Academics are expected to treat controversial issues with reasoned analysis — objective evaluation of opposing sides. Commentary following the recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas revealed a shocking deviation from that standard among many American academics. Faculty groups at scores of universities — including Princeton, Brown, Vassar, and CUNY — issued utterly one-sided, distorted, and inflammatory statements backing the Palestinian version of history and events.
The statements rolled out common anti-Zionist tropes. It is asserted that Israel by its nature is a racist, “apartheid” state. Israel is a “settler colonialist” enterprise aimed at “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs. Israel is waging a “genocidal” campaign against Gaza’s residents.
While Israel is not immune to criticism, the recent academic distortions demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state. They portray the 11-day Gazan war as an unprovoked, murderous Israeli attack, while ignoring the context of Hamas’ missile barrages aimed at Israeli civilians. The statements also exclusively focus on Israel’s supposed oppression of Arabs while ignoring Hamas’ mistreatment and abuse against the Palestinians living in Gaza.
This article aims to expose and discredit the myopic distortions and myths reflected in these recent condemnations of Israel. If left un-refuted, these one-sided, distorted assertions pose significant hazards. One hazard is to undermine America’s support for Israel’s subsistence by branding Israel as an illegitimate pariah state.
Another hazard of uncritical acceptance of the demonizing narrative is prolongation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas’ long-term violent resistance to the state of Israel (as opposed to a negotiated solution) gets reinforced by the perception that its violent intransigence is supported in America. Hamas’ intended one state “from the river to the sea” entails dismantling Israel and would precipitate incalculably costly violent confrontation.
A final hazard is fueling the burgeoning hostility toward Jewish students on American college campuses without reference to what those individuals think and feel about various Israeli policies. Increasingly, Jewish students have become targets of derision and isolation simply because they are Jewish. A recent survey of 1027 university students actively engaged in Jewish affairs disclosed that 50% felt impelled to “mask their Jewish identity or hide their support for Israel.” The students reported 47 assaults, including being spat on or physically attacked.
1. The calumny that Israel was founded as a colonialist enterprise
Colonialism involves the taking over of a foreign territory through violence and settlement, and the exploitation of the native population and its resources. While that scenario could have some arguable application to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), it is totally misplaced with respect to Israel as created in 1948, with the boundaries that ensued after five Arab countries attacked the newly founded state.
The Jewish presence in the land started over 3,000 years ago. King David made Jerusalem the capital of an Israelite kingdom, and King Solomon built the first Jewish temple there. A significant, though minority, Jewish presence in the Holy Land subsisted despite succeeding conquests by Babylonians, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Muslims, Crusaders, and Ottomans.
The Jewish population was small until a gradual 19th century increase. In the mid-1800s, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe purchased land and established small, mostly agricultural enclaves. (The territory was then a sparsely populated region “governed” by the Ottoman Turkish Empire centered in Constantinople). Additional Jewish migrants, mostly Russians fleeing czarist oppression and pogroms, arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1930s and 1940s, some of the Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia sought refuge in British Mandatory Palestine.
This peaceful migration and settlement of Jews in the ancient Jewish homeland took place parallel to similar settlement there by Arabs who had previously been living under Ottoman rule in areas now constituting Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. The refugee Jews settling in what is now Israel had equal legal status with the many thousands of Arabs migrating there.
Those Jewish refugees were not colonialists, even if many of them aspired to making the area a homeland for additional Jewish refugees.
The object of Jewish refugee migration was not to derogate the interests of the native Arab population. The 1922 League of Nations mandate to Britain to manage a portion of the former Ottoman Empire endorsed Jewish settlement in their ancient homeland, but explicitly preserved the civil rights of existing non-Jewish communities.
Between 1922 and 1947, both Jews and Arabs continued to settle in Mandatory Palestine and both ethnic groups chafed under the British control that prevailed during that period. When the Jews declared a state shortly after the Arabs rejected the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, the declaration of independence pledged to develop the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants and to assure all inhabitants equal political and religious freedoms.
The implementation of that vision has not been perfect, but it’s far from the nefarious picture painted by the anti-Zionist academics’ assertion that Israel is a colonialist state intended to exploit the Arab population.
2. The false accusation that Israel is an apartheid state
The term apartheid refers to South Africa’s previous state-imposed separation of populations based on race. It mandated institutionalized separation in residence, travel, education, and occupation, with accompanying relegation of non-whites to inferior political status. The apartheid structure made South Africa a pariah state, leading to its eventual isolation and demise.
