Thursday, October 2, 2014

Academic Freedom in the Service of Liberal Zionism

Most academics share a loyalty to the cherished ideals of their profession, including the ideals of  academic freedom and opposition to academic boycotts. Such a loyalty need not be absolute; reasonable people can disagree whether boycotting academic institutions is ever justifiable, and some academic organizations will allow their members to make an individual decision on this point. But even if not an absolute value, opposition to academic boycotts is, or should be, the default value for academics. Or so I believe.

So when I heard that there was a group of American university professors that oppose  academic boycotts of Israel,  and that serves as the Academic Advisory Council to an organization called  “The Third Narrative”,  which calls itself  “pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian,” I was curious. I wondered whether its position on academic boycotts would be based on an adherence to the ideal of academic freedom.  Such a group would attract not only ideologically liberal Zionists,  but scholars of Middle Eastern studies, Arab and Israeli academics in this country, and others for whom academic freedom is sacrosanct. In principle, it could attract non-Jewish conservative and progressive supporters of Palestinian liberation. Such an organization could be a serious voice in the debate on campus over academic boycotts and the silencing or chilling of speech. And it could find at least some willing ears. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is not exactly overly populated with liberal Zionists, and yet it has not backed an academic boycott of Israel. Noam Chomsky is not a liberal Zionist, and yet he opposes the academic boycott of Israel and he thinks a two-state solution is the only realistic alternative to the status quo, much to the chagrin of many supporters of Palestinian rights. You don’t have to be pro-Israel to be an opponent of academic boycotts. There is room for a bipartisan, or nonpartisan, organization.

So I was saddened, but not surprised, to find that very few of the Academic Advisory Council  come from Middle East studies, or from progressive supporters of academic freedom tout court. The board opposes  academic boycott of Israel because it feels, somewhat oddly, that boycotting Israeli academic institutions is  counterproductive to its particular liberal Zionist vision of a two-state solution, and because it feels that academic boycotts unjustly single out Israel.  Or to put it crudely: as bad as Israel’s policies may be, those policies aren’t so bad as to warrant an academic boycott.  The fact that the boycott could actually help convince Israel that there is a price for the occupation is irrelevant to these liberal Zionists. 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this.  The “Third Narrative,” it turns out, is sponsored by Ameinu, which is a liberal Zionist organization, and Tony Lerman notwithstanding, liberal Zionism is far from dead (although, judging from the average age of the members of the Advisory Counicl, it seems to be getting pretty old.)  I know a lot of people on the Advisory Council, and some are friends. But make no mistake -- the “Third Narrative” is positioned  between the Jewish Zionist narrative on the right, and the Jewish anti- or non-Zionist narrative on the left,  It is a Third Narrative within the tribe,  and its proponents take part in a  debate among family on behalf, primarily, of the family,  just as they have done for the last sixty years.

The only game in town that brings together progressive Jewish voices in coalition with progressive Palestinian voices is Jewish Voice of Peace, whose mission statement speaks of “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians.” Like MESA, which is an academic and not an advocacy organization, it doesn’t take a position as an organization on academic boycott, although, unlike MESA,  it does express solidarity with the global BDS movement.  This organization includes Jews, Christians, Muslims, and None of the Above; it supports a just solution for Palestinians and Israelis, but it recognizes the fundamental disparity of effective agency between the two groups.

To my colleagues in academia who care about a just solution that provides equal measures of self-determinism and security to Palestinians and Israelis, but do not wish to jump on the BDS bandwagon,  may I suggest that they sit this one out and watch to see whether  the Academic Advisory Board of the Third Narrative will be yet another group in the already crowded field of Israel advocacy on campus, a well-intentioned liberal counterpart of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.  It will be as powerless to advance its liberal Zionist agenda as organizations like J-Street or Meretz USA or Ameinu, whose handwringing has brought 0 results.  At best, it may provide some protection for pro-BDS academics who are harassed by the non-academic Israel advocacy organizations, though I doubt it will be necessary in this regard.

And the Academic Advisory Council seems committed, because of its stance, to oppose an academic boycott of Ariel University, or any of its scholars, despite the fact that the university is built on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Theodore Bikel has expressed sympathy for an artistic boycott of Ariel, and some of the members of the Academic Advisory board agree. Apparently, artistic freedom is not as precious in their eyes as academic freedom.

Speaking of freedom, the freedom not to join organizations or to sign petitions is also rightly prized by academics. Again, I hope my friends who are on this group will watch very carefully how much energy it devotes to defeating Palestinians initiatives on campus that – at best – give Israel a very symbolic slap on the wrist.  When the academic boycott movement in England started up in the early 2000s, many Jewish progressives academics vocally opposed it. Many still do, but their voices are muted.  I expect that this will happen in due course with those who have joined the Academic Advisory Board of the Third Narrative – the ones who are true liberals.


Brent Sasley said...

Some fair points here, but 2 contexts are missing: (1) Middle East studies scholars, many of whom are not Jewish, haven't joined for reasons other than the ostensible liberal *Zionist* nature of our group. It has to do at least in part due to broader normative concerns. (2) The 2-state solution is in no way inherently or automatically "liberal Zionist."

Brent Sasley

Brent Sasley said...

Some fair points raised here, but 2 main misperceptions. (1) There are reasons other than the AAC being a "liberal Zionist" organization. Many scholars in MES are not Jewish, and may therefore feel differently about the issues under discussion. Non-Jewish scholars have also felt normative pressures not to be affiliated with anything that hints at a "Zionist solution" to the conflict. (2) There's nothing inherently "liberal Zionist" about the 2-state solution, nor is the former discussed as part of our identity. Plenty of non-Zionists share the belief that two states is the best resolution.

Brent Sasley

Brent Sasley said...
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Unknown said...

Love the blog. I think, though, that Chomsky’s position on BDS Has been misrepresented. As far as I can tell he is not actually against it. See the transcript of this interview for example: