Letter From - Autumn 2017

Israel: Occupational Hazards


Confronting academic freedom and racism in an oppressive state


By Feisal G. Mohamed

September 5, 2017


“How about this: as an Arab, as an Arab, you should not set foot in that place.” So said my mother when visiting from Egypt last fall, gesturing upward from her solar plexus as if summoning a core element of being—hers and, she hoped, mine. I wasn’t moved. It was the tail end of a grueling conversation launched by the casual mention of a conference in Israel and talks I would be delivering in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Like most people, I am not entirely sure what lies at the core of my being, and I am slightly terrified by those who proclaim an identity with unwavering certainty. But I am fairly confident that a thoracic x-ray would not reveal a tiny Gamal Abdel Nasser waving his futile little fist at the enemy across the Sinai.

If living “as an Arab” entails a deep hatred of Israel, then you can count me out. I certainly hate many Israeli policies and think that those who call the country an apartheid state are declaring a simple fact. I do stop short, however, of thinking that the State of Israel is incapable of existing in a way that does not oppress Arabs, though it has a very long way to go in living up to its declared democratic values and the promise of its remaining liberal institutions. By comparison, I despise, detest, abhor, and revile the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, precisely because I feel that ending oppression in the Arab world will require root-and-branch elimination of that state and its nefarious influence. A free Middle East can include Israel; it cannot include the House of Saud. The kind of politics that makes empty gestures of supporting Palestinian statehood while turning a blind eye to the tyranny of Arab states became obsolete, to my mind, on January 25, 2011, when Egyptians filled the streets to topple the Mubarak regime, demanding bread, freedom, and social justice. For all its practical failings, the Arab Spring was a glittering success in creating a new language of Arab politics, one moving away from anti-imperialist nationalism and centered instead on human rights, political and economic. (My mother doesn’t see things this way at all and is an ardent supporter of Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.)

In preparing for my trip, I did wonder if Israeli security would agree with my mother that an Arab “should not set foot in that place.” My wife, Sally, worried, and managed to get me to worry, about my safety: “Some 18-year-old IDF conscript who thinks he can kill Arabs whenever he likes isn’t going to care that you have a Canadian passport.” She had a point. I reported to Newark airport three hours before my flight, hoping only that if I was going to be turned away, it would happen before the 10-hour trip to Tel Aviv. When flying El Al, one first approaches an in-house security desk. The young woman there opened my passport and had an immediate spasm of shock—had she been a cartoon character, her eyes would have yo-yo’ed out of their sockets to the sound of an old-time car horn (awoooga! ). “I’m going to have to get the security manager,” she said.

The security manager and I had a completely unhostile, at times friendly 40-minute chat. He wanted to know what was taking me to Israel, where I would be staying, what I taught for a living, and where I taught it. He had much the same response as any security person I’ve encountered when I said that I studied the poet John Milton: a sort of bemusement that a person would choose to do such a thing with his life. This put him somewhat at ease, and he became a little more relaxed still after I mentioned that I had two young daughters.

At least one of us was growing more relaxed. Many of the questions he had for me were discomfiting, to say the least. Do you hold any passports other than the one you are presenting? No, I’m Canadian and nothing else. Is all of your family in Canada or in Egypt? My mother and all of my extended family live in Egypt. You must visit Egypt often, then? Not really. Will this trip be all work, or will you have time to see Israel? Mostly work, but on Saturday I’ll have a day to kill in Tel Aviv. (I realized immediately that this was the wrong choice of words.) Did someone give you something to take to Israel, even an item for luck?  Er, no. You’re Muslim? Sort of. What is the last holiday you celebrated? Easter, I guess. Do you have many Arab friends? A few, I suppose. Just a few?  Yes, just a few.

That was my only inaccurate response. I don’t really have any close Arab friends, something I had not fully realized until that moment. A person who has spent his adult life in English departments isn’t exactly surrounded by Arabs. But it would have felt humiliating to say so just then, as though I had intentionally set out to rid myself of any association with my heritage, as though I agreed with the El Al security manager that there was something suspicious about having Arab friends. By the time I was at the gate, I was in deep self-doubt. Why don’t I have Arab friends? What is wrong with me? Am I doing this whole thing to prove something? Feisal “I’m-so-not-Arab-I-can-get-into-Israel” Mohamed? Who’s that going to fool? What do I think, that if I pull this off, TSA agents will forever greet me with a slow clap?

