New CRES Faculty Spotlight: Jenny Kelly

November 08, 2018

Jenny Kelly, Assistant Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies

Robert Park: Hi, it’s October 18th. I’m here with Dr. Jennifer Kelly, newly-hired faculty in the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department. Thank you for doing this interview.

Jenny Kelly: Of course, thank you for having me. Do you want to tell me a little about your work?

RP: My name’s Robert Park. I’m a fourth-year double major in CRES and biochemistry. I picked up the major my second year in the intro course. It gave me the vocabulary to reflect upon thoughts and observations I had. I met lots of cool people, and the theory really backed up the practice. But how about yourself? What are your areas of expertise coming here?

JK: My background: I did my undergrad here in Feminist Studies and Literature. Then I did my Master’s in Interdisciplinary Humanities at NYU and I did my PhD at UT Austin in American Studies. At UT Austin, I trained in transnational American studies, feminist studies, comparative colonial studies, and critical race and ethnic studies—those were my exam fields, teaching fields, and my emphases, and after my exams then I started to formulate my dissertation project. It was born out of my master’s thesis, which was on the political economy and representational practice of Christian Zionism and which was born out of my time here in that my emphases were in postcolonial studies, feminist studies, and literature.

RP: In your book, one of the terms is “solidarity tourism.” I was wondering if you could dissect that term and how it relates to either Christian Zionism or Israeli occupation.

JK: The term “solidarity tourism” can be an incoherent term because solidarity tour participants vary so dramatically—you can have a thematic delegation like an anti-colonial solidarity, anti-prison or queer delegation. People come to Palestine who have expertise in those areas and come with the expectation that they will work with the communities they already are working with. You also have people who are visiting Israel while backpacking and want to learn more about the occupation or people who are Christian youth pastors who come back, bring their delegations, and then go back home to help their communities and congregations unlearn the Zionism with which they were raised. You have people with all different sorts of motivations coming to Palestine on solidarity tours. Solidarity tourism itself is a very fraught and complex category. In some ways it’s a pedagogical enterprise. It’s about teaching people who know very little about settler colonialism in Palestine and Israeli settler colonialism. It also goes by different names, so some people call it “alternative tourism,” and when it’s more of a critique it is called “occupation tourism.” Solidarity tourism makes sense in terms of naming because I want to hold onto the labor of the Palestinian tour guides who are doing this work in order to inculcate solidarity.


Alternative tourism group in Hebron, 2012
Alternative tourism group in Hebron, 2012


RP: What forms of education and decolonizing the land are there in terms of strategies, internationally or otherwise?

JK: What the tourists are learning is a lot of what we learn in BDS organizing, which is about the ways in which you can take your own communities and networks and hold them accountable to working towards the decolonization of Palestine. For example, the youth pastor brings delegates to Palestine and goes back and forth trying to reshape her congregation’s relationship with Zionism, and intervenes in Christian Zionism. A lot of people on those delegations were central to the Presbyterian church passing the boycott resolution—same with the American Studies Association where there was huge organizing in the wake of delegations that helped pass the boycott vote. In moments like those, there is deep acknowledgement of U.S. complicity and also a very clear understanding of your role—your role as a pastor or your role as an academic—so you are holding not only your government accountable, but also the associations that you do your work in accountable. A lot of the people I interview are trying to teach personal practices about boycott and institutional practices of divestment and really having a broad understanding of colonialism—but also understanding the way that the U.S. concretely supports Israeli occupation.

RP: Are there ways to get people to learn, for this knowledge to be expressed, without the necessity of traveling and seeing the actual place?

JK: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that is really central to my book project and what I think and write about is why working on behalf of and in solidarity with Palestine has become so sutured to witnessing its effects. Why do people feel the need to go to Palestine? One of the reasons has to do with what constitutes evidence, which involves witnessing. Sometimes this negates the volume of literature and scholarship and work that Palestinians have produced on their own condition. That’s one of the problems inherent in it. But I refuse to talk about it as solely as a voyeuristic enterprise because it is also crucial to keeping Palestinians on their land, and a lot of tour guides see their work as keeping them on their lands. But of course there are so many ways to get involved in being in solidarity with Palestine without going to Palestine.


Alternative tourism group in Hebron, 2012

Olive Tree Campaign, Beit Eskaria, 2012

RP: As new CRES faculty, would you talk about your interests in the program?

