Tag Archives: Israel

I’m joining Norm Finkelstein tomorrow to commit civil disobedience in protest of Israel’s war on Gaza

28 Jul

Norman Finkelstein has put out a call for at least 100 people to commit civil disobedience tomorrow at the Israeli mission at the UN in New York City. If 100 people agree to do it, it will happen. After writing countless posts on Israel and what has been happening in Gaza, I believe it’s time to act. I’m going to join Norm. I hope you will, too. If you are in the New York area and plan to do this, please email Norm at normfinkelstein@gmail.com. If 100 people agree to do this, we will meet tomorrow, Tuesday, July 29, at noon, at the Israeli mission to the UN. 800 Second Avenue, right off 42nd Street. It will be announced tomorrow, at 9 am, whether we’ve reached the 100 mark. [Please note that in an earlier version of this post, I listed Norm's email incorrectly. The correct email is normfinkelstein@gmail.com.]

If you have any doubts about whether this is the right thing to do, watch this video.

The Higher Sociopathy

28 Jul

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it's now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?

A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

A Gaza Breviary

27 Jul

1. One benefit of the carnage in Gaza is that it has given people who’ve never said a word about the carnage in Syria an impetus to say a word about the carnage in Syria.

2. On Friday night, there was a fundraiser for “Friends of the IDF” at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. On Shabbat. Which means cessation, stopping.

3. “It’s all but inevitable…that civilians will die.” A law professor defends Israel’s actions in Gaza.

4. Next time someone tells you that an academic boycott is a bad idea because Israeli universities are bastions of dissent against the Israeli state:

Tel Aviv University is giving students who serve in the attack on Gaza one year of free tuition.

“Tel Aviv University embraces and supports all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel, including its students and employees called up to reserve duty,” the institution says in 24 July statement on its official website.

Meanwhile, a notice circulated at Hebrew University announces a collection for goods including hygiene products, snacks and cigarettes “for the soldiers at the front according to the demand reported by the IDF [Israeli army] units.”

The notice, signed by the university along with its academic staff committee and the official student union, says “we have opened collection centers on all four campuses.”

5. The world’s greatest expert on overdoing it says that Israel is overdoing it.

6. If only the Palestinians had revolted in April. Then everyone would be supporting this Arab Spring, amirite?

7. Fifty Israeli reservists write against the Israeli way of war:

To us, the current military operation and the way militarization affects Israeli society are inseparable. In Israel, war is not merely politics by other means — it replaces politics. Israel is no longer able to think about a solution to a political conflict except in terms of physical might; no wonder it is prone to never-ending cycles of mortal violence. And when the cannons fire, no criticism may be heard.

8. An oldie but a goodie. Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse writes, “Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.” Not for nothing is she the “Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature.”

9. All those liberal journos and commentators who are silent on Gaza: you can almost hear them praying for the GOP to launch a new war against Social Security so that we can all get back to business.

10. A group of Jews occupy the office of Friends of the IDF in NYC. Read a list of the Gaza dead killed by the Israelis. A counter-terror unit of the NYPD  shows up and arrests nine of these righteous men and women. There is balm in Gilead.

11. Say what you will about Mia Farrow, she’s been tweeting and retweeting messages like this: “Tell the U.S. to stop arming Israel.” And kudos to the seven other Hollywood celebrities who’ve spoken out on Gaza. Without retracting their statements, as Rihanna did.

12. James Baldwin in 1979, in response to Jimmy Carter’s firing of Andrew Young after Young met with the PLO at the UN:

But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.

13. The literal othering of Palestine: Washington Post subhead reads, “13 Israeli soldiers, 70 others killed.”

14. If Netanyahu really believes that Hamas’s strategy is to amass “telegenically-dead Palestinians” and display them, why is he being so obliging in his cooperation?

15. The United Nations estimates that roughly 80 percent of the casualties are civilians, many of them children.” Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that the Israelis aren’t targeting civilians. If you’re getting numbers like these, does it really matter?

