It was a question of questions. Both asked and unasked. Answered and unanswered. And, most of all, questions answered badly—prompting more questions to be asked.
At the January 2014 annual gathering of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago, papers were given on the usual range of specialized topics in literary studies; candidates for jobs in English were interviewed; and the association of experts on modern language took extraordinary steps toward establishing a foreign policy. Starting small—presumably out of a sense of proportion indicated by modesty, given their lack of qualifications in this area—the professors of English, etc., prudently chose to begin with a proposal aimed solely at just one tiny country. As if to say, the more miniscule the target, the better—forgetting that although relatively small things may look easier to blast, they require better aim, even with big guns like national organizations the size of the MLA.
Yet not without precedent did the academic boycott lobby inside the MLA select their strategy of largely meaningless, if vociferous, denunciation of Israel in particular. Cleverly, like the United Nations itself in this way—no doubt the MLA activists were aware that three-fourths of all UN resolutions that single out a lone country for criticism by the General Assembly have been aimed at the Jewish state—the professors of various literatures knew just where to begin healing the world, by piling on with the “language.” Moreover, not just the UNGA, but a smaller and less important MLA sister organization—the American Studies Association (ASA)—had also recently decided on a similarly cowardly course of action, and even went as far as voting to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. While the problems with a corrupt General Assembly are no secret (its motives for attacking Israel, mostly symbolically and out of all proportion, are well understood by that institution’s observers), the ASA’s weird decision to pick now to get in on the Israel-bashing phenomenon of many years raised a question. Why?
Which in turn gave rise to an answer.
As explained by ASA President, Professor Curtis Marez, in what quickly became an infamous joke—although/because he really was serious (he actually said it), “You have to start somewhere.”
The inanity and appalling ignorance of this irresponsible statement aside, taken seriously (as meant) for the sake of argument, Marez’s question-begging response begs the further question: Why not, then, simply “start” the American Studies scholars’ campaign for justice in the world beyond America’s borders a little more ambitiously—with the announcement of an even-handed policy, directed at the type(s) of injustice that the ASA membership presumably, rightly, abhors, wherever such wrongdoing rears its ugly head? Nor would a politically neutral, balanced, ethically universalist approach need to have been interpreted absurdly as mandating action everywhere all at once (as some of ASA’s defenders have mockingly claimed), but would instead have served to clarify the organizations’ mission and intent. Is it to help redress wrongs committed by the imperfect Jewish state alone? Or, do the professional Americanists, more reasonably and morally, have an interest in human rights and scholars’ rights around the world, as these are imperiled daily by states far more imperfect than tiny, liberal-democratic, Israel, and with which the US also has strong ties?
Understandably, such questions begat more questions—until the whole ASA scheme and its aftermath came to seem…questionable, indeed. If, for example, because of the perceived wrongdoings of a government, an academic organization is going to boycott fellow academics—which was the ASA’s “brilliant” strategy—and it wants to do so on the basis of nationality and in the name of academic freedom, well, is that not first of all itself a violation of academic freedom? And second, but no less important, an ethno-racist policy, too? Dubious enough tactics in general, right? Except it’s worse than that—when one recalls that the supposed transgression under indictment by today’s “progressive” academic organizations is precisely (what else?) Israel’s own ostensible (purported) inhibition ofacademic freedom on ethno-nationalist grounds! Moreover, if any of that were the real issue with Israel (instead of a red herring, given Israel’s vibrant and free academic culture) then why not at least (for appearances’ sake if nothing else) shun as well the academics of China, Turkey, Russia, or even the United States? Since none of these countries are above criticism when it comes to what Israel gets branded with by its obsessed detractors—the violation of “human rights,” “occupation,” disrespect for “indigeneity,” etc.—one would have thought that the American Studies Association might have found ample reason to boycott itself first of all, on these sorts of grounds.
But once you open up a can of worms, why not go further and question the policies of such model states as Iran, Syria or North Korea—places where, very much unlike Israel, with its thriving civil society, there is no academic or political freedom? If, that is, you, with your can-of-worms opener, were serious about “starting somewhere” appropriate that made real sense, in a genuine campaign to better the world. Instead, the ASA chose to start with Israel—a country born heroically out of the national liberation struggle of a small minority of the earth’s population, the Jewish people, in a movement to free itself from centuries of European endo-colonization, by renewing its ties to its own indigenous lands, and facing the kind of menace that turned out to include the only truly global-eliminationist genocide in history. Had Zionism succeeded in establishing a state by, say, 1933, would there have been a Holocaust? Questions, questions—Marez’s “answer” about where to start just begs so many of them, it’s hard to know where to stop!