I was hardly astonished to find that profiling, even when done with a smile, transforms ethnicity itself into state-imposed dehumanization. It becomes impossible to wear one’s background lightly, to move casually in and out of one’s ethnic identity, to live as a human being of many sympathies and affiliations expressing themselves variously in various times and places. One is marked indelibly. With the full force of state violence behind it, profiling claps a sign on your back declaring your true nature in boldface type, a sign that can conveniently serve as a target when “public safety” so demands. I had received the gold-plated version of the implicit and explicit forms of violence that the State of Israel deals routinely to Arabs. It left me with a sinking, hollow feeling in my solar plexus.

Landing at Tel Aviv airport, I could see Air Force One parked on the tarmac, surrounded by Apache helicopters—a reminder that my visit to Israel coincided with that of the quasi-president. It is uncanny to feel as though one has gone to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of The Donald. In Jerusalem, major streets were lined with billboards blaring, trump: make israel great! The conference had arranged a guided tour of the Old City, and some of my American colleagues were eager to gauge our guide’s response to these signs. She pointed out that the billboards bore the logo of the Friends of Zion, a U.S.-based organization of evangelical Christians. This isn’t us, this is you, was her clear implication. When pressed, she conceded that right-wing Israelis see Benjamin Netanyahu’s delight with the new administration, and they are delighted in turn. Walking around the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I noticed an apartment balcony with a sign reading, “President Trump, Welcome to Jerusalem, the Eternal Capital of Israel.” My colleagues were horrified by all this. I thought it made sense, as reaction in Egypt ran along similar lines: those who resented Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward Sisi were thrilled when Trump declared Sisi to be “a fantastic guy.” Donald J. Trump, Statesman.

Our guide pointed the way to the Temple Mount, seat of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. We could not pass farther, she said, because of the unusual security arrangements of the place. Acting as a proxy for the Arab states, Jordan had demanded that apart from a few carefully guarded hours of the day when it is open to tourists, only Muslims be allowed on the site. But the land is still under Israeli control, so it is the task of Israeli security to stop non-Muslims from entering. “Israel provides the security, but Israelis can’t go in,” our guide said, shaking her head in bewilderment and exasperation. Jordan’s demands seem logical, however, given that an increasingly powerful Israeli right blesses and abets the kind of violent messianists who would destroy Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock so that the Third Temple might be built.

She had assumed that the religious test would bar everyone in our group. I wasn’t entirely confident that she was incorrect in my case. With the tour over, I wandered on my own down the straight and narrow street to Al-Aqsa. The police at the checkpoint carried machine guns, but the process looked casual enough—men in prayer caps and women in hijab were walking through without question. I was stopped immediately. You’re Muslim? I answered yes in Arabic but couldn’t suppress the slow shaking of my head that signaled no. Do you have ID? I produced my driver’s license. Mohamed? Again I answered yes in Arabic. The policeman waved me through. Forty feet farther down the street, I had exactly the same conversation at another checkpoint, where a policeman then sent me just inside the gates to the Temple Mount. There, the Jordanian branch of this intricate security collaboration provided the last line of defense—incongruously, a group of teenage boys in street clothes, chatting and lounging on the steps. I turned back to the security officer and gestured as if to say, “Is this it?” He pointed toward the windswept youth as if I were missing the obvious. So I greeted the young men with my best Asalaamu ’alaykum. They asked where I was from. I said that I was Canadian, but Egyptian Canadian. I could understand one of them quite well but another not at all, which we all found funny. They seemed intrigued and amused by this odd creature in front of them, part Arab and part something else, who spoke in a broken and heavily accented Egyptian dialect. Having confirmed that I could speak some Arabic, they didn’t inquire into my religion. They let me in.

I could immediately see the effect of this cumbersome security arrangement. The broad, tree-lined walkways surrounding Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock were wonderfully peaceful, an oasis of calm that felt miles away from the Western Wall below, with its clamor of bar mitzvahs, boisterous birthright groups, and tourists armed with selfie sticks. The quiet was disrupted only by the distant footfalls and laughter of a small group of children playing soccer in the courtyard in front of Solomon’s Stables. Turning history’s most sought-after piece of real estate into a private park for Muslims now seemed gloriously cheeky, a rich, frothy fuck you poured down the gullet of the Israeli security apparatus. I entered the Dome of the Rock and was strangely amazed to see that it was in fact a building housing a very large rock. One could descend a set of stairs leading to a small space within the rock, roughly the size of a soccer goal, where a few people were praying, some in the plain white cloth of Muslim pilgrims. I sat with them for a moment, wondering whether here, in the adamantine womb of my ancestors’ faith, I would feel spiritual stirrings. I waited. A young boy came down the stairs with his mother, stopped short, and began staring at me unrelentingly. Convinced that he had rightly spotted a fraud, I left, leaving others to be transported heavenward with the Prophet.

