The ‘Arab Spring,’ Israel, and the Silence of the Academy

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The Arab world is experiencing a series of convulsions resulting in the quotidian slaughter of citizens in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere. Yet the reaction on American college campuses is comparatively muted.

Muted compared to what, you ask? Compared to the tragic shedding of one life in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Having directed Jewish Studies programs in universities for most of my career I can assure you of this: If Israel were to inflict the type of violence on Palestinians that Arab regimes (and Iranian ones) casually inflict on their own dissenting populations in the course of one day, many colleges across America would be virtually shut down.

Remember the “Jenin Massacre”? I do. The university where I taught at the time came to a near complete standstill because of the alleged Zionist atrocities committed in the West Bank.

During those days of rage I had the misfortune of wandering into a “teach in.” That gathering featured an overheated array of faculty members and “community activists” lecturing at an audience of students (and whether the students had been “urged” or forced to attend by their professors was subsequently a source of unresolved controversy).

Needless to say, the conversation on stage did not adhere to academic standards of disinterested inquiry, sober assessment, or rigorous adherence to the facts. I took up the microphone to point that out and was lustily booed and insulted by colleagues (many of whom had been nothing but friendly prior and, strangely enough, after as well). I was eventually escorted out of the auditorium by campus security for my own safety.

That was just the beginning. Appeals were made for faculty to integrate the theme of Israeli aggression into their class lectures. As such, everyone from the professor of evolutionary biology to the specialist in Portuguese literature was asked to link his or her subject matter to the theme of Zionist aggression. Astonishingly, many of them were able to do so.

Efforts to psychologically, and even physically, immobilize the campus proceeded apace. “Zionist sympathizers,” were called out, lectures were disrupted, divestment initiatives were pursued, “die ins” were staged-these were the reflexive responses to highly complex problems in the Mideast in April of 2002.

Ditto for Israel’s wars with Hezbollah and Hamas.

I am struck, however, by the relative calm on American campuses as each day brings forth fresh and repulsive evidence of civilian massacres in the Arab world. No demonstrations. No “teach-ins.” No “die-ins.” And there is less calling out of professors who support(ed) these regimes than I would ever have imagined possible.

This is not to say that faculty and students are unconcerned. It’s more as if they are speechless, unworded. They are not protesting, as much as they are trying to puzzle this catastrophe through (and let me be the first to say that this is precisely what people on college campuses should be doing).

Their speechlessness confirms a truism: The old dominant paradigm for explaining Mideast dysfunction is not working. It is hard to understand what the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has to do with Muammar el-Qaddafi strafing his own citizens or Bashar Assad unleashing his goons on protesters (though whether all of those protesters are offering more democratic alternatives is a conversation I will leave for another day).

The ‘Arab Spring,’ Israel, and the Silence of the Academy

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