Commentary Magazine


Topic: BDS

Columbia Boycotts Israel?

The Gaza war has raised up another tide of Holocaust inversion: the claim by assorted Jew-baiters that Israel has become the Nazis, and the Palestinians their Jewish victims. This was a staple of old Soviet propaganda, which then spread to the Arab world. It took a while for Arab elites, many of which had been admiring of the Nazis, to see “Nazi” as pejorative. But in time they saw the advantages, especially since Holocaust inversion also served to trivialize the Holocaust itself. In recent years, the sickness has spread throughout the Left in Europe, and even festers in dark places in the United States. In a new article over at Mosaic Magazine, I locate one of them: the faculty lounge of Columbia University. Comparisons of Gaza to Auschwitz? The Warsaw Ghetto? Columbia has it all. Read more there.

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The Gaza war has raised up another tide of Holocaust inversion: the claim by assorted Jew-baiters that Israel has become the Nazis, and the Palestinians their Jewish victims. This was a staple of old Soviet propaganda, which then spread to the Arab world. It took a while for Arab elites, many of which had been admiring of the Nazis, to see “Nazi” as pejorative. But in time they saw the advantages, especially since Holocaust inversion also served to trivialize the Holocaust itself. In recent years, the sickness has spread throughout the Left in Europe, and even festers in dark places in the United States. In a new article over at Mosaic Magazine, I locate one of them: the faculty lounge of Columbia University. Comparisons of Gaza to Auschwitz? The Warsaw Ghetto? Columbia has it all. Read more there.

While I’m on Columbia, here’s another aspect worth noting. Several hundred Middle East scholars have put out a letter pledging to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. The organized association of Middle Eastern studies has rejected boycotts in the past, and is likely to do so again if the issue even gets tabled at the next convention. So the boycott of Israel in Middle Eastern studies is being organized along the lines of a personal pledge by individual scholars.

Israeli institutions of higher education (including, presumably, the one over which I preside, Shalem College in Jerusalem), are deemed by these scholars to be “complicit in violating Palestinian rights.” The signatories thus pledge “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The pledge will remain in effect until these institutions call on Israel to end the Gaza “siege,” evacuate all territory “occupied” in 1967, and “promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” In other words, it’s a boycott until Israel dies.

I looked down the list of signatories, and mostly saw the usual suspects. Columbia, of course, is heavily represented. The boycotters include such tenured Columbia radicals as Rashid Khalidi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Hamid Dabashi, Gil Anidjar, Mahmood Mamdani, George Saliba, Brinkley Messick, Timothy Mitchell, and Wael Hallaq. In fact, no university has more senior faculty boycotters signed on this letter than Columbia.

But one name in particular caught my eye: Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology. I remembered that she had become director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute a few years back. Why is that significant? The Institute she directs is a Title VI U.S. Department of Education-supported National Resource Center (NRC) for the Middle East. An NRC is supposed to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education and other organizations that may contribute to the teaching and research of the Center.”

The question I now have is whether this (taxpayer-subsidized) academic unit of Columbia is boycotting Israeli academe? Or are we to believe that Professor Abu-Lughod is only boycotting Israeli institutions personally, but is prepared to cooperate with them officially? Columbia should issue a clarification, and give a public account of the overseas institutional linkages the Institute does have, so that we can see whether a de facto boycott of Israel is in place at Columbia. You can even pose the question yourself, to Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, right here.

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Stopping BDS’s Unlawful Intimidation

As the tactics of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel have steadily become ever more aggressive and unlawful, so those seeking to counter it must realize that legal action must be pursued. If the opponents of BDS thought that the struggle with the boycotters was going to be simply about winning the moral argument, they are increasingly being proven wrong. As recent events in the UK demonstrate, the boycott campaign is gradually abandoning the effort to dissuade the public from buying Israeli goods. Rather than form a mass movement, something that BDS has been failing to do, a small shock force of activists are increasingly employing the tactics of intimidation and obstruction to terrorize those businesses selling Israeli goods.

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As the tactics of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel have steadily become ever more aggressive and unlawful, so those seeking to counter it must realize that legal action must be pursued. If the opponents of BDS thought that the struggle with the boycotters was going to be simply about winning the moral argument, they are increasingly being proven wrong. As recent events in the UK demonstrate, the boycott campaign is gradually abandoning the effort to dissuade the public from buying Israeli goods. Rather than form a mass movement, something that BDS has been failing to do, a small shock force of activists are increasingly employing the tactics of intimidation and obstruction to terrorize those businesses selling Israeli goods.

The shift in tactics on the part of BDS is partially a sign of desperation. Not only has this campaign failed to win any real public backing, but even in those countries where the effort has been underway for some time now—such as Britain—business with Israel has continued to increase. Not only did the first part of 2014 see a 6.5 percent increase in trade between the two countries, but the import of Israeli goods into Britain has grown even more dramatically.

Nevertheless, as the boycott campaign continues to fail in its efforts to impact Israel’s overseas trade, its tactics have become gradually more aggressive. Attempts at persuasion are giving way to a strategy of sustained intimidation. Regardless of what one thinks of their cause, or whether boycotts are really an effective method for encouraging positive political change, anyone is free to try and persuade consumers not to purchase products made by specific companies if they so wish. That kind of action may at least be more defensible than the boycotts of academics and the arts that have been a more common target of the BDS war on all things Israeli.

Yet BDSers are not limiting themselves to simply advocating the boycott of Israeli products. Rather, just as they repeatedly disrupted performances by the Habima theater group and the Israel Philharmonic orchestra, they are applying the same mob behavior to their efforts to shut down stores selling Israeli goods. And disturbingly this tactic has been proving far more effective.

One of the first casualties of this brutish strategy was the Ahava cosmetics store in London’s trendy Covent Garden neighborhood. That store was subjected to relentless picketing and regular efforts by the protesters to storm the premises. A policeman was posted on the door, but this hardly did much to draw in customers. Despite this the Ahava store closed its doors not on account of having been forced out business, but rather complaints from other local boutiques regarding the constant noisy protests persuaded the owner of the building not to renew Ahava’s tenancy. The boycott had failed, but mob rule had won in the end.

It was these same tactics that, after two years of aggressive demonstrations, caused the Brighton based store Ecostream (which sold SodaStream products) to move out this year. Similarly, the prominent British department store John Lewis pulled SodaStream products from its shelves after being subjected to multiple stormings by protesters.

Now this war of attrition is being turned against Britain’s major supermarket chains, and shockingly a member of Parliament even boasted of her role in BDS’s unlawful tactics. Speaking at a recent rowdy anti-Israel rally, Shabana Mahmood delighted her audience by regaling them with an account of how she and some other BDS bullies had taken over the Sainsbury’s supermarket in central Birmingham, managing “to close down that store for five hours at peak time on a Saturday.” Apparently fearing a dose of the same BDS activism, the Sainsbury in London’s Holborn stripped its shelves of all kosher goods. Yes you read that correctly, not all Israeli goods, but rather it was the kosher section that was cleared. And on further inspection it turned out the store’s management may not have done this as a precaution against the protestors, but rather as an act of solidarity with them. For when a customer inquired about the fate of the kosher items he was informed by a staff member, “we support Free Gaza.”

Amidst all of this there has been one ray of hope. Kedem, An Israeli cosmetics store in Manchester has been targeted by daily protests. Worse still, staff members have received death threats, while one demonstrator was filmed outside the store voicing his love for Hitler. But now the police have finally stepped in and ruled that the BDSers have “exceeded the legal threshold required under the Public Order Act” and as such will be obliged to hold their demonstrations at a greater distance from the store front.

Actions such as this may now be the only way to confront a campaign group that has all but abandoned the legitimate channels of persuasion and is instead resorting to unlawful intimidation. Indeed, when MP Shabana Mahmood was assisting with the storming of a supermarket, did she not stop to question the legitimacy of a cause compelled to adopt such brute tactics for achieving its goals?

Supporters of Israel must realize that they can no longer beat BDS by the power of argument alone. The boycotters have stopped playing by the rules and the full force of the law must be brought down against them.

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Cultural BDS and the Tricycle Theater

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) has several branches. There’s the traditional commercial boycott, in which activists refuse to buy Israeli products (usually food) that they don’t need or really want, instead of, say, lifesaving medical equipment. There is the academic boycott, which enables anti-Israel fanatics to wall themselves off from intellectual diversity even more, ensuring their towering ignorance of world affairs survives unadulterated by stray molecules of logic and reason.

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The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) has several branches. There’s the traditional commercial boycott, in which activists refuse to buy Israeli products (usually food) that they don’t need or really want, instead of, say, lifesaving medical equipment. There is the academic boycott, which enables anti-Israel fanatics to wall themselves off from intellectual diversity even more, ensuring their towering ignorance of world affairs survives unadulterated by stray molecules of logic and reason.

There is “Zionist BDS,” which holds that BDS is OK as long as you draw an arbitrary line to geographically separate the good Jews from the bad. And there is the cultural boycott, which is similar to the academic boycott but also commits the BDSer to a life of oafish groupthink in his enjoyment of entertainment and the arts. All have their own odious, hateful qualities. But there’s something about cultural BDS that really brings out the worst in the critics of the Jewish people. And the latest piece of evidence for that was brought to light last week when London’s Tricycle Theater said it wouldn’t host this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival.

