Monday, November 30, 2009

Swiss Pleas: Minaret-y Rights

It was dismaying to see a demagogic and bigoted proposal win out in Switzerland, as 57% of voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets.

Harry's Place offers an early take on this, including an analysis of the shockingly bigoted message behind some of the pro-referendum posters, which depicted, among other things, a veiled woman and a forest of minarets covering the Swiss flag; white sheep on a Swiss flag kicking out a black sheep; and black ravens tearing apart a map of Switzerland:
Although the vote no doubt reflects fears of extremism to some extent, it is also quite obviously also intended to be a “rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture”. There is nothing intrinsically offensive about mosque architecture. Minarets do not symbolise the politics of Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . .
This is a moment of disgrace for Switzerland. As the opposition campaign points out, this is the sort of attack on religious minorities, on the principle of freedom of religious expression – quite innocuous, architectural expression – that you would expect to see in a totalitarian state.
It concludes, "Ordinary Swiss Muslims are paying the price of this battle between extremists."

LGF puts it even more succinctly: "Switzerland, the country that let everyone else in Europe do their fighting for them in World War II and turned Jews over to the Nazis to save their own skins, has now banned minarets."

What a disgrace—and a warning.

Coming not so long after Thanksgiving, the vote—and indeed, the mere fact that such a referendum cold end up on the ballot— reminds me of what I'm thankful for: a Bill of Rights, to start with.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

29 November 1947: UN Votes for Palestine Partition—and today??

Will the "one-state solution" eclipse the two-state solution that has never materialized?

Two weeks ago, I came across the following story:
Exclusive:The Secret Palestinian Plan
Posted By Reena Ninan On November 14, 2009 @ 12:47 PM

A senior Palestinian official tells Fox News in the next few weeks the Palestinian Authority is planning to call for Palestinian statehood through a UN resolution-- a similar maneuver to that by which Israel was created. . . .

I have to confess that my first reaction was a flippant one:

Uh, Dudes! It already happened, like . . . 60 years ago!

November 29, 1947

The General Assembly, Having met in special session at the request of the mandatory Power to constitute and instruct a Special Committee to prepare for the consideration of the question of the future Government of Palestine at the second regular session;
. . . . . . . .
Considers that the present situation in Palestine is one which is likely to impair the general welfare and friendly relations among nations;

Takes note of the declaration by the mandatory Power that it plans to complete its evacuation of Palestine by l August 1948;

Recommends to the United Kingdom, as the mandatory Power for Palestine, and to all other Members of the United Nations the adoption and implementation, with regard to the future Government of Palestine, of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union set out below
. . . . . . . . . .
Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948.
Did you, uh, miss something (like, you know, . . . a historic opportunity)?

Of course, it is a serious matter, especially given the current stalemate in peace talks and resultant posturing and grandstanding on both sides.

The "next few weeks" means by now, well: now, which happens to coincide with the anniversary of the Partition vote. I therefore waited to post about it till today (this is, after all, a blog devoted primarily to history and its uses and abuses).

An astute progressive colleague recently remarked to me that this new move for a one-state solution might well become the cause célèbre on college campuses, eclipsing, for example, the BDS movements (whose failure to achieve any concrete results is by now well known). She also noted that the Palestinian strategy was quite clever.

I agree: but too clever by half (as the saying goes).

The report continued:
Both Palestinians and some Israelis believe that there is growing support in the international community for such a measure.

Asked to comment on the plan, an American official said that such a UN resolution, while not a cure-all, could be expanded upon eventually. Still, he added: "It's a measure that would make you feel good for five minutes. Then what?"

Palestinian officials predict the US would veto a UN resolution. If the resolution fails, senior Palestinian officials are considering completely dissolving the Palestinian Authority. That would leave the burden of running the West Bank to Israel--a policy that the Israeli government would be fearful of.

US tax payers pay $3 billion to aid Israel a year. If Palestinians hand the keys over to the Israelis more money will likely be needed to facilitate the occupation. The senior Palestinian official added once the Palestinian Authority is dismantled, Palestinians will push for a 'one state solution'-- ultimately making Israel no longer a Jewish state.
There's the rub. Too clever by half: yes, it is clever, but the tragedy is that all the cleverness is being applied to plans to put Israel in a box and force it to concede (to that extent, the logic is the same as that of the BDS movement), and that's a shame. Making the world "feel good for five minutes" and attempting to extort a solution (though one has to know, in one's heart of hearts, that the prospects of success are minimal at best) pretty much sums things up: a desperate and self-serving but perversely self-defeating effort.

I said above: desperate. Indeed, I perfectly understand the frustrations of both sides. Palestinians feel that they are the victims of history and great-power decisions in the twentieth century. Now confronting a regional superpower that holds all the military and political cards, they feel they have conceded about as much as they can, yet have very little to show for it. The more the leadership negotiates without reaching peace, which, for them, means attaining statehood, and sooner rather than later, and on some very specific terms (more on that below)—especially when they long could not claim, by their standards, to have achieved even the paltry goal of improved conditions of daily life in a world of occupation, barriers, and checkpoints—the more it delegitimizes itself in the eyes of its own population. Israelis, for their part, feel not just politically, but existentially threatened. They see themselves confronting not just a few million subjugated Palestinians with limited military means at their disposal, but a whole Arab and Islamic alliance that refuses, more than 60 years after the fact, to recognize their presence, their legitimacy, and their permanence. They see that their every offer of compromise has historically been rejected as not enough. When the Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the character of their state as a Jewish one (a principle affirmed in the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate, and the UN Partition resolution), and when they see an insistence on an absolute right of return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants (which would of course eliminate the Jewish character of the state), they see a rejection of their homeland, as such, and a plan to destroy it in stages. Each side—above and beyond the objective merits of the case—feels that it has been negotiating in good faith but that the other side has not held up its end of the bargain. It's all perfectly understandable. Each side in that sense is subjectively "right" in its own way.

There are many problems with a one-state solution today versus, say, in 1926 or 1936 or 1946— the main one being the disingenuousness or callousness of most of its advocates. Back then, the advocates were determined idealists or resigned realists. Today, they are naïfs or cynical manipulators. The sole purpose of this new one-state proposal is therefore to secure by coercion what negotiation could not attain.

Let us, then, get down to basics. The single overriding and insuperable problem, as I have said earlier, can be reduced to one paradoxical but simple truth: the conditions that would make the one-state solution possible would render it unnecessary. That is: if the two sides had enough trust to believe that they could actually share a single state without the one dominating the other (as a few humane thinkers on both sides had earlier suggested), then they would long ago have been able to agree on partition of the land into two states in which each people could feel secure and proud under its own sovereignty. If they cannot agree to live separately in peace, how could they possibly agree to live together? It's that simple. QED.

Ergo, proposals for "one state" are disingenuous at best.

The Palestinian ideal of the "one-state solution" is in certain fundamental aspects qualitatively no different from the right-wing Israeli settler ideal of permanent occupation: the idea that one people can attain its maximalist goals by compulsion and without conceding anything, and that the other will nonetheless be satisfied without full sovereignty. It is a perverse fantasy.

Would the world not be better off if all that cleverness were applied to the positive goal of reaching a mutually agreed upon solution? That, after all, is the goal of peace: something that the two sides can reach, together, out of the recognition of mutual necessity, and interest. Not love, not abstract ideals, but interest. In that sense, it's like medieval and early modern conceptions of marriage. We believe that marriage springs from love. Earlier ages believed marriage was about social and economic alliances, and that romantic passion was fickle, destabilizing, and short-lived—in short, no basis for what we nowadays call a "permanent relationship" (in political terms, substitute: "permanent settlement"). For them, love therefore followed rather than preceded marriage. I am hardly suggesting that we revert to medieval norms in this or anything else (though the Middle Ages could still teach us a few things about many things). Still, the insight that stable political relationships are built on recognition or reconciliation of interests rather than tenderheartedness and mere desire (what was Lord Palmerston's classic phrase about Britain's permanent interests?) can stand us in good stead here. Or, as Israeli security scholar Yehoshafat Yarkabi has written, "It is not the change of images . . . which will lead to peace, but peace which will lead to the change of images."

As it happens, two pro-peace sources that have been on the blogroll of this site since its inception recently and coincidentally came out with proposed solutions. Both in effect spell out terms for the equivalent of a successful negotiated marriage.

The first is from IPCRI—the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information—run by Israeli Gershon Baskin and Palestinian Hanna Siniora. It is the oldest and boldest of the truly collaborative undertakings between the two peoples, and it recently won an award as one of the world's best NGOs. Baskin suggests:
Obama said in Cairo that resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict is a US national strategic interest. It is in fact an international strategic interest. As such, it cannot be left to the veto of the Israelis and the Palestinians any longer. There is no chance that the Israelis and the Palestinians will reach any bilateral negotiated agreement, therefore it is not only a waste of time and precious energy on negotiating the negotiations, it is a waste of time to make efforts to bring the two parties to the table right now. They have serious homework to do before coming to the table, as do the leaders of the Quartet.

THE QUARTET, led by the US should:

1. Give the parties six months to present their own versions of a peace treaty taking into account all of the issues, needs, interests, threat perceptions and means for dealing with them.

2. Spend three months integrating the two treaties into the Quartet parameters. If there is no plan from one or both parties, the Quartet will still draw up its own plan.

3. An additional six months will be spent negotiating on the means to implement the plan. Differences between the parties will be resolved through bridging proposals put on the table by the Quartet.

4. The Quartet will make preparations for the creation of an international force led by the US (without US troops) containing a military, a policing and a civilian monitoring force (under the command of a US general) and with a US administration, with the participation of EU troops, Russians and others. The force will be stationed in the Palestinian state and will facilitate the Israeli withdrawal from Palestine and provide security guarantees for both states. Security can no longer be entrusted to bilateral arrangements as it was in the past. The security discourse must be advanced from the idea that Palestinians are providing security to Israel. This is rejected by both sides. The new discourse must be one of mutual security. There will be no security unless both sides feel secure from the threats of the other.

5. Even after Israeli withdrawal, there is a possibility that there will remain a law- abiding Jewish minority in the Palestinian state and this is a good development. The rights and treatment of the national minorities in each state should be linked to each other.

6. A UN Security Council resolution detailing the parameters of peace, of Palestinian and Israeli statehood and full Palestinian membership in the UN comes in at this stage.

7. The next Palestinian elections are held for the government of the state of Palestine and not for the Palestinian Authority.

8. The West Bank-Gaza link (tunnel, bridge, sunken road or a combination) will be constructed at this stage - as soon as possible and brought to about one kilometer of Gaza until there is a change in the political situation in Gaza. In any event, the peace treaty is based on the West Bank and Gaza, and will apply to Gaza as soon as possible.

9. The economic siege on Gaza must end because it is empowering Hamas and weakening the allies of peace.

There are many more details which must be included, but the space for this article is far too limited for that.
The other is from an indivdual and may appear equally quixotic, though in different ways. Palestinian-American comic and jouralist Ray Hanania has decided to run for President of the Palestinian Authority, and proposes the following peace plan:
1. I support two-states, one Israel and one Palestine. As far as I am concerned, I can recognize Israel's "Jewish" character and Israelis should recognize Palestine's "non-Jewish" character.

2. I oppose violence of any kind from and by anyone. I reject Hamas' participation in any Palestinian government without first agreeing to surrender all arms and to accept two-states as a "final" peace agreement. But I also reject allowing Israeli settlers to carry any weapons and believe Israelis must impose the same restrictions on them.

3. I can support some settlements remaining - given the reality of 42 years of time passing - in a dunam-for-dunam land exchange. If Ariel is 500 dunams with a lifeline from Israel, then Israel gives Palestine 500 dunams in exchange.

4. Jerusalem should be a shared city and Palestinians should have an official presence in East Jerusalem. The Old City should be shared by both permitting open access to the city to all with a joint Palestinian-Israeli police presence.

5. Palestinian refugees would give up their demand to return to pre-1948 homes and lands lost during the conflict with Israel. Instead, some could apply for family reunification through Israel and the remainder would be compensated through a fund created and maintained by the United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations.

6. I also think Israelis should find it in their hearts to show compassion and offer their apologies to Palestinians for the conflict.

7. I support creation of a similar fund to compensate those Jews from Arab lands who lost their homes and lands, too, when they fled.

8. I think the Wall should be torn down, or relocated to the new borders. I have no problem separating the two nations for a short duration to help rebuild confidence between our two people.

9. All political parties, Palestinian and Israelis, should eliminate languages denying each other's existence, and all maps should be reprinted so that Israeli maps finally show Palestine and Palestinian maps finally show Israel.

10. A subway system should be built linking the West Bank portion of the Palestine state to the Gaza Strip portion of the Palestine State. Palestine should be permitted to build a seaport access to strengthen its industry, and an airport to permit flights and too and from the Arab and Israeli world.

11. I would urge the Arab World to renew their offer to normalize relations with Israel if Israel agrees to support the creation of a Palestinian State.

12. And I would ask both countries to establish embassies in each other's country to address other problems.

13. While non-Jewish Palestinians would continue to live in Israel as citizens, Jews who wish to live in settlements surrendered by Israel could become Palestinian citizens and they should be recognized and treated equally.

14. If Jews want to live in Hebron, they should be allowed to live in Hebron and should be protected, just as non-Jews. In fact, for every Jewish individual seeking to live in Palestine, a Palestinian should be permitted to live in Israel. In fact, major Palestinian populations in Israel could be annexed into Palestine (like settlements).

15. Another concept is to have non-Jews living in Israel continue to live there but only vote in Palestinian elections, while Jews living in Palestine would only vote in Israeli elections. A special citizenship protection committee could be created to explore how to protect the rights of minorities in each state.

16. Israel and Palestine should create joint-governing and security agencies working with the United States to monitor the peace, and establish an agency to pursue criminal acts of violence.
To be sure, each proposal will provoke the ire of some on the "right" and "left" of each side, but that's in the nature of the thing. If compromise were easy, it would be neither painful nor difficult. (a simple truth, one would think) If each proposal is a fantasy of some sort, at least it is a humane rather than a cynical and malicious one. Each takes sincerely the interests and concerns of both sides. Each addresses the most sensitive and persistent issues, such as refugees and minority rights. Each attempts, by bold measures, to break the logjam.

