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The Closer You Get

30 Apr

Yousef Mounayyer wonders why, in the recent media debate over whether Israel is an apartheid state, Palestinian voices have been so conspicuously absent. In his history of the slave market in the antebellum South, Harvard historian Walter Johnson provides an answer. “One of the most durable paradoxes of white supremacy,” writes Johnson, is “the idea that those who are closest to an experience of oppression (in this case, former slaves) are its least credible witnesses.”

Update (11:50 pm)

Or perhaps it’s that Palestinians are only useful insofar as they provide “personal testimony.” The larger questions—Is this apartheid?—have to be left to the (non-Arab) experts. “Give us the facts,” as Frederick Douglass’s white patrons told him, “we will take care of the philosophy.”

How Long Do You Have to Practice Apartheid Before You Become an Apartheid State?

27 Apr

The Daily Beast reports on a speech John Kerry gave to the Trilateral Commission:

The secretary of state said that if Israel doesn’t make peace soon, it could become ‘an apartheid state,’ like the old South Africa. Jewish leaders are fuming over the comparison.

South African apartheid lasted from 1948 to 1994: 46 years in total. The Occupation has lasted 47. What Jeffrey Goldberg has called Israel’s “temporary” or “provisional” apartheid is now one year older than South Africa’s “permanent” apartheid.

During the Iraq War, Thomas Friedman routinely predicted that “within the next six months,” we’d find out whether Iraq was going to be a democracy or a basket case. So recurrent were these predictions, long after the six months had expired, that it led to a fresh coinage: the Friedman Unit. Perhaps it’s time we coined a new phrase: the Goldberg Unit?

Kerry is hardly the first to make such warnings about the Occupation continuing; they have a long lineage. Just after the 1967 War, none other than David Ben-Gurion apparently warned that if the Occupation continued, Israel would become an apartheid state.

Which raises the question: How long do you have to practice apartheid before you become an apartheid state?

NYU: where Socratic dialogue is a Soviet-style four-hour oration from the Dear Leader

25 Apr

So the pro-Israel forces are in a tizzy again about a violation of campus propriety.

It seems that the Students for Justice in Palestine group at NYU distributed fliers across two dormitories informing the students that they had to evacuate their dorms because the buildings were going to be demolished within three days. The obvious point being to model what it feels like to be a Palestinian, who is routinely subjected to such notices. Which is exactly what the flier said. And just in case there was any confusion, the good folks at SJP took pains to write across the bottom of the flier:

THIS IS NOT A REAL EVICTION NOTICE. This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront an a regular basis.

eviction-notice-final-2-page-001

Now pro-Israel students, groups, and politicians are claiming that the fliers are anti-Semitic and that they create a “hostile campus environment.” NYU has launched an investigation.

More hilarious, the university’s spokesman says that the fliers are “not an invitation to thoughtful, open discussion” and that they are “disappointingly inconsistent with standards we expect to prevail in a scholarly community.”

From the university where Socratic dialogue is a Soviet-style four-hour oration from the Dear Leader.

Outlook (5 pm)

For a much fuller and more comprehensive dissection of this “controversy,” see Phan Nguyen’s masterful take.

Being in Egypt: When Jews Were a Demographic Time Bomb

13 Apr

From the Haggadah:

And they did us evil, those Egyptians. They made us seem malevolent, as it is written: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel has become too many and too massive for us. Let us find a solution for this before they further multiply.

Two points. First, the evil that the Egyptians did to the Jews was to construe them as malevolent, as wicked. Second, their wickedness consisted in becoming a massive nation within a nation. The Egyptians understood the wickedness of the Jews, in other words, by virtue of the demographic challenge they posed to the Egyptian nation.

I’m not big on readings of the Haggadah that seek to extract contemporary political instruction from the text. Often those sorts of exercises seem more facile than fertile. But it’s hard for me not to see a kind of parable of contemporary Israel/Palestine in this passage.

Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic. Even if every Palestinian were to lay down his or her arms, their mere existence as a people within the borders of Israel is understood to be a malignant growth within the nation. Actually, according to Wikipedia, that understanding of the demographic threat has always been there; it just has become more prominent in recent years, perhaps because of the cessation of most forms of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This understanding of the demographic time bomb—itself a revealing phrase—is something that unites Zionists of all stripes. A few years ago, writing in Commentary, Michael Oren identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of “seven existential threats” facing Israel.

 

Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.

Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.

Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.

Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.

Notice the stress Oren puts on “ideally”—even he thinks a two-state solution to the “demographic threat” isn’t likely— and the challenge he sees in removing the settlers from the West Bank (and the small numbers of settlers he mentions).

Now here’s the more liberal Peter Beinart speaking recently at Columbia:

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

And it is because of my fear of that that I write much of what I do on this very subject.

Beinart’s more optimistic, I think, about the prospects of a two-state solution. But the same understanding of a demographic time bomb is there.

Vanessa Redgrave at the Oscars

2 Mar

When I was a kid, there was probably no actor more reviled among Jews than Vanessa Redgrave. This was the late 1970s, and Redgrave was an outspoken defender of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel.

It all came to a head in 1978 at the Academy Awards (this is why I’m thinking about her tonight). Redgrave was up for an award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia, a film my family refused to see (boycotts run deep with me, I guess). The Jewish Defense League was out in force that night. Apparently there had been a major campaign to deny Redgrave the Oscar on the grounds that she supported a Palestinian state. She got it anyway. Instead of offering an olive branch to her critics, or keeping quiet about the controversy, she took the opportunity of her acceptance speech to denounce the “Zionist hoodlums” who had campaigned against her nomination and possible receipt of the award.

Her speech didn’t go down so well with the audience, some of whom booed her. Later that night, the playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky used the opportunity of his presenting the award for Best Screenplay—to Woody Allen for Annie Hall (Allen, of course, has himself become the source of some controversy this year)to denounce Redgrave for using the opportunity of her acceptance speech to make a political statement:

I would like to saypersonal opinion of coursethat I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning the Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple “thank you” would have sufficed.

Whatever you think of the protagonists, it was great theater.

Thinking back on that night tonight, I was curious to see where Redgrave wound up landing on the issue of Israel/Palestine as it presents itself today.

I did a little research and noticed that in 1986, she came out in favor of a cultural boycott of Israel. No surprise there. This position earned her no end of condemnation from defenders of Israel, including Jane Fonda, her co-star in Julia. Fonda joined Tom Hayden, her husband at the time, to say:

We are appalled at Vanessa Redgrave’s attempt to organize a cultural boycott of Israel. We urge all cultural workers to strongly oppose this vicious act and we are confident that it will be rejected by people of conscience everywhere.

In 1986, Hayden was in the California State Assembly, his eye on higher office. I have no idea if that played a role in the two making their statement.

But in 20o9, Redgrave would join Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman to issue a denunciation of filmmakers who were protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision to spotlight and showcase films coming out of Tel Aviv. As Redgrave and her co-authors put it in a letter published in the New York Review of Books:

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

Now she was a critic of the idea of a boycott (though in truth the filmmakers weren’t calling for a boycott; they were merely protesting this one decision). Ironically, one of the most prominent voices protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision was…Jane Fonda.

Since the debate over Israel and Palestine increasingly pits parents against children in the Jewish community—the most recent Pew poll, which got so much attention last fall, documents a decreasing attachment to Israel among younger Jews—I can’t end this post without posting this clip of Redgrave and her father, Michael, doing Act IV, Scene 7, from King Lear. It’s the scene of Lear’s and Cordelia’s reconciliation. Lear had unfairly banished Cordelia from the kingdom over some perceived slight, and now, slipping in and out of madness, he recognizes the terrible wrong he has done to her. He says:

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

And in one of the most heart-breaking lines, Cordelia responds:

No cause, no cause.

That murmured protest of Cordelia—no cause, no cause—seems especially poignant in light of the ways that Israel/Palestine has divided Jewish families and the generations.

