Monday, March 16, 2009

Zionism is the problem (thanks, Gail),0,4405950.story

From the Los Angeles Times

Zionism is the problem: The Zionist ideal of a Jewish state is keeping Israelis and Palestinians from living in peace. By Ben Ehrenreich

March 15, 2009

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1944, six years after Kristallnacht, Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism, felt comfortable equating the Zionist ideal of Jewish statehood with "the concept of a racial state -- the Hitlerian concept." For most of the last century, a principled opposition to Zionism was a mainstream stance within American Judaism.

Even after the foundation of Israel, anti-Zionism was not a particularly heretical position. Assimilated Reform Jews like Rosenwald believed that Judaism should remain a matter of religious rather than political allegiance; the ultra-Orthodox saw Jewish statehood as an impious attempt to "push the hand of God"; and Marxist Jews -- my grandparents among them -- tended to see Zionism, and all nationalisms, as a distraction from the more essential struggle between classes.

To be Jewish, I was raised to believe, meant understanding oneself as a member of a tribe that over and over had been cast out, mistreated, slaughtered. Millenniums of oppression that preceded it did not entitle us to a homeland or a right to self-defense that superseded anyone else's. If they offered us anything exceptional, it was a perspective on oppression and an obligation born of the prophetic tradition: to act on behalf of the oppressed and to cry out at the oppressor.

For the last several decades, though, it has been all but impossible to cry out against the Israeli state without being smeared as an anti-Semite, or worse. To question not just Israel's actions, but the Zionist tenets on which the state is founded, has for too long been regarded an almost unspeakable blasphemy.

Yet it is no longer possible to believe with an honest conscience that the deplorable conditions in which Palestinians live and die in Gaza and the West Bank come as the result of specific policies, leaders or parties on either side of the impasse. The problem is fundamental:
Founding a modern state on a single ethnic or religious identity in a territory that is ethnically and religiously diverse leads inexorably either to politics of exclusion (think of the 139-square-mile prison camp that Gaza has become) or to wholesale ethnic cleansing. Put simply, the problem is Zionism.

It has been argued that Zionism is an anachronism, a leftover ideology from the era of 19th century romantic nationalisms wedged uncomfortably into 21st century geopolitics. But Zionism is not merely outdated. Even before 1948, one of its basic oversights was readily apparent: the presence of Palestinians in Palestine. That led some of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of the last century, many of them Zionists, to balk at the idea of Jewish statehood. The Brit Shalom movement -- founded in 1925 and supported at various times by Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem -- argued for a secular, binational state in Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would be accorded equal status. Their concerns were both moral and pragmatic. The establishment of a Jewish state, Buber feared, would mean "premeditated national suicide."

The fate Buber foresaw is upon us: a nation that has lived in a state of war for decades, a quarter-million Arab citizens with second-class status and more than 5 million Palestinians deprived of the most basic political and human rights. If two decades ago comparisons to the South African apartheid system felt like hyperbole, they now feel charitable. The white South African regime, for all its crimes, never attacked the Bantustans with anything like the destructive power Israel visited on Gaza in December and January, when nearly1,300 Palestinians were killed, one-third of them children.

Israeli policies have rendered the once apparently inevitable two-state solution less and less feasible. Years of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have methodically diminished the viability of a Palestinian state. Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has even refused to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state, which suggests an immediate future of more of the same: more settlements, more punitive assaults.

All of this has led to a revival of the Brit Shalom idea of a single, secular binational state in which Jews and Arabs have equal political rights. The obstacles are, of course, enormous. They include not just a powerful Israeli attachment to the idea of an exclusively Jewish state, but its Palestinian analogue: Hamas' ideal of Islamic rule. Both sides would have to find assurance that their security was guaranteed. What precise shape such a state would take -- a strict, vote-by-vote democracy or a more complex federalist system -- would involve years of painful negotiation, wiser leaders than now exist and an uncompromising commitment from the rest of the world, particularly from the United States.

Meanwhile, the characterization of anti-Zionism as an "epidemic" more dangerous than anti-Semitism reveals only the unsustainability of the position into which Israel's apologists have been forced. Faced with international condemnation, they seek to limit the discourse, to erect walls that delineate what can and can't be said.

It's not working. Opposing Zionism is neither anti-Semitic nor particularly radical. It requires only that we take our own values seriously and no longer, as the book of Amos has it, "turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground."

Establishing a secular, pluralist, democratic government in Israel and Palestine would of course mean the abandonment of the Zionist dream. It might also mean the only salvation for the Jewish ideals of justice that date back to Jeremiah.

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Memo to Jews: We're in IQ freefall.

Mondoweiss March 10, 2009

By Philip Weiss

None of us can doubt that Jewish genius transformed the 20th century. Finance, science, psychiatry, media--do I really need to go through all that part?

Now we are in IQ freefall, for two reasons related to Zionism. 1, Israeli culture is altogether mediocre. 2, Diaspora culture is now reduced to arguing that black is white, i.e., that Israel is blameless. This exercise is not only a great insult to Jewish tradition, it is pointless.

