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Decolonizing Native America and Palestine

Steven Salaita

Interviewed by Khalil Bendib
{{langos=='en'?('31/03/2017' | todate):('31/03/2017' | artodate)}}
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Khalil Bendib speaks with Steven Salaita about his new book Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.


Steven Salaita
Steven Salaita

Former Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech.

Former Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech, and author of Israel's Dead Soul and Modern Arab American Fiction. 

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Interview Transcript

Transcribed into English by Michael Haddad

(MR): Welcome to Status, I am Malihe Razazan. The standing Rock movement to protect Native American rights to water and their historic land have revived and strengthened the solidarity between Native American and Palestinian activists in the US and in Palestine. Here is a clip of a solidarity message from artists in Gaza to water protectors at Standing Rock

[*Music* (multiple different people saying) “we are not numbered, and we stand with Standing Rock.”]

MR: Esrael Salemon a young student and writer in Gaza penned an open letter that accompanied the video on Standing Rock resistance. She wrote “although we are of different color, religion, culture and place, I have learned as I read about the protests at Standing Rock, that we have much more in common than differences. When I read your history, I can see myself and my people reflected in yours. I feel in my core that your fight is my fight and that I am not alone in the battle against injustice.” She continues by saying that “we are the indigenous people, just like you, and we suffered the same fate as your people. America’s policy of occupation and displacement through forced marches like the Trail of Tears and the gradual transfer of so many of your people to massive impoverished reservations hurts me deeply because it is so similar to the ethnic cleansing of my ancestors by the Israeli military occupation in what we call Al-Nakba – or the catastrophe.” These sentiments are shared by many Palestinians. What can both, Native Americans and Palestinians, learn from each other anti-settler colonial struggles? In his new book Internationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine, Professor Steven Salaita argues that American Indian and Indigenous Studies must be more central to the scholarship and activism focusing on Palestine. Professor Steven Salaita is Edward Said chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut and author of On Civil Rights: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom. Professor Salaita spoke with Khalil Bendib about his latest book, Internationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.


Khalil Bendib (KB): Steven, first, the title of your book; you spell the term internationalism in an interesting and original fashion as inter/nationalism. Before we go any deeper into the book, please explain this concept of inter/nationalism.

Steven Salaita (SS): I’m trying to play around a little bit with the notion of nationalism as it exists as an organizing principle and as a political philosophy in indigenous communities, and particularly in Native North American communities, and I’m using nationalism in kind of an old fashion sense, a sense of de-colonial or national aspirations. And I’m kind of interested in looking at the way these various forms of nationalism, or these projects of national liberations are in conversation with one another and to some degree mutually reliant on one another, but also they’re deeply focused on their own sights of liberation while simultaneously being committed to broader principles of global justice.

KB: Yeah, so you’re trying to defang some of the negative connotations of the term nationalism in what it can be narrow, dangerous, racist and all that.

SS: Yeah, or maybe disorienting it or dislodging it a bit from some of its western oriented connotations because in native intellectual traditions nationalism very often connotes in different ways and its focus on the idea of displacing native Americans from a positionality simply as US ethnic communities thinks of them instead as national communities with their versions of nationalism being articulations of those aspirations.

KB: So in your book Internationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine, one of the central arguments is that American Native studies should be important to Palestine studies. Why is that? Isn’t there a more ostensibly successful and hopeful example to follow for Palestine such as South Africa for example. Or even Algeria?

SS: Sure, sure. Of course, of course

KB: Because some people would say “wait a minute Palestinians are not as deep in this yet and they are trying to avoid becoming the new Native Americans with all the terrible things that happened to them.

SS: Right. One of the central things that the book tries to do is to push back against this notion. That the Palestinians want to avoid ending up where Native Americans are, or where they ended up, or that there could be more hopeful examples. Because there are literally hundreds of indigenous communities in North and South America that are still here, that are still fighting for national liberation, that have made extraordinary gains. So in lots of ways I want to put forward, what seems to be a counter intuitive notion, that Palestinians will be in a good position if they follow the path of Native Americans. That is they will have survived the colonization.

KB: Yes.

SS:  With their identities intact, with their national aspirations intact, with their sense of dignity intact and its part and parcel of colonial discourse in the first place that it’s such a wide spread belief that the Native Americans were fully exterminated or if not exterminated then subjugated. I kind of want to move us a way from these old-fashioned colonial discourses and into a recognition of native communities as very much alive, as very much engaged in struggle, very much engaged with their own world and the world around them.

KB: Yes, plus you are broadening the definition of Native American. We are not just talking about the United States of America or Canada. We are talking about the whole continent.

SS:  That’s correct.