For example, there is even the question (dare we say it? dare we not?) of anti-Semitism in the movement to boycott Israel. After all, when today’s “new” anti-Semitism (as it’s called) distinguishes itself qualitatively from just more of the same “old” kind, it does so largely on the basis of attacks against not only Jews but the Jewish state, some of which even go so far as advocating an end to Israel as a Jewish state. For this is the sine qua non of peace, freedom, and justice in the world. So, is not the very proposition of boycotts with the intent of helping to eventually wipe Israel from the map anti-Semitic by definition? While those in the academic boycotts movement (in this not unlike most Jew-haters around the world today) have disdain for the discredited, moldy old label, “anti-Semite” (even members of Hamas and its supporters reject the accusation), they proudly emblazon the term “anti-Zionist” upon their escutcheons (again, in line with virtually all kinds of resurgent anti-Semitism today). So there is a question here too. Has the world really forgotten what this reviled thing Zionism—which it is assumed to be so respectable to declare oneself openly “anti-”—really was and is? Namely, the movement for the self-preservation (only partly successful) and autonomy of a people no less beleaguered by oppression than any in history.
Questions, questions. Yet, with the ASA’s previous blunder as recently established precedent, committed portions of the MLA were in no mood for a history lesson—but instead, activists in that organization merely followed suit, in a competition to see which organization could pass a more mindless resolution more thoughtlessly. Thus, at the January 2014 convention in Chicago, there came to be a “roundtable” discussion given over entirely to denouncing the Jewish state. Organized by a wing of the pro-boycotts, anti-Israel lobby internal to the MLA, it was a part of larger efforts to promote a “BDS” agenda (Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions against the Jewish state) within academia. And it offered no better justification for such an agenda than Professor Marez had given when queried—which tells you something. To wit: Professor Barbara Harlow, when asked from the floor a question similar to that put to the ASA President (“Of all the nations in all the trouble-spots on earth, why have you chosen Israel in particular for censure?”), responded blithely: “Why not?” It was symptomatic. It was gestures like that which tended to indicate that the MLA leaders of the academic and cultural boycotts movement might actually be as ignorant—if not, indeed, incurious—about the special object of their peculiar ire as the ASA as a whole seemed to be.
Which brings us to the question of yet another question: What else besides ignorance might this all be a sign of? Are such oddly unabashed, uncannily parallel expressions of indifference to the very issues ostensibly up for debate merely a random feature of this particular discussion? Or, are these symptoms symptomatic precisely of what often happens when self-styled scholar-activists voice opinions outside their fields of expertise, as (often poorly informed) activists rather than scholars per se? But if that were so (and while everyone’s got a right to an opinion), then why should their—our!—scholarly organizations be allowed to be used as anyone’s preferred organs of protest on matters outside of their field of study? Scholars stand for scholarship. Putting a scholarly seal on anti-Israelism isn’t kosher.
Shamefully, it was after several more hours of such “answers” to the question of what was going on, most of them resembling Harlow’s shrug, that at the end of the day (literally), the Delegate Assembly (DA) of the MLA approved a proposal to put a proposal critical of Israel before the full membership, a question to be voted on by the organization as a whole in the months ahead (as yet an undecided issue at the time of this writing). What this means is that much of what was said at the DA meeting in January to justify the MLA’s considering a foray into foreign policy made no more sense than the hullaballoo that BDS supporters now routinely seek to stir up—as a way of casting aspersions almost as an end in itself. In fact, the MLA proposed resolution’s chief architects—Professors Richard Ohmann, and David Lloyd—as much as admitted defeat of their original idea, in terms of any real substance their proposal might have ever been thought to have had. They had to, in order to try to save face, when it was quickly made clear that what they had spent god-knows how long drafting didn’t make any factual or moral sense. And so it was that they themselves were forced to question—throw out—much of what they had planned to ask for an answer about, in the form of a vote, from members of the DA!
Thus: in response to criticisms from concerned fellow MLA members prior to any voting whatsoever, they—the proposal’s chief advocates themselves—drastically cut portions that were easily shown to be manifestly absurd, leaving just a rump statement that was even crazier (more illogical) than the one they had thought was as good as any place to “start” from (because “why not?”). So: here’s what happened. Instead of a resolution, as first formulated, protesting against Israel’s policy toward those scholars wishing to visit Gaza (mention of which was excised soon after the would-be critics’ critics pointed out that Israel hasn’t occupied Gaza for years, and Egypt anyway controls its southern border-crossing, making the singling out of Israel in this regard even more problematic); instead of language condemning Israel for “arbitrary” denials of entry to the country (removed as well after other MLA members asked for evidence of arbitrariness, and the foes of Israel could produce none): instead, a significantly redacted resolution was finally put forward. But yet it still only passed by just seven votes out of 113 ballots cast!
