Activism and political organising in academia: a conversation with Ilan Pappe

Maybe resistance over Palestine in academe is part of a larger project: the creation of a fundamental change in the way we do knowledge, and in the way we produce knowledge. A conversation.

Carol Que Ilan Pappe
11 October 2017

Demonstration outside School of Oriental and African Studies, London, of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 27 April 2017. Wikicommons/ Philafrenzy. Some rights reserved.Carol Que (CQ): An explicit political agenda in scholarly work is commonly regarded as disreputable. Mahmood Mamdani once talked about this in a lecture at the University of Cape Town that considered the role of the university and scholar – academic freedom true to its classic vision – as a commitment towards the call for justice. Working as a historian and activist, how have you brought the two together, especially when, as you have said before in a lecture at Exeter, historical research works as an analysis of present reality? Is politics everything?

Ilan Pappe (IP): Yes, for me it’s been a long journey, finding the golden mean between scholarship and activism. Probably one of the biggest hurdles was the criticism that my work would be too political, too politicised… implying that it is of a lesser quality.  It takes a while to be bold enough, and say that this is almost a ridiculous idea, that one can write an objective history of a place where a conflict rages on today. In fact, in almost every case, one would find it quite presumptuous to think that the historian can provide a neutral narrative.

The only way that you can provide a neutral narrative, and this is also true for social sciences, not only for analysing the past but also analysing the present – the only way to do it is to be extremely boring, to be so careful, to be so literal, that you don’t say anything of significance.

The moment that you want to say something of significance, you enter into the realm of moral judgement, which is part of the kit of politics. The moment you have a position, the research is subjective, not objective.

It is tough, for most people, that this is the case, because the whole production of knowledge in the west and in western universities, is based on the premise that it will be empirical, neutral, and unbiased. So you really are a heretic if you say these things and they don’t like it! But if you do it in inductive ways as I did, if you don’t come to these questions because you sit at home and you ponder these questions. But if you do it from your own active writing of history for instance, on such charged topics like Palestine, you are absolutely convinced that it is impossible to separate political views and moral judgements from the story that is written.

CQ: Is there a possibility for political organising in academia, political organising conceived as a process based on attainable and quantifiable goals? Or is this incompatible with the insularity of academic work and academic discourses? Could we set ourselves the task of transforming academic research? Of course, this must depend too on the types of institution we are in….

IP: To politicise the system in that way would be a far more difficult challenge. It is hard enough for the system to admit that what it does is as political as it is scholarly. And what you are talking about is really to draw the logical conclusion from that recognition.

I feel the modes of knowledge production in academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences where the work is very individual, is not conducive to working within those organisations or outfits which are in their essence political. Politics is not the action of the individual, it is the ability to work collectively. In that respect, it would be very difficult to change the mode of working for academia… it would require us to admit that the very basis of the academic production of knowledge is wrong.

I have taken part in some debates that have been going on for the past ten, fifteen years, about how to redesign the university by changing the relationship between the teacher and the student, by democratising the dissemination of knowledge, by allowing more emotional, more holistic scientific approaches to research and so on. So maybe within this bigger transformation, we could do politics.

And thinking about Palestine, in respect to the movement for academic boycott for instance – this is a movement for change, and a movement for change is the work of the collective, it is academics collectively working for a political target within academia, despite their different qualifications and research interests. So the American Historical Association debates whether to impose the academic boycott on Israeli academics, and the American Anthropological Society has a similar discussion. That’s an example of organisations emulating modes of political activity within academia. Maybe it is a kind of precursor of something different that can be out there.

CQ: I’ve been observing collective activist production of oral history, including of student movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, that are in the process of gathering and drawing together a comprehensive written (book) form through their activism. This too is using a collaborative mode of academic production.

IP: The two biggest challenges in the modern academic production of knowledge are the following: one is the fact that it totally inhibits any use of the imagination, emotion, and many parts of our body and our being in limiting research to only a part of our abilities as human beings. The result is much academic work that is stale and irrelevant to society. So one challenge is to make it more holistic.

The second challenge is the one you are talking about, the fact that once you open it up, it becomes a field of struggle – legitimate struggles similar to political struggles. The networks and modes that you are talking about, you’re right, would actually be activism within academia. One can also add this comment: academia is already a very political space to begin with. We call this, ‘academic politics’, by which we mean people are using power as their main motivation and the main reason for climbing the ladder, to positions of strength within the system. They don’t gain these posts because they are better academics: they’re just good politicians. So this is also part of this argument that you cannot separate what you know about politics and what you know about academic production.

CQ: What then are your thoughts on embedding modes of communal responsibility/civic engagement/forms of political organising within the curriculum itself? Perhaps you can speak more specifically to the Palestine studies curriculum you devised at Exeter?

