My Promised Land – 2

25 Jan

As the first half of this review hinted, the title of Ari Shavit’s 2014 best-seller My Promised Land telegraphs the narrator, identifying the ultimate source for the thoughts spoken in the heads of the many characters of a book best described as a hybrid of history, novel and personal-internal memoir.

I also noted last time that looking at Israel’s history through the lens of multiple historic characters – interpreted through the author’s use of a novelist’s devices – has its advantages.  As one commenter pointed out, James Michener’s The Source does something similar (although that book is clearly identified as a work of historic fiction).  Leon Uris’ Exodus, also blended real and made-up characters and few books have had more of an impact on American attitudes towards Israel (held by Jews and non-Jews alike) than has Uris’ tale.

But unlike The Source and Exodus, My Promised Land is presented as a work of non-fiction.  And even if the blurring of genre lines gives the author the opportunity to reveal interesting things going on in his own head, this artistic license does not free him from responsibility with regard to stories presented as fact.

When those stories touch on known events (like the development of Israel’s “secret” nuclear program or the politics that led to the Oslo Accords), then the personal reflections the author writes into his characters can be illuminating.  I already mentioned the power of this technique in the context of my favorite chapter of the book (The Project – having to do with Dimona and Israel’s nuclear deterrent).  And even if I long ago stopped giving those who brought us Oslo points for good intentions (given everything their efforts unleashed since then), it is valuable to hear from Shavit (a member of this peace camp) how this group judges itself.

It’s when My Promised Land provides new historic “revelations,” however, the blurring of lines between fiction and factual history becomes more problematical (and troubling).

I previously mentioned the chapter that has gotten the author into the most hot water (Lydda, 1948).  In one sense, there’s nothing surprising that a story involving the expulsion of Arabs from their homes during Israel’s’ War of Independence the War would provoke controversy under any circumstances.  And I’m not going to get into a debate over what happened at the “Big Mosque” vs. the “Small Mosque” or where Jordanian Legionaries were located when events at Lydda unfolded.

But if you read Shavit’s description of those events, and then follow it up with this rebuttal presented by Middle East historian Martin Kramer, it’s safe to say that – at minimum – what happened at Lydda in 1948 is up for serious debate.  And even if such a debate is likely to never end, it’s more than likely that what ultimately took place back then will sound more like a military story (full of conflicted strategy and tactics, plans that ran aground when they confronted the reality of the battlefield, confusion and brutality on all sides) than a morality play.

Yet Shavit presents the story not just as fact, but as Israel’s “black box” – not a black box as in a great unknown, but as in an airplane flight recorder – the device which, if found and decoded, will provide the uncompromised and true data needed to explain a tragedy.  But given that every detail Shavit provides about what went on in Lydda in 1948 is – at best – questionable, what are we to make of the author’s seeming insistence that readers should treat his story as the black-box data needed to understand the 1948 War, if not Israel’s history in its entirety?

An easy answer would be to simply condemn Shavit as a “Nakbahist” – someone who joins Israel’s enemies in wanting to translate the country’s founding into nothing more than a catastrophe for Palestinians expelled from their homes and ignore everything else that’s happened in the region before, during and since.  But Shavit (unlike some) does not shy away from telling stories about the brutality visited upon the Jews of the region, nor pretend that legitimate peace offers extended by Israel since ’48 don’t exist.

True, his tales of Arab terror can seem clinical and detached from living, breathing Arabs, as opposed to the named, flesh-and-blood Jews who pull triggers in Lydda.  But getting back to my original thesis about the nature of My Promised Land, why is it so important for the author to believe, accept and communicate one particular (and highly contentious) interpretation of events vs. some other?

Shavit gives no hint that he is in possession of heretofore unknown facts or documents that have revealed to him new truths.  Which means he has chosen the “facts” in his Lydda story for the same reason he chooses to believe his grandfather “did not see” the Arabs as he made his way through the Holy land in 1897: to demonstrate that the Tragedy part of his subtitle (“The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”) is of Israel’s own making.