16. Nicholas Kristof writes, “Hamas sometimes seems to have more support on certain college campuses in America or Europe than within Gaza.” In support of his claim about support for Hamas on American college campuses, Kristof links to a Washington Post article about the American Studies Association vote for BDS. In which the word Hamas appears…never. Not even in the comments. In support of his claim about European support for Hamas, Kristof links to a New York Times article about Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott of Israel. In which the word Hamas appears…never.

17. When it comes to opposing Israel, everyone always has a better tactic. So many better tactics: it’s a wonder we haven’t won yet.

18. The Senate passes a unanimous resolution—100-0—in support of Israel. (Libertarian hero of the anti-imperialist right/left Rand Paul complains that the resolution isn’t strong enough.) Next time an opponent of BDS tells you that we should be focusing instead on cutting off US aid to Israel, ask them how they plan to scale that 100% wall.

19. I get an email from some religious Zionist group called American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate asking for a donation to support “the necessary funding for the religious needs of the combat soldiers.” After all the murder and mayhem those soldiers have committed in Gaza, I can see why their “religious needs” are great.

20. It’s July 18. First tweet I read this morning is from The New Republic: “‘Israel is acting strategically, not emotionally, in Gaza,’ writes Leon Wieseltier.” Second tweet I read this morning is from Alex Kane: “Israeli military analyst: Israeli tanks ‘received an order to open fire at anything that moved.'”

21. A reporter at Vox tweets this: “Israel-Palestine conflict has killed 14 times more Palestinians than Israelis since 2000.” David Frum responds thus: “Never enough dead Jews for some.”

22. Thirty-three Israeli academics condemn the bombing of Gaza. Thirty-three. That’s why we’re not supposed to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Because of these righteous 33. The logic is almost biblical.

23. It is not just the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city.” Imagine that phrase—the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city—applied to any urban center in the United States.

24. Gideon Levy on “our wretched Jewish state“:

The youths of the Jewish state are attacking Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem, just like gentile youths used to attack Jews in the streets of Europe….The Jewish state, which Israel insists the Palestinians recognize, must first recognize itself.

25. Israeli artist Amir Schiby commemorates the Israeli killing of four Palestinian children playing on a beach in Gaza.

Four Boys on a Gaza Beach

 

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.

Columbia University to NYS Legislature: Back Off!

3 Feb

About 75 Nearly 100 members of the Columbia University faculty have issued a forceful response to the New York State Legislature bill that would make it illegal for universities and colleges to use public money to fund faculty involvement in organizations like the ASA.

Signatories include such noted scholars as Lila Abu-Lughod, Eric Foner, Akeel Bilgrami, Jean Cohen, Victoria de Grazia, Alice Kessler-Harris, Mae Ngai, Todd Gitlin, Judith Butler, and Patricia Williams. Signatories also include prominent opponents of the ASA boycott, who nevertheless understand the threat this bill poses.

Here are some excerpts from their letter:

These bills aim to punish political speech and association of academics generally, and specifically target the viewpoint expressed by that speech and association. Both of these aims violate well-settled law protecting First Amendment rights.

These proposed laws have been cynically misdescribed as protecting academic freedom, when in fact they do just the opposite – if the Anti-Boycott bills become law they will threaten constitutionally protected academic speech and debate by punishing political speech and action by academics on matters of public concern.

A key component of academic life is membership in professional organizations, such as the ASA. Indeed it is the exceptional faculty member who is not a member of one or more professional organization. Membership in professional academic organizations, attendance at annual meetings, and participation in committee work provide important opportunities for professional development, intellectual exchange, and the evolution of knowledge in the field. Columbia University, in keeping with our peers, supports faculty research and professional development by reimbursing faculty for the costs of membership in relevant professional organizations, and covers the reasonable costs of travel to official meetings of those organizations.

