Bashing Israel from the professor's perch

Even the capacity for enjoyment and celebration is more palpable in Israel than elsewhere in the Middle East: the proofs lay with the facts and in everyday life.

Students on the Princeton University campus (photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/ REUTERS)
Students on the Princeton University campus
The trends are alarming. A 2017 Pew survey found a rising number of Jewish youth to be pretty much detached from Israel. For some the indifference has turned into hostility, as Jewish students participate in calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. More surprising are the attitudes of the Jewish professorate.
One of the more extreme organizations, Jewish Voices for Peace, is led by academics and embraces an anti-Israeli screed that would flatter the pages of Al Jazeera. Institutions like Columbia, New York University, Hunter College and Brooklyn College that once stood as bulwarks of secular Jewish ideals are beset by an altogether different mood. Today, their faculties not only target Israel for opprobrium, but are known to have harassed its student defenders. The animosity
toward Israel is accompanied by more than a whiff of antisemitism. Just recently, 120 members of the NYU faculty, many of them Jewish, signed a petition urging the university’s administration to “divest” in companies dealing with the “occupied territories.”
These actions weigh heavily on all of us.
They are astonishing because so much of their content is uninformed, if not bigoted.
The deepest prejudices are typified by distortions or misstatements of fact and the application of standards to Israel that are not brought to bear on other liberal societies.
Herein lies a continuous pattern of singling out Israel’s alleged misdeeds that would go unnoticed elsewhere. Context, or the lack of it, is fundamental to anti-Israelism, so much so that complexities are ignored in order to locate some fault that is supposedly unique to Israel.
The Professorate
Among the most conspicuous detractors, of all people, are 187 Jewish studies scholars who recently signed a statement against America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A key element of their complaint lies in what they call “Jewish proprietorship over Jerusalem.” Along the way to making this objection the signers point out that Jerusalem holds “religious and emotional significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians” – as if the world did not already know that. We should remember that the signatories represent themselves as “scholars” of Jewish studies and expect them to uphold the highest standards of commentary, even if it is critical.
This is hardly the case. At the outset the statement confuses the recognition of Jerusalem as a secular city with its role as a religious entity. Jerusalem is a large municipality consisting of 124 square kilometers and a population of more than 856,000. American recognition was accorded to the larger city as Israel’s capital. Its religious character is primarily confined to sites in and around the Old City, whose land is about three quarters of a square kilometer (less than 1% of the total) and whose population is under 40,000 (about 4% of the total). Quite properly American recognition acknowledge the rights of all faiths to holy sites. Yet the statement glosses over this distinction.
Instead, the signatories proceed to another point, protesting the lack of Palestinian “equal access to the city’s cultural and material resources”; largely brought about by Israel’s requirement that West Bank residents obtain “special permits to visit holy sites.” The distortions here are twofold, first as a misstatement of fact and second as a neglect of obvious context.
Anyone familiar with Jerusalem knows that access to its holy sites has never been more widespread. Residents and tourists of every stripe flock to every part of the Jerusalem each year, most intensely during pilgrimages.
Last year over 3.5 million tourists visited Jerusalem, freely and openly. On any given Muslim holiday, throngs of visitors pray at or near al-Aksa Mosque. During these times, media crews regularly photograph and film row upon row of Muslims prostrate in prayer. Further to the point of context, the restrictions on Palestinians have been enacted against the backdrop of terrorist attacks, often concentrated in Jerusalem.
The issuance of permits has been tightened in wake of current stabbings, shootings and car ramming within Jerusalem.
After a new spate of attacks in which a policewoman was murdered, Israel attempted a new round of security procedures in the Old City. These were met by fierce Palestinian demonstrations, obliging Israel to adopt other defensive measures. Rather than making the briefest mention of these events, the signatories chose to ignore them.
The statement notes the necessity for a “negotiated framework,” ensuring “the rights of all Israelis and Palestinians to Jerusalem.”
Precisely what this means is unclear.
It appears the signatories seek to divide Jerusalem between two states, notwithstanding the complexities that make this implausible.
Dividing the cramped inner city of Jerusalem would mean breaking up jurisdiction over streets, separating singly owned properties and splitting up water, sewer and utility lines. Israelis and Palestinians would have to agree on legal requirements for the apprehension of criminals and the implementation of ordinances on sanitation and traffic regulations – not to even get into the complications of issuing building permits and enforcing land use regulations. Think, for a moment, about the provocations for violence this kind of “shared administration” would engender, to begin to appreciate its impossibility.