Coincidentally writing today, journalist and peace proponent Ami Isseroff is as clear-eyed as Baskin and therefore sees the same obstacles, but he draws more pessimistic conclusions. He worries that we are indeed the victims of a hopeless fantasy, namely, "the mythical peace that is just beyond reach":
The conventional wisdom in much of the world holds that there is an Israeli-Arab peace settlement that is just out of reach - so near yet so far, frustrated only by tactical accidents. We all know what the peace settlement must look like, says the myth. If only Israel wasn't so stubborn about building in Jerusalem or (under Ehud Olmert) not negotiating at all about Jerusalem, there could be peace in a week. But somehow peace, like the lost tribes of Israel in the medieval Jewish myth, remains beyond reach, on the other side of the Sambatyon river . . .
What does the peace settlement look like? We all know, what the peace settlement would look like, don't we? It would look like the Clinton Bridging Proposals, or it would look like the Geneva Accord, or it might even look like the reasonable proposal of Palestinian-American comedian Ray Hanania.
The myth, as he explains it, rests on a false assumption. All of the aforementioned bridging proposals posit: Palestinian relinquishment of the absolute right of return of all refugees and descendants; Israeli control over "some parts of Jerusalem beyond the 1949 armistice line"; each side's willingness to recognize the other's state as a national home. "The depressing fact is that all the polls of Palestinians and all the statements of the leaders and all the documents of the PLO and the Fatah have been fairly consistent in giving negative replies to all the issues." "The one ray of hope," he continues, is the belief that some surveys show popular Palestinian support for greater compromises. He goes on to show that the polls have been grossly misinterpreted because that supposed willingness is predicated on Israel's willingness to accept an absolute Palestinian right of return, which is a non-starter for the Jewish state.

He raises serious concerns. To read his article should be a salutary but sobering experience for expert and casual commentator alike: like being awakened from an edenic dream of peace by a bucket of cold water on the face. In other words, we may be exactly where we were last night, and we suddenly feel very uncomfortable. Still . . .

Baskin's proposal on the surface resembles the sorts of imposed solutions that have increasingly been proposed from outside, but what it really imposes is not a solution as much as a deadline. In this plan, unlike the proposed Palestinian one-state campaign, statehood follows rather than precedes negotiation. The plan requires the two parties to determine their own positions and then negotiate in good faith according to a timetable. It does not allow the parties to walk away from the table or fail to fulfill their obligations, as has happened in the past. Hanania's proposal addresses Isseroff's concerns but has no mechanism for achieving the required Palestinian consensus (unless he wins the election; and maybe not even then. Then again, no plan or platform, Palestinian or Israeli, comes with a guaranteed consensus in all its details, even if its chief advocate wins a national election). Still, no one put these ideas forward as policy before. Why not put them to the test of public discussion? Then we will truly know whether to be pessimistic.

Dreams? Perhaps. But the most pessimistic prospect is a situation in which no one is even trying to come up with new ideas. And even if the debate just grinds the proposals down, leaving behind a new and hardened pessimism, that is infinitely preferable to a feeble optimism that will crumble under the inevitable pressure of reality.

* * *


30 November: more on the Hanania plan on settler/refugee exchange (Burston in Haaretz)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Seasonal Transitions in the Garden

It has been, for the most part, a notably mild fall—so mild, in fact, that one of the antique rose varieties is still reblooming. The marvelously persistent Rose de Rescht (of Iranian origin) was managing to put out several new blooms a week all month. One small one opened even on Thanksgiving Day (here a shot of another blossom, only a bit earlier)

Rose de Rescht

Nonetheless, it is clear not only that autumn is here, but that winter is coming. Most of the leaves fell off the trees by Halloween. Many of us have taken advantage of the mild temperatures to stretch out the leaf clean-up task (between the occasional heavy rains, that is). While engaged in such activity last weekend, I came across another sure sign of fall: this large but austere cocoon

Cecropia utopia

The four-inch cocoon will be the winter resting place of my favorite moth, the Cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia; also known as the Robin Moth), one of the giant American wild silk moths (the others are the Luna and the Polyphemus, my other two favorites; all three thus have appealingly classical names). In fact, the Cecropia happens to be the largest moth found in the US.

By next spring, the humble gray cocoon will have yielded a colorful and truly spectacular creature:

Many, over the ages, have presumed to draw moral or spiritual lessons from the metamorphosis of the moths and butterflies from egg to adult (here, a particularly inane creationist variant). It would be nice to think that, after a cold, hard winter, we could, with no active effort of our own, emerge so miraculously transformed. On the other hand, all that growth takes place in a hidden space, and the results, once revealed, do not last long. The beautiful adult that emerges does not feed and lives for only about a week. Interesting that almost no one ever stops to reflect on that sober truth.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Conference on "Progress & Peril of Historic Sites"

When the public thinks of imperiled historic sites, it probably has in mind the venerable urban structure facing the wrecking ball or the battlefield contending with sprawl and encroachment. Perhaps a stately mansion has fallen on hard times: notably, Edith Wharton's The Mount, caught in a scissors between colossally poor budgetary choices and general hard times last year. Most recently, we learned of the crisis at the far less well-known Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson, which Historic Hudson Valley was reputedly thinking of selling.

What the public perhaps does not understand is that virtually every historic site is facing hard times and harder choices. The small ones are most in jeopardy: under-resourced to begin with, many have to contend with unsustainable business models, soaring costs for upkeep, inadequate display and storage facilities for incoherent collections, and presentation models and missions more suited to the era of the Model T and Life magazine than Facebook and the mashup.

Preservation professionals have in recent years heatedly debated the very need for our profusion of small house museums. Has the genre outlived its purpose? And even if not, do we really need so many of them? Could not their limited resources be put to better use? Would the few genuinely significant articles in their collections not be better sold off or distributed to institutions that know how to conserve, study, and present them to larger audiences? It comes to resemble the debates about social history a generation or more ago: what is the real benefit, for either the researcher or the rare reader, of yet another study of a single English village?

The Worcester Historical Museum and Historic New England are sponsoring a conference to deal with precisely these issues next week:
Can You Change In Time? Progress & Peril of Historic Sites

A one-day conference
Click here for the agenda.
December 3, 2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009 9 to 5 P.M.
at Trinity Lutheran Church,
73 Lancaster Street, Worcester, MA 01609

The state of historic house museums and sites has been a topic of increasing concern to professionals, volunteers, and community leaders for nearly a decade. Small budgets impacted by difficult financial times, level or diminishing visitation, and confusing stories herald the need for change — of message or mission. Is it time to change? Is there an alternative for your historic house/site?
Our own local organizations are quite aware of the challenge and determined to act sooner rather than later. For example, the Amherst Historical Society & History Museum, whose board I recently joined, held its own public-input and visioning session already at the end of the spring. Representatives of the major sites in Amherst and Northampton will be making presentations in Worcester. I'll be there just in order to watch and learn. I hope to report back here in the near future.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving again.

Because I put up a fairly lengthy post last year on the "first Thanksgiving" and its history and foodways, I'll take a somewhat different tack here.

It is a interesting holiday this year in particular because my co-teacher Laura Wenk and I, in our course on "learning how to think and teach like a historian," have included a unit on the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, built around The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James and Patricia Scott Deetz. Student background knowledge appears to be about what one would expect: a general conviction that history idealized and transfigured the Pilgrims, coupled with heightened sensibility to the wrongs done to Native Americans; belief in the overwhelming influence of religion in that day: beyond that, little if any specific knowledge in most cases.

Both the Deetzes' book and Nathaniel Philbrick's more recent and much more popular (indeed, bestselling) Mayflower (from which we assigned an excerpt) make the key point that the typical vision of Colonial New England begins with the Pilgrims and then commences again only on the eve of the Revolution, with nothing much in between. For Philbrick,
the story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags maintained more than fifty years of peace and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. Instead of the study we already know, it becomes the story we need to know (p. xii)
For the Deetzes,
While we use the 'first Thanksgiving' as our point of departure, and consider the myths, familiar to millions of Americans. that have emerged concerning the 'Pilgrims,' we then look back to the events that led up to the settlement of Plymouth Colony and, more significantly, the years following that event through 1691, providing glimpses of life in the colony. These years are particularly important because to large numbers of people the early settlers sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, had a big dinner the following fall, and disappeared. In truth, Plymouth Colony has an ongoing story that is worth recounting in all its colorful detail, enlivened and expanded by contemporary archaeology, cultural research, and living history. (p. xv)
Philbrick draws upon a panoply of primary and secondary textual sources to craft a highly engaging narrative with a strong political lesson, but we chose the Deetzes' book because its use of a wider variety of source material—including court records, probate inventories, architectural and archaeological evidence, folkways and material culture—as well as its analysis of the challenges and techniques of museological portrayal at Plimoth Plantation, seemed ideally suited to the methodological concerns of the course. As a case study of social and cultural history in an early modern rural setting, it moreover forms a perfect complement to our earlier explorations of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale and Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre.

We've already given the students a rundown on some features of the original feast: venison and probably waterfowl but no turkey; lots of beer and gunfire. The feast marked a traditional English harvest festival and was in no sense a special day of thanksgiving; indeed, the original one-paragraph account does not even mention prayer. We've asked the students to discuss the first reading assignment when they visit their families for the holiday this week.

It should be interesting, and I hope to report later on some of the results.

In the meantime, a few links to Thanksgiving-related topics:

• Art Buchwald's classic attempt to explain Thanksgiving (le Jour de Merci Donnant) to the French: "Le Grande Thanksgiving"

• Mark Knoller, "History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon" (from CBS)

Proof that birds descended from dinosaurs (including the analysis of a roast turkey; from YouTube)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You've Got (Hate) Mail! (and why this drivel isn't as far from mainstream discourse as you might hope)

I was trying to recall whether this is the first occasion on which I have received anonymous hate mail. Now that I stop to think about it, I guess I have, on a couple of occasions (obviously, I must not have paid it much attention), and it was standard neo-Nazi stuff.

This item reached me in late September, but more pressing matters kept me from posting about it. At any rate, I walked into the main office one day and found only one item in my mailbox. The battered and opened envelope, bearing both San Francisco and Springfield postmarks, had been sent to two other addresses—one of which incorrectly identified me as working at the University of Massachusetts—before reaching me at Hampshire.

It contained the usual pseudo-scientific Holocaust denial material, charging that eyewitness and subsequent accounts of the extermination process and sundry atrocities were implausible fabrications:

Two things were noteworthy:

1) I evidently earned a place on this mailing list by virtue of teaching a course on antisemitism. NB: The official one-paragraph catalogue entry did not even mention the Holocaust by name. It did, however, include a reference to the contemporary Middle East. (The longer description of the course, which discussed both in a nuanced manner, was not even posted at the time.)

2) Unlike most such screeds, this one was written from a pseudo-left-wing perspective, for it connects US denazification efforts and purported disinformation with anti-communism and denounces the Holocaust as "a late-colonialist myth" whose only purpose in to justify Israeli expansionism and brutality:

It never occurred to me that, by teaching about the undeniable existence of an extermination facility at Treblinka more than half a century ago, I might harm someone on the other side of the globe today. Then again: obviously, these are crude ravings; in that sense, they are insignificant.

What is not as obvious but in fact highly significant is that the anti-Israel rationale embodied in this form of Holocaust denial merely lies at the extreme end of a broad continuum of discourse—but a continuum nonetheless—that stretches well into the realm of respectability. Mind you, not all manifestations of the discourse are necessarily antisemitic. However, the extent to which this particular discourse of anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel recapitulates or echoes classic antisemitic themes should give us pause. Designing and teaching my new course has provided a welcome opportunity to think through some of these issues. I’ll try just to sketch the rough parameters of the continuum here.

What unites the deniers and others on the fringe with many mainstream critics of Israel is the disturbing and increasing tendency to introduce references to the Holocaust into debate primarily in order to denounce the existence or actions of the state. There are several basic arguments, each of which has “hard” and “soft” variants.

Certainly, no right-thinking person would accept the hate-mailer’s claim that Zionists fabricated the story of the Holocaust in order to obtain their state. However, many otherwise decent and rational people readily assent to one of several arguments to the effect that Israel and its supporters illegitimately or excessively invoke the Holocaust in order to enrich the state, justify its policies, or shield it from criticism. The harder variants see this practice as deliberate or even quasi-conspiratorial in nature, whereas some of the softer ones regard it as an understandable but unacceptable reaction to historical trauma. By often charging that there is an attempt to silence debate, however, both may end up echoing classic antisemitic tropes regarding Jewish “power” and influence over government and media.

Whereas likening Israelis to Nazis was a practice once largely confined to the cruder “anti-Zionist” propaganda of the USSR and its clients, that taboo has vanished in the past two decades (just try googling "Zionazi" for a start). Even many people close to the mainstream no longer scruple at the comparison, which European, British, and US government bodies now include under definitions of potentially antisemitic discourse. Because the analogy can still generate controversy, however, some groups avoid it out of principle or pragmatism. Rather than invoking the Nazis, they speak of “ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid," which deliver almost as much anti-racist moral firepower, but lower risk of provocation and unintended injury to the user. The softest version is the claim that Israelis have failed to learn the “true” lessons of the Holocaust and cannot see that they have increasingly, although perhaps inadvertently, come to resemble their former oppressors. They, “of all people," we are told—apparently with sympathetic regret, but in fact with condescension—"should know better.” This reproach in fact recapitulates the venerable Christian anti-Judaic trope of Jewish "blindness" to the truth of their own history and tradition. As a result, this version is equally popular in the churches and among postmodern types who relish "irony."

Perhaps the newest argument involves a sort of buyer’s remorse that I have referred to as "the new discourse of regret": the idea that the world made a fateful mistake in creating the State of Israel. It is actually the most insidious argument because, even as it uniquely delegitimizes a member state of the United Nations, it appears to be the most humane and non-judgmental: we’re all victims. It begins by acknowledging that the shameful tradition of European antisemitism and world passivity in the face of Nazism led to the tragedy of the Holocaust. When the world then nobly sought to make amends by creating a Jewish state, it in fact acted precipitously and overcompensated for its own guilt, failing to recognize that it was doing an injustice to the Arabs. There’s plenty of victimhood to go around in this model: tragically, the Jews were in fact victimized twice, first by suffering genocide at the hands of the Nazis and then by being given a state that was doubly cursed because it both turned them into oppressors and thereby failed to bring them the promised permanent freedom from violence and hatred. The Palestinians are then the chief—and NB: only entirely blameless—victims, being forced simply to pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. And as for the Europeans and other outsiders, even they are in some sense really just victims of their own excess of empathy and good intentions. Now they can congratulate themselves on having seen the error of their ways, so that they are free both to wallow in their guilt and to revel in their new-found rectitude. It all sounds perfectly plausible and uplifting. I almost shed a tear myself.

None of this is to deny the legitimacy of even harsh criticism directed against Israel. The aforementioned studies on contemporary antisemitism all make that clear.

The point, rather, is that this is all bad history as well as bad politics. It manages to make several terrible mistakes at once.

• It trivializes the Holocaust by focusing exclusively (and superficially, at that) on its presumed consequences in isolation from its course and causes.

• Instrumentalizing the Holocaust in this manner—above and beyond the fact that this is precisely the mistake of which critics accuse Israel—thereby risks losing any real grasp of both the particular and the universal significance of the catastrophe, which must be understood as a properly historical phenomenon in its own right.

• The fact that the Holocaust, of all things, is now used so frequently as a club with which to beat the Jewish state should set off alarm bells. It betokens a casting off of inhibitions and thus erodes the barrier against open antisemitism.

• The association between the Holocaust and the creation of Israel—or better: Palestine Partition, for we should remind ourselves that the actual UN vote foresaw creation of two states, Arab and Jewish—was genuine, but complex: antisemitism, Zionism, Arab nationalism. and the “question of Palestine” all existed well before 1947. To reduce the tragic Arab-Israeli conflict to a botched quick fix of a mess arising from the Holocaust is to distort the past in ways that make solving the problems of the present all the more difficult.

BDS on Campus: A Generation of Giants Unleashes its Frightful Onslaught

Evidently I spoke too soon when I gently suggested that the recent BDS conference at Hampshire this past weekend had been a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

When I unsuspectingly arrived on campus on Monday, I was taken aback to see that these signs had sprouted, like dragon's teeth, overnight:

It was of course with no little trepidation that I therefore made my way from the parking lot to my office in Franklin Patterson Hall, one of the sturdiest buildings on campus, built of brick and concrete. To my relief, the structure was standing, exactly as it had been on Friday afternoon.

That's a true story—and an allegory.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Comparative Quackery: The Joke is on BDS

Sometimes the irony is so delicious that one just has to believe a witty higher power is directing our affairs here on earth. How else to explain the sight that greeted me on Friday afternoon, just as the vaunted national conference of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement was getting underway?

Q: What’s the difference between BDS and homeopathy?

A: Not much, actually. Both are frauds that are led by scoundrels, attract the naïve, and have yet to produce any verifiable result, much less, the promised benefit for suffering humanity.
* * *

The bad news:
• It’s embarrassing that my college, which takes justifiable pride in its rigorous and innovative science pedagogy, could open its facilities to a pseudo-scientific movement that has absolutely no clinical validity.

• It’s embarrassing that my college, which purports to "emphasize comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary approaches and encourage critical reflection from multiple perspectives," could host an event whose organizers display such an abysmally oversimplified view of history (compare with this far more nuanced version) and indeed disdain both critical reflection on their own enterprise and the multiple perspectives that others could offer in dialogue.
The good news:
1) The College as an institution does not support either fraud. It rents out its space to outside groups who will pay the fee, and it allows campus organizations to hold their own events.
2) No one takes this stuff seriously anyway.

* * *
Addendum: and just in case that humiliatingly ludicrous SJP statement is ever taken down, I include here a screen shot:

Whither BDS: A generation of giants—or delusions of grandeur?

The great moment has finally arrived. The gestation period is over.

Break out the cigars.

Just over nine months have passed since the BDS movement triumphantly announced its penetration of the power structures of Hampshire College. As we indicated at the outset and others soon realized, this was in fact idle and impotent boasting rather than date rape (though each scenario is unappetizing in its way; that should tell you something).

Still, let’s take them at their word. Assuming we really can accept paternity (a big "if"), just what did these cocky folks produce?

The elder external boosters were once again premature in shooting off the news of the colossal achievement: in this case, the birth of a mighty movement led by “A new generation of giants."

Well, okay, if you say so. But is there some yardstick by which we measure "giant"? Let's take a look at the prodigious progeny.

Much of the conference consisted (aside from a few pep-rally-type events) of, well, reports of various local efforts, without, well, any particular effects. It further consisted in promoting a mixture of Quixotic master goals (make universities and monster academic pension fund CREF divest; this, although the effort failed at Hampshire, which has practically no endowment at stake) and (more sub rosa) small-scale guerilla actions that fall somewhere between the juvenile and the illegal: e.g. “de-shelve” Israeli products ([1] [2]) in stores. Not exactly the stuff of which Che Guevara was made.

On second thought, the miserable little creature—weak, helpless, and crying out incoherently—really does resemble its putative parent.

From premature climax to anticlimax: that pretty much sums it up.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

22 November: St. Cecilia's Day

For most of us in America, November 22 is the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and that's it, and that's understandable. It was an overwhelming event. It was one of those proverbial moments at which everyone of a certain age can remember exactly where he or she was when the news arrived. It's true even for those of us who, like me, were only small children at the time.

However, I also have another November 22 memory from my—I was going to say, "mature," but as I have yet to reach that state in either the literal or the figurative sense, let me correct that to—"college" years. My music teacher had put me in touch with some other adult students of his—young professionals, all more than half a generation older than I was—who were interested in forming a string quartet of like-minded but not excessively accomplished amateurs. One of them, a generous businessman, with a spectacular antique violin, an elegant house, and a refined aesthetic sense, decided to revive the Baroque tradition of the Saint Cecilia's Day festival.

Because she was known, thanks to a rather slim strand of legend (but wherein does tradition otherwise consist?) as the patron saint of music, it became the custom in England to celebrate her saint's day—November 22—with concerts and other festivities. The two pieces written for the occasion by Purcell

and that by Händel

are now well known. Our local festivities were restricted to a small circle, but we valued it all the more. Our host provided the food and drink. His only requirement was that all the guests perform a work of music in the manner of their choosing, as best they could—and "leave their diffidence at home." All were welcome, amateur and professional alike, but no one could judge, and no one could apologize. It was a fine model of open-minded and egalitarian interaction, and I often have occasion to remember it in other contexts.

22 November 1963: The Kennedy Assassination

I actually have nothing, new or other, to say about the Kennedy assassination. However, I did want to take opportunity to say something good about History channel for a change. Although I have often been critical of it (in part a matter of disappointed expectations: it could be so much better, along the lines of its European counterparts), I have to say that it has some winners.

Earlier this fall, there was the story of the Kennedy assassination, "JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America," told simply in raw news footage from the time of the murder itself. (I missed Saturday night's program on the first 24 hours after the event and thus cannot offer a judgment on it.) This past week, History also aired the multipart "World War II in HD," the story of the experiences of twelve ordinary Americans in the War, told through diaries and letters, color film footage, and modern interviews. Both made such compelling—even transfixing—viewing because they seemed to offer direct access to human drama.

There's a lesson here: As I've noted before, the worst History channel programs are those in which the content is simply inane and the object is to pander, or there is too clearly a strained attempt to make more serious and legitimate material "interesting" through the use of reenactments and other gimmicks, which are rarely executed well or tastefully. (This latter trend, even in cases that don't lend themselves to costume drama, is both understandable and controversial: [1] [2] [3] [4]; and that's not even taking into account outright fakery and fauxtography). By contrast, the channel does best when it sticks closest to the traditional documentary format. That's not to say that alternatives are not possible, just that the ones they have tried don't work.

Relax, guys. When you're good, you're good. But remember: sometimes, less really is more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Historic Structures: Another Success for Preserve UMass

At the 29 September meeting of the Amherst Historical Commission, Joe Larson, Recording Secretary of Preserve UMass, gave us a preliminary briefing on the progress of the inventory of historic resources on the UMass campus undertaken as part of the agreement between the Commonwealth and the University after the latter violated environmental protection and historic preservation procedures in its demolition of old buildings.

The Opening of Massachusetts Agricultural College [predecessor of UMass]
painting in the lobby of the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Preserve UMass has in the meantime issued the following press release
Date: November 8, 2009


Historic Assessment of UMass Amherst Campus Completed

Two years after the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts was placed on the 2007 List of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Resources of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, campus administrators have completed a major step in reversing this designation. An independent professional assessment has been completed of the 112 existing campus buildings built during the period 1728 – 1959, and the University has filed documentation with the Massachusetts Historical Commission on the historic and architectural significance of each building.

As a result of the assessment, 82 UMass buildings will be added to the state’s Inventory of Archaeological and Historic Assets of the Commonwealth, bringing the total University structures so listed to 105. Of these, 54 have been identified as eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, according to the consultants hired by the University: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott of Boston and other locations across the U.S., Vanasse Hangen Brustlin of Watertown, MA, and Pressley Associates of Cambridge, MA.

“We congratulate the University administration for selecting this outstanding team of professionals’ said Professor Emeritus Joseph S. Larson, Corresponding Secretary of the private organization, Preserve UMass, that had pressed for an independent assessment in 2007. “The significance of this assessment is that for the first time the question of the historic and archaeological significance of each of the older buildings has professional standing. This could not have been achieved without the cooperation of the University, the involvement of the over 125 supporters of Preserve UMass, the members of the Town of Amherst Historical Commission, and the staff of the Massachusetts Historical Commission. And we commend the University for retaining the professionals to conduct an assessment of the modern campus buildings, some of which were designed by nationally known architects. Preserve UMass views the combination of historic and modern buildings on the UMass campus as an important living exhibit of American architecture.”

In their report to the University, the consultants recommended establishment of a University of Massachusetts Amherst Historic District, saying that “A number of architects, landscape architects, and planners of local and/or national prominence were involved in the design of the individual buildings and the overall plan of the current University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. The aggregate efforts of these design professionals produced a distinctive public university campus landscape, primarily of the mid-19th to mid-20th century, which is unique in Massachusetts.”

Professor Larson reports that Preserve UMass will continue to be involved in historic preservation on the campus. “Our role will be to work for establishment of the Historic District, nomination of the 54 qualified buildings to the National Register, and full consideration of historic, architectural, and archaeological values in future campus construction.”

Note: A list of the 112 buildings and a map of the historic buildings (pdf files) are available from Preserve UMass on request by email to
We welcome this announcement and hope that the principle of respect for historic structures and cooperation with both the local and state historical commissions will now be firmly enshrined as a principle at all members of the Five College Consortium.

[image added]

Jews Behaving Badly (enough, already)

Like many other people, I followed, with a mixture of serious engagement and detached amusement, the political food fight over the rising Jewish action group J Street, which bills itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.” Conservatives and many centrists would of course have no truck with the organization from the start. However, some centrists and left-liberals who may initially have been attracted also came to have their doubts, occasioned by a series of actions or statements that seemed to emphasize only criticism of Israel, without support for the idea of a Jewish state or understanding of its security needs. The picture at the time of the conference became, if anything, even more blurred. It was first reported and then denied that the college arm of the movement had decided to drop the designation, “pro-Israel.” In any case, the organization certainly found that many of the attendees did not share the commitment to the first half of that slogan.

The picture was blurred in part also because founder Jeremy Ben Ami likened J Street to Israel’s centrist, big-tent (others would say: characterless and rudderless) Kadima party, a move that angered and puzzled supporters without necessarily winning over skeptics. In an interview, the Atlantic noted, "He declared himself a Zionist; condemned the book "The Israel Lobby"; called America's military aid package to Israel untouchable; and told me he hopes his group angers the non-Zionist left by staking out mainstream Jewish positions on Israel and the peace process -- 'I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us.'" His views, he insisted, were resolutely pro-Israel, which in no way precluded criticism of Israel—in other words, pretty much what J Street always claimed to be. Time will tell which characteristic is the dominant one. New organizations, like adolescents, require time in order to develop distinct and consistent identities. In the meantime, who needs action movies and video games when you can just sit back and watch people slug it out in the blogs?

My point here, however, is not about J Street, and rather, about the way that people talked about it. Internecine Jewish fighting is of course nothing new. There is that old joke told in the days of the British Mandate in Palestine:
Sergeant, reporting to his superior: “We have arrested a dozen Jews! Five Revisionists, four Mizrachis, two Communists, and one General Zionist.”

Officer: “Good work. Where are they?”

Sergeant: “They’re standing outside.”

Officer: “What?! without a guard?!”

Sergeant: “Not necessary. They’re keeping a very sharp eye on one another."
Healthy debate is always a good thing. After all, that’s why J Street’s proponents claim it was founded. Some stupid debate is the normal price of healthy debate, and we all know how to tune out the static. Much of the casual and instinctive (emphasis on the preceding terms) critique of J Street was simply nasty and uninformed and did not attempt to address the issues in a serious way. However, there comes a point at which stupid and nasty cross a line and become unhealthy and vicious. I was therefore revolted (though, as an occasional reader of talkbacks on newspaper sites and blogs, not totally surprised) to see the following image of anti-J Street protesters:

The take of Jewcy (whence this photograph)—“worst swastikas ever”—is probably the best one: you lame-asses, not only are you alone, but you can’t even make a graphically effective poster (I paraphrase).

That response accords with my basic instinct and literary sensibility. Such behavior was the exception, and not the rule; better to slap it down and then move ahead. Still, we ignore or merely mock this sort of nastiness at our peril.

There comes a point at which the infighting and invective cross a line. This is it. The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed not because of the Romans, but because of “causeless hatred” among the inhabitants of the land.

