Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel, by Cary Nelson, (MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights and Indiana University Press, 2016). ISBN 978-0-253-02516-6. 396 pp.
Cary Nelson — whose impressive credentials include being a longtime professor at the University of Illinois, author or editor of over 30 books and president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006-2012 — firmly cemented his reputation as an authority on academic boycotts with his 2015 anthology (co-edited with Gabriel Brahm), The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.
His new book, which draws on the earlier one and also adapts material written by several other scholars, now offers everything its subtitle promises — and, as we’ll see, more. As such it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested not merely in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also in its increasingly heated proxy conflict on campuses across the world.
Dreams Deferred aims (its publisher tells us) to “empower readers to be informed participants in conversations and debates,” providing “facts and arguments to assist all who seek justice for both Israelis and Palestinians and who believe the two-state solution can yet be realized.”
This blurb tells you straight out that, despite its encyclopedic form, the volume does not offer the typical neutrality of an encyclopedia. Throughout its 60 concise but information-rich entries, the book in fact makes a two-part argument: (i) defending the legitimacy of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and (ii) offering support of eventual Palestinian statehood by challenging Israel’s “occupation” of Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the West Bank, scare quotes mine). Its emphasis on the burgeoning Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is no accident, since that campaign, mounting increasingly powerful attacks (i), now constitutes perhaps the primary challenge to advocacy of the two-state solution — at least on Western campuses.
For an introduction to the BDS movement as it manifests itself across academia and elsewhere, you cannot do better than Dreams Deferred. Different entries provide a history of the BDS movement; explore how BDS operates in Christian churches and in organized labor; and provide useful modules about the two most important BDS votes to date in professional academic organizations: the American Studies Association (which endorsed BDS in 2013) and the American Anthropological Association (which narrowly defeated BDS in May 2016 after the book was in press). Combine these with entries presenting the history of anti-Jewish boycotts in general, as well as a close analysis of the “long-term goal” of campus BDS activism, and the picture becomes quite clear. Though BDS activists often cast themselves as social justice crusaders defending the human rights of Palestinians, most BDS activism appears continuous with traditional antisemitic attacks on the rights of Jews, including the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. While activists often describe themselves as “promoting peace,” their leaders make no effort to hide their aim of destroying the Jewish state and replacing it with an Arab majority state — not exactly a formula for “peace.”
These points are only reinforced when one examines the dishonest rhetoric and dishonorable tactics of anti-Israel activists on campus and beyond. An entry on “Apartheid” exposes the lie that is that charge against Israel, as well as its deliberate use (or abuse) to falsely associate the Jewish state with the illegitimate South African Apartheid regime. A brilliant entry on “Settler Colonialism” does the same against that lie and libel, in particular refuting the widely promoted notion that Israeli Jews are “white” and Palestinians are people “of color” — a notion that, other entries show, permits anti-Israel activists to make otherwise bizarre alliances with progressive campus groups, and thus greatly fuels Israel-hatred across Western campuses. “Holocaust Inversion” details activists’ outrageous efforts to compare Israeli Jews to Nazis, while another on “Pinkwashing” — the charge that Israel only promotes its progressive values on LGBTQ matters to distract attention from its alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians — rightly exposes that smear for what it is: a license to condemn Israel continuously for everything, since nothing “good” about Israel may ever receive praise. The short but powerful entry on “Anti-normalization” is in the same vein, decisively exposing that tactic for the anti-peace agent that it is.
All the above are key components of the first prong of the book’s argument, its defense of the legitimacy of Israel. This appears to be the weightier prong, suggesting that Nelson sees the more pressing concern to be that of defending Israel from its critics. Still, there is no mistaking the presence of the second prong throughout the book as well, the critique of Israel’s “occupation.” You find it quietly in the “Apartheid” entry, which, while primarily defending Israel from that smear, also affirms Israel’s responsibility for the “ethnic separation on the West Bank.” You find it in the “Settlements” entry, which offers arguments that consider settlement growth a significant threat to the two-state solution that, as such, “maximizes [Palestinian] despair and hostility and creates fertile ground for the promotion of violence.”
In the “Nakba” entry — meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, the word is used to refer to the establishment of Israel and the consequent production of Palestinian refugees — Nelson provides a generally sympathetic account of Palestinian suffering, recounts alleged Israeli atrocities during the 1948 War and urges that recognizing the centrality of the Nakba “to Palestinian identity is a prerequisite for the sense of mutual empathy that must undergird the peace process.” In the “West Bank” entry, he defends the use of the word “occupation” to describe Israeli presence there. And so on.
To me, these were sections in which the concise format of the book was perhaps a disadvantage, where more argument (or perhaps more nuance) was in order.
