Forget pinkwashing, it’s brownwashing time: self-Orientalizing on the US campus


“The political and intellectual history of modernity,” writes historian Robert Orsi, “is also always a religious history.” However, as significant and diverse recent scholarship is now bringing to light, narratives around the political, intellectual, and religious history of modernity often serve not only to illuminate the past, but also to obscure it through the authorization of specific forms of experience and knowledge.

This symposium, entitled “Decolonizing Narratives, Denaturalizing Modernity,” aims to highlight recent scholarship that complicates received notions around the history of modernity. While focusing on distinct temporal, geographical, and religious contexts, in their shared attempts to uncover histories hidden by the dominant discourses of modernity, the authors featured in this symposium uniformly challenge the naturalization of modernity’s emergence and indicate that that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested.


It is the ninth week for me as a new professor at Columbia University. The move here from UCLA, where I taught for fifteen years, has been full of surprises, and not always of the kind one expects. But nothing prepared me for the sight I encountered recently as I crossed the main plaza of the college on the way to class to teach Edward Said’s Orientalism to a large group of MESAAS (Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies) majors. I was thinking about how best to make them see the political relevance of Orientalism to our present-day reality, and just then, as if by divine intervention, I noticed a flyer: “Hebrew Liberation Week: A Celebration of Semitism.” Curiously I approached the plaza. After all, I was about to teach Said’s discussion of Semitism as an invented 19th century Orientalist category and this seemed relevant. I soon faced three tall poles mounted with Israeli flags and was surrounded by about a dozen of young men and women wearing kaffiyehs (a checkered scarf, which has long been a symbol of Palestinian national liberation) that were blue and white (the colors of the Israeli flag). “Things don’t look right,” I noted to myself. But it was only when I noticed the bombastic billboards covering the borders of the plaza that the effect became truly chilling.

Another banner, shown above, presented a group of men in indigenous dress with a bearded man in a tallith (a white prayer shawl worn by Jewish men) placed right in the center among them. First I saw a large portrait of a Native American wearing a traditional headdress, with the word “Judah” written across it.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in suggesting an alliance between Jews and Indigenous people, and in the context of Jews living in Europe and elsewhere as “inside outsiders” and as part of internal European colonization (too much has been written about “The Jewish Question” for me to summarize here) it indeed makes sense to compare and point out similarities between the position of Jews as a fragile minority and the position of other oppressed groups, like the indigenous, colonized, enslaved, and more. However, placing such images underneath the Israeli flag makes them, at best, tasteless depictions of a pseudo alliance. Suggesting, as the posters do, that Jews have been driven out of their land (like indigenous people) and have finally returned to Israel–a trajectory that all indigenous people should unite behind–is a crude and cynical manipulation of (Jewish) history and a vulgar fabrication that not only makes no sense, but is also offensive in its use and abuse of indigenous peoples’ histories of oppression.

Indigenous people are not the only ones exploited in this campaign, run by SSI (Students Supporting Israel). SSI is the new kid on the block of campus hasbara groups (only five years old) but this kid is well funded by the usual suspects. A notable amount of the $319,598 in 2015 contributions SSI reported on tax forms comes, for instance, from the Milstein Family Foundation, which also supports CAMERA, Stand with Us, Hasbara Fellowships, and other right-wing Israel advocates. The mission of SSI, as their webpage indicates, is “to be a clear and confident Pro-Israel voice on college campuses,” and for this mission, they even offer scholarships for students “to visit Israel and come back to campus ready for action!” Nothing on the webpage, however, mentions what SSI’s current campaign at Columbia University makes clear beyond all doubt: that the organization has decided to shamelessly appropriate histories, narratives, political symbols and imagery of indigenous people, Native Americans, Africans, and even Palestinians for the purpose of producing a fictitious, if colorful, narrative of Jewish indigeneity and self-Orientalization. By Self-Orientalism I mean, in this context, a certain instrumentalization of Orientalism and its stereotypes for the purpose of producing a figure of a modern Jew/Israeli who is at the same time ancient, biblical, Semitic, Oriental. This figure is in fact an updated and improved version of the early Zionist invention of the Occidentalized ‘New Jew.’ If the Occidentalized New Jew was said to bring European civilization and progress to the East, this updated version is no longer associating the Israeli Jew with the West and its promise of modernity and progress. On the contrary, the self-Orientalized Jew/Israeli embraces his/her position as the son/daughter of the East. He/she is the native indigenous of the east (Palestine, the biblical Holy-land, Israel) whose temporality expands from the biblical time to the present.

In addition to the soldiers, there are images of Arab-Jews (Mizrahim) who must not be forgotten, not again. Images of Yemeni families, perhaps making their way to the Promised Land, are shown on other banners.As a bold background to the blue and white kaffiyehs being sold on location, there were posters covering the plaza, inundated with images of Brown and Black people and proud Israeli soldiers: Asians (children of mainly Filipin@ guest workers who became Israeli citizens and “won” the opportunity to serve in the Israeli army), Ethiopian Jews, Bedouins, and overtly joyful Druze. If yesterday’s message was that the Israeli army is welcoming of gays*, today’s message is that the IDF is a place where Brown, Black, African, and Arab people all feel happy. Together.

One must ask: why a “Brown people campaign”? Or: How did all the Israelis (or Jews, the campaign isn’t clear) become so Brown all of a sudden? (I ask as a very fair Polish Jew!) Why does an organization like SSI feel the need to “celebrate Semitism” and parade Ethiopians, Yemenites, and Druze in order to make historical claims of belonging and ownership? And why the sudden need to create the pretense of a coalition with the indigenous people in North America?