The J Street conference took place around the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The murder in turn took place at a time when right-wing forces were attacking his peace policies with unprecedented venom. The obscene poster depicting him in Nazi SS uniform came to epitomize the atmosphere commonly said to have made his murder possible. (One may recall that his widow, Leah Rabin, long refused to speak to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regarding him as complicit in that sort of vile incitement.)

Have these protesters learned nothing? (for example: a real vocabulary? more sophisticated reasoning? or just plain common sense and decency?). Most of the abuse of the Nazi analogy (periodically documented on this site) comes from antisemites and enemies of Israel. It is repulsive, but it is no longer surprising. But should not at least the Jews show a modicum of common sense and restraint when deploying that most potent of analogies? Do they not worry that they desecrate the memory of their dead? How can you criticize people who use the term, “Zionazis,” when you yourself trivialize history and human suffering? It’s just plain stupid. It's a shame. Literally.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I've Joined the Board of the Amherst Historical Society & Museum

I am pleased to announce that I recently joined the Board of the Amherst Historical Society & Museum.

Like many local historical societies and house museums, this organization faces numerous challenges: financial constraints, changing cultural preferences, and more.

Fortunately, the 250th anniversary, a committed group of supporters, and a Board with a recent record of dynamic and innovative leadership, as Betty Sharpe hands the reins of power (such as they are) to Henry Pope, all suggest that the challenges may be matched by achievements.

In any event, I look forward to the challenges, and to the opportunity to deepen and share my understanding of Amherst and New England history.

What You Should Know Before You Criticize Hampshire College and the BDS Conference

As we have noted, Amherst tends to generate controversy, and few topics are more controversial than the Middle East, so the combination of the two is a potentially explosive one.

The last thing we need here is an explosion. The political temperature was already running high on campus last semester, as a result of the Gaza conflict and the attempts by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to force divestiture of holdings said to support the Israeli occupation.

The coming SJP-sponsored national conference on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions directed against Israel thus raises the specter of renewed internal strife and external hostility.

In hopes of preventing or minimizing the latter, allow me to state a few simple facts that commentators should consider before reaching for the keyboard and leaping to the attack:
1) SJP and its supporters are entirely within their rights, as a duly registered student organization, and as members of the community exercising their academic freedom, in holding this event.

2) Because this is a student-sponsored event, the fact that it takes place on our campus in no way signals an endorsement, on the part of the College and its administration, of the conference or the statements of any participants. The College intervenes only when safety or violations of the law are at issue.

3) Many claims from inside and outside the College notwithstanding, Hampshire never divested itself, in whole or in part, on political grounds, of investments in Israel or companies that do business with Israel. To begin with, SJP never sought or claimed divestment from "Israel," as such. It targeted several companies that it identified as involved in the occupation. Even that limited attempt was not successful.

It’s a complicated story—which is in part why it lends itself so easily to distortion—but in a nutshell: The College, after reviewing its portfolio, found a large number of companies to be in violation of its socially responsible investment policy. Some of the companies that SJP had targeted were dropped, and some were retained, but in neither case due to any association with the occupation. The story was complicated, but the answer was simple, and that should have been the end of it. After all, if I urge my friend to go green, and she later sells her GM stock out of dissatisfaction with the company’s labor policies, I can’t really claim that she was acting to withdraw her support for our unsustainable carbon-based industrial model. Unfortunately, the myth of divestment persists.

4) The College administration and staff have been working closely with the student organizers in order to ensure that they understand the ground rules and the gathering proceeds smoothly and peacefully. The administration's position is that no divestment took place earlier this year, that any statement to the contrary is a willful misrepresentation of the facts, and that only the trustees and administration are empowered to speak on behalf of the College.

If you object to the premise or actions of the conference, then by all means express your views. That is your right, just as it is the right of the students to express their views. But please, do not attack the College. And, oh, yes: please do check your facts carefully before you hit that "send" button.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Controversial Amherst: Why Are They Saying All Those Terrible Things About Us? Thoughts in advance of the BDS conference at Hampshire College

Amherst has a deserved reputation as a contentious town. It’s nothing new. Even the early colonists and citizens of the new republic were an ornery bunch. We debate everything to death, the important and the unimportant. We often seem to love our “process” more than getting to the result (after all, what’s the rush? we're enjoying ourselves). The local newspaper remarked on this over a century ago when it marveled that citizens had ever managed to agree on the design for a new Town Hall. People make fun of Town Meeting’s habit of taking a stand on national and global issues, but it actually has a long tradition: our predecessors passed a resolution against the War of 1812. We’ve been criticized for all sorts of things: in recent years, the high school allowed the performance of the “Vagina Monologues” but banned a production of “West Side Story" (here, one typical rant).

Not for nothing did the 250th Anniversary Committee come up with the wonderful slogan (wonderful, not least because it shows that we do sometimes have a sense of humor about ourselves): “Amherst, MA Where only the ‘h’ is silent.” It’s not surprising that we come in for a lot of criticism, ranging from good-natured ribbing (the prevalent left-wing sentiment here long ago earned us the nickname, “The People’s Republic of Amherst”) to rather nastier attacks. Some of the criticism is deserved, and some is not—but much of both is, frankly, distorted. That's regrettable, for distortions sometimes have dangerous consequences.

The most famous recent controversy involves the events of the evening of September 10, 2001, when the Select Board declined a request to endorse the official display of the American flags on the streets beyond the formally allotted dates. Talk about bad timing. To make matters worse, some citizens who spoke against the proposal said they considered the flag a sign of racism, imperialism, tyranny, and state terrorism. Naturally, the national press and conservative blogosphere had a field day. There was, to be sure, a debate to be had about the merits of the actual question, but many critics conflated the most extreme comments from the public with the rather technical decision of the Select Board. As a result, the town was castigated for its alleged lack of solidarity on a day of national tragedy. Local Town Meeting member, political gadfly, and blogger Larry Kelley relentlessly pursued the original issue. When, in 2007, he submitted a warrant article asking that Amherst fly the flag every September 11, Town Meeting handily voted it down.

Just this month, controversy erupted over two issues involving terrorism and civil liberties. The Select Board narrowly endorsed a warrant article that proposed, in order to redress the wrongs associated with the prison at Guantanamo, to bring two cleared detainees to Amherst for resettlement. "Cleared" meant those certified by the government as having committed no crime. Right-wing commentators, such as Boston's Michael Graham, were all over the story and the town, soon followed by others around the country. The Board required police protection at its next session, though Town Meeting went on to approve the article by a wide margin. Much of the negative outside coverage angrily portrayed Amherst as seeking to become some kind of summer camp for “terrorists.” (After all, the town was said to have scorned the flag but scant years earlier.) To be sure, there was some public controversy over the true political character of the two proposed invitees (though the actual warrant article did not concern individuals). However, debate at Town Meeting focused on the perennial issue of whether this local representative body should be in the business of addressing national policy, in this case, particularly because carrying out the proposed action was dependent on a change in federal law. It was noteworthy that Larry Kelley, who allows his patriotism to rank second to none, spoke in favor of the measure in Town Meeting (one proponent—who had faced off against him on the flag issue many years ago—was so taken aback that she leaped up to denounce him as a bigot, not realizing that he had said the opposite of what she claimed; whoops). Kelley also tried, in his blog, to correct media distortions of the issue.

Around the same time, the University found itself embroiled in controversy. The Fifth Annual Colloquium on Social Change invited as a speaker former United Freedom Front radical Raymond Levasseur, who had been convicted and imprisoned for his role in a series of bombings but acquitted in a lengthy Springfield trial on charges of sedition. After a public outcry, especially from conservative commentators and police groups, the University rescinded the invitation. The cancellation did not mollify the conservatives, but it did anger the ACLU. Then the talk was back on. And then it was off again when Levasseur’s parole commission refused to allow him to travel to Amherst. The event finally took place without him. Most humiliating was the sight of the University’s policy swaying back and forth in the wind. Sometimes life here is just plain embarrassing.

Why rehash all this now? Because I see it about to happen yet again. It is with some trepidation that one views the prospect of the coming anti-Israel conference on boycotts, divestment, and sanctions that Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) will convene here next week.

There’s a context for this, too. Controversy over the fighting in Gaza polarized the campus. In early January, President Ralph Hexter posted a long and complex essay on his blog, entitled, "A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity." [NOTE: that site no longer exists, so I have appended the text and comments as an update to the end of this post.]  It agonizingly tried to tread a very narrow and meandering path, avoided taking sides, and, with an eye to the particular duties of academic communities, affirmed the Enlightenment values of non-violence and reasoned discourse. It called upon members of the community to reply to opposing views only after making the difficult effort to listen empathetically rather than leaping to the riposte. At a time when passions ran high, and among people given by age and temperament (NB I'm thinking of both 18- and 60-year-olds) to thinking in moral absolutes, it was of course bound to please few and infuriate many. (It was also simply too intellectual for many readers demanding a short answer, clear stance, and strong action. Nathan der Weise? biblical hermeneutics? Pangloss? sublunary? what is this: a center of activism or an institution of higher education?) SJP members and their supporters savaged the President in the online talkbacks (which, of course, they were free to do). Following the Trustees' meeting in February, SJP triumphantly claimed, and then persisted in claiming, that it had at last succeeded in its goal of making Hampshire "the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine." That was not in fact what happened. The College, after reviewing its portfolio, found a large number of companies to be in violation of its socially responsible investment policy. Some of the firms targeted by SJP remained in the portfolio. No decisions on retaining or rejecting investments had anything to do with Israel or its policies in the occupied territories. In the end, it's that simple (or should have been).

Critics of the SJP and divestment campaign, for their part, were sometimes equally reckless. Many, knowing the town's reputation for radicalism as outlined above, leaped to conclusions, certain they knew what had happened and why. In particular, some charged that the group had pursued and won from the College divestiture of all holdings associated with Israel, as such—a goal that SJP neither sought nor claimed to have achieved. Some outsiders were rather too quick to hurl the charge of antisemitism without bothering to learn the details of the case. Even some of those whose accusations were more focused criticized the administration and Hampshire community in unappetizing ways.

The result last semester was a tense and dangerous atmosphere on campus, exacerbated by extreme or irresponsible statements from outsiders of all stripes.

We can only hope that both sides will have learned some lessons, and some humility. No one does his or her cause a favor by making unsubstantiated claims or reckless accusations. We all have a chance to learn from our mistakes and to show our better sides to one another and the outside world this time.

We can be sure that others will be watching—very closely.

For that matter: we'll be watching closely, too. Please get your facts straight.

* * *

Update August 2011

Following President Hexter's departure from Hampshire a year ago, his Presidential Blog was taken down from the website and archived. I therefore reproduce the post and commentary here, for ease of access.

