Let’s Have Reasoned Debate, Not Distortion and Calumny: A Reply to Russell Berman
Photograph: EPA/Michal Fattal
"The Goal of the Boycott" is one of a series of essays in our forum "Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott." Click here to read the others.
AMONG THE FOUR ESSAYS recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books opposing the academic boycott of Israel (“Academic Activism, Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott”), one stands out for both its length and its comprehensiveness: Russell Berman’s “The Goal of the Boycott.” Berman’s essay aspires to explain the “real” goals of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the “real” motives of those who support it while providing a history lesson. We argue that “The Goal of the Boycott” is based on bad history, bad conceptualization, and bad argumentation.
The three of us — Joel Beinin, a historian of the modern Middle East and former elected president of the Middle East Studies Association; Hilton Obenzinger, a longstanding Jewish critic of Israeli policies, author, academic, and member of the American Studies Association; and David Palumbo-Liu, literary and cultural critic, a member of the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies, the academic organization that first endorsed the academic boycott of Israel — are Berman’s colleagues at Stanford. This makes the task of rebutting his claims at once more difficult and more necessary. We feel it especially necessary to respond precisely because of the stature Berman enjoys (and in most respects, deserves) at Stanford and in the American academy, and because the views he puts forward will likely appear highly attractive and worth repeating exactly because they seem so comprehensive and thorough. Yet careful scrutiny reveals a dismaying level of misstatement, historical inaccuracy, wild hypothesizing, and overblown rhetoric — not the best example of argumentative writing for our students.
We critique Berman’s faulty historical narrative, his imprecise and inflammatory terminology, and his false contextualization of BDS, especially the academic boycott — presenting first Berman’s key statements and then our response. Unsupported by the historical record, much of the critical and conceptual argument of Berman’s essay falls apart. Moreover, he reveals a disappointing ignorance of the entire scholarly field of settler colonial studies, indeed of the meaning of the term. Finally Berman mischaracterizes BDS — what it is, what it calls for, and how an academic boycott works.
RUSSELL BERMAN: “The movement to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel presents itself as a nonviolent and grassroots movement, allegedly based in Palestinian civil society, that promises to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
From its opening sentence, Berman’s essay deploys the tactic of recasting a fact as an “alleged” fact, factual assertions as mere “representations,” and calling forth ridiculous “promises” that were never made in order to discredit the movement. He does not bother to explain why there should be any doubt as to the veracity of the BDS movement’s basis in a call from Palestinian civil society organizations or to assume the duplicity of the movement’s statements. In fact, the 2005 BDS call is endorsed by over 170 Palestinian organizations; 60 university, student, youth, and civil society organizations endorsed the specific call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Berman begins his “debunking” without even stating the BDS movement’s goals: 1) Ending Israel’s occupation of all Arab lands and dismantling the separation barrier it has constructed, mostly inside the West Bank (as required by a 2004 International Court of Justice decision); 2) Recognizing the full equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and; 3) Recognizing the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties. Omitting the actual objectives of the BDS movement allows Berman to invent BDS’s intention (“promises to achieve a peaceful resolution”) without offering any actual evidence. This first sentence contains within it all the rhetorical formulae that Berman uses throughout his article and exemplifies its inflated rhetoric and weak argumentation.
RB: “The boycott movement bases its animosity toward Israel on the twin claims that it is a colonialist state and that it relies on an apartheid system of racial segregation.”
The BDS movement targets Israel because, as a recent report released by the British government documents, its actions in occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967 — expropriating land and water resources of the indigenous population, establishing civilian settlements, failing to provide services for the occupied population, etc. — violate international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel also systematically discriminates against the 20 percent of its citizens who are Palestinian Arabs. And it resolutely refuses to acknowledge that the establishment of the state of Israel was the result of the expulsion or flight of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, who have an internationally recognized right to return to their homeland.
For Palestinians, these reasons are more than sufficient, regardless of what terminology is used to describe Israel, to advocate Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Even if we agreed that Israel were a model liberal democratic state (as it claims to be), and it committed these acts, there would and should be international protests against them. For Americans, the fact that our government supplies Israel with roughly $3 billion a year in aid — a total of $233.7 billion since 1948 (adjusted for inflation; $112 billion nominally) — is also a sufficient reason to be engaged in this issue. Israel has been by far the largest single recipient of US aid every year since the 1970s.