Frequently the governing bodies and/or the membership of professional academic organizations take positions on matters of public concern, such as climate change, the military dictatorship in Honduras, apartheid in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to deny a visa to Professors Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan to visit the U.S., the detention of scholars in Iran, President George W. Bush’s administration’s treatment of foreign prisoners – calling such treatment torture – and the Pentagon’s previous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Finally, the proposed anti-boycott bills specifically target a particular form of First Amendment expression, the boycott. About this the Supreme Court has also been clear: boycotts “to bring about political, social and economic change” are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment. This form of political action has been used in countless contexts through time and across circumstance, but it has a particularly important history in the United States as a tactic to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, including the famous Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1982 Supreme Court case N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co. recounts the civil rights movement’s use of boycotts to challenge racial segregation in Mississippi and cements this political tactic as one clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Some of the signatories to this letter endorse the principles underlying the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, others do not. Regardless of whether one supports the cause to which this particular boycott is responding, we all firmly believe that academics have a right to express their political views through a wide range of protected speech, including boycotts. A law targeting the boycott of academic institutions in countries such as Israel, Hungary, Lebanon, and the Czech Republic cannot be differentiated from the laws that punished boycotts in the U.S. civil rights movement or those that compelled academics to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. Simply because a cause or political viewpoint may be unpopular with elected officials does not, and cannot, justify a law censoring speech by academics in connection with that cause or viewpoint. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has clearly stated that the purpose of these bills is to cut state aid to academic institutions that fund membership in professional organizations such as the ASA. These bills thus embody exactly the kind of retaliatory action undertaken by public officials who dislike the content or viewpoint of certain speech activities that courts have consistently found unconstitutional.

An Unoriginal Thought About the Israel/Palestine Conflict

2 Feb

We seem to be entering a new phase of the Israel/Palestine conflict, in the US and perhaps elsewhere. As Israel loses increasing control over the debate, its organized and institutional defenders have to resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate. As they resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate, they lose the hip, politically tolerant, embodiment-of-social-justice aura—the Middle East’s only democracy, the country is one big kibbutz, etc.—that traditionally helped them control the debate. Historically speaking, that’s not a good position for self-described liberal democratic regimes to be in.

Jewfros in Palestine

31 Jan

Tablet has a moving piece by Samantha Shokin, a Brooklyn-based writer, on how a semester in Israel helped change the way she felt about herself, particularly her bodily self-image as a Jewish woman.

Shokin writes:

I spent a lifetime hating my Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence. A trip to Israel is what it took for me to realize my hair was wonderful all its own, and much more than just an accessory.

Shokin does a wonderful job describing how her hair was caught up with her feelings of awkwardness, shame, and exclusion, how difficult it was as an adolescent to contend with images of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera from the vantage of “frizzy brown hair and glasses.” This was no simple matter of teenage angst, Shokin makes clear; it cut to the heart of her Jewish identity, not to mention a long history of anti-Semitism. For centuries, Jewish looks, including hair, have been a dividing line between the drowned and the saved. As that simple line from Paul Celan reminds us: “your golden hair Margarete/ your ashen hair Shulamit.” So it’s quite clear in Shokin’s piece that she’s not simply describing her personal insecurities. She’s tapping into a wider conversation, familiar to members of other ethnic minorities, about how particular conceptions of beauty become markers of status and inclusion—and, concomitantly, inferiority and exclusion. It’s no wonder that when Shokin goes to Israel and sees so many dos like her own, she feels at home.

But there’s something to be said about stepping into a hair salon and not feeling like a piece of work, just as there is about stepping into crowd of people and not feeling like a stranger.

That said, the piece suffers from an obliviousness I can’t help flinching at. Nowhere in Shokin’s discussion does she even give a hint that she’s aware that her feeling at home comes at a cost to someone else. How might a teenage Palestinian girl in the West Bank—undergoing not only the adolescent angst that Shokin once endured but also the facts of the Occupation—read this piece? Might she not respond, “I have to suffer all of this, just so you can feel at home with your hair?”

I’m being tendentious. But it’s a tendentious situation. And articles like this don’t help. They speak instead to a larger cluelessness among Jewish Americans about what they’re doing when they go to Israel and find themselves at home.

