it is to choose to stronger. To use an example, which I'm sure I am not at all supposed to use to make this point. In Nazi Germany, would it have been appropriate for me to say that the oppression and genocide of Jews by Germans was something that we needed to be neutral about and look at both sides of the issue, since there was blood on the hands of both? Most people I'm sure would shriek absolutely not, what a horrible thing to claim, completely inaccurate and false. Jews in Germany were part of this massive system of institutionalized victimization, marginalized, violence and death. They were up against this entire society that had basically colonized them and created the conditions through which they could legally and physically be controlled at almost all levels.

With some differences you have the same thing in Israel/Palestine today, and this is what is always left out or cast aside in all demands that we analyze or understand this conflict in a unbiased and balanced way. This is not a battle between two equally matched sides, but rather one in which one side overwhelmingly controls the other's territory, these two meet today as colonizer and colonized. We can say that blood is on the hands' of both, but so what? That does not erase Israel's colonial policies, which as anyone can see are the current root of tension in this conflict.

I'm grateful to my fellow grad students and ethnic studies scholars who wrote up our department's statement and who have been commenting on the blog and doing their best to push back against the commonsense ignorance that justifies all that Israel does (my favorite defense is that Israel should be unilaterally supported because its the only country in the Middle East where a woman can wear a bathing suit). The comments of one ally in particular i estaba nobia-hu Rashne, I'm going to paste below. I'm including also some remarks from her blog Sometime Maybe. She articulates very well the work that Ethnic Studies does and also attempts to help commentors on the blog understand what racial violence refers to.

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Ethnic Studies: Why Words Matter

One of the great things about being in an Ethnic Studies department is that when it comes to issues of understanding the functioning of power, people are generally (although definitely not always) on the same page. You don't often have to explain to your colleagues why something - an image, an act, a discourse, a policy - are "fucked up." People just tend to generally "get it." And that helps to create somewhat of a sense of community and solidarity.

This sense of community, however, is quite tenuous - tendentious and contingent. People do get caught up in their own little niches, their own compartmentalized battles, thereby losing sight of the bigger picture. And besides, people are ultimately vulnerable to their "human-ness," thus creating the situation for battles of wits and personalities. Consequently, as I was discussing with a friend today, the experience of being a scholar in the department can be quite violent. (Yes, violent. It is a running joke among some of friends now - my obsession with, and constant reference to, violence.) But though it is a rough, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking experience, most of us wouldn't exchange it for the world.

The times that my department comes together the most is a moments of social crisis. Thus, for instance, during events such as Katrina and the San Diego wildfires - incidents that were marked by the execution of racial power and racial violence - the department took public stands critiquing the action and rhetoric surrounding the event. It may appear to some that making a public statement is futile when it comes to the actual work of resistance and survival. However, as an academic department, it is imperative to seize these as moments of education so as to create the conditions of possibility for socio-structural change. (Those interested in the dynamics of "theory" and "practice" should read some of the works on hegemony by Antonio Gramsci.)

The most recent event that the department took a stand against, thereby causing a firestorm of criticism and controversy, was the recent Israeli war on Gaza. The statement, which was initially posted on the department's website, created an outrage among many students on campus. In response to their angry e-mails, the department decided to create a blog and post all its statements there, so as to enable a public debate regarding the merits and demerits of the statement. The statement and responses to it may be accessed here.

Besides the usual information/data war, and arguments about Israeli self-defense, one of the ideas most objected to was the use of the phrase "racial violence" in the statement. Here, the term "racial" was reduced to normative ideas of race, a reduction that produced the most disingenuous arguments. I have been following the responses to the statement on the blog for the past couple of weeks now, and was constantly disturbed by the way in which "racial violence" was being understood. I therefore decided last night to write a response that explained how I understood "racial violence" and thus, its pertinence to the statement. I am pasting my response below because I think that understanding what "racial power" and "racial violence" mean are so crucial to any social justice project.

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This is a response to the objections raised as regards the use of the phrase “racial violence” in the statement above. Some commentators appear to reduce “racial violence” to the idea of racism; others find troubling the idea that the term “racial” is being applied to racially/ethnically diverse religious and national groups (i.e. Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian peoples). I would like to point out, therefore, that to read “racial violence” as such, is a complete misunderstanding of the phrase. Racial violence is a mode of power exercised – most often by a state, but often by other organized, militarized groups – in order to control, subjugate or exterminate a people due to the idea that the latter always already pose a threat to the civilization of the former. Thus, racial violence always follows the logic of self-defense and self-preservation against the always already threatening other.

Racial logic functions so that an entire people are made to signify deviance, irrationality, violence, etc. – in short, everything that runs counter to the presumed ideals of modernity, and the interests of “civilization” and “humanity.” I would therefore refer readers specifically to this excerpt from the statement: “…Israel’s military objectives, the destruction of Hamas, cannot justify the indiscriminate killing of men and women, young and old, just because they live in the Gaza Strip, because they are Palestinians. This generalized construction of the enemy is at the core of racial violence. It criminalizes a whole population. It aliments existing representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Brown people in general as ‘criminal/terrorists.’” Thus, every holocaust that history stands witness to – that of Native Americans in North America, of Armenians in Turkey, of Jews in Europe, of Muslims in Bosnia, of black Africans in the Sudan – are instances of racial violence. Slavery is an instance of racial violence. Colonialism is an instance of racial violence.

The argument about what constitutes a “race” here is impertinent and futile. Racial violence is not about “race” as is commonly understood – i.e. black, white, native, asian, latino, arab or whatever new racial groups the state decides to create – but about the process of racialization. Of casting an entire people as a deviant, threatening other. This is the project of Ethnic Studies. Ethnic Studies does not teach one about “different peoples,” “different cultures,” “different races,” “different nationalities.” It doesn’t merely teach about histories of oppression, struggle and resistance. It teaches how power operates in the production and execution of subjugation, violence, and death. The process of racialization, and the execution of racial violence, are thus integral to how Ethnic Studies views the execution of power. To consider the Ethnic Studies project as anything else, is to completely misunderstand the project. And this is the context that the statement above must be read in.

The statement condemns the use of racial power and racial violence (as defined above) by the state of Israel. It does not call Israelis or Jewish people racist. It recognizes the violent, death-dealing power executed by the state through its settler-colonialist status. The statement does not cast Israel alone as a state that executes racial violence – rather, it contextualizes the latest attacks on Gaza within the context of global/ized racial violence – whether it be the Iraq war, the criminalization and incarceration of people of color in the U.S., state-sponsored anti-Muslim violence in India, or state/legal violence against aboriginal peoples in Australia.

And finally, a note specifically to Ori. You wrote: “When September 11 happened in the US, airport security was insane, but as a US citizen, would anyone want anything less from their government?” To compare the lockdown on Gaza that Saif referred to in his poem, to the “insane” security at U.S. airports post-9/11 is a trivialization of the situation in Gaza that has me completely speechless. In my mind, it highlights the complete lack of understanding that generally haunts debates about Israeli self-defense against Palestinians. To compare an airport – a space generally marked by un-coerced, free movement – to Gaza, which is like being quite literally under house-arrest, with limited access to basic life-sustaining amenities, is quite shocking.

But you do point to one important thing about racial violence. Post 9/11 airports did in fact become a site for the exercise of racial power through the practice of state-sanctioned activities such as profiling, detention, and rendition.

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