By Charles Jacobs
Two weeks ago, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities and asked American scholars to sever ties with Israeli academic institutions. Jewish mainstream organizations have responded with shock and anger, both on at the national level and in communities across the country. Here in Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Jewish Community Relations Council ( JCRC), Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and American Jewish Committee (AJC) joined together to issue a condemnation.
But to those who’ve been paying attention to the growth of anti Israelism on campus, the ASA boycott was predictable.
For decades, a campus-based alliance of leftist professors, “human rights” groups, purported “progressives” and Muslims built an anti-Israel narrative that so overwhelmingly dominates university dialogue that Jewish students who wish to defend Israel routinely face social and academic penalties and even physical threats. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has been talking about this since 2000. Sooner or later, the assault on Israel, which in 2005 took the form of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was going to capture one coven or another of “progressive scholars.” The ASA vote is simply the bursting of a long-festering boil.
Palestinian support has become a common sight on U.S. college campuses. Jewish communal failure to stem the tide against Israel on American campuses has many causes; among the more important is a flawed understanding of anti- Israelism, which is a new and quite different form of anti-Semitism, and which requires a unique response.
I have had countless conversations with people of my generation who completely misunderstand the animus against Israel. To so many of them, it is simply and blatantly a matter of anti-Semitism, period. They believe Israel is hated because it is the state of the Jews. But on American campuses, this is simply not the case: Supporters of Israel are not hectored by raucous rednecks screaming “Christ killer” or by racists who think Jews share DNA with rats; they are instructed about “Israeli evil” by soft spoken, high-toned and articulate professors who seem merely to want justice for everyone.
Jews have to understand that anti-Israelism and its twin – Palestinianism are derivatives not of traditional Jew hatred, but of a more modern anti-Westernism, a product of Western intellectuals. They have to understand that today’s animus comes overwhelmingly not from the right, but from the left.
Indeed, “all modern thought – from existentialism to deconstructionism – can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West” whose citizens are the beneficiaries of a fabulous, but ill-begotten prosperity. Colonialism and militarism, and the power they bring, unfairly privilege Europeans and Americans, and keep Third Worlders in poverty – and powerless to rule their own lives. The only possible way for a Westerner to redeem himself is through repentance, public contrition, and continual self-flagellation. The average European, Bruckner writes, “is always ready to shoulder the blame for the poverty of Africa or Asia, to assume responsibility for the world’s problems.”
The same is true – or will be true – in much of America, where the history book most widely used in high schools is Howard Zinn’s book, “A People’s History of the United States,” which teaches that America was born in sin, stealing the land from the Indians; and steeped in racism, enslaving the blacks. America, the book argues, continues to exploit innocent Third Worlders through a sophisticated imperialism.
Many parents will doubt that their college students feel any guilt about their middle-class prosperity. But just ask them to explain why Middle Easterners, Asians and Africans are so much poorer than we are. Then ask them if they think they deserve to have so much more. Many, the most sensitive perhaps, need a way to come to terms with such inequity. The left – often through public school and campus curricula – teaches them the way.
As with Rousseau, Bruckner explains, modern and alienated Westerners, thinking about unmodern people, fantasize “noble savages” – unspoiled innocents whose natural and admirable lives should be left untouched by Western exploiters. Today, the noblest savage – the one who has come to represent the primary victim of Western malignance – is the Palestinian. I imagine that in the minds of the leftist ASA boycotters, one can find the fantasies of Georges Montaron, cited by Bruckner, who writes that the “hero” is the Fedayeen, the living image of the liberator, such as Che Guevara – “the Palestinian resistance is a flame that lights the way of the oppressed.”
The international left, having failed to win over the working class, pivoted and invested its hopes in the anti-Western Third World, but especially in the Arab/Muslim world. Terrorist attacks on Western civilians are ascribed by leftist professors to Arab/Muslim humiliation over the creation of Israel. Islam has become, in the eyes of leftist “thinkers,” the “religion of the oppressed.” Noble savages have no agency; they cannot themselves be racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic terrorists because they are our victims and they only act (justifiably!) in response to that. The Sept. 11 attackers are described as poor wretches protesting against our insolent wealth, our way of life, our predatory economy. Jacques Derrida, a fixture of university English literature courses, believed that we, Westerners, are the real terrorists because we “let” people in the Third World die from AIDS. Again, the general reading public may find this too bizarre to take seriously. This would be a big mistake. Ask your children.
People who support the Palestinians, Bruckner writes, “are not so much engaged in inquiring into a specific antagonism – a real estate dispute involving two equally legitimate owners – as in settling accounts with Western culture.” For middle-class European and American students who cannot explain their own relative prosperity without feeling guilt, Palestinianism can be therapeutic. By hating the primary symbol of Western abomination, theft and cruel exploitation in the Middle East – that is to say, by hating the Jews of Israel – they exonerate themselves. They wipe away the sins of their own undeserved prosperity.
Understanding this psychodrama, and the “intellectual” work behind it, can help us win the campus battles. We need to speak to those campus converts to Palestinianism. We need to show them gently how their need to feel morally pure, to escape the moral taint their professors have imposed on them, has them lionizing barbarism and abandoning true liberal principles. Yes, the Palestinians suffer, we need to explain, but so much less than so many others, and so much of it due to their errors and conduct. We need to show America’s youth that those Enlightenment ideas that have been so twisted could mobilize people of courage and character to side with the Middle Easterners who are most oppressed and threatened: today’s Christians, women, slaves, gays, and yes, today’s Jews.