IP: Let’s not be confined to one example. I can give you three examples and only the last one will be on Palestine. If you think about medicine, and the neoliberal system that does not allow for preventive medicine to develop but only wants to develop medicine that comes after diagnosing illnesses, you would expect that within the academic system, not everyone is in the hands of pharmaceutical giants. There would have to be an organised movement of change from within the medical field itself, demanding different kinds of production for medicine, or preventative methods.

The second one is everything to do with sustainability and ecology, where the curriculum should reflect a call for struggle for the land we live on, but is instead supposedly a neutral survey of the climate change debate. In the case of Palestine studies, for me Exeter was a unique experience. The moment I created the Centre for Palestine Studies that focuses on postgraduate studies, I didn’t have to do much because the majority of the people who were most interested in pursuing an academic career in which Palestine is the main interest, although not all, were already activists as well. There was little I could provide for them in terms of a curriculum that enhanced their activism.

Nevertheless, to enhance activism through the curriculum you focus for instance on the question: what do you gain as an activist from being in this framework? Did you really need this framework? Was it not actually enough to be an activist? Why do you need a degree and why do you need to learn the research methods and why do you need to be engaged in the theoretical questions and so on?

Engagement of this type that connects with the big question of trying to democratise the production of knowledge, involves students becoming participants in the making of the curriculum. The curriculum isn’t just a dead letter, it is a living thing that is produced by the joint understanding that if it’s not relevant to our activism, it is irrelevant altogether. The system at its best can do what it does for me, by allowing me a small space, if it thinks there will be no spillover to other, more ‘prestigious’, disciplines such as law, medicine, technology, and economy. I think in the humanities and social sciences you can create your own space: but they would be very worried if you attempted to sell this as an example to other disciplines.

CQ: I want to ask more specifically about working academically on the topics of settler colonialism and indigenous rights. I’m Australian, so this raises different indigenous rights issues, that nevertheless have things in common with the Palestinian case. Given that the term ‘decolonisation’ is still, I believe in a public sense, often misunderstood, and these days also co-opted as a trend by liberal ‘progressive’ cultural institutions – what do you think is happening with the use of the term in the various contexts that it is being used in? Secondly, if the academic’s responsibility, working within this space, is to support the decolonising project, how can academics strategically apply pressure on their institutions not only to provide resources, but also to build public support. What are the difficulties and perhaps successes you have had in this area?

IL: Let me start with the term itself, and I think you’re right that the term can be misunderstood or manipulated because there is a false sense that decolonisation is a painless process by which you take a reality which has in it elements of inequality, oppression, discrimination, and the next day you wake up and all these negative aspects disappear. But to use the term properly comes with a sense of accountability, it comes with redistribution of natural resources, it comes with the rectification of past evils, and this is incredibly difficult for those who enjoy the settler colonialist vantage-point. It is easier to go to the colonised and say, in the process we’ll upgrade you to be a non-colonised situation. It is far more difficult to convince the settler to be degraded to the level where most of their privileges are being taken from them.

So there is this element in it, that academics who use and abuse the term, tend to ignore. As for the question of the institutions, I can give you one example. It is typical of the imbalance between indigenous movements and settler colonialist projects. Settler colonialist projects have very ably used the premises of western academic production of knowledge based on empiricism, objectivity, and unbiased research. And in the case of historical narratives, you need documentation, because documentation is the ultimate proof that what you say is correct.

Now, archives only exist in the hands of the settlers: indigenous people don’t have archives, they have oral history, which was for many years degraded as a lesser primary source. Despite some achievements in recent years in promoting oral history as a legitimate way of reconstructing what happened in the past, it’s still suspect in comparison to rich documentary.

In Exeter, I saw groups of Palestinian academics and people interested in Palestine, using oral history as cultural resistance – cultural resistance in the Gramscian sense which is the grand rehearsal for the big political resistance. You do cultural resistance when you are not allowed to do political resistance. So you tell the story without the archives and the documents, you expose the crimes without the archives if you don’t have them. You demand from the institution, first the local one, then the overall infrastructure to which we all belong, that it legitimises this kind of work, to allow this work to be used as cultural resistance, and not just as a step for an academic career.

And again, it comes down to the other questions we have talked about. You need to do it collectively, you can’t do it individually. So I think, it would be right to say that the very introduction of Indigenous Studies and the very close connection of Indigenous Studies with indigenous political movements around the world, is one of the indications that what you’re talking about is maybe unfolding on the ground, without anybody declaring it properly.

There is also this kind of politicisation that you talk about, through the curriculum, through the nature of the work that you are doing. I think the next test is the MA and PhD dissertations, because they are not allowed, as yet, to be about anything. At best people are told, after your PhD you could politicise your research. I think this would be the biggest battle because it would be very difficult for the system to evaluate quality beyond the conventional ways of evaluating quality.