1. I know literature. This weekend at my parents' house I was reading Kafka's letters to his first mistress, Felice Bauer. It goes without saying that Kafka transformed literature in the 20th century, and yes, Kafka was a cultural Zionist. He was caught up in the central-European movement in the 19-teens, even as he observed that the Zionists had small heads.

My point. Kafka was against political Zionism because he understood it would transform the Jewish presence in society. It would make Jews the administrators of a nation rather than inhabitants of one. I think he anticipated that Jewish nationalism would call on the worst aspects of Jewish society.

Kafka's sense was correct. None of Israel's cultural achievements is much to write home about. Everyone talks about David Grossman and Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. I don't know about Yehoshua and Grossman has always seemed pretty-darn-good, what I've read of him, but Oz (I've read his memoir) is just not that impressive. If he were writing in the States, he would have less of a reputation.

The sad truth is that Israeli culture is remarkable for the very quality that Kafka despised in administrative culture in Central Europe--its toughness, thuggery. Consider that Israel's most famous contribution to world culture is Dana International, a transsexual singer who was launched to international stardom by the Eurovision song contest in 1998. Kafka he/she ain't.

I don't mean to be making jokes here. This problem is actually inherent. Chas Freeman recently noted at a discussion of the two-state solution that all the smart Israelis are coming to New Jersey and all the messianic militaristic Jews are moving from Brooklyn to the West Bank. Jews like Diaspora life. The brain drain is a real problem for Israel.

(And the best work out of Israel, the incredible journalism of Haaretz, and the new historians from Kimmerling to Pappe to Shahak, is all of it oppositional in character.)

2. That brain drain is matched by a more significant brain drain: the tremendous burden placed on American Jewish intellectuals, journalists, writers, you name it, to stand up for Israel here. Dershowitz says that supporting Israel is our "secular religion." I don't need to go down the list here, but a lot of smart Jews are recruited in this belief, just about any smart Jew who makes it, including regrettably the likes of Steven Pinker and Michael Chabon and his wife, and it's not good for Jewish genius. It's the opposite of genius: it's orthodoxy. It elevates second-rate racemen thinkers like Michael Oren and Marty Peretz and grants rabbinical status to a very smart and often-nasty propagandist, Alan Dershowitz, who has repeatedly tried to destroy people's reputations.

Proving that the Israel lobby is marketing black as white is the everyday business of this website, so I don't want to reprove that here. Just look at the video Adam posted yesterday from the landgrab in that West Bank village on Sunday. It is disgusting. Purely disgusting. These are thuggish Jews ethnically cleansing land in my name. This is all that any Jew needs to know about Israel right now. Arguing that this sort of behavior is justified is deeply intellectually destructive. It is an insult to Jewish tradition. In fact, it has closed the door on our great 20th century tradition. One of the lessons of the last 10 years is that Jewish gifts are not genetic, or not strictly genetic. They are cultural, and exist in time. Spinoza said similar things when he challenged the idea of the chosen people 300 years ago and was excommunicated for it; he saw greater promise in European liberalism than in Mosaic laws. Well now we have imparted our great cultural gifts to this great country that accepted us, and others are learning to be as textually analytical as our traditions made us. When I meet the young Iranian-Canadian scholar Nader Hashemi, who has studied Chomsky, or young Palestinian students who have studied the talmudical Norman Finkelstein to sharpen their wits, and they quote him and expand on him, they remind me of my Jewish gang in the Ivy League 30 years ago -- outsiders with big brains, and a lot to prove. Meanwhile Jewish intellectual life is largely dominated by neoconservatives, who in addition to being wrong about the ability to spread democracy at the point of a gun, are not sincere about their motivation.

I said at the beginning that the hasbara exercise is not only stupefying, it is pointless. The world is on to Israel's chopping-down of olive trees and slaughter of Palestinian children. It's over. The exercise is over. The U.S. is waking up, witness the fabulous Ellison- Baird-Holt teach-in at the U.S. Capitol, led by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, with congressional staffers crammed in the doors.

I'm a hopeful person. So the question is, What should Jews do now about our fabulous disgraced tradition of honest intellectual inquiry? How do we recover?

The answer is pretty obvious. At that teach-in in the Rayburn Building, a Jew took a prominent place, Dan Levy. I haven't been able to listen to his remarks in the first video (they were inaudible), but I'm sure he wasn't arguing with one thing that Brian Baird and Keith Ellison and Rush Holt observed (and let me note, Holt and Baird are scientists by training, men shaped by the Jewish century). Levy is an honest man.

That's the answer: turn to the smart young Jews who see what is happening in Palestine, and embrace them and encourage them. Embrace J Street, with which Dan Levy is involved; they are doing good work, along with Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek and Israel Policy Forum. Embrace any organization that was appalled by Gaza's "awfulness," as Michael Walzer, who understands the perils of nationhood, has put it.

