[This article was originally published on January 14, 2014, at Forbes.com, with editorial assistance from Gary Weiss]
Note: An update follows this article.
By Richard Behar
Dear NYU President John Sexton,
I’m a journalism graduate of New York University. Over the course of a three-decade career, I’ve been invited numerous times to speak to NYU students who are studying for masters degrees in business and economics reporting. That program, known as BER, is arguably the best in the nation, and I was honored to have served years ago on a BER advisory panel.
This letter is lengthy, and I can only hope that you may find the time from your busy schedule to stick with it – or at least most of it. Thanks for your consideration.
Delegates of the 130-year-old Modern Language Association of America (MLA) on Saturday adopted a preliminary resolution that – if approved by its 28,000 members – will denounce Israel for controlling its own borders. It will call on the State Department to “contest Israel’s denials of entry… by U.S academics” who have been “invited to teach, confer, or do research” at Palestinian universities on the West Bank.
Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, has mounted a counter-campaign, and Hillel knows the facts – such as how much easier it is for Americans to enter Israel and the Palestinian territories than for Israelis to enter the U.S. (The refusal rate in 2012 was just 0.023% for the former, versus 5.4% for the latter.)
This singling out of Israel by the MLA comes, as you do know, on the heels of a similar announcement in mid-December by another academic group, the 62-year-old, American Studies Association (ASA). In that case, the membership voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities. ASA’s reasoning is that Israel is responsible for curtailing the academic freedom of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. While the resolution is not binding on its members, ASA’s list of institutional members includes more than 90 universities and colleges across the country, among them NYU.
As a result of that vote, the once-obscure ASA — it claims nearly 5,000 members — has suddenly propelled itself into the global limelight, because the blowback has been immense. “A repugnant attack on academic freedom…under the guise of phony progressivism,” states Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth. “A dangerous and ill-conceived action,” echoes Indiana University’s leader, Michael A. McRobbie. “A geopolitical tool,” cringes Kenyon president Sean M. Decatur.
“Academic leaders at the University of Connecticut will continue to visit Israel and Arab nations… and pursue research collaboration with the many outstanding Israeli universities,” promises the school’s president, Susan Herbst, in a statement of defiance. “We do this with pride.”
I tip my hat to Cornell law professor William Jacobson, who is compiling a fuller list of statements from college heads bashing the ASA resolution. But I’ll offer five more here:
Middlebury president Ron Liebowitz: “The singling out of Israel for this action is astounding… the vote is a sad reflection of an extreme and hateful ideology by some members of the academy.”
James F. Jones, Jr., who heads Trinity College: “Were we still an institutional member, we would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East.”
In an email to me: “The segregation of scholars on makeshift political grounds undermines the very basis of academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas,” writes Alfred I. Tauber, the chairman of the Board of Governors of the University of Haifa (Israel), and a former professor of medicine and philosophy at Boston University. “Simply, an academic boycott is a non-starter.”
If you’ve spent some time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “you probably know of the bronze plaque near the front doors of Bascom Hall,” says Rebecca M. Black, chancellor of the school. “It calls for the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. The class of 1910 donated the plaque in 1915 as a class memorial. It commemorate the wording from the Board of Regents meeting of September 18, 1894 supporting Professor Richard Ely, who was accused of socialist, pro-union activities. Our sifting and winnowing plaque is as relevant today as it ever was… it is never appropriate to punish scholars over political differences… So, I disagree strongly with the ASA boycott approach. Political disagreements with the government of a country should not limit our ability to reach out to and collaborate with academic institutions and scholars from that country on projects that we consider valuable.”
On Dec. 31st, Catholic University became the 100th American college (the list now tops 190) to condemn the resolution. “The Association has appointed itself as a kind of inept volunteer fire department, aiming to put out the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration by throwing gasoline on the fire,” sneers the school’s president, John Garvey.
Newspaper editors, too: “What foolishness,” writes the Chicago Sun Times editorial board. “Israel, for all its perceived failings, is among the most intellectually open societies in the world, where public discourse — especially about Israel’s perceived failings — is freewheeling and relentless.” Similarly, the Washington Post’s editors call the ASA boycott “terribly misguided,” and “utterly narrow-minded” and “fundamentally wrong…. Israel has become a lively and durable democracy.” (In fairness, I should add lamentably, the New York Times, alone among major U.S. newspaper editorial boards in its routine hostility towards Israel, says nothing.)
By all appearances, the expressions of outrage have left ASA’s incoming president, NYU professor Lisa Duggan – plus the other 17 über-radical colleagues on the “national council” who voted unanimously for the boycott — unmoved. They don’t care that they have torpedoed ASA’s reputation (what was left of it). It seems she and her national council took it as a badge of honor, proof of their righteousness. (If ‘the establishment’ is upset, and not a single council-comrade voted against the resolution, they must be right! Right?) “Sadly, I have received an avalanche of abusive and threatening email, but I’m ignoring it,” Duggan wrote me on December 23rd. “We’re getting a lot of supportive messages too, and more new members than resignations so far.”
It’s disgraceful if people are hurling abuse and threats at her. But they have a right to be angry. She does not seem to understand that, and her tin ear is the least of her failings of comprehension.
I’ve discovered that Duggan, as I’ll discuss in more detail further down, is pressing for the release of a Palestinian terrorist who was recently indicted in Detroit. The terrorist is accused of lying on her U.S. immigration application. She allegedly claimed she hadn’t ever been convicted of a crime, when in fact she spent ten years in an Israeli prison for her involvement in the bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket that killed two Israelis.
President Sexton, you are to be saluted for having written to the ASA to express your “disappointment, disagreement, and opposition” to the resolution. You called it “antithetical to the values and tenets of institutions of advanced learning.” And you urged the organization to overturn this boycott.
Yet your statement was short, terse and quite vanilla compared to those of many of your peers. I wonder why. Is it an attempt to have your cake and eat it, too? We’ll get to that cake soon.
While one certainly needn’t be Jewish or a major supporter of Israel to find this boycott resolution vile, it’s worth noting that NYU reportedly houses the largest total number of Jewish students of any college in the country (11,000 at last count.) That’s about 25% of its student body.
Part of your job is to meet with big donors, many of whom are Jews. Numerous buildings and programs have Jewish names, such as Tisch and Shimkin halls, Steinhardt Education Building, Stern School of Business (linked with the BER program), Bronfman and Kaufman Management centers, the old Rubin dormitory, Ehrenkranz School of Social Work, Schwartz Plaza, Shimkin Hall, Silver Towers.
The editorial board of the New York Post notes how “ironic” this is, given that 25% of the 18-member national council that voted unanimously for the boycott – Duggan included — are based at NYU. (This includes the council’s only student-member, also at NYU). It would appear that the serpent’s head is quartered at my alma mater, where it is busy sullying the school’s renowned reputation. We’ll get to who these venomous people actually are in more detail, later.
A number of institutional members of the ASA have quit as a result of the boycott vote: Bard, Brandeis, Indiana University, Kenyon College, Penn State (Harrisburg), the University of Texas (Dallas). I’m told that the University of North Carolina is preparing to do so. Some schools deny institutional membership, despite being listed as such on ASA’s website. (Among them: Brown, Carnegie-Mellon, Northwestern, Tufts, and USC.) “The University of Alabama has not been an institutional member of the ASA for the past two years,” Cathy Andreen, Director of Media Relations, points out in an email. To the ASA’s leaders, it would seem, appearances have more value than facts.
NYU is also listed on ASA’s website as an “institutional member,” but your chief spokesperson, John H. Beckman, told me it’s actually just an NYU “department” (he doesn’t volunteer which one) that initiated that membership — which means it doesn’t get ”approved” at the actual “institutional level” at NYU. Will you request, or demand, that the ASA clarify that, so that it doesn’t look like the entire university sanctions the boycott? A statement by you to that effect would go a long way toward assuaging the concerns I’m raising in this letter. Your spokesman Beckman said, “I don’t know that that’s come under consideration.”
I appreciate that you condemned the boycott, President Sexton, but I found it strange that a champion debater, a man with such passion, was quite so perfunctory. When I compare your statement to those made by many other college presidents, I am as perplexed as I am ashamed. Boycotts singling out Israel are “are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not necessarily in their intent,” said Harvard ex-president Larry Summers on Charlie Rose last month. ”And I think that’s the right thing to say about singling out Israel.” Do you agree? Or is that it from you – just that brief, tepid, grudging-sounding statement? (On the show, Summers added: “The idea that of all the countries in the world that might be thought to have human rights abuses, that might be thought to have inappropriate foreign policies, that might be thought to be doing things wrong, the idea that there’s only one that is worthy of boycott, and that is Israel, one of the very few countries whose neighbors regularly vow its annihilation, that that would be the one chosen, is I think beyond outrageous as a suggestion.”
Frankly, sir, I think you have a Jewish problem on your hands. Several years ago, you excitedly (and single-handedly with no advanced notice, according to many disgruntled faculty members) went to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to open a clone NYU campus there – paid for by that country’s oil-rich monarchy. It made NYU the first school in America to replicate itself anywhere on the globe.
That was a strange place to insert a college campus—a barren fiefdom with little intellectual ferment, in a country noted for its unfair treatment of South Asian workers, where gays are oppressed, where women do not have equal rights, run by oppressive monarchs whose sole exports are oil and money. I can think of 50 more suitable places for my alma mater to spread its wings, with Israel among them. Why did you pick Abu Dhabi, President Sexton? Was it the glorious academic traditions of the Persian Gulf fiefdoms or was it the petrodollars?
You described your first meeting with the autocratic Crown Prince – Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – as “electric,” after which he asked you “Where’s my hug?” (He apparently knew that you love to hug people, even strangers.) Your office is decorated with cool gifts he gave you.
As you know, Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter Abu Dhabi, and in 2006 the country’s Development & Investment Authority put quotes around the word “Israeli” – as if the nation didn’t really exist. (Incidentally, such practices are also common in Pakistan, where I was on a lengthy assignment for Fortune magazine after 9-11, as well as for CNN. One day I tried to ring an Israeli cousin, only to hear an operator’s recorded announcement educating me that “the country code you have dialed does not exist.”)
In late December, Israel’s under-18 chess team was forced to compete there anonymously (and flagless) – a decision made for security reasons by the Israelis. The World Chess Federation had warned that it would nullify the tournament if Abu Dhabi didn’t host the Israeli kids. Where are their hugs?
Can you ask your friend, the prince, about that? And last weekend, a Dutch soccer team agreed to play in Abu Dhabi without its Israeli player – Dan Mori – who wasn’t permitted to enter the country. Where is Mori’s hug?
The current list of countries that request American companies boycott Israel (prohibited under U.S. law) includes the UAE.
I find it noteworthy that you believe that the ASA boycott resolution is irreconcilable with academic freedom, and yet it’s an avouchment of academic freedom for NYU to partner with Dubai? One only need read the latest U.S. State Department country report on the UAE to see whom NYU is lying in bed with. Even supporters of the boycott have pointed out this hypocrisy.
The ASA resolution exudes hypocrisy without any help from NYU. The most breathtaking one, in my view, is that it undermines academic and business collaborations between the Israelis and Palestinians that are paving the way forward – and that provide the best road to peace. (Commerce, as the old saying goes, is the great leveler.)