Had I traveled to Israel two months later, I would not have been admitted to the Temple Mount. A July attack on a checkpoint led to the introduction of new security measures, which in turn launched the familiar spiral of recriminations, demonstrations, overreactions, and diplomatic tensions. Israeli security now bars all men under 50 from entering. At 43, I would need a fake driver’s license.

My visit happened to overlap with the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day, marking what many Israelis variously term the “unification” or “liberation” of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The next day, I was browsing shops in the Old City. One of the most popular posters being sold in the Jewish Quarter was “Soldiers at the Wall.” In various declensions, it shows uniformed, machine gun–wielding Israelis praying at the Western Wall, sometimes accompanied by a rabbi, sometimes in a kippah, sometimes in large groups, sometimes in small. The point is always the same and always unmistakable; bad art always refuses to allow us to misconstrue its obtuse purposes.

In the Muslim Quarter, I struck up conversation with a shopkeeper, insofar as my Arabic and his English allowed. In the way of Middle Eastern shopkeepers, he insisted on making me a mint tea. This almost always feels like a ploy to keep a potential customer in the shop, but he had kind eyes, so I took a seat. With a pained expression, he complained about the noise of Jerusalem Day, how young revelers were shouting, and singing, and parading with Israeli flags throughout the night. He waved his hand, signaling relief that they had finally gone home, and moved on to more pleasant topics, talking with a father’s pride about his daughter the engineer and his son the physician. In the West, it can look as though Arabs jump at every provocation, are so hypersensitive that they can’t make it through the day without one violent expression of fury or another. Here, decent people trying to make a life for themselves swallow daily provocations and indignities.

In Jerusalem, I found that I didn’t know when to speak Arabic and when not to. At the Temple Mount, I felt the need to speak to the Israeli security officers in Arabic. (It made sense to me at the time; in retrospect I see that it didn’t really make any sense at all.) Many people I encountered addressed me in Hebrew. I gathered that in this city, one could address an Arabic speaker in Hebrew but not the other way around. On the guided tour, I tried to make nice with our armed security guard by offering to buy him a water. He didn’t understand me in English, so I tried Arabic: Owz mayya?  He looked startled and disgusted all at once. It was the one time that I managed to piss off a gun-toting Israeli.

During my trip, the membership of the Modern Language Association of America was voting on a resolution pertaining to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The weirdly worded resolution declared that the association would “refrain from endorsing” the boycott, presenting voting members with a strange choice between refraining and declining to refrain. Voicing support for the boycott was not an option. And so, from my very small perch as a member of the association’s Delegate Assembly, I declared that the resolution denied boycott supporters their right to democratic expression. I hoped very much that it would fail: it reflected an effort by a well-organized and well-connected group of members, the self-proclaimed MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, who wished to kill an important conversation on the relationship between academic freedom and academic boycotts. Roughly two weeks after I returned to the States, I learned that the resolution had passed. Its only positive effect is providing assurance to MLA members whose specialties all but require collaboration with Israeli colleagues, such as scholars of Yiddish and Hebrew. A boycott would marginalize them and imply that certain languages ought not to be studied, a compelling reason for a polyglot organization such as the MLA to refrain from endorsing it.

Obviously, I do not support an academic boycott of Israel: on my trip I delivered talks on two Israeli campuses. But I think those who do support it, and members of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement more generally, are sparking an extremely important conversation on American campuses, a conversation about our obligations toward our fellow scholars abroad, about the nature of academic freedom, about the extent to which the pursuit of knowledge must openly confess its complicity with regimes of state power. I don’t want to kill that conversation. I support the right of BDS supporters to speak for the same reason that I decline to join the boycott: because the most proper academic solution to speech with which one disagrees is more speech. If the MLA has used the language of academic freedom to refrain from endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, it should use the same language stridently to defend the free-speech rights of BDS activists, rights that are routinely threatened. Anything less would be equivalent to using academic freedom as a pretext for shielding the State of Israel from criticism.