Perhaps what really distresses the opponents of the BDS movement, besides its successes in the recent period, is that the cause of Palestine has come to be an emblem of international solidarity in the struggle for global justice. This does not mean that everything that Palestinians or supporters of BDS do is beyond criticism. It is a broad movement with many different currents and different political orientations (including some people who describe themselves as Zionists).
RB: “The boycott movement ostensibly dodges the question of the political future of the region, claiming agnosticism between the two-state and one-state solutions. In fact its arguments subvert the possibility of a two-state solution.”
As Ali Abunimah, a leading figure in the BDS movement in the United States, has noted, the majority of the groups comprising the Palestinian Boycott National Committee, in fact, support two states. There are political parties and movements of Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel that reject Israel’s self-description as a “Jewish state” and advocate that Israel become — like any democratic state — a state of its citizens. If Israel did become a state of its citizens, there would be no contradiction between its continued existence and achievement of the three goals of the BDS call. A state of Israel that was the state of all its citizens might seek to promote and develop the national rights and cultures of both of its peoples equally.
The issue then is: can/should Israel persist as a state which undemocratically accords privileges to 80 percent of its citizens and millions of Jews around the world who are not its citizens while discriminating against 20 percent of its citizens, oppressing over four million Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, allowing the 650,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied territories to practice wanton vigilante violence against the Palestinian Arabs, and refusing to acknowledge the rights of the Palestinian refugees?
RB: “The Palestinian leadership has done more than its share to undermine the Palestinian national cause, from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem al-Husseini’s collaboration with Nazi Germany […].”
There is no debate over the fact that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, did collaborate with Nazi Germany during World War II and that this did grave damage to the Palestinian national cause after the war. It is a historical non sequitur to suggest that this has anything to do with the current leadership of the Palestinian national movement (in which no one from the Husayni family is prominent) and its political orientation. Moreover, the Mufti fled Palestine in 1937 and did not return to any part of it until 1951 (and then only briefly to the Gaza Strip under Egyptian administration). His political influence was much diminished in the 1940s, in part because of his collaboration with the Nazis. His role as titular leader of the Palestinian national movement was challenged by liberals, trade unionists, socialists, and others. (See Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust for more detail.)
The Palestinian Authority, far from being “extreme” in any sense, has been overly servile toward the United States and has received little for its efforts. Frustration with the failure of the US-mediated so-called “peace process” was the single largest impetus for establishing the BDS movement in 2004-’05.
RB: “Yasser Arafat’s refusal of the 2000 Camp David proposal […].”
Formally speaking, there was no Israeli proposal at Camp David in 2000 and no maps delineating proposed borders. The official Israeli propaganda line that Arafat was offered “the moon” and walked away from it has been debunked by serious journalists, human rights activists, and scholars in highly respected forums such as The New York Times (Deborah Sontag, “And Yet So Far: A Special Report; Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed,”), The New York Review of Books (Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” August 9, 2001), and International Security (Jeremy Pressman, “Visions in Collision: What Happened at Camp David and Taba?”
Even former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who directed Israel’s campaign to demonize Yasser Arafat after the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit, offers a more nuanced account of the failure of the Oslo process in his book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace than Berman. There have also been more fundamental and well-argued critiques of the Oslo process and the obstructionist US role in it (Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit; Joel Beinin, “The Oslo Process and the Limits of a Pax Americana” in Joel Beinin and Rebecca Stein (eds), The Struggle for Sovereignty: Palestine and Israel).
RB: “This irresponsibility applies as well to the historical misrepresentations on which the boycott movement bases its hostility to Israel: the claim that it is colonialist and that it is dependent on apartheid segregation. These distortions derive from the propagandistic discourse of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and have been revived in the radical fringes of contemporary academia.”
The early Zionist movement and its leaders had no qualms about describing Zionism as a colonizing movement; this terminology was freely used until World War II. The first scholarly analysis of Israel as a settler colonial society was proposed by the late renowned Middle East scholar, Maxime Rodinson, in his book Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? A version of the text first appeared in 1967 as “Israël, fait colonial” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes. As the Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir (now at UC San Diego), who Berman quotes very selectively, argued recently (talk at UCLA, April 10, 2014), the correct English translation for yishuv — the Hebrew term universally used to describe the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine — is “colony.” Shafir belongs to an entire generation of Israeli sociologists who have understood Israel as a settler colonial society. None of them have the slightest connection to or sympathy for the former Soviet Union.
