Hysterical headlines about academic boycotts and Hillel free speech fights
suggest that Americans and American Jews are abandoning Israel due to its
supposedly bad behavior. Yet polls show that Americans and American Jews still
support Israel enthusiastically, bound by common values and shared
Marginal shrieks should not be mistaken for mainstream calls.
Moreover, the fanatic academic boycotters and those who want Jewish
organizations to host speakers rejecting Israel’s right to exist should
encounter a classic “Jew-jitsu” move: let’s repudiate the anti-intellectual
anti-Israel boycott by mobilizing people to learn about Zionism.
academic boycott should prompt mass study about Israel and Zionism. We could
call that constructive response a “Troycott” – and “like” it on the Troycott
Facebook page. Israel critics are trying to make the American Studies
Association’s bigoted boycott of Israeli academic institutions and the
Swarthmore Hillel rebellion against Hillel International’s refusal to host
anti-Israel groups sound popular, not marginal. And predictably, they
blame Israel for deserving such contempt and generating such
But Daniel Patrick Moynihan long ago taught us to blame the
totalitarian accusers not the democratic accused. Alas, Moynihan’s prophecy from
the 1970s risks coming true. As lies charging racism, apartheid and colonialism
accumulated, he said, “Whether Israel was responsible, Israel surely would be
blamed....Israel would be regretted.”
Despite its sweeping,
impressive-sounding name, “American Studies” is a small, ideologically- charged
academic sub-discipline. Merely 5,000 scholars belong to the ASA – only 827
voted to boycott. With Foucault the deconstructionist their god, Che Guevara the
Marxist guerrilla their patron saint and Edward Said, the Palestinian
propagandist their muse, the ASA ’s tweedy totalitarians demonize America and
American allies, especially Israel, while overlooking to any Third World sins.
These doctrinaire scholars don’t realize that refusing to criticize people of
color is itself condescending – and racist.
Drinking the anti-Zionist
Koolaid they caricature the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as racial not national,
and colonial not local. This one-sided blame game further insults the
Palestinians, depriving them of agency (academese for responsibility).
The New Republic’s Leon Wieseletier wrote, so far, Palestinians’ intransigence
reveals that “the imperfection of the solution disturbs them more than the
imperfection of the problem.”
Meanwhile, with only 275 Jews at
Swarthmore, that campus is marginal, too. As Swarthmore Hillel demands an “Open
Hillel” to host speakers who reject Israel’s right to exist, I am waiting for
the “open” Swarthmore Women’s Resource Center to host male chauvinists and for
the “open” Swarthmore Queer Union to host gay marriage opponents.
increasingly, it is becoming intellectually respectable to question Israel’s
very existence and treat Israel as a country uniquely born in original
sin. Ari Shavit’s complex book, My Promised Land, is being used
simplistically to open the 1948 file, to treat Israel’s founding as a human
rights “nakba,” catastrophe. Neither his odes to Israel’s “vitality” and
Zionism’s “remarkable success,” nor his warnings that “secular young Jews”
outside Israel “are disappearing into the non-Jewish space” have commanded elite
attention. Instead, his heavy-handed, moralistic, determinist attacks on Zionism
have gotten him traction – and excerpting in The New Yorker.
Israel’s UN ambassador Chaim Herzog said: “The real core of the conflict is the
denial by the Arabs of Israel’s sovereignty and Israel’s right to exist.” Now,
hard leftists are trying to mainstream that denial – without realizing that
delegitimizing and ostracizing Israel undermines peace by radicalizing Israelis
I have declared my own boycott of the ASA . I will not
serve on any panels with ASA members or read any members’ manuscripts until the
boycott ends. Yet I want to engage students. In fact, the Swarthmore controversy
inspired this counter- proposal. Too frequently on campus – and beyond – we
discuss Israel Crossfire-style, aping media sensationalism, through
confrontational panels, controversial speakers, conflict-driven
Yet, Jews traditionally studied text together – sometimes
proclaiming “taiku” – a respectful impasse. Zionists have long preferred
tree-planting to firefighting. And good teachers follow John Dewey, the great
20th-century educator, who taught that “democracy begins in
In that spirit, let’s repudiate the boycotters by
encouraging conversations about Zionism, in person and on the Internet. Let’s
see, using social media, if at least 828 learners will outnumber the 827 ASA
“yes” votes with 828 Facebook “likes.”
Let’s “like” and learn together
about Zionism, analyzing what Zionists mean when calling Jews a nation, not just
a religious community; exploring Israel’s traditional role as the Jews’
ancestral homeland; weighing the distinctions between Israel as an imperfect
democracy – like all democracies – and Zionism as the aspirational movement to
found and perfect the Jewish State. Let’s see what Zionism can mean to us in the
Once we better understand the rationale for a Jewish state,
by all means let’s learn about the Palestinian problem, Jewish-democratic
dilemmas, why Jerusalem distributes free Christmas trees, how Israel innovates,
along with all the other blessings and curses resulting from translating Zionist
ideas into Israeli realities.
So let’s encourage Zionist learning,
Zionist salons, facilitating open, substantive, critical, meaningful
conversations. Let’s read Theodor Herzl, Israel’s Declaration of Independence,
great modern Zionist manifestos, Barack Obama’s understanding of Zionism and
Ruth Gavison’s explanation for how a state can be both Jewish and democratic,
explaining that if Jews are a people then a Jewish state is not a theocracy. All
those texts are posted on the Troycott page.
Let’s stop being defensive.
Let’s seize this moment to take back the night from the campus ideologues and
totalitarians. Let’s restore a thoughtful, respectful dialogue about what
Zionism – and Israel – was, is, and can be.
The author is professor of
history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history,
including Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, recently
published by Oxford University Press. His next book will be on Bill Clinton and
Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video!