Embrace young Jews like Lisa Adler, who was featured in that amazing anti-AIPAC event in LA, and the anti-Zionist scholar Jack Ross, and the activist Hannah Mermelstein. Or my partner Adam Horowitz, who, responding to hecklers at a Temple U. event last week who shouted, "Mr. Horowitz, what do you think of the two-state solution?" responded calmly and thoughtfully in a way that brought tears to my eyes. Adam's going to post that answer soon here.

I am not a spokesman for Jewish communal life. I'm an intermarried, assimilating Jew with a strong sense of Jewish intellectual tradition, which I will always try and honor here, but if I could impart a message to the communal types it is: wake up to what is happening in world opinion and then turn the great Jewish tradition of compassion on the Palestinian people. The American Jewish community here has been the chief obstacle to Palestinian statehood and self-determination; that's an American Jewish achievement. Jewish organizations have the power to end that disgraceful legacy tomorrow. And then they could recognize and embrace the common humanity of Palestinians, and start bringing young Palestinian intellectuals to this country to study, and to learn from our example, once again.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Chas Freeman's withdrawal

* Stephen M. Walt

* Foreign Policy March 11, 2009

As you might expect, I have a few thoughts on Charles Freeman's decision to withdraw from consideration as chair of the National Intelligence Committee. For Freeman's own reaction, see FP's The Cable here; for other reactions, see Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Phil Weiss, and MJ Rosenberg.

* First*, for all of you out there who may have questioned whether there was a powerful "Israel lobby," or who admitted that it existed but didn't think it had much influence, or who thought that the real problem was some supposedly all-powerful "Saudi lobby," think again.

* Second*, this incident does not speak well for Barack Obama's principles, or even his political instincts. It is one thing to pander to various special interest groups while you're running for office -- everyone expects that sort of thing -- but it's another thing to let a group of bullies push you around in the first fifty days of your administration. But as Ben Smith noted in Politico, it's entirely consistent with most of Obama's behavior on this issue.

The decision to toss Freeman over the side tells the lobby (and others) that it doesn't have to worry about Barack getting tough with Netanyahu, or even that he’s willing to fight hard for his own people. Although AIPAC has issued a pro forma denial that it had anything to do with it, well-placed friends in Washington have told me that it leaned hard on some key senators behind-the-scenes and is now bragging that Obama is a "pushover." Bottom line: Caving on Freeman was a blunder that could come back to haunt any subsequent effort to address the deteriorating situation in the region.

* Third*, and related to my second point, this incident reinforces my suspicion that the Democratic Party is in fact a party of wimps. I'm not talking about Congress, which has been in thrall to the lobby for decades, but about the new team in the Executive Branch. Don't they understand that you have to start your term in office by making it clear that people will pay a price if they cross you? Barack Obama won an historic election and has a clear mandate for change -- and that includes rethinking our failed Middle East policy -- and yet he wouldn't defend an appointment that didn't even require Senate confirmation. Why? See point No.1 above.

Of course, it's possible that I'm wrong here, and that Obama's team was actually being clever. Freeman's critics had to expend a lot of ammunition to kill a single appointment to what is ultimately not a direct policy-making position, and they undoubtedly ticked off a lot of people by doing so. When the real policy fights begin -- over the actual content of the NIEs, over attacking Iran, and over the peace process itself -- they aren't likely to get much sympathy from DNI Blair and it is least conceivable that Obama will turn to them and say, "look, I gave you one early on, but now I'm going to do what's right for America." I don't really believe that will happen, but I'll be delighted if Obama proves me wrong.

* Fourth*, the worst aspect of the Freeman affair is the likelihood of a chilling effect on discourse in Washington, at precisely the time when we badly need a more open and wide-ranging discussion of our Middle East policy. As I noted earlier, this was one of the main reasons why the lobby went after Freeman so vehemently; in an era where more and more people are questioning Israel's behavior and questioning the merits of unconditional

U. S. support, its hardline defenders felt they simply had to reinforce the de facto ban on honest discourse inside the Beltway. After forty-plus years of occupation, two wars in Lebanon, and the latest pummeling of Gaza, (not to mention Ehud Olmert's own comparison of Israel with South Africa), defenders of the "special relationship" can't win on facts and logic anymore. So they have to rely on raw political muscle and the silencing or marginalization of those with whom they disagree. In the short term, Freeman's fate is intended to send the message that if you want to move up in Washington, you had better make damn sure that nobody even suspects you might be an independent thinker on these issues.

This outcome is bad for everyone, including Israel. It means that policy debates in the United States will continue to be narrower than in other countries (including Israel itself), public discourse will be equally biased, and a lot of self-censorship will go on. America's Middle East policy will remain stuck in the same familiar rut, and even a well-intentioned individual like George Mitchell won't be able to bring the full weight of our influence to bear. At a time when Israel badly needs honest advice, nobody in Washington is going to offer it, lest they face the wrath of the same foolish ideologues who targeted Freeman. The likely result is further erosion in America's position in the Middle East, and more troubles for Israel as well.