Given the storm surrounding the boycott in the academic community, my accepting an invitation to speak in Israel felt like a political act. Insofar as it signaled my position on the boycott, it was a political act. But it also had an anti-political element; on some level I feel that there is such a thing as a commonwealth of learning, and that my loyalties to it supersede my loyalties or antipathies to any nation. The free dissemination of knowledge should give us a glimpse of human enterprise transcending state power. It builds communities irrespective of race, religion, and nationality. When I think of boycotting Israeli universities, I think of the excellent Miltonists who don’t deserve to be punished for crimes of the state—for example, my hosts on this trip, Yaakov Mascetti at Bar-Ilan University and Noam Reisner at Tel Aviv University, as well as Sanford Budick, Noam Flinker, William Kolbrener, Ayelet Langer, and Nancy Rosenfeld. (Israel’s wealth of Miltonists might seem strange, until one realizes that Milton has written the great European epic on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.) The trip allowed me to reconnect with friends of various backgrounds from across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, all of us sharing a deep commitment to studying a spectacularly brilliant poet about whom no one else cares in the least. And because I actually talk to my Israeli peers, I’ve learned along the way that my political disagreements with them are much smaller than they often are with my American peers. That’s a valuable lesson. At some point I decided that human bonds created in the pursuit of knowledge, an imperfect but undeniably dignified human pursuit, matter more to me than clannish ties of ethnicity. Yes, I have accepted invitations to speak on Israeli campuses. I would also accept an invitation to speak in Pyongyang, or Moscow, or even Riyadh, knowing that I would not be endorsing any regime, or indicating ignorance of its actions, by doing so.

Some will scoff at my use of the phrase “commonwealth of learning” and respond with circuitous Foucauldianisms on power and knowledge and more power. Of course we should be attentive to, and strongly resist, the ways in which the university as an institution is necessarily embroiled in the actions of the state, and especially the perpetuation of inequality. We should also see our intellectual errand as carving out spaces for the free and open exchange of ideas. Institutional academic freedom is perhaps the most important academic freedom of all: once an entity, be it private or public, decides to set up an institution of higher learning, it must then allow that institution to pursue knowledge in a way determined by scholarly standards alone. A state that funds public universities thus resembles a state that has an established church: if it meddles in the content delivered from the lectern or the pulpit, it corrupts the whole enterprise.

Public higher education in the United States and United Kingdom is increasingly threatened by governments whose austerity measures amount to precisely this kind of corruption. And I think that drives some support for the academic boycott of Israel: because we are increasingly aware of state encroachments, we naturally conclude that a state like Israel has forced its universities to play their part in the oppression of Palestinians. This logic has an ugly proximity to a long history of liberal anti-Semitism, which scapegoats the Jews for the evils of capitalist order. More to the point, it overlooks the facts on the ground. Israel may be an apartheid state, but Israeli universities are not apartheid institutions: 14.4 percent of baccalaureate degrees granted in Israel in 2015 were earned by Arabs; 33 percent of undergraduate students at Haifa University are Arabs; 22 percent of Israeli medical students are Arabs. Two-thirds of Arab students in Israeli higher education are women. All of this in a country where Arabs represent 21 percent of the general population—though that figure does not take into account Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank. Arab students are often drawn to English departments because the language of instruction isn’t Hebrew. As someone who was a faculty member at the University of Illinois when it was under boycott for its unjust and idiotic dismissal of Steven Salaita, I can testify that students are the ones most harmed by academic boycotts. The missed opportunities to hear outside speakers, to have work read by faculty from other institutions, to attend conferences on their home campuses affect them most keenly. One of the chief reasons why I have never supported an academic boycott of Israel is that it will harm a good many Arab students.

This was also the source of my greatest disappointments on this trip. The conference in Jerusalem was initially intended to be a collaboration with Al-Quds, the city’s Arab university. In the event, the faculty at Al-Quds refused to communicate with their colleagues at Bar-Ilan University, or to engage in any form of cooperation with the enemy. So they imposed upon their students a missed opportunity to participate in intellectual exchange with an international group of scholars. That’s just stupid. A case of Arabs’ cutting off their own noses to spite Israeli faces. My second such disappointment came when I spoke at Tel Aviv University, an institution, I had heard, with a vibrant mix of Jewish and Arab students who, tenuously and with no small effort from their faculty mentors, treat each other as respected classmates. Apparently my visit stirred controversy among the Arab students, some of whom refused to attend a lecture given by a traitor to the Palestinian cause. This also makes little sense to me: insisting that I boycott the university they attend feels a lot like self-imposed subjugation—I think they should be demanding that the university bring in more speakers of Arabic background and nationality. But I also understand that these young people are in an exceedingly difficult situation, and I regret more than anything the missed opportunity to learn from young Arabs trying to make a life for themselves in Israeli society. Some would regard them as “traitors” for attending an Israeli university, a view for which I have no patience. A hard lesson of the Arab Spring is that a bourgeois revolution doesn’t get very far without a bourgeoisie. If the path to a larger Arab middle class lies partly through Israeli universities, then so be it.