Last spring, I visited Israel and the West Bank for Forbes, and penned a cover story about the below-radar, high-tech ventures that Israeli Jews, Arabs and Palestinians are engaged in. Boycotts harm those activities, and put some Palestinian entrepreneurs in danger. I’m pleased to have recently learned that an MIT study group is organizing a project and tour of Israel and the West Bank, which a co-organizer says was “heavily inspired” by my articles on the subject. The MIT students running the project are Nael Haddad, an Israeli-Arab MIT student who previously studied at Haifa’s Technion University, and Aliza Landes, an American MIT student who now lives in Israel. “It is always easier to sit on the sidelines and criticize, turn your nose up, say ‘I am not talking to you,’” says Landes. “But you know what actually makes a difference? Engaging. Communicating. Building bridges. Being constructive.”
The Technion, it turns out, is concluding a two-year, cutting-edge project with Al-Quds University (of east Jerusalem and the West Bank) that has removed pharmaceuticals from treated wastewater. The researchers say they have achieved a 100% success rate. “You learn from the relationship,” the principal researcher on the Palestinians side, Dr. Rafik Karaman, said in a recent Technion publication. “I learn a lot and I also give a lot… We can learn from them and they can learn from us, and this way you can do good research in Palestine.”
How does that sound to you, President Sexton? A good location for a NYU collaboration?
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas certainly understands that the Palestinian territories cannot thrive by boycotting Israel. He is opposed to academic boycotts by groups such as ASA. (As Jeffrey Goldberg, the most influential American columnist about the Middle East scene, puts it in Bloomberg: “The ASA is more Palestinian, in other words, than the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.”)
Even if the American Studies Association’s boycott spreads like some psychosis through the academic world, it would not curtail the flow of achievements coming from Israelis (e.g. the largest number of startups per capita in the world, more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and — relative to its population — the largest immigrant-absorbing nation.)
Israelis, by now, are made of iron. They want peace, as David Ben-Gurion once said, “but not suicide.”
Such boycotts only threaten to keep the Palestinian economy struggling, which is precisely what the Arab world has done for decades against Palestinians as a political tool against Israel.
The first of many boycotts was initiated by the Arab League against Jewish products in Palestine in 1945, three years before Israel even became a state. In 1950, the blacklist was expanded to include ships that carried Jewish immigrants to Israel. In terms of Western academia, in 2007, a teachers union representing 120,000 British college professors got a jump on the ASA when it voted to boycott Israel’s academic institutions. Academic leaders in America condemned it -– “It is chilling that such a proposal is even being considered,” stated Tulane University president Scott Cowen at the time – but today’s ASA initiative is the first major academic boycott effort to sprout from the soil on our side of the Atlantic. “In my mind,” Cowen writes me, “these boycott efforts are antithetical to everything we believe in the academy or at least what I thought we did.”
Asked why the ASA has picked on the world’s one Jewish state (amid 22 Arab nations) for an academic boycott, the group’s outgoing president, Curtis Marez, told a New York Times reporter, “One has to start somewhere.” Not Abu Dhabi, apparently. Nor for that matter, any condemnations of any country across the entire Arab world, where professors and students (as well as journalists) had better toe the line. Only Israel, whose universities enjoy a higher level of academic freedom (including left-wing scholarship) than most nations on earth.
Does Marez’s inner circle even have any expertise or scholarship on the subject of the Middle East, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I’m aware of only one paper about the region, apart from Middle Eastern dance or music, written by any national council member. (If I’m wrong, I’m happy to post a correction.) That professor is sociologist Avery F. Gordon of the University of California (Santa Barbara), and her essay — mentioned on her website — is titled “The Torture Chain: Epistemic Murk and the Question of Palestine.” An academic database search and Google Scholar don’t show it, so I wonder where, or if, it was published. I’ve written twice to Avery to ask for a copy, but haven’t heard back. If I get a response, I’ll post a link to it.
Gordon’s website says that in recent years she’s been writing about “captivity, war, and other forms of dispossession and how to eliminate them.” I’d love to know her master solution. Other areas of research include “the prisoner” and “problems of radical thought.”
The vast majority of council members have never given talks on the subject either. But those who have parrot one another by branding Israel with tiresome catchphrases that fit neatly on protest buttons but that falsify reality. They call Israel a Western colonial, imperialist project — and a racist, apartheid state, engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Let’s examine such charges.
To be a Western colonial, imperialist project, a people would have to journey somewhere carrying Western flags and weaponry. But the dispersed Jews, who always maintained a foothold in ancient Palestine for two millennia, arrived back home in three major immigration waves beginning in the late 19th century – fleeing persecution (from Western as well as Muslim states), pogroms and Nazi concentration camps. In the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, national liberation movements were widespread in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Mideast.
The Jews came carrying farm tools. They didn’t steal land; they overpaid for it from Palestinian urban notables and absentee Arab landlords living in other countries. Many Arab tenant farmers benefitted as well; for the first time in their lives, they were paid decent wages by their new (Jewish) employers. True, many workers were also displaced by the new owners, who wanted to till the land themselves. They had that right.
Are ASA council members aware of the 1919 letter to future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter from Emir Faisal (the king of what is today Syria and Iraq)? “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement,” he wrote. “We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home…. The Jewish movement is nationalist and not imperialist. And there is room in [Greater] Syria for us both. Indeed, I think that neither can be a real success without the other.” One can hardly imagine the economic juggernaut the region would be today had visionary Arab leaders like Faisal had their way.
As for genocide and ethnic cleansing, if Israelis are engaged in those acts they should win the Nobel Prize for the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Israeli-Arab and Palestinian populations are growing, not shrinking.
Racism and apartheid? Unlike the two dozen Arab nations, Israel grants complete freedom of religion to Muslims, Christians, Circassians, Druze, and others – including the persecuted (Persian) Baha’i, who enjoy a safe, world headquarters in Haifa. Arabian Bedouins serve as “trackers” in the Israeli Defense Forces. (They are known as “the IDF’s sharpest eyes” because of their historic talent in spotting and tracing even the lightest footsteps in desert terrain.)
Arabs serve in Israel’s Supreme Court, its parliament (Knesset), on university faculties, and on national sports teams. In 1999, an Arab woman – 21-year-old Rana Raslan – was crowned Miss Israel. Arabic, along with Hebrew and English, is designated as an official language. According to Aharon Barak, president of the country’s Supreme Court from 1995-2006, “The Jewish character of the state does not permit Israel to discriminate between its citizens.”
But is there discrimination in Israel? Absolutely — just like in America and elsewhere, between a majority population and its minorities. But the situation is not as grim as the boycotters would have you believe, and there are active affirmative action policies and programs to help Arabs catch up, not to mention high-tech projects to bring Arabs into Israel’s “Start-Up Nation.”
Some 22% of all medical students in Israel are Arab. More than 1,000 Arabs, including nearly 700 Arabic Bedouins, now study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, most of them on scholarships. More than half of the Bedouin students are women.
Last July, Haifa University presented an award to Imad Telhami, one of Israel’s most successful Arab entrepreneurs, “for his groundbreaking business leadership, and being a living role model that any goal is attainable and every obstacle can serve as a catapult to success; for proving… that cultural and religious identity is not necessarily an impediment but an excellent opportunity.”
Imad Telhami runs Babcom [Arabic for “your gate”], a software-and-outsourcing company that is one of the biggest Arab employers in Israel. With two of Israel’s top venture capital firms, he is now building an incubator to help create Arab high-tech entrepreneurs from the ground up. Israeli Arabs contribute only 8% to Israel’s GDP, but that will change. Similarly, Israeli billionaire Eitan Wertheimer runs a micro-loan portfolio that supports 12,000 Arab employees and generates $1.4 billion in sales. “Their returns are 8.5% to 9% a year,” he told me last summer, while the country grows at 3%.
Chemi Peres, a son of Israeli president Shimon Peres, chairs a $50 million vc fund called Al Bawader (Arabic for “early signs”), that invests in Arab start-ups. The Israeli government has put money into the fund, as have individual Israeli Jews, Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians.
Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, born in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, has strongly condemned those who falsely smear Israel as apartheid — and he’s received threats for doing so. He says that those who threaten him do not dispute his reporting but simply want him to gag himself on the subject.
I would highly recommend that ASA members pick up a copy of “The Case For Israel,” a seminal book written by just-retired Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. Or if reading non-fiction is not up their alley, they can buy and watch this related documentary.
As the ASA was considering its boycott, Dershowitz threw down a gauntlet. As he wrote in Haaretz, “I asked them to name a single country in the history of the world faced with threats comparable to those Israel faces that has a better record of human rights, a higher degree of compliance with the rule of law, a more demanding judiciary, more concern for the lives of enemy civilians, or more freedom to criticize the government than the state of Israel.” ASA’s response? “Not a single member of the association came up with the name of a single country. That is because there are none. Israel is not perfect, but neither is any other country, and Israel is far better than most.”
TOSSING THE GAUNTLET AT ASA: Harvard Law’s Alan Dershowitz challenged the group to name one country in history, faced with threats comparable to Israel’s, that has a better human rights record. They can’t.
As you are no doubt proudly aware, President Sexton, the Brennan Center For Justice is housed at NYU. It is named for William Brennan, arguably the most civil libertarian justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1987 speech in Jerusalem, Brennan stated that “It may well be Israel, not the United States, that provides the best hope for building a jurisprudence that can protect civil liberties against the demands of national security. For it is Israel that has been facing real and serious threats to its security for the last 40 years and seems destined to continue facing such threats in the foreseeable future…
“The nations of the world,” he added, “faced with sudden threats to their own security [America’s War On Terror comes to my mind today] will look to Israel’s experience in handling its continuing security crisis, and may well find in that experience the expertise to reject the security claims that Israel has exposed as baseless and the courage to preserve the civil liberties that Israel has preserved without detriment to its security.”
Israel’s Supreme Court has authority over its military, even in wartime, in a way that exists nowhere else. “If you compare other nations’ democracies at war, including the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel has a close supervision [by] the Supreme Court on everything,” points out Amnon Rubinstein, a prominent law scholar and former Knesset member. “In Israel you couldn’t have a Guantanamo, because the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court extends to everywhere where there are Israelis. And there’s nothing outside the [court’s] jurisdiction.”
The ASA council members toss the word “occupation” around, without defining it, and also to give the impression that all Palestinian territories are militarily occupied. That’s because they want to include Gaza, which Israel has not occupied since 2005. They also want to include the entire West Bank, despite the fact that Palestinian population centers and other areas have been under the control of the Palestinian Authority for many years. But that kind of detail is too boring for a protest sign or bumper sticker.
The few ASA council members who have given speeches about the Israeli-Palestinian situation that are on the Internet almost entirely avoid discussing its history. Why is that? It must be either one of two things: They don’t know the history, or they don’t want to know or discuss it, because it doesn’t support their arguments. To people with a mindset like that, the old maxim is wrong: you can have not only your own opinions, but your own set of facts. And when inconvenient truths come along, just stick your head in the sand.
President Sexton, in case you and your inner circle don’t know them, let’s meet the 18 members of the ASA national council – all of whom voted in support of the resolution,
We’ll start with Duggan, the NYU professor who is taking the helm this year, and who is a major force in the anti-Israel movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.)
Her Twitter feed shows a recent obsession with Israel. The most disturbing tweet of all (mentioned in brief, high in this letter) is her request for charges to be dropped against a terrorist named Rasmea Yousef Odeh, who is accused with lying about her past in order to gain U.S. citizenship in 1994.
According to the feds, who indicted her in Detroit in October, Odeh had a role in planting a bomb in a crowded supermarket in Jerusalem in 1969 that killed two Israelis and injured many others. She is also alleged to have had a role in a second bomb that damaged the British Consulate. She did this while a member of a Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), that the U.S. designated a terrorist organization – meaning that the organization “threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.”
Odeh was given a life sentence by an Israeli military court, but served only ten years before being released and sent to Lebanon in a prisoner exchange of 76 Palestinians for just one Israeli soldier who’d been taken prisoner there in 1978. (Such prisoner releases are ongoing as part of Israel’s efforts to secure a peace agreement.)
When Odeh applied for U.S. citizenship in 1994, she apparently lied three times on her application. She is accused of falsely stating that she lived in Jordan continuously since 1948, that she was never charged with a crime, and that she was never imprisoned for one. She subsequently became an activist in America, where she was arrested three months ago and arraigned in November. If convicted, she will likely be deported.
Rasmeah Yousef Odeh Poster
In October, Duggan asked her Twitter followers to sign a statement demanding Odeh’s release: “Read the story and sign the petition!,” she tweeted. “Drop the Charges against Rasmea Yousef Odeh.” She herself is signer #427.
Why is Duggan so anxious to get out of prison a woman who killed Israeli civilians? Are their lives worth less to her than Arab civilians or European civilians or white American civilians? Why would Duggan want this odious criminal on the streets of the Chicago suburb where she has long lived? How many other terrorists are living comfortably on our soil after falsifying their immigration applications? Would Duggan ask for freedom for all of them if they were arrested and indicted? Perhaps she has no faith in American law enforcement. Nor faith in a judge or jury to adjudicate it. She has decided the case on her own, even prior to a trial.
And this professor teaches at NYU, where parents and students go into hock to pay for her anti-American views.
Duggan’s academic specialties are modern U.S. cultural, social and political history; history of gender and sexuality; and lesbian and gay studies. One course of hers at NYU is called “Queer Historiographies and Constructions of Whiteness in the United States.” Her claim to fame: Inventing the word “homonormativity” to explain how many gays now want to mimic straight people, in terms of “domesticity and consumption.”
Is Duggan aware that Israel, who she considers one of the greatest oppressors of human rights in the world, is quite possibly the gayest-friendly country in the world, let alone the tyrannical Middle East? Yes, but she and many of her cronies call it “pinkwashing” – in essence a conspiracy by Israelis to support gays in order to detract attention from their treatment of Palestinians. In other words, Israel just can’t do anything worthwhile.
“We welcome collaboration with our Israeli colleagues,” she writes me, in an effort to explain that it’s only Israel’s academic institutions that are subject to the boycott. What she doesn’t say is that she and many of her council friends are also signed supporters of the “cultural” boycott of individual Israeli artists and entertainers. Perhaps they are hoping that their “institution” boycott will be a nice slippery slope for the ASA to eventually move against individual Israelis in the academic sphere. Perhaps Israeli companies, too. Maybe even American corporations that do business with Israel.
Let’s move on to the outgoing ASA president, Curtis Marez, an associate professor at the University of California (San Diego). His specialties: Chicano film, ethnic studies, “the political economy of narcotics,” and a book he is finishing about farm workers. His claim to fame: A piece he wrote in September arguing that Breaking Bad’s TV fictional character Walter White is racist against Latino workers, in part because of his bald head. (Never mind that White was dying of cancer on the show, and undergoing hair-losing chemotherapy.) The TV show has “sedimented layers of colonialism” and “white supremacy,” Marez concludes.
I obtained an astonishing email that Marez wrote to a member of the association who was critical of the process that led to the boycott resolution. That member – Simon J. Bronner, who runs the American Studies doctoral program at Penn State (Harrisburg), is also an ex-officio member of ASA, as well as the editor of the Encyclopedia of American Studies. He had complained to Marez that the members were not given “any balancing information” on why they might not want to endorse the boycott. “In the very least,” he wrote Marez, “since the former presidents want to assert that this action does not represent their leadership, there should be a statement from them and/or the members who signed the petition against the resolution available to members…. If you do not want to send this information to the membership, then provide us with the mailing list to send out to the members this balancing information in the name of a democratic process.”
Marez’s response? In a nutshell, Drop Dead. “It is not the Council’s responsibility to provide alternative information,” he wrote back, cc-ing the other council members. “The ASA is a scholarly association and people can investigate the matter for themselves and make an informed decision.”
It gets even better. Bronner also complained that “the perception is that the vote is being railroaded through.” To which Curtis snapped: “I would ask that you please stop using language suggesting that the Council is trying to ‘railroad’ or ‘force’ the boycott. Such metaphoric language of coercion trivializes material forms of force and violence about which so many in the ASA are concerned.”
Bronner tells me: ‘They did not want to post any information opposed to the boycott on the ASA website. All the information posted, or sent to members, was in favor of the boycott. In the name of a democratic process, they were trying to rig the vote.” (To this day, one finds no mention of the controversy on the group’s website, except on a community board open only to members.)
More recently, Marez displayed his hatred of Israel, and weak grasp of reality, in a statement against the Israel Law Center — an NGO that is threatening to sue the ASA for violating discrimination laws that make it illegal to boycott people based on race, creed, color or national origin. “We will not be intimidated,” fired back Marez, who then used the opportunity to falsely accuse Israelis. “Unlike in Israel, where criticism of the government’s policies towards the Palestinians is increasingly criminalized [my italics], our boycott decision is protected by the First Amendment. Thankfully, in the United States we still have the right to speak out against Israel’s racial discrimination against Palestinians.”
President Sexton, is it now time to formally and emphatically dissociate the “institution” of NYU from the group, as other college presidents now have? If you’re not convinced by now, sir, please consider the following.
A supposedly “democratic” town hall meeting took place the night before the vote. More than 700 ASA members were in the room to hear six panelists supportive of the boycott, with no panelists invited to take a different position. One of the oldest members of the association, Professor Michael Aaron Rockland of Rutgers, went ballistic and rose from his seat. “You don’t know history!” he said.
Indeed, the boycott resolution is so totally naïve, ignorant, and so lacking in historical context as to be almost a self-parody. It says nothing about Palestinian leaders rejecting partition of the land on numerous occasions since the 1930s. Nor does it mention that it is, in fact, Palestinian leaders who have persecuted, oppressed and harmed their people since the early 20th century, and continue to do so. Moderate and educated Palestinians know this; most of them are just too cowed and scared to say so publicly. After all, radical Islamists in the territories – witness Hamas in Gaza –subscribe literally to Koranic sayings about how death means Paradise, and defeat means only the chance to battle again when Muslim armies are ready.
You’d never guess from the resolution that the Palestinian Jews sought desperately to fight alongside the British in World War II, while Arabs were “enthusiastic supporters of Germany,” a former PLO official reiterated last month.
The ASA resolution does not mention the Grand Mufti (for Life) of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the key leader of the Palestinian Arabs, his visit to Nazi Germany and his support of Hitler’s Final Solution as “a comfortable solution of the Palestine problem.” The Mufti succeeded in stopping immigration of Jews, which could have saved as many as a million lives. (In contrast, Arab immigration into Palestine in the 1930s to late 1940s was unrestricted and it soared.) The tragedy is that there was plenty of room for everyone.
Nor does it mention that rather than accept a fair partition – the UN in 1947 offered the Zionists some 55% of the country (much of it desert) and the Arabs about 40% — the Palestinian Arab leaders led their people into a civil war instead. It was a war that many peaceful Palestinians didn’t want to fight.
They lost that war, and then five neighboring Arab armies – none with a claim to even an inch of the land — quickly invaded. They lost, too. Nimr Al Hawari, former commander of the Arab Youth Organization in Palestine, later remarked that, “The Arabs’ eyes were blinded and their brains clogged… They were confused by promises and deluded by their leaders. The Palestinian Arabs were ignorant and easily led astray. They were shortsighted and unthinking and subject to a gangster-leadership… which herded them like docile sheep.” The Jews believed, with good reason given the Holocaust, that had they lost either war, they would be exterminated. Azzam Pasha, then secretary-general of the Arab League, had boasted, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
In July 1949, Israel offered to incorporate the Gazan refugees that it had. The offer was rejected. Israel offered to make the refugee problem the top item on the agenda of peace negotiations, but this too was refused. In 1967, following yet another Arab war of aggression — The Six-Day War — Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote that Israel “never contemplated the savage belligerency it was destined to face on the part of its Arab neighbors.”
Reading the ASA’s boycott resolution, you’d never know that the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964, before the Six-Day War that led to Israel’s capture and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO was created for the express purpose of “liberating” Israel from its Jewish inhabitants.
Nor does it mention that Israel has offered a generous partition to Palestinians on multiple occasions over the last few decades — but that Palestinian rulers have always rejected a state of their own if it meant that Jews would also have one. The ASA does not mention how Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan said he warned Yasser Arafat in 2001 that he would be committing a “crime” against his people if he didn’t accept Israel’s offer that year to give the Palestinians a contiguous state on 97% of the West Bank, all of Gaza, plus a capital in east Jerusalem. (Arafat instead chose an intifada.)
One can read about this in a New Yorker story that is carried on the website of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington. “Since 1948, every time we’ve had something on the table we say no,” Bandar said he told Arafat. ”Then we say yes. When we say yes, it’s not on the table anymore. Then we have to deal with something less. Isn’t it about time we say yes?… Either you take this deal, or we go to war. If you take this deal, we will all throw our weight behind you. If you don’t take this deal, do you think anybody will go to war for you?… I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it’s not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.”
Nor does the resolution mention current (unelected) Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ glorification as “heroes” of the floods of civilian-murdering terrorists released from Israeli prisons, which continue this month. It does not mention what Abbas says in Arabic to his people versus what he says in English that the West wants to hear. (Spend a whole day with MEMRI, as well as the Palestinian Media Watch.)
Nor does it mention how dissent is suppressed in Palestinian universities and the rest of society, as Palestinian leaders like to maintain a stranglehold on opinion. Insulting Abbas is a crime, and there’s no shortage of cases of Palestinians (including journalists) who have been arrested for doing it. In my view, peace-seeking Palestinians need to rise up against their current leaders, just as ASA members opposed to the boycott need to reclaim their association from their own extremists.
The ASA resolution does not mention the longtime targeting of civilians by Palestinian terrorists (Odeh included), in bombs and missile attacks, that constitute war crimes under international law.
The ASA resolution should (but does not) mention that Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005, only to suffer thousands of rockets launched into its country over the next eight years. Would ASA’s national council like to see the same immediate pullout of all of the West Bank? Most people would, as well. But the council members don’t seem to give a hoot about what happens afterwards to Israelis if Islamist radicals take over that territory as well.
No, the resolution’s authors live in their own La-La Land where none of that has happened.
Rutger’s professor Rockland was aghast as he watched the ASA’s “open house” in Washington, D.C., in November. “I have never attended a meeting like this in my life,” he says he told the audience. “This was advertised as a town meeting, a round table. Well, as far as I can see, it’s a one-sided table and you made no effort whatsoever to garner different opinions… You’re supposed to be cultural historians, and all you did was find six people who would denounce Israel. And you outdid each other- each one trying to come up with more and more ugly things. This reminds me of what it must be like at a North Korean Politburo meeting where the leader speaks and everybody applauds.”