KB: So one fascinating part of your book was the strong parallel connection between the “pacification” of the American continent of the US, so called Manifest destiny and the one happening before our very eyes, or trying to happen, in Palestine the mutual biblical desperation between the two conquests and genocides – conquest of the West and the narrative of salvation and redemption and destiny. Tell us more about that.

SS: I’m happy to give it a try. There is actually so much material on this that we can correlate, and sort of sift through --

KB: Yes

SS:  It comes to the biblical origins of US exceptionalism and then how, of course, it has been taken up in more obvious ways – in Israel, its an essential feature is Zionism, but basically if you look at the sort of philosophical moorings of US exceptionalism, they are essentially biblical and their root is even more particularly in some of the old testament narrative. Specifically, the book of Joshua in the Old-Testament where God commands the Hebrews to cross the river Jordan and to slaughter the indigenous peoples of the Holy land. The Amalakites and the Cannonites and the Hitites and so forth. And this was a narrative taken up in large part by US settlers to what’s now known as New England. The Puritans were really into it. Cotton Mathers is one of their primary theologians that put in this story into this parable or even this metaphor into use. And kind of interpreted it in a literal sense, so the early North American settlers very often conceptionalized themselves as Israel in the wilderness and not only did they have to tame that wilderness, but they had to overcome and conquer a hostile indigenous enemy and they had to do so on behalf of a much greater Godly project. And they were doing so with the specific and premature of God. And so this was a kind of story of foundational narrative you could say that transcends the Atlantic. That was taken up even in a lot of the secular incarnations of Zionism, because Zionism doesn’t exist without the originary biblical story that ties modern Jews to a particular landscape. These aren’t stories that are based on indigenous Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, which of course is existed for hundreds of years we are talking about an originary narrative that purports to ingather the entire Jewish diaspora into Palestine based on a particular story or based on a particular event or an interpretation of history, and that event or that interpretation of history is deeply implicated in the settlement of the United States, so there’s a lot of back and forth going on in between the two. One of the reasons why Zionism as a political project and I guess is dependent on what you want to define as successful political project in the sense that it worked. It created the State. It’s something that is deeply familiar to Americans. Americans identify with it. It just sounds right to them. The idea of the scrappy underdog with a Godly imprimatur overcoming hostile natives and draining the swamps and creating something new, and beautiful and modern and democratic out of a savage wasteland. It resonates in the American consciousness because these are the terminologies of US exceptionalism. Those are the terminologies that nearly every American is inculcated into.

KB: Yeah, what strikes me, as someone who was born a colonial subject myself. I was born in Paris from Algerian parents who escaped the colonial war and came here at age 20. I was always very much aware of the parallel between what happened here and what’s happening in Palestine and very much focused on this attempted replication that the Zionists in Israel were trying to execute in Palestine and I was always very much aware that a lot of these Zionist come from this country in the first place and that they’re remembering what happened in this country and they’re inspired by it. You know the conquest of the west. Over there it’s the conquest of the east. Go east young men go east. But this story of American colonialist being inspired by the bible, I wasn’t so much aware of. So it’s ironic it’s coming back full circle and inspiring now the Zionists in Israel who take America as a successful example and inspiration for their project.

SS:  Exactly, and one of the reasons that they function so smoothly, for the most part, there are wonderful types of resistance that function so smoothly these days. And has for the better part of 50-60 years is that there’s tremendous amount of economic interest and foreign policy interests in --

KB: Yes

SS:  Geopolitical interests in the sort of convergence between the US and Israeli narrative. There is just a lot of investment in it and the world is very much ordered in a particular alliance and its benefit to capitalist classes around the globe.

KB: Ok. Yes and I’d like to come back to that. That’s a very interesting chapter you have or passage about this very idea but I’d like to come back to it at a later point in this interview. You argue in your chapter titled “How Palestine became important” that with the shift in tactics and philosophy that came with the BDS boycott divestment sanctions movement. The issue of Palestine suddenly became more intelligible to US opinion, especially among younger people, and that in mimicked some of the familiar tactics and philosophies of non-violent resistance adopted by civil rights here in the USA and that, as the nationalist Palestinian agenda became a less prominent feature, it became more about equal rights for all regardless of nationality and religion. More Americans have been able to latch onto it as a cause that they can identify with. Is that what happened in your opinion?

