Call on NWSA to reaffirm its unwavering commitment to Palestinian liberation and feminism, including BDS – Mondoweiss
The following statement was first crafted in December 2022 by feminist scholars and activists committed to and under the auspices of Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine (F4JP). It is now being released in June 2023 with some revisions following a long, difficult, and still unresolved process trying to make the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) more accountable to F4JP, Palestinians, other Indigenous peoples, and marginalized communities and movements from multiple colonial contexts.
In specific, the statement was spurred by the need to hold the NWSA leadership accountable for crossing the academic picket line in clear violation of the organization’s 2015 resolution committing to solidarity with Palestine and the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Apartheid Israel. Many of us who worked on the statement have long histories of being part of the NWSA, and remain open to participating in its board and future conferences provided that there is a genuine attempt to pause and reflect on Zionist and colonialist practices – such as colonial tourism – that contradict the organization’s feminist solidarity commitments. Rather than be seen as a break-up announcement, this statement is an effort to insist on accountability, transparency and unflinching solidarity from the largest and oldest women’s studies association in North America.
We urge NWSA to take up the Zionist-legitimizing event, which we discuss below, under accountability in particular, and unambiguously define settler colonialism, white supremacy, Zionism, Islamophobia, Orientalism, Brahminical-Supremacy, casteism, and other violences as structural issues that require ongoing education, vigilance, self-reflection, coalition building, cross-sectional conversations and an unwavering commitment to building an ethos of transnational solidarity. We are guided by Audre Lorde’s reminder that ”Survival isn’t some theory operating in a vacuum. It’s a matter of my everyday living and making decisions.” (A Burst of Light 1988, p.60) We are writing here, putting our words into the public realm, because our survival and liberation for ourselves and our communities cannot and must not be brushed aside as a simple mistake, an oversight, a lack of consideration, an endnote, an errata.
This statement, by Feminists for Justice in and for Palestine, National Women’s Studies Association, was first drafted in December 2022, finalized in April 2023, tweaked, and released on June 15, 2023.
To sign your name to the statement below, please fill out this form.
After Crossing the Academic Picket Line, NWSA is Called upon to Reaffirm its Unwavering Commitment to Palestinian Liberation and Feminism, including BDS.
As the 2015 National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) resolution clearly affirmed, solidarity with the transnational movement for Palestinian liberation is a feminist issue. The ongoing Palestinian Nakba–the continuing violent dispossession, displacement and attempted erasure of Palestine’s history and its very existence–demonstrates that Palestinian life is intimately bound up in the violence and death machinery of settler colonialism. The death machinery of Israeli settler colonialism includes (but is not limited to) the siege on Gaza, state and settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and in historic ‘48 Palestine, policing, incarceration, political repression, apartheid, physical and psychological abuse, and movement restrictions—all of which reproduce refugees both in Palestine and across the world, while withholding the Right of Return. Within this settler colonial context, queer and trans* Palestinians are subject to Israel’s violent pinkwashing, Palestinian women experience disproportionate rates of breast cancer mortality and all manner of health issues, due to lack of healthcare access and mobility, hundreds of children and minors are rounded up and incarcerated as administrative detainees without charge every year by the Israeli military, and prisoners are routinely subjected to violations of their rights, including sexual and physical abuse. The struggle for Palestinian liberation has historically been intimately connected to, and intertwined with, the struggles of Black, Indigenous, Kashmiri, queer, trans*, non-binary, disabled, oppressed-caste, working-class, and other colonized and marginalized people all over the world. In the spirit of the Indivisibility of justice, and understanding the joint struggle as intersectional, transnational and multidimensional, we call on the NWSA, one of the largest academic networks of feminists in the United States, to recommit to, and practice, its own self-proclaimed values of solidarity and justice after crossing the academic picket line.
The NWSA has a long history of debate on Palestine, and a more recent history of decisive action, including joining the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel, which now codifies this organization’s commitment to official Palestine solidarity work. Feminists for Justice in and for Palestine (F4JP) is a collective formed in 2014 to initiate the NWSA historic vote in 2015 supporting the BDS call, and highlighting the many ways in which the intersection of gender and sexual justice, and justice in and for Palestine permeate our studies and practice. We write this letter, with alarm and disappointment, to name the ways that the BDS commitment has been violated by the organization’s president, to explain the profundity of this violation, to query the apology letter that was offered on November 9, 2022, and to propose a path forward that will re-center the multiple radical commitments that prompted and sustained the movement for BDS at NWSA.
While we are concerned with the larger cultural and institutional neglect of Palestine as a feminist issue, this statement arises directly in response to the current actions of the president of the NWSA, Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, who attended a tour of historical and religious sites in Palestine, referring to it as Israel, not long before our organization’s 2022 Annual conference. This trip is particularly alarming since Dr. Whitehead assumed the presidency of NWSA being fully aware of the organization’s institutional commitment to Palestinian liberation, including the formal adoption of BDS since 2015. However, some Palestinian feminists noticed Dr. Whitehead’s social media posts and relayed concerns to leading colleagues at NWSA. The latter then impressed upon Dr. Whitehead that her trip crossed NWSA’s own picket line, and only then did Dr. Whitehead issue a public apology that, however, is lacking in full accountability.