Yet to those who defended Freeman’s appointment and challenged the lobby's smear campaign, I offer a fifth observation: do not lose heart. The silver lining in this sorry episode is that it was abundantly clear to everyone what was going on and who was behind it. In the past, the lobby was able to derail appointments quietly -- even pre-emptively -- but this fight took place in broad daylight. And Steve Rosen, one of Freeman's chief tormentors, once admitted: "a lobby is like a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun." Slowly, the light is dawning and the lobby's negative influence is becoming more and more apparent, even if relatively few people have the guts to say so out loud. But history will not be kind to the likes of Charles Schumer, Jonathan Chait, Steve Rosen et al, whose hidebound views are unintentionally undermining both U.S. and Israeli security.

Last but not least, I cannot help but be struck by how little confidence Freeman's critics seem to have in Israel itself. Apparently they believe that a country that recently celebrated its 60th birthday, whose per capita income ranks 29th in the world, that has several hundred nuclear weapons, and a military that is able to inflict more than 1,300 deaths on helpless Palestinians in a couple of weeks without much effort will nonetheless be at risk if someone who has criticized some Israeli policies (while defending its existence) were to chair the National Intelligence Council. The sad truth is that these individuals are deathly afraid of honest discourse here in the United States because deep down, they believe Israel cannot survive if it isn't umbilically attached to the United States. The irony is that people like me have more confidence in Israel than they do: I think Israel can survive and prosper if it has a normal relationship with the United States instead of "special" one. Indeed, I think a more normal relationship would be better for both countries. It appears they aren't so sure, and that is why they went after Charles Freeman.

* Stephen M. Walt* is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University and co-author with John J. Mearsheimer of /The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy/. ©2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Anti-Semitism, racism and double standards

In an article by Professor Saul Landau called "Israeli Policy Gives Jews a Bad Name" Landau says, „Most Jews I know get little pleasure from the existence of Israel; just the opposite. They feel disgusted by the behavior of their tribal kin toward Palestinians.‰

Later in the article, referring to Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation League, he writes, „Ironically, in the name of all Jews, Foxman and colleagues in AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and other Israeli lobby groups along with right wing and centrist political parties in Israel invoke the Holocaust to justify the very behavior embodied by Holocaust initiators.‰

In the last two weeks there have been no less than 5 responses, including my own, to a letter by CJ Mellor in the Woodstock Times. The Holocaust was invoked and Mellor and/or the original letter were referred to as something Joesph Gobbels „would be very proud of‰, „no nazi could have said it better‰, „pro-nazi propaganda‰, and the kind of „spewing‰ that if not challenged, „will grow just as it did in Nazi Germany.‰ In referring to Mellor‚s letter I said „ I don‚t think CJ Mellor meant it to be so, but the last statement more or less placing collective blame on the shoulders of U.S. Jews is exactly what anti-Semitism feeds upon.‰

Apparently, it is also fed a number of the same knee jerk reactions and cries of anti-Semitism and/or self-hating Jew one experiences, resultant of the slightest criticism of Israeli aggression and U.S support for the same.

It clearly seems as if we have, not only a double standard at work here, but a very virulent form of racism as well.

Quite often we see the terms Islamic terrorism, Arab terrorism or Palestinian terrorism. How would it be if the term Jewish terrorism were used? The cries of anti-Semitism and even Nazi would again ring out load and clear.

Are not bombs and white phosphorus dropped from planes on civilians terror? Is not being driven from your ancestral land and homes terrible? Are not bulldozers and tanks demolishing Palestinian homes a form of terror? Are not thousands of Palestinians of both sexes and all ages rotting in Israeli jails and often submitted to torture, terror?

Why is it that only suicide bombers or primitive rockets constitute terror? Why is it only the Palestinians that are terrorists when Israelis commit immeasurably (by their own account) more destruction and bloodshed? Why do we not call it „Jewish terrorism‰? Why are Palestinians allowed to be labeled terrorists and not Jewish people? Is this not racism?

It is an international war crime and a crime against humanity to collectively punish a civilian population, such as happened in Gaza. Is that not terrorism?

Women, school children, babies were trapped and slaughtered during the invasion and before that were being starved to death by the blockade. Where was the outrage of those who scream anti-Semite and Nazi about mere letters to the editor? Where was their righteous outrage then?

Self-defense you say? The invasion of Gaza was planned at least six months ahead. Even before the rockets began screaming into Sderot, let us not forget the November 4th assassinations of six Hamas leaders in Gaza by the Israeli military. Where was your outrage then?

In my previous letter, I said I didn‚t agree with Mellor‚s assertion that the blame falls on the shoulders of US Jews for not speaking out. I don‚t think collective blame on any population is right and beside many Jews have spoken out and will continue to do so regardless of name calling from those who blindly support Israel or the U.S.

I don‚t condone real anti-Semitism or any form of ethnic or racial prejudice and to be sure it does exist. But criticism of Israeli policies and/or a (wrongly) perceived failure of American Jews to speak out, does not constitute anti-Semitism or Nazism. The Nazis were far more virulent, vicious and hateful, lest we forget.

Tarak Kauff 4 Broadview Rd. Woodstock, NY 679-3299

Friday, March 6, 2009

On Israel, Shifted Ground

Inside Higher Ed
March 6, 2009

The ground seems to have shifted, activists on all sides say. What they make of it varies.

