Starting with Israeli Academics in Order to Finish with Israel: Anti-Semitism at the MLA

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At the recent annual gathering of the Modern Language Association in Chicago (January 9-12, 2014), papers were given on the usual range of specialized topics in literary studies; candidates for jobs in English were interviewed; and the MLA took steps toward establishing a foreign policy.

Like the United Nations itself—with no less than three-fourths of all resolutions that criticize one country ever issued by its General Assembly aimed at Israel—the professors of literature knew where to start healing the world. For, as Professor Curtis Marez (President of an MLA sister organization, the much smaller American Studies Association), had put it not long before, when asked how his particular scholarly association had settled on coming out exclusively for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions at its own annual meetings, when after all there is so much controversy in the world to take a stand on: “You have to start somewhere.” However, this knee-jerk response begs the question, Why not begin with an even-handed policy directed at the sorts of injustice you are concerned about everywhere?

If, for example, because of the perceived wrong-doings of a certain government, your organization is going to boycott fellow academics on the basis of nationality—a dubious enough tactic when the purported transgression under indictment is the inhibition of academic freedom—then why not shun as well the academics of China, Turkey, or the United States itself, none of which are above criticism when it comes to “human rights,” “occupation,” or proper respect for “indigeneity,” etc.? One could even go so far as to question the policies of governments such as Iran, Syria, or North Korea—places where, very much unlike Israel’s thriving civil society, there is no academic or political freedom—if one were serious, that is, about starting somewhere appropriate that made sense in a real campaign to better the world. Instead, the ASA chose to start with Israel—a country born heroically out of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, struggling to free itself from centuries of European endo-colonization, renewing its ties to its own indigenous lands, in the face of the only truly global-eliminationist genocide in history.  When today’s new anti-Semitism directed against the Jewish state prefers the label “anti-Zionist” to “anti-Semitic,” let us recall what Zionism really was and is—precisely this movement for autonomy and survival of a people no less beleaguered by oppression than any in human history.

Yet with the ASA’s previous blunder as recently established precedent, the MLA was in no mood for a history lesson, but merely followed suit in a competition to see which organization could pass a more mindless resolution more thoughtlessly. Thus, at the convention in Chicago, at a “roundtable” devoted to demonizing the Jewish state, in support of the boycott lobby for “BDS” (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions) targeting Israel, Professor Barbara Harlow, when asked a similar question (“Of all the nations in all the trouble-spots on earth, why single out Israel for censure?”), responded blithely: “Why not?” In so doing, as the ASA had done before it, MLA leaders of the anti-Israel academic boycott movement showed themselves remarkably ignorant—if not, indeed, incurious—about the special object of their peculiar ire.

With other arguments much like this to support it, in the end the resolution that was passed by the Delegate Assembly of the MLA made no more sense than Harlow’s pathetic justification. In fact, the resolution’s chief architects—Professors Richard Ohmann, David Lloyd, and BDS celebrity spokesman Omar Barghouti (educated at Israel’s Tel Aviv University)—as much as admitted defeat of their original proposal, when they drastically edited it in response to criticisms from concerned fellow MLA members prior to voting. Instead of a resolution, as first formulated, protesting against Israel’s policy toward those scholars wishing to visit Gaza (mention of which was excised after 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 ridiculous); 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): The redacted resolution as finally put forward, and which still passed by only seven votes out of 113 ballots cast, had eliminated all reference to either Gaza or arbitrariness! Yet without the erroneous bit about Gaza, there was nothing to the original claim about the MLA’s purported obligation to respond to a U.S. State Department Travel Warning—which in point of fact applies to Gaza because it is governed by a terrorist organization, Hamas, and not to Israel. Without the claim that Israel denies entry to its national territory “arbitrarily” (just for fun, lacking good reasons), there was nothing left of the original claim that Israel is at fault for controlling its borders because of security concerns, as the governments of all nations must do. As the five and a half hour meeting of the Delegate Assembly dragged on, “Why not?” was steadily morphing into “So what?”

