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Davis, California

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Form, Content, and Palestine

Prof. Joshua Clover shares his thoughts.


Joshua Clover is a professor of English and Comparative Literature.


It is important to start with facts. Shares in a company called Leidos Holdings Incorporated hovered around $90 for much of last year. On October 6th, for example, they stood at $90.98. By Feb 21 of this year they had climbed to $124.49, a leap of about 37%. We’ll come back to that. 


A recent announcement for a campus initiative offering more than half a million bucks toward “Addressing Bias and Bigotry” begins, “The University of California is dedicated to combating antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bias, bigotry and discrimination.” The pairing of antisemitism and Islamophobia (however imperfect the parallel, which features multiple disparities) has become a formula of the moment at colleges and universities across the country. Here in the UCs, one can hardly go a day without seeing it in an official expression of concern, a Chancellor’s press release about campus climate, a statement from a circumspect colleague. We saw it last week in the title of a campus event pointedly featuring two speakers — each clearly invited to address one of the paired injuries. 


It is not difficult to decipher how this phrase became a shibboleth. In mentioning both forms of bigotry, it performs concern for vulnerable parties on both sides. Such studied even-handedness is a core liberal virtue. More immediately, the formula avoids the suggestion that one group is receiving more protection than the other, which might run the University afoul not just of angry partisans but of Title VI, which obliges the university to protect all vulnerable groups that it identifies. 


“Antisemitism and Islamophobia” thus signals the formal equality that is the hallmark of a rights-based framework, wherein all parties are promised identical protection from a supposedly identical harm. This protection is similar to — and entangled with — the right to free speech, promised to all as a formal matter regardless of that speech’s content. Free speech has an exalted role around here; the Free Speech Café at the center of the Berkeley campus is just one example of its mythic status. The UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, which supports UC scholars doing relevant research, opens its funding call, “Born at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement changed the way Americans viewed the First Amendment. Today,” it continues, pointing us toward the flashpoints of the present, which is to say, antisemitism and Islamophobia, “a renewed wave of activism, controversy and backlash on college campuses is once again forcing institutions of higher education to grapple with questions of open expression and civic engagement.” In keeping with the conventions of formal equality, this paean to the FSM never mentions its content, its historical context. 


But that matters. It matters because it is a story of real asymmetries of force and violence so self-evident that the pretense of equality seems a cruel joke (and is, as in the renowned and rueful quip, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”). As many readers will know, the Free Speech Movement was not born from repression of “speech” in the abstract. Some students had spent the summer of 1964 taking part in Freedom Rides, a significant aspect in the Civil Rights Movement organized by the Congress of Racial Equality. That fall they and their friends set up tables on campus soliciting support for CORE. When the administration moved to suppress this via increasingly violent means, they were not suppressing “speech,” they were suppressing racial justice organizing. A plaque at the Free Speech Café commemorates Mario Savio, “whose passion, moral clarity, and democratic style of leadership inspired thousands of fellow Berkeley students.” They liked his style. No mention of, you know, the actual politics. This is what falls out of the story when it becomes one of formal equality, abstract rights. One might notice a bitter irony here. Just as racial justice politics were suppressed by the University in 1964, they must be suppressed again in the University’s official retelling. Taste the freedom. 


This bitter irony is with us today. The formal equality that invokes “antisemitism and Islamophobia” hides a content of imbalance, asymmetry, and bias. It is decisive. Here I do not mean the genocide currently being conducted by the Zionist entity in Gaza (that’s not me, that’s the International Court of Justice, which found the definition plausible even before the Flour Massacre) but something more local. 


We can certainly agree, I hope, that there is a long history of virulent antisemitism and that anyone who feels its weight might feel themselves threatened; this would be absurd to deny (among other things, you can’t tell people what they feel). I have experienced this myself. But it would be even more absurd to suppose that, here in the colleges and universities of the United States, the actual content of “antisemitism and Islamophobia” allows for any claim of equivalence. Such a position is ethically and politically vacuous. The actual content is wildly incommensurate, and the more we attend to actual repression and actual violence, the more asymmetrical the content becomes. 