Reaction has been fairly heated, and the Guardian has a response from the Jewish Film Festival’s chairman:

The Tricycle Theatres decision to give the UKJFF an ultimatum over a £1,400 grant it receives from the Israeli embassy has stirred debate around the UK and among film-makers after the theatre’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, asked organisers to forgo the money and use of the embassy logo on publicity material for the festival – due to take place in part at the Tricycle in November, as it has for seven years – so they could not be perceived as taking sides in an “emotional, passionate situation”. She later accused the film festival of politicising the dispute.

“It’s a matter of principle that we should not be told who we should take funding from. Every state gives cultural grants,” said [Stephen] Margolis, who dismissed Rubasingham’s offer to find alternative funding as a “publicity stunt”. “It was never about the money, it’s about the whole attitude towards the festival from the start,” he said. The dispute arose amid international protests over the Gaza conflict. There have been reports from Jewish organisations of rising levels of incidents of antisemitism. Demonstrators outside the Tricycle on Thursday evening, and on a Facebook protest page, have accused the Tricycle of feeding that rise.

Margolis makes the classic mistake of injecting logic into the debate:

“This has all taken on a life of its own,” said Margolis. “People have been offended and outraged by the Tricycle’s approach. Why do they feel they have the moral high ground? Everybody deplores what is going on in Gaza. They are a cinema for hire and we are often more criticised for showing leftwing films which are anti-Israeli government policy than the opposite. We’re known for a wide range of content, reflecting all sides. It was pointed out that one of our opening films was going to be a Palestinian story, and we had a Palestinian actor coming to attend the screening. The Israeli embassy itself has never made any comment about festival content and I’m sure there are some films they don’t like.”

If Rubasingham were making a rational decision, this might have real force. But the theater’s artistic director isn’t making a political argument about Israeli policy, and therefore the fact that the film festival would have a diverse array of views, including criticism of Israeli policy, has nothing to do with it.

The theater is merely stigmatizing and penalizing Britain’s Jews for the actions of the Israeli government. Unlike the Orwellian and deeply creepy “Zionist BDS,” the Tricycle Theater is not interested in dividing Jews between good and bad. If a Jew somewhere does something of which Rubasingham disapproves, Rubasingham holds all accountable or forces them to denounce and cut ties with their brethren. Communal guilt with a splash of Stalinist paranoia is, unfortunately, par for the course for BDSers.

There’s a larger point here, however. Art and popular culture happen to be particularly poisonous avenues to politicize precisely because they are so good at bridging gaps. The fact that political opponents watch the same films and read the same books, more or less, injects a dose of compassion and empathy into even the most contentious of issues.

But art is also easily politicized, and it can be far more dispiriting when art fails to bridge gaps than when politicians fail. (Sayed Kashua’s announcement that he’s leaving Israel permanently comes to mind.) Art failing is one thing, however. Art being forced to fail by theater directors looking for an excuse to ostracize the Jews of Britain is quite another. Margolis, the Jewish festival chairman, is stunned to find that the film festival’s diversity of opinion doesn’t save it from Rubasingham’s discrimination. But actually, that diversity is probably a major source of her disapproval.

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The Uncritical and Intemperate Partisans of the Boycott-Israel Movement

In a case that has roiled the academic community, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has rescinded an offer to Stephen Salaita, who had, for reasons unknown, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech before his new appointment had been confirmed. Salaita, now out of a job, is a leading figure in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

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In a case that has roiled the academic community, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has rescinded an offer to Stephen Salaita, who had, for reasons unknown, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech before his new appointment had been confirmed. Salaita, now out of a job, is a leading figure in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

I do not want to weigh in here on the question of whether the Chancellor at UIUC did right to refuse to forward Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees. Salaita was reportedly undone by a series of comments he made on Twitter. In one, he says that “too much of Israeli society is cheering the bloodletting in [Gaza] for me to make a firm distinction between the government and the people.” In another, responding to the kidnapping of Israeli boys, he says, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” In another, he asks, “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” He also reposted this statement, in a context that left no doubt he endorsed it, on journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has evidently been too critical of Hamas: “Jeffrey Goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.” William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection has done us the service of collecting these and other statements.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether refusing to hire Salaita on the basis of statements like these is a threat to academic freedom. The excellent Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is worried about it. Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors and an authority on academic freedom argues that the chancellor made the right call.

But speaking of authority, a number of pro-boycott professors, have signed on to a letter demanding that the UIUC hire Salaita. Their argument is that administrators have no business interfering with scholarly “experts”: “It seems that popular knowledge about the Israel Palestine conflict in the US public space has overwhelmed what is well known by academic experts. This cannot be allowed to happen in a serious university.” They go on to quote the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure to the effect that boards of trustees should stay out of matters “in which the conclusions expressed are the tested conclusions of trained scholars.”

That’s rich. First, Salaita, like a number of the letter’s signers, is a scholar of literature with no special claim to expertise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, the boycott movement in academia has been engaged primarily in getting scholarly organizations with no claim to expertise in the conflict, including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and (unsuccessfully) the Modern Language Association, to declare their opposition to Israel. The 1915 Declaration is based on a separation between expertise and political action that academics in the boycott movement emphatically do not endorse. The authors of that Declaration anticipated that those who politicized the academy could expect precisely the reaction the BDS movement is now complaining about: “if this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

Salaita is, his public utterances suggest, an uncritical and intemperate partisan, and the letter I have referred to, which, among other things, declares it a matter of settled expert opinion that Israel is targeting Palestinian civilians, is itself an example of uncritical and intemperate partisanship masquerading as a deference to expertise.

Academics are right to be concerned about threats to academic freedom because academic freedom is, as the 1915 Declaration tells us, is an essential defender “not of a propaganda [institution], but of a non-partisan institution of learning.” But their concern should be directed at the professors who have for decades worked to efface the distinction between scholarship and politics and who have more recently worked to persuade scholars who know next to nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to use their scholarly credentials to advance their personal conceptions of justice.

It is a wonder that the backlash has not been more pronounced.

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The American Studies Association Returns to the Middle East Fray

The American Studies Association, whose vote to back the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement I wrote about earlier this year, has now distinguished itself by becoming the first academic association to call for a withdrawal of all “political, financial, and military support from the state of Israel.” It had previously called only for an academic boycott.

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The American Studies Association, whose vote to back the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement I wrote about earlier this year, has now distinguished itself by becoming the first academic association to call for a withdrawal of all “political, financial, and military support from the state of Israel.” It had previously called only for an academic boycott.

As has become standard practice in the academic BDS movement, the ASA’s Executive Committee has an academic pretext for its intervention in the Middle East: the recent strike on the Islamic University of Gaza. The committee understands that most observers will think an organization devoted to American culture should not have a stance on the Gaza conflict. But the statement almost immediately drops that pretext and concedes that the ASA’s stance is really about “Israel’s long-standing practice of denying an entire people the basic necessitates [sic] of life and freedom.

There follows a link you can click to give the ASA money to “to join in financially supporting our principled response to attacks on the organization and our continued growth and impact as an association. As Rahm Emanuel once said, you never want to let a serious crisis to go to waste.

Of course, the ASA stand is sheer self-indulgent theater. Still, it is revealing. Last year, it was at least possible to imagine that the American Studies Association distinguished between the West Bank and Gaza, understanding Israel’s need to defend itself against Hamas, an organization devoted to its violent destruction and to violence against Jews altogether. Today, like others in the BDS movement, the American Studies Association has openly sided with Hamas’s military wing, or, as BDS darling Ali Abunimah likes to call its members, “resistance fighters.”

With this latest ill-advised statement, the ASA leaves no daylight between its own position and Abunimah’s, namely that Israel is the bad guy in the fight between Israel and Hamas, Hamas’s deliberate strategy of firing indiscriminately at Israeli civilians and placing its own civilians in harm’s way notwithstanding. All that is lacking is the open celebration, which we find in Abunimah, of the military exploits, such as they are, of the Al Qassam Brigade. I suppose the executive committee thinks that such a celebration might frighten the donors.

William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection has predicted that this year’s anti-Israel activity on American campuses will be even more virulent than it was last year and may even turn violent. I hope he is wrong about the latter but sure he is right about the former.

Those of us who care not only about Israel but also about the enterprise of colleges and universities must point out again and again that the avowedly nonviolent academic BDS movement, which has always shied away from criticism of Hamas and has long hugged the lunatic fringe, is now vying to turn American college campuses into propaganda mills for the “military wing” of Hamas, which even the European Union considers a terrorist group.

Despite the wall to wall coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I suspect that most faculty members and students alike know very little about it in general or about Hamas in particular. Even on college campuses, the debate against BDS can be won. They can’t hide from that charter.

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Gaza Fighting Proves J Street’s Irrelevance

Pity poor J Street. As Israelis seek to defend themselves against Hamas rockets and terrorist tunnels, the left-wing lobby finds itself in a tough spot. Its flagging bid for mainstream support has caused it to try and craft a low-key position of support for Israeli self-defense. But that nuanced stance is causing many of J Street’s supporters to abandon the organization for those groups that take sides against Israel.

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Pity poor J Street. As Israelis seek to defend themselves against Hamas rockets and terrorist tunnels, the left-wing lobby finds itself in a tough spot. Its flagging bid for mainstream support has caused it to try and craft a low-key position of support for Israeli self-defense. But that nuanced stance is causing many of J Street’s supporters to abandon the organization for those groups that take sides against Israel.

As the Forward noted today, J Street has tried not to repeat the mistake it made in 2008 when the group publicly opposed Israel’s efforts to suppress Hamas rocket fire during Operation Cast Lead. The position was very much in character with J Street’s ideology that sees Israel as the obstacle to peace rather than the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. But the group that at that time harbored an ambition to replace AIPAC as the voice of the pro-Israel community learned its lesson after it was condemned for this outrageous decision by a wide spectrum of American Jews, including many liberal leaders. During subsequent crises J Street has avoided open condemnations of Israeli actions while still failing to play the sort of role in mobilizing support for an embattled Jewish state that other more mainstream groups take as a matter of course.

