Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Problem with BDS, Part III

(Part II)

Now the first thing that happens when you accuse proponents and activists of the academic boycott of Israel of anti-Semitism is a hue and cry of righteous indignation, which these blogiators excel at. First, the protagonists have constructed for themselves a very narrow definition of anti-Semitism: they define anti-Semitism as preposterous, medieval forms of theological Jew-hatred based on anachronistic Christian charges of deicide and demonization. Since their problems with Israel are supposedly purely of a political nature and rooted in the concern for human rights, they argue that they cannot possibly be accused of theological Jew-hatred. Furthermore, a surprising number of these folks are by heritage Jews themselves -- some of them are actually Israelis -- so how can they be accused of anti-Semitism? This was one of my colleague's first responses to my request that he quit the USACBI -- "but BINGPROF, I was asked to join the campaign by my Israeli friends!" Let me be clear -- I absolutely support free speech, both here and in Israel, and I will never support punishing someone who promotes BDS, not here nor in Israel. Let the tiny community of proponents argue their very best case! I'll respond by telling each and every one to their face they are walking along the path of Heidegger and the Nazi intelligentsia who boycotted Jews and Jewish scholars because of some other specious reason, and was an incremental step towards genocide. In fact, it is because of free speech that I oppose BDS and oppose seeing any promoters of the academic boycott put into a position of power over the curriculum of an institute or institution.

But back to my main point: the academic boycott of Israeli universities campaign is anti-Semitic. Not because it is a theological assault on Judaism or Jews; and not even because in the BDS universe the Jewish state is bizarrely singled out and painted with demonic hues. It is anti-Semitic because it facilitates the complete evisceration of the field of Jewish Studies as it is practiced in American higher education. As the director of a Jewish Studies program, I know that if the program of the USACBI is implemented, namely:

...Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
...Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by academic institutions, and place pressure on your own institution to suspend all ties with Israeli universities, including collaborative projects, study abroad, funding and exchanges.

then my academic field is not only under attack, but is destined for the dustbin of history. The study of Jews and Jewish history, which oftentimes involves learning the Hebrew language, reading Hebrew books and manuscripts, attending conferences, and publishing papers and books, cannot be accomplished without a robust association with Israeli universities, libraries, and institutes. In my field, I cannot possibly move a step forward without availing myself of the research libraries and colleagues of Israel. The campaign to boycott Israeli universities is an assault on Jewish heritage and history, and it necessarily entails the consequence of assaulting my academic discipline. A field of study is crippled for supposedly "noble" political reasons, and the consequence is the delegitimization of not merely the Jewish state, but of Jewish heritage in its totality.

The last time the study of Jewish history, heritage and culture was first curtailed and then banned from higher education in modern history was during the reign of the Nazis in Europe. Nazi anti-Semitism was hardly a theological endeavor; it was a methodical and obsessive fixation on Jews as the cause of all woes. It was turning the tiny number of Jews in Europe into a cancerous existential threat to the very survival of civilization. And, in the first years of their rise to ascendancy, there were German Jews who echoed the criticisms of their overlords. Eighty years later and nothing changes. In the dementia of the BDS campaign, the tiny Jewish state is in fact the principal catalyst of human misery on earth, threatening the life of all good-hearted people; the tiny Jewish state is the hidden secret agent of modern India's repression of minorities and Kashmir (so claims my colleague); its sins are on par and even worse than Communist China's oppression of the Tibetans and the Uighurs (so another). Jewish exceptionalism (in the form of Zionism) is the cause of all our woes. Die Juden sind unser Ungl├╝ck! That, my friends, is modern anti-Semitism.

(Part IV)

Monday, July 26, 2010

What's Wrong with the Academic Boycott of Israel, Part II

(Part I)

I've become familiar with the BDS universe these last through months thanks to a colleague at the college I work at. My colleague is a member of the US Advisory Board of the United States Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) organization. As best I can tell this organization came into existence in January of 2009, in the wake of the Olmert government's cynical and unnecessary war against Hamas and the residents of Gaza. The USACBI is patterned after and comes in the wake of a number of earlier fits and starts of a far more successful effort to boycott in Europe.

