Thursday, March 31, 2011

New England Elections: Town Meeting, Select Board. . . Hog Reeve?!

This post originated in a Twitter exchange with historic preservationist and genealogist Marian Pierre Louis. Back in January, on her blog, "Marian's Roots and Rambles," she wrote:
In The Handbook of Medway History, 1713-1913 by Orion T. Mason (1913), I came across the following interesting tidbit:

"For many years all newly-married men were elected "Hog Reives" at the annual April meeting." This item was dated 1800.
It occurred to her, "Now this makes for a very interesting marriage record substitute!" i.e., absent other documentation, it could enable one to date the beginning of an ancestor's matrimonial ties within a year or so. She went on to ask,
I wonder if this was a common tradition in other Massachusetts towns. Let me know if you have come across traditions like this for newlyweds in your research.
Nothing I like better than a little historical challenge.

J. F. Jameson's Records of the Town of Amherst from 1735 to 1788 (Amherst, 1884) mentions the office and notes, in the introduction (iii-iv), "Of the Yankee sense of humor, we see little; the annually-recurring joke about the hog-reeves seems to have been ever fresh."

Well, that's all well and good if you live in the late nineteenth century and get the joke (imagine trying to figure out who Charlie Sheen was in 2111), but the rest of us latter-day folks need some context.

The standard (antiquarian and ponderous but indispensable; glad someone else did that work so I wouldn't have to) Carpenter and Morehouse History of the Town of Amherst (1896) is even less illuminating. It refers to the office in some six places, but does not even describe it, much less, explain why it was the subject of a running joke.

We are all familiar with the disparaging characterization of a political candidate as someone "who could not be elected dog catcher." The case of the hog reeve is similar, though with a bit of a twist.

During election season last fall, Christopher Beam, over at Slate, pursued the matter, finding:
The insult that someone "couldn't be elected dogcatcher" appears to have originated in the late 1800s. In 1889, the Weekly Courier Journal in Louisville noted that then-president Grover Cleveland was "so unpopular in Washington that he could not be elected dog catcher for the district." A year later, a letter to the New York Times attacked a politician who "could not get elected on his own popularity and without the aid of his 'machine' to the office of dogcatcher were it an elective one" (emphasis added). Dogcatcher is also sometimes used as shorthand for the lowest-level political office. For example, in 1979 National Journal wrote about the collapse of a magazine "designed to appeal to elected officeholders from U.S. Senator to dogcatcher."
He also points out that, in most locales, the position—nowadays called "animal control officer"—is appointed rather than elected and, he hastens to add, requires professional training. (in Amherst today, it is neither appointed nor elected; information on lost and found pets here.)

Now back to the hog reeve.  A "reeve," according to the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, was
1. Chiefly in Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England: a supervising official of high rank, esp. one having jurisdiction under a king;

a. The chief royal representative in a county, who administered royal justice and collected royal revenues;
There were eventually various types of lower-ranking reeves: town-reeves, port-reeves, and so forth. We are all familiar with the "sheriff," derived from shire-reeve (remember Robin Hood?).

Two recent sources explain the nature of the New England hog reeve and the humor associated with the post.

For example, a 2008 article in New Hampshire Magazine says, "The Hog Reeve rounded up all stray pigs and fined their owners fifty cents. Later the office became a joke. The voters would often elect the prissiest man in town Hog Reeve. In the 1850s Charlestown elected their minister, Dr. Whittaker, to this office. In some towns the most recently wed young man was elected Hog Reeve. People knew a good time back then."

And the Old Sturbridge Village Glossary of New England Town Officers, noting that the office was mandated by state law, explains, "Towns could decide not to enforce this law by a vote in town meeting, and many did, leaving hog reeves with nothing to do. Thus it became traditional, as a running joke on the status of matrimony, for men to be elected as hog reeves during their first year of marriage."

Now you know.


As chance would have it, the topic of stray animals and the heroic officials who chase them down became topical again in western Massachusetts in 2012. Read the rest here.

Election Round-Up

Election coverage from the local papers, in brief:

• Diane Lederman,  "Ousted Jones Library trustee president Patricia Holland declines to seek recount in Amherst town election," The Republican, 30 March:
AMHERST - Patricia G. Holland who lost her bid for reelection to the Jones Library Board of Trustees by five votes said she will not seek a recount.

Holland, who has been the board president, said she will not apply for the vacancy that will be filled Monday night by a joint vote of the trustees and Select Board.

Holland said she was surprised by the outcome. “I should have done more campaigning,” she said.

Political newcomer Michael Wolff beat Holland for one of two seats 665 to 660. Incumbent Christopher J. Hoffmann easily won reelection for the second seat with 832 votes. In the only other contested race at Monday’s annual town election, Amherst Redevelopment Authority incumbent Aaron A. Hayden beat a challenge from Vincent J. O’Connor 880 to 504. (read the rest)

• Scott Merzbach, "Amherst voters oust library president, re-elect Aaron Hayden to ARA post," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 March:
AMHERST - The incumbent president of the Jones Library trustees, who was part of a subcommittee that caused controversy last summer during its evaluation of the former library director, was narrowly defeated in a re-election bid Tuesday.

Patricia Holland, vying for her third, three-year term, tallied 660 votes at the townwide elections, finishing behind incumbent Chris Hoffmann with 832 votes and newcomer Michael Wolff with 665 votes in a three-way race for two seats.

Meanwhile, Aaron Hayden retained his five-year post on the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, holding off a challenge by longtime Town Meeting member Vincent O'Connor, 880-504. Hayden, who backs the Gateway Redevelopment District in town, said the vote shows residents' support for the mixed-use project. (read the rest)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

And the Number of the Counting is. . . Now Known

No, not the election results—the 2010 Census results.

They appeared shortly before the election and revealed that Amherst and most neighboring towns in Hampshire County had grown in size, whereas Northampton and Pelham declined. In the neighboring towns of Franklin County, Leverett grew, whereas Shutesbury and Sunderland declined. Following are the new figures and relative changes:

Amherst.............37,819        8.44%
Belchertown........14,649       12.96
Granby................6,240         1.76
Hadley................5,250          9.53
Leverett..............1,851        11.30
Northampton.......28,549        -1.48
Pelham................1,321        -5.84
Shutesbury............1,771        -2.15
South Hadley........17,514        1.85
Sunderland...........3,684         -2.46
The new total population of the Commonwealth is 6,547,629.

As expected, the population changes will require a redistricting at the local precinct as well as congressional level.
Last week, the Select Board completed the process of organizing a redistricting committee (formal name:  District Advisory Board), accepting the recommendations that the Town Clerk made based on the list of volunteers who put forward their names. Although there are currently 10 precincts and we may end up with an eleventh, regulations specify a nine-member committee:
Precinct 1: Mary Jane Laus
Precinct 2: Carolyn Holstein
Precinct 3: Nonny Burack
Precinct 4: Charles Moran
Precinct 5: Tom Ehrgood
Precinct 6: Bonnie Bascomb-MacCracken
Precinct 7: Adrienne Terrizzi
Precinct 8: John Kick
Precinct 9: Jonathan O'Keeffe

By June 15, the Select Board must approve the new boundaries, in order for the Town Clerk to convey the information to the Secretary of State a week later.


The ever-capable Michael Olkin, our Town GIS Administrator, has uploaded a zip file of state census data here, with documentation here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Arabs Across the Middle East Are Dying to Vote (literally). And Amherst? ehhh

To cite Louisa May Alcott, "no earthquake shook the town" (more on that later).

Admittedly, the issues are rather less dramatic here than in Libya or Syria, and many races were uncontested (though because of either satisfaction or complacency rather than dictatorship).

Still, the turnout was abysmal and embarrassing (8.5 %, we are told).  When I went to vote in Precinct 1—properly restored to the traditional site at historic North Amherst Church parish hall after an embarrassing error earlier this year (1, 2, 3, 4)—around 4:00 p.m. the number of valid votes cast was still under 50 (there were a few spoiled ballots above and beyond that).

In the evening, I was in Town Hall for a Historical Commission meeting (next door to the School Committee) and then headed over to Rafters, where several candidates and their supporters were congregating. A good place to follow results, because, above and beyond the presence of the flat screen monitor tuned to Public Access Television, it's guaranteed that someone there will always be getting even newer running vote counts by text message or phone call. Ballots and beer, a match made in heaven.

The results in the key town-wide contested races:

Aaron Hayden won re-election to the Redevelopment Authority after a credible challenge from activist Vince O'Connor (880-504).

The big surprise—even stunner—of the evening was that incumbent Library Trustee Chair Pat Holland finished third (with only 660 votes) in the race for two seats, after fellow incumbent Chris Hoffmann (832) and newcomer Michael Wolff (665). There will no doubt be much speculation as to the cause, in light of recent controversies over the trustees' management of the Library.

As chance would have it, today is an important anniversary in the history of voting rights. Mass Moments tell us,
On this date, in 1880, Louisa May Alcott and 19 other women attended the Concord Town Meeting. The year before, the Massachusetts legislature had made it legal for women to vote in school committee elections. A strong supporter of woman suffrage, the author of Little Women was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. She rallied other women to exercise the limited franchise they had been given. When the day came, a group of 20 women, "mostly with husbands, fathers or brothers" appeared, "all in good spirits and not in the least daunted by the awful deed about to be done." When the votes were cast, she later reported, "No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town."(read the rest)
Now this was a revolutionary act, but it took place in the late nineteenth century rather than the late eighteenth, i.e. not part of the American Revolution (although the scene was Concord, Mass.) It can be so hard to keep this stuff straight. Impossible, for the irrepressible and ever-erring Michelle Bachmann, it would seem. Readers will recall that she put her foot in her mouth in January when she declared (in one of several gaffes) that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more." Historians (and also just literate people) were quick to point out that the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and that slavery was not abolished until 1865.  She did it again this month when, speaking at an event in Macnhester, New Hampshire, she confused the Concord in that state with our own beloved Concord:  "You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord," and, lest there be any doubt, repeated the error a few minutes later. As the Boston Globe delicately pointed out, "The “shot heard ’round the world’’ may have echoed in New Hampshire, but it was, of course, fired in Massachusetts." Her response when reporters called attention to the gaffe: 
"So I misplaced the battles Concord and Lexington by saying they were in New Hampshire.

"It was my mistake, Massachusetts is where they happened. New Hampshire is where they are still proud of it!"
Well, that fixes everything.

She claimed that the reporting of an error of which a schoolchild should be ashamed was proof of "media bias."

I wonder who she thinks was at the Boston Tea Party—Alice and the Mad Hatter?

And people say Amherst politics is surreal?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Run-up to the Amherst Spring Election

Redevelopment Authority Vice Chair (and blogger) Larry Kelley signs Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe's election papers shortly before a Select Board meeting in mid-January
The big election is now just two days away, and so far, it has furnished surprisingly (gratifyingly?) little drama.

As always, there are still uncontested slots for Town Meeting.  The two Select Board candidates standing for re-election are running unopposed.  The Bulletin summarized Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe's view of the matter:  "the lack of challengers either indicates she and fellow incumbent Diana Stein are doing a good job or no one else wants to do the job." Select Board meetings lack drama, in the sense of the tensions of days of yore.  There's work to do, and we do it. As I've said before:  boring, that's the way we like it.

A few months ago, a betting man would have predicted that the School Committee would have been the site of knock-down, drag-out fights, but Catherine Sanderson at the last minute chose not to run for re-election, ceding the field to new aspirant Katherine Appy. This week, instead of seeing opposing platform statements and clashing letters of support in the Bulletin, we were treated to a lengthy and largely sympathetic profile of Sanderson, detailing the controversies surrounding her term in office, but also offering a portrait of her as mother and professional, who cites the toll that the political career took on home and career.

And, although the Jones Library Trustees were for a time a source of even greater controversy than the School Committee, not only has that body achieved a productive modus vivendi.  Even the race for the two open seats has generated little heat.  Incumbents Pat Holland and Chris Hoffmann as well as first-time candidate Michael Wolff are all campaigning as general advocates of the Library rather than positioning themselves against one another, and one would have to listen closely to catch the subtle differences in emphasis.  (An unexpected third vacancy arose when Trustee Kathleen Wang resigned due to the weight of outside commitments, but because the notice fell short of the legally required advance time for posting an election notice, the seat will be filled by a joint meeting of the Select Board and other Library Trustees at the beginning of April.)

As it turns out, the race for the open seat on the Amherst Redevelopment Authority (ARA) has proven to be the most interesting one, pitting incumbent (and Select Board member) Aaron Hayden against longtime Town Meeting member and activist Vince O'Connor.  Although the ARA normally garners little attention, it has been in the limelight—and crossfire—lately due to its role in the surprisingly controversial joint effort by the Town and University to create the mixed-use "Gateway project" or district on and around the former "frat row" on North Pleasant Street. Most of the controversy has centered on the chimera of undergraduate "student housing" and its presumed threat to neighborhood character and quality of life. That issue has also now been largely put to rest.

O'Connor's objections to the project are different and, one wants to say, more conceptual or substantive. Between O'Connor and Hayden, at least, there are some clear differences of philosophy concerning both the nature or reach of the Redevelopment Authority, and thus, the areas of town to be targeted for new projects.

This sort of debate is not only lively; it is salutary.  Many of our political and electoral controversies—as we know all too well—generate more heat than light. It would be a welcome thing if a calm debate unfolding here would help to clarify the issues for citizens and lead to sounder policies with more public buy-in.

That's probably too much to hope for, given that a single candidates' night is the main forum for electoral discussion and information-sharing.

Still, all in all, a far better situation than the alternatives. Sometimes, it is the modest things that one is most grateful for.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What's In a Name? Mobsters and Loggers

What's in a name? Earlier this year, I wrote about surnames in both the United States and Central Europe.  i mentioned in passing the distinction between so-called "natural" and "artificial" names. The former are based on personal attributes of the first bearer:  e.g. physical traits, character, occupation, and so forth. Nicknames are not quite the same as natural names, but they, too, often derive from the habits or appearance of the person in question.