Rockland told me last week: “It was disgraceful. It was so misguided. Stupid, really. We sometimes make the mistake in thinking that all fascists come from the right. These were fascists from the left. I just couldn’t quite believe it.”
Rockland is the founder of the American Studies department of Rutgers (in 1969), and he’s been a member of the ASA for more than 40 years. Unlike the national council members, he has foreign policy credentials, having served in the diplomatic corps during the 1960s.
A day after the town hall, just before the boycott vote was taken, audience members were allotted all of two minutes to speak. Rockland took to his feet again, this time saying that the founders of ASA, who were his professors at the University of Minnesota, “must be turning over in their graves.” He added: “Regardless of what your feelings might be about Israel and Palestine, what the heck does this have to do with what the ASA is for, which is studying the people, culture and society of the United States?”
Rockland then told the audience that he had spoken with a Palestinian friend who said to him, “‘Our ultimate problem is not with the Israelis, it’s with the Palestinian leadership,’ which is quite a statement.” For that, Rockland was hissed.
“Apartheid? It’s crazy!” he says today. “Whatever Israelis are doing, they’re not persecuting their own [Arab] people. And there are nearly 1.7 million Arab citizens [21% of Israel’s population]. The ASA audience had no sense that in 1947 the UN proposed two nations. I sympathize with the Palestinian people, but it’s not easy for me to sympathize with their leadership. But once they make a deal, that whole part of the world will flourish.”
The vote was in favor of a boycott, by a two-to-one margin. Much press attention has focused on the fact that only a small percentage of the membership was in attendance, but that misses the point. Their silence was acquiescence and complicity, as most members of the ASA didn’t bother to vote. Their indifference to this widely-publicized resolution was assent.
Rockland considers resigning from ASA, but several colleagues have urged him “to stay within it and fight these bastards. I use that word because that’s exactly how I feel about them.” Penn State’s Bronner says there is “a counter-movement to try to get a slate of candidates who better represent American Studies” and take back the group and its former ideals. “Or we need to get an alternative organization.”
Bronner sums up the problem as follows: “What they’re claiming in their area of expertise is the idea of U.S. imperialism. And my opinion is that that’s a thin pretext and still does not make them experts on foreign policy or a very complex situation, and I stood up [during the vote] and said publicly that the resolution is bad critical thinking. What it states is that one side is all good, namely the Palestinians, and the other side is all bad, namely the Israelis [read: Jews].”
He adds: “There’s not much intellectual diversity [on the national council], and many of them don’t actually come out of American Studies. They come from other [specialties]. Unfortunately, this boycott is American Studies as anti-American Studies, which I don’t believe it should be about. It should be about cultural analysis, without you necessarily saying you hate or love America. Quite apart from Israel, anti-America comes out loud and clear in the papers and talks of council members. That is of course their prerogative, but it’s important that you and everyone know who you are dealing with here.”
CAMERA, a group that monitors Middle East media coverage, may have put its finger on it. The boycott resolution, concludes an analysis of theirs, ”exposes a seamy side of American academia where anti-Israel activists have seized control of academic associations to promote their radical agendas… an academic cult that scapegoats Israel for the alleged sins of the West, while giving Arab society a pass.”
President Sexton, let’s meet a particularly doctrinaire NYU member of the ASA national council, a man who embodies why I am ashamed to be an alumnus—and, frankly, who has written and spoken things that make me sick to my stomach. He is an NYU associate professor named Nikhil Pal Singh, and he is a majordomo in the BDS movement. His specialties are “race, empire, and culture in 20th century America; black radicalism; U.S. foreign policy.” A forthcoming book is called “Exceptional Empire: Race and War in U.S. Globalism.”
Singh is just seething with hatred for Israel. Following a weeklong visit to Israel and the West Bank in 2012, he wrote: “It is the Zionist project today whose political instability and moral and ethical bankruptcy is visible to anyone willing to see it clearly.”
Last April he gave a talk about the BDS struggle against Israel at the University of Washington, and it’s one that I had a particularly difficult time watching because almost everything he said was false, distorted, and an insult to the Jewish people.
Singh conceded that he knows very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I am not an expert on Israel,” he said, just eight minutes into his speech. “I am not an expert on Palestine. I’m a historian of African American civil rights and of US foreign policy, and I do work out of the U.S. I don’t come to speak to you as any kind of expert about anything here really. And sometimes I feel uncomfortable speaking as if I am someone who has superior wisdom on this topic.”
He has every right to feel uncomfortable, and so should everyone listening to his brainless piffle. However, his discomfort didn’t stop Singh from blabbering on for 45 minutes, firing one rocket after another into Israel.
“The colonization of Palestine has been going on almost a century under the umbrella of the Zionist project,” he told his audience. “If what is being done to the Palestinians now can be done to a people, it can be done to anyone… As long as it remains legitimate, as long as it’s deemed normalized, [it] represents a massive threat literally to the concept of human rights in our time. The concept of human rights becomes almost meaningless.”
Israel is, he adds, a state based on “subordination of one group by another that is defined in terms of ethnicity, religion and race. There’s really no way around that. I think one of the reasons why defenders of Israel become so hysterical when these charges are raised is because at some level they know that they’re true.”
Singh speaks of Gazans living “in a state of virtual siege… a kind of open-air prison [another common BDS buzzword]… Gazans have no ability to do anything really to make life there except occasionally fire some rockets into Israel.” Of course, Singh doesn’t tell his listeners that when Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon [who died three days ago] pulled unilaterally out of Gaza in 2005 – yanking 8,000 unhappy Jews out of their homes in the process– the hope was that Gazans would create a model pre-state. Instead, the world has watched a military takeover by Hamas (whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and of Jews everywhere), followed by the election of Hamas to run the government. Nor does he tell his listeners that conditions for Gazans were just as bad, if not worse, from 1948-1967, when Egypt ruled it under military law — preventing freedom of movement, and never granting the inhabitants Egyptian citizenship.
Singh doesn’t mention that Hamas today terrorizes its population: No criticism allowed, no free press, mistreatment of women that should make the ASA’s feminists cringe in horror. The houses and other structures Israel left behind were destroyed by Hamas, not utilized. The ‘occasional’ rockets fired into Israel that Singh is referencing actually exceed 11,000 since 2005.
Singh describes demographics discussions by Israelis (i.e. one state versus two-state solutions, and whether Arabs or Jews would be the majority in either case) as “disturbing eugenic and biological exterminus rhetoric that of course for anyone who has a history related to the actual Holocaust must find it just horrifying.”
Needless to say, Singh, a proponent of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose school of Middle Eastern studies, casts all the blame for everything on the country’s Jews, and has nothing positive to say at all about Israel.
On the subject of east Jerusalem, he says that Palestinians there “are being slowly ethnically cleansed.” This is being accomplished, he says, by methods of zoning restrictions and permit restrictions.” If you are a Palestinian, he maintains, “and you add a bathroom without a permit, which you’re not gonna get from the Israeli zoning authorities, they can come in and destroy your entire house… We saw again and again and again on trips to east Jerusalem this slow motion process of displacement.”
Actually, a legal house with an illegal bathroom is not going to render the occupants homeless, just as an illegal balcony in a Jew’s apartment in west Jerusalem isn’t going to render him or her homeless.
Singh then goes on to complain about a new light-rail train in Jerusalem that “connects settler communities and bypasses Palestinian ones. It’s really quite ingenious and detailed in terms of how it operates – which is partly what makes it a kind of example of a modern occupation, as a sort of modernization of an apartheid system.” Ah, yes: The diabolical Zionist project utilizing technologies in its next stage of “ethnic cleansing.”
Truth be told, anyone can go on Google and see that there are train stops in Arab neighborhoods. Arab residents are coming downtown and to different parts of the city more than ever because there’s now convenient public transportation. “Every time you get on it [the train], you see an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish guy, a Muslim woman in a hijab, a secular Jew, a secular Arab – this beautiful melting pot that makes Jerusalem so special,” says Stephan Miller, a former advisor to the mayor and former spokesperson for the city. “The train is open for anyone to use — Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist, tourist, kids, seniors, overweight, underweight, college students – and they all talk too loudly on their cellphones equally.”
Also worth noting, and you’ll likely never hear this from Singh and his confederates: A poll by the Washington Institute in 2011 found that the nearly 300,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are “almost evenly divided” in choosing between Israeli and Palestinian citizenship, should a state of Palestine come into being. (Given the way Hamas is running Gaza, and how the corrupt Palestinian Authority is running the West Bank, why would they?)
Abu Toameh, the Israeli-Arab journalist, penned a piece last week on the topic. “It is much easier for Palestinians to accuse Israel of racism than to admit they do not want to be part of a Palestinian state,” he wrote.
Last year, I met in Jerusalem with the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, who many consider future prime minister material. A former high-tech entrepreneur, he has brought a business model to the city that has resulted in high economic growth – for Jews, Arabs, everyone. “We have lots of Arab entrepreneurs taking advantage of the growth in culture and tourism,” he says. “Arab-owned hotels, businesses, restaurants.” Many are quietly becoming Israeli citizens. “They don’t want the city divided,” says Barkat. “They don’t want to unplug from our medical [system], they don’t want to unplug from our economy. They see the Egyptian model, they see the Syrian model, they see the Gaza model, and they want to be part of Jerusalem. So what are you guys [the boycotters] talking about?”
In other words, nearly half of Jerusalem’s Arabs want to continue receiving the services, stability, security and democracy that they now have in Israel. Palestinian rulers, points out sociology professor Sammy Smooha (University of Haifa), are more critical of Israel than the Arab public, which is “much more pragmatic than their leaders.”
Mayor Barkat is quick to admit that Arabs were neglected in Jerusalem for decades. And there is no question that they were, particularly under a previous mayor (Teddy Kollek), who ran the city from 1965-1993. But now the city is building and upgrading Arab schools and roads. “We’re catching up with the Arab residents,” says Barkat. “That’s why there’s less internal sectorial negative conflict.”
In the most recent (2012) well-regarded “Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel,” Smooha found that 55% of Israeli Arabs prefer living in Israel than any other country. On the other hand, 75% of Israeli Arabs feel they are second-class citizens and are not in favor of doing any national civic service. Israel still has a long way to go to bring its Arabs into the fold, and the nation’s Jews know it. Many ventures with that goal in mind are unfolding today.
President Sexton, I promise I’ll move off Professor Singh eventually. But let’s hear his views on Hebron, the largest West Bank city, expressed in a radio interview he gave in 2012. “You visit a city like Hebron, where it’s a Palestinian city of 100,000 people, and you have an enclave of 400 Israeli Jewish settlers who make some kind of bizarre religious or theological or whatever claim to land,” he educated his listeners. “And essentially what the Jewish settlers have done in Hebron is they’ve colonized the apartments and houses above the main market street in the city and the settlers literally throw garbage and excrement and acid down on top of the Arab merchants… so when you see a situation like this, where 400 settlers from Brooklyn, or from Russia, or what have you, who have really no claim to this territory, can substantially disrupt, harass, strangle the life of a Palestinian city of 100,000 people, something is really wrong in the world.”
First off, whether one thinks Jewish settlers belong there or not, Singh leaves out the historical in his “whatever claim” argument. Hebron is the oldest Jewish community in the world, and Jews have lived there almost continuously for more than 1,000 years. The exception was 1929, when all Jews evacuated the city after 67 Jews, including 23 college students, were massacred. (Many who survived were hidden by Arab families, not unlike how many Jews were hidden by Christian families in Europe during the Holocaust.) Numerous Jews returned to Hebron in 1931, but nearly all of them were evacuated at the start of the 1936-39 Arab revolt in Palestine.