The purchase of land or its outright seizure is not what defines a colonial enterprise. Dutch settlers “bought” Manhattan from the native Americans. In Palestine, some 70 Arab villages were wiped off the map before 1947-’48 after their lands were purchased by the Zionist authorities.
RB: “The point of declaring that Israel is a settler colonialist regime is to associate Israel, and the Zionist movement that preceded it, with the history of European colonialism.”
Berman believes that the categorization of Israel as a settler colonial society calls forth “the colonialism calumny,” as if acknowledging Israel’s history of settlement is inherently wrong. It is, therefore, important to underscore that the category of “settler colonial society” is a scholarly designation, not a political label — certainly not a slur — that has been used quite broadly, not only by the Israeli scholars noted above. In the last 15 years or so, the academic field of settler colonial studies has flourished; it is as rigorous as other fields.
As long ago as 2001, faculty at Stanford convened a Mellon Foundation seminar at the Stanford Humanities Center on “Settlement, Race, and Sovereignty in North America, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine,” examining similarities and differences, paving the way for other comparative studies. Today there is at least one transnational journal, Settler Colonial Studies, with essays on a wide range of settler societies. Understanding how the United States is founded as a settler society with the exclusion of indigenous people and the expropriation of their land is not a calumny but an aid in understanding all of the further developments of the United States, including the “plantation colonialism” of slavery and the necessity of importing workers as immigrants. Scholars now examine a wide range of societies with this rubric, including New Caledonia (with French settlers and native people), Fiji (South Asians brought by the British and native people), Korea (during the Japanese occupation), Taiwan (the exclusion of indigenous people), Liberia (with the settlement of African Americans dominating native Africans), the more famous “white settler colonies” (Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, with its two major settler populations, English- and French-speaking), and the failed French colony of Algeria. A recent issue of Settler Colonial Studies features a comparative study of Nazi Germany’s expansion with settlers in the East with the US expansion of the frontier on the West. These are historical developments, and examining and debating their similarities and differences is not an exercise in calumny but necessary to understanding and ultimately dealing with the legacies of history in an honest, clear-eyed fashion — which of course is an important goal of humanistic scholarship.
RB: “It was precisely at the moment when the European colonial empires were beginning to collapse that Israel gained its sovereignty. It looks more like a postcolonial formation, contingent on the British departure, than it does a standard colony.”
Like all settler colonial societies, the formation of Israel has its own unique features. However, as a colonizing project modeled after European efforts, early Zionist leaders felt it was essential to have sponsorship by a great power, seeking a charter first from the Ottoman Sultan and then the Russian Czar. Eventually, the British Empire, as it was about to conquer Palestine during World War I, agreed to sponsor the establishment of a “Jewish national home.” The fact that the agenda of the Zionist leadership did not ultimately entirely fit British policy does not negate the initial tutelage, just as the 13 American colonies’ struggle for independence does not erase their colonial origins. Israel was planted in Britain’s hothouse, and it continues to seek a great power sponsor. Since the 1960s, that role has been played by the United States.
A unique feature of Israel is that it is the only settler colonial society that is currently overtly trying to expand, consistently engaging in colonizing activities and creating colonial “facts on the ground” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The segregated Jews-only settlements Israel has established, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, make it difficult — some believe impossible — for the Palestinians to establish their own viable state. Israel resembles other “postcolonial formations” in the relations between different Jewish groupings — veteran Ashkenazim, more recently arrived Russian Jews (and pseudo-Jews), Sephardim, Mizrachim, Ethiopians, ultra-orthodox, and secular — with many tensions among the different groups as the settler society attempts to reform traditional Jewish identity into a modern nationality.
Israel’s independence certainly did come at the beginning of the movement to de-colonize the European empires. Many believed that Israel was part of that movement and, particularly because of its kibbutzim and other socialist features, that it would play a progressive role in world politics. This view began to shatter when Israel established its capital in Jerusalem, contrary to the 1947 UN partition plan and General Assembly Resolution 303 of 1949 on the international status of Jerusalem, and when it refused to repatriate Palestinian refugees in contravention of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The government of Israel invented the myth that the refugees fled in response to Arab orders — a claim Walid Khalidi first debunked in well-researched articles published in 1959 and Israeli historian Benny Morris massively refuted based on declassified Israeli documents. When Israel joined with France and Britain to invade Egypt in 1956, many began to realize that the Israeli government was more interested in allying with the former colonial powers than with the postcolonial world. Today, many of those socialist appearances have been swept aside and Israel has become a garrison state to serve its own colonizing interests as well as those of the United States, even if those interests are not completely identical.