The American organized crime world has long been known for colorful nicknames, and so, when there was a major wave of arrests in New York January, Joe Coscarelli of the Village Voice, quite understandably, decided to compile a list of the top 20:
20. VINCENT AULISI, also known as "The Vet"
19. GIOVANNI VELLA, also known as "John Vella," "Mousey" and "Little John"
18. STEPHEN DEPIRO, also known as "Beach"
17. ANTHONY CAVEZZA, also known as "Tony Bagels"
16. JOHN BRANCACCIO, also known as"Johnny Bandana"
15. ANTHINO RUSSO, also known as "Hootie"
14. FRANK BELLANTONI, also known as "Meatball"
13. CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS, also known as "Burger"
12. VINCENZO FROGIERO, also known as "Vinny Carwash"
11. JOSEPH CARNA, also known as "Junior Lollipops"
10. DENNIS DELUCIA, also known as "Fat Dennis," "Little Dennis" and "the Beard"
9. LUIGI MANOCCHIO, also known as "Baby Shacks," "The Old Man," and "the Professor"
8. ANTHONY DURSO, also known as "Baby Fat Larry" and "BFL"
7. GIUSEPPE DESTEFANO, also known as "Pooch"
6. JOHN AZZARELLI, also known as "Johnny Cash"
5. ANDREW RUSSO, also known as "Mush"
4. VINCENT FEBBRARO, also known as "Jimmy Gooch"
3. BENJAMIN CASTELLAZZO, also known as "Benji," "The Claw" and "the Fang"
2. ANTHONY LICATA, also known as "Cheeks," "Anthony Firehawk," "Anthony Nighthawk," "Nighthawk" and "Firehawk"
1. JOHN HARTMANN, also known as "Lumpy," "Fatty" and "Fats"
Not bad, I suppose, though I think only a few really rise to the level of such past classics as "Johnny the Nose" and "Miserable," or "Big Tuna," "Willie Potatoes, "Cockeyed Louis," and "Three Finger Brown."   (1, 2)

Anyway, all this reading about names got me thinking. And then there is serendipity. By purest chance, I got involved in a Twitter conversation with a fellow New Englander about slang. A question arose as to the names for various cast-iron skillets. It suddenly occurred to me that I had a perfect reference work at hand: L.G. Sorden's Lumberjack Lingo (1969). It proved to be doubly appropriate and useful, because it combines the wisdom of my native Midwest and my adopted New England.  My copy of the first edition of this Wisconsin book not only bears the autographs of author and (anonymous) illustrator, but also contains handwritten annotations by an old (now-deceased) Massachusetts hilltown native, who checked off terms he had encountered in his long career.  Problem solved.

Of course, once you've picked up a fascinating book such as this in search of a specific piece of information, you can't just put it down. Rather, you are compelled to keep leafing through it.

The final topic in the book is  "Nicknames of Lumberjacks." As the author explains:
  A camp 'ink slinger' was having trouble keeping the camp records straight because there were three men working at the same camp with the same name. None had a middle name; the men did not start work on the same day, but as each one arrived the problem grew.
  After studying each man's appearance and checking starting dates, the ink slinger solved his problems simply by entering the following names in his book:
1. Dirty Joe Michaud
2. Bald Headed Joe Michaud
3. Joe Come-Lately Michaud
The author goes on to explain that most lumberjacks were known by nicknames. Some, as above, had them assigned. Others chose them in order to shed a past identity. Most, however, received them from their fellow workers. He lists some names of actual lumberjacks from the heyday of the trade in Wisconsin and Michigan. The best of these, IMHO, are quite worthy to stand beside those of any distinguished crime figure.  See what you think:
1. Angus the Pope
2. Battle Axe Nelson
3. Bill the Dangler
4. Blueberry Bob
5. Bug House Lynch
6. Cruel Face
7. Dick the Dancer
8. Double Breasted Corrigan
9. Drop Cake Morley
10. Gin Pole Smith
11. One Round Hogan
12. Pancake Billie
13. Panicky Pete
14. Protestant Jack
15. Prune Juice Doyle
16. Smutty John
17. Stub Nelson
18. The Hemlock Bull
19. Three Fingered Ole
20. Whispering Bill

Historic Preservation and the Modern: Not Just Age--But Also Significance--Before Beauty (with some new debate)

The piece on modernist architecture and preservation that I mentioned back in January finally appeared at the Public Humanist last month, and I'll link to it now both because it bears on many issues regularly discussed here and because it marks something of a departure.

I was asked to join the bloggers there because of my work on the history of books, media, and literary life, and I was delighted to do so. (Indeed, and ironically, in attempting to address other topics here, I have struggled to find time for my own book blog, which I'm in the process of revitalizing.)  More specifically:  The Public Humanist, as the masthead explains, is a blog project of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, and the Foundation is one of the sponsors of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, on whose Board I sit.

But many of us who blog there have multiple interests, and so, as we were deliberating on what topics to cover in the new year, I said that I would be interested in writing about historic preservation, which also falls under the rubric of public humanities.

The endlessly energetic editor and Senior Program Officer Hayley Wood likes to pair pieces on the same general topic. They don't have to be more directly related than that. And so, confronting a blank page (now: screen), the author faces the eternal question: what to write about?  I had various topics in mind, and none quite satisfied me. That is part of the challenge of this arrangement in this medium:  The editor needs to be able to plan, and so she solicits pieces from us well in advance, generally on a quarterly basis. On the other hand, one of the prime characteristics of the blogosphere (like the classic periodical) is immediacy. There are any number of things that I could write about at any given moment, and not necessarily time-sensitive topics, at that. That said, currency and serendipity are important, and sometimes things just come come together at a given moment.  One often does not know until one starts to write. 

When I read the other post on historic preservation, I decided that it provided me with the entrée that I had been looking for. Mine is not a response or a riposte, and rather, a sort of complement or extension of the conversation.

Anyway, here's the piece (or the beginning, at any rate):
In his January 10 post, Patrick Vitalone asked: why do we save historic resources? and which? Citing two cases involving modernist architecture, with whose outcome he disagreed, he furthermore asked whether preservation is “to be an unwavering commitment to any and all history, even if the ugliness of the past prevents the beautiful construction of something new?”
Honestly, I know of no properly trained preservationist who thinks that we can (or should even try) “to preserve everything and anything,” much less, condemn our communities to aesthetic oblivion for the sake of abstract ideals. I suppose I can understand the frustration, though. Here in Amherst, a grassroots coalition called Preserve UMass (PUMA) temporarily halted construction of a new campus recreation center, which threatened the century-old Stucco Cow Barn that embodied the University’s pioneering role in scientific agriculture. Our Historical Commission (which I chair) has come in for criticism for imposing demolition delays on an industrial barn and a historic fence, and for attempting to provide protection for resources through creation of a local historic district. The public is commendably devoted to history and historic sites but not necessarily well informed about preservation principles and practices. (read the rest)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Telling the Truth Slant: Making Poetry Relevant Again

The tongue-in-cheek homage to Joyce and Beckett reminds me that I had meant to post another video having to do with literature. And in the meantime—just today, in fact—another one came my way.

One often wonders about the fate of poetry in the modern (western) world. In some countries and cultures, poetry is part and parcel of the national identity. The United States may be one in which that least holds true. We do not (or no longer) have a strong habit of identifying poetry with the nation and national history (just compare us with, say, Poland, Italy, or Russia).

On the one hand, we are told, poetry is more popular than ever: from production of new poetry, to slams.  On the other hand, few Americans are acquainted with their native poetic tradition. The formerly canonical poets of the nineteenth century are rarely studied, and less often read.  I think back to the "Authors" card game that I had as a child (1, 2). In retrospect, it was a great way to begin to become acquainted with English and American literature. But who reads Longfellow today? (Well, one of my Tweeps certainly does, but he stands out precisely as the exception.) I doubt one in 50 Americans could identify the author of the "Song of Hiawatha" (full text here), much less, quote a single line from it (exceptions: Minnesota residents, especially if they attend the Pipestone Pageant or similar festivities).