But I think that maybe what you’re talking about, politicisation, can bring about a parallel process by which you are evaluated, which is more similar to a political reality than what we call an academic reality. I can see it happening. Some of my PhD students already know that they’re doing this PhD not for an academic career – they are already seeing this as a training in the work together for an activist career. So let us put it this way: there has to be a self-perception of a curriculum – essays, dissertations, the classroom, as tools in the resistance movement – that fits the twenty-first century. And maybe it’s more conducive to do it in this twenty-first century, because we have found more and more non-violent ways of pushing forth agendas than in the 50s and the 60s. Then, many of us who were part of the liberation movements believed that only an armed struggle could work.

Now there are other modes of resistance that emphasise culture, the importance of spreading knowledge, and see these as non-violent means of achieving our goals. Suddenly the work in academia is again is being noticed. So maybe this is also a part of something that people haven’t grasped fully, and that, so to speak, Palestine is just a microcosm of it all. When people say why are you only boycotting Israel, why don’t you boycott American academics, or Australian academics? I think the answer is that people understand very well that you cannot separate activism from scholarship. Maybe what you noticed is very original and very good, as this also means that you embrace politics inside academia, in terms of methods, structure, and values. And maybe this was easier to do in the case of Palestine, which was already very politicised. The remaining question is whether it is limited to that case study, or if it is happening anywhere else, or if it can move into other areas.

CQ: You speak of non-violent resistance and Palestine as a microcosm of it all, and indeed this also relates to the criminalisation of dissent in academic spaces. This is certainly something you’ve experienced personally, but students are also experiencing this. For instance at UC Irvine, students known as Irvine 11  were subjected to a year-long criminal investigation, and a jury trial resulting in a guilty verdict, for protesting at an IDF presence at a campus event.

IL: It’s the monopoly of power, and you know, the monopoly of power can be at the hands of the state, a criminal cartel, or a university management. Genuine democratisation means decreasing the monopoly of power which is also the monopoly of violence at the hands of this management.

It’s interesting because the other day, a colleague of mine from the University of Haifa was sacked because he was teaching the history of subversive and revolutionary movements. He had apparently conducted the class not from a historical point of view, but rather as an active laboratory of resistance. He was so successful that he was kicked out! The management recognised his curriculum was dangerous despite it being very small and limited.

CQ: How can academia reinvigorate the knowledge commons to enable a more integrated and intersectional activism, not just amongst the student body but also the general public? Is there something to be explored in the aesthetic and political potential of both academic and activist uses of narrativisation?

IP: There are two possible scenarios as to how this can develop. First, we can already see that public universities are being told by their governments that the humanities and social sciences are not very important. They really want to separate them as a form of ‘leisure teaching’ compared to ‘functional teaching’ (STEM). And this kind of shock to the system may allow the outcast disciplines to be more activist because they will fight for their own life. This might trigger a change in the way they understand the role of activism in their search for new relevance in society. Many of us are already thinking that this will force us to create new ideas about the production of knowledge in academia.

The other possible scenario is in regards to the local and global crises that have been piling on one after another, like the financial crisis of 2008, the ecological disasters, the ‘war on terror’ – call it what you will. It is very clear that academia played no role in either alerting people about these crises, nor did it play a very constructive role in responding to these crises. Now that academia has proved itself not to have anything to do with pre-empting these immense challenges for society, it seems less and less relevant to most people. In many ways, civil society – the NGOs – seem far more knowledgeable, far more reliable as associates in dealing with the daily hardships and daily challenges of large-scale change.

So academia is really in a crisis. Universities have become institutions ruled by technocrats, which should have created a kind of rebellion from academics, because everything they believe in is run by technocrats – promotion, funding and so on. But it seems that instead they are becoming domiciled, and deactivated in many different ways.

Now, when it comes to narrativisation as you call it. Probably what emerges from our conversation is that this cannot be left up to the older hegemonic groups within the production of knowledge. It is not them who will be able to carry the banner of change in this respect, but rather those who represent minority groups, marginalised groups, oppressed groups, who can deal with criminalisation much better than those in the comfort zone – because they were never in the comfort zone anyway. This certainly deserves more thinking.

To finish this line of thought, I can only say to you I still find the idea of ‘academic courage’ an oxymoron. It doesn’t work. Most academics are very timid, and are easily intimidated. It’s not the first place where you look for courageous people who would work together to make change possible.

On the other hand, there are so many objective features, so to speak, of this system that should have prompted such an outcry, that you would have expected it to be there. But it isn’t. These are the people who should come up with ideas. These are the people who should work together towards changing the system, and yet, they seem to be a poor imitation of the systems that feed them and intimidate them.

But maybe if, academia were more populated by people who are already struggling as minorities and so on… we’ll see. There was a similar hope about feminism, the great hope that the growing number of women – and there is a growing number of women not just in academia, but also in senior academic positions – would create fundamental change in the way we do knowledge, in the way we produce knowledge. Yet the only thing we witness so far is that they’ve replaced men in positions of power but maintained the same system. So that didn’t work. But we’ll see.

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