And why might this be so important to the author?

Well given the liberty Shavit takes with his characters’ internal dialog, allow me a moment to speculate on what might be going on in his head for a moment.

For there are two possible reasons why Israel has been the focus of so much hatred and war over the last century.  The first possibility is that the country is guilty of some hideous crime which might not justify the years and decades of attacks upon it, but would at least explain them.  Alternatively, the war against the Jewish state might have nothing to do with what Israel has done, but rather represents the return of dark forces (the law of the jungle, the ascension of the ruthless, and – yes – anti-Semitism) that most civilized people had hoped disappeared after the last century’s World Wars I, II and III (otherwise known as the Cold War).

For the civilized person (which Shavit clearly is), the notion that we might be living through World War IV – which includes a new war of hatred directed against the Jewish people – is too much to bear.  And so we end up looking not at Gaza (where religious fanatics join forces with tyrants across the region to perpetuate ever-escalating conflict) or Europe (where Jews are once again becoming an endangered species), but at Lydda in 1948 (or at least the author’s contentious account of it) and offered absolution if we just allow ourselves to peek into this “black box” and accept judgement.

Ruth Wisse, who prophesized on the ever-escalating need to blame Israel and the Jews for the war waged against them, wrote a review of My Promised Land far less generous than the one you are reading now.

The reason I’ve been less harsh than Wisse is that I sympathize with those struggling with the deep personal conflict that underlies every chapter of My Promised Land.  There is, after all, a reason why the book proved so popular with American Jewish audiences.  For even if the country (outside of a Jewish Voice for Peace square dance) is not filled with unquestioning Nakbahists, there are many (including many people I know and love) who prefer the morality play of Lydda, 1948 to the messier reality of what goes on in war.

And if the Jews are somehow responsible for the war that has waged every day since ‘48, then perhaps it is in our power to do something to end it.  The alternative (that dark days have not only returned, but never went away) requires us to both understand the genuine Jewish condition circa 2015 and accept that the law of the jungle has not been banished from the human condition just because many of us living in anomalous comfort and security wish that it has.

My Promised Land – 1

22 Jan

At a certain point last year, I became convinced that a new book had been added to the Tenakh, a book that seemed to have become required reading at every temple I visited (my own dedicated three reading-group sessions to the work – all of which I missed, which led to this review).

In case you haven’t deduced yet from the title of this piece, I’m talking about My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, the 2014 best seller by Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit which tells the tale of Israel’s past and present through stories of various participants in the birth and continued life of the Jewish state.

If that structure sounds familiar, that’s because another book that came out around the same time, Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi, took a similar approach to presenting history through storytelling.  And while Dreamers is generally acknowledged to be the superior of the two, Shavit’s My Promised Land seems to have struck a chord with American audiences, especially mainstream Jewish ones, as the book garnered rave New York Times reviews, was excerpted in the New Yorker, and found its way onto those aforementioned reading group lists in synagogues and Jewish community groups around the country.

While Halevi’s book focused on a set of characters from a particular point in time (the men depicted in this iconic photo of the liberation of Jerusalem), Shavit’s characters extend much further back, starting with the author’s own great-grandfather who first visited the Holy Land in 1897 when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and Zionism was still an idea just gaining traction in Europe.

More than another dozen stories follow, including the tale of the zealous youth who made up the early kibbutz movement, a farmer who managed to keep his orange grove growing as  winds of war gathered in the 1930s, up through the soldiers and politicians, settlers and activists, hippies and hackers making up contemporary Israeli life.

Because of the controversy surrounding an important chapter of Shavit’s book (the one titled Lydda, 1948), I decided to read that part last so as to avoid having it color my opinion of the book overall.  This helped me better experience My Promised Land as others had, especially those who celebrated Shavit’s ability to make history come alive with a work that many describe as “reading like a novel.”

When applied to non-fiction, this phrase is usually meant as a compliment, implying that the author has managed to incorporate real-life characters into engaging narratives – something that definitely sums up two the key virtues of My Promised Land – excitement and readability.  But like all attempts to fit the complexities of history into satisfying storylines, leveraging the tools of fiction to bring to life challenging real-world situations carries with it both risks and responsibilities.

