Druhá : směna

We will not free Palestine, Palestine will free us! Interview with Tithi Bhattacharya.

:Eliška Koldová

:Maja Vusilović

Illustration: Nerian Keywan
Ilustration: Nerian Keywan

What does censorship of pro-Palestinian voices look like in academia? Why do activists seeking Palestinian liberation need to join forces with trade unions? How can we build a strong pro-Palestinian movement? These are just some of the questions feminist legend Tithi Bhattacharya answered in this interview.

All imperialist projects manifest in their own way, take place in different contexts, places and times. However, these projects all coincide in many ways. Apart from employing violence, capitalist logic of expansion and destruction of nature, they are all united in their obsession with controlling the colonized population. The imperialist powers dictate which human beings are worthy of the right to reproduce themselves and which ones, on the contrary, deserve to become extinct. Biopolitics, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault once called this phenomenon, is always gendered, because the task of caring for and doing the work that allows humanity to survive in society is primarily carried out by women and queer people. There is no difference in the case of Palestine where the Israeli settler colonialist project seeks to systematically eradicate its indigenous Palestinian population.

Here in Druhá : směna we are trying to demonstrate how there are no “feminist” and “non-feminist” issues, but rather that every issue is essentially feminist. This is why the work of Tithi Bhattacharya has always been important to us. Tithi Battacharya is a thinker, professor of South Asian Studies at Purdue University, and co-author of Feminism for the 99 Percent: a Manifesto (2019). Tithi’s work explores the theory of social reproduction, which is central to understanding the feminist aspects of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. She is also a long-time pro-Palestinian activist and a prominent figure in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. We interviewed Tithi at the time of the December temporary ceasefire, which Israel has violated several times. We were struck by her kindness combined with the utterly “no-bullshit” attitude she holds while speaking about Palestine and the ongoing genocide.

You have been active in various social justice movements throughout your whole life. How and when did you become a pro-Palestinian activist?

First of all, Maja and Eliška, I just want to say that it is a very important and also a very difficult time for your work at the moment. Zionism is forcing us to retreat from our positions. It is great that you are doing this work in a Zionist country like yours. It lifts my heart and soul.

So how did I get involved in the pro-Palestinian struggle? I come from India and my parents and grandparents are refugees from the British partition of India in 1947. My father’s family came to India from what was then East Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh. In the 1940s they lived in tenement houses in Kolkata, with ten members of the extended family living in two rooms. They lived in such conditions precisely because of British colonialism. So you have to realize how close my family’s experience is to the British partition of Palestine and the role of the British in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Both of these events happened right next to each other.

I grew up in the 1980s, a time when almost all decolonial struggles managed to establish free states, whether in Asia or Africa. The European powers, in particular France and Britain, have been thrown out of their colonies. The exception was Palestine, which never got its freedom. So I grew up knowing that Palestine is part of the history of the British Empire, just as my country and my family are part of it. Solidarity with the Palestinian people therefore goes back two generations for me. I remember going with my parents to marches in support of the first Intifada when I was fifteen. My daughter is now exactly fifteen years old and she attends marches against the genocide that is ongoing in Gaza with me too. In a way, it’s wonderful that my daughter is the fourth generation standing up for Palestine. But at the same time, it is absolutely heartbreaking and scandalous that since 1917, since the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian people have been fighting for their freedom and for their own land, and that the various colonial powers, whether British, French and then Israeli, have been refusing their indigeneity and have been suppressing their freedom by violent means.

We can see a continuity of colonial oppression, even to these days, but as you showed in the example of your daughter, we can also see a continuity of activist pushback. Speaking of that, you are an established feminist academic who’s been active first in Britain and now in the US. Throughout your academic career, you’ve always been vocal about various issues, not only Palestine. How does being a very vocal leftist and pro-Palestine academic in this environment affect your work?