And what of the excreta supposedly raining down on the heads of Palestinian merchants? It’s certainly possible that such a thing happened at some point, but when the NGO that made that claim in 2008 was asked to back it up with evidence, it declined to do so.
Singh goes on to speak of “expulsion of some one million Palestinians from their lands” in the late 1940s, when the Israeli state was born [reborn, really]. But that’s nonsense. As so many of the boycotters do, he cites the widely-discredited anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe as his source. And yet no historian has scrupulously documented the history of the refugee crisis more than Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, Morris has been attacked by both the right and the left at various times in his academic career. In my mind, he is the only historian who has the guts to alter his conclusions wherever the documents go that he unearths. Utilizing government archives and not personal memories (which are too-often unreliable), Morris examined the approximately 375 Arab villages, towns and cities — i.e. Bir al-Sab (today Beer Sheba), Jaffa and the Arab section of Haifa — that existed at the time to determine what actually took place in 1947-9.
His conclusion, in his 2004 book “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited”: What happened “was so complex and varied, the situation radically changing from date to date and place to place, that a single-cause explanation of the exodus from most sites is untenable.” Nonetheless, he tells me, “UN investigations in 1949 put the refugee-displaced Arab community at 711,000-726,000 (not one million). Most of those who were displaced were displaced by Jewish military operations or fears of Jewish attack and conquest. Most did not want to live under Jewish rule and some feared Jewish atrocities. A minority were expelled by the Israelis – and a minority left as a result of orders or advice from Arab leaders.”
Some Arab villages were deemed strategically necessary by the Zionists to take over, if they were going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the next war – after five Arab armies invaded in May 1948 on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs.
In his book, writes Morris, “the Palestinians were “punished for having forced upon the Yishuv [Jewish community] the protracted, bitter war that had resulted in the death of one, and the maiming of two, in every 100 in the Jewish population. The Arabs had rejected partition and unleashed the dogs of war. In consequence, quite understandably, the Yishuv’s leadership – left, center and right – came to believe that leaving in place a large hostile Arab minority (or an Arab majority) inside the state would be suicidal. And driving out the Arabs, it emerged, was easy; generally they fled at the first whiff of grapeshot, their notables and commanders in the lead.”
Another thing Singh doesn’t mention is that (as I noted earlier), while it was the Palestinian leaders who pushed their people to declare war on Israel, many Palestinians didn’t want to do it. They wanted to share the land, and they greatly benefited financially from the vast economy that the Jews had created in such a short time.
A third NYU council member is Marisol LeBron, a Ph.D. student whose specialty is Puerto Rican culture, hip hop, and “how the queer Bronx challenges neoliberal ideas about contemporary gay urban spaces.” On her Twitter page, she refers to herself as “The post pomo nuyorican homo….I write about the growth of the carceral state in contemporary Puerto Rico.” Her expertise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Nada.
The fourth NYU member of the ASA national council is María Josefina (“Josie”) Saldaña-Portillo. She is an associate professor of Social and Cultural Analysis. Her specialties: “Latina/o studies, development and globalization studies; comparative race in the Americas; 20th century revolutionary thought and literature of the Americas.” She has explored topics such as “colonial melancholy and the racial geography of the postmodern Americas” (a comparison of the construction of “the Indian” in “New Spain and New England” in the 18th-19th centuries.) She has expertise on subjects such as Malcolm X and Mexico, but none on the Mideast conflict that I could find. But that didn’t stop her from adding her name to a letter to President Obama in 2009 stating that the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel “are mere pinpricks in comparison to the horrific consequences of Israeli bombardment.”
The other signers were NYU’s Duggan and Singh, the University of California’s Gordon — plus three council members we’ll meet later: J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Sunaina Maira and Chandan Reddy.
They were referring to Israel’s three-week Operation Cast Lead, which the IDF conducted in order to stop that rocket fire (and, as I said previously, more than 11,000 missiles have been blasted into Israel since the IDF pulled out of Gaza), as well as weapons smuggling that is still ongoing.
As for the “pinpricks,” Saldaña and her coterie ought to try that word out on the residents of Sderot, Israel, where surveys have found that more than 70% of the local kids suffer post-traumatic stress from all the rockets that land just in their city. Would Saldaña have tolerated such “pinpricks” hitting downtown Manhattan, where she works? Would she have condoned them for any other country’s peoples except the Jewish residents of Israel?
One national council member who is worth a good deal of attention is Sunaina Maira from the University of California (Davis). India-born Maira, who notes she is married to a Palestinian scholar, is a major BDS campaigner. Her academic specialties: Asian-American studies, and Indian youth culture in New York City. Her great achievement for posterity: A lengthy paper on how the fad of belly-dancing in the Bay Area is linked to American “imperial aggression,” and the U.S’s continued support “for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories that have decimated families and homes and destroyed cities and villages in the Middle East, along with their inhabitants’ cultural resources and social lives.” Other than another paper, on Palestinian hip-hop music, she presents no further “scholarship” on the conflict. But she felt qualified enough to speak before an audience in New Delhi in 2012 on the subject of “Solidarity: India-Palestine and the Future of Colonization.”
And what a speech! She used all the usual brain-dead fist-in-the-air propaganda-isms to characterize Israel: “Apartheid;” Israel as “hyper-militaristic;” and how “solidarity with Palestine… is grounded in anti-imperial and also anti-war politics.” She pointed out that the “Israel lobby, of course, is a very well-established structure of defamation, harassment, intimidation, bullying.” Yet practically every word out of her mouth was clueless and counterfactual. They were a throwback to the days when India was so pro-Arab that it did not allow its citizens to travel to Israel, and not the India of today, which has a close relationship with the Jewish state.
It was as if she was reading from a script prepared by the Soviet Union at the height of its Zionism-as-racism campaign in the 1970s: “…The nature of Zionist settler colonialism as a racist project… Knowing the racism of the Israeli state towards Palestinian citizens (sic) to make that connection of contempt and hate. It’s really kind of a vicious structure in a society where the racism is quite palpable.”
I resist folding Maira’s gobbledygook into the rubric of anti-Semitism. Such labels aren’t necessary; the moronic character of her words speaks for itself. But then I think about that day in 1975, when America’s UN ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan rose in the General Assembly Hall to denounce that body’s resolution that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Moynihan was apoplectic. He called it “a lie” and “this obscenity.” (And he warned that corrupting the language of human rights in this way would cause irreparable harm to the UN and to actual racism.)
“The United States rises to declare, before the General Assembly of the United Nations and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act,” he stated loudly and forcefully. “… A great evil has been loosed upon the world. The General Assembly today grants symbolic amnesty—and more—to the murderers of the six million European Jews… There will be time enough to contemplate the harm this act will have done the United Nations. Historians will do that for us… Whatever else Zionism may be, it is not, and cannot be, a form of racism — unless it ceased to be Zionist.”
The ASA’s Maira wants the world to label Zionism, the Jewish national movement, as a racist “project” – even though Jews are not a race, and people from any race can become a Jew. There are light-skinned Palestinians, just as there are dark-skinned and black Israeli Jews.
The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race.” Merriam-Webster concludes that the ideology of racism is the belief that some races are “innately superior” to others because of biological traits.
As Moynihan stated on that diabolical day in 1975: “This belief has always been altogether alien to the political and religious movement known as Zionism.” It was not a movement, he pointed out, “of the Irish to free Ireland,” or of “Indians to free India. It was not a movement of persons connected by historic membership in a genetic pool.”
That is, of course, not true. She would be hard-pressed to name one half-intelligent person who has done such deeming. Criticism of Israel is not only fair, but the level of open debate on all sides of the Palestinian question is one of Israel’s hallmarks – especially in its academic institutions. It is the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state amid 22 hostile Arab countries (and other non-democracies), that must raise the question of anti-Semitism. And Maira, at a minimum, is stepping close to that line.
Surprisingly, Maira complains that speaking out against Israel on college campuses is harmful to a professor’s career. There is a “lockdown on an open and honest debate around Palestine in the U.S. academy and the mainstream media,” she said. “This is one of the reasons why many of us engaged in Palestinian solidarity activism find it’s a full-time job because you may be out of a full-time job if you dare to speak about Palestine… It’s the last taboo.”
In fact, the opposite is true. “Quite simply, one cannot expect to survive in the field of Middle East Studies if one is pro-Israel in any meaningful sense,” says Neil J. Kressel, a psychology professor at William Patterson University, and the author of “The Sons of Pigs and Apes”: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence.”
The situation, adds Kressel in an email to me, “is more complicated in other social science departments. In those departments dominated by leftists — and there are many, especially in elite institutions — vocal support for Israel can hurt one’s career; though bias is hard to prove, one finds few mainstream Israel supporters in such departments. Even among Jews in these departments, support for Israel is often seen as ‘unsophisticated.’ As one moves further from the humanities and social sciences — to business, medicine, law, and natural science — one finds more support for Israel and no career implications based on one’s position regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.” (Scholarship on Muslim anti-Semitism, he says, is strongly discouraged.)
Kressel adds: “I, personally, have never seen anyone’s career hurt because of opposition to Israel. More generally, the radical left is a pretty safe place to be in academia — career-wise.”
That clearly is the case at NYU, Mr. Sexton, and it makes me feel deeply ashamed to be an alumnus.
I should note that Maira and many of her council comrades seldom use the word “Jews,” but it’s something they need to do when discussing “Israelis.” They surely never mean Israel’s 21% of Arab citizens when they accuse the state of pinkwashing, genocide, racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing and imperial colonialism. So why not say it? Many ASAers know that this could get them accused of anti-Semitism, so they stick to safe, politically-correct euphemisms.
Let’s move on to Kēhaulani Kauanui of Wesleyan University. She wrote a book called “Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity .” She’s a member of a radio collective that produces a program on anarchist culture and politics, and in 2012 she hosted an episode on ‘queer politics and anarchism.’ She somehow sees parallels between Palestinians and indigenous Hawaiians – and she said in a 2012 radio interview that she’s been “learning about occupied Palestine and Israeli settler colonialism more intensively in these last several years, but I’ve actually been tuned in in one way or another since the early 1990s.”
In the interview, she shared the fact that she is “profoundly critical of U.S. Empire in all it’s manifestations, whether it’s in Hawaii or Iraq.” She hits Israel with the usual repetitive sloganeering: “crimes against humanity,” “violence with impunity,” “settler colonialism,” “apartheid,” “outright genocide,” and “a particular kind of ethnic cleansing, and there is no other word for it.”
She continues: “You can see it in east Jerusalem, with settlers literally throwing out Palestinians in the dead of night, with armed Israeli Defense Force soldiers backing them –throwing families out in the middle of the night, and forcing them to pay to have their own property, their own furnishings, hauled away.”
Is that so? Or has Prof. Kauanui matched her opinions with her own version of reality? Actually, just like every Western democracy, Jerusalem has strict zoning laws and building codes that all of its residents are expected to adhere to. If they don’t, they not only hurt public planning in the city, and the city’s ability to provide services, but they endanger their own neighbors’ safety. Jerusalem Mayor Barkat has instituted councils led by Arab mukhtars; they join up with municipal employees to work with residents to see if there is any disagreement or differing claims to the land among residents so that the city can then seek to retroactively legalize illegal structures.