Gaza: A Tower of Babel in Reverse

1 Mar

The Tower of Babel is a story of the peoples of the earth, united by a common language, coming together in order to establish and preserve themselves as a unity in the sky. Gaza is a Tower of Babel in reverse. Having already cut off its residents from the rest of the world by land and by air, the Israelis built a wall to the bottom of the sea in order to seal them off entirely. Despite some periodic reversals, that isolation remains, thanks in part to the collusion of the Egyptians. Unlike its biblical predecessor, this upside-down Babel is still standing.

But for the boycott there would be academic freedom

6 Feb

When people say that the ASA boycott violates academic freedom they seem to assume that academic freedom in Israel/Palestine exists. But for the boycott, goes the argument, there would be academic freedom. But as this fact sheet by the Institute for Middle East Understanding suggests, that is not the case for Palestinians.

One of our most minimal definitions of any kind of freedom, academic or otherwise, is the absence of external impediments to the physical movement of our bodies. What Palestinian students and scholars routinely face is the presence of external impediments to the physical movement of their bodies.

Here are some highlights:

Due to Israeli restrictions imposed in cooperation with the government of Egypt, it is extremely difficult for any of Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians to travel abroad to study, attend academic conferences, or to leave for other purposes. Entry into Gaza by foreign academics has been similarly limited.

Since 2000, Israel has prevented students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank, some of which offer fields of study and degrees not available in Gaza. According to a report from Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, between 2000 and 2012 Israel let just three Gazans travel to study at universities in the West Bank, all of whom had received US government scholarships.

In 2010, amidst great fanfare during a visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a program to provide scholarships for students from Gaza to study in the West Bank. In 2012, after Israel refused to issue travel permits to the students, the Obama administration quietly canceled the program.

While Israel does not specifically prohibit the importation of books into Gaza as part of its blockade and siege, doing so is extremely difficult, leading to a shortage of books on all subjects. At one point, Israel barred the importation of writing paper, notebooks, and pencils (leading to a shortage of the latter two) into Gaza.

It’s useful to compare these forcible restrictions on the physical movement of Palestinian bodies to the entirely voluntary ASA boycott. Is there any comparison?

Peter Beinart Speaks Truth About BDS

5 Feb

Peter Beinart is a liberal Zionist, a firm believer in the State of Israel, and a staunch critic of BDS.

And this is what he has to say in Haaretz:

But the tactical brilliance of BDS becomes clearer with every passing month.

At a time when their leaders are bitterly divided and their people are geographically fragmented, BDS has united Palestinians like nothing else in recent memory. For the many young Palestinians fed up with both Fatah and Hamas, it offers a form of political action untainted by corruption, theocracy, collaboration and internal repression….And by relying on international activists—not Palestinian politicians—it universalizes the Palestinian struggle…

But there’s one more factor that makes BDS so tactically shrewd: It exploits the mendacity of the “pro-Israel” establishment. Let me explain.

Many BDS activists oppose the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. Some might reluctantly swallow one if a viable Palestinian state were born alongside it. But what unites virtually everyone in the movement is their disgust with an American-led “peace process” in which they believe Palestinians lack the power to achieve their minimal demands. The best way to equalize the scales, they argue, is through economic and cultural pressure.

Were the mainstream Jewish organizations that reject BDS in the name of a negotiated two-state solution actually promoting a negotiated two-state solution, their strategy might have merit. But they’re not.

In truth, establishment American Jewish groups don’t really support the two-state solution. Or, at least, they don’t support it enough to risk a confrontation with the Israeli government. Which is why they are more an obstacle than an asset to the American-led ‘peace process.’ And why they can’t stop BDS.

What unites BDS activists, despite their divisions, is their fervent belief that someone must challenge Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights. Were establishment Jewish organizations to pose that challenge—even just rhetorically—their opposition to BDS might carry some weight. But they’re not, and BDS activists know it.

Remember Abba Eban’s famous quip that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” These days, that’s what Palestinian activists say about us.

Why this NYS bill is so much worse than I thought

4 Feb

John K. Wilson has an excellent analysis of the New York state legislation against the ASA.  He makes an oh-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-of-it point:

It bans not only direct funding by a college of any scholarly group passing a boycott resolution, but also any funding of travel and lodging by someone to attend that group’s events (even when none of the money would go to the organization).