Since October 7th, it has been horrific. I get the sense of an effort on the part of the elite, and by that I mean global elite, to retrace the mechanisms of 9/11 again and whip up Islamophobia as well as anti-Semitism in order to squash the pro-Palestinian movements. There has been an escalation both in scale and spread of their efforts. However, this is not to say that things were pleasant before October 7th. My whole family is on a website called C@nary Mi$sion that was very influential ten years ago and is getting a second life now. The website started as an anonymous platform and was basically the first overtly public doxxing site for Palestine activists. All our names, our faces, including footage from various public speeches we’ve given are still present on this page. It’s basically saying we are all anti-Semites and none of the things we claim about Israel are true. My daughter appeared on this website when she was about six or seven years old and we had to call her school and review some security measures so that no one would be allowed to put her up and so on. This has been part and parcel of the harassment that I have encountered in my personal life.

Another prominent example that I have to state is a story of my dear friend and colleague Steven Salaita, a Palestinian who was a scholar in native studies in the US. Steven is an extremely well published academic with several single authored monographs to his name. He was offered a job at the University of Illinois, Champagne, Urbana, to which he said yes. He sold his house, resigned from his previous fully tenured job, and was preparing to move when the university rescinded his offer on the basis of Zionist pressure on the board of trustees at the university. Because of the so-called controversy surrounding his appointment, no other university would hire him. Every time he applied for a job, Zionists would immediately link up with each other and start pressuring the board of trustees not to hire this “noted anti-Semite.” As a result, Steven was hounded out of the academy and was driving a school bus as a profession for several years. I don’t think there is any shame in driving a school bus. It is a very vital job and obviously much better than for example being a stockbroker. The thing is, he was not allowed to do something that he really loved, which is teaching his students and doing scholarship. The story has a happy ending because Steven, finally, after almost a decade, got hired at the American University in Cairo. It’s still not a job in the United States, but he’s back in the classroom working with students.

However, the most vulnerable group are students. After young Arabs active in Students for Justice in Palestine (later in text SJP, Ed.) appeared on the aforementioned website C@nary Mi$sion, their prospective employers started telling them they were canceling interviews. Zionists would also call admission departments in various universities, point to the applicant profiles on the C@nary Mi$sion and say: “Well, how do you feel about admitting these known anti-Semites to your institution?” This kind of harassment and constant slow-burning violence actually managed to have some effect on SJPs and push back the movement. Moreover, in America, there are no student unions like the National Union of Students in Britain. This kind of pressure has therefore done real criminal damage to the students’ mental health, their careers and so on. I highly recommend you to go to the website of the fantastic US organization Palestine legal, where you will see numerous accounts of how students have been harassed through the years for standing up for Palestine. But that’s all pre-October seventh.

Post-october seventh, the attacks are so relentless and so numerous that I just want to signpost a few crucial ones. The first is the murder of a six-year-old child in Illinois and the serious injury of his mother. Their landlord simply burst into their home and shot at them, just because they were Palestinians. This six-year-old child was murdered around the same time that Israel has already murdered 12,000 children in Gaza. And the second attack I want to mention is the case of three Palestinian undergraduate students from Ramallah, who were attacked on the weekend of Thanksgiving. One of them was at Harvard, one at Brown, and the third at Trinity College. They were all in Burlington, Vermont, which is supposed to be a very liberal state, their senator being Bernie Sanders. They were wearing keffiyehs and were speaking Arabic, when this white man just shot at them. One of these young men will probably never walk again.

What is happening in the United States is nothing compared to what the Palestinians in Palestine are facing, but we should see this repression and censoring as part of the same fabric of global violence. I think in Palestine, the violence is directed to actually annihilate the people of Palestine. Outside of Palestine, the aim is to sow fear and to squash the dissidents. These two are part of the same puzzle, but they have two different purposes. Outside of Palestine, for instance, where you are or where I am, we are looking at a new generation of young people who are no longer buying the lies that Israel, US and the EU are manufacturing for them. This is a major spanner in the Hasbara of Israel. They cannot push their propaganda as effectively as they were able to do even ten years ago. This global uprising for Palestine is making them nervous, it is making them scared, and that’s why they’re escalating and ratcheting up the repression in the non-Palestinian parts of the world. They want to squash the solidarity, which is why our job is to escalate the solidarity in order to send a clear message that their repression is not working.

I work with the framework called social reproduction, which means the ability of people to reproduce their living conditions. Israel aims to completely destroy the possibility of Palestinians to reproduce socially. How? First and foremost, that concerns birth control. If the births of Palestininas exceed a certain limit, something must be done about it by Israel who refers to this extermination as mowing the lawn, meaning bombing Gaza.

