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Beyond the Ivory Tower Interview with Dana Mills

This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, an interview between Dana Mills and Zsuzsanna Chappell about Mills’s activist work in Israel-Palestine. Dana Mills is a writer, dancer, and peace and human rights advocate. She received her DPhil from the University of Oxford in 2014. As an academic, she has held posts, among other institutions, at the University of Oxford, NYU, Northwestern University, American Dance Festival, Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, University of Amsterdam and the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Since 2021 she has been working in Israeli-Palestinian civil society on a variety of issues. Mills has written many articles and three books: Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries (MUP, 2016); a biography of Rosa Luxemburg (Reaktion, 2020) and Dance and Activism: a century of radical dance across the world (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Photo of Dana Mills white woman with dark hair, wearing a red halterneck dress. Photo provided by Dana Mills

ZC: This series is called “Beyond the Ivory Tower” and while some of the people we interview do other work alongside academia, you have made the decision to leave academic employment and devote yourself to activism full-time. What motivated you to make this change?

DM: As a political theorist engaging in issues of social justice, I felt responsible towards real-world issues that were unfolding around me, and in my name, and wanted to actively try and change them. I felt academia was very self-engaged and pushed towards competition and self- promotion which I deplore; I’m a firm believer in the strength of collective action and wanted to work in a world that champions and promotes this for the common good. 

ZC: Can you tell us a bit more about the kind of activist work you do, maybe something you have done that was particularly significant for you? As a follow-up I’d be really interested to hear how your theoretical thinking has underpinned this practical work. 

DM: I came back to Israel- Palestine three years ago, and currently work in 972 Magazine, an independent media source run by Palestinians and Israelis. Before that I had other roles in civil society fighting apartheid and occupation. I work mainly in fundraising; having knowledge of several languages enables me to support my colleagues. This world is quite disengaged from theoretical thinking; fighting apartheid and ethnic cleansing in vivo means none of us have time and space to sit and ponder how this relates to theories and ideas (despite all my colleagues and I being good readers of critical theory and philosophy.) I think I got a different sense of privilege doing this kind of work; we usually don’t have time to sit and reflect on texts and write about them when the world is burning around us.  

ZC: You have written near daily blog / newsletter since 7 October 2023 and some of these essays are about to be published as a book. Can you tell us a little bit more about this project?

During the Covid pandemic I started a blog, mainly to keep in touch amidst isolation and deal with grieving for my father who died while I was away from Israel. After 7 October I felt a huge polarisation in some worlds I was inhabiting; the Israeli left and the international left. I started writing on 13 October, mainly to try and think in and with two voices, and then it became a practice that helped me deal with confusion and try to understand what was happening around me. From the onset I was concerned about the horrors that were going to unfold in my name in Gaza, yet we were also deeply grieving for our family and friends implicated in the 7 October atrocities, and it took us time to understand the scale of these. With time the tone of the blog shifted as the number of Palestinian casualties rose exponentially and other events occurred such as expedited ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, the ICJ genocide case, and others. 

Cover of One Woman's War: essays written in war, for peace by Dana Mills, introduction by Sally Abed. Cream background with a blue line running across from lower left to upper right corner.

I didn’t know an editor and publisher, Ross Bradshaw, signed up to the blog, and he wrote to me and asked me to publish it. It took me time to think about this: I am a trained political theorist and this is a very personal blog. But many people said the writing helped them, and so I agreed, while asking that my friend, the Palestinian activist Sally Abed, writes the introduction, and all proceeds of the book go to the Israeli- Palestinian movement standing together. 

ZC: Do you ever find yourselves rethinking your theoretical commitments based on what you find in your activism?

DM: Not really; I still read and write,  but don’t think this implicates my work in the real world, which is very fact- driven and derived from conversations with colleagues on the ground (especially my Palestinian colleagues in Gaza and the West Bank; being able to read their reporting means I have first hand knowledge of what is being done in my name). 

ZC: With a busy schedule such as yours, do you find you still have time for philosophical work? I know from your newsletter that you read a lot. Do you find that you still have time to write as well? Is this something which you are happy with or something you would like to change?