The Presidential Blog
Ralph J. Hexter, President of Hampshire College
« Thoughts For a New Year…
A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity
I remember the first months of my presidency, August-September, 2005. I was planning a light, “getting-to-know-you’ convocation speech. Then Hurricane Katrina happened. Adequate government assistance quite spectacularly did not happen, while many college students, including our own, rushed to help. I could not not make it the subject of my first official campus address.
So today. Three weeks ago I was planning a post on (still) president-elect Obama’s plans for education, higher education in particular, to be released on the eve of his inauguration. But since the last days of December Israel’s military engagement in Gaza has grown from air strikes to ground incursion. I cannot not write something. What I write now is not, cannot be an institutional statement. It is a personal one, but it is also the statement of a college president. What seems most central to that role at a time like this is that as a college president I stand in and stand for a tradition that prizes careful thought and reasoned debate. As president, I also have – as quaint as it may sound in the twenty-first century – a pastoral function for my college community.
This shepherd does not feel bold or certain today. My own despair and impotence in the face of the latest chapter in a tragic history over decades (at least) are reflected back to me in the anguish of friends and colleagues from all around the world who are sending emails and sharing news stories, editorials, and letters at the speed of light. Many of these messages voice comparable despair, some, however, are powered by certainty of one sort or another so that, in their conflicting multitude, they produce in me only deeper despair, confusion, and impotence.
But then our students come before me. Not all, of course, and I know that as among my friends and colleagues, so among our students there are opinions and convictions of all stripes. I want Hampshire to be a place where all feel comfortable in feeling and expressing their opinions, their convictions, their deeply held personal beliefs. All of us should be touched and concerned about conflict and loss of life anywhere and everywhere, but many in our community have connections, direct or indirect, to Israel and Palestine. We have a strong Jewish community, which I reference knowing full well that within this community, again, just about every imaginable view on past and current conflicts is held. Our office of spiritual life, especially our campus rabbi, has been creating opportunities for open discussion and mutual support and respect.
I hear these students, I see our students. A few are citizens of Israel studying here. A very few come to us from Palestinian territory. They have overcome hurdles virtually unimaginable to most of us simply to take physical possession of their U.S. visa, which requires getting across the border to reach the U.S. consulate in Israel. Some of the latter have not seen their family in years. As one of our students explained to me, were he to return home on vacation, the chance of his being able to enter Israel to catch the flight back to the U.S. is next to nil.
When I say that I hear and see our students, I do not mean only in my mind’s eye. Twice since we returned for January term small groups of students have come to meet with me. Many are students I know well and have worked with on a variety of issues. I truly love our students, but when these filed into my office this month – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, students from yet other countries – their mood was somber, subdued. All the despair I feel is written on their faces and inscribed on their bodies. Haggard, their faces grey, traces of tears long since dried up but not washed away. To say that these images of grieving are Biblical is an irony too deep to bear.
I hear what they want me to do, and I have also heard from others, some with very different views, who also look to the president for a statement. Some statements seem as if they would be very straightforward: condemn violence, condemn attacks on civilians, condemn terrorism, condemn racism, condemn attacks on educational facilities. Surely I condemn them all, yet every phrase said (in the context of those unsaid) can have a nuance, can be read as a code.
Then there are the specific things I should ask for: an immediate cease-fire, an opening of borders. Don’t, I am told by some, just say you are “for peace,’ because that is in the eyes of some a code for… To be clear: I do condemn attacks on civilians, I do condemn terrorism, I do condemn racism, I do condemn attacks on educational facilities – wherever, however, whenever perpetrated, and by whomsoever. I also condemn torture, kidnapping, and illegal imprisonment and rendition.
Getting more deeply into the specifics of the present situation, or issuing a statement in which I align myself with any one of the many resolutions to sign on to, whether the resolution of the U.N. Security Council that the U.S. supported until it – until we, to my personal shame – abstained, or that the City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, passed on January 12, 2009, or one of dozens of others, has its risk. I know I cannot proceed without risking offending others, but the president’s pastoral role demands that he balance his own conscience and convictions with the necessity that he be there, with feeling and support, for all.
Moreover, just about any stand taken will inevitably be partial and incomplete. Everything must be considered in context, but how broad a context, and how to weigh the elements. Even focusing on the military campaign in Gaza alone (here most decidedly not the whole context), as a scholar I would like to believe that clarity about the facts should enable us to work through to a coherent position. And yet, precisely here, we face a desperate quagmire of uncertainty. I for one, and in this I know I am not alone, simply do not know which account among so many conflicting ones to credit, even as I want to believe that, at the very least, many accounts are proffered in good faith.
There may be even less certainty (as if that were possible!) in more “official’ accounts, where tendentiousness in one direction or another is even more obvious. And while news media may be “independent’ to a certain degree, they are not utterly so, and are furthermore being blocked from full reportorial access in some sectors. Though the comparison is by no means exact, I’m reminded of the parable of the three rings in Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise’ (Nathan der Weise, 1779): one ring is authentic. The problem is, no one can determine which one.
All this leads me to one definite wish, appropriate I hope (however frustratingly non-specific) for a college president: access to the truth, both narrowly – all parties seeking in good faith to tell complete truths and providing access to one and all to provide verifiability – and broadly – an honest pursuit for impartiality in even the broadest contextualization of accounts, large and small.
Though I may be naïve in many ways, I am not so utterly a fool that I don’t recognize the unlikelihood of this in the sublunary world, and its virtual impossibility on a battlefield or during a time of war. But I am enough of a student of history to think of other periods when regions were lined up on two sides of a dispute divided by a battle line that seemed frozen. I think, for example, of the sectarian wars that wracked Europe for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were in those times serious thinkers who pondered how one could break free from impacted positions to some sort of modus vivendi, with the hope – not wrong – that if one adopted strategies that would move us even gradually to less impacted states of being, there might be a way to avoid lethal conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans died on the battlefield or at the hands of executioners or persecuting mobs during the struggle between Catholicism and reformed Christian churches. (That figure is probably woefully low; total loss of life during the Thirty Years War in Germany alone is estimated at multiple millions.) The recently ended armed conflict in Northern Ireland was only the latest symptom – an optimist might say the last – in a long history of sectarian violence.
Out of the deep pain and struggle, and in reaction to widespread death and destruction, and specifically as a way to mitigate it, came thinking that led, ultimately, to the enlightenment: principles of rationality, of disinterest (in its good sense). Strategies to prevent conflict were put in place in government structures, such as the separation of church and state written into the American constitution by its framers who had the virulence of these centuries, as well as Enlightenment ideals, very much on their minds.
As an academic, and as the president of an institution of higher education, it is really in these terms, and on this scale, that I think in the face of another, acute form of a desperate struggle. I see how noxious is the rhetorical grandstanding indulged in by so many. I see how the name-calling and the evocations of other historical horrors take us all further away from understanding, further away from any hope of resolution on a human scale. Comparisons to “genocide’ or “apartheid’ simply raise the rhetorical stakes; they may help speakers or writers score points (in their own minds and the minds of the like-minded) but they do nothing to advance shared understanding.
On the contrary.
This is the kind of pronouncement a college president, and not only college and university presidents, should be making. We should be talking about ways of guiding debate and advancing discussion so that understanding grows and is shared ever more widely. For example, the concept of interpretive charity – an old term from Biblical hermeneutics that might seem quaint but, if you think about it, has a lot in common with the current concept of “active listening.’ Even if an idea, a position, seems outlandish, indeed, especially if your first impulse is to lash out and say “that’s wrong,’ you listen. You try to understand where the text, or the person, is “coming from.’ Only after you understand how and why that person has the idea, and what it means to him or her, do you consider a critique. You haven’t abandoned the opportunity to critique, you’ve just delayed it, and what just might happen is that you can expound your position in such a way that both of you end up sharing a new understanding. Sharing understandings might just be the precondition to sharing space, resources – you know, a land.
Since in my last blog posting (Dec. 29, 2008), which contained my “update’ of the liberal arts, I wrote of a need for a future orientation and “sustainability’ not just in the realm of energy and the environment but in multiple registers, I cannot help but see a potential linkage here. The present dilemma all too well exemplifies the need for the development of an ethics of responsible sustainability in the area of international relations. We need – but this will take a lot of work even at the conceptual level – to move beyond the point where claims made on the basis of one group’s “rights’ or another group’s “way of life’ hold us back from seeing what will conduce to positive futures all around.
The argument, for example, that the population of towns in southern Israel should be free of the threat of bombardment is, to some voices in this debate, so obvious that neither the assumptions behind it nor its implications are ever made explicit. Voices on the other side of the debate, who pointedly ask whether Israelis have more right to live in anxiety-free possession of their space than Palestinians do in theirs, never get to the level of interrogating the assumptions and implications involved in the debate itself. We remain trapped in an irresoluble and ever sharper point/counter-point.
What if, instead, we worked to elaborate an ethical perspective that views free enjoyment as legitimate to the extent it doesn’t impinge on others’ free enjoyment. This is not so different from the old saw about free speech ending at the point of the other’s nose. Just as, according to that oft-cited doctrine, you can make any argument you want in your interlocutor’s face so long as it’s verbal and you refrain from punching him/her, so the right of free enjoyment has some limitations. In some future ethics we would more readily understand the costs of such “rights,’ and might one day come to believe that these rights are legitimately limited in cases where others’ rights to equally legitimate free enjoyment are thereby abridged. Of course, there are limits, too, to the means anyone can legitimately deploy to bring those who overstep back in line, and violence should not be among the means we countenance.
And it is violence that confronts us now, violence that simply must stop. I realize that my words may do little to persuade the perpetrators of violence to stop themselves. And however much I have tried to look to a possible future beyond the current phase of death and destruction, I am only too conscious of the fact that philosophizing in the midst of disaster and human tragedy sets me up to join that worst of all possible teachers, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss is pilloried in Voltaire’s Candide for maintaining in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that ours is “the best of all possible world.’ I do not wish to be either Pangloss or Voltaire in this moment. Rather, and upon the advice of the best of all possible friends, I join hands with all Candides in their bewilderment, at once both more pessimistic and more optimistic because, while the earthquake was a “natural’ disaster (like Katrina), the ongoing confrontation in Israel-Palestine is not.
This entry was posted on Friday, January 16th, 2009 at 2:12 pm and is filed under Uncategorized 
22 Responses to “A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity’
  1. Sarah Buttenwieser says:
Thank you for writing this. May level heads catch this wind & prevail–violence isn’t a natural disaster.
  1. Ilana Rossoff says:
January 19, 2009 at 2:14 pm
To whom it may concern, I am a current student and am appalled by the President Hexter’s incapacity to do as he promised: to condemn the attacks on Gaza, for which he has previously claimed to have deep sympathy. Below is my response to his blog post.
In light of what “our president” Ralph Hexter posted as his only response to the most devastating war on Gaza, I think it’s time we look critically at how we are perceived by the community because of the people who are paid to represent us. In responding to a request of students to issue a statement about the crisis in Gaza, Hexter nuanced political warfare (and in some ways even tried to justify it) while not once explicitly condemning the murder of over a thousand human beings, which he had previously claimed to be devastated by. Because of his attempted neutrality during a time in which neutrality is a crime in itself, Hexter has formally proven that he does not represent Hampshire: the student body or faculty, staff, and alumni. What he said officially places him as an obstacle that must be overcome if anything significant is to be achieved A part of me does not want to qualify the specifics of his arguments, but there are certain things that are too outrageous and contradictory to overlook.
The condescension of Hexter’s language regarding the crisis is just as appalling as what he said and failed to say. Comparing the current conflict to European, pre-Enlightenment times, in which people were irrational and did not know how to handle themselves intellectually and diplomatically, is such an overt perpetuation of the “Orientalist’ attitude that has dominated Western discourse concerning all things “East.’ This mentality of seeing the other half of the world as less advanced, less rational, less independently capable of working out its own problems is essentially what founded and enabled our colonial history. (If you’re going to condemn racism, try not to be so overtly racist.) What Hexter has done is brought the same colonial attitude that has dominated Western academia and politics to one of the few institutions in which people, professors and students at least, have been actively working to reject just that. Maybe I’m giving Hampshire too much credit, but I have some reason to believe there are individuals who are working to move on from history and prevent a disastrous future before it is sealed in history books; Hexter’s statement does them a grave injustice.
I think that Hexter’s idea of “interpretive charity’ is an appropriate one to apply to this piece of writing, his own argument for neutrality and complacency. Hexter speaks of the need to be an understanding listener and debater so as to better appreciate where people com from in producing the thoughts they do. So, I want to take this opportunity to consider what Hexter’s motivations were in writing what he did; after all, he functions on his own perceptions of rationality, however misguided they may be, and therefore must also be understood in the context of his intentions, not just his actions. Ralph Hexter is the president of a small, poorly-endowed college in the middle of western Massachusetts (United States). The student body of this college has a large proportion of Jewish students, some from progressive backgrounds, some not, and the college depends on the tuition of every single one of its students. Should a student, or a few, be alienated by a “controversial’ statement of the president, the entire college’s finances could be at risk. So, in the name of maintaining the pretense that progressive, private institutions should tolerate all ideas, be they fascist, racist, sexist, or in perpetuation of any other form of oppression, President Ralph Hexter opted to be politically correct: pretending to appease all, but consequently saying nothing and appeasing no one.