SSI’s Semitic campaign is based on a simple but dangerous manipulation of historical facts. It abuses the historically ambivalent position of the Jew in the West as not-white-not-quite and the Orientalized modern biblical iconography of the Israelites as prototypical Orientals and Semites to create a narrative of a present-day political hallucination, according to which Jews are the colonized natives fighting for their land. If only this fantasy wasn’t so cynical, offensive and well-funded, we might have had a good laugh.

*Pinkwashing is a term by the growing global gay movement against the Israeli occupation to denote Israel’s deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of progressive modernity symbolized by Israeli gay culture. See: Sarah Schulmann, “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’” Opinion, NYT, Nov 22 2011.

Further Readings

Self Orientalization:

Grace Yan and Carla Almeida Santos, “China Forever: Tourism Discourse and Self-Orientalism” Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 36, No. 2, (2009): 295–315.

Matthew Jaber Stiffler “Consuming Orientalism: Public Foodways of Arab American Christians” Mashriq & Mahjar 2, no. 2 (2014): 111-138.

Arif Dirlik, “Chinese History and the Question of Orientalism” History and Theory, Vol. 35, No. 4, (1996): pp. 96-118.

Plamen K. Georgiev. Self-Orientalization in South East Europe. Springer, 2012

Cultural Appropriations:

Yonatan Mendel and Ronald Ranta. From the Arab Other to the Israeli Self: Palestinian Culture in the Making of Israeli National Identity. Routledge, 2016

Nicholas Rowe “Dance and Political Credibility: The Appropriation of Dabkeh by Zionism, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism” Middle East Journal Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer 2011): 363-380

Susan Slyomovics. The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

This article was originally published by Contending Modernities, a project of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies,  on November 24, 2017.

Continue reading “Forget pinkwashing, it’s brownwashing time: self-Orientalizing on the US campus”

The Politics of Race Course Titles

Aptly titled courses and robust descriptions teach students a valuable lesson in speaking uncomfortable racial truths to white power, argues Ted Thornhill.

By Ted Thornhill – April 6, 2018 – Inside Higher Ed

Race and Ethnic Relations. Excited? Neither is anyone else. I certainly wasn’t when I took a course by this title as an undergraduate sociology major. And I don’t imagine my students were intrigued by Race Relations, the title of the first race course I taught as a graduate student about a decade ago.

Those courses have titles and descriptions that are about as compelling as particle board furniture instructions. They belie the complex and vital content we teach in them, and they contribute to promoting and buttressing inaccurate beliefs about racial matters. So why do so many of us continue to teach race courses with these types of names? It needn’t be this way.

Aptly titled race courses and robust course descriptions teach students a valuable first lesson in speaking uncomfortable racial truths to white power. They can also serve as powerful searchlights, drawing local, national and even international attention to the white supremacist nature of American society, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, such courses are few and far between.  Continue reading “The Politics of Race Course Titles”

First they censor Palestine…

Ali Abunimah  25 October 2017 –  Electronic Intifada

Three students at Barnard College, which is affiliated with New York’s Columbia University, are facing punishment for protesting a speech earlier this month by a notorious white supremacist.

Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the British Islamophobe and English Defence League founder who goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, spoke to Columbia students via Skype on 10 October.

According to campus newspaper The Columbia Spectator, dozens of students interrupted Robinson’s speech and held up signs, while 250 more protested outside the venue.

Almost 5,000 people have signed a petition supporting the students, and mobilizations to defend them are being organized on campus.

“By attempting to silence protesters while providing space and funds for hate speech at Columbia, Suzanne Goldberg and other university administrators are demonstrating complicity with violent ideologues whose claims continue to actively harm historically marginalized students,” the petition states.

The petition quotes a mass email from Columbia vice-president Suzanne Goldberg that “it is foundational to Columbia’s learning and teaching missions that we allow for the contestation of ideas, as President Bollinger has often made clear.”

If Goldberg and university president Lee Bollinger “truly believed in open dialogue and the ‘contestation of ideas,’ they would not be threatening student protesters with disciplinary action,” the petition states.

Continue reading “First they censor Palestine…”

Why I teach a course called ‘White Racism’

Ted Thornhill – The Conversation

February 1, 2018

The need for students to learn about racism in American society existed long before I began teaching a course called “White Racism” at Florida Gulf Coast University earlier this year.

I chose to title my course “White Racism” because I thought it was scholarly and succinct, precise and powerful.

But others saw it differently. Many white Americans (and some people of color) became upset when they learned about this course.

Thousands took to social media and far right news sites and racist blogs to attack the course and me personally.

Some 150 of these individuals sent me hateful and threatening messages.

Continue reading “Why I teach a course called ‘White Racism’”

Limits on Free Speech?

December 7, 2017 – Academe Blog

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Faculty Association and the AAUP.  The following is the slightly edited text of remarks she delivered December 4 at a forum sponsored by the Berkeley Academic Senate, “Perspectives on Freedom of Expression on Campus.” 

Thank you for this opportunity to pose some questions that might prove useful for our discussion today.  In most courses dedicated to the study of constitutional principles, it makes sense to start with cases that produce a problem for the law.  What if we also start by identifying a set of quandaries not because this is a law school course, but rather because one reason the applicability of the First Amendment is not always clearly understood is precisely because it is sometimes found to be in conflict with other constitutional principles or legal statutes.  In such cases, it becomes possible to ask why one constitutional principle takes precedence over another, or to ask whether there are some rather abiding dilemmas in the law that demand a certain kind of judgment.  We can more easily claim what the law is than how best to judge in light of the law in any given case.  And if we are part of a larger public trying to make sense of a First Amendment claim as it comes into conflict with other constitutional principles, or other basic values, then knowing what the law is does not immediately tell us how best to form a judgment of the situation at hand.

Continue reading “Limits on Free Speech?”