As Alan Dershowitz wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week, J Street refused to take part in a communal pro-Israel rally organized by the Boston Jewish federation. Nor did J Street chose to co-sponsor a similar rally in New York. He said these actions sounded the “death knell for J Street” as a group that sought to be considered as part of the pro-Israel community. But the irony is that sort of moral cowardice isn’t enough for many, if not most J Street supporters who are uncomfortable with the way the group has sought to neither condemn nor fully support Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

As the Forward reported, even as J Street avoided being seen at pro-Israel rallies, their members are playing a prominent role in organizing protests against the Jewish state. Many have joined #ifnotnow, a new ad hoc group dedicated to opposing Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Even worse for J Street is the trend that was also discussed in a separate Forward article which reported that many of the group’s adherents are leaving it to join the openly anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace. That group, which serves as the Jewish front for BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—campaigns against Israel is profiting from the situation since many on the left prefer its unadulterated venom directed against the Jewish state to J Street’s more equivocal positions.

While no one should be shedding any tears about J Street’s dilemma, their troubles do illustrate a key point about the ongoing battle to defend Israel.

J Street came into existence in part as a cheering section for Obama administration pressure against Israel. But it was also a manifestation of the old left-right debate in Israel and the United States between those who supported “land for peace” as the solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and those who opposed the idea. J Street’s belief that Israel needed to take risks for peace might have made sense in 1992 before Oslo, the second intifada, and three Palestinian refusals of Israeli offers of statehood. But after 20 years during which Israel has traded land not for peace but for terror, J Street’s positions aren’t so much wrong as they are irrelevant. That’s why Israel’s political left that once dominated the country’s politics is now marginalized and rejected by an electorate that backs the Netanyahu government’s actions in Gaza by a 9-1 margin.

The real battle for Israel now isn’t the old one about where its borders should be placed or whether settlements are good or bad but whether there should be a Jewish state or if it has a right to defend itself. In that struggle, J Street’s tepid Zionism doesn’t resonate with the mainstream community and is of little interest to leftists who prefer open-Israel bashers like JVP.

J Street once thought it would become the main address for Jewish activism. But recent events have shown that J Street’s moment has passed. Those who wish to support Israel in its life and death struggle against Hamas terrorists who seek its destruction will always gravitate toward groups that don’t pull their punches when it comes to defending the Jewish state. At the same time, J Street’s base on the left is following celebrity Israel-bashers and abandoning it to join with those who are playing into Hamas’s hands by claiming it is wrong to shoot back at the terrorists. In this environment, organizations that won’t take a clear side in this fight will soon find themselves historical relics of a bygone era that will never return.

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Scholars of African Literature Have Eyes Only for Israel

The African Literature Association has thrown its insubstantial weight behind the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Opponents of the boycott movement should welcome this move. Unlike some of the other academic associations that have gotten behind BDS, the African Literature Association cannot even assert that it has, because of U.S. funding, a special interest in Israel. The ALA, though it is headquartered in the U.S. at present, is an emphatically international organization whose political interests, if a literary association must have such interests, are in Africa.

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The African Literature Association has thrown its insubstantial weight behind the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Opponents of the boycott movement should welcome this move. Unlike some of the other academic associations that have gotten behind BDS, the African Literature Association cannot even assert that it has, because of U.S. funding, a special interest in Israel. The ALA, though it is headquartered in the U.S. at present, is an emphatically international organization whose political interests, if a literary association must have such interests, are in Africa.

It is therefore striking that none of the ALA’s resolutions specifically concerns Africa. In South Africa, where the ALA met this year, Human Rights Watch has said that the government has refused to acknowledge “xenophobic attacks on refugees” from Somalia and elsewhere. But the ALA, though it explicitly complains of Israel’s treatment of African refugees, had nothing to say, as its members partied in Johannesburg, about South Africa’s record.

Here are some other things going on, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report, on the continent the African Literature Association purports to be concerned with. Human Rights Watch shares with the ALA an undue focus on Israel, but at least it has the consistency to notice human-rights violations elsewhere.

In Sudan, the government’s “indiscriminate bombing and ongoing clashes with rebels, and the obstruction of humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas since the outbreak of conflict in June 2011, have displaced tens of thousands within those states and elsewhere in Sudan and forced more than 225,000 to flee to refugee camps in South Sudan and Ethiopia.” Millions have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands are dead. The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In South Sudan, “the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, especially in Murle areas. Soldiers unlawfully targeted and killed Murle civilians and caused thousands to flee their homes out of fear of attack. Soldiers also looted or destroyed homes, schools, churches, and the compounds of aid agencies.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In Ethiopia, “arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in detention continues to be a major problem. Students, members of opposition groups, journalists, peaceful protesters, and others seeking to express their rights to freedom of assembly, expression, or association are frequently detained arbitrarily.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In the Central African Republic, the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel group that briefly controlled the government “killed scores of civilians who were trying to flee attacks. In some villages, every single structure was at least partially burned. The destruction was often accompanied by pillaging, leaving civilian populations utterly destitute.” Violence between the Seleka and armed Christian and animist groups continues and has displaced hundreds of thousands. The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In Somalia, in government controlled areas, “targeted killings of civilians, notably journalists, increased.” In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “the Rwandan-backed M23 armed group committed widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment of children.” In Nigeria, “security forces razed and burned homes and properties in communities thought to harbor Boko Haram fighters. In Baga, a town in Borno state, Nigerian troops destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and allegedly killed scores of people, apparently in retaliation for the killing of a soldier by Boko Haram.” In Eritrea, many “are denied fundamental human rights, including the right to express opinions, form associations and peacefully protest. Scores of people continue to be arbitrarily detained and imprisoned without trial at the whim of commanders and security forces; many are tortured.  Freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice is denied if the government disapproves of the choice.” The African Literature Association doesn’t care.

In fairness, the organization has not been wholly silent on human rights in Africa. For example, the ALA’s president, in 2011, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to act on unspecified human-rights violations in Africa. But that letter was much less pointed and detailed than the resolution against Israel which, among other things, singles out Israel alone for working with repressive African regimes. They had nothing to say about their host South Africa’s close allies, China and Russia, both of which are known for exporting arms to nations, including Sudan, with poor human-rights records. Nor did they speak to South Africa’s refusal to support sanctions against Syria. About such things, the righteous scholars of the African Literature Association do not care.

We can thank the African Literature Association for making things crystal clear. When an association that exists primarily “to facilitate the attempts of a world-wide audience to appreciate the efforts of African writers and artists” and secondarily to support “the African peoples in their struggle for liberation” interests itself solely in Israel and has not a word for human-rights abuses in Africa, we can be confident that we are dealing with scholars in the grip of an anti-Semitic movement.

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BDS Cares Nothing for Your Wounded Feelings

Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?

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Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?

A pretty strong indication became apparent during the course of a CNN interview following the Presbyterian vote. Speaking in defense of the move was Presbyterian moderator Heath Rada. One couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the man. He admitted that he had not cast a vote on the issue and as the grilling by CNN anchors unfolded it became more and more apparent that Rada didn’t really believe in the divestment he was now being obliged to defend. Over and over again Rada kept repeating that this was not intended as an attack on “our Jewish brothers and sisters” but quite quickly the familial insinuation became distastefully patronizing. I wonder just how many American Jews reciprocate the suggestion of such kinship with the Presbyterian Church right now.

Next up was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. By all accounts Jacobs had been present at the vote and had done much to try and talk the church elders around. Although, given how the vote went in the end, it seems he didn’t get much in return for his trouble. Still, speaking on CNN he was as eloquent a spokesperson as anyone could wish for. He unequivocally slammed the grotesque anti-Jewish publication Zionism Unsettled (which is still on sale at the Presbyterian Church’s website), and rightly pointed out that this vote is an affirmation of global BDS–boycott, divestment, sanctions.

Yet as Rabbi Jacobs laid out his argument it became quite clear why he and other liberal Jews failed to prevent that BDS vote and why they will continue to fail to do so in the future. Jacobs’s argument hinged on one point: votes like this hurt Jewish feelings. But that’s a pretty weak argument. If one really believes that Israel is oppressing and tormenting Palestinians, then the hurt feelings of American Jewry are all very regretful, but in the face of injustice, what right do American Jews have to say it upsets them to see Israel’s military activities boycotted? If Israel’s misdemeanors in the West Bank are so very wrong then instead of complaining about their feelings, shouldn’t good liberal Jews support such moves?

And Rabbi Jacobs reiterated the legitimacy of these notions even during the few minutes he was speaking on CNN, so one can only imagine what he might have said in his much lengthier comments to the church elders. As an alternative to boycotts Jacobs suggested that he and the Presbyterians should go meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and protest settlements. But by suggesting that settlements are what needs protesting Jacobs strengthens the notion that settlements are the underlying problem. If that’s true—and if Israelis refuse to accept this—then why not boycott them just like you might place sanctions on any other state that’s gone rogue?

There is however a much stronger moral argument against the latest Presbyterian divestment. The first point is that the companies they are divesting from provide security services against terrorism that help stop their “Jewish brothers and sisters” from being murdered. Motorola is being divested from for the apparent outrage of providing surveillance technology that protects civilian communities in the West Bank while HP is responsible for the terrible crime of providing materials used for preventing weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea. BDS calls these the apparatus of occupation, but are the Presbyterians really telling us that they oppose measures to prevent terrorism targeting civilians? Never mind Jewish feelings, what about defending Jewish lives?