I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had over the years with Jewish defenders of the State of Israel whose position is entirely fair and eminently reasonable—so long as you forget that there are actual Palestinians living there. People I love and respect mount air-tight arguments and make genuinely moving cases to me about the Jewish need for a refuge from persecution; about the desire to live somewhere—anywhere, say some—where they are not a minority; about the stirring feeling of hearing Hebrew spoken in the street; about the longing to feel at home. About wanting to be a teenager who loves her hair.

All of this I hear, and think, yes, of course, how could anyone not understand and empathize with that? But all of these heartfelt and legitimate claims rest upon a simple omission: the Palestinians. For these claims to obtain their intended force, we have to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t there—or that they don’t exist.

Shokin’s piece is a microcosm: its adolescent sense that my problems are the only problems that matter in this world sound all too much like Zionist arguments for a Jewish homeland. Not Zionist arguments at their weakest, but Zionist arguments at their strongest.

The N Word in Israel

16 Jan

Jodi Rudoren has a fascinating piece in the Times on proposed legislation in Israel that seems to be gaining ground.

Israel is on the brink of banning the N-word. N as in Nazi, that is.

Parliament gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to call someone a Nazi — or any other slur associated with the Third Reich — or to use Holocaust-related symbols in a noneducational way. The penalty would be a fine of as much as $29,000 and up to six months in jail.

Backers of the law say it is a response to what they see as a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world as well as an increasing, casual invocation of such terms and totems in Israeli politics and even teenage trash talk.

Many Jewish Israelis make high-school pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other death camps. Yet younger people have also been heard using the Hebrew word shoah — which literally means catastrophe but is generally reserved for the Holocaust — to describe an everyday disaster like a botched relationship or a messy kitchen.

At least half a dozen European nations, along with Brazil, already prohibit the use of Nazi symbols and flags, along with those of other extremist groups, and a longer list consider Holocaust denial a crime (as Israel has since 1986). And Rwanda bans “genocide ideology,” which it defines as any form of speech or action deemed to support or promote genocide. But other countries do not ban the utterance of the word Nazi, as the proposed Israeli law would, along with “everything that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.”

I should confess at the outset that I find the throwing around of the word Nazi to describe individual Israelis or the actions of the Israeli state really distasteful. While specific actions or deeds of the state do make me think of the Nazis—I simply can’t look at the Separation Wall without thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto—I still flinch, and am repelled by, the hurling of that epithet. So I get, at a visceral level, where people might be coming from on this.

That said…there are so many other things to say.

First, the idea that you can’t, in the State of the Jews of all places, say the word Nazi or anything, as the article puts it, “that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.” What if there really are Nazis in Israel? Or neo-Nazis? You can’t call them what they are?

Also, isn’t it part of the arsenal of a lot of defenders of Israel to claim that countries like Iran or opponents of the state are the inheritors of an anti-Semitic tradition that culminated in Nazism? Seems like you’d be depriving these people of one of their critical weapons. So I’m fascinated about that. The article touches on it, obliquely.

Second, prohibitions on words have a special valence in Judaism, as in most religions and cultures. They acquire an aura of holiness and the sacred. Could it be that the two words you can’t say or write in Israel are going to be God (for religious reasons, which not all Jews honor) and Nazi (for political reasons, which would apply to everyone)? Are God and Nazi really to be the two holiest words of the Jewish people in Israel?

Third, it seems like the intimate relationship between the Holocaust and Jewishness is coming full circle here. So much of postwar Jewish-American and Israeli identity—not to mention the legitimacy of the State of Israel—is caught up in the Holocaust, in remembrance of it. But because of the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment, the State of Israel now wants to put that connection back in its box. References to Nazism once served as a legitimating device for Israel; now they’re a delegitimating device.

And last, one could say that what has cheapened the Holocaust and the remembrance of Nazism more than anything is not the casual or even hateful invocation of the Nazi epithet, but the use, as Hannah Arendt recognized in those memorable opening passages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the Holocaust by the Israeli state and its international supporters. There’s no business like Shoah business, as the old joke has it.