The academics’ labeling of Israel as “apartheid” is a malicious attempt to defame Israel and undermine its right to exist. Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs have full political rights and Arabs occupy some 10 percent of Israel’s parliamentary seats. Arabs live together with Jews in numerous Israeli cities including Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. Arabs work in most sectors of the Israeli economy, including as lawyers, judges, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, and hi-tech workers. Arabs daily mingle with Jews in shopping malls and on public transportation.
All this is a far cry from apartheid.
3. The false notion that Israel engaged in a genocidal campaign against Gaza’s civilians
The May 2021 academics’ statements commonly denominated Israel’s bombing missions in Gaza as purposeful killings of civilians — part of a continuing campaign of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” This accusation ignored the fact that Israel was engaged in defensive warfare against Hamas’ launching of missiles, rockets, and mortars aimed at Israeli civilians.
Hamas’ missile barrages wreak havoc (including property destruction and casualties) and cause trauma (the anxiety of air-raid sirens and prolonged hovering in shelters). Hamas’ initial barrage of 150 rockets on May 10, 2021, killed two Ashkelon residents and injured dozens. During the ensuing 11-day warfare, Hamas launched over 4,300 projectiles at Israel.
Israel’s targets in Gaza were military — rocket launchers, weapons storage locales, command centers, and the extensive tunnel network in which Hamas’ soldiers hide and plan. When belligerents like Hamas use civilian structures and areas like mosques and schools for weapons storage and launchings, those misused locales become possible targets.
Israel adheres to international legal standards of proportionality in selecting military targets and takes extraordinary steps (such as phoning possible civilian occupants) to limit collateral damage from its defensive strikes. When warfare extends to urban surroundings, some civilian casualties are inevitable — a lesson learned by the US and its allies conducting operations in places like Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
Anti-Zionists condemn “disproportionate force” when defensive warfare is launched against Gaza as in May 2021, pointing to the higher fatality figures among Gazans than Israelis. While 256 Gazans died, only 13 Israelis (12 of them civilians) were killed by Palestinian rockets; another 312 Israeli civilians were wounded. Israel’s civilian casualty figures are diminished only because Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepted many of Hamas’ missiles.
Hamas launched all of its 4,300 projectiles toward Israeli civilian areas. This Hamas variation on ethnic cleansing failed only because of Israeli technical prowess.
Another fact refuting the claim that Israel has waged a genocidal campaign against Palestinians is the doubling of the Arab population in the disputed West Bank territories over the last 20 years.
4. Myopic disregard of deplorable Palestinian misconduct
The academic statements of May 2021 expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause and singled out Israel for condemnation. This one-sided position ignores both historic Arab rejectionism toward Israel’s very existence and Hamas’ oppressive, abusive mistreatment of the Gazan population.
Arab rejectionism of Israel was early expressed when in 1948, upon declaration of a Jewish state, armies from five Arab countries attacked fledgling Israel. Complete rejectionism continued in 1967 when, after Israel’s preventive Six Day War resulted in the capture of considerable Arab territories, Arab leaders refused to either recognize Israel as a legitimate country or to negotiate with Israel for the return of these territories. Several Arab countries instead launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel was almost overrun, and in which Israeli forces suffered considerable losses. The rejectionism of several Arab countries has ended (witness Israel’s treaties with Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates); yet Hamas’ rejection of Israel’s right to exist is unabated.
Hamas, the current tyrannical ruler of Gaza, has always been dedicated to Israel’s destruction and the imposition of strict Sharia law. Its 1988 charter vowed to destroy Israel and to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine” (including all of the state of Israel). In 1993, Hamas rejected the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians represented by Fatah, and continued a campaign of terror attacks on Israeli buses, malls, and hotels.
When Hamas altered its statement of principles in 2017, it continued to reject “any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.”
In 2005, Hamas won elections for the Palestinian parliament. However, elections were not the source of its control in Gaza following Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal. Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in a 2007 coup against Fatah that installed authoritarian Hamas dominion. Hamas’ imposed version of sharia law subjugates women, persecutes LGBTQ people for their sexual identities, and tolerates no dissent.
The hundreds of American academics who endorsed one-sided declarations supporting the Palestinian cause in the Israeli-Hamas conflict demonstrated a shocking lack of academic integrity. Whether fueled by malice, ignorance, or carelessness, this phenomenon constituted an alarming and deplorable deviation from academic norms.
The author is Emeritus Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School