SS:  I think to some degree that’s accurate. Yeah, probably to a large degree. I got involved first in Palestine. I want to say years ago, but it’s actually decades ago. It was very firmly a two-state paradigm. You know when I was a teenager, when I was in college. You know we’re talking about twenty years ago. The shifted emphasis from statism? into notions of bi-national democracy or universal democracy or whatever you want to call it. It just as been extraordinary. A lot of it is been because of really intense significant labor by Palestinian activists and Palestinian intellectuals in conjunction with their allies around the world but in the US I also see it as having been a rhetorical shift. And in turn a shift of strategy away from the notion that Palestinians deserve this little chunk of land in which they can exist and they can be Palestinian and into Palestinians deserve democracy and there is a reality of equal rights that we have to reckon with and we can’t forget about the refugees. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere. We also cannot forget about the Palestinian citizens of Israel which comprises anywhere from 20-25% of the Israeli population and this rhetorical shift has really put a lot of pressure on what you might call liberal Zionists. People who want to have their cake and eat it too. To come straight out and acknowledge that the Zionist project is fundamentally incompatible with the vision of democracy based on a set of equal rights that transcends ethnic origin or ethnic identification as it is designated by the state.

KB: Yes. Actually coming back to what you actually started talking about – that was my next question. You also document how Israel has become, over the decades, a clear international symbol of oppression and injustice beyond even the Middle East through its numerous nefarious interventions on every continent. I was always aware of what they were doing in Africa because I come from Africa. I’m from Algeria. But in particular on the American continent where we had heard from time to time about what was going on in Columbia, but many more places against indigenous peoples outside the Middle East. You document for example how the Mexican State actually received training from the Israelis on how to combat the insurrection in Chiapas? Which I didn’t know. And more examples like that ofLopez Samora, who carried out the genocide against the Native Americans in Guatemala in the 80s proudly said “the Israeli solder is the model for our soldiers.” It is amazing how obnoxious and ubiquitous Israel has been throughout the decades. Tell us more about this nexus between colonialism imperialism and just neoliberalism and unbridled capitalism.

SS: It’s actually quite remarkable to think about the influence that Israel wields on the world stage given its relatively small population, given its size, given its newness as a state. It is less than 70 years old. This has gone on for a long time and it was sometime in the eighties that Benjamin Beit Habali wrote a book about sort of who Israel funds and why and who they’ve been involved with. And it kind of has its hands in all kinds of spots in the globe in explicit and not so explicit ways. A general rule of thumb is that wherever the United States sees a particular interest, a geopolitical interest or an economic interest, then Israel is likely to at least be obliquely involved beyond sort of trying to reveal these connections and the Central American connections is the particularly gruesome and relevant one. But one of the things I’m pushing against is the idea of Palestine as being isolated to its own geography or isolated to its own reason. Actually Palestine is important in the global sense, not just for moral reasons, right. You shouldn’t care about the oppression and disposition of Palestinians for moral reasons, although it’s a perfectly good reason to care, but you could care also from reasons of geopolitical self-interest. That what Israel’s role in the world is overwhelmingly if not exclusively negative. They promote the same sort of violence that the United States promotes very often in conjunction with the United States. So it’s actually a historical to actually make a proclamation that black lives matter as a movement is detached from Palestine or movements against police brutality or militarization in the United States or detached from Palestine. Or that corporate greed is detached from Palestine. All of these things are interconnected and what is incumbent and very important for scholars and activists and community members of our generation to continue doing the work. Not only discovering these connections, but making these connections explicit as a way of broadening our activist strategies and broadening ways we can be in community with one another beyond these boundaries that are often apportioned into for the benefit of the ruling class.

KB: And that way it becomes a global symbol, Israel does, of colonialism, not just at home, but colonialism worldwide, because it rarely ever finds itself on the correct side of these struggles. It’s always against indigenous people wherever there is a struggle of liberation.

SS:  Yes. That’s absolutely the case. Israel is not well thought of in the world. You know obviously in the Arab world they have a rocky reputation, you know probably in the Islamic world more broadly, and really you could say the southern hemisphere. If you look at any survey around the world about which countries most populations find most threatening, Israel is very often at or near the top of the list it advances itself a light onto nations. Its reputation in both western and eastern spaces now is overwhelmingly negative and one of the reasons for that is that it’s become difficult now, even in the United States, to profess a commitment or desire for social justice, lets say for racial equality in the United States, economic equality in the United States and simultaneously conceptualize ones self as a Zionist.

KB: Exactly.

SS:  That’s the sort of thing that just doesn’t fly. We saw that recently with the imbroglio about the Women’s strike last month where people were debating can you can be a feminist and a Zionist simultaneously. And I was surprised by how many people that would normally be positioned in the mainstream of US commentary, kind of disavowing that connection saying ehh it’s kind of difficult to be a committed feminist and a Zionist at the same time.