There are certainly ways to make the familiar—or the dusty once-canonical but forgotten—come alive.  Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who just completed a stint as writer in residence at the University of Massachusetts (more on that in a separate post) just published such a piece on—of all people—Longfellow. There she shows that his "Paul Revere's Ride"—arguably the poem for which he is best, if imperfectly, known today—was at the time of its publication "read as a bold statement of his opposition to slavery."

However, there have also been attempts that transcend the academic or purely textual-contextual.

One was this multiple-prize-winning Polish rendition of (or meditation on) Emily Dickinson's "Much madness is divinest sense." (not for the faint of heart, as they say)

Dickinson can appear deceptively simple and inviting (perhaps for that reason it was so easy for her early editors to prettify her works as well as her picture, assigning them titles and banal and uplifting themes).Yet as soon as one begins to enter any one of her poems, the perceptive reader realizes that s/he is in a labyrinth.

Sandburg, who seems so popular and uncomplicatedly "accessible," is difficult in another way. The general sense of the individual verse or phrase is simpler (though every once in a while, an unusual formulation, like a speed bump, jolts us out of our complacency: "flinging magnetic curses"), but he, too, asks us to interrogate ourselves, our values, our world.

More tame in style than the Dickinson video but no less innovative in its way is this treatment of his great "Chicago." Graphic artist Bud Rodecker's determination to make one piece of art each day ("RicharDaily") eventually led to his "typographic 'Chicago,'" part of an "Ode To Carl" series. As he explained to the Chicagoist, cited here by the Poetry Foundation, “Chicago has those amazing, short phrases that are so iconic,” so he sought an ever more pared-down visual, geometric language, which could do both justice to the literary text and awaken jaded Chicagoans to its vitality.

Ode to Carl - Kickstarter Promo Video from Bud Rodecker on Vimeo.

Well, I am glad that I have at least begun to talk again of books.  On to buildings.

* * *

Further reading:

Gregg Mosson, "Ars Poetica: A Case for American Political Poetry," Potomac, Summer 2009.

(which mentions both the Dickinson and Sandburg poems treated here)

Friday, March 18, 2011

And for Saint Patrick's Day, Something Completely Different

I'm afraid that my St. Patrick's Day celebrations yesterday were rather limited as I had to attend a public hearing of the Community Preservation Act Committee and then attend to other business. Thus this post also follows in the wake of the holiday.

The Library of Congress does its ever-diligent yeoman work with some great finds such as a piece Irish-American history in song and another on St. Patrick's Day for the Irish Brigade in the Union Army (this being the start of the big Civil War anniversary commemorations). Last year, I managed to talk about fountains, film, and cultural symbiosis in song. I thought I'd offer something simpler and completely different this year:  a sort of satirical tribute to the greats of modern Irish literature.

Without further ado, then, the adventures of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett playing miniature golf:

I Still Hate This Shit (things I'd rather be thinking and writing about)

I still hate this shit: i.e. one has to write about political issues when they are current, but there is much else that legitimately commands our attention, and I'm looking forward to getting back to it.

"Apartheid" Postscript

I have again, just recently (here and here), noted that the aim of the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement is not to bring about policy change, and rather, the delegitimization of the state, as such. It's no secret. It's just increasingly well documented.

For example, those naughty and rambunctious folks over at The Propagandist ("Confusion to our enemies!") have run a piece confirming that although advocates sincerely believe the "apartheid" charge, they see its real value as tactical rather than analytical.  Co-founder of Judy Rebick was foolish enough to be recorded admitting as much to a room of star-struck supporters at Toronto's "Israeli Apartheid Week" festivities:
"There is the brilliance, the propaganda brilliance, of calling Israel an Apartheid state,” Rebick gushed. “Because every time these people put a motion through Parliament and through the legislature or try to shut you down in other ways, they have to say Israel isn’t an Apartheid state. They have to say it’s hate talk to say Israel is an Apartheid state."

"Each time they have to say it," Rebick continued. "So over time it really is a brilliant propaganda tactic, because each time it becomes more familiar. Something that is forbidden by the mainstream becomes a familiar phrase.”
[The relevant portion of the linked video begins at around 6:15]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's Left of BDS?

I am always amused (in a sardonic way, of course), when I see the self-proclaimed radicals of the anti-Israel “BDS” (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement dismiss their critics as “right-wing.” Some are. Many are not.

And that’s just the problem: the BDS zealots make it easy on themselves by hurling smear words. One size hits all. Why bother to target your opponents’ ideas when you can fire back with slogans rather than arguments?

It is ironic in more ways than one. We’ve been there before. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the issue was the SDS rather than BDS, and when one of the soi-disant ultra-radicals arrogantly questioned the progressive credentials of Irving Howe, the great socialist famously put him in his place. And long before that, Lenin dealt with the problem when he diagnosed the “infantile disorder” of “left-wing communism."

Unlike their predecessors of the 1920s and 1960s, however, many of the younger activists who most pride themselves on their “leftist” credentials have no clue as to the leftist tradition. (After all, these are people who think “reactionary” means “reactive,” and who believe that informed political action derives from wearing a keffiyeh rather than reading Kapital.) If they did, they would be for the solidarity of all peoples rather than elevating one nationalism above others (in fact, only one other). They would be more aware of the dangers of antisemitism: of the noble tradition of the left in opposing it, and of the ignoble lapses of the left in at times downplaying or even cultivating it. They would have no truck with the notion that they should ally themselves with objectively reactionary and clerico-fascist forces such as Hamas and Hizbullah, which espouse policies that, if issuing from the mouth of a Christian evangelical “fundamentalist,” would earn instant and pitiless condemnation.

Many opponents of BDS on the left may in fact share some of the critiques of Israeli policy advanced by BDS advocates, but they differ in their motives, their assessment of the overall situation or the tactics, or all of the above. Above all, they are committed to a realistic vision of peace, defined as two peoples living in two states created by mutual agreement and based on national reconciliation.

That is the position of the Socialist InternationalTrade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine, and other progressive groups dedicated to practical action rather than acting out.

Some of the most provocative thinking comes from the British far left.  Although these marginal groups aren’t going to bring about a revolution anytime soon, their analysis of some aspects of the Middle East conflict—particularly, the objective and subjective failings of the BDS movement—is spot on. Interestingly, they have no problem in condemning in the strongest terms the “occupation,” Operation Cast Lead, and the IDF confrontation with the Jihadis on the Mavi Marmara, without, however, concluding that Israel is a genocidal apartheid state that must be destroyed.

Because this discourse is not well known in the States, or indeed, in most mainstream circles, I’ll offer a few extended quotes, with links to the full texts:

"Why left-wing students should not support boycotts of Israel":
We believe solidarity with the Palestinians should be the left’s starting point on the question of Israel/Palestine. But we believe that the proposal to boycott Israel is reactionary, counter-productive and will hinder efforts to build an effective movement of solidarity with the Palestinians. . . . .
Why boycotts will not help the Palestinians

We oppose the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel both because we are against oppression in general, and because it undermines the development of the kind of politics we want to see in the Middle East – revolutionary politics, with workers of different national and religious groups uniting in the struggle against capitalism. Unless they fight for the right of every people to freely determine their own future – a right the Palestinians are currently denied – workers in the region will never build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalism.

So the urge to “do something” for the Palestinians is a good one. But boycotts of Israel are not a good thing to do. They are likely to be ineffective; in so far as they are effective they will harm the Palestinian cause, and have other negative consequences too. . . .

Many, perhaps most, Israelis support their own government's policy. The Palestinians have every right to struggle for their freedom now, regardless of what support they have in Israel. But what they need most of all is Israeli allies. . . .