In “Settlements,” Nelson mentions “international” opinion that the settlement enterprise is illegal, but offers no mention of the many highly credentialed people who do not share that opinion. Further, he emphasizes Israelis’ nefarious motivations in establishing settlements and the alleged threat settlements pose to the two-state solution, even while briefly offering reasons why settlements don’t actually undermine that solution. But if they don’t undermine the two-state solution, then why are they actually problematic? Might this be a place to examine how the settlements are used by anti-Israel activists as a political weapon to unjustly shift blame to Israel for the failure of the peace process?nuance) was in order. In the “Nakba” entry, for example, Nelson presents the term primarily as referring to the flight of refugees (a feeling one can have sympathy for), but only acknowledges in passing that the term is also widely used to refer to Israel’s very creation (a feeling that is objectionable); he affirms Ari Shavit’s claim (in his bestselling 2013 book My Promised Land) of a 1948 “Israeli massacre and expulsion of Lydda’s Arab population,” but makes no mention of eminent historian Martin Kramer’s powerful dissection of that claim.
Similar considerations apply to other places where Nelson is promoting the second prong of the book’s argument. In the “Settlements” entry, again he states that “after the Six Day War the Israeli right began to call the West Bank Judea and Samaria, thereby invoking an aura of destiny to add to other reasons to reclaim the territory.” But his very next sentence observes that the 1947 UN Resolution that affirmed the partition itself referred to the area for a future Palestinian state as “Judea and Samaria” — and, in fact, those terms were commonly used during the Mandate period. In “The West Bank” entry, Nelson defends the use of the word “occupation” for Israel’s status in that territory, but that very defense is surrounded by several passages acknowledging that perhaps “occupation” isn’t the most accurate word, after all.
Put very positively, one might say that when defending the prong against Israel’s “occupation,” Nelson is extraordinarily and admirably fair to those who disagree, by regularly presenting their opposing arguments. Put less positively, one might say that it feels sometimes that Nelson’s heart is not really in this part of the book’s argument, for almost every time he supports it, he also supplies ample material for its rejection.
The same point might be made by noting a key omission of the book. In its otherwise fine entry on the “One-State Solution,” it rightly criticizes those who seek a single binational state, intending thereby a future Arab majority state that is unlikely to be very hospitable to its Jewish minority. But Nelson does not discuss the other “one-state solution,” the one that argues that Israel could successfully (and justifiably) annex Judea and Samaria, while preserving both its Jewish and democratic character. Evaluating this proposal necessarily requires close re-examination of conventional views about Jewish and Arab demographics, work that Yoram Ettinger, among others, is doing; and journalist Caroline Glick articulated and defended the proposal at length in her important 2014 book, The Israeli Solution. I’m not saying that she is right. I’m saying that a book that purports to support the two-state solution would benefit with an entry discussing the main competing proposals.
All this exposes a sort of fault-line, I believe, an instability that lies beneath the two-state solution as it is typically defended from the Jewish or Israeli perspective. That fault-line is the belief that a substantive and defensible distinction can be made between the territory of Israel proper (say) and Judea and Samaria. My worry is that many of the arguments that challenge Israeli “occupation” of Judea and Samaria are easily applicable to Israel proper. At the very least, many Israel-haters certainly feel that way, holding that the entire Jewish presence in the region amounts to an unjust occupation obtained by military force. Even what may be the most important argument from the Israeli perspective against the “occupation” — that it is inconsistent with Israel’s remaining both Jewish and democratic — can be turned against Israel by the haters, who will hold that if this is all that keeps Jews from claiming the West Bank then their deep principled objection to Israel proper is correct: that it’s a racist, ethnic state concerned to maintain its Jewish majority so that it can oppress Palestinians.
Nelson’s book attempts to straddle this fault-line, I believe, challenging the Israeli presence in and control of Judea and Samaria, while defending the Israeli presence in and control of Israel proper. That it’s weaker precisely where it attempts the former, that it regularly accompanies those attempts with material supporting the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in (and even sovereignty over) Judea and Samaria, helps illustrate how unstable that fault-line is.
As for criticism of the book, then, it’s this: The encyclopedia format is perhaps best suited for purely factual works, and Dreams Deferred, in advancing an argument, offers a bit too much of an opinion to be so formatted. In the end, however, I stress that this is a small point that should not obscure the extremely high quality of the book overall and its enormous usefulness as a resource for those interested in its issues. And, in fact, despite my criticism, there may be a subtle advantage to the strategy Nelson has taken here, after all.
By expressing sympathy for at least one of the major concerns expressed by anti-Israelists — their antipathy to Israel’s “occupation” of the “West Bank” — Dreams Deferred may appeal to at least some members of the anti-Israel crowd. Once they are reading the book, they will also read the very thorough defense of Israel’s legitimacy that is the dominant thread in the book. And while it might be too much to hope to change anyone’s mind, one might hope that maybe, just maybe, some genuine dialogue could get started.
And that would perhaps be the best thing to help make the two-state solution a little closer.