DM: Yes, I think writing is  and always will be part of who I am. I don’t see philosophy as motivating my work, though. Of course, it was part of how I developed my politics but at the end of the day the world is unfolding in front of our eyes, not in my library. I read and write as something that is part of my life, and am still in conversation with friends and comrades who also read and write. 

ZC: I got the impression that you get a lot of comfort during these difficult times from reading philosophers like Rosa Luxemburg and Arendt. Do you find philosophy is a comfort in general in this way?

Cover of Critical Lives Rosa Luxemburg by Dana Mills. Red tinted image of white woman against black background.

DM: I wouldn’t say Luxemburg brings comfort! She always drives me to think further about my actions. I wrote a biography of her life and she remained an interlocutor. I’ve been writing about Arendt for two decades and find her helpful in asking questions, including some tough questions she asked in the earlier years of the Israeli state. But they trouble me rather than comfort me. I read them to find questions I may allow myself go quiet otherwise. But I’ve also been reading Levinas and Derrida, and contemporary local philosophers such as Anat Matar, who I admire and adore. 

ZC: Do you find the change in your relationship with “traditional” academia – not living in Oxford anymore, not working at a university – something which was easy to adjust to, or is it a cause for discomfort?

DM: I found it remarkably easy to adjust to civil society in Israel-Palestine, perhaps because it is a very warm and supportive community. I was always involved in politics back home and knew some of my future colleagues. There is a sense of joint commitment to something bigger than us,  to stop something that is being done for us (Israelis) in our name, so there is a lot of solidarity and mutual support. I loved being an academic and never felt it imposing, but felt there was a lack of community and didn’t like the competitive edge of it. It also pushed people to be self absorbed in ways I dislike very profoundly. I miss the privilege and pleasure of being able to disengage the world and read and write for a living, but as I found my feet quite quickly the change came naturally. I like working with people who know point blank: this is not about us. It feels like a meaningful use of my time and helped me adjust swiftly to a very different life.

 ZC: Many of your philosophical interests are connected to your interests outside philosophy, for example dance. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

Cover of Dana Mills Dance & activism, a century of radical dance across the world. Black background, swirling lines on the right.

DM: I trained as a dancer and worked as one for a while. I wrote my first and third books about the connection between dance and politics. I wrote those because there was a gap in the literature of this connection from the perspective of political science, which is my schooling. I love dance and still take classes; it is a mainstay and a different community that sustains me. It is, too, a huge privilege. I’ve always written because I felt there was a gap in relevant literature, and I find writing something I need to do rather than love to do. I’m pleased I had this chance and opportunity. 

ZC: Finally, do you think philosophy and philosophers remain relevant in the face of overwhelming, cataclysmic events like the ones in Israel and Gaza? Can philosophers usefully say anything?

DM: Well, I think the genocide in Gaza concerns all of us as human beings witnessing it. I am not an international lawyer but if you stand in a classroom with young people around you you have a responsibility to talk things through with them, despite the chilling atmosphere and censorship from Israel. We are all human beings living in a time of war crimes or crimes against humanity committed in real life, with documentation on twitter and instagram where our students are watching. I think we should all be asking questions about apartheid, the occupation, what was the context for the atrocities of the 7 October and how Israel’s horrific response implicates us all individuals and human beings, and especially as educators, rather than philosophers. 

Dana Mills’s latest book, One Woman’s War: Essays Written in War, for Peace was published on 1 February 2024 by Five Leaves Publishing and costs £10.

Her previous books are:

Dana Mills, 2021, Dance and Activism: A Century of Radical Dance Across the World, Bloomsbury
Dana Mills, 2020, Rosa Luxemburg, Reaktion
Dana Mills, 2016, Dance and Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries, Manchester University Press, OPEN ACCESS

My current research interest is in ethical issues related to mental illness and psychiatry. In the past I have written on democratic theory and deliberative democracy. Currently I am a Visiting Researcher at the Sowerby Project on Philosophy and Medicine, King’s College London.


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