We witness with shared horror the violence – of the dozens upon dozens killed and the thousands more injured – against people living in Gaza. Israel’s ongoing efforts to dislocate Palestinians and claim territory continues to include and rationalize such destruction of life. The U.S. president’s unilateral relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem legitimates and seems in this present moment to have catalyzed the intensification of such efforts.
As scholars and teachers, as we witness this violence, we are reminded also of the pressing need for deep and broad understanding of the histories giving rise to the present. As British historian Arnold J. Toynbee put it, we “must assume the imperative task of informing [our]selves of the nature of the conflict in the Middle East.” Writing in 1971 in a preface to a volume titled The Transformation of Palestine and edited by the late Palestinian-American intellectual Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Toynbee enjoined his contemporaries to study and understand the entanglements of British and U.S. imperialisms in precipitating what continues to be reduced to the “Arab- Israeli conflict.” For Abu-Lughod, the designation “Arab-Israeli conflict” constructed Palestinians as the problem rather than as people who were displaced by the long history of settler-colonial agendas. Indeed, Americanist scholarship has compellingly shown how such reductive framings erase the ongoing-ness of settler colonialism and its constitutive violence.
We write to renew Abu-Lughod’s call to study and grasp this history. In doing so, we acknowledge the work so many of our members have done to deepen understanding of the historical contexts and political economic conditions that underwrite the framing of the violence unfolding in Palestine as a matter of state-to-state conflict delinked from the broader courses of British and U.S. empire-building, and from the nationalist fervor pervading Europe in and through the early-mid twentieth century – and to ask our members both to learn and to build upon such work.
The founding mission of the American Studies Association is to relate “the areas of American life” to the “entire American scene and to world society.” To engage the kind of study Abu- Lughod called for is to take up that mission. As he noted in “Part 1” of The Transformation of Palestine, Zionism emerged in nineteenth century Europe as an intellectual and political formation with eventual aspirations to colonize Palestine. In such a context, he argued, “the European social and political milieu was of the greatest significance for the eventual attainment of statehood. Zionists…had to secure the support of a major power if they were to achieve their political objective.”
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that major power was Britain. In our moment, dating to the mid-twentieth century, it is the United States, a fact that makes the “American scene” part of the Israeli and Palestinian ones. When former Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared that Israel is “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security,” he evinced not only the all too characteristic arrogance of U.S. foreign policy, but also precisely the role that U.S. interests play in the politics of the region.
Many U.S.-based scholars, including members of the ASA, are immersed in the study of these deep histories, and their work helps us both question and understand why the United States continues to support and aid in securing the occupation, land seizures, and corollary violence against Palestinians as well as non-European Israelis minoritized by their ethnic and racial differences. We identify as the responsibility of the ASA the promulgation of studied understanding of everything from anti-Semitism to Orientalism, from the political history of modern national sovereignty to Zionism, and from the constitutive impact of imperialism, colonialism, and settler colonialism to the precipitation of the actual violence and the rhetorics legitimating the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” the consequences of which impact Palestinian women disproportionately.
As U.S. foreign policy has empowered Israeli settler-colonialism, it has enabled the devastation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in Israel, and in the diaspora. As a field designed to track the U.S. domestically and internationally, American studies must be responsible to the links between U.S. foreign policy and the ongoing colonial practices of the Israeli government. Becoming informed and sharing knowledge of all this and more, while insufficient alone to halt state-enacted or state-sanctioned violence, are necessary to de-functioning the regimes that rationalize and use such violence.
Many of our members, we know, are acting swiftly to support the injured and to grieve the dead. We can, we believe, also be responsive by resounding this collective imperative to become better informed, and to better teach and learn from each other.
The Executive Committee
May 29, 2018