Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Anti-Israel Activism: Coming Soon to a Campus Near You!

Well, here, actually. Next week.

It has been known for quite some time that the Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine were planning to hold a national event. The publicity contains the predictable slogans, descriptions, and claims.
What & Where: This fall from November 20th through the 22nd, students, faculty, and staff from around the country who are engaged in Palestine solidarity activism will converge for a conference on campus Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). This conference has three key goals:

1) To co-educate and share resources amongst campus organizers on the process of initiating BDS campaigns on campuses
2) To strategize tactics to address the needs of different campuses in carrying out BDS campaigns
3) To bring together Palestine-solidarity campus groups that have or have not met under a larger network in order to strive towards a coordinated national BDS campaign.

There have been many BDS conferences around the country, but rarely have they focused exclusively on the campus movement. This conference therefore presents an exceptional and important opportunity for this movement.

Why: In July of 2005, “a clear majority of Palestinian civil society called upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era, until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.” In addition, BDS is a non-violent means of protest and action that campuses in the United States can directly engage in to effectively stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. A similar strategy was adopted in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and campus groups played a large role in helping spark and maintain that successful movement.
As campus members in the United States, we are directly complicit in perpetuating the injustices committed against the Palestinian people – our schools’ money is invested in companies that directly profit from Israel’s militarism, annexation of Palestinian land, and apartheid practices. After sixty-years of displacement, over forty-years of occupation, a two-year old siege, and in light of the recent invasion of Gaza and the continuing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, we must act now to cultivate the BDS movement in the United States. As members of academic communities, we can engage BDS as a means of applying economic and public pressure on Israel to abide by international law and we can change the discourse around Palestine/Israel in this country.
What struck me most, then, was another e-mail promoting the event, and not only because of its undisciplined typography (though it's pretty bad):
From: US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (
Subject: Campus BDS: Hampshire Was First, Who's Next?

Boycotts Go Back to School!
This fall, as college students return to campus, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, in partnership with Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine, is organizing a five-city boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) tour across the country.
Ever since the dynamic student organizers at Hampshire got their university to divest from corporations supporting Israeli occupation and apartheid, we have been planning with them how to spread successful campus boycott and divestment campaigns to other campuses around the country.
Now, for the BDS movement to claim that SJP "got their university [sic] to divest from corporations supporting Israeli occupation and apartheid" and can therefore teach others "how to spread successful boycott and divestment campaigns to other campuses" is rather like General William Westmoreland, fresh from Vietnam, boasting about his ability to teach a successful counterinsurgency campaign.

Both the US military and the SJPers can create whatever "narratives" they wish to in order to claim victory in this battle or that, but the fact remains, they failed to achieve their ultimate aims. In short: they lost.

I judge every political action by the dual standard of principle and pragmatism, and this one fails both tests. As readers of these pages know, I am opposed to the BDS movement, which I consider both unjust and wrongheaded for several reasons (blanket academic boycotts, which violate the very ethos of academe; and the misuse of the apartheid analogy, for a start). However, I don't want to fight that fight here. I'm not going to convince the SJP people, and they're not going to convince me, and that's fine. Another of my fundamental principles is not wasting time and energy.

I know that many members and supporters of SJP sincerely believe that they are fighting injustice and working for peace in a way that will benefit both sides. Some of us may even agree to some extent on the problems and the ultimate end, if not the means. In any case, I work well with colleagues and students on both sides of the issue. That is as it should be: We are duty-bound to engage one another respectfully in our formal and professional capacities, regardless of our personal views. However, one of the hallmarks of an intellectual community should be our willingness to engage one another’s personal and political views, when the occasion arises, with equal rigor and respect. In that respect, we have failed. Earlier this year, at the time of the fighting in Gaza and controversy over divestment, the atmosphere on campus became so tense and intolerant that it was commonly described as “toxic.” Many members of the community who dissented from the SJP view, which predominated in the public square, reported feeling silenced or intimidated.

The issue is not who was in the majority or minority, or “right” or “wrong.” Rather, it is that self-appointed guardians of political and ethical purity conveyed, by accident or design, the message that certain views were simply beyond the pale. The most dismaying thing was thus the lack of civil and serious conversation at an institution whose motto is, “to know is not enough.”

This is not merely a local problem, for our college is but a microcosm of the situation in American academe as a whole. The former PLO journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who now works for the Jerusalem Post, was shocked when he visited the US around the same time and found himself threatened and denounced as a Nazi for questioning the simplistic anti-Israel orthodoxy:
Listening to some students and professors on these campuses, for a moment I thought I was sitting opposite a Hamas spokesman or a would-be-suicide bomber.

I was told, for instance, that Israel has no right to exist, that Israel’s 'apartheid system' is worse than the one that existed in South Africa and that Operation Cast Lead was launched only because Hamas was beginning to show signs that it was interested in making peace and not because of the rockets that the Islamic movement was launching at Israeli communities.

I never imagined that I would need police protection while speaking at a university in the U.S. I have been on many Palestinian campuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and I cannot recall one case where I felt intimidated or where someone shouted abuse at me.

Ironically, many of the Arabs and Muslims I met on the campuses were much more understanding and even welcomed my ‘even-handed analysis’ of the Israeli-Arab conflict. After all, the views I voiced were not much different than those made by the leaderships both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These views include support for the two-state solution and the idea of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in this part of the world.
A group of faculty and staff on our campus is working to promote a more civil climate befitting an institution of higher learning and will soon make itself heard. In the meantime, I am making my own plea here.

