On the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, scholar and writer, Steven Salaita, was in Honolulu for a series of talks that helped people better understand how that brief letter unleashed the Nakba, driving Palestinians from their ancestral homeland. He also explained how the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement is helping the fight for justice for Palestinians, and why Palestine should be a moral issue for everyone.
Drawing on family memories and indelibly inscribed images of hundreds of children killed in the assault on Gaza in 2014, when little bodies were piled into freezers because the morgues were full, Salaita also placed the issue of Palestinian rights within the broader context of other indigenous struggles. In the first of a series of talks, he took the administrative class to task for their complicity in the “Palestine exception to free speech.”
A casualty himself of the mounting alarm in establishment circles at the progress made by the BDS movement and international solidarity with the Palestinians, Salaita suggested that one way to understand the importance of the movement is to look at who opposes it.
“It was my involvement in the BDS movement, not intemperate tweets, that cost me my job. The priority of university administrators is to satisfy their donors first. If the interests of donors cohere with the interests of students, great! If not, donors take priority,” he said.
Both in discussions on campus at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM), and at his final talk at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Honolulu, Salaita stressed the importance of solidarity across borders.
“It is fundamentally racist to say that the Israel/Palestine conflict is unsolvable because people are hard-wired to hate the other. The conflict is the result of settler-colonialism. It is the result of the blatant disregard of the colonial powers for their own words. The Balfour Declaration contained a promise: even as the British government endorsed the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, they said “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
A hundred years after that infamous letter, Palestinians still suffer under severe restrictions on movement, discriminatory treatment at the hands of the Israeli security forces and the courts, daily brutalities, and deprivations of food, water, medical supplies, and education that make any semblance of a life unpoliced and free in their ancestral land impossible.
“Settlers use over 90% of the West Bank’s water, “ said Salaita. “Palestinians must find a way to make do with what is left.” He described how Palestinians literally travel on different roads, with the best highways reserved for the use of settlers. “Who destroys olive trees to build garrisoned settlements?” he asked, describing the wanton violence of settlers who do what native Palestinians would consider unthinkable.
Recalling his sense of the shocking disparity between how Israelis and Palestinians live in the land where Jesus once walked, Salaita spoke of how the “visible suffering gets into your bloodstream.”
Salaita also rejected any romanticizing of who the Palestinians are as a basis for embracing their struggle as everyone’s moral issue.”We should not be moved to help someone because of how urbane or sophisticated they are,” he argued. “No human being deserves even five minutes of the kind of life the people of Gaza have had to endure. BDS is a way of being in community with people who are suffering. That solidarity is empowering. And efforts to criminalize it only make the movement stronger.”
Drawing from Fanon who said that the wretched need our love, and Jesus, who taught his followers to walk in the footsteps of those in need, Salaita urged a change in how we look at refugees. “We have to stop thinking of them as a financial problem and start responding to them as a moral challenge.”
His own commitment to thinking of the Palestinian struggle in terms of solidarity with the struggle of indigenous peoples everywhere to resist erasure through settler colonialism was captured in this pledge offered on social media as he left Hawaiʻi: “no matter what happens, I will never consider Palestine liberated unless Hawaiʻi is free, as well.” His pledge has a special resonance as Hawaiʻi marks another 100th anniversary: the passing of Queen Liliʻuokalani, last monarch of the Kingdom until its overthrow, in 1893.
Steven Salaita has been widely recognized for both his scholarship and his activism. Most recently, in 2016 he was awarded the Angela Y. Davis Prize by the American Studies Association, bestowed on scholars who have applied or used their scholarship for the “public good.” In announcing this award, the ASA committee stated, “The manifest evidence of Steven's courage and principled refusal to bend in the face of so many forms of repression and intimidation makes him a worthy recipient of this award. We are inspired by his brilliance and fortitude, and his example lights the way for us all.”
Steven Salaita’s visit was sponsored by Sabeel-Hawai'i, the UHM Graduate Student Organization (GSO), the UHM Political Science Dept., and the UHM Center for Biographical Research who provided funding. In addition, these organizations helped make the visit possible: Hawai'inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, the UHM Departments of American Studies, English, and Ethnic Studies. UH-Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace-Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i Coalition for Justice in Palestine, UH-Campus Anti-Fascist Network, UH Immigrant and Refugee Action Coalition (UH IRAC) and Hawai‘i American Studies Association chapter.