“There are hundreds, if not thousands of cases involving illegal structures that are brought into the court system,” says Miller, the mayor’s former advisor. One can criticize Israel until you are blue in the face, but you can’t say those courts are unfair; they are extremely democratic and liberal.
“Imagine a case,” asks Miller, “of a home where there’s a fire and children couldn’t get out because there was no fire escape, or the building material was highly flammable and it goes up in flames very quickly all because residents didn’t follow the zoning codes? We would ask how did we let such a structure be built?” No doubt, harsh critics of Israel would turn this around and accuse Israel’s Jews of letting unsafe structures collapse as a new form of ethnic cleansing. “Only in an extreme case are houses demolished in predominantly Arab neighborhoods,” says Miller, “and it’s rare that one is demolished that was ever inhabited due to Israel’s squatter laws.” Such laws protect squatters who have been in an illegal building for a certain number of days; the case must then go through a legal process that could take years to resolve.
“Sometimes it’s an illegal store being built on land that is zoned for residential use or a park or a road,” says Miller. “I remember one case of a shed being built illegally to house horses. The [Arab] neighbors were very happy to have the structure demolished.”
Israel’s enemies like to categorize all structures as “homes” because it’s a more powerful visual. But it’s deceiving and a long way from the truth. I invite Professor Kauanui to stop hiding behind inflammatory generalities when speaking to her audiences. Name specific examples and cases, please.
In one instance, last August, she signed a letter that did name specifics. It was a call to boycott a conference at Hebrew University (HU) in Jerusalem. “While all Israeli universities are deeply complicit in the occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid,” the letter began, “the Hebrew University is particularly noteworthy.” The letter goes on to make a series of allegations, none of which appear to hold water.
As just one example, Kauanui and her confederates charged that HU’s administration restricts the freedom of speech and protest of its Palestinian students. “This is absolutely false,” responds Dov Smith, the school’s foreign press liaison. “There are at least five active Palestinian student organizations on campus, and some of them regularly engage in political activities, including handing out materials, holding protests… Their right to protest was not curtailed even after the deadly Palestinian terror attack at the main Mount Scopus student cafeteria 11 years ago!”
ll the key allegations that Kauanui and others made in the letter, and HU’s responses, can be seen here. (It’s well worth reading, and learning about things such as the collaborations between the dental schools of HU and Al-Quds, a leading Palestinian university. You can also see a joint statement the schools signed against boycotts.)
At this point, Mr. Sexton, we’re midway through the list of 18 national council members. The rest also don’t appear to have expertise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor even speeches on the subject, and are just go-alongs. They include Chandan Reddy (University of Washington), who lists his specializations as “Critical Race Theory; Sexuality and Queer Studies; Globalization Studies; and Asian American Cultural Studies.” His book: “Queer of Color Critique of Capitalism.” Another is Juana Maria Rodriguez, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of California (Berekely). Research areas: Queer Theory, Sex Studies, Critical Race Theory and Latin Popular Cultures.
Bryn Mawr’s Roya Rastegar’s specialties are film cultures, gender and “racial formations.” She pursued her Doctorate in the History of Consciousness, she writes with pride, ”under the guidance” of radical Angela Davis, who ran twice as a candidate for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket. (It’s noteworthy that the ASA gives out an annual prize in Davis’s name.)
Rastegar’s boldest move: “Between Sight & Desire,” a multimedia exploration of Western sexual fantasies of Muslim women – sometimes juxtaposed against video of “current military strikes in the Middle East.” If you glance at some of the steamy photos in her project, you can only imagine how it would play if she took her presentation on a road show in the Islamic world. In Israel, no problem.
The remaining the council members are as follows:
* Jeremy Dean, a former high school English teacher and “education programs coordinator” at the University of Texas (Austin). Dean now calls himself the “Education Czar” at Rap Genius — a lyric-annotating site. He also uses rap to try and help kids to read better. See him here for a clearer idea of what he does.
* Karen Leong, a professor of women and gender studies, as well as Asian-Pacific studies, at Arizona State University. She “explores the overlapping and mutually reinforcing discourses of gender, race, class and nation.”
* Matthew Frye Jacobson, a professor of American Studies and history at Yale. His teaching interests include “race in U.S. political culture 1790-present; U.S. imperialism; immigration and migration; popular culture and “the juridical structures of U.S. citizenship.” He is the author of numerous books, including “Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917” and “Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States.”
* Anne Cvetkovich, a professor of English, women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas (Austin), where she teaches gender, sexuality and migration; lesbian literature and culture.
* Martin F. Manalansan IV, a professor of anthropology and Asian-American Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of “Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora.” Other research interests that he lists are sexuality and gender; immigration and globalization; cities and modernity; critical theory; performance; public health; North America; Southeast Asia; culture and food.
* E. Patrick Johnson, a professor of theatre and African-American studies at Northwestern University. He teaches gender and performance, as well as folklore and oral traditions, and is the author/performer of “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.”
* Jennifer Devere Brody (chair of the theatre department at Stanford University), whose books – according to her website — discuss “relations among and between sexuality, gender, racialization, visual studies and performance.”
Mr. Sexton, by now, I’m sure you’ve had enough, as have I. So let me conclude with two academics who actually know something about the conflict:
* Emily Budick, chair of both American Studies and English at Hebrew University in Jerusalem:
“Who, in their audience of addressees, do they [the ASA council members] imagine is NOT opposed to the idea of occupation?” she writes in Inside Higher Ed. (She and they gave me permission to quote from it extensively.) “And who, again in their target audience, is NOT concerned with the rights of Palestinians? The issue for them, for all of us here, is one that the boycott does not even recognize, let alone address: how do these two entities, Israel and Palestine, find a way to exist side by side?
“To be sure, Israeli Jews like myself are likely to be more sensitive to the potential extermination of the Jewish population in Israel than individuals outside of Israel. I confess that bias. But the possibilities of the destruction of the State of Israel and the deaths of its citizens are no fantasies of a deluded imagination. Read the Arab press, unless, of course, the boycotters would prefer to remain ignorant of the issues. What is required in Israel is a political solution that produces a Palestinian state and secures the existence of Israel. If any one of the boycotters has a solution that does that, we in Israel would love to hear it.
“American Americanists do not need to bring to the attention of Israeli academics the difficulty of getting an education under conditions of occupation or discrimination.”
* Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, and author of eight books, including “Moynihan’s Moment: “America’s Fight Against Racism as Zionism”:
“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.’”
Troy refers to the ASAers as “totalitarians in tweed.” He tells me: I am disappointed –as a humanist — that scientists have been in the forefront of anti-boycott efforts because they simply cannot cut off any supply of information and knowledge, let alone the valuable Israeli source, but that humanists, who should know better, have been cowed by political correctness — thus the silence of the tenured lambs.
“The great danger, of course, is that students, their financially burdened parents, and generous alumni are bankrolling and validating these fanatics, even as they betray our students — and America– by making too much of university life be about politics not thought, conformity not autonomy, and bashing democracies rather than, as Moynihan appreciated, occasionally trying to improve imperfections without negating their standing.”
I asked Troy what Moynihan, who served four times as a U.S. Senator, in addition to his UN post, might have thought about today’s ASA. “He would be outraged by his fellow academics. He saw doctrinaire thinkers invading his precious domains, and also understood that picking on Israel was anti-Semitic and symptomatic of a larger surrender to totalitarianism. But being the epigrammatic phrase maker that he was, he would probably put it more elegantly, saying something like, ‘I should be disappointed but that would require higher expectations than I now have of these fanatics.’”
I suspect Moynihan would be pleased that Troy has launched a Troycott on Facebook to repudiate the boycotters by encouraging conversations about Zionism, “analyzing what Zionists mean when calling Jews a nation, not just a religious community, and 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 stop being defensive, he writes on the page, which now has more “Likes” than the number of ASA members who participated in the vote overall. “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.”
Unfortunately, that would require heavy lifting by the ASA members, who are already busy making plans for their next annual meeting in Los Angeles. The conference theme: “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.”
As the ASA website instructs its members, “We need to get serious about fun, pleasure and happiness. On the way to global financial meltdown, the collapse of the housing market, the rise of the neoliberal university, the end of social justice and the solidification of racial capital, we stopped attending to our experiences of, and capacity for, joy, bliss, ecstasy… Meanwhile the owners of the administered world did all they could to monopolize (and therefore deaden) those experiences and to privatize (and therefore attenuate) that capacity… What are the modes of feeling that resist capital’s [sic] brutalities, but that also fantasize, describe and believe in living otherwise?”
As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ASA still proposes no solutions. But New York lawmakers have come up with a possible solution to the ASA. On Friday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced that he plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit colleges and universities from using state aid to fund any academic groups that “promote discriminatory boycotts.” He specifically cited ASA.
Would such legislation stand a chance of being upheld by judges? “A well-crafted statute cutting off funding to organizations that deny academic freedom would be constitutional,” Dershowitz writes me.
Perhaps, Mr. Sexton, you could take a stronger stand against the ASA before the bill is debated, and – as I said earlier – have NYU’s good name removed from their list as institutional member? This could be your “Moynihan Moment.”
Your spokesperson says that the university is opposed to legislation “which appears to tread on academic freedom.” I don’t think it does anything of the kind. On the contrary, it would simply be an expression of revulsion by the people of New York to the academic boycott of Israel. And that gets to the core of my concern, President Sexton. You issued a halfhearted statement, but by your words and actions–and inaction–you don’t seem especially upset by the ASA’s boycott of Israel. You need to speak out. You need to act. You need to put daylight between NYU and the ASA and any other group that endorses the academic boycott of Israel and Israelis.
Until you do, I will be very deeply ashamed of my alma mater, and very deeply ashamed of you.
—with editorial assistance from Gary Weiss
FOLLOW-UP ARTICLE: “Homophobic, Racist, Sexist, ‘Take Xanax’: Reactions To My Open Letter To NYU’s President On ASA’s Israel Boycott”
CORRECTION: This article initially stated that the ASA “open house” was held in San Diego — where Curtis Marez (ASA president and the boycott resolution spokesperson) teaches at a university. In fact, the meeting occurred in Washington, D.C. I regret the error.
The article that follows was originally published on Forbes.com, on February 4, 2014:
Homophobic, Racist, Sexist, ‘Take Xanax’: Reactions To My Open Letter To NYU’s President On ASA’s Israel Boycott
By Richard Behar
If you can’t rebut the facts, smear.
That’s how I’d sum up the reaction of the American Studies Association and the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement to my Open Letter to New York University president John Sexton.
NYU didn’t care for my letter either, but its views were measured and responsible.
Sure, I received praise from people who oppose the ASA’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I’ll be getting into the NYU reaction and the support that I received later. But I’d like to begin by focusing on the criticism from the ASA. That’s because it was a litany of name-calling, labeling, insults, character assassination, ideological pigeonholing and so much “card” playing—as in the gender card, the gay card, the racist card, the sexist card, and the “cultural war” card—that I thought that I was magically transplanted to Monte Carlo.
The attacks speak volumes about the ASA’s boycott resolution and the BDS campaign against Israel in general. It is a movement without even a pretense of intellectual honesty, one that relies on the most dreary kind of politically radical hivemind, an ideological conformity that is, in its most extreme aspects, downright scary.
