The American Studies Association, a group of nearly 5,000 professors of the subject, has voted by a large margin to boycott all Israeli institutions of higher education, the New York Times reports. The path of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement (BDS) is not exactly paved with significant victories, but the ASA, which apparently prides itself on its deep understanding of academic freedom and the details of international law, is very confident of its resolution’s importance:
“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom, and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the American Studies Association said in a statement released Monday.
The statement cited “Israel’s violations of international law and U.N. resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights,” and other factors.
Interestingly, in a more-Catholic-than-the-Pope development, the ASA’s position on Israel is well to the left of that of the Palestinian Authority. The guild of scholars so sensitive and attuned to the goings-on in Palestinian life apparently missed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s desperate entreaty to BDS groups to stop boycotting Israel. The Times of Israel reported Friday:
“No, we do not support the boycott of Israel,” the Palestinian leader told a group of South African reporters on Monday. “But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal. […]
“But we do not ask anyone to boycott Israel itself,” he reiterated. “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”
Perhaps we should next expect these brilliant scholar-activists to boycott the PA for its despicable collusion with the Zionist Entity.
The ASA is hardly an organization whose pronouncements shake the earth, and its boycott resolution probably won’t join the Balfour Declaration and PLO Charter in the Arab-Israeli conflict’s pantheon of defining documents. But because it typifies a certain type of empty intellectual posturing on a complicated issue and because both supporters and opponents of the BDS movement engage in some over-the-top rhetoric about resolutions of this type, it is worth thinking about the support base for the kind of anti-Israel resolution that so many academics longing to feel cutting-edge about something seem to be drawn toward.
Before doing that, I ought to make my own position on this clear. I have long believed in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and see the State of Israel as the embodiment of that right. I believe that the Palestinians have an equal right to self-determination and that the Palestinian state needs to have sustainable frontiers and, on the West Bank, territorial contiguity. Further, I’ve argued in print and in electronic media that the key reason that so many negotiations over the two state solution have failed is that Americans in particular have not paid enough attention to what Palestinians need to gain to make such a solution viable. I have been on record for about thirty years in print saying that I don’t think that settlements are a good idea and have said so more than once to Israeli officials. I think that the cease fire boundaries that existed until 1967 do not constitute viable permanent boundaries for either people and that a final agreement on territory would include mutually agreed on swaps and adjustments. I participate in academic exchanges and activities with both Israeli and Palestinian institutions.
Speaking personally, I don’t boycott. I’ve met with representatives from both Hamas and Fatah over the years in Gaza, on the West Bank and in Beirut. I’ve also met with Israelis on all points of the political spectrum there, including radical settlers in and around Hebron. Globally, as a journalist and a scholar, I’ve met with all kinds of people whose viewpoints I find objectionable. I’ve had dinner with Fidel Castro, I’ve interviewed neo-Nazi skinhead thugs in the former GDR, I’ve visited North Korea and met with officials of that regime. (I’ve never broken US law on these trips, by the way.) I did stay out of South Africa until the first majority elections had been held, but would have met with officials or scholars representing the old regime had there been some reason to do so, as I have met with scholars from Iran and with officials of Hezbollah. I am on the board of the New America Foundation, an organization that has come under criticism when one of its senior fellows invited the controversial author of a book very critical of Israel to speak. I neither resigned from that board nor criticized the event. When Brandeis University recently canceled its cooperation agreement with Al-Quds, a Palestinian university where students held a demonstration in support of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad, I supported the decision of Bard College, where I teach, to continue our relationship based on the facts as we understood them. I may not always succeed, but it is my intention and my goal as a scholar and a writer to provide a consistent defense of intellectual freedom and to promote the ideal of free exchange of ideas.
All this is to say that I instinctively reject the idea of broad brush boycotts for scholars, policy organizations and journalists. I don’t like ‘appropriate speech’ codes in universities; I oppose laws punishing people for Holocaust denial; I am one of those people who believe that free speech and the free exchange of ideas are important even when people disagree with me profoundly.
Given all this, it can hardly be surprising that I think the pontificators and poseurs of the ASA should go soak their heads after such a foolish vote. But despite my visceral dislike for what I can’t help but see as a fundamental betrayal of the basic ideals of the intellectual life, I do think that some critics of the resolution are being too tough on the poor ASA.
The core of the criticism (other than the point that intellectual blockades and boycotts are inherently wrong) is that since the ASA has singled out Israel for special treatment even though there are many worse human rights violators in the world demonstrates that the ASA is a nest of ugly anti-Semites.
This criticism is partly true. Even by the strictest measures, Israel is by no means the worst human rights violator on this sad planet of ours and the Palestinians, despite their entirely legitimate complaints, are not the worst treated people alive. Muslims in Burma, many Tibetans, just about everyone in North Korea, and the hundreds of millions of enslaved bonded workers in the Indian subcontinent all endure greater injustices and deprivation in their daily lives than the mass of the Palestinian people. Yet Israel clearly gets a disproportionate weight of global disapproval for what it does. We’ve frequently noted on this blog that even when it comes to the suffering of the Palestinians, there’s a tendency to focus one-sidedly Israeli actions and to minimize the injustices Palestinians experience at the hands of Arabs from the Gulf to Egypt (which keeps its borders with Gaza firmly closed), not to mention the systemic and ugly discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon.
So the ASA, like a lot of other hotheads around the world, comes down like a ton of bricks on Israeli wrongdoing while turning a blind eye to other, worse misdeeds. Anti-Semitism, pure and simple, say some.
It isn’t that simple and it isn’t that pure. There are, I have no doubt, anti-Semites both conscious and unconscious in the ASA, and their dark hearts rejoiced when this boycott was proclaimed. I have no way of estimating their numbers; anti-Semitism is a sickness of the soul and like racism, it is embedded in the cultural structures of our society in ways that can sometimes be hard for people to recognize or understand. There are all kinds of people who claim to be free of all prejudice but who are convinced that “the Jews” control the media, control the banks, control American politics or whatever. Just like people can be warped by racist cultural assumptions and stereotypes without being consciously aware of being prejudiced or even consciously wishing in any way to be associated with the evils of racism, people can be unconsciously shaped by the way our cultural surround has been warped through centuries and even millennia.
But anti-Semites, knowing or unknowing, are just part of the picture. Besides actual anti-Semitism—of which, again, there is still quite a bit—there are four other sources of support for these unbalanced resolutions.
The first group that gets madder at Israel than at other countries with worse human rights records is left-leaning American Jews. This is complicated. It’s natural and even commendable to hold friends and kinfolk to a higher than normal standard, and because Judaism historically has insisted on high ethical standards in human conduct, it’s easy to see how some Jews who disagree with Israeli policies would feel compelled to take a strong and public stand. For many of these Jews, criticizing Israeli policies and even voting for resolutions like the ASA loser isn’t being self-hating or anti-Jewish or even anti-Zionist. It is about standing up for what they see as the true and necessary idealism of the Jewish people and upholding the honor of Jewish values. These people also often believe that in taking these stands they aren’t supporting anti-Semitism—they think they are fighting it by showing the world that not all Jews support the crimes of Israel, and perhaps by showing their fellow scholars in left leaning academic enclaves that not all Jews should be tarred with the Likud brush.
A second group of supporters for these ASA style resolutions is made up of people (usually westerners) who don’t really understand the historical roots and cultural realities of Israel. This group (and American Jews are often among them) sees Israel essentially as a western country that should know better than to do the kinds of reprehensible things a country like the Netherlands would never do. Because Jews have played such a significant role in the development of freedom and the open society in the western world, many westerners see Israel as a western transplant in the Middle East. And because they see Israel’s existence as a consequence of (or reparation for) the Holocaust in Europe, they think the Jewish state is basically a nation of ethnic and cultural Europeans.