I became aware of my colleague's endorsement of the USACBI cause a few months after the creation of the organization. In fact, I counted early on at least 5 colleagues (in a faculty of over 150) who had publicly endorsed the campaign. None of the names were a surprise. I spoke to none of them but one, the colleague in question. Insofar as he led an academic unit devoted to International Studies and to which I contributed a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I began a discussion with him in the hopes of getting him to recant his support. It seemed to me impossible to participate in an academic unit whose director believed that Israeli institutions of higher education (and their employees) should not be allowed to participate in the study of international politics, history, and culture. At first through quiet discussions with him, and then eventually by opposing and protesting his appointment to another administrative academic leadership role at my college, I've been introduced to a world of twitterers and bloggers who think of Israel as a criminal, crazed, Nazi-like apartheid state which is irretrievably and morally bankrupt. These denizens of the electronic campaign against Israel feed each other in a cul-de-sac echo chamber of self-righteousness, reading the same postings from a couple dozen authors that reverberate through the Internet with breathless excitement.

The problem here is that every web page occupies the same real estate on your screen. It is easy to imagine that these cranks represent some kind of trending force on the Internet, and therefore in American society. They clearly don't. But it behooves us all to pay them attention, since American college campuses are oftentimes the leading edge of progressive politics, and shrill doctrinaire voices (of either the left or the right) often thunder over the "silent majority" of thoughtful liberals who make up the ranks of academe.
To get a sense of what I have discovered, check out this twitter feed: @USACBI (the official twitter feed of my colleague's organization). If you follow their web links, you will be introduced to a world you probably never imagined existed, at least not among sane people. Following this twitter feed for a mere week will take you into an alternative universe where up is down, black is white, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. It is not just @USACBI; if you pay close attention you will eventually stumble onto other twitter feeds and blog sites from "journalists" who have made it their neurotic obsession to track every sin and travesty committed by racist Israel; you will come across "information centers" and newsfeeds reporting "stories" that simply no one else will report - because they are false; you will find seething conspiracy theories and ideological diatribes directed against those who do not toe the party line, and especially against those who cry "anti-Semite" to their face. Just allow the digital flow from this very active twitter feed to wash across your screen. This is a world where the only holocaust to have occurred in Jewish history is the genocide perpetrated by the Zionists on the Palestinians, a galaxy in which the difference between AIPAC and J-Street is trivial (insofar as both defend Israel's right to exist), a debate society in which no less than Noam Chomsky (recently and unjustly denied entrance into Israel for his political views) is a traitor to all humanity because he refuses to endorse BDS and supports a two-state resolution of the conflict. OK, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but you'll see when you read these feeds.

In my next posting we'll explore the anti-Semitic component of the BDS movement...(now available)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Academic Boycott against Israel IS anti-Semitism, Part I

In the last few months, I've been forced to come to terms with the growing call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel in American higher education. I'm firmly opposed to the BDS proposition for a variety of reasons (which I will go into), but I am simultaneously opposed to the efforts inside Israeli society (endorsed most recently by the current Israeli Minister of Education) to demonize advocates of BDS. I acknowledge that BDS is a tactic that might be used against morally bankrupt societies. I simply believe that -- despite a growing sense that the current Israeli government is making a concerted effort to confound the peace process, and mounting evidence that this government is orchestrating a profoundly sour and contentious atmosphere of racism in Israeli civil society -- attacking the institutions of Israeli higher education is an empty  and vicarious way for American academics to register their objections to the ever darker turn of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And one other thing -- the academic boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic.

Here I will be as charitable as possible to the BDS proponents, Jew and gentile alike, of the academic boycott against Israel. I will stipulate that the foul anti-Semitism of BDS might be merely a matter of unintended consequences, though I think I am being far too charitable. Insofar as the academic boycott of Israel is tantamount to stopping the advancement of Jewish Studies in American higher education by advocating the severing of ties to Israeli universities and research institutions, the BDS movement is an open assault against Jewish culture and religion. I'll explain that too, knowing full-well that using the term "anti-Semitism" in reference to critics of Israel is often a red herring, a screed designed to close rather than encourage debate.

More to come in an upcoming post....(Part II now available)