US in the Middle East / Middle East in the US

Lifting the Liberal veil on US support for Israel

Originally published on April 7, 2014 in History News Network; can be accessed here: 

Support for Israeli political and military actions have been doing the work of American conservative ideologies, but in liberal disguise

The American Studies Association is an academic David dwarfed by the political Goliaths currently managing Israeli-Palestinian relations.  But the association’s academic boycott of Israel, for “policies that violate [the] human rights” of Palestinians, has produced a tremendous reaction because it reveals the long-hidden role of American political divisions in US policies in the region.

And yet, among all the debating points against and for the boycott, there has been minimal attention to the role of American political ideologies.  Instead, the arguments against the ASA’s action have been based on the proper role of an academic organization in relation to political events, while supporters of the boycott focus on Israeli restrictions on Palestinian civil rights often with use of military force.

This dynamic is a reminder of the situation in American universities in the mid-1960s. While Civil Rights and the Vietnam War agitated the country, many students with some faculty support asked for a broadening of education to include discussion of race relations and war and peace; most administrators rejected these calls arguing that they fell outside the proper bounds of academic inquiry, labeling them outside issues, or even subversive.

The ASA has long served the academic community and US civil society by telling truth to power.  I first learned American Studies from William McLoughlin, a productive and inspiring scholar in religious and Native American history at Brown University, 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.”

With its resolution for boycott, the ASA joins a growing minority of scholars and advocates seeking to shift the rhetorical agenda by encouraging debate about Israeli policies and “the unparalleled military and financial ties between the U.S. and Israel.”

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 Israel and its environs, this may actually be the organization’s trump card for its willingness to challenge the longstanding inertia about a seemingly impossible situation.

The current mainstream US narrative is that the situation 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 ultimately of Jews, but of Christians.  In fact, a higher percentage of American white evangelicals than of American Jews support Israeli claims to Palestinian land.

To most Americans, 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, this path also suggests a bleak future for Israeli Jews in tense relations with the other Semites in their midst, and with many Palestinians even contained behind walls.  Graffiti on one wall reads “Ich bin ein Berliner,” recalling John Kennedy’s defiance of the Berlin Wall in 1963.

Fear and anger have haunted each side for decades, with tragic cycles of terror and military reprisals.  The boycott 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.

It would be a tragedy if criticism of the ASA about the proper role for an academic organization would distract from 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 ASA action reminds us that Israeli political and military actions have been doing the work of conservative ideologies, but in liberal disguise.


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