Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 31, 2014

For Leftists, the Personal Is Still the Political

Here are a few brief thoughts on the controversy surrounding MSNBC’s Twitter feed, in which–in response to a Cheerios ad (!)–the following message was sent out: “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new#Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.”

1. This kind of racial slander is the coin of the realm for MSNBC. Its president, Phil Griffin, apologized for the tweet and fired the staffer responsible for it. Fine and good. But it’s not clear why he acted on this occasion and not the hundreds of outrageous libels against Republicans and conservatives that have happened prior to it.

2. This incident demonstrates how for some on the left virtually everything is reduced to politics–even a cereal ad. It reveals an obsession with politics that is distorted and unhealthy. And it’s something that frankly one doesn’t find as prevalent among conservatives, at least in my experience. The slogan popularized during the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “the personal is the political,” helps explain this progressive cast of mind. For the left, politics is the primary means toward social progress and fulfillment, whereas for the right, our private lives are considered far more separate and distinct. Conservatives, I think, tend to view politics as important but not as all consuming, which is a far better way to understand life and reality.

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Here are a few brief thoughts on the controversy surrounding MSNBC’s Twitter feed, in which–in response to a Cheerios ad (!)–the following message was sent out: “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new#Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.”

1. This kind of racial slander is the coin of the realm for MSNBC. Its president, Phil Griffin, apologized for the tweet and fired the staffer responsible for it. Fine and good. But it’s not clear why he acted on this occasion and not the hundreds of outrageous libels against Republicans and conservatives that have happened prior to it.

2. This incident demonstrates how for some on the left virtually everything is reduced to politics–even a cereal ad. It reveals an obsession with politics that is distorted and unhealthy. And it’s something that frankly one doesn’t find as prevalent among conservatives, at least in my experience. The slogan popularized during the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “the personal is the political,” helps explain this progressive cast of mind. For the left, politics is the primary means toward social progress and fulfillment, whereas for the right, our private lives are considered far more separate and distinct. Conservatives, I think, tend to view politics as important but not as all consuming, which is a far better way to understand life and reality.

3. There’s a cautionary tale in all of this, which is that the right shouldn’t become like the left. Leave the hateful attacks, the venom, and the name-calling to them. Conservatives don’t need it, we shouldn’t want it, and it’s not consistent with our best tradition. If the left wants to give refuge to the haters, then that’s up to them. The right, on the other hand, should be characterized by people who are principled, passionate, decent and who don’t (as Ronald Reagan used to remind his staff) consider our opponents to be our enemies. Some conservatives seem to make a rather good living on doing the opposite, on engaging in ad hominem and often childish attacks, and it’s discrediting to them and to the movement they claim to represent.

 

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How Much Will Kerry’s Peace Cost?

It doesn’t take a great deal of investigation to discover that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are particularly enthusiastic about the latest U.S.-backed peace initiative. Neither side has been subtle about making known precisely what they think of Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestions for a final-status framework. Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians can be forgiven for being inclined toward cynicism on this matter. Yet, Kerry seems not to detect the mood and plows on regardless.

This attitude, that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to have a peace agreement whether they like it or not, would appear not to be Kerry’s alone. Despite even President Obama warning that third parties can’t want peace more than the two sides themselves, world diplomats are now gathering to set about doing just that.

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It doesn’t take a great deal of investigation to discover that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are particularly enthusiastic about the latest U.S.-backed peace initiative. Neither side has been subtle about making known precisely what they think of Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestions for a final-status framework. Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians can be forgiven for being inclined toward cynicism on this matter. Yet, Kerry seems not to detect the mood and plows on regardless.

This attitude, that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to have a peace agreement whether they like it or not, would appear not to be Kerry’s alone. Despite even President Obama warning that third parties can’t want peace more than the two sides themselves, world diplomats are now gathering to set about doing just that.

