Friday, February 18, 2011

I Hate This (BDS) Shit. But I Still Love Hampshire College (and so should you). What You Can Do.

Not telling you any secrets: I hate this BDS shit.

I hate this shit because it is unproductive.

The anti-Israel "BDS" (=Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, having failed to achieve one major success or to improve the life of one human being (Palestinian or other) on the face of the planet, seems to have become a parody of itself. Unable to effect actual change in the real world, it has dedicated itself instead to acts of political theater such as the protests here two weeks ago, which it somehow takes for reality. It's like a caricature of postmodernism. Or, as Jon Haber puts it in common-language terms, the activists' only goal seems to be "getting themselves noticed, even [if] they can only do so by acting like assholes."

Some may view that situation with Schadenfreude. I find it sad, actually. The disruptors claim that they are bringing attention to a good cause, but by making themselves the main story, they are actually distracting attention from that cause. More and more students are finally speaking up and reporting that, even if they were once sympathetic, they are now turned off and disgusted. Are anyone's interests—first and foremost Palestinian interests—served by these stupid stunts?

I hate this shit because it is destructive.

Because the BDS movement has no practical results to show for a decade of effort, its only certifiable accomplishment has been to destroy trust and poison the atmosphere on both the international and local scene. Attempting to demonize and delegitimize one of the parties to the conflict will hardly make that nation more open to compromise and taking risks for peace. On the college campuses, its great accomplishment has been to divide the community, to make people afraid to speak honestly about their differences or even to express their honest uncertainty. At a time when, more than ever, students should want to learn about the Middle East conflict, most avoid it like the plague, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Not exactly a sustainable environment for the endangered "groves of academe."

Nice work, activist dudes.

I hate this shit because it wastes my time.

I'd much rather be talking about books, buildings, and history.

I am pleased, to be sure, that my recent posts on the controversies at Hampshire have found many readers. However, that is hardly my main interest here, and it’s a bitter sort of success.

Until last week, my most popular posts were on topics to which I had a positive attachment, first among them, a report on the new monument to the Czechoslovak assassins of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. It was a story about genuine political action and truly difficult moral and practical choices, about history, memory, and courage.

Likewise, I would rather be talking about the history of the newspaper or the challenge of preserving modern architecture—even the fine points of demolition delay laws, for that matter.

I am, then, in a sense both pleased and saddened that the pieces on these current controversies have suddenly earned the site so many new readers.

I hate this shit because it forces me to speak painful truths about the environment in which I work, though they represent only a part of a larger, more complex and positive truth.

So, what do I do when this happens? I try to do at least two things: to remind people of the wonderful and far more representative good things that take place at Hampshire College; and (my old teachers drummed this into my head), rather than simply criticizing political action that I do not like, to suggest positive counter-examples.

For a small, experimental, and far-from-rich college, Hampshire seems to figure in more than its share of news stories, and to rack up a rather impressive number of achievements. We're a Sierra Club "top ten cool school,one of the listed green schools, and one of the top-20 gay-friendly schools.

Already since the start of the year, President Marlene Fried has received two honors: just days after the IDF lecture, the annual Western Massachusetts NARAL "Protecting Reproductive Rights Award," which followed on the heels of the Judith Fleming Henshaw Award as "a champion of reproductive rights" in January.

Exactly a week after the notorious lecture—or rather, now-notorious disruptions—and in that same auditorium, my colleagues Aaron Berman, Omar Dahi, Salman Hameed, and Sayres Rudy held a panel discussion and conversation with students about the revolutionary popular upheavals in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.

Salman had recently founded the pioneering Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies here. Jewish studies flourish, as well. My co-teacher Rachel Rubinstein who, with her husband, Justin Cammy, of Smith College, co-edited a highly praised Festschrift in honor of literary scholar Ruth Wisse, recently published a fascinating monograph of her own on Jews and Native Americans. Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Music Marty Ehrlich has won plaudits for his latest album, Fables, in the "Radical Jewish Culture" series on the Tzadik label.  Poetry prospers no less. My co-teacher in our Prague program, Polina Barskova, who has has been described as "the youngest and only female poet to be nominated for the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize in Poetry," is now on the road, doing readings from her new book. Filmmaker Abraham Ravett has issued a CD of poet Charles Reznikoff reading from Holocaust, which draws upon the testimony of the Nuremberg Tribunals and Eichmann trial (and I'm pleased to add that one of my former students, Nasser Mufti, designed the insert of texts and photographs.)  Sandra Matthews just founded a new online journal dedicated to the history of Asian photography. Professor of  Peace and World Security Studies Michael Klare, an acknowledged international expert on military affairs and the role of resources in world politics, published "The Year of Living Dangerously: Rising Commodity Prices and Extreme Weather Events Threaten Global Stability" at the Huffington Post.

Teams of faculty and students involved with the innovative "DART" program in Design, Art, and Technology, which created a striking interactive installation in the Library entrance last January term, this year installed a new work "that explores the intersections of natural and artificial light" in the Bioshelter of the science building. This June will see the launch of our first summer program, in Food, Farm, Sustainability.