This issue hit me almost immediately in the first story of the book, the one chronicling the author’s great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who visited pre-state Palestine at the end of the century (the 19th century that is) as part of a combined fact-finding mission and pilgrimage.

At various points in the chapter, Shavit refers to photos of his ancestor, so perhaps he also had access to journals Bentwich kept on his journey, which could explain the author’s confident description of what his great-grandfather was thinking about during this important moment of his life. But Shavit goes much further than this, describing what Bentwich (and other characters in his book) were NOT thinking about at important points in the narrative.  And, as far as I know, the only people who can claim to understand (rather than just guess at) what others didn’t consider are novelists in full control of their character’s internal lives.

For instance, Shavit repeatedly tells us that his great-grandfather “does not see” the Arabs in the Holy Land (people the author characterizes as indigenous peasants and serfs) during a pilgrimage suffused with living monuments to the Jewish past and hopes for a Jewish national future.  But couldn’t another writer (me perhaps) decide that what Bentwich did not ponder was how the co-religionists of the Muslim empire that then ruled the area were as impoverished as everyone else?

No doubt such an attempt to put words into the brain of a man who died decades ago would be dismissed as mere speculation (perhaps politically motivated speculation since it would be put to the purpose of characterizing Arabs of the region as imperialist invaders).  But why should the speculations of Bentwich’s great-grandson (which are equally politically charged) be treated any differently?

While it would be easy to treat this and other examples of omniscient narration as agenda-driven, I think it is safe to say that – like a novel – My Promised Land does traffic in important and honest internal dialog: that of the author.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Take, for example, my favorite chapter in the book: The Project, 1967, in which Shavit uses a sit down/drinking session with Israeli engineer Avner Cohen, who helped Israel build the Dimona nuclear plant, as the launch pad for reflection on the development of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

Like other characters making up Shavit’s narratives, the taciturn Cohen provides a number of blanks the author needs to fill in.  And, in this case, those spaces are filled by Shavit’s marvel at both the ambition of Dimona and the paradox of a nuclear Israel.

For every other time in human history when one nation outgunned all of its enemies, it put that military advantage to political use, by directly controlling its neighbors or using the threat of overwhelming force to dominate or influence them.  And most military breakthroughs (like the bomb) lead to dramatic changes in military doctrine, such as the de-emphasis on conventional forces that took place in the US military during its brief monopoly over atomic weapons.

But Israel not only does not use its local nuclear monopoly for political advantage, it doesn’t even admit to having it.  And even as the nation’s political leaders (Left and Right) prefer to keep Israel’s nuclear status ambiguous, those same leaders prefer to pretend it does not exist when it comes to a national military strategy designed to win wars through conventional force alone.

What other nation behaves in such a way?  And why should Israel be an exception to almost every rule of power politics?  These are questions and paradoxes that fill Shavit’s mind (and thus his characters’ minds), which makes his working his thoughts out publically particularly illuminating.

Unfortunately, such a personal approach to history runs into a minefield when he tells that aforementioned tale of Lydda, 1948 – a story I will get to next time.


BDS Bombast for 2014

13 Jan

I had almost forgotten the ritual of the end-of-year BDS Boast Sheet – that document the BDSers promulgate annually to celebrate their marvelous successes, which they claim as proof of their inevitable triumph.

Unlike previous years, this year’s sheet includes some actual (vs. just pretend) “victories,” notably the Presbyterian Churches (PCUSA) divestment decision and the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott vote.

Regarding the former, when I was debating the PCUSA’s 2012 decision to vote down divestment over at The Daily Beast, I pointed out that if the BDSers really put their backs into it for two more years, they might finally get back to where they were ten years earlier when divestment first passed at the church (before being voted down in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012).

And, sure enough, by insisting votes never end until they get what they want, the BDSers were able to get a smaller, older and more political-homogenous church to do their bidding this time around – but only with the hypocritical but telling caveat that the church also insisted it’s decision not be seen as constituting participation in the BDS “movement.”