On Saturday Kerry and the EU’s Foreign Affairs representative, Baroness Ashton, are convening the Quartet (the U.S., the EU, the UN, and Russia) to discuss how they can best help implement John Kerry’s peace plan. Also present for the meeting will be UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Quartet’s Middle East envoy Tony Blair. The fact that the Palestinians have dragged their feet through this entire process, or that the Israelis clearly have about as much confidence in the Palestinians standing by their commitments as they do in Kerry’s ability to make them do so, appears to have been simply disregarded by those rushing to be part of Ashton and Kerry’s feel-good peace extravaganza. Where will the Israelis and Palestinians be amidst this high-profile standing-room-only diplomatic photo opportunity? Who knows, who cares? Onwards anyway. 

The State Department’s chief negotiator Martin Indyk has already revealed roughly what Kerry’s final-status parameters will look like, which both sides are going to be expected to accept shortly. The problem is that there’s barely a single point in the parameters outlined by Indyk that isn’t still being fiercely and publicly disputed by one side or the other. Indeed, for this very reason we are told that the parameters will be vague on Jerusalem. Yet, they are also incredibly vague on the fate of the future of Israelis living in the West Bank, with no decision on whether Jews will be allowed to stay behind in a Palestinian state.

Allegedly 75-85 percent of these Israelis are in settlements that would be annexed to Israel. However, what isn’t clear is whether the State Department considers Jews living in suburbs of Jerusalem to be settlers. If they do, then it has been suggested that these parameters may actually mean the forcible evacuation of 150,000 Jews from their homes. In this way, the Quartet meeting, which is to be held in Munich, will in part be about how to facilitate the transfer of huge numbers of West Bank Jews from their communities.

Perhaps the delegates will find this whole event a little more sobering when they discover how much all of this will cost and how much they may be asked to contribute to cover these costs. For, increasingly Kerry’s efforts are looking like an exercise in bribing each side into submission. The Palestinians have long been promised astronomical levels of investment in the event that they agree to accept statehood. Then the Israeli evacuation from the West Bank alone is estimated to come with a price tag running into the billions of dollars. Once Israeli settlers have been evacuated, re-housed, and compensated, the parameters also make provision for the compensation of both Palestinian refugees and for Jews who were forced out of Arab lands. In both cases the descendants of these refugees now number into the millions. Israel is also being told that under Kerry’s parameters it would have to leave the strategically vital Jordan Valley, but that someone else will foot the bill for all manner of unmanned high-tech security paraphernalia to take the place of actual Israeli troops.

Anyone looking to rain on Ashton and Kerry’s peace parade in Munich this Saturday need only mention even a low estimate for how much all of this is going to cost.  

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The Orwellian World of Israel’s Opponents

Yesterday on Twitter, foreign-affairs writer Armin Rosen engaged other Mideast watchers in the reason American officials call Jewish settlements “illegitimate” instead of “illegal.” It’s the sort of distinction that ought to be common knowledge–judging their legality would preempt final-status talks in contravention of the various agreements already reached–but isn’t. And amid the controversy over SodaStream, it was also a good reminder of just how loaded such language becomes when applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Evelyn touched on this subject earlier, on the hypocrisy of those who designate themselves pro-Palestinian by demanding that hundreds of Palestinians lose their jobs, benefits, and professional connections, especially since they go against the express wishes of actual Palestinians, for whom they claim to speak. But the whole issue is littered with loaded and Orwellian language. Put aside the opinion pieces, for a moment, since they are by writers who seek openly to claim language for their side. It can be more interesting to watch the “reporting,” which claims neutrality and is anything but.

The New York Times is usually the place to go for this sort of journalism, and the paper’s story doesn’t disappoint. Of the SodaStream controversy, the Times tells us:

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Yesterday on Twitter, foreign-affairs writer Armin Rosen engaged other Mideast watchers in the reason American officials call Jewish settlements “illegitimate” instead of “illegal.” It’s the sort of distinction that ought to be common knowledge–judging their legality would preempt final-status talks in contravention of the various agreements already reached–but isn’t. And amid the controversy over SodaStream, it was also a good reminder of just how loaded such language becomes when applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Evelyn touched on this subject earlier, on the hypocrisy of those who designate themselves pro-Palestinian by demanding that hundreds of Palestinians lose their jobs, benefits, and professional connections, especially since they go against the express wishes of actual Palestinians, for whom they claim to speak. But the whole issue is littered with loaded and Orwellian language. Put aside the opinion pieces, for a moment, since they are by writers who seek openly to claim language for their side. It can be more interesting to watch the “reporting,” which claims neutrality and is anything but.

