It is time to come to terms with the rhetoric of assault that has followed the Dec. 16 vote of the American Studies Association — an academic organization devoted to interdisciplinary study of American history and culture — to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
In his interview with Charlie Rose broadcast on Dec. 10, Larry Summers, the ex-president of Harvard and economist, declared an all-out attack against the ASA, calling for a boycott of the organization and punitive action against professors. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the vote a “shameful, morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest attack on academic freedom.” Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, announced that it revealed “the Orwellian anti-Semitism and moral bankruptcy of the American Studies Association.”
The backlash is predictable and instructive. It calls for our consideration of scholarship, the role of the academy and the relation of teaching to the world we live in. At a time when the “humanities” as a discipline and the access to its gifts of thought and self-actualization are threatened or turned into a preserve for the privileged, the decision of the Association for Asian American Studies, ASA and now the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association takes great courage.
But neither the threat nor the courage is my point. Instead, I want to reflect on the tactics of those who aim to silence debate. The rage and in many cases the craziness of these responses are pernicious in ways that are often overlooked.
Who has the right to “morality”? And who gets to claim rights to “academic freedom”? To speak out against the blatant persecution and abuse of Palestinians is to be tarred with the brush of hatred, and worse. The boycott responds to the call of Palestinian academics. They do not have academic freedom. Israeli authorities deny them and their students the right to travel within Palestine and between Gaza and the West Bank or Israel or anywhere else. Israel has closed universities in acts of collective punishment. It has denied freedom of movement to students and to Fulbright scholars who cannot take up their scholarships in the United States. It has prevented academics from leaving the country; and if they leave, it has prevented them from returning.
Silencing is the real haunt of the occupation. But how easy it is to forget the erasure evident on any street in East Jerusalem, behind the wall, on the by-pass roads, in the rubble. When the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died in August 2008, only Haaretz, among major Israeli papers, paid attention. In U.S. media, the censorship — I can only call it that — was pervasive. To kill off not just people, but also their culture is to turn what is manifestly real into the unreal. It is this unreality, apparently so necessary to the identity of the Israeli state, that concerns me most. It is not natural. It takes a great deal of contrivance to ensure that what is obvious in the plain sight of day cannot be seen.
The debates inspired by the academic endorsement of “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) against Israeli academic institutions allow all kinds of people to see what has been hidden, to speak out, collectively and freely, young and old, tenured or not, for and against the boycott. This freedom to disagree or agree, the collision and conflict necessary to critical thinking, is what counts. Against such exchange, the negative reactions stand out. They are vehement in their threat: the virtual excommunication of those who speak on behalf of a boycott from the community of right-thinking scholars.
When Foxman and other critics, including the American Association of University Professors, speak of academic freedom as the greatest casualty of this boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we need to reconsider what it means to be part of the academy. Does it mean that we as professors must disregard human activity outside its groves? Must the actual separation wall in Israel become a reality in our institutions, blocking our view, disappearing Palestinians and burying the realities of the occupation?
What price, I ask, a Jewish homeland? When I grew up, my synagogue raised money to plant trees in Israel. Each of us received a certificate with a tree. We were building a land, a land that was new and miraculous. Our pride and our hope, we had to defend it from enemies. They were there, and, we were taught, they are everywhere. Not just Arabs hate us, but Goyim or gentiles too. The eternal truth, that unchanging hostility was kept at bay only with the supremely artificial denaturing of Palestine — making the desert bloom.
These convictions were momentous and effective. In “The Jewish State,” published in 1946, two years before the creation of Israel, Hannah Arendt warned against the unreality of Theodore Herzl’s Zionism. Anti-Semitism, what Herzl deemed the “propelling force” for all Jewish suffering, made any “empirical analysis of actual political factors … superfluous.” Her words were prescient.
The outrage following the boycott focuses on the end to academic freedom. That is daring and counterfactual. After all, freedom to discuss the illusion of “democracy,” the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the two assaults on Gaza, and the continued destruction of homes in East Jerusalem and olive trees throughout the West Bank has not been available to professors — especially not to professors without tenure. In Israel and in the United States, the threat against those who debate, or even ask questions about Palestinian human and political rights remains very much a reality. What remains unreal and not part of the intimidation and pressure of the ADL and the World Jewish Congress are the Palestinians. Nowhere in the flurry of editorials against the ASA and the Palestinian boycott movement, is their reality discussed. Nowhere are the dire effects of two generations of occupation so much as mentioned.
Anti-Semitism is summoned as cause and effect of the boycott. What is not recognized are the facts that led to the long history of the BDS movement in Palestine: the “legal” expropriation of homes by Israeli settlers; the “quiet transfer” of Palestinian citizens of Israel; the wall or security fence that separates Palestinian homes from their places of work, worship and schooling; the imprisonment and torture of prisoners, often without due process or any process at all; the punishing blockade of Gaza.
Why “single out” Israel, some commentators have asked? Why hold the “only democracy in the Middle East” responsible when other tyrannical countries go un-censured? The Zionist dream became reality in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust. It offered Jews a home, an escape from persecution and hope for dignity. But even then the struggle and the promise took place through an ideology that excluded and ignored. What the call for a boycott has done is to give us the chance, at last, to realize what Jewish nationalism had always claimed as its boon but never achieved: the universality of learning and the passion for justice.