The claim that Israel is an apartheid state is more complex. There are both similarities and differences between apartheid South Africa. It is true that Israel’s declaration of independence and certain judicial decisions, like the Ka’adan case cited by Berman, affirm the equality of Israeli citizens; there is no official classification of racial hierarchy. However, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation conforms to the International Criminal Court’s 2002 Rome Statute definition of apartheid as inhumane acts of a character similar to crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
Moreover, citizenship is not the basis for the allocation of rights in Israel. (See Shira Robinson, Citizen Strangers.) Israeli national ID cards have two categories: citizenship (which includes Jews, Arabs, and others) and nationality (Jewish, Arab, Druze; recently the Knesset adopted legislation to establish a separate Christian Arab identity). Most rights beyond procedural democratic rights are allocated by nationality. The Israeli government spends an average of $192 per year on K-12 education per Arab student and $1,100 per Jewish student. There are similar disparities in every other social indicator.
Thus, it is hardly a simple “slur” to claim that Israel is an apartheid state. The comparison has been made in the leading liberal Israeli daily by former government minister and Knesset member Yossi Sarid. Sarid and former speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg have been outspoken about the undemocratic character of Israel, and Burg has specifically said that “defining Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end.”
W. E. B. Du Bois and Zionism
RB: “That those Zionist intentions could involve powerful appeals to spiritual and national renewal was clear to no less a critic of colonialism than the pan-Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote, with admiration, in 1919, that ‘the African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews.’” Berman continues, “From this early support for Zionism, Du Bois eventually grew into an adamant supporter of the founding of Israel, at that point with explicitly leftist, anti-imperialist arguments.”
W. E. B. Du Bois was definitely a supporter of Jews, the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the State of Israel. He was moved by the history of persecution the Jewish people faced, and he was very impressed by the Zionist movement, particularly as a model for the pan-African movement he envisioned. Du Bois’s enthusiasm declined drastically after the 1956 Suez War, when he became more aware of the problematic aspects of the new state.
Du Bois’s support for the formation of Israel paralleled that of the Soviet Union and the US Communist Party. While still opposed to Zionism as a colonizing movement, the Soviets supported Zionist opposition to the British, and they believed that a democratic socialist movement would overcome the colonial impulses of the new state. As Soviet policy changed and became more critical of Israeli actions, particularly after the 1967 war, they did not abandon their original position supporting the United Nations partition plan establishing two states. The Soviets never questioned the legitimacy of the Israeli state, flawed as it was.
Israel’s International Legitimacy
Berman asks readers to give Israel “the same respect accorded to other multicultural democratic nation-states and member states of the United Nations.”
Berman picks and chooses which aspects of the United Nations he supports. He does not explain why Israel rejects all UN resolutions criticizing its policies from the start of the conflict until this day, including resolutions calling for the return of refugees, a halt to settlement construction in the territories occupied in 1967, and the evacuation of those territories. If Israel should be accorded the respect due to UN member states, shouldn’t it respect UN resolutions? Why does Israel depend on a US veto to shield it from over 40 Security Council resolutions?
RB: “Yet Israel’s legitimacy derived as well from ancient ties to the land and an uninterrupted history of Jewish habitation in the region.”
Calling upon antiquity for legitimacy has been a major tactic for support of Israel (and, as a result, for opposition as well). Indeed, there have been Jews living in the region without interruption, just as the descendants of the Canaanites have also lived there. The colonization that began in 1882 is not a continuation of ancient history but a modern political movement. Most of the 25,000 Jewish residents of Palestine in the early 1880s were anti-Zionists, as were most other Jews until the 1930s. Berman seems to suggest that the indigenous Arab people are not worthy of rights because they may have only lived in the region for 1,400 years. This is a sadly absurd argument.
Israel, Anti-Americanism and Anti-Semitism
RB: “We are now witnessing a new version of the entwinement of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, a venerable pairing that predates the founding of Israel and stretches back well before the early 20th century.