A shift toward more visible pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel sentiment has been profound on some campuses, prompted, in part, by the winter war in Gaza. Where some describe a corresponding disintegration of civil discourse or a scapegoating of Israel for a complex set of problems, others celebrate a newfound space in which to be critical of Israel -- to mount a challenge to what they see as a dominant discourse, so to speak.

The two perspectives don't have to go hand in hand, but at times, they seem to.

Take Emory University, for example, where about a third of undergraduates are Jewish. “The situation’s very interesting because in the past Emory was not a political school at all,” said Jessica Fraidlin, a sophomore involved with several Israel advocacy organizations, including Emory Students for Israel. “We’ve always had a very strong Jewish community, but we’ve never had an opposing side.”

For the first time this year, Emory hosted several events as part of "Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual, international campaign that ends Sunday. The slate of events included a rally, a talk titled “Understanding Apartheid: From South Africa to Israel,” and a lecture Thursday by Norman G. Finkelstein, a political scientist known for his harsh critiques of Israeli policies and "the Holocaust industry" (and, in higher education circles, for being denied tenure at DePaul University).

Saba Khalid, a junior involved with Israeli Apartheid Week and a member of Emory Advocates for Justice in Palestine, said the group has not been well-received since its founding last spring. “We’ve actually had a lot of opposition, which is understandable, but very negative opposition,” Khalid said. Last semester, for instance, the group’s chalkings to promote “Week against the Apartheid Wall” were crossed out and replaced with anti-Arab scrawls like “Arabs Go Home," she said.

“If there’s an open forum and we go it turns into a shouting match,” said Khalid, adding that it's a small handful of students who get the rest going.

“We don’t mind that there’s not discussion. What we really mind is the fact that they target us and they come after us specifically. We don't come after them. We stick to our events," Khalid said.

Fraidlin, while agreeing that the climate is “not so good,” otherwise disputed that characterization of pro-Israel students at Emory. “We don’t put down the other side ever. We’re just pro our side.”

Of the chalking-related incident, she said, “I’m not going to say it’s not true. There are radicals on both sides. But we have condemned the people who did it, and EAJP continues to highlight those people and say they’re representative of the Jewish community, and they’re not representative of the Jewish community.

“It’s become a propaganda war; it’s kind of who can scream the loudest. EAJP wants their voices heard and it doesn’t matter how they get their point across. They’re going to get it across and to me that’s not academic. You need facts, figures, you need intelligent conversations. ... I'll even hand it to them, Norman Finkelstein coming to campus, at least they're bringing a scholar to campus. To me, that's OK,” said Fraidlin, who on Wednesday was wearing a blue shirt with white lettering that read, “Stand for Israel.”

She added that students on all sides are still in an adjustment period. “We haven’t really sorted out our feelings yet. We know that we don’t agree with their side and we don’t know how to handle it, really. Both sides are really at fault.”

Student Activism

“I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen a more shrill tone to much of the criticism of Israel. Whether it’s in the campus quad, whether it’s rallies with signs, whether it’s blog postings to articles in the campus press, whether it’s question and answer sessions at academic fora about Gaza or about American policy toward Israel, it’s safe to say in all of these things we’ve noticed a trend – a reduction of civility of this dialogue, and that’s deeply troubling,” said David A. Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (which is affiliated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life).

For example, Harris said, “We see dozens and dozens of examples of 'die-ins' and [displays of] tombstones and public displays that are intimidating to some and don’t exactly foster an understanding of what is happening in the Middle East, or any kind of dialogue.”

He continued, however: “There’s plenty of not civil dialogue and dialogue that’s not what you'd want as the hallmark of academic discussion … but the clear majority of those cases are ones in which students on either side, neither of them feel that they are threatened or that they cannot express their views.”

Even relatively innocuous campus displays have caused tensions. At Cornell University last month, students involved with the Islamic Alliance for Justice lined pathways with 1,300 black flags to commemorate the violence in Gaza. The display was later vandalized, and hundreds of flags were rearranged into a Star of David, according to university police.

Cornell announced on Tuesday that two students had been charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief in connection with the incident. “There was no indication they were acting under the guise of any group’s motivations,” the deputy police chief, Kathy Zoner, said in a statement. “Groups were blamed for the action. They were the easiest and most convenient target for blame, but apparently that wasn’t the truth of the matter.”

The Palestinian cause has also risen to the top of many student groups' agendas. Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Rochester recently demanded that the institution divest from companies that "profit from war"; provide "necessary academic aid" and organize a day of fund raising for Gaza; and set up scholarships for Palestinian students. (University officials declined on the scholarships and direct aid, but promised to provide the group the same fund raising advice it would any registered student organization and forward the divestment request to the Board of Trustees' investment committee. That's standard protocol for such requests.)

At New York University last month, the "Take Back NYU" protesters presented a litany of 11 demands, including tuition stabilization, collective bargaining for student workers, public release of NYU's budget and endowment -- and scholarships for Palestinians and the donation of excess supplies for the rebuilding of Islamic University of Gaza, which came under attack by Israel during the recent war. The group's building take-over ended with suspensions and without any of the student demands being met.