I’d say there’s far less kitsch in a teenager describing her failed relationship as a shoah—indeed, I see that as a brilliant appropriation of the word, signaling the vitality and power of Jewish irony and satire, the triumph of not merely humanism but our humanity over barbarism—than there is in state leaders mobilizing the memory of six million to justify the exertions of a regional superpower. As Hillary Clinton did when she visited Yad Vashem in 2009:

Yad Vashem is a testament to the power of truth in the face of denial, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of despair, the triumph of the Jewish people over murder and destruction and a reminder to all people that the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten. God bless Israel and its future.

When it comes to the cheapening of the Holocaust, that horse has long been out of the barn.

The New McCarthyites: BDS, Its Critics, and Academic Freedom

8 Jan

As the attacks on the BDS movement and the ASA boycott escalate, the arguments grow wilder.

It’s no longer enough, it seems, to make unfounded claims that the academic boycott violates academic freedom. The new line of march is that mere advocacy of the boycott is itself a violation of academic freedom.

What’s more, it’s not crazies who are peddling this claim; as Haaretz reports, it’s coming from the heart of the academic establishment.

“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Russell Berman, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University and a past Modern Language Association president, said on the conference call. “The calling of a boycott will have a chilling effect on academic life.”

If it’s true that merely calling for a boycott shuts down the free exchange of ideas, it seems logical that such calls should be prohibited. Not only prohibited, but punished.

One prominent critic of the BDS movement, Edward Beck, makes just that argument in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post.

Beck begins from the premise that the successful vote for the ASA boycott demonstrates that defenders of Israel can no longer wait for its opponents to act; Israel’s defenders must go on the offensive, preventing the virus from spreading further.

To be reactive may well be to be too late; being vigilant and proactive is the only way to ward off these attacks on academic freedom.

What does that mean in practice?

It means that every academic who opposes academic boycotts for any reason, whether it be purely academic terms or political or other reasons, must work within his or her own institution, discipline and professional society to develop the codified organizational and institutional policies that state in language that is clear and bold that the group will not entertain any proposals for academic boycotts based on national origin or institutional affiliation because such resolutions are discriminatory, may violate legal and tax statutes and are based on the notion of collective punishment, and such, are disruptive to the flow of academic discourse and research and anathema to the basic concept of academic freedom.

The policy also has to state sanctions for individual members engaging in such behavior, as this would be a violation of institutional or organization policy and regarded as academically unethical.

Read that language carefully. No academic institution is to entertain or consider a proposal for a boycott. Presumably this is to be codified in a set of bylaws or a faculty code of conduct, though Beck does not say. What he does say is that it is not the boycott itself that violates academic freedom; it is the “resolution” for a boycott. The vote for a boycott, in other words, interferes with the basic campus activities of research and discussion.

That policy must be enforced with sanctions—Beck doesn’t specify the sanctions but presumably these could include anything from a reprimand in one’s file to being fired—on any individual faculty member “engaging in such behavior.”

But what exactly is “such behavior” that would warrant the sanction? At first, I thought Beck meant an individual faculty member engaging in a boycott. So my personal refusal to attend a conference in Israel, because it is in Israel, would qualify.

But the antecedent for “engaging in such behavior” is not the boycott itself but “such resolutions.” Beck, remember, wants the defenders of Israel to move beyond reacting to boycotts that are happening; in fact, he wants to move beyond successful votes for boycotts.  He wants to head those votes off at the pass, to prevent them from becoming votes at all.

The only way to make sense of what Beck is saying is that he thinks individuals who advocate for boycotts ought to be sanctioned by their universities and professional associations.

Thus, if I push my college or professional association to adopt a BDS resolution, or publicly proclaim my intention to vote for one (with the clear purpose of persuading others to do the same), I am “engaging in such behavior.” If I merely call for a boycott, to use Professor Berman’s language, I am “engaging in such behavior.”