The second point to be stressed here is that those speaking to groups like the Presbyterians have to stop repeating this false narrative that says that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through settlements. It must be reiterated constantly that Israel has legitimate rights in the West Bank that are, yes, necessitated by the present security situation and Palestinian rejectionism but more importantly that are upheld by historical and legal right. There is a strong international law case that people like Rabbi Jacobs refuse to make because they have staked everything on a two-state agreement that may never come.

American Jews can complain about how hurtful boycotts of Israel are, but once they have bought into the idea that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through an illegal occupation on Palestinian land they have already lost the argument. And as for those driving the BDS campaign itself, they don’t care about Jewish feelings; attacking Jews is what BDS is all about.

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The Presbyterians Divest

By now, COMMENTARY readers may have heard that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted, narrowly, 310 to 303, to divest from three companies, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, that allegedly help Israelis oppress Palestinians. I provide some background here.

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By now, COMMENTARY readers may have heard that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted, narrowly, 310 to 303, to divest from three companies, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, that allegedly help Israelis oppress Palestinians. I provide some background here.

Yair Rosenberg observes that “given how many Presbyterians and their leaders at the Assembly voted against the measure … and how many rank-and-file members of the 1.8 million-strong church had little say in this vote, individual and local ties will no doubt persist, even as institutional ones become strained.

I think Rosenberg is right about the rank and file members. And the Assembly did some good things this session, such as distancing itself, though not as decisively as it should have, from the noxious “study guide” sold by the Church, Zionism Unsettled, which revives the old “Zionism is racism” attack. Nonetheless, the actions of the Church’s General Assembly are worse than the divestment vote indicates.

In particular, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 482-88, to reviewGeneral Assembly Policy Regarding the Two-State Solution in Israel Palestine” and to put the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) in charge of the review. Since the ACSWP provided advice and counsel on this and other matters before the Assembly, it is not hard to guess what this review might say. Concerning the resolution to reconsider the Church’s commitment to a two-state solution, the ACSWP thinks it important to remind us that the breakdown of peace negotiations is entirely Israel’s fault. Here is a sample:

Secretary of State John Kerry has testified that Israel’s refusal to curtail settlements and finally to release a fourth group of only twenty-five Palestinian prisoners led to a “poof” that ended the process. … There were no significant achievements during the 9 months, and in fact a growing number of “price tag” desecrations of Christian and Muslim sites, increased number of shootings of nonviolent Palestinian protesters and farmers trying to harvest alongside “security zones,” and numbers of Palestinians denied identity cards in Jerusalem.

In commenting on other resolutions, ACSWP indicated its support for the boycott movement. For example, although the Assembly rejected a resolution to boycott “all Hewlett Packard products,” ACSWP was for it because boycott strategy remains an effective and very participatory way to support greater justice for the Palestinians, and seems to be regarded by the Israeli government and its supporters as a danger to their control. ACSWP also complained, in a different context, about the demonization of Hamas.

So the Assembly voted, not narrowly but overwhelmingly, to entrust a committee that has shown itself to be consistently and deeply anti-Israel with making recommendations about where the Church should stand on a two-state solution.

It is hard to believe that the people who voted for this resolution, the vast majority of the Assembly, were unaware of what the ACSWP does, for it has a track record. But even if they somehow managed to be ignorant of what their vote implied, they are, at best, frivolous about serious matters.

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Will the Presbyterian Church USA Vote for Divestment (and Irrelevance)?

Irrelevance breeds irrelevance. When an organization allows itself to be influenced by radicals who are out of touch with the membership, the members begin to depart or tune out. As the numbers of thoughtful and attentive members dwindles, the organization becomes more susceptible to the influence of radicals. More members depart and tune out, the radicals become a significant part of the base leaders think they need to listen to, and the organization is in danger of being taken over. Such was the case of the small, barely relevant American Studies Association, which has become a playground for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and such is the case with the much larger, but also barely relevant Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church, like other mainline churches, has been hemorrhaging members for some time. In 2013, PCUSA counted 1,760,200 members. That was down from 2,525,330 in 2000, a decline of about thirty percent.

Maybe Anti-Semitism will help.

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Irrelevance breeds irrelevance. When an organization allows itself to be influenced by radicals who are out of touch with the membership, the members begin to depart or tune out. As the numbers of thoughtful and attentive members dwindles, the organization becomes more susceptible to the influence of radicals. More members depart and tune out, the radicals become a significant part of the base leaders think they need to listen to, and the organization is in danger of being taken over. Such was the case of the small, barely relevant American Studies Association, which has become a playground for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and such is the case with the much larger, but also barely relevant Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church, like other mainline churches, has been hemorrhaging members for some time. In 2013, PCUSA counted 1,760,200 members. That was down from 2,525,330 in 2000, a decline of about thirty percent.

Maybe Anti-Semitism will help.

Jonathan Tobin has reported on Zionism Unsettled, a “teaching guide” developed by the Israel-Palestine Network of the Church. Zionism Unsettled calls Zionism, or support for a Jewish state, “Jewish supremacism” on the order of support for Jim Crow, or the Nazis. David Duke tells us that this term was his idea, but he does not seem to mind that the authors borrowed it without attribution. Among friends, after all, one does not stand on ceremony. The church did just barely distance itself from Zionism Unsettled without, however, disavowing it. The Israel-Palestine Mission Network “speaks to the Church and not for the Church.” Never mind that the organization has the mandate and support of PCUSA, or that the book is for sale at the Church store.

The Israel-Palestine Mission Network was formed by the PCUSA General Assembly in 2004, the same year in which it passed a resolution calling for “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” While the Assembly was at it, it claimed that the “occupation” was “at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict” and lectured Israelis on the importance of making peace with the Palestinians. Formed at the behest of anti-Israel activists, the network has had a problem with anti-Semitism ever since. In 2006, under intense pressure, the Assembly voted to remove the selective disinvestment language. The Assembly also professed to be “grieved by the pain that [the 2004 resolution caused,” to “accept responsibility for the flaws [in the process leading up to that resolution], and to hope for “a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

The activists have been trying to rescind this dangerous embrace of mutual understanding and dialogue, and to pass disinvestment, ever since. In 2012, they almost persuaded the Assembly to disinvest from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola for “profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.” They lost 333 to 331. Encouraged, they are back at it again at this year’s General Assembly, which is meeting this week. The good news is that the Mideast Committee failed, albeit very narrowly, to pass on to the General Assembly a resolution describing Israel as an apartheid state. It also succeeded, albeit hypocritically, in advancing a resolution distancing PCUSA from the now radioactive Zionism Unsettled. The bad news is that the same committee voted to recommend divestment from, once again, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola.

Those members of the General Assembly who are merely foolish, rather than hostile to Jews, may vote for the resolution, which is admittedly much narrower than the one passed in 2004, thinking it relatively benign. That is the BDS strategy. Get what you can get, then publicly marvel at your momentum, even if what you got is less than what you were able to get ten years ago. But, as Yair Rosenberg reveals, boycott supporters like Reverend Larry Grimm hope for a lot more than disinvestment in a few companies: Grimm let the “everyone would be better off if there were no Israel” cat out of the bag on his Facebook page: “America is the Promised Land. We all know this. Come to the land of opportunity. Quit feeling guilt about what you are doing in Palestine, Jewish friends. Stop it. Come home to America!”

The Mideast Committee also passed a resolution urging reconsideration of the Church’s support for a two-state solution, a position which certainly follows from Grimm’s view that there should be no Jewish state.

I hope the General Assembly, which will take up these resolutions later this week, will again, by however small a margin, reject them. But if they don’t, BDS won’t get much momentum out of it. The more likely result, momentum-wise, is even more departures from the church. In spite of the implosion of mainline Protestantism, the press is still in the old habit of attending to the pronouncements of  mainline Protestant groups. So if the Assembly votes to embrace the anti-Israel lunatic fringe, even more rank and file Presbyterians may notice that they have leaders, and that these leaders are, increasingly, radicals and fools. Even devoted churchgoers can’t be blamed for leaving a church when it starts to smell this bad.

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The Boycott That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Much has already been said, here and elsewhere, about the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). But a particularly unpleasant turn in this saga has been the infiltration of mainline Protestant churches by pro-boycott activists. Jonathan Tobin has written extensively about how this phenomenon has played out within the Presbyterian Church. The United Methodist Church, however, has until now held out firmly against those within their movement who would see them go the way of the Presbyterians. Yet last week the church’s pension board announced that it would be divesting from the British security company G4S on account of the fact that it provides equipment for Israeli prisons and the military operating in the West Bank.

The problem is that back at their convention two years ago, Methodists voted in an overwhelming 2-1 majority against divestment from companies operating in Israel. This decision, it would seem, was simply taken independently by the pension’s board. But given that the grassroots of the Methodist Church (America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination) don’t appear to share this antipathy to Israel, there has been a certain degree of backlash. And rather than defend their actions for what they are—a legitimization of the fiercely anti-Israel BDS movement—the pensions board has shamefully attempted to deny that any such divestment has taken place.

In a “clarification” released over the weekend, the church’s pension board insisted that this move wasn’t about Israel but rather was specific to G4S, claiming the initial investment had been a mistake because the church has a policy of not investing in prisons. Rather, the statement blamed the media and activist groups for labeling this move as a symbolic gesture in favor of divestment against Israel. Given that the investment in question concerns just $110,000 in stock this move was clearly always symbolic. But the explanation given by the Methodists and their pension board just isn’t convincing.

