Re: ‘Professors’ endorsement of Israel boycott…’
Last week, we printed an op-ed submission entitled “Professors’ endorsement of Israel boycott deserves condemnation” in the pages of this Forum section.
The column criticized two Washington University professors, Bret Gustafson and Maryam Kashani, for signing a letter that calls for the American boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The author of the piece closes by arguing that Gustafson and Kashani “have abused their credibility as educators at our University to promote a biased and anti-Semitic agenda.”
The writer’s conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of a government is a reckless accusation and in no way a defense of the academic freedom or nondiscrimination he claims to hold dear. Israel is an autonomous state with significant political and military influence. This summer, the Israeli Defense Forces killed over 2,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, including hundreds of children.
Room for debate exists on the justifiability of Israel’s tactics and the most effective American response. A boycott of academia may not be the most effective route to social change, particularly when American-Israeli professorial partnerships have yielded some of the groundbreaking research that the author cites.
But the idea that moral outrage against massive civilian deaths inherently represents a “double standard” and anti-Semitism is fraught with logical fallacies. For one, the author argues that activists choose to condemn Israel instead of other repressive countries because of bias. In fact, America’s close relationship with Israel is precisely the reason we can be more engaged in a nonviolent movement that affects change. While the author endorses academic freedom, his attempted silencing of Gustafson and Kashani is a suppression of such critical thought and discourse.
As a Jew, I am embarrassed when condemnation of government policy and human rights violations becomes confused with anti-Semitism. It diminishes the horrors and true meaning of the term.
Anti-Semitism is when a fraternity house at Emory University is smeared with swastikas on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Anti-Semitism is when synagogues are torched and desecrated in acts of hatred. To be sure, we saw a surge in the latter event during the latest Israeli-Palestinian clash, with some aggravators who burned synagogues in Europe chanting “Death to Israel.” Media reports exposed a simmering element of anti-Semitism to the anti-Israel protests, from people comparing Jews to Nazis to shouting “gas the Jews.” Such acts are obscene, bigoted and inexcusable.
In addition, hatred for Jews and refusal to recognize a Jewish state still drives Hamas, and Israel has a right to defend itself against the organization’s terrorism. Yet submissively falling in line with Israel’s occupation, rights violations and missile assaults that killed hundreds of children only fractures the ability to gain justice for all in the region.
Blanket condemnations of opposition to Israel are mere obstructions to a resolution, and I am afraid that is what last week’s op-ed accomplishes.
The conclusion that a boycott represents anti-Semitism erases opinions of Jews questioning Israel’s actions after its latest bloody conflict. It assumes lockstep support for a state regime’s policies as a requirement of Judaism—rather than free debate that forms the backbone of democratic values. And make no mistake—a great deal of American Jews are not pleased with Israel’s actions. While we may disagree on what steps are appropriate to take, blocking dialogue is no longer an acceptable option.
Over the weekend, Harvard University hosted the first “Open Hillel” conference, which welcomed the perspective of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters to a truly democratic dialogue on Israel and Palestine. The organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which endorses BDS, has grown to nearly 40 chapters nationwide.
Again, a discussion of BDS’ specific merits and deficits is not the intent of this column, but it is a discussion that must take place in our classrooms, dormitories and dinner tables. For going a step further and signing a petition, Gustafson and Kashani are subject to potential opposition of their students, fellow faculty, neighbors, friends and family. It is subject to opposition in the pages of Student Life, which is why last week’s op-ed ran.
But to suggest that the force of the University come down on these professors and label their “agenda” anti-Semitic is a viewpoint that cannot slip by without an emphatic response.