Further, modern historians would be at pains to find a single successfully divided city, unless we count grim, forbidding Nicosia. Neither Berlin nor Gdansk (Danzig) nor Trieste survived as divided between sovereign states. Yet the signatories expect to start their experiment with Israelis and Arabs. Most disheartening is not only the injustice the scholars do to Israel, but the credence they give to the academic stereotype as being hopelessly naïve.
Dubious accounts of Israel’s transgressions have been publicized in a two-part article of Haaretz, extolled by the subtitle of “Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind.” The lead author, Hasia Diner, is a prominent Jewish studies academic and a signatory to both the NYU Boycott Petition and the Anti Recognition Statement. As such, she reflects a good deal of detractor thinking. Central to the Haaretz piece is her purported shame about Israel’s “colonialism and racism.” According to Diner, among Israel’s most conspicuous sins are: “The death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity,” “The negation of the Diaspora and the ending of Jewish life outside of Israel,” “robbing us of many cultures that have fallen into the maw of Israeli homogenization,” and the “racism” of the Law of Return.
Diner concludes with a confession that, “I feel a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, “We Stand with Israel.”
The charges are bewildering enough that one is tempted to avoid dignifying them with a response. But for the sake of a sense of completion, respond we must.
Exactly what is Diner’s evidence for the linkage between Israel, the death of Jewish communities and the theft of Jewish cultures? If anything, we could argue that Israel has been an inspiration to Jews everywhere.
Indeed, synagogues and Jewish centers display the Star of David as a badge of pride and solidarity. Despite the partial defection of Jewish youth, Israel still keeps its place in the hearts of American Jews. The Pew poll shows that nearly 70% of Jews still feel some attachment to Israel and 43% have visited the country.
We can only wonder about the logic of Diner’s claim that Israel is to blame for the “negation of the Diaspora.” For one, we might ask since when has the Jewish Diaspora been negated? To the contrary it is alive, it thrives and it still supports Israel. For another, diasporas around the world have found a harmony between their adopted countries and lands of origin. In some cases, their success is tied to the progress of their historic homelands. Ireland, Greece and China are worthy examples. Why Jews should follow a different pattern remains a mystery.
As for the “maw of homogenization,” Israel is a land of multiple nationalities, it boasts one of the freest and most rambunctious presses in the world and the Knesset is among the most democratically elected and diverse legislatures in the world. At a social level, intermarriage between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews is almost randomly distributed and streets, cafes and parks brighten the landscape with a rainbow of opinion.
Diner’s accusation about the Law of Return being racist also falls short of the truth. Had she checked, she would have discovered that the Law of Return belongs to a principle of nationality law called Jus Sanguinis, meaning “right of blood.” In addition to Israel, 11 other nations allow for Jus Sanguinis or, as it is commonly called, “birthright citizenship.”
They include Ireland, France, Italy and Hungary – all of which are members of the European Union. By extension, someone of French or Irish descent not only has a right to become a citizen of those countries but can settle throughout the very democratic 28-member EU. Are these countries also racist? Like so much anti-Israel rhetoric, what matters is the severity of the claim, not its factual basis or its fairness of comparison.
Diner’s assertions do not even rise to the level of mere distortions but are outright falsehoods. Yet these are the people who teach our children about Judaism. When subject to criticism, professors always seem to shield themselves behind the banner of “academic freedom.” We might now begin to understand why the emphasis seems always to be on “freedom” rather than “academic.”
Conditions and Choices
What lies behind this larger picture of academic vandalism? In a revealing essay published in Mosaic, Daniel Gordis ventures an explanation that American and Israeli Jews are driving along very different historic paths. Gordis portrays these as oppositions revolving around the issues of 1) Purpose, where Americans and Israelis respectively hold pluralistic as opposed to nationalist values, 2) Outlook, where Americans and Israelis hold to universal as opposed to particular ideals, 3) The Public Square, where Americans and Israelis respectively see the venue for open speech as either neutral or religious (4) Ethnicity, where Americans and Israelis respectively embrace Ashkenazi as opposed to Mizrahi roots and 5) Public Service, where Americans and Israelis treat this as a private decision as opposed to a social obligation.
Gordis does us a favor by explaining why some academics have turned against Israel.