For those new to the topic, in mid-December the 62-year-old ASA – an academic association claiming approximately 5,000 members – announced an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities. ASA’s reasoning is that Israel is responsible for curtailing the academic freedom of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. While the resolution is not binding on its members, ASA’s list of institutional members includes more than 90 universities and colleges across the country, among them NYU. The act is significant for many reasons, not least because it marks the first time the academic boycott of Israel has washed onto America’s shores in any significant way.
After my lengthy (14-page) article was published, I expected to hear a great deal from NYU professor Lisa Duggan, since she was a central figure in the piece — as incoming president of the ASA and one of the boycott’s prime movers. She and other ASA national council members who teach or study at NYU (they comprise nearly a quarter of that council) are the main reason why I feel so deeply disappointed and ashamed of my alma mater.
In essence, they have helped make NYU a hub of anti-Israel incitement.
Five hours after my piece appeared online I received an email from that person. It was not what I expected. Here it is, in its entirety.
“Curtis Marez does not teach at UC Davis,” Prof. Duggan’s email began, in a reference to the outgoing ASA president. “Our conference,” she continued, “was not held in San Diego.”
When I read this, I was mortified. Stupid, piddling errors like these don’t belong in an article. But I had already made the corrections long before her email. (In the first case, the link to the college where Marez teaches was correct, but not his school’s name. In the second matter, I had incorrectly placed the conference in the city where Marez, the boycott resolution’s spokesperson, works and lives.)
OK. What else did I get wrong? The rest of the email said as follows:
“I could go on. But the number of errors in your obsessive screed are so numerous…. [ellipses in original].”
Wait a minute. Two minor errors, fixed hours before her email, she points out to me, but there were “numerous” other errors that she can’t bring herself to articulate? What were those errors?
Was my article an “obsessive screed?” I suppose that’s a value judgment, though I feel it’s a little harsh. But as I continued to read the email, that was a compliment compared to what came next:
“Do you realize that you sound, well, unbalanced? Which is a shame because I hear you wrote some really great pieces about Scientology! I hope you can take xanax and relax a bit?”
When you can’t refute the facts, smear and insult, I guess. (I responded in kind, for which I immediately apologized. There was no reciprocity.)
While waiting in vain for Duggan to delineate any of the supposed massive number of “errors” therein, I communicated with Professor Michael Aaron Rockland — the founder of the American Studies department at Rutgers University in 1969, and an ASA member for four decades – who was deeply disturbed by the boycott resolution.
Prof. Rockland shared the text of an exchange of emails that he had with Duggan concerning my article. Like her email to me, her missives to him were notable for rather unprofessorial insults, and a lack of substantive criticism of the article.
But what a whopper of an exchange! I think it says a great deal about the mentality behind the ASA’s resolution.
Below are excerpts. Note what I’ve put in boldface:
LD [LISA DUGGAN]: “Did you see this creepy piece in which you are featured? Just wondering…. Michael, this is what your conversation with Behar produced. Very thoughtful of you to keep the right wing attack machine piled [sic]…
MR [MICHAEL ROCKLAND]: “Lisa, I’m afraid that you don’t see that the great majority of Americans see the A.S.A.’s resolution as what is ‘creepy.’ I’ve heard from people all over the country—old friends, etc.–who can’t believe I am, and remain, a member of the A.S.A. Also, professors from many departments at Rutgers are up in arms about it.”
LD: “The creepy part is the photos of individuals, the personalized attacks. Imagine if I wrote a defense of the boycott that included photos of you and friends, screen shots from your twitter feed, and implied ridicule of your research interests? I don’t see that as civil discourse over politics and scholarship, but as truly creepy culture wars style attacks not just engaging but targeting individuals. I suppose I can expect a massive internet troll attack now, perhaps also from you? Please know I will never respond in kind….I do not hurl insults or demonize individuals. If you don’t see that piece as creepy (not for his views but for his personalized stalkerish MCCarthy [sic] style demonizations) there is nothing I can say to you. I have long experience as a queer studies scholar with this kind of creepy personalized public attack. Perhaps you don’t?…This exchange is totally over. Do NOT email me personally ever again, and I will not email you. Anything I say in good faith can be distorted and publicized by creeps like Behar, and those who don’t see those tactics as creepy. I have had an interest in engaging folks across the pro/anti boycott line, but I see in this case that is a mistake. We do not have any shared values about civil discourse. There are many other boycott opponents who, I happen to know, DO see the Behar piece as way over the line, I will continue to engage with them. But not with anyone who ok’s sinking to such low means of ‘debate.’
“…Of WHAT possible relevance is a screen shot of me giving a talk on queer politics at the U of Utah to the boycott debate??? There is only one reason to include it, to demonize me by reference to the topic, soliciting homophobic hate mail–I already have a ton of it, more now coming in. This is related to Israel/Palestine HOW??, that’s what is creepy Michael. And that’s just one example among many. He has a culture wars agenda of going after us on race/sexuality grounds –to marginalize us on that basis, in order to discredit our boycott action. THAT is what you are signing up for… I thought your letter was principled and reasonable. I no longer believe that you will remain so, given your endorsement of Behar’s clearly homophobic smear tactics. I no longer think it is safe to correspond with you. So I am now blocking your email address.
“…I have shared your views and connections with Behar and the ultra right press with the national council of ASA so all may be aware that any communication with you may end up distorted and published by the ultra right.”
MR: “…I am pleased if you indeed share my views with the council. I must remind you that I did not contact you, you contacted me. And you have continued to write to me… It may be that some of his article goes a bit overboard (I’ll have to see on rereading) but whatever he’s done cannot compare with the diabolical resolution that our association has fostered on the world to its eternal discredit…
“I don’t consider Richard Behar right wing. I think the A.S.A. has been taken over by left wing fascists (yes there are fascists on the left too) and that it has become a bastion of ignorance that has departed from the once proud and progressive organization I have been a member of virtually my entire professional life. It isn’t just the resolution—which as you know I consider beneath contempt—but the mishmash American studies has become… I’m afraid I will have to disassociate myself from an organization that has brought national and even international shame on its members and become a laughing stock among people I respect.” [Rockland then informed Duggan that he will attempt for now to get the group back onto its correct track]…I will be fighting you from within, Lisa. I wish it was otherwise.”
… Lisa, I think you carry about with you a pretty whacky political spectrum if I’m ‘ultra right.’ But I thank you for the novelty. I’m generally attacked for being ‘ultra liberal.’”
Duggan expressed similar sentiments in the comment section of a blog written by Mark Rice, another professor of American Studies (in Rochester, NY) who opposes the boycott. “I believe it is the reputation of Richard Behar that is smeared in this piece… Such implied homophobic smears (look! the ASA prez elect is a queer! she must be marginal and extreme!) do not damage the ASA, they damage the person doing the smearing.”
The charge was immediately refuted by another commenter, who noted, “Looking over the photo and caption you describe, it looks as though the author (far from smearing you or anyone else for your scholarship or personal choices) is asking why the ASA has decided to focus such ‘human rights’ scrutiny on what ‘is perhaps the gayest-friendly country in the world.’”
“In any other context,” the response went, “this would be considered a pro-gay argument.”
Not to Professor Lisa Duggan, obviously. More importantly, she seems to be grasping at cards to distract from the obvious reason why any journalist would add links to the bios of ASA national council members, plus photos from their lectures: To show readers that not one of the 18 members of that council has academic expertise and scholarship on the Middle East, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put simply: They are in way over their heads. And they know it.
So that seems to be the strategy of the American Studies Association in dealing with criticism of its boycott of Israel: Personally attack, demonize and, above all, label. The ASA conjures up images of Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist witch-hunter of the 1950s, to defend its attack on Israel.
How opposition to a boycott is “right-wing” is beyond me. But as a tactic it makes sense in a kind of perverted way. The scare tactics of McCarthy are truly a dark age in the history of academia. Since Duggan could find nothing factually wrong with the substance of the article, her only recourse was to resort to name-calling and childish personal attacks. What we have here, indeed, is an example of the kind of tactics that, I am told, are widely utilized on campuses against pro-Israel academics and students.
It’s enough to make you a bit queasy, especially when you consider an irony embedded in one of the labels that she applied to me (and then denied applying to me—I’ll be coming to that).
It’s the “homophobic” bit. Israel is the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East by far, and among the most gay-friendly in the entire world. On the West Bank, homosexuals are persecuted. In Gaza, homosexuality is a criminal offense, punishable with a prison sentence. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, only 4% of Palestinians think that society should accept homosexuality, as compared to 40% in Israel. (The U.S. came in at 60%).
Self-abnegating anti-Israel zealots in the gay community say that it is “pinkwashing” to point this out – as if the entire nation of Israel has conspired for years to open its society to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals as a sneaky public relations ploy.
But like I said, Lisa Duggan isn’t really sure that I’m homophobic. She seems to be having trouble getting her story—and her labels—straight.
In an exchange of emails with writer and pro-Israel gay activist Scott Rose, which he was kind enough to share with me, the following exchange occurred:
“It has come to my attention that you accused Richard Behar of deliberately inciting homophobia sentiment against you,” Rose wrote and posted on his Facebook page a few days after her exchange with Prof. Rockland—the one in which she hung the “homophobic” label on me.
“I wish you to know,” he continued, “that as an out and proud gay male, I perceived no anti-gay incitements in Richard’s open letter. You are entitled to promote heterosexist Palestinian Arabs at the expense of Israeli Jews and LGBT people throughout the Middle East, yet the realities of Realpolitik do not go away because of your promotional activities. It is the avowed goal of Hamas to destroy Israel and to establish an Islamic theocracy in its place, complete with Sharia law ….I dare say that objectively examined, Richard Behar is more mindful of the need for protecting the rights of LGBTers in the Middle East than you are.”
Responding to Rose, Duggan said: “I did not accuse Behar of homophobia–I have no idea whether he’s homophobic or not.”
How about that. I guess Duggan’s accusation that I am “homophobic” is inoperative. Unless she changes her mind again.
Professor Duggan did get some support, however.
The ASA received a strong, unwavering thumbs-up from the Internationalist Socialist Organization (ISO), one of the last refuges of that long-discredited brand of brain-freeze in the post-Berlin Wall era. The ISO calls for the formation of a revolutionary party by militant workers. In an article on its Socialist Worker website, the group carried a report from Purdue University professor Bill Mullen – a major power in the academic boycott of Israel — which said that the ASA “won’t be bullied.”
Good for them! Nobody likes a bully, and the Socialist Workers are experts in the theory and practice of bullying on a multinational scale.
Meanwhile, inside NYU, I reached out to the school’s spokesperson, John Beckman, to ask if he could speak with me for a follow-up article. He responded that he preferred email. I obliged, asking – as I had in my Open Letter – if president Sexton planned to request or even demand that ASA remove the university’s name from its list of “institutional members.” (After all, Beckman had previously told me that it was actually an NYU “department,” and not the university as an institution, that had the membership.)
“We would be very pleased if the ASA were to choose another name for this type of membership for clarity’s sake,” Beckman wrote me. “That said, asking the ASA to change the name of this type of membership seems far less meaningful than what NYU’s president and provost actually asked them to do: to overturn their boycott vote.”
I beg to disagree. For one thing, the ASA in its current incarnation is unlikely to shelve the boycott. Perhaps an internal revolution against the boycott fanatics is in the cards, but why wait? The ASA’s institutional member list has the “American Studies Certificate Program” of CUNY as the member – not CUNY itself. Same with the “English Department” of Michigan State University. Over at Stanford, it’s not the entire university that is listed as endorsing ASA, it is Stanford’s “American Studies Program.”