Having said all of this, I am aware of the potential irony that my paper in Jerusalem was on Renaissance interpretations of the story of Uzzah, the Levite charged with transporting the Ark of the Covenant and who sees it shake on an oxcart, reaches out to sustain it, and is promptly struck dead by an incensed God. In a reading wonderfully hostile to God, Thomas Hobbes likens Uzzah to an individual led by a sovereign who, out of incompetence or weakness, punishes loyalty to the commonwealth. (Uzzah as James Comey.) There is such a thing, the interpreters of Uzzah teach us, as overcommitment to professional duties, and it is often motivated by hubris. I get that.

Leaving Tel Aviv, I wasn’t surprised when the young woman at the El Al security desk opened my passport to the identification page and promptly stated that she needed to page the security manager. I also wasn’t surprised that the manager, this time accompanied by a manager-in-training, then conducted an interview of 40 minutes. After a remarkably baroque line of questions on my work, the manager nudged her trainee, pressing him to move on to topics with some bearing on matters of security. You’ve lived in New Jersey for a couple of years now; have you had the chance to join a community? You mean some sort of faith organization? Yes, for example. (A gentle touch, that “for example.”) No, I’m not a believer. But your work is all about religion—you’re really not a believer? I think religion is very interesting to study, but I just don’t have any impulse to believe. That’s just not in me. The manager-in-training slowly nodded and then said, not without hesitation, I agree, as though he was skating close to a violation of protocol.

The clear aim of the interview was to determine how I had spent every hour of my time in Israel. So Saturday was pretty open—what did you do with your free time in Tel Aviv? I took a walk and visited the art museum. Do you have photos of this visit to the art museum? Yes, sure. I produced my phone and let them scroll through my photos. All of us paused and made sounds of satisfaction when the screen produced an image of a kofta-kebab lunch that I had enjoyed earlier that day. When a menu in Tel Aviv says that a meal “comes with salad,” the server fills the table with small plates before the main course arrives. As we were all looking hungrily at the densely populated table, I said how much I love that kind of meal: “Good, simple—” They finished the sentence “Middle Eastern food” as I was finishing it “Arabic food.” The cross-cultural misunderstanding hung in the air for a moment, and then we all pretended not to have noticed it. The mark of polite conversation.

That the interview seemed to last precisely as long as the one I’d had in Newark lent it a bureaucratic quality, as though the handbook for security managers requires that the interview of an Arab last exactly 40 minutes. (Hasidim, I noticed, are waved through immediately; men in kippahs who don’t speak Hebrew are chided for exactly 30 seconds.) This made me see the process with new eyes, and I was struck by the youth of everyone I was dealing with: nearly every airline employee and nearly every passport control agent was under 30. If I was being passed around like a hot falafel, it was because nobody wanted to make a decision that would later prove to be a career-ending mistake. Would any young person do otherwise? It seemed possible, even eminently likely, that they were at least indifferent toward the bigotries of the machinery they served.

I enjoyed Tel Aviv. It’s a lovely place: beach-lined, sun-drenched, pleasingly bohemian. I learned that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its astonishing abundance of Bauhaus architecture. So cool. “Can a place this nice really be evil?” I wondered. “Yes!” shouted my inner chorus of Renaissance poets. This is Edmund Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, where nature and architecture vie for supremacy and a hidden enchantress turns men into beasts. The Cannabis Zone on Rothschild Boulevard seems a grand place for hip Tel Avivians to go and convince themselves that they are immune to Israel’s problems. From here Jerusalem’s slavery to ancient feuds really does feel a world away. Christians at the Stone of the Unction, Jews praying at the Western Wall, Muslims at the Dome of the Rock. Everywhere a reminder of humanity’s willingness to commit mass murder for the privilege of worshipping mineral deposits.

Taking the taxi from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help but notice that I was gliding along a remarkably well built road. Even though it was far from clogged with traffic, it will soon compete with a high-speed train. Trump must have been really impressed, assuming he actually notices infrastructure. Among many other things, I realized, the Occupation is a militarized enforcement of inequality. Racial hatred can be conveniently whipped into a frenzy to negate potential opposition to ruling elites—it prevents working-class Mizrahim from finding common cause with working-class Palestinians in the West Bank. In this sense Israel really is the 51st state in the Union.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent books are A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education, co-edited with Gordon Hutner, and Milton’s Modernities: Poetry, Philosophy, and History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, co-edited with Patrick Fadely.

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