February in upstate New York is dreary, cold, damp, and gray. I am usually very happy not to live in a place like California--how can one get work done when the weather is sunny and warm? But days upon days of cold and damp start to become depressing. They can even make it so dreary that work can't absorb it all and so the gray lingers and overwhelms.
I think of myself as decisive. Lately, I haven't been. This past fall I agreed to speak in Tel Aviv in June. The event is interesting, part of an anti-capitalist left art project. Participants include communists and other activists. It was arranged that I'd also be able to speak in Ramallah. I had thought that this would balance out the problem of speaking in Israel.
It won't. The balance is false, a delusional and unprincipled equation. I started wondering if it was like giving a lecture at a segregated white university in Mississippi as long as one also gave one at one of the black colleges, separate but equal and all that.
During the rucus over speakers from BDS at Brooklyn College, I started looking into the details of the academic and cultural boycott. I was really looking for a way to feel like I could go ahead and participate in the event without being ashamed or defensive. I couldn't find a way. I'm not happy about this. It even feels false or inauthentic to me. But I think that this must mean that my feelings are not to be trusted.
The thing is, I am not comfortable with the boycott as a tactic. It seems to me to be a politics of self-righteousness: "I won't let my words and acts provide support to your awful state practice," and this said by US and UK academics who easily fly back and forth between the US and the UK, as if the US weren't the primary funder of Israel, as if the US didn't have more people in prison than any other country, as if the US didn't undertake illegal war and occupation. Everything I do has the perverse effect of legitimizing the US as a country that supports free speech, that tolerates dissent, that encourages opposition. The more I speak as a communist, the more I criticize communicative capitalism, the more I buttress the very system I want to overthrow. This is part of the practice of academic life. Why, then, does it make sense to single out Israel? Isn't this a way of displacing attention from the murderous, imperialist, militarist role of the US?
That the Palestinian left endorses the boycott is ultimately what guided my decision. I still don't feel settled about it (and not just because there was never an answer from the BDS in response to an inquiry regarding the event and so I keep holding onto a little hope). Maybe because it feels like a forced choice. Or maybe just for selfish reasons--I doubt I'll ever have the opportunity to go again and I resent people who've gotten to go setting up rules as to who else can go and under what conditions, like the left academic political-ethical border patrol. That said, I don't have to abide by the boycott; even a forced choice is a choice. Overall, though, I guess I feel the force of the boycott as an expression of a strong left political will. Feeling it as the force of a collective, I accept it.