As he sees it, deeply seated conditions shape current attitudes (social science defines these conditions as “embedded structures”). If American Jews now consider Israel with indifference or hostility, it is because their social and political situations are irredeemably opposed to those of Israeli Jews. Gordis uses Hasia Diner’s condemnation to establish this point, by showing how she has embraced America’s ostensibly “neutral” public square while rejecting Israel’s “religious” one.
Gordis may be correct on some points.
After all, it is a truism that different societies are different. However, there is something else here, and we would add to Gordis’ reflections that it is not just conditions that account for those differences but something more direct and more transient. Personal choice or attitude matters, and this may explain why more of academia now treats the Jewish state with unprecedented hostility, to the extent of misstating fact and distorting context.
The ever-present reality is that Israel has grown up, and its detractors find that appalling. Israel seems no longer to be the underdog against the Arabs, but the superior power. Its air force no longer defends towns with rickety propeller-driven planes but takes pre-emptive action with supersonic jets. It no longer struggles economically but is regarded as a great “startup nation.”
Its workers no longer pick oranges, but are now regarded as cybernetic geniuses, whose companies dominant the Stock Exchange.
Israel is no longer socialist or communal, but capitalist and entrepreneurial. Gone is the image of kibbutzniks wearing tembel hats, brims pulled down to block the sun, hiking along the roadways.
For these reasons and more Israel disappoints its academic critics. Prof. Diner concedes the point when she describes the “socialist Zionism of the Habonim youth movement as central” to her formative years. Her experience typifies so many Jewish academics, some of whom joined communes and enthusiastically welcomed the counterculture of the 1960s. Also significant is that a large number of Jewish youth participated in mass protests against the Vietnam War. All this makes an indelible imprint on their current judgment against Israel. Detractors now see the IDF, wearing combat gear, carrying weapons and driving armored vehicles, not as defenders of their land, but as a repressive force in “occupied lands.”
These choices may also explain political differences between Americans when it comes to support for Israel. Republicans, whose sympathies lie with free markets and are inclined toward a strong military, show greater support for Israel than Democrats, who are less trusting of free markets and skeptical of the military.
At another level the choices are very personal.
Many of us who favor Israel were educated in the aftermath of WWII; as children we collected nickels for the Jewish National Fund, lovingly deposited into the narrow slot of a pushke (tin container used for saving coins); we witnessed the dawning of the State of Israel, and we worried about the never-ending struggle against Arab invaders.
Compare this to those who protested against wars in Vietnam or Iraq. Those same people regard America as the attacker rather than the attacked. That mindset is often transferred to Israel. The perspectives are vastly different, and so too are the choices.
What Can We Do?
Picking up an earlier thread, the distinction between American and Israeli Jews is perfectly normal and to be expected.
Nations will always differ from one another on particulars, but need not disagree about essentials. Even these differences have as much to do with short- and immediate-term choices as they do with opposing histories.
If, as we claim, those choices are based on immediate- and short-term events, there may well be cause for optimism. Regardless of cultural distinctions, Americans and Israelis do share a great many values, including democratic accountability, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and a common belief that government serves its citizenry. Being different should not stand in the way of having mutual causes, especially if the nations in question are liberal democracies. What needs to be done is to bring our sense of fairness to the issues, based on shared values.
There is a lot to go on in easing the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. Flimsy charges against Israel, shouted in mantra-like repetition (“racist state” and “apartheid state”) are factually baseless and dismissible as the redoubt of the ignorant.
The charge of “occupier state” also rests on a thin ground, though complicated by history (the territories are not “occupied” but “disputed” and most settlements are built on land reclaimed from Jordan after a defensive war).
While Jews everywhere should expose cheap sloganeering at universities, they ought not cede the “progressive” argument to the detractors. Questions of security and defense against jihadism are legitimate concerns, but they need to be joined to Israel as the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Refugees do not seek entry into Iran but into Israel. People seeking political asylum, or women wanting equality, or gays fending off discrimination, thrive in Israel.
Even the capacity for enjoyment and celebration is more palpable in Israel than elsewhere in the Middle East. The proofs lay with the facts and in everyday life. They need to be pressed in the academy, presented in lecture halls and spoken on campus streets.
The author is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, editor of the MegaCities Series (Agenda Press), and Emeritus Brown & Williamson Distinguished Professor of Urban & Public Affairs at the University of Louisville.