It will most likely take big political (and social) upheavals within Israel to force it to change policy. In fact, it will probably require the replacement of this Israeli government by a very different one. So the attitude of most Israelis matters. . . .

This left, broadly defined, is small and weak, like in Britain, but it exists. It needs support and solidarity.

There is also, of course, the Israeli working class, the great majority of which is ethnically 'Jewish'. Parts of it are organised, and have fought big struggles. Most workers, and at least the leaders of their trade union organisations too, currently support the government. But as socialists, we think it is self-evident that what Israeli workers think should be of concern.

Boycotts will certainly weaken the left, internationalist, pro-Palestinian wing inside Israel, and strengthen the right, by making Israelis feel as if a hostile world is pressing down on them (of the course the history of the Holocaust and anti-semitism play a role here too). The more effective they are - for instance, the more Israelis lose their jobs or livelihoods as a result - the stronger this negative impact will be. Boycotts will harm, not help, the Palestinians. . . .

Is Israel “the” problem? Should we support any measure that hits Israel?

Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is a big part of the problem; the major problem, in fact, and the one we should focus on. But it is not the only problem. A big part of what is wrong with the way some left-wingers talk about Israel-Palestine is their totally one-sided and un-nuanced condemnation of Israel.

What, for instance, about the fact that most of Israel’s neighbours do not and have never recognised its right to exist – and have tried to crush it in three wars (1947, 1967, 1973)? What about the fact that many Arab states have also mistreated the Palestinians (particularly Jordan, which has carried out terrible massacres)? Israel’s imperialism, its chauvinism, its nationalism (Zionism) have to be understood within a network of interlocking, antagonistic and mutually reinforcing imperialisms, chauvinisms and nationalisms. Again, this is not to excuse Israel’s crimes, but to understand their context – and therefore understand how to fight them. To refuse to do this means distorting reality, and therefore, in effect, giving up on changing it.

We repeat: the urge to do something to stop oppression is good. That does not mean that doing anything, no matter how harmful and counterproductive, is a good idea. (read the rest)
The article goes on to insist that the answer is solidarity: with both Palestinians and Israeli workers. It also, and more provocatively, characterizes the BDS movement as implicitly antisemitic, a topic taken up more directly in the following piece:

"What is left anti-semitism?"
What is “left-wing anti-semitism”? Where is it manifested? What is to be done about it?
. . . left-wing anti-semitism knows itself by another and more self-righteous name, “anti-Zionism”. Often, your left-wing anti-semite sincerely believes that he or she is only an anti-Zionist, only a just if severe critic of Israel. . . .
The objector continues: Israel deserves criticism. . . . To equate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is just crude and hysterical Zionist apologetics.

No, by “left-wing anti-semitism” we emphatically do not mean political, military, or social criticism of Israel and of the policy of Israeli governments. Certainly, not all left-wing critics of Israel or Zionism are anti-semites, even though these days all anti-semites, including the right-wing, old-fashioned, and racist anti-semites, are paid-up “anti-Zionists”.
Israel frequently deserves criticism. Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories and its general treatment of the Palestinians deserve outright condemnation. The oppressed Palestinians need to be politically defended against Israeli governments and the Israeli military. The only halfway equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a viable, independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory, side by side with Israel, needs to be argued for and upheld against Israeli power. . . .

The difference here between left-wing anti-semites and honest critics of Israel — a category which includes a very large number of Israeli Jews as well as Israeli Arabs — is a straightforward one of politics, of policy.

The left-wing anti-semites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist. They use legitimate criticisms, and utilise our natural sympathy with the Palestinians, not to seek redress, not as arguments against an Israeli government, an Israeli policy, or anything specifically wrong in Israel, but as arguments against the right of Israel to exist at all. Any Israel. Any Jewish state in the area. Any Israel, with any policy, even one in which all the specific causes for justly criticising present-day Israel and for supporting the Palestinians against it have been entirely eliminated.

The root problem, say the left-wing anti-semites, is that Israel exists. The root “crime of Zionism” is that it advocated and brought into existence “the Zionist state of Israel”.

Bitterly, and often justly, criticising specific Israeli policies, actions, and governments, seemingly championing the Palestinians, your left-wing anti-semites seek no specific redress in Israel or from Israel, demanding only that Israel should cease to exist or be put out of existence.

They often oppose measures to alleviate the condition of the Palestinians short of the destruction of Israel. (read the rest)
It is striking is that this sort of frank talk is so rare: not only on the activist left, but also in the mainstream media. How is it that these Trotskyites "get it" but the bourgeois and upper-class sophisticates of the Guardian do not?

To remain on this side of the Atlantic:  Among the most moving leftist statements on the nullity of the anti-Israel infantile left was a post that appeared only recently. The blogger known as “Jew Guevara” briefly recounted the history of his own leftist evolution, from a radical proponent of peace and equality in Israel, to a yored, an ex-Israeli living abroad in voluntary exile, alienated both from his country and from its enemies. Few commentators can thus as compellingly pillory the disingenuousness and destructiveness of the BDS movement:
How odd then, to find myself dismissed as a ‘Zionist’ here and there in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Not like so many people actually know me or anything. But… there was that JATO woman at the UFPJ gathering, the trainer at the Student PSC conference, the outright verbal assualts on the activist listserve, and a picture comes to mind.

The Palestinian solidarity movement, especially as it has coalesced around the strategy of BDS, has two faces. One face is warm, friendly and intelligent. It says that BDS is a tactic not a preferred political solution. It doesn’t require B, D and S, and it can be directed at the occupation or at Israel in general - no coercion. It makes Gush Shalom feel right at home.

The other face is quite clear that the one state solution is preferred and the two state solution is dead - and good riddance. Anyone in support of an Israeli identity is a Zionist. Anyone seeking compromise with Zionists is a Zionist. Anti- or non-Zionists who refrain from calling for an end to Israel are ’soft-Zionists.’ Israelis are ‘butchers’ who commit ‘massacres’, their peace camp isn’t really for peace except for a handful, the Palestinian Authority is not only corrupt, it is ‘only corrupt’, lacking in any other attributes or identity. It’s everything awful about the 90s campus culture wars/identity politics madness, with the eager pleasure in despising whatever isn’t politically correct.

Everything I used to hate and fear about the Israeli right wing: the extremist language, the eagerness to demonize the other, the closing of ranks around a narrow set of ideas, the very harshness of the voice and tone. It’s the flattening of every nuance into a slogan or holy truth. It’s the utter impossibility of dialogue with people who feel differently.

I used to be part of that first group. Some days, I still am. But… I keep running into that second group and it turns my stomach. Sometimes it’s the same person displaying one face or the other, depending the audience. It’s as if all the experiences I have growing up in Israel and ‘putting myself out there’ as a refusenik, participant in militant demonstrations, getting arrested, working inside of majority Palestinian political organizations - count for nothing. Because I’m insisting on the slogans of my youth (Arab/Jewish unity, two states for two peoples, down with the occupation, negotiations yes/war no) somehow I’m excluded from the cool kids lunch table at the Palestinian solidarity middle school. Back in Israel, that’s who I sat with. Now they sneer at me.

But I can’t sit with the Zionist kids anymore! Not after all that stuff I said about not being a Zionist…. sniff.

