Ethos

I had an iphone “moment of truth” last week while attending one of the many “Ignore the Fact that the Arab World is in Flames and Instead Listen to Us Rehash Accusations Against Israel for the Umpteenth Time” events that take place at Boston College every Spring.

This one featured Tel Aviv University professor Anat Biletzki (file her origin in your mind for now, as it will be relevant soon) talking about The Goldstone Report. More specifically, she was talking about how since Righteous Jew Richard Goldstone published his landmark report, Israel has become even more repressive, more McCarthyite, more (dare she use the word) fascist than ever before in order to prevent its truth from becoming global policy.

Now I haven’t heard Professor Biletzki talk before but others I know have and, more importantly, she is just one of a class of speakers that have been providing similar background noise in the area for decades. This class consists of relative lightweights with impressive sounding titles who, despairing of getting their countrymen to vote the way they want, instead travel the globe to denounce their nation and fellow citizens to the cheers of a ready market of Israel-dislikers hungry for content (preferably delivered with an Jewish or Israeli accent).

Such talks are usually peppered with un-provable accusations (is Israeli military intelligence really tapping the phones of BC students?), and easily exposable fabrications. Which is why talks like this must be engineered to avoid any actual exchanges with the audience during which lies can be exposed.

My iphone moment came when Ms. Biletzki claimed that Alan Dershowitz, during a lecture at Tel Aviv University, called for the firing of two professors (by name) for their political views and activity.

Now I have been exposed to Alan Dershowitz since he first yelled at my mother in the 1970s (a story for another time), so even though I understand him to be one of the best assets supporters of Israel have against legions of accusers like Biletzki, I also know that (especially during heated exchanges with hostile audiences) he tends to say controversial things.

But given that everything I’ve ever heard Dershowitz say on the subject of academic freedom involves countering bad academic speech with good speech (not punishing professors for their beliefs), I couldn’t imagine him calling for the firing of professors as part of a planned public address. And so I pulled out my phone, fired up Safari and Googled his address.

Interestingly, the full text of the speech was linked from another sitewhich denounced his talk in terms similar to those used by the BC speaker. But nowhere in the speech itself could I find a single reference to what Biletzki had just said. In fact, Dershowitz seems to go out of the way to re-enforce the point he makes regularly: that the best way to deal with professors telling lies is for other professors to tell the truth.

And far from being an example of McCarthyism, his speech is actually an accusationof McCarthyism directed against Biletzki and several other Tel Aviv academics who he claims have been routinely using their influence and authority within the university to undercut those with whom they politically disagree, as well as using the classroom as a platform for political indoctrination, rather than educational enlightenment.

Now I have no idea if Dershowitz’s accusations against Biletzki and like-minded academics at her institution are true or not, but I can confirm that at least one player in this heated exchange (Biletzki) was easily exposed as using lies to smear a political adversary, something that certainly smacks of McCarthyism more than any Israeli or pro-Israeli activity she denounced from the stage that evening.

Since the highly controlled Q&A session did not allow for the type of give and take that would let this lie be fully exposed, I instead questioned her about it after the event, during which time she assured me that she had the whole talk on tape and would provide me support for her accusation by e-mail (I’m still waiting).

After thinking the whole event over, I can only think of a few alternative explanations for why Ms. Biletzki said what she said:

* She spoke the truth and does have the evidence she claimed, but has not yet found the time to provide it. (Given that others I know who have challenged her in other forums were also promised supporting data that was never delivered, I think this explanation the least likely.)

* She made the whole thing up in hope that her audience (mostly BC undergraduates) would simply accept what she said at face value, given her role as a professor (i.e., an argument from authority)

* Her self-regard is so huge that any accusation that she or people who believe as she does can represent anything other than the pure distillation of virtue can only be understood as the attack of a McCarthyite fascist

This last option is re-enforced by the nature of the audiences speakers like Biletzki choose to speak before: like-minded Palestinian hasbarah ditto-heads who willingly lap up any accusations against Israel and lash out at anyone who uses their free speech rights to criticize such anti-Israel propaganda masquerading as peace activism.