KB: And also a lot of gay rights people in this country denouncing the pink-washing, as they call it, that Israel does trying to portray themselves as progressive because, in some fashion it kind of show that it’s a little bit more tolerant towards gays and lesbians, but not all gays and lesbians, haha, not Palestinian gays and lesbians. I’ve observed it over the past 15 years lets say ever since this show came to be that it has become increasingly tenuous, that space where liberals could also be a liberal here with some issues, but still be pro-Israel. One extreme example of that, and that’s debated, is to see the overarching most revered, respected icon on the left Noam Chomsky oppose – vehemently oppose – BDS when it comes to the academic boycott. I’ve had him on this show really strenuously explain to me, or try to explain how it actually back fires on the Palestinians. The Palestinians aren’t smart if they think that this is good policy to try to conduct an academic boycott that did more harm than good. So we still see maybe among some of the older folks this strange schizophrenia that on the one hand, it can be really left radical in some instances, and yet when it comes to Israel have this tribalist reflex I guess I would call it.

SS:  I agree with you. I’d love to go back to your archive and listen to that interview, you know Chomsky hasn’t been completely consistent; he very often depends on the context in which he’s speaking or maybe who’s he is speaking to, but on this one, despite my extraordinary respect for him as an activist and as a scholar, I respectfully disagree. I think that the academic boycott has had a profoundly positive effect. Obviously I’m bias, I’ve been involved with it for many years, but that’s also given me the opportunity to have a view of how it functions and how it operates rather than somebody like Chomsky whose been involved in other things. This is not his thing. He’s been involved in it (like I have?) -- *Overlapping voices *

KB: No, he’s got a serious, he’s got a serious conflict there. An internal conflict.

SS:  Right right.

KB: He would call you right here and call you not serious. He actually said those words on my show. He said people who disagree are not serious. By the same tokens we were saying Israel becoming an international symbol for negative influence around the world, by the same token, Palestine becomes this incredible symbol, beyond even issues of colonization and decolonization. You quote academic professor Nefrati Tadiyar who is a member of a US academic delegation to Palestine upon his return as saying “the question of Palestine is an urgent question of addressed of a just equitable future that is both specific to it’s context and its people and a general a paradigmatic global concern.” Why is Palestine such a global concern?

SS:  There are a lot of reasons. You’ve just given me an occasion probably to not stop talking for the next twenty minutes, so I --

KB: That’s what I’ve been trying to accomplish actually haha.

SS:  I think it ranges from the tactical to the symbolic. Let me just lay out what I mean by those two terminologies. The tactical, that Palestine is a huge site of contestation regionally and globally. The super powers all have a major interests or a different set of major interests to get the so-called conflict resolved. It’s just something that has always been in the news. It’s something that captures people’s imaginations as a geopolitical issue when we talk about inequality though then it has its deepest power.  The imagery that early Zionists, particularly, were able to raise Israel as the home to scrappy underdog Jewish refugees fleeing the holocaust. Which is not completely ahistorical by the way. It was a refuge for a lot of people.

KB: Yes. A lot of people end up there

SS:  Right. But then they sort of cultivated the image of Israel as a kind of perpetual underdog. It’s a remarkable story. Especially the way the Zionists tell it, the way that it is told in Zionist historiography and Zionist mythologies. It is an extremely attractive story. It’s an extremely inspiring story. And of course, in order for it to be extremely attractive and inspiring the Palestinians have to disappear. The whole ethnic cleansing and settler colonization part.

KB: They called it a land without people for a people without land.

SS:  Exactly, and so, just from that basis alone, it was a telling narrative. It’s a narrative that fits in well with most versions of national mythology around the world. Almost all national mythologies have to do with the underdogs overcoming various forms of oppression and creating something great. Creating something that had never been there before. Something that’s a model for the rest of the world. So the story of Zionism, as told by its propagandists resonates, but in more recent years, the story of the Palestinians has begun to resonate. The people who have survived colonization. A people who have survived ethnic cleansing. A people who have existed precisely to disappear and who defied that obligation and who are here and who are speaking so it left this community globally, and in particular the Palestinian narrative is particularly compelling. One of the reasons why it’s been a site of global contestation and global interest is first of all we have competing narratives that are both compelling in their own ways and have been compelling in different ways throughout different points in history and geography, but also because most nations of the world – let me say many nations of the world—feel like however this imbroglio or situation of this conflict. I don’t like any of those terms. But whatever what you want to call it, but resolve is going to have a profound effect on a much broader set of geopolitical conditions. So people feel invested in it whether or not they identify as Jewish or Palestinian or Arab or Muslim or anything else, everybody feels invested in it to some degree. Also now I think Palestine has, at least on the global left, it’s not in contest anymore. People will have arguments about terminology. People have arguments about strategy, but now you cannot legitimately be a part of a global left and doubt the veracity and fundamental justness of the Palestinian cause. It is easy to rally around that. It can lead to some kind of acrimony and debates over Syria or Libya tend to generate, but this one is clear-cut. Palestinians are on the right side of history here and it’s the correct thing to do to support their struggle for liberation. I see that less and less in question these days then I did ten or fifteen years ago.

