On Potter’s Field

Over at the Tenured Radical blog, I entered into a slippery tangle.

Writhing with counter-factual assertions, fallacious assumptions and revealing an obvious lack of familiarity with the PACBI academic boycott guidelines, the following passage from Professor Claire Potter’s initial post on BDS required challenge.

This receives too little attention in my view, and Butler’s wise remarks about academic freedom raise new questions about a political strategy that violates longstanding principles of scholarly exchange across national and political lines. I have never understood why I should embrace an undemocratic response to the Israeli state’s horrendous failure of democracy; or why an ideologically rigid, if secular, strategy is a morally appropriate counterweight to enforcing a conservative theocratic interpretation of history on the Palestinian people. I also don’t think that there is any good historical evidence that silencing intellectual, academic and cultural workers on a comprehensive basis, and preventing any exchange of ideas between the Israel and the United States, will have any effect on Israeli politics whatsoever beyond isolating progressive intellectuals in Israel. I cannot imagine it would do anything but promote further ignorance and polarization, giving the political organizations on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Territories the upper hand in fashioning information and arguments to promote their own positions.

Question: am I supposed to boycott the Israeli colleagues and friends I already have too? Or just the ones I don’t know yet? Enquiring minds want to know.

I also do not think that BDS, despite its commitment to nonviolence, adequately addresses the question of existing and past violence in the anti-colonial struggle. US intellectuals give the movement to end the occupation a pass on this too easily, in my view, betraying a romance with revolutionary politics that has a long and troubling intellectual history among American intellectuals. For example, on this page I see calls for a military embargo of Israel, but not a military embargo of the region or an embargo of arms to all militant groups in the Occupied Territories. This might lead to a discussion about why Israel and its many antagonists mutually refuse to renounce violence and negotiate; about the international arms trade that flourishes in the Middle East; and about whether BDS supports ongoing paramilitary and terrorist attacks in the region by non-Israeli forces despite its own commitment to nonviolent action.

Ali Abunimah’s response provides a concise overall view of Potter’s blog post:

One would have hoped that the “Tenured Radical” would have bothered to learn something about the BDS movement before pronouncing on it with such ill-informed gusto. There’s so much that is breathtakingly wrong with this, but I will focus on only one little example. Potter writes

Question: am I supposed to boycott the Israeli colleagues and friends I already have too? Or just the ones I don’t know yet? Enquiring minds want to know.

If she had bothered to learn about the movement or its principles, she would know that the guidelines published by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (http://pacbi.org), absolutely do not call for a boycott of individuals of any nationality. It calls for a boycott of institutions.

It would take too long to refute the amateur and ad hoc arguments Potter makes, so I will simply recommend that people bamboozled by this post read Omar Barghouti’s book “BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights” (Haymarket, 2011), which addresses every one of these claims, and does much more to explain what BDS is and stands for.

I put the following to Potter:

Dear Professor Potter

I acknowledge your unfamiliarity with the substance and logic of the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions and hope you will rectify this through the excellent material which has been offered. I have a few questions for you to consider.

Would you have supported a continuance of Jim Crow in the US in order to preserve the privilege of the white majority in order to avoid ‘the question of existing and past violence in the anti-colonial struggle’? would you have instructed Martin Luther King to cease his effective civil disobedience campaign on those grounds? are you making an exception for the non-violent tactic of BDS which is also a form of civil disobedience? are Palestinians less deserving human beings who should not avail themselves of civilised persuasive protest to achieve their rights, to end the systematic crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated against them for so long?

You say, ‘protest, engage and discuss’.

Do you understand the function of dialogue in the context of co-resistance to a noxious system of tyranny, compared to a chorus of sweet yet ineffectual noises framed duplicitously as ‘peace and dialogue’ convenient to well-meaning liberals who thereby can avoid the choice to stand with the oppressed against their oppressor, and which drowns out deepening insistence for justice, rights and freedom of oppressed Palestinians? Do you understand what Martin Luther King meant when he talked of a ‘negative peace’?

Potter replied:

I think that instead of acknowledge you should be more honest and say that this is your judgement/view/position. I get it that the idea that I *could* be familiar with BDS and be skeptical of it is unimaginable to the crowd here, which has responded by calling me ignorant, racist, “liberal” (horrors!), adn whatever is worse than liberal. You have all had your say.

I answered:


Recognising your unfamiliarity with BDS as amply demonstrated in your post and highlighted by numerous posters on this thread is a polite kindness to you. One would not like to think you had deliberately misrepresented the BDS call in bad faith.

I am hoping that you can engage with and discuss the questions I have put to you in the spirit that they were offered.

No response.