It should be noted that Ms. Biletzky is a professor of philosophy, which may explain why she made reference to rhetoric on more than one occasion. Which brings me to the title of this piece which is one of the three modes of persuasion identified by Aristotle which include logos (an appeal to reason), pathos (an appeal to the emotions) and ethos(an ethical appeal to the audience based on the integrity and character of the speaker, usually demonstrated through the strength of the presentation itself – i.e., not as an appeal to authority because of the speaker’s title or broader reputation).

If I were to subject Biletzky’s talk to an analysis based on these three categories, she seems to be feigning logos by presenting accusations (many untrue) as unquestionable facts (usually backed up by nothing more than appeals to authority, either by individuals like Goldstone or organizations like the United Nations). The heart of her talk was actually pathos which is the cornerstone of all BDS-style arguments, counting on they do of the emotional impact of gut-wrenching stories and picture of suffering Palestinians, absent any context (or logos) to ensure their effectiveness.

Which leaves us with ethos, i.e., the integrity of a speaker who engages in this type of behavior in order to please one audience at the expense of, among other things, the truth. And as far as I can tell, Ms. Biletzky, like those that invited her, indeed like everyone making up the BDS “movement,” has none.

“Academic Terrorism”

In appreciate for the response I’ve been getting to this subject, both online and off, I’m making it a habit to answer any question posed to me in the comments section. And the most recent entry (Thuggery) threw the question I asked at the end (“What are we going to about it?”) right back at me, to which I have an answer (sort of): First off (and with apologies to Bill Clinton), it depends what we mean by “it”.

If by “it” we mean how are we going to stop the alleged Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) “movement” from hurting the State of Israel economically, there is actually not much to worry about in that regard. True, it’s no fun being treated like the Jewish state deserves economic sanction, but point of fact the Jewish State (like the American one) faces much more economic peril from its own statist folly, private-sector excess and corrupt bureaucracy (both public and private) than it does from a bunch of college students playing radical by trying (unsuccessfully) to get places like Hampshire College to switch from one mutual fund to another.

If the “it” we fear is that BDS becomes a springboard through which general acceptance of Israel as the next South Africa will become accepted wisdom (on college campuses and elsewhere), this is a more realistic threat. That said, it must take into account the fact that the “Apartheid Israel” slur has been used on-and-off since the mid-1970s (it was the hook upon which the UN’s notorious Zionism = Racism calumny was hung), yet during this same period support for Israel among the general public has skyrocketed (in direct proportion to general support for Israel’s foes plummeting).

One can make the case that the accelerated use of this slur coupled with more and more aggressive tactics on the part of Israel’s foes make the problem more acute (and brings up the specter of a generation of college kids being trained to believe this lie). But we should also be cognizant of research that shows aggressive language or theatrics (mock “walls” and checkpoints come to mind) tends to turn off the vast bulk of students who do not have a stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute. In truth, our own aggressive attacks and counter-attacks also have the effect of turning the attitude of the uncommitted to one that says “a pox on both your houses” (indifference which, while frustrating, is better than seeing them swayed in the wrong direction).

There is a threat (my original “it”) closer to the surface that needs to be dealt with immediately, and that is the possibility that campuses across the country (including in the New England area) will get infected with the virus afflicting isolated schools in Europe, Canada and certain places in the US (notably on the West Coast). This illness is one in which discourse on campus has become so poisoned that Israel haters feel they have carte blanch to use any tactics (“by any means necessary”) to maximize the volume of their message while drowning out all other voices in a sea of shouts and other forms of harassment.

We’ve only seen this in a big way recently at U Mass where those who spent week after week running Israel=Apartheid programming (with minimal protest from the organized or disorganized Jewish community) went into a frenzy once our side had its say in the form of a series of talks (one by Israeli Daniel Taub, one by Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz). The mere thought of the other side being able to get a word in edgewise made it appropriate (in their minds) to ask members of the permanent Israel-hating workforce to leave their parents basements, show up at U Mass and make sure any statement by “the other side” be greeted with wild jeers and shouts of “Free Palestine.” It is this threat to freedom of speech and civil discourse that must be nipped in the bud now.

