The guest-writer of this article for the Radical Education Department, IKB, is a member of the University of Pennsylvania Students for Justice in Palestine. To learn more about Penn SJP, see their Facebook page.
On Saturday, April 7th, George Ciccariello Maher and Marc Lamont Hill came together to discuss Zionism, gentrification, and displacement at the University of Pennsylvania. The event was organized by the University of Pennsylvania Students for Justice in Palestine (Penn SJP) for their yearly Israeli Apartheid Week. The discussion was facilitated by Penn SJP co-chair Ajjit Narayanan and followed by an open Q&A with the audience.
Much of the discussion was centered around the transnational monopoly on space that the interests of racial capitalism perpetuates, whether it be academic space or literal land. The question of academic forcible expulsion is highly pertinent to pro-Palestine academics and radical intellectuals who have faced backlash and termination of their positions while professors who parrot white supremacist rhetoric retain their jobs. In this context of anti-radicalism, Maher advocated that what we need is not scholar-activists, but rather “scholar-militants” who are invested in deconstructing the very institutions of scholarship that prevent pro-Palestine radical academics from voicing uncensored opinions. Hill differentiated between the censorship of pro-Palestine academics and the academic boycott of Israeli academics by describing them as a “competing set of discomforts.” He urged that one understand possible Israeli discomfort as relatively minute compared to Palestinian discomfort. Hill added that he “found it somewhat ironic that a nation-state that has operated with impunity when it comes to collective punishment is now frustrated that they can’t participate” in matters that are much less dire than basic human rights.
After discussing academic expulsion, Maher and Hill moved to the topic of home expulsion in relation to Palestinians displaced by Israeli settlements and to Black Americans who have been displaced by corporations and universities. Maher questioned the distinction between the two, saying that “universities are real estate companies. We have to understand that they’re not there for an educational purpose, their function is to increase their endowment and to take over territory.” This annexation is not just an ugly portion of university history, but an ongoing process. The university is thus not a central site to look to for liberation, as Maher articulated when questioning the effectiveness of student “activism” at Penn that does not “threaten the political power apparatus.” Rather, the university is a site from which to understand the underlying logics that impair struggles for academic freedom, Palestinian liberation, Black liberation, and more. As an institution that practices internal colonialism on Philadelphia’s long-time residents and as a source of funding that refuses to divest from companies involved in the occupation of Palestine, Penn is a prime example of perpetuating what Maher referred to as a “joint experience of dehumanization” and a “shared project of dispossession” on vulnerable populations.
One of the underlying logics in this “shared project of dispossession” is the accusation on the part of the occupier that the native occupants are mismanaging the land. Hill described this as a “narrative of indigenous people not deserving the land,” and remarked that “the idea of a land being infertile or not recognized for its fecundity until other people come is consistent with the narrative of settler colonialism.” A common tactic in gentrification efforts is demonization of pre-gentrified communities through racialized stereotypes of crime and decay, such as the ones deployed in a document produced for the West Philadelphia Corporation that contradicted the first-hand accounts of long time residents. This tactic is also deployed against Palestinians with the myth that Israeli settlers “made the desert bloom” from an arid, empty desert into an entrepreneurial, “start-up” nation. In reality, most of the “blooming” was land cultivated by Palestinians that Israeli settlers claimed as their own doing and the prosperous “start up” stereotype disguises an economically stratified nation. As Hill stated, “it’s all done under the banner of making neighborhoods safer and brighter and cleaner, while people get pushed out of homes.”
However, this is not to imply that these struggles are the same or can be discussed within the same discourses, as Hill pointed out. He added that he was “always uneasy with these neat parallels” that sometimes result when analysis begins and ends at drawing similarities between marginalized groups, as it erases nuance. Although both processes push people out of homes and share underlying logics, gentrification in West Philadelphia and settler expansion in Palestine push people out differently and objectively result in distinct experiences. Hill added that he doesn’t “see indigeneity as the primary discourse by which to make sense of the African experience in America; it’s one of dislocation, kidnapping, and theft.” He also noted that many inhabitants of occupied Palestine with no ancestral claim to land suffer under the Israeli government, such as the African refugees that it sought to deport. Maher countered that the case for oppressed people claiming land does not require ancient history but simply the acknowledgement that “people need land and need to build on land.”
Maher and Hill also extensively critiqued progressive centrist approaches that claim to support Palestinian liberation. Hill asserted that “it’s not just settlers in the West Bank who are complicit in the occupation of Palestine,” a statement quickly proven by the 35 laws codifying discrimination against non-Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. There is also complicity in restricting the terms on which Palestinians will gain liberation, specifically with the rhetoric of fighting for “peace.” A reduction in violence against Palestinians should always be encouraged, yet the liberal idea of violence often does not acknowledge systemic violence that dispossesses a community of autonomy; the centrist approach seeks to address mainly the most overtly brutal elements of the occupation. Maher and Hill both challenged this notion of peace. Hill noted that “while people say they would love peace, it’s predicated on a very narrow idea of what peace is, with no desire of a Palestinian state or right of return.” Expanding on this, Maher argued that “we’re not just against the settlers and we’re not just for peace, the point is not peace, the point is peace with justice and total recalibration and rebuilding of a different kind of society.” Hill also added that attempting to convince an oppressor of the humanity of the oppressed was a lost cause, as that is an argument that won’t be won. Maher concurred with his observation that “power does not have feelings, it has interests.” An appeal to humanity also ignores the fact that the fight for true liberation should not be centered around the occupier’s sympathies but rather around the community’s needs.
After establishing the approach that they did not deem productive, Hill and Maher were asked by an audience member to verbalize what strategies they did support. Hill stated that “we often think about fighting for the oppressed, but we should also think about fighting with the oppressed,” a relevant comment to make at a pro-Palestine event that was highly insightful but featured no Palestinian speakers.
Neither Hill nor Maher presumed to offer specific solutions that Palestinians need and instead focused on disrupting the passivity of moderates and supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Hill advised against framing the moderate as a person in the middle who is passively observing history, but instead urged that one expose that passivity itself as a form of complicity. Not only do we have to drag moderates to a side, we have to point out that “there’s really no such position [as moderate] on a certain level.” Maher based his support for BDS in the fact that it was a global movement of people coming together to pressure institutions rather than a strategy “where individuals have to opt in” and don’t come in contact with each other to build coalitions. He unequivocally stated that “you’re not looking for a consensus on a position that’s between slavery and not slavery. You’re looking for a radical politics.” Hill interjected with an obvious but often ignored point: “how the hell are you moderate on slavery?”
Hill and Maher’s discussion on the politics of space, especially at a university as pro-Israel and responsible for displacement as the University of Pennsylvania, helped create a space that is often denied to pro-Palestine advocates, let alone radical pro-Palestine advocates who name and denounce colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy as the forces that beget theft and policing of land. There is little space to critique Israel in mainstream American politics, and the false image of universities as spaces for intellectual exploration belies the history and interests of a corporation that is gluttonous for control of space in all its forms and seeks to reproduce existing power structures.
However, merely creating space for pro-Palestine discourse within elite universities is far from sufficient. Through the course of their talk Hill and Maher showed that one must also materially support anti-Israel campaigns, delegitimize both outright pro-Israel propaganda and manipulative pro-peace arguments, listen to and organize alongside Palestinians, and draw productive connections between the dispossession of various communities without generalizing the specifics of Palestinian, Black, and Native experiences.
As Maher phrased it, “There are underlying principles that help understand not only how the world is governed and the structures of oppression, also the question of the dignity of rebellion and resistance and revolt, and once you bring both of those things together, and once you look, it’s hard to look away.”