“Have we indeed sinned more than any other nation?”
—Chaim Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary (September 10, 1939)
“In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli—and this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.”
—Philip Roth, Operation Shylock (1993)
If there are still many Americans who believe that college and university professors are harmless drudges obsessed with moldy futilities, people who know so much about so little that they can neither be contradicted nor are worth contradicting, they should be disabused of their illusions by the recent decisions of three (ostensibly) academic organizations to boycott the academic institutions of the state of Israel. First, the Asian American Studies Association in April, and more recently the American Studies Association, and the Council of Native Americans and Indigenous Studies Association. All have decided that they can no longer share the globe with a Jewish-majority state, any more than the academics included in Max Weinreich’s classic study of Hitler’s Professors (YIVO, 1946) could continue to share Europe with its Jewish minority.
It was these German professors who made anti-Semitism academically respectable and complicit in raw murder. They called into question—and quite successfully, of course—the Jews’ “right to live”; our homegrown anti-Semites—and let us not flinch from calling them what they are—now dispute Israel’s “right to exist,” making themselves accessories before the fact to the planned erasure of Israel by Iran and its Arab satellites. When the new, academic version of the 1933 Nazi boycotts began, ten years ago in England, it appealed to Europeans who were convinced that the Holocaust had given anti-Semitism a bad name, and that it deserved another chance. Now it has found a foothold in America’s universities.
The politicization of professional organizations, especially in the humanities, has a long history in this country. Those among us who have passed our Biblical threescore and ten were reminded by the Americanists’ decision to read Israel out of the family of nations of one Louis Kampf, who in 1971 was installed as president of the Modern Language Association for the express purpose of imposing the values of the New Left. He was to supply teachers who never cared much for literature in the first place a rationale for their hostility to literary studies: the great literary works were nothing but an instrument and a result of class oppression. Kampf and his acolytes, instead of applying for job retraining, envisioned revolution via the English departments. Overcome by the explosive power of boredom, they would “liberate” campus buildings in which they could make literature “relevant.” (I still recall a late colleague of mine who, when asked at the time why she had not renewed her MLA membership, replied that “As a Canadian citizen, I’m not permitted to join foreign political organizations.”)
The New Left, seething with yet unabated hatred of Israel for surviving the Six-Day War, in later years (1998) would also elect Edward Said, the “professor of terror” and veteran of the PLO executive, to the presidency of the MLA. Cynthia Ozick had remarked of Said’s joining of literature to terror that “If, years ago when I was in graduate school, someone had told me that it was possible to be steeped in Joseph Conrad and at the same time be a member of the ‘National Council’ of a world-wide terror organization I would have doubted this with all the passion for civilization and humane letters that a naïve and literature-besotted young person can evidence. I know better now. Professor Said has read Heart of Darkness, and it has not educated his heart.”
In January 2014 the same MLA, an organization whose 30,000 members dwarf the membership of the American Studies Association, will devote a panel of its annual meeting to a “debate” of the boycott, perhaps the prelude to a resolution proposing an MLA variant. One of the pro-boycott panelists is Barbara Harlow of University of Texas, who has been a busy virtuoso of anti-Israel activity since at least 1989, when she sprang to the defense of Said for having insisted on the “right” of the PLO, supposedly guaranteed by the UN Charter itself, “to punish collaborators during periods of military occupation.” The other four MLA panelists, in a remarkable display of what progressives mean by “diversity,” also favor the BDS movement, though not all have any connection with literature or philology, the ostensible business of the MLA.
Many of Said’s disciples would go on to concoct a heady brew of postmodernist theorizing, infatuation with terror against Israel and America, and stupefyingly opaque prose. Here, for example, is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, as heavily petted by Columbia University today as Said was years ago by that noble institution, in a lecture of 2002: “Suicide bombing—and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs—is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of auto-eroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others. … Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning … you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing…It is a response…to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.” On such ingredients, which Lionel Trilling used to call “the language of nonthought,” does our professorial avant-garde nourish itself.