Listen to this: The statement as finally forwarded had eliminated from it all reference to eitherGaza orarbitrariness, which seemed fair enough. Except when one paused to recall that without the erroneous bits about arbitrariness and travel to Gaza, there was nothing left on which to base the original claim of the MLA’s having a professional obligation to respond to a U.S. State Department Travel Warning—which, in point of fact, is a prudent warning that applies not to Israel at all but to Gaza, because it is governed by a terrorist organization. Hamas! Without the claim that Israel denies entry to its national territory “arbitrarily,” in other words (just for fun, lacking reasons, because the Jewish state is a gang of fascists), there was nothing left of the original claim at issue. All the resolution finally “accused” Israel of was controlling its borders because of security concerns, as do the governments of all nations. Bizarrely, as the five and a half hour meeting of the Delegate Assembly dragged on, “Why not?” had morphed into “So what?” before the assembled delegate’s eyes. And in order to avoid having to answer real questions such as those we have raised here. Questions some even tried to raise at the meeting itself, although it wasn’t easy for Israel supporters to get a chance at the mic that day, for reasons that were reported on inInside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere.
What it came down to was that, in spite of the emptiness of the resolution’s final wording (or rather, precisely because of it!), there was a feeling in the room that had to be assuaged, stimulated by the committed BDSers in attendance (of which there appeared to have been about 60). The feeling seemed to be that Israel simply had to be deemed somehow uniquely to blame for something—and so it was. And so it was that a purely symbolic proposed resolution, void of content, logic, or substance, was approved by a slim margin to be put before the membership for a final vote later on in the year, with a clear intent of nothing more (or less) than stigmatizing Israel in the hopes of lending credence to the cause of those who question its very legitimacy, and would deny its right to existence as a UN member state.
So it was that Bigoted, Dishonest, and Shameful (BDS) double-standards aimed at demonizinganddelegitimating Israel—Natan Sharansky’s “3D Test of Anti-Semitism” in relation to the Jewish state—were firmly in place and fully in effect where one might naively have thought least to find them. And, thus precisely it is that we believe BDS to be, in actuality, a movement that is anti-Semitic, first and foremost, in intent—if indeed, hopefully not, as it appears from the gutted resolution’s meaningless wording, in effect. With apologies to Lawrence Summers for our inversion of his well-known formula to fit the absurd circumstances of the MLA’s “postmodern” politics—a view of the world in which image is thought to be everything and reality nothing—it appears that it is in fact the intent to create an image that is, in this case, the only real effect.
Now let’s be crystal clear: the BDS insistence on the Palestinian “right of return” and an end to the “greater occupation” of “all Arab lands” in a territory stretching “from the river to the sea” is the antithesis of a call for peace and reconciliation between two peoples in a compromise solution that would allow both a place in the sun, side by side in some kind of harmony. Rather, it becomes painfully apparent that, for committed extremists of the academic and cultural boycotts movement, Palestinian identity is now conceived of as synonymous with three things—all non-starters in any peace negotiations with a chance of success, as everyone knows who is serious. For BDS trumpets: (1) the “right of return”; (2) the permanent, sanctified struggle with Israel until the bitter end, without genuine recognition of the Jewish state or real, meaningful compromise; and (3) perpetual recognition of the Palestinian’s own status andthat of all their descendants until the end of time as refugees, dispossessed of the land of Israel/Palestine with the connivance of the international community. More reasonably, however—since many, if not most, of the originally displaced victims of the 1948 Nakba would presumably be dead by now of old age or close to it—others have referred to the actual refugee problem as a diminishing, not growing, one. The actual refugee problem per se simply can’t go on forever and becomes increasingly moot, ironically enough, due to what might be termed, albeit sadly yet inevitably, “facts in the ground.” But Israel’s haters won’t mourn the dead and with that let their hatred die too, which they instead seek to keep alive and pass on from generation to generation.