Nevertheless, there was a feeling, stimulated by the committed BDSers in the room, of which there appeared to have been about 60, that Israel is somehow uniquely to blame for something—and so a purely symbolic statement void of content was voted up by a slim margin, with the clear intent of stigmatizing Israel in the hopes of lending credence to those who question its very legitimacy, and would deny its very right to existence, as a UN member state. Double standards aimed at demonizing and delegitimating Israel—Natan Sharansky’s “3D Test of Anti-Semitism” in relation to the Jewish state—were everywhere in effect.[1]

With this crude outcome in mind, it bears recalling that BDS is a movement anti-Semitic in intent, if not in effect (with apologies to Larry Summers). For, its insistence on the “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 that would allow both a place in the sun, side by side.[2] It is, rather, plainly a call for an end to the Jewish state per se—as such, it is the opposite of any notion of a just settlement that both parties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could possibly agree upon. Tellingly, even liberal critics of some of Israel’s policies, such as  Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel concluded, “BDS is poison and Omar Barghouti is a classic anti-Semite.”[3] I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Albeit, I and others have been saying something similar for a while. As a panelist on the “alternative MLA” panel in Chicago—organized by MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, in response to the MLA’s decision to host an exclusively pro-boycott/anti-Israel roundtable—I argued then and there that “the stigma that properly attaches to anti-Semitism should adhere as well to anti-Zionism.” The latter is but a species of the former. For when a people is denied its right to self-determination, that is 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 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).[4] While 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 anti-Zionism, it is both explicitly and implicitly there in the BDS movement. Moreover, no 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, even if he doesn’t bother to mention it when writing for a broad audience that could be expect to recoil from the full implications of Said’s own explicit rejection of two states for two peoples.[5]

With admiring students of Said (including, most prominently, the cultural theorist and cult figure, Judith Butler) at its philosophical core, the movement for academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, understood as an outgrowth of the “new” anti-Semitism—the kind of prejudice that would see the Jewish state wiped off the map no less surely than the Old anti-Semitism would see the Jewish people erased from the face of the earth—is a movement against the Jews as a distinctive part of the human tapestry. It is a racist—anti-Semitic—movement. Anti-Zionism is immoral and indeed—in its current guise of a campaign that views embargoing scholarship as a “place to start,” since “why not”—the ethical equivalent of a crime against humanity, cloaked in the threadbare “sheep’s clothing” of another self-inflicted wound to the reputation of the Humanities.

In a time when the Humanities are already under attack, and even said to be “in crisis”—when, not coincidentally, functional illiteracy is becoming the new normal for nearly half the American population, and amidst economic uncertainty to boot, leading to questions about the practicality/affordability of humanistic inquiry—the academic boycotters’ retreat from engagement to 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 familiar-shaped bottles into which to funnel the poison of their inchoate dissatisfaction with a much more complex reality—cocktails of resentment so easily and thrillingly flung against readily identifiable stereotypes and made-to-order scapegoats. In this context, if the MLA really wanted to do something “radical,” it might pass a resolution not against Israel but against grade inflation on the one hand and the proletarianization of the professoriate on the other. Until then, stupid and unfair resolutions like the ones approved lately in turn by both the ASA and MLA (actually, the full membership of the MLA still has to decide over the next several months whether or not to endorse what the Delegate Assembly has voted to put before them: let us hope that the members will have the wisdom to reject such a badly flawed resolution) will stand as glaring symptoms of our detractors’ worst fears about us.

This essay was written for SPME.


[2] This vision of a Greater Palestine saturates, for example, the volume The Case for Sanctions Against Israel, Laura Lim (ed.), (New York: Verso 2012), and is widely recognized as at the heart of Omar Barghouti’s public statements in any number of settings. Moreover, the overriding “justice” of a “one state solution” (minus Israel as a Jewish and democratic state) features centrally in not only the rhetoric of BDS’s most visible spokesman, but also in the more refined writings of its prime philosopher, Judith Butler. See Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia UP, 2012).


[4] It’s a problematic book but far from devoid of valid insights. One could say the same of all Arendt’s writings on Jewish questions—problematic, wrong sometimes and right others, but always interesting and illuminating if taken with a grain of salt.


Starting with Israeli Academics in Order to Finish with Israel: Anti-Semitism at the MLA

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Gabriel Noah Brahm

Gabriel Noah Brahm is Senior Research Fellow at University of Haifa’s Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism. In 2016 he founded Michigan’s Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom (named an "Oasis of Excellence" by ACTA), at Northern Michigan University, where he also teaches English and world literature. His forthcoming book is Israel in Theory: The Jewish State and the Cultural Left. Follow him on Twitter @Brahmski.

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