'Israel Denial' lays bare academic attempts to delegitimize Israel

Postmodernism and post-colonialism, combined with antisemitism, have created fertile ground for extreme anti-Israel demonization on campus.

Israeli officials exit the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, 2001, protesting attempts to single out Israel as a racist state.  (photo credit: JUDA NGWENYA / REUTERS)
Israeli officials exit the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, 2001, protesting attempts to single out Israel as a racist state.
(photo credit: JUDA NGWENYA / REUTERS)
In April 2002, two British academics with a history of anti-Israel campaigning – Hillary and Steven Rose – launched a boycott of Israeli universities. They claimed to be responding to (false) allegations that the IDF had “massacred” hundreds of civilians in an operation against Palestinian suicide bombers. A few months before, the notorious NGO Forum of the UN 2001 Durban Conference called for boycotts leading to “the complete isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.”
Many years later, universities and academics are entrenched leaders in the political warfare known as BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Postmodernism and post-colonialism, in which history is merely a social construct, and the perceived victims of Western imperialism can do no wrong, combined with antisemitism, have created fertile ground for extreme anti-Israel demonization.
In Israel Denial, Cary Nelson, a professor of English from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), takes on the most virulent haters. Nelson presents himself “not as an Israel advocate” but, rather, as a faculty member who confronted BDS in 2006-7 as president of the American Association of University Professors. Rather than staying silent like many others, he decided to expose the allegation that “Israel is the world’s worst violator of human rights.” This allegation, he writes, “is manifestly obscene. It depends on the fantasy that Israel radiates evil well beyond its borders, empowering a new version of a Jewish aim to control the world.”
This is not a book one reads continuously from cover to cover – the plot has no unexpected twists, and the dismal picture gets worse through 427 pages of text (and 370 endnotes). For readers unfamiliar with the decline of scholarship and its replacement by mindless ideology, this research facade might be dismissed as a ridiculous parody.
The core consists of portraits of four individuals with no academic background in Middle East history, whose false declarations and irrational hatred often morph into crude antisemitism.
Judith Butler, a senior academic specializing in literature, gender and queer theory, is the Jewish member of the cast, whose virulent hostility to Zionism (she’s a one-stater, imagining “a just and peaceable form of coexistence”) began to appear at age 20.
Nelson cites numerous examples in which Butler displays the “anti-imperialist jargon of the politics of purity,” combined with the “as a Jew” meme, illustrated by her involvement in fringe groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which seek to “drive a wedge” between American Jews and Israelis.
In contrast, the activism of Saree Makdisi, an English professor at UCLA, is traced to family ties to the late Edward Said, of Columbia University, a pioneer in anti-Israel campaigning in the guise of scholarship.
The third portrait presents Steven Salaita, who appears to have adopted Israel eliminationism in order to jump-start an unpromising career in American Indian studies, producing what Nelson calls “eight books in search of an enemy,” with titles such as Israel’s Dead Soul and Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine and many crude comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany. Salaita sought to use this portfolio as a replacement for academic qualifications necessary for a low-level faculty appointment, but eventually he and the BDS movement that supported him failed.
The fourth, and the worst on the scale of hatred and absurdity, is Jasbir Puar, a professor at Rutgers University specializing, like Butler, in gender studies and queer theory (her doctorate from UC Berkeley was on Trinidad). Her personal background, including birthplace, is unclear, as are the origins of her accusations of Israeli organ harvesting, starvation of Palestinian children and maiming of protesters (to facilitate the organ business).
In each chapter, Nelson overwhelms the reader with evidence. Compared to Puar’s lurid claims, Butler’s are prosaic but no more credible. He rebuts Butler’s false statement that “only Jews have full rights of citizenship,” that universities discriminate against Arab students (in fact, Arab students benefit from widespread affirmative action), and her classification of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as “progressive social movements.” Similarly, Makdisi, writes Nelson, “repeatedly gets the facts wrong or misrepresents them. His sources are constantly biased. His arguments are not proven.” Quoting Israeli High Court opinions, Nelson gives students who are assigned Makdisi’s publications the tools to refute them.
Nelson also documents the abuses of the academic review process. The extensive medical claims made in Puar’s 21st-centrury blood libel should have been immediately rejected by Duke University Press, simply on the basis of her lack of any medical knowledge or credentials.
There is much more in this book, with discussion of courses dedicated to delegitimization, the intimidation of students who raise their voices in protest, and the professional incompetence that accompanies BDS campaigns in academic associations.
Together, the chapters demonstrate that the attacks on Israel are not responses to the post-1967 “occupation,” but are visceral hatred.
In exposing the degree to which the academic world is particularly vulnerable, Nelson quotes David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: “We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’”