JK: Yes, I am jointly appointed in Feminist Studies and CRES. I’m thrilled to be here not only because it’s this very sweet homecoming [to my undergraduate institution] but also because I am joining a department and program that are absolutely invested in the study of race and empire, and the study of U.S. empire and the study settler colonialism, and thinking through how that is raced and gendered. Being able to see Palestine in that analytic frame is actually really rare and being invited into a department that values scholarship on Palestine from a comparative colonial perspective is hugely important. I think supporting work on Palestine in a department like CRES also allows for thinking through multiple kinds of transnational solidarities—thinking through anti-prison work and thinking through anti-militarism and thinking through the transfer of technologies between police in the U.S. and the Israeli military. CRES and Feminist Studies are places with the sort of colleagues that value this scholarship. If you think about all the sort of difficulties that people who work on Palestine face in academia, this is a really important thing.

RP: Because Palestinian work is so demonized, there’s blacklisting. A lot has been put into establishing a very hard Zionist framework. How does it feel to now have a possible position to do work within academia to support what you want to do outside of academia, especially when you still see few people doing this work explicitly in academia?

JK: I remember in my first year in grad school going to a conference at Columbia where Rashid Khalidi talked about his grad students being scared to work on Palestine. Since I started doing this work, the conversation has changed largely because of the organizing around the boycott resolution but the attacks on people who work on Palestine and particularly on Palestinian scholars is so palpable and the effects are so wide-ranging and pernicious that what I think people do is find each other and they support each other and they find those places where that work is supported. I found that my last postdoc at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Asian American Studies was a place where my work belonged because Asian American Studies as a field prioritizes displacement, the question of refugees, and war and militarism. It’s like that here with CRES and Feminist Studies, where there is no question that my work belongs in CRES and in Feminist Studies. It oftentimes is difficult to convince search committees or journals that Palestine and tourism and solidarity and militarism are all feminist issues. With my being here, there’s no question that my project is a Feminist Studies project because of the way my department thinks about feminism and thinks about feminist scholarship. Supporting scholarship on Palestine within academia is so important, in the context of repression of scholarship on Palestine, because very valuable political work happens in the classroom. I know that I came to my political world through feminist studies classes and through theory, books, and reading and I know that a lot of people get their insight or get into activism or political work through their time in classes. I am very committed to supporting scholarship on Palestine and teaching on Palestine and teaching broadly on settler colonialism and questions of solidarity and questions of militarism in the classroom because really important work happens there in addition to what we do outside.

RP: Moving back to future work or possibilities for the liberation of Palestine, do you see international coalitions of more militant groups that existed such as the Japanese Red Army or the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) supporting each other that way again or is that time and form of coalition squashed out by capitalist and imperialist powers? 

JK: That’s a very good and very difficult question. That’s also a question about hope and futurity. I definitely don’t think that radical anti-colonial coalition is impossible. It just takes different shapes and forms and I see the possibilities for radical coalitional, anticolonial work in being able to think relationally about the anticolonial work that we all are thinking through—the work my colleagues are doing around militarism in Vieques and militarism in Palestine and the afterlife of U.S. foreign policy and militarism. There are moments where Third World liberation feels very distant but I think there are vibrant [ongoing] examples. Part of that is really thinking through, not fetishizing the newness about now, the lessons we can learn from people who have done this before and not discounting elders and older ways of thinking through coalitional work. In my research I have talked to so many people who are thinking concretely about the right of return and what that would look like and how to blueprint that and how to implement that. Those conversations are about liberation, anticolonial work, and decolonization.

RP: I’d like to wrap up with a question from a student here, a member of SJP. The question revolves around non-governmental organization and the effects politically of “NGO-ization” in Palestine, specifically with relief efforts, shifting political tendencies, and other forms of work at that level.

JK: I thought a lot about this in my interviews and talked about this with the organizers and tour guides. NGO-ization is a huge problem in Palestine and a lot of that is about parachuting in—not having a sustained relationship with community members and coming in and telling Palestinians how to do their own work and how to think about their own conditions, and narrating to Palestinians their own goals, which are colonial logics, including what gets funded and what gets prioritized and the kinds of work that become palatable to become prioritized and funded through NGOs. There's a lot of work that keeps Palestinians on their land that works under rubrics of NGOs that gives those organizers and people who work there the protection of being able to do that work, so I would talk to tour guides who, on the one hand, felt very limited and would talk about having to tailor their projects to what the NGO wants and thinks is valuable, which is often not about decolonization. It’s often about whatever that particular organization is prioritizing. But then they would also talk about how doing that work, satisfying the requirements of that NGO, also enabled them to do their other work that is about decolonization. So it’s very complicated. It’s about limitations that are put on a stateless people under occupation, and being able to have a critique, and at the same time also supporting the work that keeps Palestinians on their land in the context of expropriation and settlement.

RP: Well, thank you, Dr. Jenny Kelly, for doing this interview. Welcome to CRES and Feminist Studies. I’m so glad to have someone who supports Palestine and who is very forward about it on campus.

JK: Great! I’m so excited to be here and meeting more students in SJP and also supporting students that work on Palestine. I’m very excited to be here.

RP: Long live Palestine!