As you just described, we have observed brutal silencing of pro-Palestinian voices for a really long time and not only in the academia. What is your stance on the academic boycott of Israel? Do you think this movement has been successful, at least in some ways?

I’m a signatory to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (later in text BDS, Ed.) I think the BDS is most successful when we have a mass movement on the ground. When there is no such mass movement, BDS efforts are also patchy. But what I want to draw your attention to is the fact that it was the BDS movement, which pushed the issue of Palestine into university campuses, roughly ten or twelve years ago. That’s where the movement has been the most active and the most influential. What we need in the United States right now, and that goes for the EU or in Britain alike, is for the BDS movement to penetrate the labor movement. Unions, working class organizations taking up BDS should be the next step for the movement. One of the things that my friend, comrade and absolutely brilliant Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadah, is working on are ways we could push BDS into trade unions and make trade unions to boycott Israel. In November, we saw spontaneous BDS actions where people have blocked the loading of ships in the United States and the Postal Workers Union has come out in support of a ceasefire. The change is coming and I think we need to ratchet up the BDS movement again if/when this current crisis and genocide stops.

On your social media you’ve been writing that the working class in the United States is beginning to change its perception of Palestinian reality, which is quite different from what Israeli propaganda tells the American public. Why do you feel confident that the perception is shifting?

I live in a very conservative state that has consistently voted Republican for decades, even though my town is more liberal as it’s a university center. But even here, everybody I have spoken with is against the war, for two reasons. One, nobody likes to see children and babies murdered indiscriminately by raining bombs from the sky. Second, the US is a declining empire, and the living conditions of working-class Americans have been falling since 2008, if not before. Year 2008 was a wake-up call that the financial crisis and the meltdown of Wall Street showed the fault lines of capitalism in this country. The generation of people that were children in 2008 are now in their 20s and 30s. They are facing a world of very poor job opportunities and almost no access to proper health care. If they are young parents, then housing prices are beyond their can, as well as childcare services. If you are black and working-class, then let’s add multiple layers of hardship to that, as well as open and active racism against you. In those conditions, what right-minded individual would agree to send $14 billion of American taxpayer’s money to Israel to bomb children, and almost no money for health care or for environmental guards? These people may not yet be anti-capitalists, they may not yet be great feminists, but no right-minded person would support all American money going to bombing people who are essentially living in prison, and especially to bombing children. And just to say, Biden’s rating is in the severe decline and there is a very, very real chance, because of the current events, he won’t be re-elected.

We tend to look at the Palestinian struggle in very masculinist terms, also among leftists. Why is Palestine a feminist question in your opinion?

The project of Israeli Zionism identifies the Palestinians as a demographic problem. Starting from the first Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion who said that the population of the new Israel can never have more than 20 % Palestinians. In other words, what is going to happen to the 80 % of Palestinians? Well, they’re either going to displace them or they’re going to make sure that Palestininas don’t exist in whatever form. Zionist project in Israel basically aims at having more Jewish population and less Palestinian population. It’s a biopolitical project which means it’s a purely gendered issue.

I work with the framework called social reproduction, which means the ability of people to reproduce their living conditions. Israel aims to completely destroy the possibility of Palestinians to reproduce socially. How? First and foremost, that concerns birth control. If the births of Palestininas exceed a certain limit, something must be done about it by Israel who refers to this extermination as mowing the lawn, meaning bombing Gaza.

Another tool of limiting the reproduction of the Palestinian living conditions is the attack on institutions which I call life making institutions. We all need certain institutions in order to reproduce ourselves and to sustain our lives. These are schools, hospitals, sources of clean water, parks, playgrounds, etc. If you look at the institutions that Israel targets and destroys in every campaign it has launched so far against the Palestinians in Gaza, and West Bank, you’ll see it is always hospitals, school buildings or sources of clean water that are being targeted. There is no clean water in Gaza. As you well know, all over the world, the task of social reproduction is still strongly gendered and performed by women, gender-queer, and trans people. That makes Palestine a very crucial feminist issue.