To make matters worse, those stalwart BDSers, who know better, often seek to evade the “anti-Semitic” (because anti-Zionist) label, by resorting to ignoring or covering up what Palestinians say in Arabic about their political demands; the definition of their national identity; and widespread attitudes toward Israelis. While not unique to American “scholarly activism” (or is it “activist scholarship”?), this linguistic security fence is unfortunately often an obstruction to constructive American and European engagement with the Middle East—a structural feature of the rhetorical landscape that effectively forces meaningful discussion miles out of its way, thus avoiding the real issues at stake both inside academe and beyond. For, while the problematic phrase “right of return” is sometimes explained away as inherently symbolic by definition, rather than practical, just an element of the Palestinian “narrative” regarding the blameless circumstances of their diaspora; Israelis are in fact compelled in many ways to confront real demands along these lines, faced with interlocutors who insist both that they (“the Jews” or at most “the Zionist entity) accept the narrative in which they are the villains, and with it the possibility of a mass migration of Palestinians to Israel that would, by design, put an end to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state of all its citizens. Which is what it is.
These hardcore positions promoted by BDS, either blindly (in some cases perhaps) or with open eyes (as is plainly the case with others) are the opposite of any notion of a just settlement that both parties to a dispute over territory—two nations, one Palestinian and one Jewish—could ever possibly agree on. Tellingly, even liberal critics of Israeli government policies from within the Jewish community, such as Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel, have concluded that this means, “BDS is poison and Omar Barghouti is a classic anti-Semite.” Did we mention that the same Omar Barghouti—the celebrity BDS spokesman, educated at Tel Aviv University, ironically—was on the “roundtable” with Barbara Harlow and Richard Ohmann? Well we should have. For he was!
And regarding Seidler-Feller’s observation, we could not have said it better ourselves. Although we have both been saying more or less the same, in other words, for some time, along with others. Moreover, even the notorious Norman Finkelstein, who has gone so far as to accuse Jews in print of using the Holocaust for their own gain, has described the BDS movement as, “a hypocritical, dishonest cult,” led by “dishonest gurus” who want to “selectively enforce the law” by posing as human rights activists. It is revealing, is it not, when not only radical critics of Israel, like the mad (former?) Professor Finkelstein, but even Palestinian “moderates,” such as Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen, who is, according toWikipedia, both the “Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization” and “President of the State of Palestine”), detach themselves from BDS and speak against it? Because BDS is poison. Even/especially those whom the movement claims to represent know it. Why, then, without the support of the Palestinian Authority even, does BDS push on?
Because, in spite of our questions, BDS supporters disingenuously claim that their brand of criticism of Israel is legitimate, even necessary, and that their positions are based in “real concern” for the well-being of the Palestinians. In fact, their strategy is clearly to target Israel and its advocates for stigmatization by nationality, holding citizens of the world’s only Jewish state to a far different, unrealistically high, standard, set by rules not applied to other countries—including both miserable dictatorships and leading democracies in far less difficult circumstances. Amidst flowery “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, the movement sugarcoats its toxic medicine, misleadingly implying that merely ending specific Israeli policies, deemed “apartheid” practices in their intentionally inflammatory words, would satisfy its backers. In fact, BDS supporters envision the replacement of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with a bi-national, majority Palestinian, entity—otherwise known as a greater Palestine in a world without Israel.
But the academic activists don’t want people to know this. Thus, to try to help get the word out, one of us, Gabriel Brahm, among others (including specifically fellow authors of chapters in this book, Russell Berman, Cary Nelson and Ilan Troen) had to resort to joining a panel billed as the “alternative MLA” session in Chicago. This was organized by MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, and held across the street from the “real MLA,” in response to the organization’s decision to host an exclusively pro-boycott/anti-Israel roundtable which we have mentioned above). Brahm argued then and there on our behalf (with Romirowsky in the audience), and in no uncertain terms, that “the stigma that properly attaches to anti-Semitism should adhere as well to anti-Zionism.”
We conclude this essay therefore by reiterating that claim here, unequivocally. The latter incarnation of bigotry is but a species of the former. For, when a people is denied its right to self-determination, that’s an attack upon that people, as a people. Moreover, there is no way that “debates” about a cultural blockade of Israel can fail to affect the Jewish residents of all countries disproportionately—given that for most of us, if not all, Israel is a distinctive marker of identity, no less important to Jews than the Koran, for example, is to most Muslims. Denigration of anyone’s ethnic identity—despoliation of a community’s symbols—is incompatible with the values of multiculturalism and diversity, or what Hannah Arendt called more precisely the fact of “plurality” as a defining property of the human condition (see her famous remonstration of Adolf Eichmann for “not wanting to share the earth” with others in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem). While certain so-called “stealth writers,” like Professor Vijay Prashad, holder of the Edward Said Chair in American studies at the American University of Beirut, may choose to downplay, on occasion, for the purposes of public media consumption, the underlying genocidal intent of “mere anti-Zionism,” it is both explicitly and implicitly there in the BDS movement. Frankly, we find it hard to imagine that any holder of an “Edward Said Chair” in anything (let alone American studies as it has come to be practiced) could fail to be aware of this fact, even if he doesn’t bother to mention it when writing for a broad audience that could be expected to recoil from the full implications of Said’s own explicit rejection of two states for two peoples.