Not every criticism of Israel or Zionism amounts to anti-Semitism, if the word is not to be robbed of all meaning. There are plenty of reasonable criticisms of specific Israeli policies (and I have made some of them here) that are not anti-Semitic. However, neither does the mere fact that one criticizes Israel or Zionism prove the absence of anti-Semitism.”
This is a particularly demagogic line of argument. Berman apparently believes that analytical understanding of US history, including its flaws, and of current US policies amounts to anti-Americanism. Exactly what is “anti-American” and who gets to determine this? By Berman’s definition, anyone who regards himself as an anti-imperialist is likely to be considered anti-American. This slanderous claim goes back over a century, when the Anti-Imperialist League, including Mark Twain, opposed the war to conquer the Philippines. Some called for Twain to be hanged as a traitor. Whether during the McCarthy era, during the opposition to the Vietnam War, or to America’s more recent militarist actions around the world, dissidents trying to change policy have been attacked. Those who opposed the US adventure in Iraq in 2003 were slandered as traitors to the memory of those who died in 9/11. According to this logic, criticizing US foreign and military policy throws someone’s patriotism into question.
Parallel to this, Berman asserts that anti-Zionism encourages anti-Semitism, because criticism of the Israeli government can also be directed at the Jewish people. Berman is well aware that Zionism is a political, ideological movement and not a religious or ethnic identification — the existence of many Christian Zionists attests to that. Many who oppose Israeli policies don’t consider themselves anti-Zionists, while others do reject the ideological implications of the Zionist movement. Of course, some who harbor anti-Semitic sentiments also consider themselves anti-Zionists; there are also many anti-Semites among the so-called “supporters of Israel.” Many evangelical Christians ardently support Israel and also believe that the return of Jesus will be heralded by the ingathering of the Jews in the Holy Land and, ultimately, most of them dying in the final war of good and evil. By most definitions, a viewpoint embracing the death of masses of Jews is anti-Semitic.
Berman ultimately seeks to conflate and confuse, drawing together anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Americanism into one anti-Semitic stew. This doesn’t enlighten; rather, it obscures real understanding.
The Hidden Motives of Pro-Boycott Academics
RB: “The boycott, if it means anything, threatens to impede the international exchange of ideas and knowledge. It encourages professors to make decisions on political, rather than pedagogical, grounds, and this will undoubtedly seep into the character of classroom instruction as well: expect further politicization of the student experience.”
Berman creates a much more complicated case than actually exists to make his point. The terms of the BDS movement’s academic boycott are clear: an organization honoring the boycott will not engage in any official partnerships with Israeli institutions, but its members are free to do as they wish. Period. Not only are American Studies Association members (for example) free to travel to Israel, collaborate with Israeli scholars, and invite them to speak on their campuses, the ASA has even invited Israeli scholars to its convention and paid for their travel so that they do not have to use state funds to do so. Whatever “politics” might find their way into “the character of classroom instruction” (and Berman does not offer a single example) simply cannot be attributed to the boycott.
RB: “In addition, if the boycott gains ground, watch for individuals to take radical actions that push beyond the letter of the boycott itself. Professors convinced that Israel is the equivalent of colonial Algeria and ought to be treated like apartheid South Africa are likely to go the extra mile to punish Israelis. The experience of the boycott in the United Kingdom is instructive: Israeli scholars were removed from the editorial board of a scholarly journal because of their nationality, a graduate applicant was turned down because he had served in the Israeli Defense Force, and a British professor refused to meet with a visiting Israeli colleague to discuss shared scholarly interests unless he would first offer a declaration of political correctness. Expect similar extensions of the boycott here […]. Indeed the boycott begins to appear as a de facto incitement to discrimination on the basis of national origin. The boycott proponents have let this genie of bigotry out of the bottle and bear the responsibility for the damage that will ensue to academic culture.”