The allegations against Israel brought by the assorted academic boycotters are countless, and make the tiny country—that “shitty little country,” as a French diplomat who unzipped his mouth in public said a few years ago—guilty of virtually every evil on the planet with the (possible) exception of global warming. But let us examine the favorite one: Israel is an “apartheid” state. According to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “All academic exchanges with Israeli academics … have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.” On practically every American campus that deems itself “progressive” there is an Israel Apartheid Week every spring. For days on end the self-declared friends of the human species spew fire and vitriol at the Jewish state and call for its elimination from the family of nations, so that the globe may be Judenstaatrein (purified of a Jewish state).
There have never been apartheid laws in Israel. Jews and Arabs use the same buses, clinics, government offices, universities, theatres, restaurants, soccer fields, and beaches. All citizens of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, are equal before the law. That law accords full political, civil, and human rights to all its people, including the more than one million Arab citizens, some of whom serve in the Israeli parliament and cabinet. Israel is also the only country in the world to have sought out and brought to its shores, entirely on its own initiative, tens of thousands of black Africans for purposes other than slavery, granting them full citizenship. There is, to be sure, extreme and murderous racial and religious discrimination in the Middle East—have the Americanists looked into the causes of the 130,000 dead in nearby Syria?—so much so that Israel is nearly the only state in the region where “apartheid” is not practiced in some form.
Anybody who believes that the singling out of Israel, the sole Jewish-majority nation among all the nations of the world, for boycott has nothing to do with Jew-hatred will also believe that Europe’s recent obsession with banning circumcision and the laws of kashrut has nothing to do with a deep-seated desire to rid itself, yet again, of Jews. Such a (conjectural) person might also be interested in some choice real estate I know about in downtown Aleppo.
The American Studies Association boycotters, especially the organization’s president and executive committee, have comported themselves with the dogmatism and dictatorialness that have long been de rigueur among academic liberals: they would not allow their opponents within the ASA to make the case against declaring war on Israel to the organization’s membership. They also acted according to rule in trotting out their Display Jews (to borrow Kafka’s term) to blacken Israel’s image (and turn the pariah people into the pariah state). This stale trick is the ASA’s chief defense against charges that the boycott movement is anti-Semitic. One hesitates to call such Jews self-haters because so many of them are sick with self-love. Seen in long historical perspective, they represent a relatively recent development in the often desperate search for Jewish “identity.” In a famous short story of 1942 by the Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz, a character named Yudka (little Jew) declares that “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.” But in Howard Jacobson’s satirical novel, The Finkler Question (2010), we encounter a fellow named Kugle (Yiddish for pudding) who declares that “I am a Jew by virtue of the fact that I am not a Zionist.” These Jews inspire contempt but also—let me confess it—a certain degree of pity. The creation of the state of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry was one of the greatest affirmations by a martyred people of the will to live, indeed one of the most hopeful signs for humanity since the dove brought to Noah “an olive-leaf freshly plucked” after the primeval flood had abated. What, I wonder, must it be like for a Jew to be blind to this? (Light is a quality of matter, but blind people don’t see it.)
Perhaps a cautionary and charitable note of warning to the aforementioned Kugles assiduously feeding the flames of anti-Semitism is in order. Stoking this fire is a risky business because the flames quickly get out of control. Jew-haters, whether Nazi or Communist, Islamist or progressive, are notoriously poor at distinguishing between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. Like poor Cinna, the unfortunate poet in Julius Caesar who is mistaken by the “firebrands” come to mourn their murdered emperor insisting that he is not “Cinna the conspirator,” it will avail them nothing to plead, “I am Kugle the anti-Zionist! I am not Kugle the Zionist.” The mob will nevertheless reply: “It is no matter. Tear him to pieces, he’s a Jew.”
Jews who eagerly look forward to the elimination of Israel by relentless demonization and its likely sequel, by fair means or foul, might do well to remember the old Yiddish proverb: Come for your inheritance, and you may have to pay for the funeral.”
Edward Alexander is the author, most recently, of The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers, 2012).