With regard to ASA, enough has happened since that vote (including condemnations raining down on the organization from the rest of academia and other academic associations fleeing from BDS having seen what it did to ASA) that we should probably start thinking of the American Studies Association as the Olympia Food Coop of academic groups: an organization that will cling to its boycott no matter what as they scream in our faces about their wonderfulness and bravery while similar organizations look upon ASA as an example of why BDS should be avoided at all cost (and act accordingly).

Speaking of reactions, one of my favorite elements of BDS bragging is their attempt to spin everything – including those organizing against and condemning them – as further examples of their own success.  Thus, the perfectly legitimate response of Jewish organizations and more questionable response by state legislators to the ASA boycott represents “panic” over BDS potency (rather than a normal reaction by an insulted minority group or a demonstration that the first BDS-inspired sanction activity ended up being directed against them).

Similarly, a famous actress pushing an Israeli company during the Superbowl (and then giving the finger to critics) has been transformed to a story about how “Scarlett Johansson Helps Bring BDS Into the Mainstream.”  Which leaves us in the situation where both condemnation and defeat are both being presented as examples of victory.

It’s when they start getting into big dollar “wins” that the more-familiar BDS bullshit starts to float to the surface.  For example, I happen to live in Boston yet the story of Veolia’s loss of a $4.5 billion dollar contract with the city as a result of BDS efforts (rather than just an example of a company winning some and losing others) was news to me.

Similarly, other stories of pension funds or Microsoft or local, national or international organizations making billion dollar decisions based on BDS lobbying continue to never be accompanied by statements from these allegedly boycotting organizations explaining to the world what they are doing and why (vs. having their business decisions interpreted by BDS tea-leaf readers).  And, as I have described previously, absent such statements political divestment (vs. normal business transactions) cannot be said to have occurred.

The wording of that Boston decision (towards the top of the page under January) is telling, given that it provides the boycotters just enough wiggle room to worm out of accusations of dishonesty (given that it never actually says the city’s decision was the result of their campaign, rather than just coming afterwards post-hoc fashion).  Which points out how much boast sheets like this one are designed to delude allies as much as they are the public.

This would explain why they prefer anecdote to actual data, including the data found in a report that confirms what I described years ago: that during a decade and a half when the BDSers were trying to bring the Israeli economy to its knees, that economy more than doubled in size with exports to an allegedly boycotting Europe growing close to 100% and even products from the dreaded “Occupied Territories” selling gangbusters around the world.

Now this segue into reality also needs to take into account the fact that BDS acting as a transmission belt for anti-Israel propaganda does have an impact, even when they lose this or that vote. And it also needs to take into account that reality now includes murderous anti-Semitism returning in a big way to Europe with the forces of Islamist imperialism on a lethal march throughout every part of the Middle East that is not being subjected to boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns by those presenting themselves as morally perfect.

Unfortunately, most of us are not in a position to impact how these geo-political pathologies play out in the coming years.  But we do have it in our power to prevent those toxins from poisoning our schools, our churches, our cities and the rest of civil society.  We can (and have) prevented the BDS arm of the anti-Israel war movement from winning many real victories (which is why they have to keep boasting about fake ones).

And so the battle continues…


9 Jan

The start of Mike Lumish’s latest contribution to our ongoing discussion succeeded in making me blush, which is why I’d like to start off by paying him an even bigger compliment by thanking him for making me think, particularly about closely held beliefs.

For while I feel pretty confident in my understanding about what the BDS “movement” is all about, I’ll admit that the writing you may have read on this site regarding Left vs. Right matters is fairly optimistic with regard to the existence of a pro-Zionist (or at least anti-BDS) Left that I’m hoping will stand firm against the Israel haters on that end of the political spectrum (much like the anti-Communist Left helped to prevent Marxism from bullying its way into dominance of progressive politics in an earlier era).