Berman uses vague and misleading “facts” to bolster his argument that the academic boycott will incite “radical” and bigoted behavior here in the United States — his examples from the United Kingdom are highly dubious. First, there is no way to know for certain whether two of the cases he mentions are attributable to the BDS movement, since he provides only vague anecdotal evidence. We do not know who was behind the denial of the graduate applicant (or to what he or she was applying); we cannot possibly verify that it was the academic boycott that motivated the action of an unidentified British scholar, nor can we understand what he might have meant by “political correctness.” Berman is silent on the details. However we do have some information about the editorial board issue, and here as elsewhere the facts prove Berman wrong. The person behind the dismissal of the scholars was Professor Mona Baker of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, who did indeed do as Berman describes. However, it could not possibly have been on account of the boycott, since the event Berman cites happened in 2002, three years before the BDS movement was founded. It would thus be more historically accurate to lay responsibility for this action instead on a swell of conscience that had already appeared independently years before BDS was even conceived. The causal link Berman wishes to establish thus falls apart, and in fact what emerges shows that BDS is not a fringe movement leading people to radical acts, but rather a movement that taps into a preexistent and growing international criticism of Israel. As The Guardian reported, in 2002 Professor Baker was
one of the signatories of a British-led petition of more than 700 academics from several countries launched by Steven Rose, an Open University professor. Signatories including Oxford professors Colin Blakemore and Richard Dawkins say they “can no longer in good conscience continue to cooperate with official Israeli institutions, including universities.”
Not only does Berman indict BDS by distorting historical fact, he then uses this false narrative to found the charge of bigotry. Exactly how do entirely lawful, nonviolent protests against Israeli state practices that have been condemned (many times) by the United Nations and even by the United States government (however weakly) proliferate bigotry? Doesn’t this inflammatory claim require solid evidence? Or is rhetorical assertion sufficient?
Besides deploying these fearmongering tactics, Berman’s essay repeats the by-now-customary move to elevate a hypothetical future harm to Israeli scholars above the actual, much more severe, and even deadly harms done to Palestinians. The cause of that harm is not the boycotters — indeed, they are well within their rights in using strong language of censure and refusing to have their organizations participate in official relations with Israeli institutions — but the State of Israel: using bulldozers, tanks, and armed forces on civilians.
RB: “While the boycott analysis has little relevance to the realities in the Middle East, the movement is symptomatic of parts — but only parts — of higher education. We should not forget that it was the American Studies Association (ASA) that endorsed the boycott in December, setting off the current debate. American Studies is a small humanities field, and the humanities as a whole are a very small piece of the American higher education pie. Across the humanities there is a sense of losing ground. The culture at large — including President Obama — emphasizes the virtues of studying STEM fields rather than the humanities, and the rising cost of higher education seems to put particular pressure on the humanities that are viewed (to my mind wrongly) as having insufficient value on the job market.
Within this beleaguered world of the humanities, American Studies has had to watch the various minority ethnic studies fields become independent programs or departments, with their own professional associations. As those pieces of the American experience found different scholarly homes, American Studies has run the risk of turning into little more than the leftovers after the other, sometimes more dynamic fields move on. The boycott must have looked like a tempting opportunity to burnish the field’s anti-imperialist credentials and to garner public attention for a small professional association that was otherwise quickly dropping out of sight. Academics are more likely to reach for this sort of high-profile politicization the less secure the standing of their field within the university. Professional associations of stable and respected fields — economics, chemistry, or engineering — will not join in the boycott.”
According to Berman, the narrative seems to be this: President Obama has overseen the demise of the humanities and the intellectual dominance of STEM fields. The classically valued humanities, which Berman has (to his credit) passionately and rigorously defended and promoted as president of the Modern Language Association, are “beleaguered,” weak, prey to evil forces, and keen to increase attention on themselves. One humanistic academic field, American Studies, has suffered because ethnic studies have splintered off from its ranks, and there is little left remaining. What to do, says American Studies? Well, let’s draw on our well-known anti-imperialist legacy (at this point anyone who knows anything about the history and nature of American Studies will be smiling to themselves) and “garner public attention.” (It is doubtful that the ASA was relishing the thought of getting college administrators to threaten it; state legislators to present bills to defund any institution that did not cancel their ASA membership; members of Congress to denounce the organization on the floor of Congress; even more, that we were anxious to get our research accounts audited, and to receive all that hate mail and all those death threats on our answering machines.) But according to Berman, mostly we wanted to regain ground lost to all those ethnic studies types who have jumped ship. But if Berman had looked at who exactly was on the board of the ASA, he would have found a great number of “ethnic” people. (The name of the then-president might have given him a clue — Curtis Marez.) The other weakness in his argument is that one can be a member of two or more organizations, which in fact many ASA members are.