Take Back NYU's frequently asked questions Web page offers a response to "What does Gaza have to do with NYU and transparency?" A protest organizer wrote: "I demanded that our surpluses be donated to the Islamic University of Gaza (as opposed to any other impoverished school) because our school very likely helped destroy it. Although we obviously can’t say for certain where our money is invested while the endowment holdings remain secret, it’s a fair bet that some of it is invested in companies that support the Israeli military."

This week, NYU has also been a site of Israeli Apartheid Week events. However, Arthur Samuelson, executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, said that he hasn't seen an erosion of support for Israel on campus. "It is a marginal voice which has gotten some attention and the other is a much bigger and not changing base of support for Israel," he said.

'Forceful Push'

At Columbia University on Thursday, the Columbia Palestine Forum held a rally to present what's by now a familiar set of demands, including that Columbia provide scholarships for Palestinians and academic aid for a partnering Palestinian university. The group called too for an open forum on investments to initiate a "[u]niversity-wide conversation about divestment."

Meanwhile, the University of Massachusetts' Student Government Association took up (but tabled) the divestment question on Wednesday, according to the student newspaper. The movement to divest from Israel has been gaining rhetorical momentum at least among student and faculty activists (although not among administrators -- despite student claims to the contrary, no college has divested).

An organized campaign for an academic boycott of Israel also emerged in the United States in January. Proponents of the boycott argue that it will put non-violent pressure on Israel to respect international humanitarian law. However, the idea of boycotting Israeli academics raises questions of academic freedom and has many opponents, among college presidents but also among some liberal, even (self-identified) "radical" faculty. On the "Tenured Radical" blog, for instance, Claire B. Potter, a professor of history and American Studies at Wesleyan University, wrote she is "profoundly opposed to boycott and divestment" for a number of reasons. Among them: "It does not address the real problem in the region, which is that states -- primarily the United States, Russia, and former Soviet-bloc countries -- continue to cynically pour weapons into the Middle East, as if it is possible to arm resistance fighters and the Israeli government to the teeth and also negotiate for 'peace,' " she wrote.

“Where we’ve really seen some of the more heated kinds of discussion and debate has been around attempts to pressure universities into really examining their own support for the occupation … so the different divestment and boycott campaigns,” said Bruce Braun, an associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a member of an organization that started this semester, Teachers Against Occupation, which now is assembling and developing pedagogical materials for use in high school and college classrooms. (Although individual members are involved with the boycott campaign, Teachers Against Occupation as a group has not taken a stand.)

“One of the things that’s really interesting on campuses right now is students are beginning to ask, ‘How are we connected to what’s happening in the Middle East? How do we transform our institutions?’ ” Braun said. “Having a debate on those kinds of questions is going to be emotional and it’s going to be one that raises uncomfortable questions. Sometimes we can point to civil dialogue as a way of sort of domesticating any kind of protest. And I think people feel very strongly that there’s an ongoing injustice that needs to be addressed and that continuously having a dialogue about this without taking steps to transform the institutional framework that allows what is perceived to be an unjust situation to be continued is something that people simply aren’t willing to abide with any longer.

“To put something on the agenda,” Braun explained, “actually takes sometimes a sort of forceful push. And I think that’s what we’re seeing at different points on campuses right now.

"I think there's a much stronger sense that sort of an unquestioned support of Israeli policy by the American government is something that we can no longer simply follow blindly or support," Braun continued, adding that the shift he sees isn't limited to college campuses. "I'm seeing that expressed at all kinds of different levels, among students, among faculty."

Questions of the faculty role in all of this have been at the forefront. Members of Teachers Against Occupation, for instance, “take quite seriously the fact that we are teachers. …As teachers, how do we respond by thoughtfully bringing these ideas into the classroom in ways that are constructive, or at least putting together materials for that?” Braun asked.

Meanwhile, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a pro-Israel organization, recently asked professors to report anti-Israel or anti-Semitic events or propaganda on their campuses, for a compendium of sorts. “We’re the people on campus. We’ve got our fingers on the pulse, we’re stakeholders, we’re faculty members. We live on campus longer than students, longer than most administrators and longer than most Hillel directors or Jewish education professionals,” said Edward S. Beck, president emeritus of the organization and professor in Walden University's School of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“It’s our feeling that nothing is going to happen to reverse this trend of anti-Israelism [on campus] until the faculty absolutely say, ‘Look, some of these behaviors are unacceptable and inconsistent with behavioral codes on campus and some of what’s being taught here is incitement as opposed to free speech,' " Beck said.

Scholarship and Balance

One sub-strand of debate has been the faculty role when it comes to convening scholarly panels on Middle Eastern matters. As one high-profile example, a recent panel on "Human Rights and Gaza" organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, attracted attention for its perceived one-sidedness. Judea Pearl, a computer science professor at UCLA and father of the killed Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote in the Jewish Journal of the panel of "four long-time demonizers of Israel" who bashed the Jewish state, "portray[ed] Hamas as a guiltless, peace-seeking, unjustly provoked organization," and encouraged the audience in a "Zionism is Nazism" chant.