But as the business cliché points out: hope is not a strategy.  So even though many allies in various BDS fights (not to mention most Democratic Congressmen and self-styled radicals such as this person), fall into the category of a Left that loves the Jewish state (or at least hates it less than they hate the boycotters), Mike provides important balance by highlighting the increasing encroachment of dark language, thought and values into mainstream liberalism – something we all must take very, very seriously.

Moving from mutual appreciation to debate, Mike seems most (and legitimately) concerned about my characterization of his position as stemming from partisanship.  And given the priority he gives that critique in his recent piece, the Principle of Charity obliges me to also prioritize that issue as well.

First off, I need to point out that my comment on partisanship was directed not at him personally, but at everyone dealing with the intersection of Middle East and domestic politics (which, given the state of the world and the behavior of the present US administration, should include all of us).

Now this is not my way of worming out of a critique my interlocutor finds objectionable.  Rather, it is a way to highlight how our partisan instincts provide both benefits and risks with regard to how we all approach difficult and important political matters.

Despite the negative connotation often attached to the word “partisan,” it’s worth noting that a partisan alignment is a perfectly natural and useful way to find our way in the world.  We all need some way of making sense of the many political issues that confront us on a regular basis, and aligning ourselves with a political belief system is a reasonable way of navigating such complexity.

The modern faith in the rational makes us queasy about admitting that our political choices are anchored in a belief system that allows us to make decisions on matters we may know little about.  This is why with every election cycle, reasonable people publish useful checklists that let you select your personal preferences –  issue-by-issue  – with a candidate selected for you by an algorithm designed to match you (dating-service like) with the candidate you most agree with.

But every time I have filled out one of these surveys, I’ve found myself questioning any result that asks me to vote in a way different than the partisan way I have voted before.  And this is not an entirely irrational reaction.  For my partisan loyalties reflect a belief system I have chosen after thinking about multiple issues over many years.  So even if the particular issues facing us right now might give the edge to the candidate from a different party, my partisan instincts are actually reminding me that today’s issues might not be tomorrow’s (since they weren’t yesterday’s), which means a system of political beliefs might actually anchor, rather than replace, broader, long-term independent thinking.

At the same time, embracing a belief system always runs the risk of creating unthinking habit (i.e., unreasoning bias).  And in the case of partisanship, it can also lead to the dangerous tendency to look to others who share your belief system (or claim they do) before making up one’s own mind.  So while partisanship is a useful means for making sense of things, it becomes dangerous when it serves as a complete replacement for reflection and independent thought.

Putting aside abstract plusses and minuses of partisanship, let’s also not forget the human factor that goes into most decision-making (political or otherwise).  For if you don’t trust the candidate that some survey says agrees with you more than does that other guy to actually walk the walk (by prioritizing and acting on those issues of agreement), then why should they be owed your vote?  And as much as personality traits might also seem a poor substitute for rational arguments over issues, most of the successes and failures of any leader can be traced to their character vs. their embrace of this or that political position.

This is my usual long-winded way of urging caution with regard to reading too much into things like the large percentage of the Jewish vote that remains Democratic, even in an age when the current Democratic occupant of the White House seems so hostile to Jewish interests (notably with regard to Israel and the Middle East).

I think Mike and I are going to have to agree to disagree over when Obama’s statements regarding the Arab Spring constitute an endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood (vs. deluded wishful thinking combined with overheated rhetoric).  But there is no disagreement that the current President’s choices: from cutting endless slack to Islamist foes of both Israel and the US to picking needless fights with the Israeli government, make it a perfectly reasonable choice for Jews who support Israel (which describes the majority of us) to refuse to vote for him.

But that didn’t happen last election, did it?  And one reasonable interpretation of the – at most – minimal change in Jewish voting patterns between 2008 and 2012 is that American Jews have their heads “buried in the sand” in such a way that we cannot abandon partisan (i.e., largely Democratic) loyalties, even for the sake of a Jewish state we hold dear.