Hexter commented that applying generic historical terms of warfare or human slaughter only nuance the situation and distract from true discourse, and I think that is an incredibly dangerous thing to claim. If we don’t see what’s going on Gaza as an absolute genocide, a holocaust of ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate deaths, then we have doomed the people of Gaza to the same fate of those who have perished in disguised genocides. How we have been so inactive, not only in sitting here twiddling our thumbs as we argue over the semantics of what led up to this crisis, but even in the ways that we have decided to organize, speak out against it, and rest at that, is beyond my comprehension. How many more times will Students for Justice in Palestine have to say that we are DIRECTLY INVESTED IN THE OCCUPATION before people wake up and realize that we have a chance to take action DURING a brutal, colonial military oppression and not wait until it is “over’ to lament not having done anything?? Sign the statement to divest, removing financial ties and denouncing the occupation, NOW! There are no excuses, absolutely none. Thank you, Ralph Hexter, for fulfilling your role as a tool in maintaining the status quo for those who benefit from it, but for the rest of us, it’s time to rise against.
  1. Students for Justice in Palestine says:
January 19, 2009 at 2:30 pm
A response to this blog post by Students for Justice in Palestine:
Ralph Hexter’s response to the Israeli War on Gaza was passive, centrist, and repulsive. His personal statement, posted on his presidential blog, failed to condemn the attacks on Gaza and the occupation of Palestine in general, which demonstrates that Hampshire College administration is complicit in the occupation. This is just another example of supposedly responsible leaders perpetuating the apolitical and condescending frame of discourse that has led to no progress in the struggle for “peace in the Middle East.’
While claiming to be making a “personal statement,’ he nonetheless acknowledged that, as president of the college, he is our “shepherd’’’somehow making us his sheep’’and therefore claims institutional representation. Hexter made the statement about himself and his career and refused to acknowledge Hampshire’s direct investment in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hexter insists that he understands the problems with “philosophizing in the midst of disaster.’ Indeed, he has done just that by opting for his own political safety rather than by joining the global movement against Israeli violence. Consequently, he side stepped the obligation of all institutions of higher education to resist genocide’’an imperative more urgent than personal musings. It took 2,370 words for Hexter to condemn “violence, terrorism, and racism,” and yet he still will not decide which side to take on the occupation, which is violent, terroristic, and racist. Hexter is complacent along with other shameful leaders who fail to take concrete action against genocide. He does not represent Hampshire College and cannot be taken seriously.
Over 800 students, staff, faculty, and alumni endorsed Students for Justice in Palestine’s institutional statement, which calls on Hampshire to divest from corporations that enable and profit from Israel’s military actions in Palestine and to denounce the occupation explicitly in a formal statement. When Hexter remains neutral on the massacres in Palestine, the entire Hampshire community takes a stand for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. How many white phosphorous bombs have to be dropped on universities, hospitals, or UN schools before we express our outrage as a community? The time has passed to remain silent.
  1. Brian says:
January 19, 2009 at 11:35 pm
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time on my hands, so I cannot go too in depth into Ralph Hexter’s flawed response to the situation in Gaza and Hampshire College’s responsibility in answering this crisis. Thus, I will just engage a couple of the President’s points that are particularly problematic.
First, Hexter’s statement on the current events in Gaza “and its larger context“ paints the situation simply as a religious conflict. This is inaccurate and misinformed. The current crisis in Gaza is much more a conflict of colonialism, with one government colonizing and another people resisting colonization. It is regrettable that President Hexter has missed this fact. In light of this, it is not hard to see why over 800 members of the Hampshire College community have signed Students for Justice in Palestine’s call for divestment. In our academic realm, Hampshire’s classes stand largely against colonialism and the history of colonization. Unfortunately, as an institution as a whole, we still fund and see returns from modern-day colonization efforts by our investments in companies that directly profit from the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.
Second, the President affirms that he cannot make an institutional statement on the conflict because he must be everybody’s president. By doing this, he separates himself from the hundreds of community members who have called for Hampshire College to take a stand on this issue. Presidents must be willing to take risks, to take stances, and to take actions. However, in this statement, Ralph Hexter has made it clear that he is willing to do none of these. Instead, he promotes an environment of debate at the college. What Hexter fails to see, however, is that for years there has been an environment of debate at this college on the issue of Israel and Palestine, and vast numbers of the community have decided to oppose modern colonialism. It is unfortunate that the President has largely been absent from these debates, but most of the community is now demanding action after our discussions. The president is not our shepherd and we are not his sheep. Over 800 members of the community have come to a conclusion, and that conclusion is action against colonization.
Again, unfortunately, that is all I have time to respond to. I suspect most of my peers will pick up on the points that I have missed here.
Brian Van Slyke
Student Trustee
  1. Quincy Saul says:
January 20, 2009 at 2:24 pm
Dear Ralph,
I am writing to you as a fellow human, not as the member of any organization.
I have just finished reading your latest blog entry. I apologize if my tone is
disagreeable, but you have seriously offended me and the part of the Hampshire
community that keeps me here paying full tuition.
With all due respect, I would like to alert you to the fact that in your attempt
to be ‘everybody’s president’, you have only reinforced the convictions of the
most active students on campus that you are not at all their president, much
less their pastor. I assume that you must have foreseen this, but you proceeded
to philosophize vaguely anyway — why, I’m really not sure.
You seem think that students and faculty are sheep to be shepherded, but they
are largely offended and ashamed of your self-centered proselytizing, and will
not stand for it. I hope you can take this to heart. Speaking not as any kind
of participant but only as an observer, I can assure you that your presence at
this college is at best tolerated.
In any case, while you are citing quaint theological concepts and comparing
yourself to Candide, others in the academy all over the world are taking real
stands, and not just talking about themselves.
Perhaps you’ve already seen this latest petition in the Guardian (pasted below).
I wish that you would gather the courage to join this movement.
I would appreciate a response.
Quincy Saul
  1. Jay cassano says:
January 20, 2009 at 2:27 pm
Hexter Deconstructed
In his most recent post to his Presidential Blog, Ralph Hexter states that he wishes to be the “pastor’ for all of the Hampshire College community. Because of his need to be a shepherd for everyone in the Hampshire community, this makes him unable to make a declarative statement condemning Israel’s war crimes in Gaza and the continuing unjust occupation of Palestinian land. Ultimately, President Hexter has alienated a group of thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate Hampshire community members who have worked tirelessly with the college’s administration and trustees for two years to urge the College to publicly divest its endowment of corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In being pastor for all, President Hexter has made himself pastor for none. His statement literally said nothing. It was a statement ostensibly about Gaza and Palestine, and yet absolutely no specifics of the conflict were mentioned. President Hexter’s statement itself amounts to nothing. Nevertheless, there is still a logic to President Hexter’s statement. The logic of his statement is naturally couched in academic language, but it is nonetheless oppressive at its core.
First, the implicit analogy of the conflict in Israel-Palestine to North Ireland and Reformation Era sectarian violence is disingenuous. It portrays the conflict in Israel-Palestine as a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims (lest we forget Palestinian Christians). In so doing it plays into the rhetoric of identifying Palestinians as religious fanatics and terrorists waging an Islamist holy war against the Jewish people. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Palestinian people, ironically enough, are some of the most secular in the Arab world. The conflict does not have its roots in religious violence. Its roots are in colonialism and racism.
But President Hexter goes further in his attempt to describe the conflict in religious terms. Why else would he allude to the separation of church and state as an exemplary virtue of the Enlightenment in a statement about Israel-Palestine? But beyond this dishonest portrayal of the conflict as a religious clash, President Hexter’s statement is also disturbingly Eurocentric. If President Hexter wishes to extol the virtues of the Enlightenment, why not, for instance, acknowledge European science’s extreme debt to Arab science? Furthermore, why is President Hexter tangentially discussing Reformation Era violence when the statement is supposed to be about Palestine? I appreciate history, but there is a way history can be employed to shed light on the present and a way it can conceal the present. President Hexter chose the latter and his statement’s obsession with the Reformation exposes the Eurocentrism of his interests.
But that is not the end of it. President Hexter’s cursory history lesson attempts to demonstrate that the worst periods of violence in Europe came immediately prior to the most significant gains of the Enlightenment. If we are to adapt the continuing violence in the Middle East to President Hexter’s framework, we are left with a disgusting conclusion that repeats one of the most oppressive Hegelian motifs that is directly responsible for justifying colonialism. President Hexter would have us believe that because the Palestinians are still waging religious sectarian violence, they are a people who have not yet been Enlightened. He would have us believe that the Palestinians still have not received the salvation of Europe and that they need European intervention in order to be saved from themselves.
Later in his statement, President Hexter attacks Students for Justice in Palestine’s supposed “rhetorical grandstanding.’ I would like to clarify that SJP has never used the words genocide or Holocaust in any of its publicity or materials. While I do not speak for the group, I believe we have never used those terms because we think that to do so would conceal the particular suffering of many peoples throughout the world and the Jewish people in particular. Ultimately, President Hexter locates himself in a blandly liberal camp that is only concerned with supposed humanitarian intervention in the case of genocide. I would contend that an injustice does not need to be a genocide in order to be worth struggling against; sixty years of military occupation and oppression will suffice.
However, I stand by our use of the term apartheid, which is backed not only by former President Jimmy Carter, but also by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and a host of other black South African leaders who lived through apartheid there. If President Hexter wishes to place himself in opposition to Nobel Peace Laureate Mandela and Archbishop Tutu as the arbiter of when the term “apartheid’ can be employed, then he should be prepared to appear ridiculous. Furthermore, President Hexter’s attempt to appeal to our rhetoric as a means to discredit our work is a tactic that itself amounts to nothing more than rhetorical posturing on his part. I, personally, would expect more of an academic once linked with Berkeley’s prestigious Rhetoric department.
I do not disagree with President Hexter that many times debate on this issue can get locked into a pointless point/counter-point. However, President Hexter should be blaming our corporate oligopoly media for this lack of true discourse rather than trying to conflate the position of SJP with the “Hardball’-style soundbytes we get on the news from people with opposing viewpoints. Perhaps if he took us more seriously, he would appreciate the sophistication and nuance of our positions. (I say “positions’ in the plural because President Hexter, so fond of differences of opinion, ought to acknowledge that even within SJP there is debate and disagreement.)
Interestingly enough, there is an implicit concession in President Hexter’s statement. He uses the example of those sympathetic to Israel’s actions who condemn rockets fired at Southern Israel. He then goes on to state that those same people never make clear the assumptions that go into this position and likewise that the people who support the Palestinian cause never deconstruct the argument to unearth those assumptions. I believe it is instructive that president Hexter uses the condemnation of rockets being fired at Southern Israel as his example. He uses this as an example of a debate that is never deconstructed to reach the underlying assumptions for a specific reason. Why does President Hexter not use the example of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and the need to “unearth’ the assumptions of that go into making that argument? The answer is because there is nothing to deconstruct. The argument for Palestinian resistance is an argument for Justice, whereas the argument supporting the Israeli government is one for colonialism and racism. President Hexter, as a student of Derrida’s work, ought to know better than all of us that the only concept that cannot be deconstructed is Justice. Thus, in President Hexter’s own statement there is an implicit, perhaps even subconscious, admittance that the Palestinian cause is just. I hope he will recognize this fact.
Lastly, I would like to address President Hexter’s call for “interpretive charity,’ as he terms it. He says that this concept essentially amounts to nothing more than “active listening.’ Here again, President Hexter is propounding a very passive, liberal, centrist position along the lines of: If we could only all just listen to each other, the world would live in peace. I would like to address a matter of history, since President Hexter claims himself to be a student of history. The point I would like to make is very simple. No one listens to the Palestinians. The Palestinians tried to be heard in the largely peaceful first Intifada. They tried to rely on International Law and the United Nations. This failed them. No one listened. We hear the position of Israeli government every day in our media and our legislative bodies. There is a reason that no one listens to the Palestinians. It is because the Palestinians cannot speak. President Hexter should understand this very well. His graduate work was supervised by Paul de Man, who also supervised Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work. The Palestinians have tried over and over again to speak, but no one listens. This, Spivak would tell us, is not due to a lack of trying on the part of the Palestinians. It is not that the subaltern, the Palestinians, cannot speak. It is that we are incapable of listening.
Jay Cassano
  1. Kay Johnson says:
January 20, 2009 at 9:36 pm
As a faculty member, I would like to support the SJP students’ responses to the Presidential blog post “A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity,’ posted here and on hampedia
I am proud to teach at a college that has students who, having worked hard to learn about the complex issues involved, are thoughtful and brave enough to stand up as they have. I understand why they are dismayed at the implied intellectual and moral even-handedness that seems to be expressed in the president’s blog calling for “non-violence,’ the implication of equivalence between “two warring sides,’ the seeming unwillingness to condemn without qualification the Israeli attack on Gaza when one can easily count and see the hideous disproportion of the Israeli response in the lost lives and limbs of Palestinian civilians. Many of us at the college condemn, unambiguously and with full throat, launching a heavy military attack on a densely populated strip of land where the people literally have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the brutal onslaught. While the long-term political issues are of course more complicated and may give rise to confusion and qualification, the issue before us today seems to me, as to many SJP students, simple, warranting first and foremost a condemnation of the Israeli attack, coming in the last weeks of the Bush presidency when the Israeli military knew they would receive full support from Washington. As Americans I think we bear a special responsibility to condemn this, without equivocation. We too have blood on our hands.
I would like to call attention to the fact that the Hampshire College Vice President and Dean of Faculty, Aaron Berman, wrote a public letter condemning the Israeli attack that was signed by sixty-four faculty members. The letter was simple and straightforward and represented the opinion of most of us who teach at the college. I am taking the liberty to post the letter below.
Kay Johnson
Professor of Politics and Asian Studies
Social Science