KB: Yeah, it’s become almost impossible to be a humanist and deny the humanity of the Palestinians. It has become really problematic for people to reconcile those two.

SS: Exactly, exactly.

KB: Beyond the issue of Palestine itself, as you were saying earlier, the connections, a lot of it through influence of deeds of Israel outside of the Middle East like training police in the US to commit brutality against their own people here. Black lives matter’s movement – Why does that have anything to do with Palestine. All these connections have made it a global issue.

SS:  That’s exactly the case. The exchange of tactics and information between Palestine and black communities in the United States about how to effectively react to tear gas, there are all kinds of interesting conversations and modes of dialogue, but at the level of state power, and particularly State violence, the connections between the US and the Israeli State run deep. So Israel is not only training many police forces all over the United States, but they share weapons. They share technology. Israel has been shown on numerous occasions to use the Palestinian populations as guinea pigs so they can test out new weapons technologies like in Gaza on numerous occasions and that technology gets transferred back into the United States the attacks on Palestinians and the attacks on black communities on native communities on minority communities in the United States are in no way isolated. The material connections go on and on and on. And they’ve been well documented by a number of activists and journalists and scholars and so there is already an occasion for black lives matter and Palestinian liberation activists to get together simply because there fights for oppression are shared, but more than that, I think they have strategic occasion to get together and talk with one another. And I think this is particularly important for Palestinian solidarity after those who are located in the United States.  Who are born and raised in the United States especially because the behavior of the United States government is of particular concern for them as well. And they’re expressing their solidarity with their black brothers and sisters becomes particularly important, not only in the moral but as a political obligation.

KB: And also the dynamic of hyper capitalism, neo liberalism gone berserk where you have now the notions of surplus populations and that’s not limited to Palestine.

SS: That’s exactly the case. We see this problem growing. The most acute and obvious side of this problem is Gaza where you have somewhere around two million people in a space roughly twice the size of Washington DC which is to say a tiny space. Washington DC isn’t a big territory.

KB: No.

SS: So Israel explicitly treats the population of Gaza as surplus. Not only does it test weapons, not only does it dictate the amount of food and medicine that can go into the territory, but it has kind of washed its hands of any claim for Gaza being part of a Zionist vision for a greater Israel. In other words there are two million people there and they don’t know what to do with them. They want to keep them boxed off, imprisoned in this tiny little territory in perpetuity and they don’t want to have to deal with them. They have to find ways of course when they began the blockade to replace the cheap labor in the Israeli market place. We see the same thing in the United States just more diffused. It’s not necessarily as obvious, but it’s there and I think that so many of these shared tactics we see among the US and Israeli government have to do precisely with the management of what they consider to be surplus populations. Not really surplus populations, surplus populations that are restless, and surplus populations that represent problems that must be solved because if those problems continue to linger they promise certain forms of destabilization that the ruling class and the States will find intolerable.

KB: In your chapter on the BDS, which is another fascinating chapter, and the central relevance of this movement to this country, the USA. You lay out some of the central values and principles in the BDS movement that have allowed it to be successful in the US. Tell us more about some of those principles that have made this movement so difficult to contain.

SS:  It doesn’t have a structured hierarchy in the way that lets say the lot of NGOs do. It’s a little bit anarchist in its organization which is not to say chaotic, but decentralized. It’s an extremely broad tent and when something exists under an extremely broad tent, it’s able to become localized and so a lot of BDS and even academic boycott happens in specific cases on specific campus’s and so if you manage to stamp it out on one campus it pops up in ten others.

KB: You can’t decapitate it.

SS:  You can’t. Yeah, exactly. The Israeli’s of course, you’ve been reading about this but they have gone hard after Omar Mardoody.

KB: Yeah.

SS:  In Palestine and then putting them in prison.

KB: He’s one of the founders of this whole movement.

SS: That’s correct. And really kind of the most prominent and most visible spokesperson for the BDS movement and while I’m speaking about Omar and sending him our love and our solidarity and our prayers. He is somebody that we love and respect and admire and that we are deeply concerned about -- and Omar would be the first to say this -- They can put any individual in prison and the movement will chug right along. It’s not dependent on the force of a singular personality. It looks different in the University of California system then it does in the east coast colleges. It looks different in the University of Californian Irvine than it does at Berkley, right? You know it looks different everywhere although it’s guided by a set of common principles, but it makes it, I would say impossible to stamp out. I think that a lot of countries including Israel and the United States are passing legislation to try to outlaw it or to try to curtail it or try and make it extremely difficult or at least threatening to do this sort of work, but they can’t do it. It’s put together is such a way -- and I think this is particular genius, it’s put together in such a way that it’s impervious to legislative suppression and it’s impervious to state coercion. It’s sort of something that happened because it’s adamantly organized around the notion of bypassing all of the norms of the state in order to exert other forms of pressure that don’t rely on the extant political dialectics if that makes any sense.