The New York Times is usually the place to go for this sort of journalism, and the paper’s story doesn’t disappoint. Of the SodaStream controversy, the Times tells us:

The factory is in Mishor Adumim, an industrial zone attached to the large, urban settlement of Maale Adumim in the beige hills east of Jerusalem. Israel views the territory that it captured from Jordan in the 1967 war as disputed and says it intends to keep Maale Adumim under any peace deal with the Palestinians.

A common complaint from the pro-Israel side is that Israeli claims are identified as such while Palestinian claims are not subject to the qualifications and caveats so prevalent in coverage of Israeli statements. Of course the territory captured from Jordan is disputed. Israel keeping Maale Adumim is treated here as a demand (or even a threat) by Israel. But past parameters of the peace process consider Maale Adumim to be retained by Israel. Thus, not only is the land obviously disputed, but Israel is given greater claim to the city in question.

Worse, however, is the following sentence:

The dispute over the ad, scheduled to air during the Super Bowl on Sunday, has pitted pro-Palestinian activists against people and groups who support Israel unreservedly.

According to the Times, opponents of the SodaStream factory are self-evidently “pro-Palestinian,” but those who stand against the boycott of the Israeli company are not pro-Israel or supporters of Israel but rather are those who support Israel unreservedly. This is, first of all, flatly false. It isn’t true among Westerners, Israelis, or even Palestinians. Are the Palestinians at SodaStream who oppose the boycott to be considered “unreservedly” pro-Israel? To ask the question is to simultaneously wonder if mainstream reporters and editors have lost their minds.

And that, according to Yaacov Lozowick, is exactly what happens when “otherwise reasonably normal people” confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lozowick notes that the SodaStream controversy is causing people to forget what words mean, and explains:

In any other context, worldwide, a private company maintaining a factory in an underdeveloped country so as to take advantage of its lower labor costs would be regarded as a boon for the hosting country (if perhaps not for the rich country the factory had previously been in). Sodastream, however, isn’t paying hundreds of Palestinian workers what they’d get from a Palestinian employer. It’s paying the Palestinian laborers Israeli wages, with the social benifits mandated by Israeli law.

Nobody lives in the Sodastream factory: it’s a factory. If ever there is peace between Israel and Palestine, Israeli owned factories in Palestine employing Palestinians is precisely the sort of thing everyone should be wishing for. Not for the “soft” advantages of people working alongside one another, which is the kind of thing one can’t easily measure: for the “hard”, quantifiable advantage of employment and foreign curreny.

In any other context, this is called FDI (foriegn direct investment) and is eagerly sought by politicians and toted up by economists. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, however, normal discourse goes silent.

And indeed, this is a point made by SodaStream’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum:

Unlike the question of Israeli homes in a foreign entity, he noted, there’s already ample precedent for Israeli-owned factories operating in foreign areas.

Birnbaum’s advisor, Maurice Silber, said that within the company “everybody is against the occupation.” But it does not follow, he said, that because SodaStream operates in an occupied area, it violates human rights. Eventually, he said, SodaStream could become the “seed of the future Palestinian economy.”

The company is “against the occupation,” will happily stay in a Palestinian state and pay taxes to the Palestinian government, and would like to jumpstart the process by providing a jolt to the Palestinian economy. It’s a move and a mindset that would be celebrated were the company not owned by Israeli Jews. Nonetheless, the fact that Israel’s enemies must torture and distort everyday language just to attempt to make their case says a lot about how an honest rendering of the facts favors Israel’s moral standing.