Fortunately, we have one arrow in our quiver we have not yet made full use of and that is the excesses of the BDSers themselves. While people shouting at each other tends to convince the uncommitted that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is far away, it is clear that most students understand who is responsible when the rules of civil discourse are being shredded.

The student organizer who moderated the Dershowitz event said it best when he celebrates controversial issues being discussed on campus, while loathing the shouting down of opponents as a form of “academic terrorism.” This behavior must not be ignored or swept under the carpet. Rather, it should be hung around the necks of those who pretend to be addressing Middle East issues from the moral high ground, but who demonstrate time and time again they couldn’t care less about human rights, free speech or academic freedom, unless those lofty goals can be perverted and misused for their own narrow political gain.

The mask fell off the Israel=Apartheid crowd at last month’s U Mass gig, and it’s our responsibility to make sure anyone else dealing with this issue on any campus gets to see their true (and ugly) face.

Thuggery

In the short time this blog has been up, I’ve tried to document the struggles those calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) directed against Israel face in trying in reaching their goal. And that goal is to get large, respected institutions to publically support their program (allowing them to position BDS as the official position of Harvard, the Presbyterian Church or the City of Seattle, rather than the cause of a minority of obsessed cranks within those places).

Simply put, these institutions have told the BDSers “No” time and time again which is why the divestment crowd has had to turn to deception (as in the case of Hampshire College) or anti-democratic political maneuvering (as in the case of the British teacher’s union) to show any semblance of progress for their unwanted advances.

To the extent that such desperate tactics are the choices of losers, this could be considered good news. The more institutions (even tolerant-to-a-fault Hampshire College) are exposed to the extremism and dishonest behavior of divestment advocates, the more inoculated they become to the BDS-crowd’s pitch that they are simply “human rights advocates” seeing “peace and justice” in the Middle East.

That said, these initiatives, even if they fail to win official support, allow the sanctions crew to continue to crow their core message: that Israel is an apartheid state, alone in the world in deserving economic and other punishment, in hope that it will become the default position on college campuses and elsewhere. The fact that such activity poisons the atmosphere of a community, making reasonable dialog all but impossible, is irrelevant to divestment advocates. For at the end of the day, the campus, church or city is just a prop for the divestors, a useful tool which can go to hell (as far as the BDSers are concerned) as soon as it has served its purpose.

And now we must add a new element into the nasty mix: violence, or the threat of violence. US anti-Israel activists have already imported British political hooliganism into the US (such as the building takeover at NYU). And as ugly political events like Israel Apartheid Week unfurled at colleges across the country, intimidation of anyone objecting to these activities has become a staple of campus life.

Stories abound about students being surrounded and howled at when they protest against anti-Israel rallies on their campuses, and their own counter-programming can end up in attempts to crush free speech by shouting a pro-Israel speaker off the stage. The most recent example of this was U Mass in Boston where, after weeks of uninterrupted campus activity denouncing the Jewish state, Alan Dershowitz paid a visit to provide (God forbid) a different opinion. Now I know Dershowitz is a lightning rod, and no stranger to being hounded both on and off a podium. But the fact that a university would allow politically extremist students and faculty to have their say for day after day, week after week, but would then allow this same group to import Boston’s community of Israel-hating shrieking heads to ensure the other side can’t be heard is a sign of real danger ahead.

BDS, like much of the anti-Israel agenda, rests on assumptions that supporters of Israel will not match the boycotters tactics. For years, I’ve heard people say we should turn the tables on the divestors and try to get our schools, religious institutions and cities to publically denounce Israel’s foes. But are we really ready to treat the civic organizations we care about as tools for our own political ends? Are we ready to shred propriety and turn the classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship or homes into battlefields just to embarrass people we disagree with?

It is to our credit that we have not stooped to the vile tactics used by those whose only life purpose seems to be to denounce the Jewish state and its supporters, regardless of the consequences for peace, for Jews, for Palestinians or for civic harmony. Yet now that there is a determined effort to shut down dissenting voices on campuses through tactics that include threats and intimidation (while all the time claiming that the anti-Israel views they are currently shouting at the top of their lungs are somehow being “stifled” by an all-powerful Jewish cabal), we have to ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?