What is also vital in a process of human social reproduction is their culture and history, which in case of Palestine Israel targets all the time. Their effort is not just to eliminate people, but also their histories and cultural artifacts. For instance, you can hear everywhere that Hummus is an Israeli food. Like, really? It’s been a Palestinian food for centuries! That is why I think Palestinian activists feel very proud to wear keffiyehs, to wear thobes, to wear traditional Palestinian clothing. These are not just symbols of their struggle. These are also symbols of the rootedness of these people in the land and the proof of their centuries long indigeneity.

Settler colonialists are only willing to tolerate Palestinians if they are dead. The ideal Palestinian is a dead Palestinian. Right now, everything revolves around Hamas. Israel says its war is not directed against Palestine, but against Hamas. This is an utter lie, because if their war was against Hamas, what on earth is happening in the West Bank as we speak? There is no Hamas there.

When talking about Palestine as a feminist issue in the Czech Republic, we’ve been accused of throwing Israeli women under the bus. We’ve been confronted with narratives based on the racist and orientalist stereotypes saying Palestine apparently being an anti-women society. We also see this trend of Israel not only being a pinkwashing country, but also, as you put it very well in the last open letter that you co-authored, that this country is co-opting the feminist discourse. Why do you think Israel’s so successful at appropriating feminist language in order to cover up its military atrocities?

Racist tropes like white savior and the need of freeing brown women from brown men are not new. In the 19th century, for example, France proclaimed that it was liberating Algerian women while committing violence in every Algerian village. The same narrative that we heard when the United States bombed Afghanistan and supposedly aimed at liberating Afghan women from the Taliban. When I was one of the organizers of the feminist strike in 2017, a Zionist woman wrote an open letter against us to The New York Times, criticizing us for not providing any room for Zionism.We responded: Yes, we will not provide any space for Zionism. Because feminism is not just about women’s liberation, but about the liberation of all humanity. Till everyone is free, no one is free.

I think we have to also talk about the casual ways in which sexual violence is used in Israeli and Zionist rhetoric. For instance, few years ago, Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli military intelligence officer, said that raping the wives and mothers of Palestinian fighters would bring the fear of God into Hamas and this is therefore a strategy Israel should consider. Some prominent Israeli public figures claim that Palestinian children are little snakes and should be exterminated as soon as they are born. We also know that in Israel, Ethiopian Israeli women, mostly Jewish, were subjected to sterilization and mandatory contraceptive injections. We also know that Palestinian women suffer a much higher rate of misscarriage due to the lack of basic resources, such as water or medical supplies, which Israel is blocking.

Right now there are thousands of pregnant women in Gaza who are waiting to give birth without any adequate medical facilities. Just this morning, we found out that Israeli defense forces (IDF) soldiers came to one of the hospitals with newborn babies in incubators and told the doctors that they all had to leave. The doctors replied that they were not allowed to move the babies who were in the incubators because they were newly born and would die. The IDF soldiers promised that they would take care of them in cooperation with the Red Cross and ensure that the children would be okay. And they did. Indeed they did… Palestinians then found the corpses of these infants in incubators. This is all part of Israel’s reproductive policy towards the Palestinians.

The Palestinian issue can be nothing but a feminist issue. It has never been anything else, because Palestinian women have played a key role in the resistance since 1917. This will never be recognized by the Western white elite. Palestinian women don’t need bombing by the West to liberate themselves. They need this bombing to stop because they are capable of fighting for their own freedom.

The Israeli propaganda has been reinforced by the Western media and their biased language. Even if they admit that Israel is nowadays committing war crimes, they would never use the word genocide. Instead they are only highlighting the killings of innocent children and women, as if Palestinian men were only terrorists. The West’s idea of the perfect victim was described quite accurately by the Palestinian poet Mohammed el-Kurd when he was interviewed by Novara Media. He recalled a time when the IDF killed journalist Shirene Abu Aqle and then lied about her murder. In the media reports, it wasn’t enough for the West that Israel killed a Palestinian woman in territory where they had nothing to do in the first place. They also had repeated non stop that she was also a Christian a delightful person who had a pet dog, etc. In what ways is the concept of the ideal victim connected to colonialism?