Berman says he’s not willing to go as far as sanctions: “But I don’t think I would want to elevate the principle that political statements should be grounds for academic sanctions.” It’s not clear why he thinks this: given what Berman said about mere advocacy impinging on academic freedom, it would seem entirely appropriate to punish such advocacy. After all, if I walk into the classroom of my colleague next door, shouting and screaming nonsense, being needlessly disruptive and preventing her from teaching her students, I would be subject to disciplinary action. For the very reason that my activity prevents the free flow of ideas and communication that is the essence of campus life. So if the mere call for a boycott does essentially the same thing, why shouldn’t it be punished?

Who knows? But the mere fact that we’re even having this discussion at all should tell us how far down the road of repression the opponents of the ASA boycott are willing to go—all in the name of academic freedom.

These bizarreries of freedom being squelched in the name of freedom remind me of nothing so much as arguments that were common during the McCarthy era.

Deploying similar chains of extended causality, anticommunists—including a great many liberals—argued that the problem with the Communist Party in the United States was not that it had attempted a violent overthrow of the US government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized an attempt to violently overthrow the government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized a movement that would attempt to violently overthrow the government; it hadn’t even done that.

No, the real crime of the Communist Party, as the Supreme Court put it so beautifully in Dennis v. United States, was that it had organized a movement that advocated, and sought to teach its members, the notion that when the time was right, at some completely undefined point in the future, it would be entirely justified and appropriate, indeed necessary and obligatory, to attempt a violent overthrow of the government.

In making this argument, the Supreme Court drew from a particular definition of political speech crimes, which were found in the Smith Act,  the 1940 statute upon which the leadership of the Communist Party was tried and convicted in 1949. The relevant sections of the statute do not criminalize the violent overthrow of the government or even advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. Instead, they criminalize the following:

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence….

Notice just how many steps removed from actual violence these speech crimes are, how many discrete actions must be engaged in before we even get anywhere near something like a violent overthrow of the government: “attempt”….”to organize”….”a group”….”that advocates”…”the violent overthrow of the government”…at some undefined moment in the future. Talk about six degrees of separation!

Here’s how the Supreme Court interpreted that language in the Dennis case, which upheld the conviction of eleven leaders of the Communist Party.

Obviously, the words cannot mean that, before the Government may act, it must wait until the putsch is about to be executed, the plans have been laid and the signal is awaited. If Government is aware that a group aiming at its overthrow is attempting to indoctrinate its members and to commit them to a course whereby they will strike when the leaders feel the circumstances permit, action by the Government is required….In the instant case, the trial judge charged the jury that they could not convict unless they found that petitioners intended to overthrow the Government “as speedily as circumstances would permit.” This does not mean, and could not properly mean, that they would not strike until there was certainty of success. What was meant was that the revolutionists would strike when they thought the time was ripe.

….

The mere fact that, from the period 1945 to 1948, petitioners’ activities did not result in an attempt to overthrow the Government by force and violence is, of course, no answer to the fact that there was a group that was ready to make the attempt. The formation by petitioners of such a highly organized conspiracy, with rigidly disciplined members subject to call when the leaders, these petitioners, felt that the time had come for action, coupled with the inflammable nature of world conditions, similar uprisings in other countries, and the touch-and-go nature of our relations with countries with whom petitioners were in the very least ideologically attuned, convince us that their convictions were justified on this score. And this analysis disposes of the contention that a conspiracy to advocate, as distinguished from the advocacy itself, cannot be constitutionally restrained, because it comprises only the preparation. It is the existence of the conspiracy which creates the danger.

It’s that kind of repressive language and logic of containment, of nipping the threat in the bud, of suppressing speech before it becomes action, of holding that the speech itself is a crime, that we see in opponents of BDS and the academic boycott.

Like their predecessors—I’m thinking now of Sidney Hook, who argued that members of the Communist Party should not be allowed to teach in schools, also on the grounds of academic freedom—our latter-day McCarthyites throw around the word of freedom as they slowly and steadily destroy it.

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