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Much has already been said, here and elsewhere, about the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). But a particularly unpleasant turn in this saga has been the infiltration of mainline Protestant churches by pro-boycott activists. Jonathan Tobin has written extensively about how this phenomenon has played out within the Presbyterian Church. The United Methodist Church, however, has until now held out firmly against those within their movement who would see them go the way of the Presbyterians. Yet last week the church’s pension board announced that it would be divesting from the British security company G4S on account of the fact that it provides equipment for Israeli prisons and the military operating in the West Bank.

The problem is that back at their convention two years ago, Methodists voted in an overwhelming 2-1 majority against divestment from companies operating in Israel. This decision, it would seem, was simply taken independently by the pension’s board. But given that the grassroots of the Methodist Church (America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination) don’t appear to share this antipathy to Israel, there has been a certain degree of backlash. And rather than defend their actions for what they are—a legitimization of the fiercely anti-Israel BDS movement—the pensions board has shamefully attempted to deny that any such divestment has taken place.

In a “clarification” released over the weekend, the church’s pension board insisted that this move wasn’t about Israel but rather was specific to G4S, claiming the initial investment had been a mistake because the church has a policy of not investing in prisons. Rather, the statement blamed the media and activist groups for labeling this move as a symbolic gesture in favor of divestment against Israel. Given that the investment in question concerns just $110,000 in stock this move was clearly always symbolic. But the explanation given by the Methodists and their pension board just isn’t convincing.

G4S has been at the top of the BDS hit list for some time now, along with other favorites like Sodastream and Ahava. More to the point, this move by the pensions board came after considerable lobbying by United Methodist Kairos Response, a hardline pro-Palestinian activist group within the Methodist Church that has been advocating and campaigning for divestment from Israel for some years. When this move was announced they were under no doubt that they had had a victory and announced it as such, celebrating the move as a “landmark divestment action.” David Wildman, United Methodist executive secretary for human rights and racial justice at the General Board of Global Ministries, similarly released a statement referring to Israel’s “illegal … military occupation” and calling the move a “strong human rights message both to G4S specifically and to other companies whose business operations support longstanding human rights abuses against Palestinians.” And while the Methodist pension board has attempted to blame the New York Times for this move being reported as an act of BDS, their own United Methodist Reporter quite openly recorded that, “The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is divesting its investments with a company for the first time due to Israel’s illegal settlements and military occupation.”

It is difficult to make sense of any of this. But the most likely explanation is that this is another instance of an activist vanguard hijacking the relevant committees of moderate institutions with the intention of directing them toward an extreme end. Given that this agenda is completely out of line with the grassroots consensus of the Methodist Church, there has been an attempt to obscure what is being done here. That still leaves others to celebrate this as a blow struck for the anti-Israel agenda, and more importantly it opens the way to legitimizing further divestment and boycott actions in the future.

And underlying all of this, it is impossible to discount the specter of resurgent Christian anti-Semitism, which now sees its greatest growth potential in the liberal rather than the conservative denominations. One can’t imagine that most Methodists would wish to go the way of the Presbyterians, or for that matter their British counterparts who, during their 2010 national conference, voted for a boycott amidst speeches where delegates spoke of being the “heirs of Abraham” as part of a “new covenant” that “never speaks of the land or owning it” and rejects “a racist God with favorites.” We should be open eyed about where all of this may be going, but also about where some of this is coming from.

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Anti-Jewish Rhetoric at the Modern Language Association

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have an update on the Modern Language Association’s debate on Israel. The Association is now voting on Resolution 2014-1, which calls on the “Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Voting ends on June 1.

The resolution barely passed the MLA’s Delegate Assembly back in January. That was a setback for the anti-Israel crew at the MLA, which had overwhelmingly won a similar vote back in 2008. I assumed that the resolution would easily win a full membership vote, but a group called MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights has made a real debate of it. Much of that debate has been conducted at an MLA member’s-only site, during a comment period on the resolution, which has now ended. Someone has been good enough to post most of it here.  At least two things are striking about the debate.

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Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have an update on the Modern Language Association’s debate on Israel. The Association is now voting on Resolution 2014-1, which calls on the “Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Voting ends on June 1.

The resolution barely passed the MLA’s Delegate Assembly back in January. That was a setback for the anti-Israel crew at the MLA, which had overwhelmingly won a similar vote back in 2008. I assumed that the resolution would easily win a full membership vote, but a group called MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights has made a real debate of it. Much of that debate has been conducted at an MLA member’s-only site, during a comment period on the resolution, which has now ended. Someone has been good enough to post most of it here.  At least two things are striking about the debate.

First, opponents fully understand that the resolution is not really about denials of entry. Neither those who sponsored the resolution nor those who are voting for it think that the State Department is deferring important policy decisions until the professors of language and literature weigh in. The resolution is “a Trojan horse for a boycott” or, to be more precise, for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, a movement that refuses to be pinned down on the question of Israel’s right to exist, that seeks to turn Israel into a pariah state on the model of apartheid South Africa, and that, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, has recommended that backers do their best to shun Israel academics because “academic exchanges with Israeli academics … have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.” This line, perhaps because of the bad publicity it has generated, was recently removed from the site of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, but it can still be seen in this snapshot.

We can be confident that support for BDS is the symbolic import of the resolution because of what we know about its sponsors, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University and Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University. Both signed a 2009 letter that, after describing the boycott campaign against South Africa, has this to say:

It is time for the United States to place a similar pressure on Israel. That Israel has been America’s beneficiary, unchallenged in its war crimes and in its acts of terror, uncontested for its racist civil constitution and illegal occupations, has not been to the United States’ advantage. On the contrary, such unquestioning support of Israel has fuelled the legitimate anger of the Islamic world, supplied the justification for terrorism, and continually tarnished the United States’ reputation among the democracies of the world.

Second, some of the resolution’s supporters, all MLA members, oblige those who find anti-Semitism in the BDS movement. For example:

As on the broader political scene, moves to seek justice and opportunity for Palestinians (or to remove obstacles to achieving those goals) are countered by Zionist attack dogs. When the Zionist lobby railroads its way through Congress, universities, and civil society no request is made for equal time for the other side. Only when a counter voice is raised in this tightly controlled wilderness, do the proponents of Israeli exceptionalism cry foul.

Another is more explicit: this “resolution rightly targets only Israel given the humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision making process of Academia in general.”

Supporters of BDS will assert that it is unfair to pin a few anti-Semitic comments on them. Set aside the fact that, as one supporter puts it, the “xenophobic rhetoric of ‘outsiders’ and conspiracies” pervades the debate. At least as telling is how the BDS movement itself reacts to well-founded accusations that prominent supporters, like Roger Waters and Alice Walker deploy classic anti-Semitic tropes. As far as I know, no BDS leader has uttered a peep, and both remain propaganda tools in good standing.

This silence is presumably related to the movement’s studied ambivalence about whether it wants to roll back 1967 or 1948. While there are presumably some anti-Semites among any group that criticizes Israel, anti-Semites are an important part of BDS’s base.

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Obama’s Favorite v. BDS Presbyterians

I wrote on Tuesday about one of the first shots fired by those seeking to boycott Israel in advance of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Two years ago at the last such gathering, the Presbyterians came within two votes of adopting a pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) proposal against Israel and the powerful anti-Zionist faction in their ranks are taking no chances about this year’s debate. They forced a Virginia pastor to resign as moderator of their Middle East committee because he had taken trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups even though he had been on pro-Palestinian junkets in the past. But the focus of much of the discussion among Presbyterians will be the book and companion DVD published earlier this year titled Zionism Unsettled. As I noted in February it is an anti-Zionist screed with heavy overtones of anti-Semitism that seeks to delegitimize not only the Jewish state but also its American supporters.

Among the targets of Zionism Unsettled is an unlikely figure: the distinguished Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who is, as is well known, President Obama’s favorite philosopher. According to the new Presbyterian guide to the Middle East, Niebuhr and other liberal figures that supported the establishment of a Jewish state are guilty of “moral blindness” for embracing Zionism. But his daughter and his grandnephew have now come forward both to defend Niebuhr and to place Zionism Unsettled in the proper context of the war on Israel. Writing in the Huffington Post, Elisabeth Sifton and Gustav Niebuhr state clearly that by trashing the great theologian in this manner, the BDS crowd is not only distorting the record but also placing the Presbyterians on the wrong side of history.

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I wrote on Tuesday about one of the first shots fired by those seeking to boycott Israel in advance of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Two years ago at the last such gathering, the Presbyterians came within two votes of adopting a pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) proposal against Israel and the powerful anti-Zionist faction in their ranks are taking no chances about this year’s debate. They forced a Virginia pastor to resign as moderator of their Middle East committee because he had taken trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups even though he had been on pro-Palestinian junkets in the past. But the focus of much of the discussion among Presbyterians will be the book and companion DVD published earlier this year titled Zionism Unsettled. As I noted in February it is an anti-Zionist screed with heavy overtones of anti-Semitism that seeks to delegitimize not only the Jewish state but also its American supporters.

Among the targets of Zionism Unsettled is an unlikely figure: the distinguished Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who is, as is well known, President Obama’s favorite philosopher. According to the new Presbyterian guide to the Middle East, Niebuhr and other liberal figures that supported the establishment of a Jewish state are guilty of “moral blindness” for embracing Zionism. But his daughter and his grandnephew have now come forward both to defend Niebuhr and to place Zionism Unsettled in the proper context of the war on Israel. Writing in the Huffington Post, Elisabeth Sifton and Gustav Niebuhr state clearly that by trashing the great theologian in this manner, the BDS crowd is not only distorting the record but also placing the Presbyterians on the wrong side of history.