Other universities, such as Kenyon College, Indiana University and Penn State (Harrisburg) have quit their memberships in ASA. Just yesterday, two Harvard students — Sara K. Greenberg and Yoav Schaefer — wrote a compelling Open Letter to that university’s president (Drew Gilpin Faust) laying out the good reasons why Harvard should also yank its membership.
Just why NYU’s John Sexton can’t at least lift up a telephone and ask ASA to make a simple wording change on its membership roster will have to remain a mystery to me.
And perhaps to other alumni as well. Following publication of my article, I received an Open Letter to President Sexton from another NYU alum, Judea Pearl, who is permitting me to make it public here. Among other things, Professor Pearl is also calling for Sexton to “remove” NYU’s name from the ASA’s institutional list.
Prof. Pearl is a distinguished UCLA professor and a recent Turing Award laureate (“the Nobel Prize of computing.”) His work on artificial intelligence revolutionized the way computers deal with uncertainty – leading to innovations such as the iPhone’s Siri speech recognition technology and Google’s driverless cars.
He is also the president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation – named for his late son, a former Wall Street Journal reporter — whose mission is to foster East-West understanding through journalism, music and dialogue.
Dear President Sexton,
I am writing to you as an alumnus of NYU-affiliated school who is deeply concerned with the recent boycott resolution by the American Studies Association (ASA) and its adverse impact on the reputation of NYU.
I received my PhD in 1965 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which last month became part of NYU. In November 2013, I was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award from NYU-Poly [Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn], an honor that made my association with NYU stronger and full of pride. I was disappointed therefore to learn that the leadership of the ASA, which pushed through a resolution that threatens the very fabric of academic life, is so intimately connected with NYU, both academically and administratively.
Four ASA National Council members (25%) are affiliated with NYU and vocally campaigned for the resolution. In particular, the ASA President Elect, Lisa Duggan, is NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis. This means that in the next couple of years, NYU will become the semi-official host to most activities of this organization, and will be perceived as the academic lighthouse from which this group will be broadcasting its irresponsible, anti-coexistence and anti-academic ideology.
I represent a group of professors who are particularly affected by the ASA boycott resolution. As part of my recent appointment to Visiting Professor at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, I am engaged in joint scientific projects with the Technion and its research staff. I also collaborate with Israeli universities on journalistic projects, named after my late son, Daniel Pearl, which aim at bringing Israeli and Palestinian journalists together.
It is not that we view the ASA action as a danger to the continuation of our research projects — scientific collaboration has endured many hecklers in the past, much louder than the ASA drummers, and the latters are clearly more interested in defamation than in an actual boycott. What we do consider dangerous is the very attempt to contaminate our scientific explorations with a charge of criminality, and to bring that ‘criminality’ for a so-called ‘debate’ in the public square, on our own campuses. We view this attempt as a new form of McCarthyism that is aimed at intimidating and silencing opposing voices, and thus threatens academic freedom and the fundamental principles of academic institutions. When a group of self-appointed vigilantes empowers itself with a moral authority to incriminate the academic activities of their colleagues, we are seeing the end of academia and the end of the sacred academic principles that have been painstakingly developed over centuries.
It is for this reason that I was personally disappointed with your letter which, while expressing opposition to boycotts in general and the ASA resolution in particular, failed to identify the ASA action as an imminent threat to NYU’s reputation. Your letter did not state whether the ASA will be able to continue using NYU facilities and services as its de facto national headquarters, and what action you plan to take to restrain its leaders from re-staining the name of NYU with similar actions in the future.
In the name of many NYU alumni who wish to remain proud of their Alma Mater, I strongly urge you to remove NYU’s name from the ASA ‘institutional member’ list (as other universities have done), and to voice a strong and unequivocal condemnation of the pro-boycott activities of the ASA leadership.
Director, Cognitive Systems Laboratory
University of California, Los Angeles
President Sexton never got back to me after my Open Letter, but I hope he will respond to Judea Pearl’s.
Since the ASA announced its boycott, American Studies departments around the country “have been scrambling to come up with their own position on a topic with negligible Americanist pedigree,” says Thomas Doherty, the chair of American Studies at Brandeis University, which decided almost immediately to withdraw its institutional membership.
“Others have said that, contrary to the list of institutional sponsors printed on the back page of American Quarterly [the ASA’s official publication], they were not in fact affiliates and demanded to be removed from the list,” he continues. “A couple—the American Studies departments at Middlebury College and the University of North Carolina—have tried to weasel out of a firm position by retaining affiliation but pledging to engage in discussion, whatever that means. My own feeling is that this is an issue that no American Studies department can avoid taking a public stance on… The default mode — as Sir Thomas More reminds us in ‘A Man for All Seasons’ – is that silence gives consent.”
(It is rumored that the ASA, perhaps out of embarrassment, is planning to do away with institutional memberships altogether. A great idea, if true. But nothing has been announced publicly.)
As I had stressed in my own letter, and as I wrote in a cover story for Forbes magazine last summer, the road to peace and a two-state solution may lie not with politics — but with the myriad joint ventures between Israelis and Palestinians taking place under-the-radar in the academic, business and high-tech worlds. A boycott of Israeli academic institutions, if successful (fortunately it won’t be), would shut much of that down, and the primary losers would be Palestinians.
Moreover, the boycotters cover their eyes to the oppression that moderate, peace-loving Palestinians have suffered at the hands of their own leaders for nearly a century. One of the major hypocritical aspects of the ASA boycott is that while they allege concern for Palestinians’ academic freedom, they don’t acknowledge that Palestinian leaders limit those freedoms significantly. Meanwhile, the boycotters — ignoring history– lay all the blame for everything on Israel, and yet never lay out exactly what solution they think Israel could take to survive in a region surrounded by enemies on all sides.
Israelis understand this problem better than others, because they live with it daily. Indeed, more than 11,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza since the Israelis unilaterally pulled out of the strip in 2005. The distance from Gaza to Tel Aviv’s airport is about 40 miles – roughly the same distance from NYU’s downtown Manhattan campus to the Stamford, CT, train station. The distance to Israel’s airport from Ramallah, the West Bank’s de facto capital, is half that amount.
“Here is the catch,” writes Ari Shavit, in his popular new book, ‘My Promised Land.’ “If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security.”
Since 1995, Shavit has written for Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz. “Although I have always stood for peace and supported the two-state solution, I gradually became aware of the flaws and biases of the peace movement,” he states. “As a columnist, I challenge both right-wing and left-wing dogmas. I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick-fix solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In late January, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper gave an address before Israel’s Knesset, in which he lambasted the boycotters. “On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students,” he stated. “Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that: a state based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish, as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history, that is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism. It is nothing short of sickening.”
A Cornell University law professor named William Jacobson has been closely chronicling the aftermath of the ASA’s resolution on his blog, Legal Insurrection. “Researching the numerous articles I have written this past month has been an eye-opener — and that from someone whose eyes were already wide open as to the nature of the [BDS] movement,” he writes. ”The hatred of Israel among the academic boycotters is beyond anything you can imagine… There is nothing good that Israel can do in their eyes. The existence of Israel is their problem, not where the borders are drawn.”
Jacobson adds, and I concur: “It is important to educate the American public as to who is behind this movement and what they truly represent. All you have to do is quote them. Their own words are the most damning evidence.”
Much criticism of the ASA has focused on the group’s singling out of Israel – alone among nations – for alleged human rights atrocities. Putting aside that the allegations themselves are grotesquely overblown and largely rubbish, what kind of precedent is being set by such a boycott of a UN member state? ”Supporters of the Israel boycott claim they support human rights,” says Robert Kesten, the executive vice president at the American Council for World Jewry. “Yet, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you cannot violate one UDHR article to enforce another.”
“The vague nature of the boycott (BDS) movement treats Israel, Israelis and Jews different from others,” says Kesten, “yet the UDHR states we are all born free and equal.”
One thing that BDSers in academia should keep in mind is whether the so-called ‘free exchange of ideas’ behind their boycott may sometimes cross a line into faculty misconduct. Yosef Refaeli, a professor of regenerative medicine at the University of Colorado (Denver), is well-versed on the subject, having sat on committees at his school that have had to deal with such allegations. While he won’t give his view of the current situation regarding NYU and the boycott, he says that, “Effectively, giving public lectures while representing an academic institution where part of the presentation can be documented to be false is a significant transgression in academia.”
Case in point: The NYU faculty handbook states (note what I’ve put in boldface) that all professors are “expected to conform to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Activities such as plagiarism, misrepresentation and falsification of data are expressly prohibited.” Moreover, the handbook states that every member of the university is “prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender and/or gender identity or expression, marital or parental status, national origin, citizenship status, veteran or military status, age disability, and any other legally protected status….”
Would the ASA exempt Israelis and Israeli students from that clause?
One reason why all this matters is that the NYU campus is becoming increasingly unfriendly to students who are publicly and strongly pro-Israel. Take the case of Rachel Hirshfeld, a recent NYU graduate who I communicated with after she gave my Open Letter a “Like” on Facebook.
Hirshfeld, 26, is an American who moved to Israel in 2011, following her graduation from NYU. She works in Jerusalem for NGO Monitor, an outfit that tracks the activities and funding of groups that are spearheading the campaign to delegitimize Israel.
During her NYU years, Hirshfeld organized pro-Israel events and “wrote information packets that I handed out on campus in an effort to counter the misinformation, lies and fabrications being spread by anti-Israel groups,” she writes me. “Mock checkpoints took over campus grounds,” as did a general climate of “demonization and delegitimization” of Israel.
“I have always had a particularly intense love for Israel and am deeply imbued with Zionistic values and beliefs,” Hirshfeld adds. “While I was able to find a number of like-minded individuals [at NYU], they were few and far between and I did encounter a great deal of hostility….I was quite disheartened by the growing anti-Israel sentiments on campus and felt that while academic institutions like NYU pride themselves on encouraging and fostering academic pluralism, freedom of expression, and intellectual growth, they often inhibit dissenting voices.”
The ASA’s sudden prominence in the boycott movement, as well as its prominence at NYU, is likely to create an even more hostile environment for pro-Israel students like Rachel Hirshfeld.
Unfortunately for the ASA, the backlash against its ill-considered boycott has continued to strengthen in recent weeks. In late January, Dumisani Washington — an African-American pastor and advocate for Israel – penned an Open Letter to the outgoing ASA president, Marez. He chided Marez for having told the New York Times that Israel was chosen for a boycott because “one has to start somewhere.” He pointed out the tens of thousands of displaced Africans who have chosen, and continue to choose, Israel for shelter. And he notes the “bitter irony that the ASA has been duped into using the language of ‘boycott,’” (lifted from the example of South Africa) and calls on the ASA to “expose the bastardization” of the education of thousands of teens in Gaza who graduate from Hamas’ suicide-training camps.
On January 17, a group of 134 bipartisan members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter to ASA’s outgoing president Marez (cc-ed to Duggan) stating that the boycott resolution “suggests thinly-veiled bigotry and bias against the Jewish state.” And just last week, the New York State Senate passed a bill (the vote was 51-4) that would prohibit colleges from spending taxpayer funds on Israel-boycotting groups such as the ASA. A similar bill is being worked on in the state’s Assembly.
Following my Open Letter, I challenged those 18 ASA council members to a debate with 18 academics who are opposed to their boycott. I’m still waiting for a response, but I know the answer. They won’t — because they will lose.
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