And this very week, students have been tweeting the subjects of their "Division III" (senior thesis) projects (1, 2). I am always proud to say that our students, on average, quickly become intellectually more sophisticated than the typical undergraduate (okay, so the antics of the hecklers pulled that average down a few points). Our curriculum shapes learners able to carry out independent research and think conceptually and critically rather than just absorb information, which is why it is often considered ideal preparation for graduate school. Half of our students go on to earn advanced degrees, and in fact, ranked by the percentage who go on to become professional historians, we are the number one school in the nation (ahead of such competitors as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia). We rank eighth in the humanities as a whole.

Speaking of self-directed, innovative student work, one of the best examples is Hampedia (full disclosure: I am on the board of the organization that guides it).  Wiki-based web sites have become quite popular, and several colleges have used the platform to their advantage. But just compare and contrast: Three years ago, Smith College announced, to great fanfare, that it had created Smithipedia.  Many of the articles are still "stubs."  Hampedia, a totally student-initiated and student-driven project, is far more developed, with over 16,000 pages.

And even as you are reading the account of the recent disturbances in The Climax, pause for a moment to consider that the typeface family in which it is produced is a unique creation by a Hampshire student—and my advisee—David Ross. He produced it as part of his senior thesis project, which I chaired.  David also designed posters for all sorts of campus events and programs, from Salman Hameed's lecture series on Science and Religion to a staging of a Yiddish play, a senior thesis that Rachel Rubinstein and I supervised.  (so, we come full circle.)  That student went on to graduate school at Harvard, and David took a high-level design position. 

Our website and Twitter feed tell more of our story.

But what do do?

Hampshire College is big enough (in all senses of the word) to confront the challenge that faces us—if only we will honestly face up to them.  The good thing to realize is that, here as elsewhere, a small but vocal minority has been spoiling the atmosphere for the rest of us.  Faculty, as President Fried has said, must be leaders and mentors.  Student life staff are playing their role to demonstrate and foster civility.  But ultimately, it is up to the students: it is their behavior that is at issue here.

Especially at a place that, as just noted, emphasizes student initiative and participation in all aspects of campus life: It's time for those who are tired of anger and hatred to take back the conversation and the campus.

And in the wider world?

The great scandal of the BDS movement is that it portrays itself as marching steadily forward toward eternal victory, whereas it has in fact nothing to show for its efforts.  Has it changed one Israeli policy, eliminated one checkpoint, affected the bottom line of one Israeli company?

There is of course a huge array of organizations seeking honestly to ameliorate if not solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.  I've always tried to suggest those that bring Israelis and Arabs together in peacework, not least because they provide a visible model whose contours and even possibility seem to elude so many of our ideologically monomaniacal activists.

I have, for example, mentioned the Arava Institute for environmental studies, one of my favorites not only because we have an institutional relationship with it, but also because it brings together material and scientific as well as political issues.  It makes the point that environmental problems know no national boundaries, and that their solution, accordingly, depends on regional cooperation.

I've also mentioned IPCRI, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.  It has been voted one of the wordd's best NGOs.  More recently, it was designated one of the "Top think tanks in the Middle East and the "Think Tanks with the Most Innovative Policy Ideas/Proposals."

Another example, which I haven't mentioned before, is the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), a coalition of 70 NGOs (including Arava and IPCRI), which argues:
We must do everything we can to promote, support, and expand their work, especially now. We need not let vocal extremists rule the day. Large majorities on both sides support a peaceful end to this conflict, but they have not yet been mobilized. The people-to-people efforts ALLMEP promotes are the way to engage and empower these majorities on the ground.

Politicians need to see this public support if they are to make the historic decisions necessary for peace. And the day after any peace agreement may be signed, what infrastructure will be in place to make sure peace can survive and thrive if we don't build it now? Turning enemies into good neighbors is long-term, hard work.
I am fully aware that some will find these groups too conservative, and others, too radical; that some will find them dangerous, and others, utopian. There is nothing wrong with that. I may not agree with every policy of any given organization, either, and these are just examples.  We each make our own decisions. My point is simply that groups such as these represent a model: two peoples, committed to mutual recognition, practical cooperation, and peaceful resolution of the conflict. You may disagree with any or all of these groups or their specific policies, but at least there's something to debate. BDS, by contrast, precludes the very possibility of real debate.

In all these cases, then, sending off a check for even just $ 10 or $ 25 will do a lot more for peace than spending a semester devising "clever" plans to disrupt the presentation of this or that speaker with whom you disagree.

As the Arab Muslim Israeli diplomat Ismail Khaldi put it when decrying the BDS movements as “part of the problem, not part of the solution”: We should "stand with" those on both sides who "walk the path of peace" in the quest for an "agreement that recognizes the legitimate rights of both Israel and the Palestinian people."

Why should that be so controversial—at institutions of higher learning, of all places?

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