Amidst global violence and conflict, our campus is struggling with how to talk about its impacts. Vassar is looking for ways to open up spaces for discussion. One of the student organizations that is doing this work on campus is Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which, in collaboration with ViCE Film and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), recently screened “Concerning Violence,” a documentary based on revolutionary anti-colonialist writer Franz Fanon’s incendiary book “The Wretched of the Earth.” The purpose of this screening was to place the Israel-Palestine conflict into a larger context of colonialism.
The film treats violence in contexts around the world and through history, from the process of decolonization in Angola in 1974 to the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence. The documentary opens with Columbia University Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explaining the concept of violence, and its broad applications that are not always considered. “Colonialism is not a thinking machine,” she says. “It is not a body endowed with thinking faculties. It is violence in its natural state.”
The film is subtitled “Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense,” and it explores specific and diverse examples of violence resulting from colonialism and decolonization movements. Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics treasurer Michael Zajakowski Uhll ’17 commented, “The film…leaves an open definition for violence. I think a lot of people tend to think of violence as war, physical violence or hurting someone else, and that, I think, is a very limiting way to look at violence. I think violence is pervasive in our everyday life and present in all our interpersonal interactions, present in power dynamics, present in our conversations– words can be especially violent–and I like how the film kind of opens up that dialogue.”
Professors of Political Science Samson Opondo and Mark Hoffman led a conversation about broad issues of violence and liberation. They spoke about the concept of violence in colonies, clarifying that the European model of settler colonialism eliminates self-determination of the colonized people, and that violence in colonies is the result of those people seeking liberation. “Fanon is trying to contest the idea that violence in the colonies is somehow primordial, that it’s somehow a primordial feature of the colonized population’s culture,” explained Hoffman. “It’s misleading to think of violence as the primary mode of resistance…Violence is a mode of getting to the point where, as we see at the end of the film, people can engage in the creative practices of cultural self determination and produce new forms of national consciousness that don’t conform to European nation-state standards.”
The discussion encompassed issues of gender, equality and politics. Students and professors deliberated on the role of women in anti-colonial militaristic movements and the power politics of civil society. They also spoke about the Israel-Palestine movement briefly, framed in the context of historical precedence, acknowledging that both Israeli and Palestinian identities were formed under colonialism by the British and Ottoman Empires. Opondo posed the question, “How do we relate to histories of oppressed people when they become oppressors?”
Students for Justice in Palestine is a national organization across college campuses. A primary goal of Vassar’s chapter is–with the support of the VSA–to persuade the College to divest from companies in the U.S. and abroad that economically or materially support Israel’s occupation and human rights violations against Palestinians.
Jewish Voice for Peace is also supportive of BDS. Rosen explained, “The organization and its members, and myself included, feel that particular Jewish involvement in the [Israel-Palestine conflict] is necessary because the state of Israel describes itself, in all discernible sources, as the Jewish state, and seeks to preserve a particular Jewish quality. This is something that is not, and has never been, a consensus of Jewish people around the world. [SJP] is at once a mode of accountability and of action for Jewish people of conscience around the world and in the U.S.” The organization is not solely focused on current events in Israel-Palestine, but also in demilitarization, liberation and decolonization efforts around the world. “Jews and Jewish people should be equal partners in these struggles…no less than any other people should be,” affirmed Rosen.
For students not informed about these issues, such conversations can be daunting. Jake Pardee ’17, who attended the screening, agreed, “As useful as all of the theory and philosophy is in these issues, it’s inaccessible to so many people. In a college setting like this, and in all the U.S. actually, people are so intimidated.” The BDS coalition at Vassar plans to have several more events to keep these issues fresh in the minds of the Vassar community, including a workshop titled “The Case for BDS” on Feb. 23 and a performance and lecture by Arab-American actress, playwright and activist Najla Said on Feb. 25.
“Concerning Violence” is based on Fanon’s text was intentionally chosen to demonstrate the interconnectedness of violent colonization movements around the world. The film reiterates the idea that all forms of violence are connected and must be viewed as such. The BDS coalition at Vassar has received criticism online and in the media from various angles for their goals and actions, but the aim of this event was to clarify that colonization and militarization, no matter where in the world they take place, are violent actions that BDS opposes.
Rosen responded, “These things can exist and in fact must exist at the same time. You have to be resisting, and supporting resistance to, forms of state violence, forms of colonization, forms of things that we identify as being the ills of the world writ large; you have to resist them at one and the same time, on a multitude of fronts. That is something that the BDS as a movement … aims to do, to address these issues as inherently linked.”