Elsewhere Potter posted:

I don’t think I am unideological, and would have clarified this had anyone asked in such a straightforward and civil way in the first 117 comments before yours. It’s that I reject the four positions that are offered, and that this debate in the comments quickly evolved into: pro/anti Palestinian; pro/anti Israel. I think the claim that the BDS academic/cultural boycott is capable of that is at best unproven, and at worst a romance about what it means to do effective political work. That said, I think it is possible to create effective transnational projects that do ethical and humanitarian work, serve as centers for discussion and exchange, and transformation, projects that evade the four political choices: there’s a summer children’s camp, for example, that has for several decades brought Israeli and Palestinian children together on neutral ground. But other, more explicitly political projects could do that too. I find the assertion that there is *nothing* outside politics both familiar and something we might want to experiment with resisting. Politics doesn’t seem to be doing very well nowadays, does it? And the idea that sanctions against Israel will be effective (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria) I find puzzling.

I queried:

Would you accept a guest lecture at a university that was fully complicit with a war criminal genocidal state, where you knew in advance that your presentation there was going to assist and be used as whitewash by the state in order to commit and cover up further atrocities, Claire?

‘summer children’s camp, for example, that has for several decades
brought Israeli and Palestinian children together on neutral ground’

And there’s that ‘chorus of sweet yet ineffectual noises framed duplicitously as ‘peace and dialogue” to which I referred earlier, where it is imagined that under a system of apartheid and colonialism, that there is ‘neutral ground’.

Again, no response.

Potter then closed that blog post for comments.

Potter’s ‘old friend and colleague’, Dr. David Shorter, had his response published as a new blog post.

Potter posted a comment:

My principles are a commitment to free speech, freedom and democracy. I think that is perfectly clear in the post if it is read in a straightforward way. Censorship doesn’t forward that project, not even as a temporary strategy. Nor does mockery, charges of racism, vilification, or twisting my words to argue that I am forwarding a secret agenda or am too ignorant of the “facts” and cannot read/understand the document I have linked to and quoted. Peace out.

In response, I rephrased my questions, hoping again to receive a reasoned reply.

May I explore your embrace of free speech, freedom and democracy?

If you are asked by people who are not free to deny your speech requested by a state institution which intends to use your oration to demonstrate falsely that all is normal with state deprivation of liberty and democracy from those it oppresses and thereby oppress them further, which do you choose – to indulge the state and enjoy your ‘free speech’ at the expense of those who are without rights, or to respect the request for non-cooperation from those whom the state denies rights?

Is the latter option a form of boycott which you would support?

No reply.

Further down I observed in regard to the top-mentioned Potter problematic passage:

I am surprised that Potter is not owning her fallacies and assumptions which you have quoted above, Rima. Perhaps she is reconsidering her position in light of her acquainting herself with the actual substance of the cultural and academic boycott at http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate…

Briefly, here are her unsupported assumptions and fallacious understanding of the PACBI guidelines and their implementation which Potter needs to

“undemocratic response”
“ideologically rigid”
“conservative theocratic interpretation of history”
“silencing intellectual, academic and cultural workers on a comprehensive basis, and preventing any exchange of ideas etc”
“I cannot imagine etc …”

Can Potter answer her rhetorical question about boycotting individuals yet?

Why does Potter conflate non-violent BDS with violence? what is going on here in her dishonest representation?

A spatter of tweets ensued wherein I attempted to elicit a response to my ethics hypothetical.

Potter banned me on her blog – a first for me – and blocked me on twitter. She complained in her latest hyperbolic tirade:

‘I also want to reiterate the comments policy:

There will be no purely personal attacks, no using the comments section to tease someone else relentlessly, and no derailing the comments thread into personal hobbyhorses. Violators will be dealt with politely and swiftly. Too many people at AHA told me that they were avid readers, but never commented, because the atmosphere in the comments section is so ugly. Let’s make it a group project in 2013 to change that.

Clearly my many detractors of the last few days didn’t get the memo, although I suspect many of them wouldn’t care if they had. I promised I would put this policy in the sidebar, and now I will. Five hard-core commenters who cannot, and will not, agree to disagree have been banned.’ .

I shall leave the reader to judge whether my contributions constitute ‘hard-core’ commenting that transgressed Potter’s comments policy. Folks might also note that Potter consistently rode roughshod over her own policy.

And here I languish in what one recent commenter has identified as “Potter’s Field” ….

Readers who wish to familiarise themselves with the actual content of the academic boycott guidelines to avoid misrepresentation can do so here and may also read the excellent contributions on the two blog posts on Potter’s blog from Professor Rima Najjar, Matt Graber, Ali Abunimah, Elise Hendrick, Lisa Duggan and others here and here.

UPDATE 16/2/13

Potter’s handwringing over-dramatisation continues on Storify, where she likens being in Potter’s Field to death, falsely attributing this lurid characterisation to me. If chronicling Potter’s misrepresentations is ‘obsessive’, then how should one describe her own commentary? The lengths to which Potter has gone to obscure the fact she has avoided answering my hypothetical is extraordinary.


When Radical Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means