"Many people have contacted me — and some have even written news articles — to express profound disappointment over what they believe was the panel's unbalanced presentation and a lack of decorum during the question-and-answer period," Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement, which referenced a number of talks at UCLA that involve Israeli representatives and stressed a need for civil discourse. "The UCLA campus, with its diverse population and many points of view, is one of the most invigorating intellectual campuses in the world, and the university strives overall for scholarly balance."

"I guess what I would say is what we try and do is present a varied program on issues related to the central themes of our centers," said Nick Entrikin, acting vice provost of UCLA's International Institute, which is comprised of more than 20 centers, programs and research institutes (including an Israel Studies Program and the Center for Near Eastern Studies). "I think the argument that every program has to represent all sides of an issue, although it's something that we work towards in the aggregate, I just don't think we can really say we can do that for every particular event."

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has written on these topics, said that when it comes to scholarly endeavors, the issue of balance "is a smokescreen."

But that doesn't mean she's not concerned by events like the one at UCLA, which she thinks are "nearing epidemic proportion" on campuses. It's not balance but the possibility of indoctrination -- which she believes represents an abuse of academic freedom -- that concerns her. "Scholarship is not about balance, scholarship is about truth. The antithesis of scholarship is political indoctrination. You don't balance political indoctrination with equal and opposite indoctrination," she said.

"If a course or if a conference has clear political motivations and calls to political action ... the question is, 'Is this scholarship?' Is it scholarship to call on people to divest from Israel? Is that considered a scholarly statement?" Rossman-Benjamin asked.

In the case of the UCLA panel, Sondra Hale, a professor of anthropology and women's studies and one of the organizers of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote a letter to the student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, defending the quality of scholarship presented (Hale did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview).

"Clearly, these are scholars who are very well-informed on the subject of the symposium and whose scholarship is beyond repute," Hale wrote. "They are scholars who bring pride to the University of California. This was a group of highly informed and qualified Jews, Israelis, Arabs and Arab Americans examining and trying to make sense of the human disaster of Gaza and criticizing the state policies that have lead to this calamity.

"Simply because some in the audience (from all perspectives) were out of line in some groups’ sloganeering, the problems should not reflect on the excellent symposium itself. No one on the panel exempted Hamas or suicide bombers from charges of human rights abuses or violations of international law. All clearly condemned the Hamas rocket attacks. ... No one on the panel chanted 'Zionism is Nazism,' " Hale wrote.

Of course it is the validation of fellow scholars that determines what scholarship is in the academy. More broadly, Rossman-Benjamin argued that academic senates need to do a better job of protecting the professoriate from indoctrination masquerading as scholarship.

"Things can deteriorate rapidly and come to a place where there really is a hostile environment for some students and faculty and staff because people aren't doing their jobs, because there are abuses that are not being routed out and taken care of," she said.

When Questions Can't be Asked or Answered

Student-sponsored events run on different rules. But at San Jose State University in early February, one event, open to the public and featuring an Israeli consul general, Akiva Tor, deteriorated rapidly. While it was an atypical incident, the case is described by some as a warning sign of sorts.

“During Mr. Tor’s speech he was, I guess you could say, heckled. People in the audience were not polite. They didn’t sit and politely listen. They catcalled and booed and one woman kept making remarks, but other audience members actually tried to deal with those people. Members of the pro-Palestinian faction got up and talked to these folks. I think that the pro-Palestinian faction, most of the people there had an interest in hearing what he had to say,” recalled Frances Edwards, director of San Jose State’s master's of public administration program and the moderator for the event.

It was during the question and answer session that things disintegrated. A woman read from a statement for several minutes before finally getting to her question: "Why do you lie?"

Tor began to answer but some audience members stood up and cat-called; one woman yelled, “Why did you kill my family?” Edwards related.

“He said, ‘mistakes were made in war,’ and they erupted. They absolutely erupted," Edwards said. Police escorted Tor out of the room, cutting the question and answer session short. (The student newspaper, The Spartan Daily, also published a video account.)

“I’m kind of neither on one side or the other, if you want to look at in terms of sides,” Edwards said. “My concern is for the university and what the university means to a community. We’re not intending to be an advocate for any particular point of view but rather to serve as a speaker’s corner, a common ground, where people of different opinions can get together and at least hear each other.”

Jon Whitmore, San Jose State's president, sent a letter of apology to Akiva Tor on Feb. 23, and another letter expressing regrets to a faculty adviser involved with the event.

A university spokeswoman, Pat Lopes Harris, said that she’s not aware of anyone being disciplined as a result of the event. “The approach that we have taken is that we understand that the event was less than ideal. To go back and to try to pull apart what happened and to start to try to blame one party or another doesn’t seem like it’s going to help us move forward,” she said.