But another possibility takes into account the fact that Jews (like all Americans) were not casting a vote on each and every issue of importance to them, but were rather making a narrow choice between two individuals.  And had the Republican candidate been more appealing in ways having nothing to do with Israel and the Middle East (as was Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984), who knows how the Jewish vote might have gone?

Even if I don’t expect to ever see a total party realignment of the Jewish public, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Jews voted for Obama for the same reasons the majority of Americans did: they liked him better than the other guy. And just as some voters were ready to engage in wishful thinking with regard to issues like Obamacare in order to overcome doubts when the time came to pull the lever in November 2012, I’m guessing many Jews were hoping for the best when they cast their votes in both 2008 and 2012 – not because they were ignorant of the President’s failings, but because the only other option on offer (voting for Mitt Romney – who also came with baggage) did not provide them enough reason to overcome their partisan instincts.

Upon reflection, it may simply be some of the language Mike has used in the past that gives the appearance (vs. the reality) of disagreement between us.  For while he has told me directly that I’m not included in the list of those who have their “heads buried in the sand” with regard to the threat to Israel and the Jews from the Left, I think it has been his willingness to characterize those who do not buy into his analyses (which, if you read his work regularly, you’ll understand to consist of a number of complex and challenging arguments) with this head/sand charge that has rubbed me (and others) the wrong way.

As someone who also proposes a multi-faceted worldview, and who also feels frustrated that not enough people embrace that worldview in toto, I can understand why it is sometimes tempting to try to grab those who know should agree with you by the shoulders and try to shake some sense into them.  But knowing how much such shaking can become the issue (and cloud the very arguments I want people to follow and buy into), my preference is to be patient with those who seem to be taking too long to “get it,” rather than trying to shame them into understanding.

Scorching the Earth

7 Jan

While I’ve always tried to link to individuals and groups whose efforts have inspired this or that piece on Divest This, my New Year’s resolution is to highlight the important work of organizations who may have gone unsung on this site, the first being The Israel Project an informational clearinghouse for detailed and accurate information about Israel and the Middle East.

I’ve been a subscriber to their Daily TIP mailing for quite some time, and it was a recent piece they sent out regarding the latest tactic of Abbas and Co to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to subvert it for their own purposes that provided the title – and subject – for this piece.

The Israel Project’s mailing spelled out (and footnoted) the facts and history behind previous Palestinian infiltration, cooptation and coercion efforts designed to turn an international organization created to fight for a worthy cause (the preservation of cultural heritage – UNESCO, the furtherance of human rights – UNHCR, and now international law – the ICC) into weapon systems directed at you-know-who.

Like similar efforts at infiltration and cooptation we see taking place within civil society organizations by the BDS “movement,” the PA’s attempt to join global treaty organizations in order to subvert them reflect a repeating pattern of leveraging the openness and liberality of the many for narrow and illiberal ends of the few.

Just as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) demands the right to speak from every platform in the land while denying their own platforms to anyone else, anti-Israel propagandists (including Israel’s alleged “peace partners”) are demanding that anyone dedicated to a progressive or humanitarian cause must bow down before them, while all the time refusing to subject themselves to rules or standards implied by phrases such as “human rights,” or “international law.”

And so the next international organization becomes corrupted to the point of uselessness (beyond generating indictments of their new member’s favorite political enemy).  And while it is obvious why someone like Abbas would like to hear his charges come out of the mouth of a respected entity like the International Criminal Court, it’s not entirely clear what the rest of the planet gets out of such a deal.

After all, these organizations (not to mention the causes they fight for like cultural heritage, human rights and international justice) are all human constructs, and fragile ones at that.  Given how recently the nation state became the key organizing principle for human societies, the notion that we must be evolving into a global order where everyone enjoys equal  human rights (just as citizens of a nation are supposed to have equal citizen rights) is just that – a notion.  Or, more specifically, it is a cause that needs to be argued for (especially to those nation states being asked to sacrifice some of their rights for the benefits of participating in such a new – and allegedly beneficent – global order).