Moreover, with admiring/fawning students of Said (including, most prominently, the cultural theorist andcult figure, Judith Butler) at its philosophical core, the movement for academic and cultural shunning of Israel—the anti-Israel boycott lobby, understood as an outgrowth and organ of the “new anti-Zionist anti-Semitism”—is a movement against the Jews as a distinctive thread in the tapestry of humanity. It is a racist—anti-Semitism is a form of racism—movement. Anti-Zionism—anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism—is immoral and, indeed, in its current guise as a campaign that proposes embargoing scholarship as a “place to start” since “why not,” another self-inflicted wound to the reputation of today’s university in crisis, or what one might term a “crime against the humanities.” For it is no secret that anti-Zionism is the sort of prejudice that would see a Jewish state selectively excised from the map no less surely than the “old” anti-Semitism would like to have seen the Jewish people erased from the face of the earth. This must be faced, because if prominent individuals like Butler and others are allowed to dominate the scene in academia—if they succeed at shaping the kind of discussions happening on campuses regarding Israel—then extreme voices will have set the tone of a messed up discussion. MLA members like Ohmann and Harlow will carry the day. This must not be—for, how long before unchecked crimes against the humanities help inspire more crimes against humanity?
So! Questions, questions. Will scholarship carry the day on campus after all? Will the full membership of the MLA have the courage, decency, and good sense to vote down the proposed resolution put forth by its BDS inspired General Assembly? Or will debased excuses for real academic work continue to flourish in an age of declining literacy, leading to even greater ignorance and who-knows-what sort of outcomes down the line? The immensely learned doyen of Middle East Studies, Bernard Lewis, once explained the success of Edward Said’s otherwise shoddy, theoretically incoherent and factually inaccurate proto-BDS primer, Orientalism, as residing centrally in its author’s opportunistic cleverness, directed at transforming a single word, “orientalism”—a term that had always referred simply to an area of academic specialty, one focusing on societies and cultures of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia—into a term of abuse. As Lewis prophesied, upon its publication, Said’s Orientalism began changing the face of Middle East studies across North America—as many Middle East classes began to present to students the Arab-Israeli conflict solely through a distorted lens of anti-Zionism. For to do otherwise would make one “orientalist.”
Now, decades later, in a time when not just the study of the Middle East but the humanities and social sciences more broadly are under attack from a corporate America in quest of greater “efficiency” and profits—just as, probably not coincidentally, “functional” illiteracy is well on the way to becoming the “new normal” for nearly half the American population—the academic boycotters’ retreat away from serious engagement of issues and into anti-intellectual demonology bears all the marks of what Richard Hofstadter long ago identified as the “paranoid style in American politics.” As such, BDS’s Manichean rhetoric offers the Israel-bashers of the world some old bottles, too—along with what’s “new” about anti-Semitism today—into which they funnel the gasoline of their inchoate dissatisfaction with a much more complex reality. The yield is a fiery rag-stuffed cocktail of resentment, so easily and thrillingly hurled against readily identifiable stereotypes and made-to-order scapegoats.
In this context, if the MLA Delegate Assembly really wanted to do something “radical,” it might consider a resolution not against Israel but against grade inflation on the one hand (a) and (b) the proletarianization of the professoriate on the other. Until then, imprudent, badly researched and unfair proposed resolutions like the ones approved lately in turn by the ASA as a whole, and the one put forward by the DA of the MLA (again, bearing heavily in mind that as this book goes to press the full membership of the latter still has to decide whether or not to endorse what its delegates have voted to put before them) will stand as glaring symptoms of our detractors’ worst fears about us (we, the tenured, or, increasingly, untenured radicals on college campuses).
Which leaves us with just one more question: Why is it even a question? The “place [and time] to start” defending liberal values (academic freedom among others), by rejecting BDS demagoguery, is here and now.