Originally posted on February 6, 2014 on The Hawblog; can be read here: http://blog.historiansagainstwar.org/2014/02/the-asa-shifts-spotlight-on-israel-and.html
The ASA boycott should remind liberals that Israeli political and military actions have been doing the work of conservative ideologies.
The American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, for “policies that violate [the] human rights” of Palestinians, will have little tangible political significance. The tremendous reaction to the bold words of a relatively small academic organization is based on a topic central to the concerns of American studies, the clashing political cultures of the US.
But the role of American politics in this issue is not immediately clear in the arguments opposing the ASA’s action, which are expressly based on the proper role of an academic organization in relation to political events. Most critics insist that this organization for the study of United States culture is stepping outside its specialized purview and that the boycott will intrude on proper academic discourse.
Critics of the boycott have shown dismay for the singling out of just one nation for boycott, but make no mention of the very large, steadfast American support for Israel whose military has dealt with Palestinians aggressively, most baldly with support of settlements that displace Palestinians.
This dynamic is a reminder of the situation in American universities in the mid-1960s. Higher education was a sector of society as segregated as most American workplaces, and many university activities involved government contracts, often for military work; however, university administrators were largely neutral on the emerging movement for Civil Rights, and mostly indifferent to American military involvements, especially in Vietnam. Many students with some faculty support asked for a broadening of education to include discussion of race relations and war and peace; most administrators largely rejected these calls arguing that they lay beyond the proper bounds of academic inquiry, labeling them “outside issues,” or even subversive.
As in the 1960s, the current debate over the boycott hinges on questions about what constitutes legitimate academic inquiry, with topics at a scholarly remove from politics, or with immersion in such debates?
The ASA has repeatedly opted for cultural involvement. I first learned American Studies from William McLoughlin, a productive scholar in religious and Native American history, and a constant agitator for social justice; he had a poster in his office with a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Action to the scholar is secondary, but essential.”
Although an “obscure academic organization” to contemporary readers of National Review, the American Studies Association included members who were vocal critics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and active supporters of Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The ASA has continued to be an agent for insisting that intellectuals keep attuned to cultural trends that shape power relations.
While the recent boycott is in keeping with the organization’s activist history and character, many are also questioning the wisdom of this particular political step, when many nations harbor human rights abuses. This is a legitimate concern, although it has generally been argued as part of support for militarist power policies with impatience for any objection to such abuses.
The ASA declared its focus on Israel because of “the unparalleled military and financial ties between the U.S. and Israel.” This organization for the study of American culture is pointing to that special relationship, so often assumed or ignored; and it joins a growing minority of scholars and advocates seeking to shift the rhetorical agenda by encouraging debate about Israeli policies and about the US role in support of them.
The critics of the boycott raise important concerns since boycotts can hamper the free flow of ideas, and the boycott is directed at universities, which are indeed engaged in much cutting-edge scientific research, often with humanitarian benefits. The ASA addresses this by directing its boycott not at individuals but at institutions that are party to policies undercutting human rights—a Sisyphus task, and further reminder of the limited power of the ASA.
The ASA president Curtis Marez has been ridiculed for sounding frivolous when he defended the boycott by saying, “We have to start somewhere,” as if it were an action of feckless meandering. However, given the prevalent American attitudes about the Middle East, this may actually be the organization’s trump card for its daring to challenge the longstanding inertia about a seemingly impossible situation.
The current mainstream US narrative is that the situation in Israel and its environs is a mess, and the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular are untrustworthy. Add to this, for a significant minority of Americans, Islam is an illegitimate religion, and many even believe that it will fall sway in an epochal battle that will bring the victory, not of Jews, but of Christians. In fact, a higher percentage of American white evangelicals than of American Jews support Israeli claims to Palestinian land.
Within this cacophony, according to the mainstream narrative, Israel represents our team in the region, with its harsh measures fulfilling American interests. This narrative is often presented as both a moral defense of Jews, and as a practical necessity for sustaining American power in this sector of the globe. With its lack of attention to the Palestinians, the path also suggests a bleak future for Israeli Jews in tense relations with the other Semites in their midst. As fear and anger stokes both sides, lack of hope will push peace out of reach, with cycles of displacement followed by terrorism, and large military reprisals spurring more frantic violence, and on and on. The move to boycott, which emerged in response to Palestinian requests for support, is a welcome turn to nonviolence that should be applauded by all sides—except, of course, for those who find Arab terror useful for maintaining fear and justifying robust military policies.
