Israel, Academics and One-Sided Debates

tags: Israel, Gaza, MESA, Salaita

It is difficult for me to write about Israel, because I have conflicting feelings. On my only visit to Israel in 1993, when I was 45 years old, I felt a surprising exhilaration when I landed. For the first time in my life, I was not an exception, a minority, an identity that needed to be explained. I felt at home in a place I had never been, safe from misunderstanding.

After six weeks in Jerusalem, I also felt that I had never lived in such a racist place. Openly expressed sentiments about Arabs, derogatory, demeaning and condescending, made me think of Southern whites talking about blacks before the civil rights era.

Although the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, so prominent in the headlines during the recent Gaza conflict, has faded once again into the media background, it remains a hot topic for academics. The traditional late fall and winter meetings of academic organizations has brought up the question of boycotting Israeli universities as punishment for the invasion of Gaza and the deaths of civilians. The larger context is the emotional issue of the existence of Israel itself.

At the end of November, the Middle East Studies Association held its annual meeting in Washington DC. Although MESA calls itself “a non-political association”, its focus on the Middle East is one-sided: none of the editors of its three journals and its nine current “honorary fellows” study Israel or are Jewish; they all focus on Islamic nations. On the first day of the conference, Steven Salaita appeared to a standing ovation. Salaita has become famous, not for his scholarship, which is shoddy, but because his virulently anti-Israel tweets cost him a job at the University of Illinois. He is an open hater of Israel: “‘Hate’ is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism, colonization, neoliberalism, sexism and Israel.”

Salaita asks, “What exactly is wrong with hating Israel?” The answer for any academic is obvious: our job is supposed to be to evaluate dispassionately, to weigh objectively, to write even-handedly. Yet the MESA participants applauded Salaita. Presumably they agree with his claim that “civility is the language of genocide”.

Lara Kiswani, leader of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco, said last month at UC Berkeley that the boycott of Israel was intended to destroy the Israeli state. When a Jewish member of the audience said she felt threatened by such language, Kiswani said, “part of the problem with the Palestine question particularly on campus is it always gets framed as this two-sided thing and liberal democracy loves to make it seem like everyone has a right to speak . . . . As long as you choose to be on that side, I’m going to continue to hate you.” So much for discussion.

The kind of argument made by such demagogues is well represented by the Kent State University professor of Latin American history Julio Pino, who recently wrote that “academic friends of Israel” are personally “culpable” “for the murder of over 1,400 Palestinian children, women and elderly civilians” by a “regime that is the spiritual heir to Nazism.”

MESA and other academic organizations which have endorsed a boycott of Israel represent one side of one-sided arguments about the Middle East. They never mention the launching of rockets at Israeli civilians or the terror bombings inside Israel. Nor do the boycotters ever announce a set of principles for deciding whom to boycott, because that would force them to expand the list of nations they hate for human rights abuses: China, Iran, North Korea.

The other side is loudly voiced in Israel and the US, and has gained weight in response to the increasing noise from the Israel haters. Anyone in Israel who dares to assert that Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent have rights is liable to be shouted down, cursed and threatened. A recent poll showed that one third of Israelis believe Israeli Arabs should not have the vote. When a newscaster reported on deaths in Gaza, a Facebook page with thousands of supporters demanded that she be fired. A group of rabbis said property should not be rented to Arabs. Another religious organization named Lehava (Flame) breaks up weddings between Jews and Muslims. Fans of the soccer team Beitar Jerusalem protested when two Muslim players were signed.

The new President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member and ardent supporter of continued construction of settlements on the West Bank, is also a passionate defender of equal rights for Arabs in Israel. For that he has been called “President of Hezbollah”, “traitor”, and “Arab agent”. President Rivlin recently argued that Israel is “a sick society”, and asked if Israelis have “forgotten how to be decent human beings”. On November 29, a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem, the largest mixed institution in Israel, was set on fire after the arsonists had scrawled “Death to Arabs” on the walls.

Here in the US, an organization named Amcha has published a list of 200 Middle Eastern studies academics who, it claims, are antisemitic because they criticize Israeli policies. In October, 40 Jewish Studies professors shot back with a statement deploring Amcha’s efforts to stifle open discussion.

The Israeli government deserves condemnation for its racist treatment of Palestinians, within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinian organizations, like Hamas, must be deplored for their terrorist attacks on civilians. Academics, and anyone else, who ignores the murderous behavior of both sides contributes to further polarization.

And I despair of ever seeing peace come to the one place where Jews are not a minority.