Students for Justice in Palestine is currently holding its first national conference at Columbia University from October 14 to 16. The keynote address — the only part of the conference open to the press — featured academic luminaries Mahmood Mamdani, an professor of government at Columbia, and Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, an anthropologist who has taught at Harvard and Columbia Universities.
Held on Friday, October 14, the evening began with a video message from Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia Professor of Modern Arab Studies. Khalidi, who was unable to attend, wished the students well. Following Khalidi’s message, the night’s two speakers took rather different approaches to their talks.
Professor Kanaaneh’s talk was titled “Culturally Incompatible.” It focused on the Israeli government’s view that Arabs and Jews are culturally mismatched and cannot properly coexist. In one example she cited, a family of Israeli Arab citizens lived in a small village, which the Israelis wanted to bulldoze in order to build a forest. Not only were these individuals not treated as citizens, she argued, but they were seen as trespassers and even enemies in their own country. Arab Israelis are subject to stereotypes — such as “Arab men are violent and misogynistic,” “Arabs are anti-Semitic,” and “Arab women are always oppressed in the home” — that deliberately separate them from the “civilized” Jewish population. Moreover, she said, these images were directly in opposition to the idealistic image Israel has of itself. “These are couched as cultural trades and therefore somehow palatable to a liberal self-image,” Kanaaneh noted.
Kanaaneh cited several examples to support her hypothesis. ““Palestinians are routinely asked for their IDs…in Jewish areas and businesses,” she said. By being treated as enemies rather than as fellow citizens, Israelis put them into the category of the “other” who is outside civilization. “This gate-keeping—a kind of invisible, internal Apartheid wall — is considered necessary because of the Palestinians’ cultural characteristic of hating Jews,” Kanaaneh observed. Some city governments have gone so far as to forbid Jews from leasing or selling property to Arabs and have discouraged Jews from dating interracially, due to Arab men’s supposed propensity to violence. According to Kanaaneh, the town of Kiryat Gat launched a program in schools designed to prevent Jewish girls from becoming involved with Bedouin men. The students even watched a video called Sleeping with the Enemy to reinforce these beliefs. Kanaaneh emphasized that reinforcement of Palestinian cultural stereotypes serves to keep Jews and Palestinians separate.
Professor Mamdani chose to compare Israel to situations in his native Africa. Born in Uganda, Mamdani spoke about Israel in relation to America and colonialism in Africa. With eventual revolutions that toppled foreign governments, “Africa is the name of the continent where settlers were defeated everywhere.” In contrast, “America is the name of the continent where settlers thrived. They won.” When examining American interest in Israel, Mamdani stated, “America thinks of itself as a place which made the New World, left the Old World, made the New World. It made the world which was not contaminated by narrow notions of place.” America also sees itself as having conquered the twin “problems” of race and religion. Similarly, Mamdani claimed that Israel “admires” America for having solved the problem of “dealing” with the native people. “The Zionists think of that particular part of American history as inspirational,” he said. For Americans, then, Israel is a “liberation project.”
Later, he compared Israel to Liberia, where, after the Civil War, Americans sent former slaves “back home” to Africa, and South Africa. Those former slaves thought of themselves as natives, not colonizers, and were taken aback to find natives still living there. In turn, Mamdani observed, Americans seem to think of Israelis as returning natives, while Israelis regard the Palestinians as “squatters” living there illegally—just as the Liberians regarded those living in Liberia. Just as South Africa thought it was “civilizing” Africa by imposing Apartheid, so, too, did Israel and its American backers — supposedly driven by guilt over the Holocaust — regarded itself as a “civilizing mission.” Just as South Africa claimed it was a democracy for whites, so, too, does Israel think of itself as a democracy in the Middle East. “And it’s true that Israel is a democracy for Jews. It’s just isn’t for those who are not Jews,” Mamdani remarked.
He concluded by noting, “Whereas Apartheid South Africa was reluctant to claim that it was a white state, a white democracy, Israel is not. Israel publicly claims it’s a Jewish state and it demands that Palestinians acknowledge it as such.” Mamdani added, “…Israel was not South Africa. In many ways, it was, and is, worse than South Africa.”
New Voices will be covering the SJP conference throughout the weekend – stay tuned for further updates.