January 13, 2009
Over the last few weeks we have watched with horror the Israeli military attack on the Gaza Strip. The loss of life on both sides is tragic, but we must acknowledge the large number of innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, who have been killed by Israeli fire. We have been impressed by the response of many of our students who have organized vigils and demonstrations to protest the military action and call for an end to the carnage. In a recent statement, Rabbi Danny Rich, a leader of Liberal Judaism in Great Britain, explained why he would not participate in Israeli solidarity rallies. Citing Jewish teaching and humanitarian instinct, Rabbi Rich called, “for an immediate ceasefire which may prevent further tragedy engulfing the Palestinian civilian population and save injury and worse to both Israelis in uniform and their fellow citizens in their homes.’
As concerned individual members of the Hampshire College faculty and instructional staff, we express our support for our students’ and Rabbi Rich’s call for an end to the violence, access for journalists, an end to the economic blockade, and the immediate opening of Gaza to a free flow of human, medical and material resources.
Aaron Berman, Professor of History
Nathalie Arnold
Polina Barskova
Carollee Bengelsdorf
Michelle Bigenho
Djola Branner
Myrna Breitbart
L. Brown Kennedy
Margaret Cerullo
Elizabeth Conlisk
Rachel Conrad
Jane W. Couperus
Christoph Cox
Sue Darlington
Jaime Davila
Ellen Donkin
John Drabinski
Simin Farkhondeh
Marlene G. Fried
Fatemeh Giahi
Peter Gilford
Alan Goodman
Deb Gorlin
Lynne Hanley
Michele Hardesty
Elizabeth Hartmann
Thomas Haxo
Baba Hillman
Norman Holland
Paul Jenkins
Kay Johnson
Amy Jordan
Peter Kallok
Daniel Kojo Schrade
Jeannette Lee
Jill Lewis
Jerome Liebling
Daphne Lowell
Susana Loza
Kristen Luschen
Marian MacCurdy
Lourdes Mattei
Robert Emmet Meagher
Lynn Miller
Rebecca Miller
James Miller
Rayane Moreira
Rebecca Nordstrom
Junko Oba
Sarah Partan
Fritha Pengelly
Robert M. Rakoff
Flavio Risech
Monique Roelofs
Mary Russo
Robert Seydel
Falguni A. Sheth
Kane Stewart
Jason M. Tor
Susan Tracy
Berna Turam
Stanley Warner
Daniel Warner
Barbara Yngvesson
  1. Andrew Stachiw says:
January 20, 2009 at 9:40 pm
The Blood is on My Hands, and Yours.
Andrew Stachiw, January 18, 2009, in response to President Hexter’s, “A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity’
Dear President Hexter, the Trustees, and for the Hampshire Community,
You are not my shepherd, and I am certainly not a sheep. Furthermore, I would never want to be a part of a flock that attempts to assuage its sins with words that blind, not illuminate.
Howard Zinn, the famous historian, writer, activist, and professor wrote, in reference to statements like President Hexter’s of so called “balance’ and “support for all,’ “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.’ I repeat, President Hexter, the blood is already on our hands, and without taking a stand, making a real statement, and at the very least, divesting immediately, your statements of neutrality are tantamount to support for slaughter. Let there be no mistake – Hampshire College has already made its stance clear: profit and the support of a minority group of wealthy trustees and donors is more important than stopping our funding of war machines. When President Hexter cites e-mail of “comparable despair,’ I ask him, can you quantify the “comparable despair’ of a mother watching her son’s skin melt off from the explosion of a missile delivered by an F-16 fighter jet ““ a jet built by companies in which the school has invested and from which it is gaining profit? Sadly, the answer is yes, he has quantified this “comparable despair,’ and the net result is $$$; Hampshire College profiting from these disgusting and atrocious investments has been deemed more important than the life of this and many other children. And NO, I say, there is no “nuance’ to this as President Hexter tells us’’when one follows the dollars, President Hexter’s and the trustees’ stance is quite clear.
For over a year and a half, SJP has tried to overcome this horrific alliance for profit; we have been calling for divestment from the companies that Hampshire is invested in that:
1. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance of the Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem;
2. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories;
3. Establish facilities or operations in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories;
4. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance and construction of the Separation Wall;
5. Provide products or services that contribute to violent acts that target either Israeli or Palestinian civilians
In reality, this is one of the most conservative requests possible; we are not asking for a blanket Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel, and in fact most of the companies that we are calling for divestment from are in fact US companies. Furthermore, our divestment calls are more than just about Palestine; they would stop the College’s profiting from companies that provide military technology and equipment for conflicts across the world. Sure, members of Hampshire College made a statement condemning the War in Afghanistan, the first of its kind, but it certainly didn’t stop the college from profiting from its expansion and continuation.
We have had enough. We have tried every route, we have filled every possible administrative position to facilitate our goals, and we have talked and talked, waited and waited; we have had enough.
I could list a multitude of facts and statistics that would untangle us from what President Hexter describes as a factual “desperate quagmire of uncertainty.’ But, the truth is, we have already done that. We have shown the trustees, the president, the faculty, and the student body. And yes, President Hexter, the majority of your “sheep’ clearly don’t need your direction, as well over half of the student body has supported and signed our statement’’it was even good enough for many parents, faculty, and even one of the former presidents of the college.
I know that I for one can’t stand and wait for my hands to be any more bloodied by the school’s murderous investments. And even more importantly, we aren’t just fighting for our own dignity, but the dignity of a people and a land’’Palestinians and Palestine’’that you have deemed worthy of profiting from.
Remember, President Hexter, trustees, et al., your so-called neutrality is just a word, for the actions that your “neutrality’ allows are more bloody and horrific than you could ever imagine.
Andrew Stachiw
  1. Steve Goldberg says:
January 22, 2009 at 4:48 pm
President Hexter pretends to take an even-handed position for the purpose of representing the entire Hampshire community, but he takes great pains to signal to the anti-Israel bashers that he sympathizes with their condemnations of the Jewish State. That the students and faculty who posted comments are too unhinged to recognize that speaks volumes about their consuming hatred of Israel.
The vast majority of American citizens and political leaders, Democrats and Republicans, strongly supported israel’s actions in defense of its citizens, who for more than seven years had been victimized by more than 7000 rockets launched from Gaza. Anyone who possesses moral clarity recognizes that Israel’s actions were justified, required and even long overdue.
Why then is the Hampshire community so out of touch with reality, so much on the fringe? The answer to that question is painfully clear: a substantial portion of the community is anti-Semitic, filled with rage that the Jewish State has the audacity to defend itself.
Of course, criticism of Israeli policy is not, in and of itself, evidence of anti-Semitism. Nevetheless, when the Jewish State is held to a standard not applied to other nations, and when the vitriol reaches the level displayed in the comments on these pages, no other conclusion is possible.
The Hampshire community was conspicuously silent about Russia’s attack on Georgia last year, which was not remotely defensive, and which caused the death of over 10,000 civilians. Where was the outrage? Where were the protests condemning the slaughters in Rwanda and Darfur? The Palestinian Authority is reporting that Hamas is arresting Fatah members in Gaza and subjecting them to torture, including the gouging out of the Fatah member’s eyes. Why are there no comments about that?
Hamas is guilty of two war crimes. First, they deliberately launched thousands of rockets into civilian neighborhoods in Israel. Second, they used Palestinian children, mosques, schools and hospitals as shields from which they could attack Israeli soldiers. Why no comment from President Hexter or the students or faculty?
Simply put, Israel, the Jew among nations, is singled out for imaginary crimes when the very real crimes of other nations are overlooked.
The mask of tolerance and liberalism has been ripped off, and the disfigured face of anti-Semitism has been exposed. Fortunately, the Israel bashers represent only a tiny sliver of American opinion, representative only of neo-Nazis, Islamic fascists and other racist crackpots, and not the overwhelming majority of the people of the United States.
If only the administration had the courage to speak out against the bigotry that infects the Hampshire campus. It’s not likely. It won’t even invite pro-Zionist advocates to speak or debate on campus
  1. Steve Goldberg says:
January 22, 2009 at 8:37 pm
To supplement my most recent post, I am Vice-Chairman of the Zionist Organization of America, the oldest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. I challenge Hampshire to invite someone from the ZOA to debate the issue publicly on campus. That will happen if, and only if, Hampshire really believes in free speech. If the administration, faculty or any student group is willing to host such a debate, please leave me your contact information in a response to this blog, and I will reach out to you.
  1. Noam Bahat Says says:
January 23, 2009 at 9:24 am
(originally posted in wrong place)
January 20th, 2009 at 2:22 pm
In response to a president’s war effort
On January 16, his highness Ralph J. Hexter has decided to extend his concern for the violence in the Middle East. This call was not initiated by him, but was a response to a call by concerned members of the Hampshire community, members of SJP and myself included. Here, we thought for ourselves, is a clear cut situation, where the state of Israel brutalizes the poor people of Gaza, Rafah, Han-Yunes and even in the West Bank. Surely Ralph will understand the importance of him taking a stand. Let me begin my response to this statement by expressing my deep feeling of repulsion, revolt, rage, and disgust from Ralph’s cowardly statement. It is with the highest level of patronizing possible that he writes his confusing, yet “academic’, essay. A confusing piece of writing in the skin of academic language is the weapon of the opportunist and the indifferent. Ralph is both.
The War on Gaza waged by Israel, the country and the people I was born of, is the continuation of the long lasting racist siege waged on Gaza for the past few years, the 41 year old occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and 60 years of negation and denial of the atrocities of 1948, the Palestinian right of return, and the oppression of the Palestinian people, inside and outside of Israel. Ralph in his rhetoric joins this denial and embraces it. Even in his reference to Hampshire’s only Palestinian student, my dear friend Anas, he tries to create a mist around his existence referring to him in plural and with the ambiguous language “come to us from Palestinian territory’. This is not only a denial of Anas as a person, but of his identity and the existence of the land which he calls home. The pluralizing of Anas is an attempt to conceal part of the problem, which is reflected at Hampshire in the unequal access that Israelis and Palestinians have to higher education, and their right to leave their home to another country altogether. It is an attempt to create a façade of equality between the two peoples even here.
Surely Ralph condemns violence and terrorism, but he fails to put names and uses these words out of context. To put it in the words of Aaron Berman: “The loss of life on both sides is tragic, but we must acknowledge the large number of innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, who have been killed by Israeli fire.’ Ralph in his “impotence’(to use his own words) could not even say that.
In an indirect allegation against the intellectual capacity and integrity of the many people who dedicate their lives to the struggle against this ongoing atrocity Ralph says:
Comparisons to “genocide’ or “apartheid’ simply raise the rhetorical stakes; they may help speakers or writers score points (in their own minds and the minds of the like-minded) but they do nothing to advance shared understanding.
But these comparisons are in fact the result of a thoughtful choice of words. The word Apartheid which might be understood by Ralph to refer to the specific regime in South Africa, is a word with a Germanic root which every English speaker should recognize: Apart. It originates from South Africa’s white supremacist regime but refers to any regime which is predicated on racial separation, segregation and state led violence against these racially oppressed groups. As such, this term is applicable to the Israeli regime and Israeli society, in their treatment of the Palestinian population inside Israel and in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank. Genocide is an act of annihilation of a group of people, which may be cultural, geographical, or murderous in its nature. People might argue that this is not what Israel has been doing in the past 60 years, but as we can see in the current war this is the direction where Israel and the Israeli society are going. If in the past Israel maintained its pretentious stand of “we avoid killing innocents’, this war has changed it all. To put it in the words of Yossi Sarid formerly Israel’s minister of education:
The Gaza War is different from its predecessors. It is a war for recovery from complexes and mental blocks. After it, we will feel ever so much better, no matter what its results. It wasn’t the fighters who failed in the past, nor was it the weaponry. Jewish morality was to our detriment, and weakened us. No more. In this tblogpeutic war of eye-rolling, when the neo-Palmachniks want to shoot, they shoot.
And this is not to say that the roots were not there beforehand. Go train the dogs to kill and fill them with rage and hate, while the leash is still on, and then see what happens when the leash is lost. Now the state has unleashed its troops, and the media has unleashed the public. And the blood of a Palestinian child is worth not one hundredth that of an Israeli troop and the blood of a Palestinian man is worth more when it’s spilled. And success is now measured with the number of funerals. So we, the Israeli public on the far side of the ocean, should be happy at the news that the sign at the cemetery in Gaza says: “no more space to burry’. But here in the US, those who speak the truth of a genocide, or apartheid, or at the very least a brutal massacre should be considered to be extremist.
Ralph knows all of that. He also knows that Israel has once more banned the Palestinian parties from running for next month’s elections to the Israeli parliament. He also knows that hundreds have already been arrested in Israel for demonstrating against this war. But all that he has to say to us is that he doesn’t know which report to believe in. I almost forgot, let’s have access to the truth he wishes for us. But he forgot, as he often forgets important elements of irritating equations, that access to truth requires freedom of press, and this let us not forget is prevented by Israel. And Israel prevents not only reporters from doing their work in Gaza but also doctors, truck drivers with supplies, UN relief workers, and those who work to provide electricity to a population of 1.5 million people. My mom tried calling a friend from Gaza yesterday, a friend she has met in a workshop to help educators assist traumatized children in conflict zones. The friend ,by now surely traumatized herself, was impossible to reach, because Israel, so hard working a country that it is, has made it impossible to connect to Gaza; God-forbid us from phone calls to friends who refuse to be enemies, and inquire about the health of one another.
Referring to himself as the pastor of the Hampshire community, Ralph says: “the president’s pastoral role demands that he balance his own conscience and convictions with the necessity that he be there, with feeling and support, for all.’ By thus saying, Ralph intentionally confuses the role of the pastor (which he does not and never did possess) with the role of marriage counselor. The pastor as the shepherd is supposed to lead, based on the best of his conscious and in clear direction which others might not yet see. Ralph not only does not have the courage to do this, but he also lacks the morals and the ideology to do something. Because Ralph, selfish as he is, seeks not to lead a brave move in any direction but to maintain his salary, and that requires appealing not to the majority of Hampshire students, faculty, and staff who oppose the war on Gaza, but to the minority concerned with money and a few trustees. This is the same line which he led in response to the struggle against racism at Hampshire, and to the struggle for workers rights at Hampshire. From any moral point of view, this is not the time to practice marriage counseling of the sort Ralph limitedly provides us with, but to sharpen the distinctions between those who hang their nooses, confederate flags and the Israeli flag, telling us very straightforwardly who they align themselves with, and those who put their solidarity banners and their bodies on the line in the struggle against racism and oppression in Gaza, Palestine- Israel, the Bronx, along the US-Mexico boarder, and elsewhere in US and the world.
Personally I’ve known where Ralph stands almost from the first day I met him. I read a few of the things he wrote, and I heard enough to know. But ambiguous as he was, I repeated to myself and others that we should give him another chance, give him a helping hand to become an ally in the struggles which he so proudly mentions in his ridiculous speeches. But, I say no more. To be fair to Ralph, in his ambiguity he always gave hints of his intention to stab one in the back. In our last meeting with him, he had told us after giving his “sincere’ concern for our sadness, that his writing will not be exactly what we want him to write, because he has to be everyone’s president. To repeat what I said to him then, being everyone’s president is impossible; but Ralph has again chosen, like another president just now stepping down, to be the president of the oppressors. If only he were to read this let him know that he is surely not my president, nor the president of anyone I know.
In a bad choice of words Ralph writes “I am only too conscious of the fact that philosophizing in the midst of disaster and human tragedy sets me up to join that worst of all possible teachers, Dr. Pangloss.’ This is too strong a compliment which Ralph gives himself, since being a teacher is not just about knowing and showing your knowledge but the ability to communicate this knowledge and I dare say in an inviting and challenging manner. But Ralph, who likes showing his superiority in summoning forgotten Latin words and characters, has already managed to antagonize an entire school. And if I ever have to step in his office again, to summon another mythological allegory, I will bring a shiny mirror, so when looking at him, I won’t end up turning to a stone.
Today, I am ashamed that a school like Hampshire has Ralph J. Hexter for a president. Many people, honest students, professors, workers, have done nothing to deserve him.
Noam Bahat
  1. Margaret Cerullo says:
January 23, 2009 at 5:23 pm
At a moment that calls for moral courage and leadership, not equivocating, I share Kay Johnson’s pride in the students who have taken a stand and called upon the college and its president to do the same. For many of us who grew up immediately after World War II, in the shadow of the Holocaust, our entire ethical formation was shaped around the effort to understand how a society so rich in intellectual culture had produced “good Germans’ who stood silent while a population was targeted for annihilation. “Never again’ meant never again allow specious complexity to mask recognition of the mobilization of the full force of a state against an entire population, considered its enemy. I had hoped, and still do, that our president would uphold Hampshire’s tradition of critical thought, especially when that thought is unpopular, and take a stand against the Israeli effort to destroy the people of Gaza, and against the Occupation that has enabled it. Supporting the SJP’s thoughtful two year campaign to divest from companies that profit from the Occupation is ever more urgent today.