I guess I’ll go sit by myself. And I am NOT a Zionist! I’m just another Israeli yored in New York waiting for the occupation to be over. So I can go home. 
[h.t./via Solomonia; and BTW, see the comment thread]
It could be our college campus (1, 2) he is describing.  I can think of few more depressing summations of the situation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Justice for Students in Parody (JSP)

"Israeli Apartheid Week" (IAW) here at Hampshire is over, and we are now on spring break, but the nice thing about a "week" that lasts for 14 or (depending on how one counts) even 20 days is: it is still bound to be going on somewhere in the world. O seculum! O literae! Iuvat vivere.

As I noted a while back, when Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Pittsburgh posted video documenting their efforts to disrupt a talk by Israel Defense Forces Reserve Sergeant Benjamin Anthony in January, an opposing student group created a parody remix on YouTube.

And so, when Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (HampshireSJP) imitated both the disruption and the promotional video—"Not Silent. Sgt. Benjamin Anthony [IDF] at Hampshire"—someone created a corresponding parody: Hampshire SJP Protest Fail.

Israeli Apartheid Week: The Times They Are (Keep) a-Changin'

As I noted last year, making sense of so-called "Israeli Apartheid Week" (IAW) can be difficult, and not only because of the content.  Figuring out when it will take place is one of the eternal mysteries of the calendar:  harder than in the case of Ramadan, which moves throughout the western year, yet easier than in the case of Passover, which, we at least know, always takes place sometime in the spring.

I know how the dates of Ramadan, Easter, and Passover are calculated. I have no idea how the dates for "Israeli Apartheid Week" are determined. (I imagine a gaggle of ageing activists—sort of keffiyeh-clad counterparts of the Elders of Zion—huddled around a computer planning grand strategy.) Anyway...

Since its inception in Toronto in 2005, it has not only moved across the calendar—it began first in late January, then in February, and now in March (will April be next?). Its duration has also changed.  For the first four years, it lasted less than a full week (anywhere from 4 to 6 days), and then, in 2009, increased to 8. Last year, it swelled to a fulsome 14. This year, it again stretches for some two weeks—from March 7 to 20— though it will be held in the UK from March 21 to 26: we are told, "Due to the popularity of Israeli Apartheid Week we have extended the 'week' to allow campuses, organizations and regions on different schedules to participate." I guess it's kind of like Daylight Saving Time for "activists": so that no one has to miss anything.

Here at Hampshire College, we 'proudly' (hey, mom! we get our own link!) held our festivities from March 7 through March 11.

As the preceding chart shows, "Israeli Apartheid Week" has grown, but so has the Israeli economy.  Apparently, all those boycott, divestment, and sanction efforts have not produced much in the way of results.

[Sources for economic data: 1, 2, 3]

Of course, statistics are malleable things, so anti-Israel activists could perhaps console themselves by drawing the graph somewhat differently, to show the change in real GDP (in constant prices).

It sure as hell looks as if Israel's economy took a nosedive just as "Israeli Apartheid Week" (IAW) increased from 6 to 8 days in length. Of course, economists might attribute that to war and the world economic crisis. And of course, BDS activists would then also need to explain how, even as IAW swelled from 8 to 14 days, the Israel economy in 2010 rebounded to its 2008 levels.

The point, of course, is that none of the BDS activity has the slightest effect on Israel's economy, but then, that's the one thing on which both proponents and opponents agree.

The whole point of the movement is not about divestment, but delegitimization: That's BDS. Anyone tells you anything different: That's BS.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Yes, It's That Time Again: The Spring (Open) Season

It's that time of year again.  The beating of my heart quickened when I looked at the calendar—and not only because there was less than a week to go until the start of Daylight Saving Time.

No, it is of course also the season for the time-honored (well, at least since 2005) custom of "Israeli Apartheid Week" (IAW), in which activists, especially at western colleges and universities, attempt to persuade their comrades that the Israel is the most evil state and pressing topic in the Middle East and even the world—though the engrossing spectacle of the Arab revolutionary awakening that is unfolding before our eyes might suggest otherwise.

All the hype notwithstanding, last year's dramatic festivities—including the vaunted "apartheid wall" on the Town Common and campus—generated little interest. The typical result was a yawn rather than a yalla.

That was even more the case this year. Given the débâcle of resentment and bad publicity resulting from the disruption of a talk by an Israeli speaker here last month by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), it seems that the activists may have opted to cool down rather than rev up. (Some members have themselves—at least in private, and in contradistinction to confident public statements about plaudits from fellow-students and relentless movement from success to success—expressed regret for that tactical error, their only consolation or excuse being that they had contemplated but not undertaken even more provocative and risky actions.)

Indeed, if one hadn't been aware of the festive season to begin with, one almost would have had to go out of one's way to find out about it.
 The program was modest, but in light of recent controversies and episodes of harassment, the campus remains tense.

Still, there are hopeful signs. To begin with, there was comic relief, or at least, evidence of coexistence.

I came across this scene as I was preparing to teach class and then make a little presentation on the history of antisemitism, with some reference to debates on the Middle East, at the beginning of "Apartheid Week."  The Chasidic rabbi was standing next to the Students for Justice in Palestine table on the Library entrance landing, passing out hamentaschen (customary pastries for the Jewish holiday of Purim).  I politely declined what both had to offer. On my way back out of the building, though, I stopped for a moment to talk. Others, too, seemed interested in the juxtaposition, and engaged in conversation or snapped pictures.  The rabbi explained that he had simply been assigned this space and gladly shared it.  The people at the SJP table evidently felt the same way.

I had been asked to talk about the history and nature of antisemitism—not so much as a riposte to some of the "anti-Zionist" activism on campus (notwithstanding a subtitle on the poster, not of my own devising). Rather, the aim was simply to explain what the term means, given that there are concerns about the rise of antisemitism on campus, in particular, because Jewish history, religion, and culture are inextricably linked with the land of Israel, and because debates about the Middle East all too often seem to juxtapose accusations of antisemitism by one side with the counteraccusation by the other that raising the specter of antisemitism is just a dishonest way of warding off all criticism.

In essence, I did what I have done elsewhere. I recapitulated some of the things that I found to have worked well in a class here, an interfaith discussion group on the Middle East at a local church, and a diversity workshop.

I tried to focus on the historical rather than the political, as a means of explaining why certain traditionally antisemitic images or tropes, whether used intentionally or unintentionally, arouse such passionate reactions.  Further, I tried to suggest that a concerted effort to avoid them was not only morally and intellectually imperative, but also a practical necessity.  The more grave the issues and the more heated the passions, the more important it is to focus on the concrete nature of the controversial issue itself rather than simply applying inflammatory labels that generate more heat than light.

Even when some members of the audience brought up the recent controversy over the disrupted lecture (which I had deliberately avoided), the atmosphere remained calm. I would like to think that we achieved something, and not only by the minimal standard of avoiding conflict and recrimination. Rather, people began to talk honestly of beliefs and feelings alike. They did so in a frank but civil manner, and in a way that opened onto rather than closed off further debate. In fact, several people of varying political and other convictions expressed a desire for more such opportunities.

Hope springs eternal. It's almost spring, after all.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Forgive them, for they know not what they do? Amherst Church Dips Its Toes Into the Chilling Waters of BDS

(or: The Hummus War Hits Hampshire County)

In my last post, I referred to Jon Haber’s likening of the anti-Israel “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement to a vampire because, no matter how many times it was defeated and apparently lifeless, it rose again to wreak more havoc. However, he also used the analogy earlier and in another sense:
Legend (or at least Bram Stoker) posits that a vampire can only enter someone's home if he or she is invited across the threshold. There could be no metaphor more apt for the divest-from-Israel campaigns that have proliferated among schools, unions, cities and churches in the US and Europe over the last four years.
Either small, unrepresentative groups of activists invite BDS into their organization, or outside activists join only in order to infiltrate it. The key to the strategy, as he and others have pointed out, is the “halo effect,” which allows puny groups of extremists to “punch above their political weight.” The strident clamors of a fringe group, which would otherwise go unnoticed, acquire gravitas and urgency when issued under the auspices of a respected organization. By the time the majority of the membership wakes up and sees the carnage, it is too late. The organization is left wounded and debilitated, and the vampire moves on to its next victim.

It appears that we are witnessing this here in Amherst.

Like many religious institutions, Grace Episcopal Church seeks to implement its spiritual and moral values in the world. It helps the poor in our area (most recently, through extraordinarily generous—and insufficiently publicized—support for the new homeless shelter). it provides assistance in Haiti and Liberia and other areas of the world threatened by poverty, strife, and natural disaster. It also struggles to find the proper response to the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict. Two years ago, the admirable clergy and concerned members of the congregation convened a series of community educational workshops and dialogue sessions on interfaith relations and the Middle East, in hopes of finding better ways for all of us to talk honestly yet respectfully about what were referred to as “difficult” subjects. I helped to organize and took part in the events. As chance would have it, winter 2008-9 saw the outbreak of full-scale warfare between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, which made our task considerably more difficult but at the same time brought home its urgency.(12, 3)

The situation is further complicated because (as elsewhere) the various committees and parish organizations do not necessarily speak for the church as a whole. Thus, for example, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF)—most of whose members, incidentally, stayed away from our dialogue sessions—has been very active in support of the Palestinian cause (as is of course its right). Notably, it has strong ties to Sabeel, which it describes as “a Palestinian Christian liberation theology organization” in Jerusalem. EPF members see this as a nonviolent means of supporting their brethren in the Anglican Communion, by “working to bring peace and justice to the Holy Land.”  For most outside observers, and Jewish groups, in particular, however, it is supporting an organization that, clothing its views in ambiguous or disingenous formal statements, in practice seeks to delegitimize Israel, coquettishly flirts with justifying terrorist violence, and in so doing, moreover and most disturbingly, draws upon the most reprehensible anti-Judaic and antisemitic stereotypes in the Christian tradition. Unsurprisingly Sabeel is a strong supporter of BDS.  (1, 2)

I was therefore dismayed—but not at all surprised—to see the following announcement from Grace Episcopal Church.

In the case of American Jews for a Just Peace (rule of thumb: the bigger-sounding the name, the smaller the membership), we are dealing with a group that is beyond marginal: a fragment that fell off the end of the fringe. They’re not even remotely representative of the American Jewish left, which is both robust and diverse.

One need but check out AJJP’s website. In fact, one wonders why EPF did not. Or—more disturbing possibility—maybe it did, and found nothing amiss. Nihil obstat.

As in the case of Sabeel, whose efforts AJJP supports, the affirmations of the desire for interfaith work and a “just” peace (another tip-off; does anyone advocate an “unjust” peace?), and language about “right of return” and rights for “all” in “historic Palestine” sound innocuous enough to the uninformed, but are in fact code words that anyone with even a passing familiarity with the political landscape can decipher in an instant.

This past fall, AJJP  promoted, second on its web page, right after “health and human rights,” the (rather pretentiously named) “International Israeli Apartheid Short film contest.” (1, 2) I guess you won’t be seeing Natalie Portman there, and not only because that shiny new Oscar means she’ll be busier than ever. (1, 2) In case you still don’t get AJJP’s point, it arrogantly rewrites the liturgies for the holiest season of the Jewish calendar to include a plea for forgiveness for “apartheid,” and “for conspiring to erase a people from history and eject it from the land, for the knowing and intentional dispossession of three quarters of a million native Palestinians.” (I’m sorry, that’s just really bad history: whatever one thinks of those tragic and complicated circumstances, no one “conspired” to do any such thing.) The verbose and clumsily worded prayer goes so far as to apologize for atrocities that never took place, such as “Jenin.” Even Palestinian sources now admit that their death toll in the fighting there in 2002 was barely 50 (the majority of them combatants), and not the “massacre” of 500 or even 3000 civilians that initial reports so wildly and confidently claimed and continue to be so widely disseminated. Better safe than sorry, though. Or rather: better sorry than accurate (it just feels so much better).

Not surprisingly, then, AJJP calls for cessation of US aid to Israel and pledges to “Recognize the importance of boycott, divestment and sanctions work and support the right of our members to engage in that work.” Let’s be clear: That’s an endorsement of a blanket boycott of everything Israeli. Let’s be equally clear: That puts it beyond the pale.

Incidentally, that's one reason that AJJP can speak of interfaith work: Most Jewish groups have shunned it, so it is reduced to trotting out its hobbyhorse at unsuspecting church gatherings.

What the EPF, living in its spiritual-activist bubble, evidently does not understand is that BDS is a red line:  the dividing line between those of a wide variety of political views whose aim is reconciliation between two peoples and two states living side by side in peace and those whose aim is to demonize and destroy the one existing state on the contested territory. J Street, the (in some quarters still controversial) organization that claims to speak for a reinvigorated Jewish center-left that is both "pro-Israel and pro-peace," unreservedly condemns BDS. Even Meretz USA, an advocacy group for “Israeli Civil Rights and Peace” with ties to Israel's classical hard socialist tradition (and about as far left as you can get without disappearing off the radar screen), which recently and controversially accepted the principle of boycotting products from Israeli settlements, nonetheless firmly and unambiguously condemns boycotts of Israel, proper. The American Task Force on Palestine, the leading Palestinian advocacy group in the United States, likewise rejects BDS. Senior Research Fellow Hussein Ibish has dismissed the one-state solution as an illusion. Writing with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic (who has served in the Israel Defense Forces), he recently affirmed that it was both wrong and unproductive to seek the delegitimization of Israel, a United Nations member state. And Senior Fellow and Advocacy Director Ghait al-Omari,a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and participant in peace negotiations with Israel, says, "You can be a pro-Palestine advocate without being anti-Israel."

That all these solidly "progressive" groups are against BDS should indicate just how extremist and marginal its advocates are. As Stalin (another man of impeccable leftist credentials) liked to say: Clear, one would think.

It says something about the psychology of AJJP (and the relation between the size of its membership and that of its ego) that its pride was hurt when it failed to make the Anti-Defamation League’s list of top ten anti-Israel groups, which, by the way, includes both Sabeel and Students for Justice in Palestine. (I've seen the actual letter of complaint, co-signed by the Grace Church guest speaker; a real piece of work.)

Ironically, just a few days before the Amherst event, South African human rights activist and Judge Richard Goldstone, who has been harshly critical of Israel’s military policies in Gaza during "Operation Cast Lead" (which is why the BDS people love him so much), declared that Israel was not an apartheid state and suffered from being judged by a double standard. He rejected the idea of sanctions. (1, 2) Ironic, too, that soon afterward, the great Italian literary theorist and novelist Umberto Eco, visiting the Jerusalem Book Fair, called cultural boycotts of Israel “absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist.” Whoops.