KB: Yes and they have been no shortages of attempts on the part of local, campus, State authorities. They just are not able to get a handle on this. They try to pass laws and they just haven’t been able to contain it. You listed in your book in that chapter a number of characteristics that this movement has. You say it’s not hierarchical, it’s consensus based, self funded, unaffiliated, nondenominational, has no formal position on one versus two state solution, it is antiauthoritarian, collaborative, and independent. Now go put that one back in the bottle. It’s a difficult animal to grasp and press and it’s, I think, that’s part of its success. The beauty of it too is that it wants to be the change it wants to see as Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi would say. It is no longer using the old tactics of hierarchy to implement democracy; it’s a more antiauthoritarian zeitgeist it seems to be following.

SS: Yes, one of its central concerns or philosophies if you will is practicing or developing the notion that if we cannot develop a set of countervailing power dynamics through traditional political means then we have to seek unorthodox sites where those forms of countervailing power can be generated and I think that’s the particular genius of BDS and the way its structure is organized and I think its really -- you can’t point to a single moment in time, but what’s been pivotal is the transition of BDS from a tactic or a strategy into a consciousness and into a particular rallying point and so I would argue actually that BDS has completely outgrown its own origins and it still has a lot of material commitments and material victories that we can point too, but I honestly think it has been most effective at a level of consciousness, at a level of consciousness raising in terms of being an idea that people can rally around and an idea that signifies a certain sort of resistance that can’t be suppressed in the traditional ways.

KB: To come back to that link, the connection between decolonizing America and decolonizing Palestine. You look into this link through BDS as well. You ask the question: how do natives in America help inform and influence the tactics and philosophies of the Palestinian BDS movement? As we speak, for example, we see a truly heroic effort by Native Americans to force the rerouting of an oil pipeline away from their protected sovereign territories. How do the two movements cross-pollenate to mutual benefit?

SS:  It’s difficult to imagine many circumstances in which this cross-pollination wouldn’t be mutually beneficial, so one of the tasks before us is to make sure it that it happens as much as possible and that its productive and potential gets realized. First of all, a lot of indigenous, native scholars have been pivotal to both the practice and the realization of BDS particularly in North America. There are a lot of Kahakamaoli or Native Hawaiian scholars who’ve been central to the movement for years, really since its inception.

KB: Give us some examples, I’d love to hear that.

SS:  I have in mind somebody like Ehilani Tahwanui She’s based at Westlian University in Connecticut. She’s been involved in US ACME United States academic and cultural boycott of Israel as a board member, as organizer, as a theorist since its inception and she has been absolutely tireless in bringing awareness of Israeli colonization and the need for and importance of BDS to audiences really all around the world. She brings it to Hawaii frequently. She was part of a delegation that included numerous native scholars to Palestine a few years ago and I talk about that delegation a little bit in internationalism. One of my mentors, probably one of my chief mentors, Robert Worrier Who is Osage, and he has been absolutely critical in not only practicing, but helping to theorize BDS. He also is a student of Edward Said’s, so he has had a long involvement in Palestine. So these connections exist in very knowable and traceable ways and so in one way they try to illuminate some of these histories to my readership in the book and I also urge them to seek out the connections in the book themselves and to think about what it means to work to end Israeli colonization from the United States. In other words, what does it mean to do Palestine solidarity work in a space, this is the US of course, that in it itself is colonized that in it itself is a site of contestation a site of confrontation between indigenous peoples and a repressive colonial government and so kind of what we on the Palestine solidarity community -- this is the way I put it in the book – What do we expect of Israelis? How do we want them to be in solidarity with us as Palestinians? What are the things they do that are helpful? What are some of things they do that we don’t like? What do we find helpful? And we ought to ask ourselves those same questions. Those of us who are Palestinian are working on issues of Palestine in the United States vis-a-vi Native Americans. What can we do to help their struggles? What responsibilities do we have to them given that we’re doing this work on land that is itself occupied and by looking through those questions we are automatically going to start forging connections that are not only helpful to standing in solidarity with colonized communities in our own midst, but it would also broaden our understanding of what it means to be committed to Palestinian liberation. We were constantly making those connections and it becomes regenerative and that kind of regeneration is deeply important both to indigenous communities in North America and to Palestinians as well.

KB: I love this focus on the irony of doing BDS in this country itself a poster boy for colonization

SS: Right.

KB: We see it’s still going on. We tend to think of it as in the past, but Dakota is a good example, California is a good example, right here in Berkeley we have these shell mounds that were constantly pushing back a little further and saying oh actually that one here has good commercial potential so maybe we shall – we’ll find some Native from the tribe and pay him a little something – and ask him to be the spokesperson who says it’s ok to build on this shell mound after all so it’s still happening as we speak. Give us a couple of tips maybe from this wisdom of Native Americans that have been there for so long that have informed the struggle in Palestine. What kind of wisdom is gleamed there? What kind of experience? What kind of stories?

