Political Theory

The Void Speaks Back: Black Suffering as the Unthought of the American Studies Association’s Academic Boycott of Israel

By Nicholas Brady

The black is off the map, and it is from this void that I encounter the discourse around the recent passing of a resolution by the American Studies Association in support of the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In spite of good intentions it must be said frankly that the ASA resolution arises from an anti-black calculus that must be called out and dealt with. Anti-blackness may seem like a secondary concern, a voided subject to avoid, but for the duration of this piece the shadow of this conversation around Israel will get center stage — the shadow, the void will speak back and it is imperative to listen.

In the debate that has emerged around the resolution, there is a deafening silence, one that screams at me every time I read an article either for or against the resolution. The resolution is the result of ASA voting to, in some measure, meet the call of Palestinian civil society to employ forms “nonviolent punitive means” to get Israel to end its human rights violations against the Palestinian people. The boycott of Israel has been discussed in ASA since at least 2006. From then on there have been deliberative and systematic steps to understand all the relevant issues on the table, including panels and meetings specifically geared towards this subject. After a discussion involving more than 700 members that allowed 44 people to speak at this year’s ASA meeting, the ASA overwhelmingly voted to support this resolution to support the Palestinian BDS movement (to see the entire resolution, click here).

In spite of its general criticism of Israel’s human rights violation, the absence that screams louder than this progressive stance is the utter lack of any mention of Israel’s history of anti-black policies and violent aggression against African immigrants. Considering the context of the resolution, the absence of Israel’s anti-black policies and mob-violence is not peculiar — it was to be expected. And yet what is to be expected should not be accepted, especially from an organization acting in the stated interest of “justice.” Its silence occurs in an especially unethical time. Within the last few months, Israel’s anti-black immigration policies and the recent mob-led riot against African immigrants have exploded into international news (with headlines such as “Violent Anti-African Race Riot Rocks Israel, Black Men and Women Beaten” or  “Israel Passes Law aimed at deterring African Migrants”). The ASA resolution therefore does double damage: it simultaneously ignores the importance of anti-blackness to the Israel’s colonial regime and actually acts to cover it up by moving critical academic attention away from the current anti-black crisis towards the well-defined contours of an Israel-Palestine debate that always circles around anti-semitism versus settler colonialism. What falls out is how anti-blackness exists as its own singular formation of violence that operates in excess of — and simultaneously in concert with — the logic of racism or settler colonialism.

The response to this may be that even if the plight of African immigrants is dire, to bring it up in the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict is at best in poor taste and at worst a vulgar form of opportunism. This response is inadequate for a multitude of reasons. First, there is a growing movement of Palestinian activists (and activists for the Palestinian cause) who recognize the centrality of anti-blackness to understanding the Israeli colonial regime and also desire to move towards a greater solidarity with blackness through calling out the anti-black violence endemic to their own culture (notable example, “Confronting Anti-Black Racism in the Arab World”).

Second, connected to the last point, is that the reluctance to deal with Israeli anti-blackness is emblematic of the larger inability for black suffering in the Middle East and North Africa to become a discernible international scandal. Black suffering exists as a consistent heartbeat of the region, as its repressed absent center through which the other conflicts take place on top of from the sixth century onward. What remains unthought and unmentioned in all of these moves towards solidarity is that in spite of all their differences, both Israel and Palestine (and much of the Arab world) mutually bond over anti-black violence. In order to deal with anti-blackness in this region, one would have complicate all terms of solidarity and reveal the nuanced networks of violence that hold the conflict together. In other words, anti-blackness becomes a subject that could implode the entire conversation and reveal an eery, yet essential consensus between the warring factions who fight in solidarity with Israel or Palestine: neither wants to centralize and deal with anti-blackness in the region.

Third, if we can agree it is politically and ethically vacuous to ignore the connection between Israeli anti-blackness and its colonial relationship to Palestine, then what is the reason to not, at least, mention it in the list of offenses of the resolution? Is it because of the threat that blackness will take over the conversation and distract from the true issue? If we are boycotting Israel for their human rights violations, it would seem their consistent violations of the human rights of Black people should be a part of the “true issue” at least. More to the point, the continued plight of black people wherever they are in the globe is reflective of the fact that we need a radical overhaul of our ideas of the “true issue” — it shows we need a better understanding of the paradigm that drives the relation between disparate forms of violence in different regions in the world.