Sifton and Niebuhr note the significance of the Presbyterian General Assembly taking place in Detroit this year:

Detroit [is] ironically, the city where Niebuhr first served as a pastor (and where, almost 90 years ago, he first argued publicly that Christian efforts to convert Jews should cease, given that Jews — but not only Jews — considered such efforts anti-Semitic). If the motion is carried this time, Presbyterians — congregations, seminaries and individuals — will have to explain how their church’s endorsement of the scathing critique of Israel in Zionism Unsettled shouldn’t be regarded as profoundly anti-Israel.

But what really bothers the pair is the way contemporary Presbyterians are ready to ignore history in order to advance their anti-Zionist agenda.

Passages in Zionism Unsettled besmirching these “liberal pro-Zionists” disregard chronology and common sense to make illiberal, inaccurate accusations. Ludicrously, Niebuhr and Tillich are lumped together with other “intellectuals with roots in Germany” (some of them Jews) in an alleged “moral support group” in the 1930s that became a “political think tank” for Zionism doing its best to drag the United States into the war. These Christians’ admirable solidarity with Jews — at a time when fanatical anti-Semites were denouncing, threatening and killing pro- and anti-Zionist Jews along with uncommitted ones — is now counted against them. 

For Presbyterians to indulge in such clumsy calumny against formative modern Protestant teachers might prompt one to mere head-shaking pity. But we are concerned that the booklet does not foster actual study within Christian institutions and instead effectively shuts down discussion. It seems to brand any understanding of Zionism past or present as ipso facto hostility to Palestinians. Nor does it advance the real cause worth striving for: agreement on a workable basis for political, religious and cultural peace between Israel and the Arab nations.

Niebuhr’s stand against anti-Semitism demands our admiration today, but it was particularly courageous in the context of the era in which he made it. Though not uncritical of Zionist leaders whom he rightly chided for being too optimistic for thinking the Arabs would not fight the creation of a Jewish state because it was clearly in their interests to share the land and cooperate toward the goal of economic development, Niebuhr nevertheless understood that the effort to create a state in their historic homeland was a just cause. The problem with the BDSers is not merely that they don’t tell the truth about Israel’s measures of self-defense or its right or even the reality of Palestinian violence and rejectionism. It is that they reject Niebuhr’s belief that Jewish aspirations for a state were entirely “legitimate.” As such they seek to deny to the Jews alone what no one would think of refusing to any other people. Niebuhr understood the thin veil that separated anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, as did many other decent thinkers on both the left and the right in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

By turning their back on this great man with the publication of Zionism Unsettled and by flirting with BDS, Presbyterians are doing more than venting their spleen against Israel. They are turning their back on a tradition of Christian decency that Niebuhr embodied.

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What Is Going on at Vassar College?

Vassar has recently distinguished itself in at least two ways. First, it is one of a tiny group of colleges whose faculty supported the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel in substantial numbers. Thirty-nine faculty members signed a letter that sang the praises of the boycott-Israel movement. Second, as I have written here before, Vassar was the venue for an open forum at which two professors were vilified for leading a trip to Israel and at which Jewish students who spoke up were heckled. William Jacobson has provided extensive coverage of the situation at Vassar and was there to speak earlier this week.

In a blog entry describing reactions to Jacobson’s speech, Jewish studies professor Rebecca Lesses draws attention to a series of posts by Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the most shocking of which includes this language: “Of course, mainstream media hasbarats have been around for decades, as have ‘hasbaratchiks,’ fifth-columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel.” The author of the linked article, Greg Felton, also wrote a book entitled The Host and the Parasite: How Israel’s Fifth Column Consumed America. Lesses observes that the Occidental Quarterly, on which the SJP draws, is an anti-Semitic magazine. While I hesitate to take the word of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which she cites, for it, a look through the Occidental Quarterly, which includes an article about libertarianism as a creed advanced by Jewish intellectuals to advance Jewish “group evolutionary interests,” tends to support the charge.

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Vassar has recently distinguished itself in at least two ways. First, it is one of a tiny group of colleges whose faculty supported the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel in substantial numbers. Thirty-nine faculty members signed a letter that sang the praises of the boycott-Israel movement. Second, as I have written here before, Vassar was the venue for an open forum at which two professors were vilified for leading a trip to Israel and at which Jewish students who spoke up were heckled. William Jacobson has provided extensive coverage of the situation at Vassar and was there to speak earlier this week.

In a blog entry describing reactions to Jacobson’s speech, Jewish studies professor Rebecca Lesses draws attention to a series of posts by Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the most shocking of which includes this language: “Of course, mainstream media hasbarats have been around for decades, as have ‘hasbaratchiks,’ fifth-columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel.” The author of the linked article, Greg Felton, also wrote a book entitled The Host and the Parasite: How Israel’s Fifth Column Consumed America. Lesses observes that the Occidental Quarterly, on which the SJP draws, is an anti-Semitic magazine. While I hesitate to take the word of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which she cites, for it, a look through the Occidental Quarterly, which includes an article about libertarianism as a creed advanced by Jewish intellectuals to advance Jewish “group evolutionary interests,” tends to support the charge.

When the source of the passage they had quoted was brought to SJP’s attention on their Facebook page, they were completely unrepentant: “We at Vassar are all about the academic freedoms. If the idea is alright, who cares where they come from?”

Of course it is disappointing that the Vassar SJP believes or pretends to believe that academic freedom is a defense of their decision to cite with favor an anti-Semitic crackpot writing for an anti-Semitic publication. More shocking is their belief that “the idea is alright.” Even an undergraduate can be expected to know that when you accuse a group of being part of a “fifth column,” you are accusing them of treason and suggesting that they deserve the fate of traitors.

The SJP consists of students, and perhaps a national publication is not the place to discuss their foolishness. But the adults in the room, including the 39 who signed the pro-BDS letter, and the administrators who stood by while Jewish students were heckled at Vassar, ought to be held to account for inattention to to a campus climate in which students feel free to post and defend anti-Jewish tropes.

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CUNY Panel Tonight on Israel

American universities have been at the forefront of the attack on Israel’s legitimacy, most notoriously through the BDS campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction the State of Israel. While supporters of Israel’s right to exist have utilized a variety of forums to push back on the anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish state, it is essential that university campuses find room for such voices as well.

So it’s heartening to see the City University of New York (CUNY) doing just that. In response to a recent anti-Israel panel event held at the CUNY Graduate Center, tonight a group of experts will discuss “Israel in the Middle East.” As the organizers explain:

The story of Israel as a nation in the Middle East needs to be told. A recent panel at the CUNY Graduate Center entitled “BDS and Academic Freedom” stigmatized the only state in the Middle East that can properly be described as a liberal democracy and whose Arab citizens enjoy full democratic and civil rights as a racist, apartheid, pinkwashing state. (Pinkwashing means that Israel’s support for civil rights for all is merely a ploy to deceive the world about its true nature.) The panel will discuss the historic Jewish presence in and connection to Israel and its struggle for peace and security. Israel has been a refuge for Jews pushed to the edge in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and has much to contribute to the well-being of a Middle East at peace with itself.

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American universities have been at the forefront of the attack on Israel’s legitimacy, most notoriously through the BDS campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction the State of Israel. While supporters of Israel’s right to exist have utilized a variety of forums to push back on the anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish state, it is essential that university campuses find room for such voices as well.

So it’s heartening to see the City University of New York (CUNY) doing just that. In response to a recent anti-Israel panel event held at the CUNY Graduate Center, tonight a group of experts will discuss “Israel in the Middle East.” As the organizers explain:

The story of Israel as a nation in the Middle East needs to be told. A recent panel at the CUNY Graduate Center entitled “BDS and Academic Freedom” stigmatized the only state in the Middle East that can properly be described as a liberal democracy and whose Arab citizens enjoy full democratic and civil rights as a racist, apartheid, pinkwashing state. (Pinkwashing means that Israel’s support for civil rights for all is merely a ploy to deceive the world about its true nature.) The panel will discuss the historic Jewish presence in and connection to Israel and its struggle for peace and security. Israel has been a refuge for Jews pushed to the edge in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and has much to contribute to the well-being of a Middle East at peace with itself.

Panelists include David Berger, Mark J. Mirsky, and recent COMMENTARY contributor KC Johnson. Here are the details:

May 8, 2014

6:00-8:00 PM

Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 5th Avenue

Room C 203-205

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The Next Step in the Campus War on Jews

In recent months, those advocating boycotts of Israel have lost a series of votes on college campuses around the country. Though the political culture of academia swings hard to the left with faculty members often tilting the discussion about the Middle East against Israel, a critical mass of fair minded students still exist at most institutions of higher learning. Part of that stems from the fact that some students—especially Jews—have been to Israel on trips where they learn the other side of the story from the pro-Palestinian propaganda that is often shoved down their throats in classes or at college forums. So rather than merely accept the lies about Israel being an “apartheid” state they can lean on their own experiences and speak about the equal rights that are held by all people in the Jewish state or discuss the complex questions about the West Bank in terms other than that of an “occupation.”