Let us ask after concrete actions. How many Zionist student groups have been banned by universities? Is there any plausible equivalence between the many faculty disciplined, sanctioned, chased from their jobs for antizionism and those few who have suffered the same for their support of genocide or for their abuse of pro-Palestinian students? Who is the Palestinian Shai Davidai, allowed by administrators to harass and target students with frenzied persistence across months and seasons? Who, reaching back to last decade, is the Zionist Steven Salaita, fired and then blacklisted from American universities for their views? Who is the administrator forced to resign because they have not cracked down hard enough on antizionist students? Where is the pro-Palestinian alum who has paid for doxxing trucks to drive back and forth at the university entrance displaying names and pictures of students they have targeted? What are the names of the Zionist students shot while walking through town as were Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad? 


None; no; no one; no one; no one; nowhere; and, I cannot name them as they are not to be found.


None of this is to suppose some conspiracy nor point to shadowy figures pulling strings. It is to reckon with actuality. It is to remember that our lives are not abstract and formal, though some might like them to be. Our lives are concrete, real, impossibly terrible and beautiful. We are the content of history, or part of it. We are obligated to describe this history adequately, to grasp its actuality with both hands. In our circumstance, formal equality does not guarantee equal treatment but helps preserve a shocking imbalance of force and violence; in pretending to an equivalence, it perpetuates an obscenity. 


So let us not appeal to abstractions. Let us end with a brief series of facts. Leidos Holdings is a defense contractor. They are headquartered in Reston, Virginia but have a division called “Leidos Israel”; they sell a great deal of military equipment and technology to the Zionist entity. Their own website details their work with the Ministry of Defense, Israel Aerospace Industries, TSG IT Advanced Systems, and the IDF. And they don’t just sell war tech, they profit from operating it as well. “As Leidos continues to manage this technology,” the website continues, “the team will have a front row seat from their headquarters in Be’er Sheva, capital of the Negev, as Israel makes the desert bloom.” It is always uncanny to encounter the phrase “make the desert bloom” in midst of a bombing campaign widely recognized as a war crime. 


More facts. Gary May, the Chancellor of UC Davis, sits on the board of Leidos, for which in 2022, e.g., he was paid $280,000 in cash and stocks. But stock values are volatile. As Reuters reported late last October, “U.S. defense contractor Leidos Holdings on Tuesday raised its full-year profit and revenue forecasts on the back of strong weapons demand amid rising geopolitical tensions.” I had to read that sentence twice to feel its weight.


On February 21, 2024, just three weeks ago,  two weeks previous to my writing this, Chancellor May sold 2745 Leidos shares, netting $341,725. A third of a ticket is a lot of money where I come from, even if it represents less than half of his Leidos stock sales from the last year. But the figure I am most interested in is $91,984.05. That is the increase in the value of those shares since October 6th. Again, these are simple, mathematical facts. In a single transaction, Gary May pocketed an additional 92 grand — considerably more than the median California household income for an entire year. He did so by arbitraging Leidos’ expanded weapons sales as they helped provision the annihilation of Gaza. We have a term for this. It is war profiteer. 


So this is the situation. We have a Chancellor overseeing discipline of students, staff, and faculty for stances they have taken on the genocide in Gaza while he profits from that genocide. It is in this moment that the fiction of formal equality collapses entirely. We are called to name that genocide, and the University’s role in its, just as we are called to name the racial justice work from which arose the Free Speech Movement, just as we are called to name the inequality, the asymmetry, the injustice that is the content of the present, just as the living are called to name the dead and to commit themselves, ourselves, again and again to liberation. 


This essay is indebted to Aaron Bushnell and an unnamed woman in Atlanta, whose courage I lack. 


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