Sadly, the embrace of a loopy and meretricious group such as AJJP is just the sort of thing that one has come to expect of the mainline Protestant churches, where, it sometimes seems, the only remaining orthodoxy is political correctness. Grace Church is, after all, a place where activist parishioners sought to remove passages from the Hebrew Bible from the  lectionary (schedule of scriptural readings) on the grounds that they are allegedly  too “violent” and might provoke hostility against Arabs. You know: for example, that nasty story about Pharaoh and Egyptian slavery and Plagues and drowned charioteers. (Oddly, African-American churches and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. have seen the Exodus story as a source of inspiration rather than racism.) The clergy quite properly rebuffed such demands. Interestingly, anti-Judaic passages in the Gospels provoke no such handwringing among the activists. And not just the more subtle stuff. No, not even the congregational responsive cry of “Crucify him!” at Eastertide. Perhaps, though, one should not judge too harshly: after all, the Pope’s book on that subject had not yet appeared.

And so, when I saw the announcement of the AJJP event, I figured it was just more of the same: regrettable but typical.

But wait! as they say on the late-night infomercials: there’s more.

It wasn’t until the day of the event that I saw that the situation was still worse. The following item, sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, appeared in the Hampshire College daily announcements:

So, the great hummus war had hit Hampshire County. That's right: hummus.

The context in brief: The BDS movement, having failed to secure divestment among universities and major corporations, has now refocused its efforts on smaller entities and actions, such as product boycotts— from couscous to cosmetics (1, 2, 3, 4).  Unable to force the sell-off of stocks that support Israel, it seeks to force "de-shelving" of stocks of Israeli products in stores (video here).  It’s a YouTube revolution, which is to say: one consisting of empty actions without either concept or consequences. In any case, those efforts usually backfire. (1, 2)

BDS therefore now targets both big retailers and small, guileless local sellers, such as co-operatives. It finally won (sort of) at a co-op in Olympia, Washington, though only by manipulation and at a considerable price. It now seems to be trying the same thing in the Amherst-Northampton area, presumably seeking a pendant to the faux-divestment episode here at Hampshire back in 2009.

Yes, the hummus boycott. In one case, BDS targets Sabra, an American firm, because one of the many charitable activities of its Israeli corporate parent involves donations for the soldiers of the Golani Brigade, one of the major infantry units of the Israel Defense Forces. It’s the equivalent of targeting an American food company for sending “care packages” to the troops of the 101st Airborne or Tenth Mountain Division. The sin of Tribe hummus's parent company is similar symbolic support for troops, and in addition, for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), one of the most venerable israeli institutions, involved in the purchase of land and management of natural resources.  To be sure, there are some genuine controversies involving the JNF, such as its  involvement in the (to most outside observers) senseless repeated demolition of a legally "unrecognized" Bedouin village. (1, 2) However, BDS activists all too gladly seize upon and exploit such unfortunate controversies for their own purposes. Their main animus derives quite simply from the organization's historic role in building "the foundations of a Jewish state" in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine, and then developing the land and infrastructure after independence.

AJJP and its allies have even tried to browbeat venerable leftwing folk singer and activist Pete Seeger into self-criticism and repudiation of his recent cooperation with the Arava Institute—the leading Middle Eastern environmental studies program, which brings together Arab and Israeli students and experts—simply because it has ties to the JNF. It was like a moment from some Stalinist show trial—which, come to think of it, should have been quite familiar to him. It's now become yet another case of "he said-she said." The BDS forces were quick to announce that they had won Seeger to their cause, and he was only slightly less quick (after all, he is 91) to say that they hadn't gotten it quite right.  And, as always, the controversy over BDS itself—rather than the putative issue behind it—became the main story.  (As Pete used to sing, "When will they ever learn?")

None of the controversies over the JNF seemed to bother the Egyptians, Jordanians, Turks, South Africans, and Nigerians who recently participated in one of its events at the United Nations Forum on Forests. For most of the world, as for most Israelis, the JNF is a respected NGO registered with the UN and a pioneer in sustainability and environmental efforts such as reforestation. The organization should be able to face up to legitimate criticism—even serious radical criticism—but frankly, making it out to be the latter-day incarnation of the Reichskommissariat für die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums (1, 2), as BDS is wont to do, serves no one, and certainly not the cause of intelligent and productive debate.

The activists, I hasten to add, have not forgotten the universities: it's just that the target of BDS rage has shifted from the board room to the lunch room.  There, too, however, the assault against the horrendous hummus—for remember that's what this is all about—has met with multiple rebuffs:  at Princeton (1, 2) and De Paul Universities, for example. As Thane Rosenbaum observes,"You know the delegitimization campaign targeting Israel has reached new heights of absurdity when the rallying cry against the Jewish state is now being waged with the help of the chickpea."

* * *

It's hard to imagine any political action more absurd than the hummus boycott—except perhaps the conviction among church activists that this is a cause worthy of the energy and moral stature of their institution.

The Hampshire and Facebook announcements were interesting for two reasons:

First, they showed that the EPF concealed the true nature of the event that it was holding: a promotion of boycotts against Israel, no more, no less. That’s what was behind the innocent-sounding phrase, “a long-time activist. . . will talk about her work.” And moreover, it was to be not an abstract discussion, but a training session:  "initiating planning for how to carry out the boycott in our area."

Second, they showed that the EPF neglected to identify the sponsors.  The Grace Church announcement referred to the “Middle East Peace Coalition” (bad enough, as it is associated with Sabeel and other unsavory groups) but failed to mention “Philadelphia BDS” and the “Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine.” Students for Justice in Palestine, who both promoted and enthusiastically attended the Grace Church event, overlap with the “Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine” (whose founders are their mentors). These are—need we remind anyone—the very groups that caused chaos and outrage when they disrupted the talk by an Israeli speaker at Hampshire College earlier in the month.

In a sense, this is not really even about Grace Church, which is merely symptomatic of a much more widespread problem.

I have gone into such detail here in order to illustrate a simple but fundamental point:

It is easy to see an announcement for an event about a "Movement for Peace and Justice in Israel/Palestine" sponsored by a "Peace Fellowship" and a "Peace Coalition" and then to decide to attend.  Who could be against peace and justice? Once there, it is easy to wax indignant when told of policies that amount to "apartheid" and ethnic cleansing, dispossession and massacre. Who would not be be outraged? It is so simple when everything is presented as black-and-white.

It is far more difficult to take the time and effort to look behind the rhetoric and inform oneself of the full range of facts and the complexities of a situation characterized by shades of gray.

The churches face a difficult task: they are devoted to the cure of souls, ministering to the poor and afflicted, and making people whole in a fallen world. They generally strive to be neutral in political conflicts, and to stake out a general moral stance rather than taking sides in a partisan manner. However, an abstract moral fervor, lacking a foundation of historical and political understanding, is a rather shaky edifice on which to build a policy.

I feel most sorry for the goodhearted parishioners of Grace Church who innocently attended a noble-sounding event, not realizing that, when they were being asked to boycott Israeli products, they were being sold a bill of goods.

Let’s recap:

An organization associated with the church is caught officially and disingenuously promoting BDS.

 Forgive them, for they know not what they do?
The activists know exactly what they are doing.

The question is: what does the church think it is doing?

• Does the EPF, through single-minded pursuit of its own goals, really want to jeopardize not just the prospects for interfaith dialogue—which it has hereby greatly damaged—but also the reputation of the church itself?

• Does Grace Church really want to be associated with groups that have brought hatred and intimidation to one of the town’s three institutions of higher learning?

• Does Grace Church really want to be held responsible for targeting local businesses with boycotts?

Grace Church has now allowed the BDS vampire into its precincts. We do not know whether that was by accident or design.

All we do know is that it was a very grave mistake.