The current mainstream narrative generally includes stories of Israel’s democratic qualities and its contributions to science and culture, and finds outrage in cutting off any support, with fear that a boycott may be only the first step. And indeed, Israel is one of the most Western nations in the region; its Jewish majority is more “like us” in the “Judeo-Christian” US than most Arabs and Muslims who live in majority Third World conditions, and who in their frustration have often turned to tragic and hopeless violence against Israel and the US, even as many of the Arab militants gain support from fellow Arabs grown wealthy from Western oil purchases.
But what the mainstream narrative generally does not acknowledge is the massive displacement of Palestinians from their homes, the settlement of half a million Israelis into territory where Palestinians had lived, military control of much of their population, and their loss of civil rights, even with construction of a containment wall (there is graffiti on one portion of the wall saying “Ich bin ein Berliner,” recalling John Kennedy’s defiance of the Berlin Wall in 1963).
Harry Truman himself feared, even as he became a hero to Jews for overseeing the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, that the “underdogs” would become the “top dogs,” as John Judis points out in his Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Jews have clearly suffered a tragic and brutal history, a history that encouraged Truman and countless Americans, rightly, to sympathize with their plight, and to support an independent Jewish state as a kind of insurance policy against any future oppression.
Now, the contemporary state of Israel is a regional superpower supported by the world’s superpower, and the premium on that insurance policy is coming due with a society in constant fear and unending military actions.
What’s your narrative? There are abundant facts and interpretations on either side: you can emphasize the victimhood of Jews or of Palestinians, or the history of aggressions by Israel or by Arab terrorists. We can choose to choose the facts that support one side, or we can try to listen to the diverse parts of the whole complexity surrounding Israel and the Palestinians. Awareness of the whole picture is fostering a groundswell with the ASA joining a few other academic groups, many American Jews, and even some American evangelicals for an international movement to direct forceful non-violence against policies that impose military power against an ethnic group. Feeling the economic pinch, even some Israeli business leaders have called for more peaceful policies.
Are Israelis and Americans willing to risk the moral hazard of maintaining millions of Arabs in stateless subordination, the social hazard of living in constant fear of reprisal terrorism, and the economic hazard of large militaries—funded by the US budget with 40 cents of debt for every dollar spent—to keep this structure afloat?
Criticism of these policies is by no means an endorsement of terrorism or of arguments against Israel’s legitimacy. In fact, the kinds of policies that could emerge from such loyal criticism would be a tactical maneuver deflating support for terror and strengthening the state of Israel—not to mention improving the quality of life for its residents (who are themselves one quarter non-Jewish).
The ASA has made an attempt to shine some light on the minority narrative in American discussions. The fact that the majority narrative and longstanding unquestioning support for Israel are not sustainable does not mean that other suggestions will be perfect or even that any solution is readily apparent; but what is apparent is that certain actions will make the volatile situation worse, especially Arab terrorism and military-enforced Israeli settlements in disputed territories, both of which inflame tempers and make any steps toward peace less likely. Terrorism is the total war of the powerless, and military crackdowns are the terrorism of the powerful; in fact, when Israel was in formation, many beleaguered Jews resorted to terrorism.
I am reminded of a bathroom flood in my office building a few years ago. With water gushing out of the WC and into the hallway, I waded in, looking for the source of the flow and held my hand on a part that would stop it. It did. And someone said: that is hardly a solution. True. And I hereby declare the limits to my plumbing skills. But until a more thorough solution could emerge, the choice of where to place my hand stopped a bad situation from getting worse. The ASA placed its rather small hand on a hemorrhaging tragedy; there are many opportunities for keeping the situation from getting worse, starting with personal connections, trade among the residents, and the movement for non-violent pressure against militant policies.
It would be a tragedy if criticism of the ASA about the proper role for an academic organization would distract from the main purpose of the boycott: to shed light on the way that Israeli policies toward Palestinians have become a chapter in the contemporary American culture war between neo-conservative support of aggressive military strength by contrast with progressive hopes to scale back military action and spending in favor of diplomatic solutions. Within this American polarization, ironically, the boycott has prompted some academic progressives to affiliate with Israel’s military measures for dealing with a population within its dominion.
The American Studies Association has not artificially intruded into a Middle East topic; it has offered a reminder that Israeli political and military actions have been doing the work of conservative ideologies, but in liberal disguise.