But what happens when nations or individuals and organizations acting on behalf of nations take over the organizations meant to undergird such a new order and turn them into tools of national statecraft (or warcraft)?  Under those circumstances, are human rights and international law still beneficent principles we should all be fighting for, or slogans behind which the ruthless hide in order to get others to do their bidding?

A few years back, I recall a visitor to this site claiming that even if the global institutions being built were less than perfect, we should still support them since any problems simply represented growing pains in an evolutionary process that was destined to lead to a better world, just as biological evolution leads to continued improvement of a species.  But even biological evolution is hardly on a pre-destined trajectory towards perfection.  Yes, on the whole it has led to progress.  But it has also led to dead ends, mutations and the termination of species that could have flowered (and even evolved into something superior to luckier survivors) had they not met some random catastrophe that wiped them off the board.

In a similar way, a mutated “evolving” global system in which tyrants get to decide who is a human rights violator (a list that never includes them), one where faux-nations get to indict real ones for imagined crimes is a system no genuine supporter of things like human rights and international justice can embrace.

Which is why anyone dedicated to transforming the world into something other than a planet full of competing nation states – even if such advocates have nothing but loathing for the Jewish one – should be first in line to condemn attempts to corrupt our already corrupted global institutions still further.  For an International Criminal Court that can indict Israel in the name of “Palestine” is the same institution that can indict anyone without the power and ruthlessness to take over and twist it to their own narrow purposes.  And whatever you want to call such a process, calling it “justice” is a sick joke no genuine advocate for justice should find funny.

History Has Spoken – The AHA BDS Blues

5 Jan

As some of you might have heard, the latest attempt to bring an academic association on board the BDS “bandwagon” collapsed last night as the American Historical Association voted 144 to 51 to not bring two anti-Israel resolutions up for a vote within the wider organization.

The specifics of the decision will likely seem Byzantine to most non-academics, but the nut of it comes down to:

  • The proposals skirted the issue of an academic boycott (as did last year’s votes by the MLA), with the BDSers instead pushing resolutions condemning Israel for practices that they claim harm academic freedom (of Palestinian academics and American academics working with them). This might simply reflect a strategy of phases whereby this year’s condemnations would lead to next year’s boycotts, although it might also indicate a recognition that academic boycotts are radioactive after everything we saw ASA go through in 2014.
  • Decision-makers within the organization had already taken boycott votes off the table, and last night’s vote was over whether or not to take the extraordinary step of adding new resolutions to an agenda that had been closed in November (a deadline the BDS cru missed)

It is too early to tell if this decision reflects the start of an auto-immunization process within the academy, or if the boycott/condemnation bandwagon will continue across more and more academic associations in the coming year (including AHA which is likely to see the same resolutions submitted – within the deadline this time – for next year’s conference).

I was pleased to see that discussion over the resolution focuses on whether or not history professors at American universities (very few of whom have any expertise in Middle East history) equip them to make decisions that involve (among other thing) understand military choices made during last year’s Gaza war.  This  reflects a degree of intellectual humility that alone provides a certain level of protection against partisans insisting that an organization has the right – and responsibility – to make political statements in the name of the field (although only statements of which the boycotters approve).

I suspect that this recent vote will be used by critics of inter-disciplinary fields like American studies to make the case that academics representing more traditional fields (not to mention non-humanities fields like science and engineering) are better prepared to resist politicization and hubris.  But I think there is a simpler explanation as to why the boycotters seem to have lost so badly among History vs. American Studies professors.

For in this case, the AHA seems to be led by people who value scholarship, the needs of their members and the general cause of academic freedom over the requirements of a particular partisan agenda.  In contrast, organization that have passed anti-Israel boycott resolutions (notably ASA) chose to place the BDS “mission” of the leadership over scholarship, the needs of colleagues and the good of the academy as a whole.

Now there is no telling if the BDS tactic of infiltration will make AHA or some other academic organization vulnerable to the boycott infection in the future.  But I think the telltale sign of trouble moving forward is not the nature of the discipline, but whether or not a specific organization is run by a bunch of partisan hacks ready to trash everything and everyone for their own selfish gain.