Let us make no mistake here, this is not an issue of ignorance or miseducation. The American Studies Association is filled with nothing but experts on the history of this region, people who could run laps around me in terms of understanding the socio-historical facts or the on-the-ground situation. Knowledge of both are essential, and yet having the knowledge and pursuing the question into its troubling conclusion — straight into the void — do not necessarily follow one after the other. One could know nothing but the simple fact that no matter where in the globe we are, there will be black people being treated like shit and take up this question. Or one could know every fact about the area and still not even gesture toward a mention of the black suffering occuring on the ground — the latter is what happened with the ASA resolution. Any reason for not mentioning Israeli anti-black violence is inadequate and represents a problem much bigger than ignorance, it is a question of political and ethical proportions.

To speak of blackness as “unthought” is not to speak of ignorance then, nor is it even to mean unconsidered. We can say very definitively that black suffering is not simply unknown, but actually remains a central metaphor for how people understand their solidarity against Israel. People’s statements of support are full of similes: “this is like the boycott of South Africa…” “Israeli occupation is like segregation…” etc. Black suffering becomes the gold standard of evaluating other people’s suffering and the foundation for our moral outrage and political maneuvering. What is tragic here is that the metaphor was unnecessary, for the metaphor elides the existence of black bodies on the ground on both sides of the wall catching hell from both sides of this conflict. Black flesh exists as the unknown term in the Israel/Palestine conflict, the void off the map of political contestation.

The question being raised from the void of blackness is not one of either saying “yes” or “no” to solidarity, but instead explodes the bounds through which choices issue from. It is not a question for how to be with or against Israel, but instead demands we rethink how we can form solidarity in an infinitely more complex and violent situation. And no, it is not an adequate answer to say Frantz Fanon or Malcolm X or any other figure believed in a natural solidarity between Arabs and Blacks. They had their ways of answering this question, and yet the question still remains to be posed because of the perpetuation of the African slave trade in the region, the anti-black solidarity between Israel and the Arab nations, the black flesh that is beaten, burned, murdered. No, there is no easy answer to this question — it is a question that demands to be handled as the singularity it is. Shout outs to different activists working on the frontlines of the Palestinian struggle that recognize the centrality and singularity of anti-blackness in this entire affair. It is by meeting ya’ll that this question that I have always felt, from the days I cut my teeth as a young teenage activist on the question of Palestine, but did not know how to pose has percolated further in my mind now. The ASA resolution emerges directly out of an obfuscation of this work that is currently happening between certain activists on both sides. If solidarity is important, then all cards must be laid on the table at all times, never swept under the rug strategically to make things easier. This is not about intentions, but instead is a question of paradigm and what concepts center one’s analysis. The ASA resolution’s silence speaks louder than any individual’s intentions. The statement reflects an organization that looked into the abyss of black suffering and patted it on the head saying, “Its not your time. Maybe it was before, and maybe it will be later. But it will not be now.”

We already know that the question of blackness can never arrive on time, its question is always posed too late to be considered or too early to be anything other than a nuisance. Contrary to the feeling of some, there has never been a black time, only an anti-black world where black people exist as its absent center, always too loud, needing to be silenced, yet always remaining unthought and hyper-present. It is for this reason that I cannot remain silent, the question that has been posed before must be re-posed incessantly, interminably, endlessly. It may never be a good time, but that is exactly why the time to pose the fundamental question of black suffering is right now. The time is now for ASA to answer for its omission. The time is now for all of us to answer to the centrality and singularity of black suffering, against the academic mode of analogization. The time is now to take up a new rubric for understanding anti-blackness, one that exceeds an anti-racist, marxist, feminist, or decolonial framework. No matter the context, the political issue, or social movement the question must be posed in order to force open a world where Black Lives can actually matter. It is the unflinching articulation of the unthought question stated loud, proud, and enraged that can obliterate the anti-black world — anti-blackness understood as something shared between reactionary and radical forces — and institute a new world, a Blackened world, a Black Era.


Nicholas Brady is an activist-scholar from Baltimore, Maryland. He is a former debater and currently is a head coach for the James Baldwin Debate Society, the only collegiate debate team housed in an African-American Studies department. He was also a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and currently a doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine Culture and Theory program. (check him out on tumblr or twitter @nubluz_nick)

5 thoughts on “The Void Speaks Back: Black Suffering as the Unthought of the American Studies Association’s Academic Boycott of Israel

  1. Pingback: Dec 30, 2013: Trouble in Egypt, Seasonal Musings and Zombies |

  2. Wonderful!
    Cogent. Thoughtful. Provocative — in the BEST sense of the word. Thank you for your thinking. I hope to hear/see more.

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