Faced with an audience member’s question about why he had recently joined other writers in signing a letter protesting Israeli funding of the Brooklyn Book Festival, award-winning Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz delved into an eloquent response about Palestinian rights and his personal experiences growing up in New Jersey.Speaking at Clark University on September 30th as part of the “Presidential Lecture Series”, Diaz – who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and was a MacArthur Genius Fellow in 2012 – touched on his political upbringing, ubiquitous anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the U.S., and the pressures faced by those who speak out on the taboo issue of Palestine.
“If you’re like, I think the occupation of fucking Palestine is fucked up on 40 different levels,” Diaz said, “people are like, you’re the devil, were going to fucking drive you out of MIT, we’re going to get your tenure taken away, we’re going to destroy you.”
Diaz, who is in fact a professor of writing at MIT, went on to say the following, apparently to thunderous applause from the crowd: “if you are occupying other people’s shit, guess what, you are fucked up. That’s that. I mean, that’s that. And that’s a tough thing for people to stomach, man. Because we live in a country that’s currently occupying people’s fucking land.”
Diaz’s comments come at a time when Palestine solidarity activists, including students and teachers at U.S. universities, are facing a sustained campaign of intimidation, punishment and censorship from University administrations, well-funded right-wing pro-Israel groups, and in some instances the U.S. government. Most recently, Steven Salaita, a Palestinian American professor who studies the links between Palestinians and Native Americans, had his newly awarded tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne revoked in response to tweets of his that were critical of Israel during this past summer’s massive Israeli assault on Gaza (which killed over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians).
The situation in Palestine is an utter taboo in this country.
Read on for more of Diaz’s response below (thanks to Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss) and check out the entire video of the speech (Palestine comments come in around min. 54) beneath our highlights:
Also, check out Diaz’s conversation with the great Toni Morrison last December at the New York Public Library.
“Yeah. The Brooklyn Book Festival and speaking in solidarity with Palestinians… What’s weird is I’m one of these old school activists. Before I was a writer I was an activist. Super boring! I’m kind of still an activist. Not kind of, I still am. It’s really like the identity my friends knew me before I was any kind of writer. Again guys, it’s sort of strange but I grew up in the 80’s in Central New Jersey and every single kind of colonial settler colonist calamity was present in my community. So get who my friends were, right! My friends were an Irish immigrant kid, the only white kid in our community, the only one, and hard core Irish Catholic republican. His family was not republican as you guys think, republican in the Irish terms. His family used to pass the hat around in church to raise money for the IRA…. This was the 80s, you guys, they would get up and be like, British occupation, 22 Irish were killed, let’s throw money in and the hat would go round…
My other friend was an Egyptian kid whose family extended into Palestine, and throughout all the 80’s, while everybody else was like watching like John Hughes movies, this kid had me on point on Palestine. This kid was “like this and like that and like this and like that.”
And then of course this was at the height of the apartheid movement. So all of my African American friends, well I should say, two of them, not all of them, two of them had parents who were part of that whole leftwing, you know, fucking pro-ANC, anti-apartheid movement. So I’m in this poor community and this is all just getting beamed into my head.
If you are occupying other people’s shit, guess what, you are fucked up.
So by the time I was in college, I could give you chapter and verse on anti-Zionist projects. And look guys, you know– for many people it’s like a really tough issue. It’s like, we’ve kind of gotten deranged so that there are certain areas we can’t discuss. And of course the situation in Palestine is never– is like an utter taboo in this country. You know, it is an utter taboo. It’s like our ideas of terrorism, our ideas of Arabs, are over-saturated with the most negative, weirdly-perverse racist ideologies. I mean I can’t even turn on the news for five seconds without hearing the most fucked-up racist shit about Arabs or Muslims that would never pass muster if we were talking about any other group. And so in that kind of atmosphere it’s just a shouting match. You know if you’re like, I think the occupation of fucking Palestine is fucked up on 40 different levels, people are like, you’re the devil, we’re going to fucking drive you out of MIT, we’re going to get your tenure taken away, we’re going to destroy you.
I mean, that’s like literally the reality. Whereas you can say almost anything else. You could be like, ‘I eat humans,’ and [it’s like] ‘Oh tato. Ta’ jevy. Ta’ bien, ta’ bien. Un cibaeño al año no te hace daño!’
I mean, I’m sorry guys, just forget it, I mean just as a basic human being, on the basic, basic level: If you are occupying other people’s shit, guess what, you are fucked up. [Wild applause] That’s that. I mean, that’s that. and that’s a tough thing for people to stomach, man. Because we live in a country that’s currently occupying people’s fucking land. [Applause] Like, God forbid, Americans are so deranged about Palestine because Americans are thinking, like yo, if we give up here, these fucking Indians are going to want their shit back. Well maybe they should get their shit back. Since 90 percent of us don’t own anything, I don’t know how much it would hurt us. But whatever.”