This is, of course, sheer ignorance. Israel’s population today is not an offshoot of the west. Demographically, Israel is a Middle Eastern country today; millions of Jewish refugees from Arab countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and from all over the Maghreb now make up fifty percent of Israel’s population. These Israelis can often combine the political and cultural attitudes found in the Arab world with the special bitterness that comes not only from exile, but from having your sufferings ignored and even despised. (Palestinian refugees from Israel get infinitely more sympathy and support from the international community than Jewish refugees from Arab countries ever do.) Including the large number of Israeli immigrants who came originally from Russia and other countries in eastern Europe and the Balkans, a large majority of Israelis have no roots in the western world and the ancestors of most present day Israelis never spent a day of their lives in democratic countries until they got to the embattled Jewish enclave in the Middle East. Seventy percent of Israel’s population today comes from the old lands of the Ottoman Empire and Russia rather than from Western Europe.
Israel isn’t an underachieving Denmark; it would be more accurate to say that it is an overachieving Turkey or a miraculously liberal and tolerant Lebanon. However, lots of people in the west don’t know as much about Israel as they think they do and so they are sincerely surprised and offended by Israeli actions that they assume (perhaps condescendingly) are ‘normal’ when developing countries do them. Israelis themselves aren’t completely guiltless in this confusion; it has sometimes suited the purposes of Israeli diplomacy to play up its western roots. However, ignorance about Israel mixed with arrogance and condescension about the perceived political immaturity of non-western societies around the world is a leading cause of resolutions like the ASA folly.
The third group is the Palestinians themselves. It’s not anti-Semitic for a Palestinian to be angrier at Israeli misbehavior than, say, at Pakistan for its appalling record of mistreating religious minorities, or China for its treatment of the Tibetans. It’s a natural human tendency to be angrier at the people whose actions affect you most directly than at people whose misdeeds only affect people you don’t know.
Finally, there’s a fourth group in the mix: people who are not Palestinians themselves but for various reasons make a strong and emotionally charged connection between the Palestinian cause and some issue that touches them personally. For many non-Palestinian Arabs, the sufferings of the Palestinians are both a sign and a cause of Arab oppression. A Tunisian or a Libyan may not have any personal experience of Israeli wrongdoing, and may have lived under an Arab government that actually oppressed all of its citizens in ways Israel could never emulate, but the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East can still feel like a deep personal and national affront.
Beyond the Arabs, many Muslims also see the rise of a Jewish state (again, often wrongly seen more as a west European implant than as the demographic mix that it is) as both the consequence and a sign of western arrogance and disdain for Muslims and their history and values.
And beyond the Muslim world, there are many people who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one more episode in the western world’s conquest and domination of non-western peoples. Zionism is seen as a form of colonialism, and the Jewish settlers in the Middle East are seen as the latest incarnation of the French settlers in Algeria, the white settlers in Rhodesia and South Africa, and so on. Some of these are people who come out of countries with histories profoundly shaped by ugly colonial experiences, some are westerners trying to cope with the difficult legacy of colonial history. But to the degree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come to serve as a symbolic stand-in for colonialism and resistance to it, across the developing world and on trendy western campuses, there’s a sincerely felt if often poorly reasoned sense that to pass anti-Israel resolutions today is like passing anti-apartheid resolutions a generation ago.
It would be wrong to confound all these very different points of view with anti-Semitism, but it would also be wrong to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t sometimes mix in with these other points of view. The human heart is crooked above all things, and disentangling all the various strands that go into a particular person’s actions at any given time is a task best left to Almighty God.
What goes on in a leftist hothouse like the ASA is a kind of witches’ brew of these various forms of anger: often unconscious anti-Semitism expressing itself as disproportionate anger at Israel; feelings of anger and the need of American Jews to take what they see as an important moral stand against Israeli behavior; the efforts of pro-Palestinian activists, often operating as part of an organized campaign, to score points; and a healthy dose of arrogant ignorance mixed with anti-colonialism of various degrees of seriousness and sincerity.
Other than the anti-Semitism it’s all very understandable, but a professional body that lets itself be dominated by these kinds of concerns doesn’t do itself much good. Sometimes the critics of these sanctions efforts go too far themselves, and dismiss the whole complicated mess as a simple episode of anti-Semitism run amuck. What’s happening is much more complicated, but the more I look at the half-baked anti-Israel resolutions the trendy left keeps proposing, the more confident I am that academic country boycotts and campus speech restrictions are two excellent examples of things this world can do without.