That’s a problem for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) crowd, but they’ve come up with an effective answer to it: start a campaign seeking to stigmatize those who take trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish organizations. That’s what’s happening at UCLA where an election has promoted a debate over whether it is ethical for candidates for student offices to have been to Israel on a visit sponsored by a Jewish organization. This specious issue was raised in an article published in the student newspaper the Daily Bruin last week by two members of Students for Justice for Palestine, an anti-Zionist group. It was followed by an attempt to get the student government to enact a ban on its members going to the Middle East with pro-Israel groups. That failed but, as the Daily Bruin also reported, a majority of candidates for student government positions have now signed a pledged not to take such trips.

But rather than dismissing this as just another example of business as usual on left-wing dominated college campuses, friends of Israel as well as open discourse should be alarmed about what is happening at UCLA spreading elsewhere.

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In recent months, those advocating boycotts of Israel have lost a series of votes on college campuses around the country. Though the political culture of academia swings hard to the left with faculty members often tilting the discussion about the Middle East against Israel, a critical mass of fair minded students still exist at most institutions of higher learning. Part of that stems from the fact that some students—especially Jews—have been to Israel on trips where they learn the other side of the story from the pro-Palestinian propaganda that is often shoved down their throats in classes or at college forums. So rather than merely accept the lies about Israel being an “apartheid” state they can lean on their own experiences and speak about the equal rights that are held by all people in the Jewish state or discuss the complex questions about the West Bank in terms other than that of an “occupation.”

That’s a problem for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) crowd, but they’ve come up with an effective answer to it: start a campaign seeking to stigmatize those who take trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish organizations. That’s what’s happening at UCLA where an election has promoted a debate over whether it is ethical for candidates for student offices to have been to Israel on a visit sponsored by a Jewish organization. This specious issue was raised in an article published in the student newspaper the Daily Bruin last week by two members of Students for Justice for Palestine, an anti-Zionist group. It was followed by an attempt to get the student government to enact a ban on its members going to the Middle East with pro-Israel groups. That failed but, as the Daily Bruin also reported, a majority of candidates for student government positions have now signed a pledged not to take such trips.

But rather than dismissing this as just another example of business as usual on left-wing dominated college campuses, friends of Israel as well as open discourse should be alarmed about what is happening at UCLA spreading elsewhere.

The genesis of the effort at UCLA was, of course, the defeat of a pro-BDS motion by UCLA’s student government. But rather than debate the merits of a hate-driven motion whose purpose is to advance efforts to destroy Israel, the BDSers have decided that any vote cast by someone who had actually been to the Jewish state must be tainted by filing complaints with a student judicial board. Since the most potent threat to support for BDS is knowledge of what kind of country Israel is and the challenges it faces, their goal is to treat such trips as “unethical.”

But the point of this effort is not only to boost support for BDS. Shaming those who have been on trips to Israel or take the opportunity to learn more about the Middle East first hand is, above all, a direct attack on Jewish students. Like the incidents where Jewish kids are served with fake eviction notices in their dorm rooms, the BDS campaign is blurring the already indistinct line between their noxious effort to wage economic war on Israel and anti-Semitism.

BDS advocates are, after all, not interested in an open discussion about their ideology, which proposes that the one Jewish state in the world—which is a democracy—should be singled out for discriminatory treatment that is not afforded any other country, including the most egregious human-rights offenders. The last thing they want is for more kids—especially Jewish students who seek to learn more about their faith and people—to be equipped to answer their lies with the truth.

The answer to this campaign should not only be a firm rejection of this bogus ethics issue by students, faculty, and administrators, but redoubled efforts by Jewish groups to get as many young Americans to Israel as possible. The more they know about life in the Jewish state, the less likely it will be that BDS hate groups—including those who parade their bias under a Jewish banner such as the so-called “Jewish Voices for Peace”—will gain support for their vile cause.  

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The Fight Against BDS on the Left

Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.

Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.

That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.”  What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.

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Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.

Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.

That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.”  What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.

Because this story is delusional and vile, it is no surprise that those who wish to tell it must try to shut up anyone who objects. But the fight against them is consequently a fight for the free, truth-seeking soul of the university. If we are to win that fight in higher education, we will need people on the left to take it up. Fortunately, Schneiderman and Friedman are not the only ones who have noticed and spoken or written against a growing anti-liberalism in whose eyes, as Michelle Goldberg puts it in the Nation, “old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system.” Consider the founding statement of the new Academic Advisory Council for the Third Narrative, a left-leaning organization that favors a two-state solution and opposes BDS. These “progressive scholars and academics” reject “all attempts to undermine or diminish academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.” They single out the academic boycotts that have been a favored tool of BDS because they are “discriminatory per se and undercut the purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge.”

I understand why some friends of Israel are hard on people like the members of the Academic Advisory Council who, in the name of evenhandedness, feel compelled to blame both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for “rhetoric … which demonizes and dehumanizes the other,” without acknowledging, as A.J. Adler complains, the “institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” This “pox on both your houses” line, which the Council also applies to the debate in the U.S., is a little hard to take when one of the houses in question seeks to delegitimize Israel while the other merely seeks to defend it. Nonetheless, many of the scholars in question, including Cary Nelson, Sharon Ann Musher, and Kenneth Waltzer have been tireless, courageous, and effective opponents of BDS and champions of the principles that ought to animate our colleges and universities. I do not see a path to victory against BDS in higher education that does not involve an alliance with them.

Alliance does not imply agreement about everything, and we can look forward to debating such allies about how best to pursue peace. We will have plenty of time to do so, since our BDS opponents have no interest in debating. Two weeks ago, Jacobson, who will be at Vassar on Monday, issued a challenge to 39 professors there, who have signed a letter in favor of an academic boycott of Israel. Would any of them be willing to debate him publicly?

Not one of those professors, who work for a college whose mission statement speaks of “respectful debate,” took him up on it.

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Hating Jews at NYU

An anti-Jewish hate campaign that attempts to pass itself off as some kind of humanitarian cause on behalf of Palestinians came to New York University this week, with anti-Israel campaigners posting mock eviction notices in student dorms. Those who engage in this increasingly common practice, on the grounds that this is what Israel subjects the Palestinians to, have the rather telling tendency of specifically targeting Jewish students with their leafleting. Indeed, this would appear to have been the case at NYU.

It has been reported that administrators there were initially puzzled as to why the residents of Palladium Hall had been specifically targeted. They may be puzzled, but the targeting of this dorm suddenly makes sense—inasmuch as it is possible for any of this to make sense—when one considers that the Palladium Hall is widely considered to have one of the largest number of Jewish residents; the building even being equipped with its own Sabbath observant elevator.

Targeting Jewish students with such a campaign is, however, a curious decision on the part of those who posted these notices. The eviction flyers at first glance appear to be genuine. Yet as one reads on it becomes apparent that this is a kind of perverse awareness campaign, informing students that the demolition of Palestinian homes is routine practice on the part of Israel, all part of its dastardly plan “to ethnically cleanse the region of its Arab inhabitants and maintain an exclusively ‘Jewish’ character of the state.” If we were to buy into the logic of the campaigners for a moment, and accept that this is primarily about increasing awareness, then why go out of ones way to target Jewish students? After all, if this is really about mobilizing the student body against the alleged atrocities of Zionism, then why not see to it that the campaign has the widest possible reach and is directed toward those students who are more likely to be swayed, which probably doesn’t include Jewish students just back from Birthright?

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An anti-Jewish hate campaign that attempts to pass itself off as some kind of humanitarian cause on behalf of Palestinians came to New York University this week, with anti-Israel campaigners posting mock eviction notices in student dorms. Those who engage in this increasingly common practice, on the grounds that this is what Israel subjects the Palestinians to, have the rather telling tendency of specifically targeting Jewish students with their leafleting. Indeed, this would appear to have been the case at NYU.

It has been reported that administrators there were initially puzzled as to why the residents of Palladium Hall had been specifically targeted. They may be puzzled, but the targeting of this dorm suddenly makes sense—inasmuch as it is possible for any of this to make sense—when one considers that the Palladium Hall is widely considered to have one of the largest number of Jewish residents; the building even being equipped with its own Sabbath observant elevator.

Targeting Jewish students with such a campaign is, however, a curious decision on the part of those who posted these notices. The eviction flyers at first glance appear to be genuine. Yet as one reads on it becomes apparent that this is a kind of perverse awareness campaign, informing students that the demolition of Palestinian homes is routine practice on the part of Israel, all part of its dastardly plan “to ethnically cleanse the region of its Arab inhabitants and maintain an exclusively ‘Jewish’ character of the state.” If we were to buy into the logic of the campaigners for a moment, and accept that this is primarily about increasing awareness, then why go out of ones way to target Jewish students? After all, if this is really about mobilizing the student body against the alleged atrocities of Zionism, then why not see to it that the campaign has the widest possible reach and is directed toward those students who are more likely to be swayed, which probably doesn’t include Jewish students just back from Birthright?

The decision to target Jewish students tells us everything we need to know. This isn’t about having an awareness campaign like any other. This is about those who can’t stand the Jews and their state finding a means to vent their hatred. In age age where Jews are protected by both American liberal democracy and the military strength of the Jewish state, tormenting Jews just isn’t what it used to be. Yet, for those who are inclined to do so, one can still make a sport of ostracizing and intimidating Jewish students by serving them with this kind of mock eviction notice. And they can do it under the guise of enlightened humanitarianism.

The anti-Jewish bigotry present within these flyers is clear enough for all to see. The notice proclaims, “By destroying Palestinian homes, the state makes room for illegal Israeli settlements. The Israeli government itself describes the process as ‘Judaization.’” It goes without saying that this is a vicious lie. Like any state that upholds the rule of law, Israel intermittently demolishes structures built without planning permission, whether they are built by Jews or Arabs. The notion that these buildings are demolished to make way for settlements has no basis in reality whatsoever. Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) have primarily been built on state land, in most cases on isolated hilltops far away from Palestinian communities and dwellings.