In her email, Dr. Whitehead attempts to “sincerely apologize for the painful political message this trip and [her] social media posts have conveyed.” In response, we call on Dr. Whitehead to take meaningful accountability for the harm that she caused, as it is not merely the “political message,” but the trip itself that is a violation of our organization’s commitment to BDS–a violation that Dr. Whitehead relegates to a difference in “perception.” Dr. Whitehead writes: “I understand how many of you may have viewed my trip as a violation of BDS” (emphasis ours). Christian Zionist religious excursions are a clear violation of the boycott of Israeli goods and services, as mandated by the BDS call. This trip brings to light the direct harm caused by the larger institution of Christian Zionism, which is one of the bulwarks of the Israeli Apartheid state. Excursions to Palestine for “religious and familial reasons” (as quoted in Dr. Whitehead’s email apology) not only contribute to the Israeli economy and the Israeli state’s racialized and militarized management of the holy sites of multiple religions, but crucially, also help to legitimize the settler colonial Apartheid Zionist state. Drawing on centuries of Orientalist and Zionist tropes about Palestine and the surrounding countries, such religious trips frame occupied lands as the site of religious fulfilment and joyful spiritual “homecoming” for foreigners, while most of the land’s indigenous people cannot even travel safely through their lands, let alone visit these sites of spiritual and historical significance to them. The trip never should have been taken by the NWSA president, and at least this fact must be acknowledged by Dr. Whitehead and NWSA.
We also want to note that we stand in solidarity with all other colonized and oppressed women, trans* and non-binary people who have critiqued NWSA in the past, and those subjected to eminently unethical research practices by allegedly “feminist” scholars in and of the U.S. We remember the letter issued by Kashmiri, Muslim, and Dalit feminist scholars in 2019 stressing their concerns over inviting Arundhati Roy as a special guest speaker. As the Palestinian Feminist Collective reminds us in a pledge signed by NWSA:
Liberal feminist traditions in the U.S. . . continue to weaponize feminist discourses against Palestinians and other marginalized communities by failing to confront the structural forms of gendered and sexual violence inherent to settler/colonialism, imperialist wars, racial capitalism, and global white supremacy. Liberal and Zionist feminisms rely on Orientalist discourses to silence and undermine the collective aspirations of Palestinian women and their co-strugglers, contributing to intensified political repression that criminalizes free speech on Palestine and Palestinian liberation.
Activists in the field of feminist studies are relentlessly under attack because of our uncompromising anti-Zionist stance and inextricably related commitments to social, economic, political and environmental justice. This breaking of the picket line on the part of the NWSA president creates further vulnerability for Arab and Palestinian students and scholars, precarious faculty, graduate students, and those working in Palestine solidarity struggles. We believe that this myopia exemplifies, and may contribute to, the general lack of transnational anti-imperialist consciousness at NWSA. As members of NWSA, we feel strongly that the organization must create a much-needed space for intersectional, intergenerational, and transnational community-building. It is precisely because of NWSA’s expansive network and reach that we call on the organization to activate accountability and solidarity in support of Palestinian justice. At the same time, many of us struggle with academia’s complicity with/silence over accountability of imperialists/settlers of color (per Haunani Kay Trask’s words), who not only use their racialized bodies and misapplied sense of victimhood to legitimize their own imperialism/settler colonialism against Indigenous peoples, but also collude with Zionists and white supremacists for the legitimization of Israeli, U.S., India, and other colonial states in exchange for honorary white settler status. This practice is rampant in our academy, elevating careerism over justice.
Below we are listing some of the ways that would begin to repair the harm done to the Palestinian liberation struggle by the NWSA. We believe that the NWSA must place resources, time, and political will in a substantive way at minimum to take accountability for this grave breach of the responsibility of leadership. We call on the NWSA to reaffirm its commitment to BDS and offer explicit and institutional support for Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, South West Asian and North African (SWANA) and other marginalized scholars and students fighting on the ground against Zionist attacks by meeting the following demands:
- Commit to applying BDS to Zionism as practiced by our own university administrations and defend, in public statements and open letters, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Kashmiri, SWANA, Indigenous, Black and other scholars and students whose pedagogy and research on Palestine and commitment to BDS are being attacked by university administrations in collusion with Zionists.
- Officially sponsor a 2024 NWSA Delegation to Palestine, in complete coordination with Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine, featuring multi-generational participants, foregrounding junior scholars, as well as senior scholars who have done critical work over decades that led to the BDS resolution.
- Sponsor a major plenary on Palestine at the NWSA annual meeting in 2023 in Baltimore, in coordination with Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine, to feature multi-generational scholars and organic intellectuals, and highlight junior scholars’ work.
- Allocate ample time and resources to the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the 20th anniversary of the Israeli reinvasion of Palestinian areas, the US invasion of, and imperialist war on, Iraq, and the 4th anniversary of the illegal annexation of Kashmir by India and explicit unleashing of its settler-colonial regime therein, to name a few key anniversaries. The theme of the year should be U.S. imperialism, Zionism, and Displacement.
- Sponsor the travel and related expenses of Palestinian feminists, queer and trans* people to participate in the NWSA meeting in 2023 in Baltimore, in coordination with Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine.
- Building from the 2023 plenary, materially support a cohort of members to create a teaching institute to begin in 2024. We ask the NWSA to continuously sponsor regular teaching institutes on the subject of Teaching Palestine/Teaching Gender and Sexual Justice in Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, Kashmiri, and other SWANA communities on the first day of the 2023 NWSA conference in Baltimore as well as each summer.
- Create a transparent process whereby the expertise within the NWSA is utilized when leadership has to act or make statements about issues they are insufficiently knowledgeable about. This process should center those members whose communities are most affected by such statements and/or actions. Palestine is an obvious example here, but not exclusively so, as manifested by the issue of Brahmanism, Brahminical colonialism, and Indian Occupied Kashmir at the 2019 conference in San Francisco.
To read this statement in Arabic, see here.
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