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Both Obama and the GOP Badly Damaged

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

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The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the Republican Party is in a very precarious situation. In the fall of 2013, for example, in the wake of the government shutdown, the GOP recorded the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking this question in 1992. Which means Republicans have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to win back the confidence of most Americans.

Different people recommend different solutions. Some will argue that the GOP has been too easy on the president and that its rhetoric hasn’t been sufficiently anti-government. They will argue that those on the right need to amp up their declamations against Mr. Obama, invoking words like “Marxist,” “coup,” and “tyranny” to describe him. The key to making the GOP more popular is for it to become more strident, the language more apocalyptic. People in this camp think the government shutdown was an impressive victory for the conservative cause and backfired only because of a failure of nerve by Republicans. They believe the contemporary politicians whom Republicans should pattern themselves after are Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. 

Readers of this site know that I’m of a different view, that the leaders of the GOP and the conservative movement, while leveling very tough criticisms at the president, also need to carry themselves with a degree of grace and winsomeness. They need to be less agitated and more agreeable, in possession of strong convictions and moderate temperaments. They need to demonstrate a genuine interest in justice and those living in the shadows of society. And they need to propose far-reaching conservative reforms that constitute an actual governing vision, one that matches the challenges of this moment.

Which is why the recent health-care plan put forward by Senators Burr, Coburn, and Hatch is so encouraging. An alternative to the Affordable Care Act, It would cover pre-existing conditions, provide universal coverage, reform Medicaid, and promote medical liability reform and market-oriented policies. (Among the specific proposals is to extend a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance to all Americans below 300 percent of the poverty level who don’t have health coverage from a large employer.) No piece of legislation is perfect, and neither is this one. But I agree with those who consider it to be the most impressive conservative health-care plan yet put forward by Republican lawmakers.

There are, then, several currents of thought that exist in the modern GOP. The debate isn’t between those who are conservative and those who are not so much as it’s between those who have some important disagreements over what constitutes authentic conservatism. The debate involves differences in tone and style and divergent interpretations of the federalist Founders and the Constitution, the role of government, and the conservative tradition. 

It’s a fascinating debate, really, and at times quite a spirited one. Whichever side prevails will go some distance toward determining the future of conservatism and the country.

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Jon Stewart (Literally) Laughs at Pelosi

If you want to do yourself a favor, set aside eight minutes to watch Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart interview House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ms. Pelosi is so programmed and evasive–her answers are so obviously partisan, non-responsive, and unimpressive–that several times Stewart literally laughs in her face, most especially when she admits she has no idea why the ObamaCare website failed so miserably. (When discussing the backlog at the Veterans Administration and the failures of it and the Defense Department to communicate with each other, Pelosi conceded it was a terrible problem. “OK, do something about it,” Pelosi concludes. To which Stewart quipped, “I was actually going to say that to you.”) 

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If you want to do yourself a favor, set aside eight minutes to watch Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart interview House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ms. Pelosi is so programmed and evasive–her answers are so obviously partisan, non-responsive, and unimpressive–that several times Stewart literally laughs in her face, most especially when she admits she has no idea why the ObamaCare website failed so miserably. (When discussing the backlog at the Veterans Administration and the failures of it and the Defense Department to communicate with each other, Pelosi conceded it was a terrible problem. “OK, do something about it,” Pelosi concludes. To which Stewart quipped, “I was actually going to say that to you.”) 

Jon Stewart is liberal, but he’s intellectually honest enough to (respectfully) challenge those who share his progressive beliefs, at least from time to time. For Ms. Pelosi to do so poorly while being interviewed by a man of the left tells you a great deal about her, but also something about how intellectually bankrupt leading Democrats are.

When liberals like Nancy Pelosi act in a way that embarrasses Jon Stewart, you know they’re in a fair amount of trouble. 

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“Pro-Palestinians” Versus Real Palestinians

If you want to understand the difference between people who are actually pro-Palestinian and those who routinely but falsely claim that label, it’s worth reading the Forward’s interview with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum. The headline, of course, was Birnbaum’s admission that having a plant in a West Bank settlement is “a pain in the ass,” and he would “never” locate there today. But the most striking comment was his answer to the question of why, in that case, he doesn’t shut the West Bank plant and transfer its operations to SodaStream’s new facility in the Negev, which has ample capacity:

The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.