She added, too: “One of the reasons the story has come to light – well there are many reasons, it was a significant event no doubt about that – but it has been utilized by some parties as an example of perhaps an increase in anti-Semitic activity on college campuses nationwide. And that concerns me a little bit because I haven’t seen a really comprehensive set of data that shows that is in fact the case. There are a lot of anecdotes, certainly anecdotes that pertain to our campus.”

Sue Maltiel, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, said that at San Jose at least, the climate has shifted. “There are a lot of Jewish students who are really afraid now, who are afraid to identify as Jewish,” Maltiel said, who recalled hearing a faculty member threatened at the Akiva Tor event, as well as the chant, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want your racist state."

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of so many students being afraid. I’ve never heard a faculty member threatened before.”

After winter break and the start of war in Gaza, “We went to school, the atmosphere was really tense,” said Diana Nguyen, a San Jose State junior and vice president of Spartans for Israel. “I would be tabling and there would always be someone who had to ask me loaded questions or try to make me answer for what Israel did, which was fine. … Toward the [Akiva Tor] event I started getting anti-Semitic comments. I’m not sure those people knew I was Jewish,” said Nguyen, who heard, for instance, “Jews are murderers."

She added, "Everyone’s reluctant to call out any anti-Semitic comment when it’s anti-Semitic because it’s like the new race card or something. They’re out there.”

Omar Mutwakil, president of the Muslim Students' Association at San Jose State, agreed that the Akiva Tor talk “just went out of control; it wasn’t too civilized at the end.” But he objected to the notion that it heralded a broader break-down in civil dialogue.

Though he has heard people say that “this is why things like this can’t be held on campus," Mutwakil strongly disagreed. "Come on, that’s bogus. There are debates all over the place and there’s nothing wrong with this. This thing [the Akiva Tor event] was opened to people who aren’t on campus and that‘s part of the problem. It was open to everyone," said Mutwakil.

“In general, yeah, I think discussions can be held. I don’t see why not. We’re all humans. We’re not animals.”

San Jose’s Muslim Students' Association sponsored a couple of talks on the Middle East this semester -- a forum on “The U.S.-Backed Israeli War on Gaza” and a talk by Barbara Lubin, director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, in Berkeley.

As of this week, the group had no more events planned on these issues, said Mutwakil. "Unless something else happens again in the news. Maybe something else would occur due to that."

They’re a religious organization, he explained; all this is not really what they're about.
— Elizabeth Redden

Thursday, March 5, 2009

YouTube clip re Gaza

Whatever one thinks of Waltz with Bashir's writer/director Ari Folman's silence over Gaza, the same cannot be said for his animation director. Yoni Goodman has just produced a short clip about the Gaza siege for Gisha an Israeli NGO to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents. A good way to spend one and half minutes- Sol Salbe

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dear President Botstein

Leon Botstein, President
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Dimitri Papadimitrou
Executive Vice President
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Dear President Botstein and Executive Vice-President Papadimitrou:

I am writing regarding Bard's decision to terminate the contract of Joel Kovel.

I know that others have written before me, dismayed at what certainly seems to be a politically motivated choice not to renew Professor Kovel's contract. I know that in your form reply letter, you claim that the decision was based not on Professor Kovel's political views and work, but rather on fiscal constraints brought about by the current economic climate.

Whatever the real reason, there was certainly a flagrant conflict of interest in Professor Kovel's evaluation process due to the inclusion of Professor Bruce Chilton on the evaluation committee. Having gleaned a reasonable amount of information about Professor Chilton's work and affiliations from some online research, I find it manifestly unreasonable that a person with strong ideological leanings toward Zionist ideology should have been involved in the evaluation of an outspokenly anti-Zionist intellectual. Professor Kovel has, furthermore, in his own statement highlighted other institutional affiliations that call the objectivity of this decision into doubt (such as your, President Botstein's, relationship to the Jerusalem Sympthony Orchestra and the circumstances of their 2006 performance at Bard).

As an academic myself, I am well aware of the effects of the current economic crisis on higher education, and will not dismiss your own allegations as altogether implausible. At the same time, I am familiar with the pile-up of cases nationally in which academics who challenge Zionism have become the casualties of serious weaknesses in the process of academic freedom (much as those who were accused of "communist" sympathies once were). Professor Kovel's case certainly appears to be amongst them. Thus, in order to legitimately make your own case, avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest, you would need to conduct and respond to an evaluation process that was transparently fair and impartial. This you have not done.

I would strongly urge you to dismiss the recent committee's findings and either renew Professor Kovel's contract or, at the very least, convene a committee composed of external, independent and objective members whose ideological differences with Professor Kovel don't cloud the credibility of their findings.

I also hope you know that I, as well as many of my colleagues, feel that this episode calls into serious question Bard's very reputation as a site of excellence in liberal education. Whatever the perspective on Zionism that the Bard administration and Professor Kovel's colleagues may have, I had imagined that the ideal of academic freedom still meant something at Bard--even as it is eroding on campuses elsewhere. Your decision to terminate Professor Kovel calls the academic integrity of your institution deeply into question.

Harriet Malinowitz
Professor of English
Long Island University
Brooklyn, NY