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April 11, 2018 9:55 am

Bashing Israel from the Professor’s Perch

avatar by H.V. Savitch

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The Columbia University campus. Photo: Columbia.

In recent years, all too many university faculty members have taken a sharp detour on Israel. Professors at institutions like Columbia, NYU, Hunter College, and Brooklyn College — once bulwarks of secular Jewish ideals — have not just turned their backs on Israel, but have begun to hit it frontside.

These actions weigh heavily. Those of us who grew up in the aftermath of World War II can only be astonished at this reversal. As children, we collected nickels for the Jewish National Fund. The dawning of the State of Israel stays with us and we continue to be alert to threats against it.

This aside, the content of Israeli detraction is uninformed — if not bigoted. The deepest prejudices are typified by distortions or misstatements of fact and the application of standards to Israel that are not brought to bear on other liberal societies. Herein lies a continuous pattern of singling out Israel’s alleged misdeeds, which would go unnoticed elsewhere. Context, or the lack of it, is fundamental to anti-Israelism — so much so that complexities are ignored in order to locate some fault that is supposedly unique to the Jewish state.

Among the most conspicuous detractors are 187 scholars who recently opposed American recognition of Jerusalem on the grounds that it granted religious preeminence and “Jewish proprietorship” over the city. The signatories are scholars of Jewish Studies, and we should expect the highest standards of commentary from them, even if critical.

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This is hardly the case.

Quite properly, American recognition of Jerusalem acknowledges the rights of all faiths to holy sites. Yet the signatory scholars gloss over the distinction between religious rights and secular recognition. Instead, they protest the lack of Palestinian “equal access to the city’s cultural and material resources” and fault Israel for imposing “special permits” on West Bank residents.

The distortions are twofold, first as a misstatement of fact and second as neglect of obvious context. Anyone familiar with Jerusalem knows that access to its holy sites has never been more widespread.

Last year, more than 3.5 million tourists visited Jerusalem, freely and openly. On any given Muslim holiday, throngs of visitors pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque. During these times, media crews regularly photograph and videotape row upon row of Muslims prostrate in prayer. Furthermore, the restrictions on Palestinians have only tightened in the wake of stabbings, shootings, car rammings, and the murder of police officers in the Old City. Rather than making even the briefest mention of these events, the scholars in question chose to ignore them.

As a condition of recognition, the scholars call for a “negotiated framework” — effectively granting Palestinians and Israelis “dual sovereignty” over Jerusalem. Dividing the cramped inner city of Jerusalem would mean breaking up jurisdiction over streets and splitting up utility lines. Both parties would have to agree on legal requirements for the apprehension of minor violators and criminals. Think, for a moment, about the provocations for violence that “dual sovereignty” would engender.

Further, historians would be at pains to find a single successfully divided city. Neither Berlin, nor Gdansk (Danzig), nor Trieste stayed divided between sovereign states.

Dubious accounts of Israel’s transgressions have been publicized as part of a two-part article by Hasia Diner, a prominent Jewish Studies academic based at NYU. Bearing the subtitle “Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind,” Diner cites among Israel’s most conspicuous sins: “The negation of the diaspora and the ending of Jewish life outside of Israel,” “fall(ing) into the maw of Israeli homogenization,” and the “racism” of the Law of Return.

We might ask the following: since when has the Jewish Diaspora been “negated”? To the contrary, the Jewish Diaspora is alive, it thrives, and it supports Israel. Diasporas around the world have found harmony between their adopted countries and lands of origin. Why should Jews be held to a different standard than the Greeks or Chinese?

As for the “maw of homogenization,” Israel is a land of many ethnicities. It boasts one of the freest and rambunctious presses in the world, and its Knesset is among the most democratically elected of all parliaments. Universities, cafes, and open forums brighten the landscape with a rainbow of opinions.

Diner’s accusation that the Law of Return is racist also falls short. Had she checked, she would have discovered that the Law of Return belongs to a principle of nationality law called jus sanguinis, meaning “right of blood.” In addition to Israel, 11 other nations allow for jus sanguinis or “birthright citizenship.” They include Ireland, France, and Italy — all of which are members of the European Union. Are these countries also racist?

Like so much anti-Israel rhetoric, what matters is the severity of the charge, not its factual basis or fairness of comparison. Yet these are the people who teach our children about Judaism. When subject to criticism, professors always seem to shield themselves behind the banner of “academic freedom.” We might now attempt to understand why the emphasis seems always to be on “freedom” rather than “academic.”

What lies behind this larger picture of academic vandalism? The ever-present reality is that Israel has grown up and its detractors find that appalling. Israel seems no longer to be the underdog. Its air force no longer defends towns with rickety propeller-driven planes, but takes preemptive action with supersonic jets. The Jewish state no longer struggles economically, but is regarded as a great “startup nation.” Israel is no longer socialist or communal, but capitalist and entrepreneurial. Gone is the image of kibbutzniks wearing kova tembel hats, brims pulled down to block the sun.

Professor Diner concedes as much by confessing that her denunciation is due to “the socialist Zionism of the Habonim youth movement [that was] central” to her formative years. Her experience mimics many Jewish academics, some of whom welcomed the counterculture of the 1960s. Equally significant is the large number of Jewish youth who participated in mass protests against the Vietnam and Iraq wars. They now see the IDF — wearing combat gear, carrying weapons, and driving armored vehicles — not as defenders of their country, but as a repressive force in “occupied lands.”

Despite its vociferousness, the academic diatribe sits on thin ground. Dig an inch deep and its mantra-like sloganeering collapses. Nor should we cede the “progressive” platform to Israel’s detractors. Refugees do not seek entry into Iran, but into Israel. People seeking political asylum, or women wanting equality, or gays fending off discrimination thrive in Israel. Even the capacity for enjoyment and celebration is more palpable in Israel than elsewhere in the Middle East. The proofs lie in the country’s everyday life — and they need to be pressed in the academy, presented in lecture halls, and spoken on campus.

H.V. Savitch is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center (Washington, DC) and Emeritus Brown and Williamson Distinguished Professor at the University of Louisville. 

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