“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”

In other words, Birnbaum is concerned about real live Palestinians whose families need to eat. That’s a concern noticeably absent among the usual “pro-Palestinian” types, who couldn’t care less about ordinary Palestinians’ welfare unless it happens to serve their primary goal of attacking Israel: See, for instance, the shocking indifference by “pro-Palestinian” groups to the literal starvation of Palestinians in Syria (since Israel can’t be blamed for it), or the Dutch and German governments’ efforts to halt sewage treatment and landfill projects that would primarily benefit Palestinians because Jewish settlers would also benefit. But it’s a concern ardently shared by ordinary Palestinians themselves, as a 2010 poll showed: By an overwhelming majority of 60 percent to 38 percent, Palestinians opposed the idea that they themselves should refuse to work in the settlements. Real Palestinians care about feeding their families, and they don’t want to be barred from jobs that enable them to do so.

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If you want to understand the difference between people who are actually pro-Palestinian and those who routinely but falsely claim that label, it’s worth reading the Forward’s interview with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum. The headline, of course, was Birnbaum’s admission that having a plant in a West Bank settlement is “a pain in the ass,” and he would “never” locate there today. But the most striking comment was his answer to the question of why, in that case, he doesn’t shut the West Bank plant and transfer its operations to SodaStream’s new facility in the Negev, which has ample capacity:

The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.

“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”

In other words, Birnbaum is concerned about real live Palestinians whose families need to eat. That’s a concern noticeably absent among the usual “pro-Palestinian” types, who couldn’t care less about ordinary Palestinians’ welfare unless it happens to serve their primary goal of attacking Israel: See, for instance, the shocking indifference by “pro-Palestinian” groups to the literal starvation of Palestinians in Syria (since Israel can’t be blamed for it), or the Dutch and German governments’ efforts to halt sewage treatment and landfill projects that would primarily benefit Palestinians because Jewish settlers would also benefit. But it’s a concern ardently shared by ordinary Palestinians themselves, as a 2010 poll showed: By an overwhelming majority of 60 percent to 38 percent, Palestinians opposed the idea that they themselves should refuse to work in the settlements. Real Palestinians care about feeding their families, and they don’t want to be barred from jobs that enable them to do so.

Yet that’s exactly what boycotting companies like SodaStream would primarily accomplish. Though SodaStream says it won’t leave, other Israeli companies have decided they don’t need the hassle and relocated inside the Green Line, throwing their erstwhile Palestinian employees out of work. Countless others choose not to locate in the West Bank to begin with, as Birnbaum admits he would do today.

Currently, 20,000 Palestinians work in the settlements. Eliminating their jobs would cause the number of unemployed people in the West Bank to jump 14 percent–hardly a helpful proposition for an economy already suffering 19 percent unemployment.

This same disregard for actual Palestinians also characterizes other forms of anti-Israel boycotts. Take, for instance, the effort to impose an academic boycott on Israel. As one Palestinian pharmacy professor, who understandably feared to give his name, told the New York Times this month, “more than 50 Palestinian professors were engaged in joint research projects with Israeli universities, funded by international agencies,” and “without those grants, Palestinian academic research would collapse because ‘not a single dollar’ was available from other places.”

Boycott proponents claim that by reducing Israelis’ academic freedom, they seek to “enlarge” Palestinians’ academic freedom. Yet in fact, as this Palestinian professor admitted, Israeli academia is the lifeline keeping its Palestinian counterpart alive. So how would killing off academic research in Palestinian universities “enlarge” Palestinians’ academic freedom? It wouldn’t, of course–but the “pro-Palestinian” crowd doesn’t care about that.

In fact, the only thing these self-proclaimed “pro-Palestinians” do care about is undermining Israel–which is why it’s high time to stop dignifying them with the name “pro-Palestinian.” They are anti-Israel, pure and simple. And that’s what they should be called.

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