While the bill does prohibit the use of public money to fund the ASA directly, not much public money, at least at CUNY, works that way. That particular provision of the bill would simply ban universities and colleges from taking out institutional memberships with the ASA; few colleges or universities do that, however. That particular provision of the bill would also prevent universities or colleges from using public funds to pay for an individual faculty member’s membership in the ASA. At least at CUNY, faculty have little if any access to those types of funds.

Where the bill would really hurt us at CUNY is the provision that would prohibit colleges and universities from using public money to fund travel to—and lodging at—an ASA conference. And here’s where Wilson’s point becomes very important. None of that public money would go to the ASA; it simply allows faculty to travel to the ASA and participate in its discussions.

This bill, in other words, is not about defunding the ASA so much as it is about stopping individual faculty from participating in the ASA. At a personal level, it’s far more intrusive and coercive than Guiliani’s attempt to defund the Brooklyn Museum or the City Council’s threat to defund CUNY over the Brooklyn College political department’s co-sponsorship of a panel discussion of BDS. Those threats were directed at institutions; this threat focuses directly on, and seeks to directly control, the associational activity of individuals.

In other news, Jesse Walker at the libertarian magazine Reason lays into the NYS bill. And don’t forget to sign onto the Crooked Timber statement.

The NYT Gets It Right — and, Even More Amazing, We Have an Open Letter For You to Sign!

4 Feb

The New York Times is out today with a strong condemnation of the NYS anti-boycott bill:

The New York bill is an ill-considered response to the American Studies Association resolution and would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent. Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel. According to the American Association of University Professors, which opposes the association boycott and the retaliatory legislation, there is already a backlash, including in Georgia where a Jewish group compiled a “political blacklist” of professors and graduate students who supported the boycott.

Even more amazing, the Times manages to describe correctly a point of about the ASA boycott that has been particularly contentious:

The group said it would refuse formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who represent those institutions or the Israeli government until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” The boycott does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary exchanges.

Thank you, New York Times! We’ve been trying to make this point about the institutional nature of the boycott for months now. At last the mainstream media has acknowledged it.

In other news, as a few outlets have reported, we seem to have stopped the bill from advancing—for now. Yesterday, the chair of the Assembly’s Higher Education committee of the Assembly, Deborah Glick, took the bill off her committee’s agenda, which effectively prevents it from moving forward. She has said, however, that she plans to resubmit it. So it’s not over, not by any stretch. But very good work by all of you who emailed and made phone calls over the weekend.

Henry Farrell and I have written an open letter about these state bills over at Crooked Timber. The purpose of the letter is to serve as a rallying cry for academics and citizens—on both sides of the academic boycott debate—across the country. Because the New York and Maryland bills may only be the first of many, we want to give people a template, with all the relevant links, to oppose this type of legislation wherever it may arise. Again, whether they are pro- or anti-boycott.

Some critical sections of our statement:

We write as two academics who disagree on the question of the ASA boycott. One of us is a firm supporter of the boycott who believes that, as part of the larger BDS movement, it has put the Israel-Palestine conflict back on the front burner, offering much needed strategic leverage to those who want to see the conflict justly settled. The other is highly skeptical that the ASA boycott is meaningful or effective, and views it as a tactically foolish and entirely symbolic gesture of questionable strategic and moral value.

This disagreement is real, but is not the issue that faces us today. The fundamental question we confront is whether legislatures should punish academic organizations for taking politically unpopular stands. The answer is no. The rights of academics to partake of and participate in public debate are well established. Boycotts are a long recognized and legally protected mode of political speech. The purpose of these bills, as some of their drafters admit, is to prevent organizations like the ASA from engaging in this kind of speech and to punish those organizations if they do—merely because the state disapproves of the content of that speech. For these and other reasons, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union have declared their opposition to these bills.

Please go to the Crooked Timber site, sign your name in the comments section, and then share the letter on FB, Twitter, and among your friends, family, and colleagues.

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