In that spirit of engagement and dialogue, then, let me address the question from the pragmatic angle and just make two points:

(1) Setting aside differences of interpretation about the political actions of either Israelis or Palestinians: Both sides agreed in 1993 to recognize one another, cease conflict and incitement, and work for peace. Helping to achieve peace, as has often been said, means being pro-peace rather than merely pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. The BDS movement, however, demonizes and ascribes all blame to one side. Its members think that an increasingly isolated Israel will be either moved or forced to make concessions. The opposite is true. Nations do not show “flexibility” when they believe their vital interests or very existence to be at stake. One need but consider the evolution of the Israeli left, which enthusiastically supported the Oslo process but, in the wake of the Second Intifada and the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, has become increasingly skeptical and pessimistic.

It has often been said that Israel's popular songs are among the best barometers of national sentiment. It was a telling sign when the controversial war in Lebanon in 1982, widely viewed as a war of choice rather than necessity, failed to generate any memorable hits comparable to those of 1967 and 1973.

I cannot help but think of two Israeli hit songs from 1973 (Hed-Arzi Records, BAN 14133): It was the era in which things began to change. The (over)confidence of the aftermath of the Six Day War gave way to anguished self-examination in the era of the Yom Kippur War and declining sympathy abroad.

One song was called, "The Whole World is Against Us" (Ha'olam Kulo Negedenu). It was ironic and at once resigned and defiant. The key line was:
"The whole world is against us; never mind, we'll get by; we don't give a damn about them anyway."
The second song was called, "Next Year" (Be'shana Haba'ah), and unlike the first, it became quite famous, even abroad. It never mentioned war or peace or politics, but it was all about a world of peace and normality. It was a dream about the absence of war:
Next year we will sit on the porch and count migrating birds.
Children on vacation will play catch between the house and the fields.

You will yet see, you will yet see, how good it will be next year.

Red grapes will ripen till the evening, and will be served chilled to the table.
And languid winds will carry to the crossroads old newspapers and a cloud.

You will yet see, you will yet see, how good it will be next year.

Next year we will spread out our hands towards the radiant light.
A white heron like a light will spread her wings and within them the sun will rise.

You will yet see, you will yet see, how good it will be next year.
Each side has been unable to overcome the fear that it is faced by an implacable and untrustworthy enemy. Each bristles at being told that it is the more threatening and less forthcoming. That’s part of the problem. Let us agree that "ending the occupation" is a desirable goal (though that deceptively simple shorthand contains a world of complexity). However, each side will need to make painful compromises. In more positive and pointed terms, let us say: each side needs to feel that it must and can afford to take risks for peace.

In the case of Israel, then, the world should want to encourage the spirit reflected in “Next Year." A nation that believes peace to be within reach will strive for that goal. A nation that believes “The Whole World is Against Us” has no reason—indeed, would be foolish—to take great, much less, existential risks. That, unfortunately, is precisely the attitude that the BDS movement reinforces.

As much as I may incline toward the skeptical or even cynical (this is what comes of studying modern European history for a living), I am by nature a pragmatic and positive person who would rather accomplish something useful than score points or win abstract victories.

(2) Hence, my call here to focus on actions and organizations that can actually make a positive difference.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a tragic and seemingly intractable one, which therefore divides the campus. However, it can also help to bring us together if we direct our efforts to support those in the region who want and seek peace: in Khaled Abu Toameh's words,
“Jews and Arabs” who “are still doing business together and studying together and meeting with each other on a daily basis because they are destined to live together in this part of the world . . . . ordinary Arab and Jewish parents who wake up in the morning [and] just want to send their children to school and go to work before returning home safely and happily.”
This year, Hampshire College has gained notoriety as a place of controversy and intolerance. Several of us who have agonized over the conflict there and atmosphere here have said that we would like to focus on investment in peace rather than divestment from Israel.
  • Students, acting on their own, have chosen to organize a conference on boycotts, sanctions, and divestment. That is their choice. How much more fitting it would be if the College, as such, could convene a conference on teaching respectful dialogue on the topic of the Middle East, the aim of which is understanding rather than defeating or even just persuading one’s interlocutor. Would it not be a greater intellectual and moral act to be able to train teams that can teach "how to spread successful dialogue campaigns to other campuses"?
  • And what better way to teach understanding and peace-making than by listening to those who are doing this hard work on the ground: Arabs and Israelis themselves? Many small and brave organizations have been creating the sort of dialogue that we need to emulate here. I hope to highlight some of their work in future postings. Here's one example, for a start: We have already hosted visitors from and sent students to the Arava Institute, where Israelis, Arabs, and others come together to learn cooperation in the context of environmental studies.
  • For that matter, why can we not establish a vigorous program of regular academic exchange involving Hampshire and Israeli and Palestinian students? We have arrangements with Berlin and Olomouc—why not Jerusalem?
Many of us here, I believe and hope, would prefer that Hampshire be known as a leader in bridge-building rather than boycotts, dialogue rather than divestment, and scholarly exchange rather than sanctions. What better role for an institution that likes to claim the title of leading innovative and experimenting college in the country?

Cartouche from "Palestine," in Conrad Malte-Brun, Atlas Complet (Paris, 1812)
Grapevine and tent with the words, "Palestine" and (in Hebrew) "Israel,"
presumably an echo of Micah 4:4 and Numbers 4:5:
"But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid";
"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!"

1 comment:

Site Owner said...

Thanks for the link (it's Jon from Divest This!). I'm actually starting a weeklong commentary on the upcoming Hampshire divestment conference over at my friend Sol's blog a if you're interesed.