SS:  I think a lot of it has to do with the work of survival. And the work of colonization in North America has been obviously going on for hundreds of more years than it has in Palestine – and so the work of survival. There are multiple forms of wisdom inherent to the mere fact of survival. Just like so many attempts at extermination or assimilation but more than that, what it means to remember place and to make place sinful to one’s identity and use it as a basis for keeping your language extant, keeping it in existence. Passing it on to future generations. The means to maintain social relationships in the face of colonial restructuring, and because one of the things colonization does of course – you know this from the Algerian experience, we know from South Africa, we know from Palestine, we know from Australia. One of the things it tries to do is break down and reorganize familial and social structures and by doing that it brings down the society and makes it weaker and makes it thus easier to colonize, easier to defeat, easier to keep resistance in check and so we see in native communities, not only in their modes of activism, but also in their intellectual works, in their storytelling. We see what it takes to keep your central identity alive despite continual onslaughts and the continual desire for its extermination because in the end it is seen as an inconvenience and it is and inconvenience that modernity needs to overcome. That modernity necessarily must overcome in order for modernity to function in order for the self-image of the United States to achieve its full potential, natives have to disappear. And so what I think we can learn, for those of us who are interested in Palestine and for Palestinians particularly from native communities, is what it means to do the work of survival because survival requires work in these conditions in these circumstances it is not just granted. It is not a given. It requires labor. It requires effort. It requires a constant commitment and recommitment to keeping ourselves alive based on not only how our ancestors lived but based on the kind of world we want to hand over to our descendants.

KB: Part of that battle is the Palestinian demographic rate. Refusing to disappear through high birth rate, and that’s a little bit of what the Algerians had to do as well, one reason the French couldn’t eliminate the entire population was that we were reproducing faster than the colonizers. One story that came to mind while you were speaking about the importance off memory and names, keeping names of places. After France was out of Algeria, after independence, all the names had been changed of cities and small towns and villages had essentially been turned to French names. Of course instantly we reverted to the olden Arabic names and some of them we didn’t remember. One village near where I come from was named after this favorite thinker whose last name happened to be France. Anatole France was his name so that was the name of the village so the joke says that somebody just crossed out France and called it “Anatole Algeria!” So that’s what you go through when you are colonized. In that same chapter on BDS you say many interesting things. You say that BDS can function inside America only if at the same time it manages to transcend its own nationalist paradigms.

SS: mhmm. I’m trying to snuff out some of the differences. I mean one of the things -- the recurring theme of the book something that I keep going back to is the location of the work. And this is obviously influenced by somebody else of Arab origin, Arab heritage who was born and raised in the United States. So that isn’t a question of what it means to be concerned that the reason that I have a connection to but that I actually didn’t grow up in. There is another set of questions that I think a lot of first/second generation of children have. And so I’ve just been sorting through the questions of what it means to do BDS in Palestine as opposed to doing BDS in the United States or Canada or the UK or anywhere else that is not Palestine. Or even the Arab world more broadly. And it seems to me that there is a fundamentally different set of rules even if our notion of what BDS ought to entail remains persistent. In other words doing BDS in Palestine probably has little or fewer obligations attached to it than doing BDS work in the United States. And I know that probably instinctually a lot of people want to try to argue with me. So let me try to assuage any misgivings they might have. I think that it’s wonderful if people in the West Bank and Gaza and Jaza and Haifa And Shatila here in Beirut if their concerned with Native American liberation and decolonization so its wonderful, their concern with oppression anyplace else in the world. I don’t think that they necessarily have any sort of moral obligation to work on it given their location in the same way that those of us who are working in the United States do. We don't have the luxury to ignore it because in our own ways we are complicit in it. In a way that people in the West Bank aren’t.

KB: Absolutely.

SS: I think there’re all kinds of good reasons for people in the West Bank or Gaza to think about it. To engage with it, but it doesn’t have the same sense of moral urgency that it does for those of us who are in the West because again we have a different positionality that we have to tend to that goes beyond Palestine. And so for the United States specifically when I think about doing BDS work in the US, it’s not just of concern of Palestine. Although liberating Palestine is the primary concern and the ultimate goal. We also ought to think about what it means to conjoin Palestinian literary politics with the literary politics that already existed here in the United States because it is deeply important for us to think about ways that we can do that.

KB: And also to avoid the old schizophrenia we were previously talking about of being very fair minded and focused on the morality and fairness of the struggle in Palestine but not so much in the place where we live.

SS:  Exactly.

KB: You weaken your case and you weaken the cause by doing that.