In this respect those who posted these notices are in line with a long tradition of Jew haters who fabricate Jewish crimes against non-Jewish populations. Once Jews were accused of poisoning wells and causing the crops to fail; now the allegation is that they demolish Palestinian homes to make way for settlements. Presumably at least some people in Medieval Europe believed these accusations, and clearly many people believe the deranged accusations spread about the Jewish state today.

The way these notices have been used to specifically target Jews is in many regards reminiscent of the more prominent boycott campaign being directed against Israel. Just as the mock eviction notices claim to be about promoting awareness, so the BDS movement argues that it seeks to defeat Israel by waging economic warfare against the Jewish state. Yet, since the advent of BDS Israel’s economy has only grown stronger as foreign trade, investment, and partnership schemes have all continued to flow in Israel’s direction. Even with Europe, where the boycott campaign has had its most measurable successes, Israel’s economic relations with the European economies continue to grow and strengthen. In the case of several businesses, BDS has only served to raise the profile of these companies. Since BDS began targeting SodaStream, demand for its products has significantly increased and now Starbucks appears set to purchase a 10 percent stake in the company. But for the BDSers this is all immaterial. In Europe, these campaigners have also targeted small Israeli owned stores, and the trauma that the loud and aggressive protesting causes the owners is real, and that is the whole point.

None of these efforts can be said to have any direct or positive effect for Palestinians, and in some cases these moves are even detrimental for Palestinian workers. Nor is any of this likely to do anything to significantly damage Israel. But it does provide an avenue for those who need a release for their pathological animosity against Jews. Serving Jewish students with mock eviction notices and then telling them and their fellow students that this is being done because Israelis ethnically cleanse Palestinians, is just the latest outlet for an age-old bigotry. 

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Could the Peace Process Be Destroying Israel’s Legitimacy?

In the world of hasbara–Israel advocacy–it is commonly suggested that the best way to make Israel’s case is by emphasizing that Israel wants peace: pointing to Israel’s willingness to negotiate, its withdrawals from territory, its evacuation of settlements, its prisoner releases, the settlement freezes, the moves to help establish and strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that Israel has done all of these things, but how is Israel’s standing in the world doing? Have peace talks and the surrender of territory done anything to placate those who only ever respond to these moves by calling for still more Israeli concessions? The hard truth is that today, in many circles, Israel’s legitimacy is in a worse place than it’s ever been. Israel negotiates and concedes, yet the movement to boycott and demonize Israel has only grown increasingly strident.

Israel has been locked down in the latest round of negotiations for months now. To make these talks happen Israel was first compelled to consent to the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. In the past Israel has been forced to freeze Jewish communities in the West Bank and even projects in Jerusalem. In both cases these concessions were to no avail. President Obama and Secretary Kerry regularly threaten Israel that should this current round of allegedly last-chance negotiations fail, Israel will be cast asunder to meet its fate in a cold world of boycotts and diplomatic isolation. Concessions and goodwill from Israel are rarely cause for praise from Western allies, they have simply come to be expected. 

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In the world of hasbara–Israel advocacy–it is commonly suggested that the best way to make Israel’s case is by emphasizing that Israel wants peace: pointing to Israel’s willingness to negotiate, its withdrawals from territory, its evacuation of settlements, its prisoner releases, the settlement freezes, the moves to help establish and strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that Israel has done all of these things, but how is Israel’s standing in the world doing? Have peace talks and the surrender of territory done anything to placate those who only ever respond to these moves by calling for still more Israeli concessions? The hard truth is that today, in many circles, Israel’s legitimacy is in a worse place than it’s ever been. Israel negotiates and concedes, yet the movement to boycott and demonize Israel has only grown increasingly strident.

Israel has been locked down in the latest round of negotiations for months now. To make these talks happen Israel was first compelled to consent to the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. In the past Israel has been forced to freeze Jewish communities in the West Bank and even projects in Jerusalem. In both cases these concessions were to no avail. President Obama and Secretary Kerry regularly threaten Israel that should this current round of allegedly last-chance negotiations fail, Israel will be cast asunder to meet its fate in a cold world of boycotts and diplomatic isolation. Concessions and goodwill from Israel are rarely cause for praise from Western allies, they have simply come to be expected. 

The boycott threat that Obama and Kerry try to use to panic Israel into doing whatever they instruct is really a case in point. Israel doesn’t await a wave of calls for boycotts if these talks fail; it faces them now. If anything, while this past round of Israeli concessions and negotiations have dragged on, the call for the boycott of Israel has only become louder. Across Europe and on American campuses, the campaign for boycotts is becoming frenetic. Oxfam’s attack on Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream made the headlines but there have been many cases that didn’t. In Europe a Dutch pension fund and several Scandinavian banks have already divested from Israel, while on both sides of the Atlantic the student campaign for boycotts has become particularly ugly. As Jonathan Tobin wrote about yesterday, the BDS campaign has even come to propagate racist hate speech. During a boycott vote only last night at King’s College, London, Jewish students were first hectored and reduced to tears, then mocked and taunted by BDS students.

At the very least, the fact that all of this goes on while Israel is in negotiations to try and end its presence in the West Bank should convince us that this has nothing to do with the “occupation.” Omar Barghouti, one of the leading founders of BDS, has been unequivocal in saying that the creation of two states would not end calls for boycotts. Yet if it is true that none of this is about creating a Palestinian state but rather opposing a Jewish one, then where does this leave notions about land for peace? Indeed, it would seem that on this point the boycotters are consistent with the Palestinians’ own refusal to let go of the desire to end Israel, even if it prevents them from getting a state themselves.

In a hard-hitting follow-up piece for Mosaic, Yoav Sorek tells us that since the beginning of the Oslo peace process, when Israel reneged on its pledge to itself not recognize or negotiate with the terrorist PLO, the net result has not only been unprecedented waves of carnage and violence, but the onset of deep self-doubt about Israel’s own national legitimacy. By promoting the idea that the conflict is a territorial one, Israel at once legitimized the PLO and undermined its own legitimacy before the world, as well as to itself. Accepting the land-for-peace equation meant that Israel was now saying it was the problem, not Arab annihilationism toward the Jewish state, but rather its occupation of “Palestinian land.”  

Israel has placed itself in the dock by endorsing land-for-peace. By promoting this idea Israel accepts that its activities over the 1949 armistice lines are illegitimate if not illegal. For the international community, land for peace means that Israel withdraws from territory and gets peace in return. By that logic the absence of peace is on account of the presence of Israelis in occupied land. Israel knows that it can’t hand over territory to those who will only use it to advance warfare against its people. So Israel is forced to say one thing and do another; the debate becomes fixated on whether or not the Palestinians are really a partner for peace and the Israelis just appear dishonest. Nor does Israel get any praise for the withdrawals it makes for, as Evelyn Gordon has argued previously, by denying its claim to the land Israel earns the status of a thief only partially returning what never belonged to her.  

Sorek suggests that asserting to the world Israel’s legal rights in the West Bank is the only viable option left. Once Israel establishes that it has the land by right, only then can it effectively confront Arab rejectionism, which negotiations and land withdrawals actually spur on. It would seem that if Israel cannot tolerate the status quo then it must either unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank or otherwise annex it. But it’s quite possible that further withdrawals might actually damage Israel’s legitimacy more than annexation would. 

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“Shut Up,” BDS Explained: An “Open Forum” at Vassar

It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

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It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

So members of Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine “staged an action against” the on-campus part of the class, which included picketing, urging students to drop the course, and making a lot of noise (the only dispute seems to be whether the noise could be described as “ululating” or not). Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman, two of the course instructors, complained to college officials about the protest; the protesters, most of whom were “people of color,” cried racism; and so the open forum was held.

Weiss is explicit about the character of this “open forum”:

The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.

In other words, at least at this Vassar forum, it was not even possible to have a debate about the desirability of BDS because the students who support BDS have no intention of engaging in a debate or even letting their opponents speak without disrupting them. But such “belligerence may be necessary,” Weiss argues, to make sure that the right side wins.

Let’s review to whom the belligerence is directed. Not right-wing Zionists, if there happen to be any at Vassar, but people with impeccable liberal credentials, like, as Weiss notes, Jill Schneiderman, who think that attention should be drawn to Israeli injustice but are wary of describing Israel as a blot on civilization and doubtful that boycott is a wise strategy.

BDS supporters, who usually say they are fighting a “taboo” against discussing Israel on college campuses, rarely concede that they actually think the taboo is against supporting Israel. But that is just what Weiss does: “Norman Finkelstein said some time ago that you can’t be for Israel on college campuses, and I was seeing this before my eyes.” Indeed, the “intellectual labors are done, the activists are moving. The public square will increasingly belong to the warriors of both sides.”

But Weiss is kidding himself if the thinks that a movement that is unpopular even on the left will win by trying to shout its opponents down. Even on our college campuses, which are much less sympathetic to Israel than the general public is, the politics of BDS can shock. Schneiderman was sympathetic enough to Weiss to invite him to the forum. After the forum, she had this to say: “last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.” She says of Weiss’s reporting on the meeting: “This is only one example of how Phil Weiss uses facts flexibly only when they suit his agenda.”

Some BDS supporters claim to welcome the attention the American Studies Association boycott brought to the BDS movement, even as they try to hide their activities. I bet that publicity is going to hurt in the long term, at least in the United States where, even on college campuses, much less the “public square,” trying to shut up everyone who disagrees with you does not wear well.

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