I absolutely agree that this kind of language is a colonial hangover. But it is also a hangover of very modern racism because it doesn’t need to be a specifically colonial setting for this language to be activated. We hear this all the time when it comes to black people in the United States. Every time a black man is shot by an armed white policeman, even before anything happens, we hear that the black man had a criminal past. We encounter the same narrative in the case of immigrants. We hear that only the deserving immigrants need to come in and all those who are here illegally need to be deported. This is part of a larger problem, which is a relationship of capitalism with the carceral project. This language of race and criminality arises from capitalism’s need to actually carceraly mark out certain groups of people who are conveniently placed in these projects. I think maintaining racial inequalities in the US and maintaining imperialism in Palestine are very much connected.

Settler colonialists are only willing to tolerate Palestinians if they are dead. The ideal Palestinian is a dead Palestinian. Right now, everything revolves around Hamas. Israel says its war is not directed against Palestine, but against Hamas. This is an utter lie, because if their war was against Hamas, what on earth is happening in the West Bank as we speak? There is no Hamas there. If their war is against Hamas, how is it possible that they have made no military gains in Gaza, but killed only innocent civilians? Or just civilians – I do not like to use the word ‘innocent’, because all civilians are innocent. I don’t know what a criminal civilian is. Israel has murdered 12,000 children. And how many Hamas commanders have been killed in this military adventure?

Even if we apply Israel’s words to what is happening at the moment and say that what they’re doing is a military project, we can still see Israel has not managed to do anything with Hamas’ military strength. Instead, they have killed people indiscriminately and displaced those they have not managed to kill. Thousands of people have had to leave their homes. I am so anxious about their return and about whether they will be able to return and what they will return to. Their homes no longer exist. That is what we have to talk about in the next stages of this crisis.

As you said, we really need to build a mass international movement for the liberation of Palestine in order to be successful. Capitalism puts us in really ungrateful positions in which we are forced to compromise our integrity just in order to survive. We see a lot of people here in Czechia not being able to declare their support of Palestine because they are afraid of losing their jobs. It really reminds me of my work in the workers’ union. Every time I’m planning a collective action with the union members I try to motivate them by saying “Your union and your actions have to be visible in order for you to win.” A union that is not visible is not a strong union. The risk of losing our jobs is always going to be there, but the more important question is how much longer are we going to tolerate these horrible conditions we work in? How much censorship can we take? What do you do when you see someone who is afraid of talking about Palestine for the sake of their own existence? How do you talk to these people in order to get them to join the movement?

This is such a crucial question, and thank you for asking it. I think that we, as organizers, need to be able to distinguish between two types of fears. First is the fear of losing our jobs and not being able to provide food for our children. Second fear is the fear of ruining our careers in a very opportunistic way. The first fear comes from the most vulnerable ones in our society. For example, migrants may be afraid to join a union or a movement because they might be deported. The other fear is, for example, the fear of well-known and very influential professors who are unwilling to sign a document in support of Palestine because they don’t want to be associated with a controversy that might affect a grant, their promotion, or anything else. These people are cowards. This is the most important time of our lives, there is active genocide going on. If you can’t speak up from your position of power, then it’s not worth trying to get you into our movement.

How do we win those who are vulnerable to the movement? The solution is twofold. One is collective struggle – the more we gather together, the less they will be able to target us. Another is to band people who are not so vulnerable but are ready to support the struggle, to be the first line of defense to protect the vulnerable. I will give one example. In the USA, we just established an organization committed to support each other in terms of faculty housing. As faculty members, we are at the first line of defense for our vulnerable students and colleagues. When a colleague is in a precarious job situation, be it a staff member like a secretary or a student, it is better for us with more permanent positions to reach out and protect them. We must not put them in the lion’s den. Moreover, such an organization builds the strength of the collective and it allows people to actually come out and say: it doesn’t matter, this is a live or die situation.

The only exception are the Palestinians. Because the Palestinians are the most vulnerable people in the United States right now, as you know from the cases of actual murders and gun violence against them. But the Palestinians are constantly resisting because they have nothing left to lose. This is a second Nakba that is going on, this is a genocide. How much worse can it get? If we are talking about bravery, I learn every day from the Palestinians. If we’re talking about solidarity, I also learn every day from the Palestinians. We will not free Palestine. Palestine will free us.

Our struggle does not end with this article. Join us on Transmission 4 Palestine, an event we co-organised with Amphibian, nūr prague, Prague Youth & Student Collective for Palestine and Ankali & Planeta Za. This Saturday, 13th of January!