SS:  Exactly, and you can find yourself, even if unintentionally, implicated in practices of settler colonization that your not even aware of.

KB: One question you also ask in the BDS chapter, is how do you measure – by what yard stick do you measure the success of BDS both here in the US and back in the Middle East? How do you measure that?

SS:  There are all kinds of different criteria that you can use and that people do use. There are some politically astringent people who will not define success as anything other than the liberation of Palestine, so by that metric nothing is working.

KB: Or maybe nothing is working fast enough.

SS:  Exactly, nothing has worked yet.

KB: Right

SS: We are all working towards that point though. I can measure success by the growth of a community of concerned beings that exist internationally. To borrow   nomenclature from my book that it simultaneously raises awareness, creates economic pressure, gives headaches to administrators and politicians, creates the requisite anxiety among the Israeli political class and the Israeli elite. In other words that it keeps going, that it keeps surviving, that it keeps doing what it’s doing. We can talk about a metric of success in terms of divestment resolutions getting passed on college campuses and in scholarly associations and that’s one metric and by that metric BDS had been remarkably successful but we can look at it in a more abstract sense that it raises awareness. It’s a conduit of conversation. It’s a conduit of community. It’s a basis for having conversations about what’s going on in Palestine and a demand for us to think about ways to end Israeli colonization, Zionist colonization in Palestine and Palestinian dispossession. All of these are net positives as long as they are happening. And so in this sense I take a really optimistic view of BDS. Probably a lot of people would call me a BDS apologist, and not that I’m not open to critiques or criticisms of BDS, those are important, but in the sum total based on something that’s universally accessible for people that are interested in Palestine. I think that people are doing really important work and I think it’s successful in so far as it’s keeping the goal of Palestinians liberation alive and that’s the most any of us can hope to do as our circumstances you know, we’re not going to start a violent uprising in Palestine from Berkeley California or from Huston, Texas

KB: Right

SS:  So we can maintain the circumstances in which we exist and BDS is one of many things, it’s not the only thing you can do, but it’s one, and it’s one that also comes with a certain set of intellectual and organizational rewards.

KB: It’s been remarkable that successful. More than I ever expected given the type of the resistance that it’s meeting with. People keep making the parallel which I think is justified between South Africa and Palestine and ten fifteen years ago a lot of us were skeptical that things would evolve in this space, that we would see them evolve. It’s been in my opinion phenomenal   because it’s shifted the tenner of the debate. Not so much among the establishment media or the politicians, who are the last ones to just, but among the populace, among the young people. It’s been a remarkable shift from almost obscurity and stereotypes of violence to something that people are considering now. There’s an entire people that has been dispossessed and displaced.

SS: It’s true. You know I’ve been thinking earlier, and I didn’t get a chance to say it – it seems to me that it’s getting, especially in the era of Trump, it’s getting more and more difficult to o be a liberal Zionist and BDS has played a significant role in the existence of that difficulty. That it has put a lot of people who want to see themselves as civil libertarians and as progressives on the defensive in terms of what it is they’re actually willing to do to end the occupation, because you know our entire lives we’ve been hearing platitudes about end the occupation. We believe in two state solution, but then when you present people with the opportunity to do something that has the explicit goal of working against he occupation, a lot of them opt out of it and then when they tell you why they opted out of it then the hypocrisy inherent to the liberal Zionism sort of becomes on full display and a lot of its    arguments fall apart. And another thing, BDS is a baby. You know it’s young.

KB: It’s very young.

SS: Twelve thirteen years ago, it is barely a teenager. You know a modern incarnation of boycotts of Israel since its existence, especially in the Arab world, but BDS as a named political movement comes around in 2004-2005, so relatively recent. So around the time somebody is critically measuring its success or failure it’s important to keep that in mind. That in less than twenty years it’s become a globally recognized activist institution if you will. You could say BDS almost anywhere and anybody that has even slight knowledge of Israel or Palestine will recognize what you’re talking about. And nobody would have guessed when we first started doing this thing and I don’t want to take credit. I mean I was kind of peripherally involved at the beginning but BDS comes out of the labor and hard work and devotion and love of a whole lot of people and I don’t count myself among them. I came into it a few years later really, but I was kind of an observer in the beginning and nobody would have guessed in 2003 or 2004, when this thing was getting of the ground, that it would be the central topic of discussion at AIPAC conferences. That the Prime Minister of Israel would be worrying about it. That States would be passing resolutions, that US president would be condemning it that’s an extraordinary rate of movement for something that hasn’t even been in existence for 15 years.




MR: Professor Steven Salaita is Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut and author of Uncivil Rights: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom. Professor Salaita spoke with Khalil Bendib about his latest book Internationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine. For a Status I am Malihe Razazan and thanks for listening.


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