  1. Tracy Devenyi says:
January 23, 2009 at 11:17 pm
As a parent relatively new to the Hampshire community, I feel I must respond to Ralph Hexter’s comments. The question is, where to begin? My daughter recently transferred to Hampshire seeking an educational community where an open exchange of ideas was encouraged and where students would acquire the skills necessary to foster positive change in this world. In reading the student’s comments, I could believe this to be true of Hampshire. However, had I only read President Hexter’s remarks I’m afraid my impressions would have been quite to the contrary.
Would you define your so called “pastoral’ role, Mr. Hexter, as one in which you might lead by example? Being that this is a rhetorical question, I will assume the obvious answer to be “yes.’ In giving the students of SJP the impression that you personally shared their positions on Gaza while meeting with them in your office and then proceeding to write a blog entry which is a cowardly load of pretentious rhetoric, empty of any actual conviction demonstrates that your self described metaphorical role of “shepherd’ is flawed. How could you possibly expect these students to respect your role as their leader and/or representative in any sense? These students deserve a president who has the courage to stand for something, anything, as long as he has the convictions and factual arguments to back up his views in a clear and concise manner. Having convictions and the courage to fight for them is the very foundation of humanity. Without that, one can acquire all the knowledge in the world, but to what purpose?
  1. Dina Jacir says:
January 25, 2009 at 12:41 pm
Most of what I want to say has already been articulated by friends much more eloquent than I, but I feel that it is necessary to reiterate along with the others my extreme disappointment in your blog statement. I was under the impression that you were going to write a condemnation of war crimes as the president of a progressive academic community. Instead, you wrote a long, confusing essay in which you seemed to say absolutely nothing. I almost wonder if the length of the letter and all the literary references in it were intentional y included to make readers simply get bored and wander off before reading the whole thing.
Over 1,000 people, mostly civilians (what does that mean anyway? They are all civilians, as they have the right under international law to resist a brutal and illegal occupation) were slaughtered in less than a month. Thousands more have their lives permanently ruined. Israel used abhorrent chemical weapons: white phosphorous that burns skin and muscle off the bones. Israel has gone crazy. Whatever has been used in the past to defend Israel’s seizure of native land, expulsion of the Palestinian people, and negation of their existence and rights for the past 60+ years, it must stop now. The façade of Israel as a victim is over. Our financial support of it must cease to exist. We thought that this war, as Noam wrote, was a clear-cut situation in which you’d have no question about condemning. I am disgusted that you would try to maintain some sort of a neutral stance in the face of a genocidal act when our tax dollars and tuition dollars make the slaughter possible.
Other universities and nations have taken a stand. I am disgusted at the pretentiousness of Hampshire’s constant boasting and bragging about being the first U.S. institution to divest from apartheid South Africa, while we remain quiet about the same situation happening in the Middle East. And yes, prominent anti-apartheid activists like Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Ronnie Kasrils call Israel an apartheid state. I think the blog post you wrote was cowardly and condescending. To be “neutral’ is to stand on the side of the oppressor. You are standing with the oppressor: a racist, genocidal state.
There is much, much more to say, but you get the point.
Dina Jacir
  1. Alex Torpey says:
January 25, 2009 at 6:08 pm
On SJP, Discourse & Hampshire
Alex Torpey, Fourth Year Social Science Div 3 Student
Being passionate is the root of what makes Hampshire students so great. We are all so engaged and so passionate ““ and that passion drives us to incredible heights. However, somewhere along the way some of our community members forgot what it means to be positive, respectful and constructive.
Because there are so many passionate people on this campus, there are frequently issues that take up the entire sphere of dialog and discourse as students get concerned and vocal about them. The Israel/Palestine conflict is the best example of people vocalizing their opinions currently, but doing so in a way that leaves no room for argument, much less even for open discussion. Many of the students in SJP, though clearly passionate about this issue, use phrases and words that seem to be aimed much less at encouraging discussion and unity than they are as personal attacks, rhetoric and forwarding their own personal interests. Using phrases or words like “‘‘racist’, “repulsive’ and “disgusts’ are not particularly great ways of disagreeing with someone, yet all of these words, in addition to being heard over the past year directed at anyone who has questioned SJP, all appeared in SJP student responses to President Ralph Hexter’s blog entry about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Although people should obviously feel free to disagree to what he said, Hexter’s letter was certainly not “racist’, nor are the people whom members of SJP have in the past described as “racist’. These are words that are framed from an extremely negative perspective; they serve no constructive purpose except for alienating both the person they were directed towards and anyone who might disagree in the future. Doing that as a way of forwarding one’s own cause is not what this college or progressive politics are about.
SJP is far from the only group of students I’ve heard speak or write like that towards other people, but rather the most recent, and one of the most extreme examples of how we have let discourse on this campus be derailed into petty personal attacks.
No less frequent to our discourse are issues of race, gender and class that so many of us care so much about. The passion involved in the vocalization of these ideas is palpable. As incredible as that passion is, these discussions on our campus end up becoming weighted down with negative emotions and rhetoric, and rarely get the full attention they deserve.
You do not help move an issue forward by calling people “˜racist’ or even “repulsive’ for simply not completely agreeing with you. That authoritarian attitude, where disagreement is not allowed and your way of looking at things must be accepted as the ultimate, un-questionable truth is what has been oppressive in this world for centuries, if not millennia. That is the attitude that has led to so much violent oppression throughout our history – when you have a group of people who demand that everyone else blindly accepts their way of thinking purely on faith and leaves no room for argument.
I would like to issue a challenge to all the members of SJP and other student groups and community members that frame their public statements and activities in the extreme negative. Disagree without being negative towards individual people. Describe the issues at hand instead of making personal attacks. Respond to disagreement instead of reacting. Suggest constructive ways of moving forward instead of destructive statements that move us all backwards.
The Israel/Palestine conflict needs to be discussed yet ideological extremism is stopping a real discussion from happening. The violence in that area is tragic but compounding that tragedy is letting personal interests get in the way of moving towards a discussion, and ideally a solution, to the problem. You are all so critical of national and global politics yet do the same oppressive things on this campus? Please, enough negativity. That is not the Hampshire I go to.
Let me tell you about the Hampshire I go to. I go to a school that values respect between one another. I go to a school that welcomes discourse, debate and disagreement. I go to a school that sees the benefit in these debates as a way to listen and learn from eachother and progress our entire body of knowledge forward. I go to a school that cares about the opinions of every single person and the perspective that can be gained by listening. I go to a school that is focused and motivated to progress positive goals.
The Israel/Palestine conflict is one of example an issue that is of incredible importance to our generation. But right now this campus is divided. Instead of letting our passion divide us, we should be using our passion to unite us towards making this world that we live in a better place.
That is what Hampshire is to me, and those are the values that I see so many students here upholding. Those are the values that both this country and this school stand for, and those are the values that I stand for. I know there are many other students on this campus that agree ““ let us make the atmosphere here what it was intended to be: Positive. Respectful. Constructive. That is the Hampshire I go to, and that is the Hampshire that I will soon be a proud alumnus of.
  1. Taliesin Nyala says:
January 27, 2009 at 2:49 pm
Alex, I appreciated your response to the responses to Ralph’s blog. I am disgusted with a lot of the hypocrisy I read (people accusing others of doing the same things that they then turn around and do), and wish that everyone involved in the discussion would be more critical of themselves first before critiquing others. I am also deeply concerned at the level of discourse at Hampshire, and that many people dis-empower themselves (and their arguments) by making personal attacks, instead of focusing on the issue at hand. However, it is easier to get carried away and respond emotionally, rather than rationally. I disagree with Israel’s actions in Gaza, as I don’t believe that killing people is ever an appropriate response to a situation. That said, I do not feel that my personally attacking someone who disagrees with me on this does anything to bolster my argument or to empower my point. I wish people recognized that it takes more strength to listen than to react emotionally; the notion that one needs to stranglehold a stance in order to not be a “coward’ is disturbing.
  1. Sonny Saul says:
February 9, 2009 at 10:58 pm
hello, Perhaps this letter which I forwarded to SJP at Hampshire has
already reached you. I am not sure if it has,,, so I am sending it
directly… just adding my voice… the weeks that have passed since the
invasion seem to have highlighed its ghastliness.
Mr. Hexler, I write as a parent of a Hampshire student. He alerted me
to your blog and your essay relating to the situation in Gaza.
Perhaps we are about the same age and have both grown up in the United
States. Do you notice that, among even educated people, there is
general recognition of the fact that the modern state of Israel was
founded as a symbol of the suffering of humanity… but almost no
awareness that this was at the expense of another people who were
innocent of guilt? Also little awareness that the weapons; helicopters,
tanks, assault rifles, the bulldozers, (and the nuclear missiles which
we hope will be held in reserve) being used to inflict suffering, to
slaughter and traumatize, are made by American companies and largely
paid for by people living in the United States, courtesy of the Pentagon
system, voted for by our representatives, and that this makes it really
“OUR BUSINESS’. There is also not much understanding of the conditions
of the occupation or that there even IS an occupation. Probably, through
your discussions and readings, you have become aware that many believe
that the roots of the conflict are religious and that US has been trying
to arbitrate even handedly. I think that this perception is beginning
to change, but the change is slow in coming.
One of my first reactions to your essay was to recall the title of Howard Zinn’s book, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train’… and the next thing I thought of was the book of Revelation… I looked it up and found the quote that came to me in chapter three, what “the Spirit saith unto the Churches’.
Do you recall? Its verses 15 and 16 “I know thy works, that thou art
neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because
thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my
We all can do more. The above quote reminds and challenges me to do more, say more.Even your rather neutral response is more than many have ventured. I hope you will continue to become informed. Read the essays of the famous Hampshire professor Eqbal Ahmad, if you haven’t already – a great place to begin. They have greatly broadened my understanding.
I heard a talk by Noam Chomsky given at MIT on Jan 13. The way he
began and ended the talk were was especially powerful. Can you take one
more moment to read the quotes below? I hope you will stay engaged with these kids. They want you to be your best self. thanks. Harry Saul
(Woodstock Vermont)
Chomsky began, “As you know, on Saturday, December 27th, the latest
U.S./Israeli attack on hopeless Palestinians was launched. It had been
meticulously prepared. We know from the Israeli press that both aspects
of the campaign had long been carefully prepared, both the military
aspect and the propaganda aspect, learning from the lessons of the 2006
invasion of Lebanon, which it was argued that it was not planned well to
a military point of view and was not advertised properly. So this time,
both of those aspects were under control with extensive programs. That
means we can be reasonably confident that anything that is happening or
that is said, is purposeful, it’s planned that way, maybe not
everything, but most of it. One thing that was planned carefully was
the time of the launching of the war, carefully chosen. It was shortly
before noon on Saturday, when children are returning from school and
crowds are milling around in the streets of densely populated Gaza
City. And it took only a few minutes to kill well over 200 people and
to wound around 700, which is an auspicious opening to the mass
slaughter of defenseless civilians trapped in a tiny cage with nowhere
to flee.’
Chomsky ended his talk “If I may quote myself again, several decades
ago, 30 years ago, I wrote that those who call themselves supporters of
Israel are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and its
probable ultimate destruction, and regrettably that judgement looks more
and more plausible. Meanwhile, we’re observing a very rare moment in
history, that’s what the late Israeli sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling,
called ‘Politicide’ that’s the murder of a nation at our hands.’
  1. Steve Goldberg says:
February 11, 2009 at 10:47 pm
The comment immediately above includes the critically important statement that there is no understanding in the U.S. of “the conditions of the occupation or that there even IS an occupation.’ Precisely. The reason, however, is that the entire notion of an occupation by Israel is a lie. The entirety of Israel, including the area inside the Green Line, the Golan Heights, Judea, Samaria, Gaza and all of Jersualem, belongs to the Jewish State under any rational interpretation of history and international law. Israel cannot be considered an occupier of its own land. To the extent there is an occupation, it is by the Arabs living in Israel.
The second big lie is that there is a nation called “Palestine’ and a people called “Palestinians.’ There has never been a nation of Palestine. There has never been a Palestinian king or queen, or Palestinian currency, or any other evidence of such a state. Until the 1960s, any reference to a Palestinian generally meant a Jew living in the geographical area included in the Palestinian Mandate administered by England. The so-called Palestinians are simply Arabs who live in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, all of which are part of the Jewish State.
The vast majority of Americans, including Democrats, Republicans, Independents, liberals, moderates and conservatives, support Israel in its struggle to survive against the reactionary forces of Islamic fascism. The only opposition comes from rabid anti-Semites and crackpots like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Norman Finkelstein, who collectively have the credibility of the Flat Earth Society.
Ralph Hexter deserves to be criticized, but not for the reasons listed in the rants included in the comments on his blog. President Hexter should be embarrassed that he has allowed Hampshire to tolerate ignorant and reprehensible anti-Semitism in the form of Israel bashing. It is ironic that this college, that prides itself on tolerance, diversity and free-thinking, will not invite a Zionist to the campus to speak on campus. Unless and until there is some effort to expose the students to the truth, Hampshire is condemning its students to being intellectual outcasts and freaks who will receive nothing but scorn when they enter the adult world.
The Zionist Organization of America, which is the oldest pro-Israel organization in the U.S., remains willing to send a representative on campus to speak to the students, either alone or in a debate. If anyone in the Hampshire community has any interest in presenting a point of view to the students other than that of the SJP, please let me know how to reach you.
  1. nlkPR says:
February 12, 2009 at 1:01 pm
Statement of Clarification from Sigmund Roos (73F), chair of the board of trustees, Ralph Hexter, president, and Aaron Berman, vice president and dean of faculty, regarding trustees’ actions on college investments
We write to correct numerous reports circulating about actions taken by the Hampshire College board of trustees on February 7, 2009. The facts are as follows:
“On February 7, 2009, the Hampshire College board of trustees accepted the report of its investment committee, which earlier had voted, without reference to any country or political movement, to transfer assets held in a State Street fund to another fund.
“Based on a comprehensive review of the fund by the trustee investment committee, administrators and an outside consultant, the college found that this fund held stocks in well over 200 companies engaged in business practices that violate the college’s policy on socially responsible investments. These violations include: unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings.
“The review also led the board of trustees to vote to revise its 1994 socially responsible investment policy to bring it up-to-date with current standards and practices, and, pending revision, to suspend that policy.
“The review of the State Street fund was undertaken at the request of a sub-committee of the investment committee, to address a petition from a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. The investment committee’s decision, however, was based on the consultant’s finding that the State Street fund included 200-plus companies engaged in multiple violations of the college’s investment policy; the decision expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.
“No other report or interpretation of the actions of February 7, 2009 by the Hampshire College board of trustees is accurate.
  1. Rachel Becker says:
February 13, 2009 at 11:04 am
Thank you for this eloquent letter and the ability to see more than one perspective. furthermore, thank you for being a president that, no matter what your personal opinion is, I feel comfortable with.
Directed to other students who commented: I’m not sure why you don’t seem to understand Ralph’s role as president. Even more importantly, despite what you may think, there are students who don’t agree with you in this situation.
SJP is not the voice of the campus.
  1. Noah Feldman says:
March 11, 2009 at 6:11 pm
I wrote something offensive, arrogant, unprofessional and stupid. I didn’t mean to. It was untrue, unfair and false. I respect Alex Torpey. I would like this comment posted, but more than anything I would like what I posted to also be taken down.
Noah Feldman
  1. Zac says:
October 11, 2009 at 2:20 pm
I read your comment and then your apology post, good for you for formally apologizing Description: )

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