Ironically, one anti-boycott professor goes so far as to say that the problem with the ASA is not that it has been reduced in numbers because of the desertion of ethnic studies scholars, and has hence made this attention-getting move, but rather just the reverse. In a piece in the Jewish News Service, Stephen Whitfield says the ASA has been taken over by ethnic studies, and this explains the boycott vote:
“What seems to be the case is the emergence of Ethnic Studies may have tilted the organization heavily in favor of people of color, in this case the Palestinians,” he said.
Ethnic Studies, which emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, places an emphasis on the study of non-European culture in the United States, such as African-American Studies or Native American Studies.
Bizarrely, after saying that American Studies and the humanities are entwined, one implicated in the other, Berman’s slap at American Studies hits the humanities as well, especially as he himself uses “economics, chemistry, or engineering” as his examples of good (“stable and respected”) fields, as compared to the discredited and weakened humanities. He fails to note that one of the most prestigious scientists living today, Stephen Hawking, came out for the boycott shortly after the Association for Asian American Studies did, and in a 2009 article published by The EMBO Journal, a leading scientific publication focusing on research in molecular biology, Steven Rose listed a number of examples underscoring the difficulty of scientific work in Israel. “An attempt to establish a collaborative research project with a colleague from Birzeit foundered when we were told that Israel would not permit the use of radioactive tracers,” he wrote. “A physiology lecturer at Birzeit is routinely stopped at a military checkpoint and prevented from giving his lectures; on one occasion, a soldier decided that as an ‘assistant professor,’ he wasn't qualified to lecture — only ‘full professors’ could cross.” Rose added that in one part of Gaza, Israeli forces have destroyed academic institutions and prevented students from traveling to other areas, including the West Bank, to continue their academic studies. In other words, it’s not a matter of illegitimate fields making illegitimate attacks on the academy, it’s a matter of scholars of conscience not turning their eyes away from denials of academic freedom to others.
The fact that the Association for Asian American Studies, then the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Studies Association have all endorsed the boycott demonstrates that those fields in which the study of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, settler colonialism, racism, and imperialism are aware of what’s at stake in Israel-Palestine. These are not the isolated endorsements of rogue organizations. The recent and proliferating moves in Europe to divest, and the increased discussion of these issues in many other academic organizations, shows that this is merely the beginning.
Russell Berman alludes to his criticisms of certain aspects of Israel’s handling of the question of the Palestinians. Other liberals have likewise condemned the boycott while asserting their disagreement with the occupation. The question we would pose to Berman and others would be: What are you doing to address these wrongs? Rather than spend considerable energy and effort in mounting lengthy and, as we have shown, deeply flawed arguments in an attempt to discredit and neutralize a movement of conscience, would it not be better to use the same energy and resources to improve the situation?
Hilton Obenzinger writes cultural criticism, history, fiction and poetry. He is the author of American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania, a literary and historical study of American fascination with the Holy Land. He has published chapters in books and articles in scholarly journals on American Holy Land travel, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Zionism, and American cultural interactions with the Middle East, including “Naturalizing Cultural Pluralism, Americanizing Zionism: The Settler Colonial Basis to Early Twentieth Century Progressive Thought” and “Melville, Holy Lands, and Settler-Colonial Studies.” His current projects include Melting Pots and Promised Lands: Early Zionism and the Idea of America, a study of entwined settler colonial narratives from the 19th century to 1948.
His most recent book, Beginning: The Immigration Poems, 1924-1926, of Nachman Obzinger, is a selection of his father’s poems written in Lublin and New York translated from the Yiddish (with Rabbi Benjamin Weiner). His other works include Busy Dying, an autobiographical fiction; Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust by Zosia Goldberg as told to Hilton Obenzinger, an oral history of his aunt’s ordeal during the war; Cannibal Eliot and the Lost Histories of San Francisco, a novel of invented documents that recounts the history of San Francisco from the Spanish conquest to 1906; New York on Fire, a history of the fires of New York in verse, selected by the Village Voice as one of the best books of the year and nominated by the Bay Area Book Reviewer’s Association for its award in poetry; This Passover Or The Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, a sequence of poetry and prose that received the American Book Award. He teaches American Studies at Stanford University and is Associate Director of Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, a trans-Pacific study of the Chinese laborers who built the transcontinental railroad.
Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. From 2006 to 2008 he was Professor of History and Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. In 2001-’02 he served as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. His latest books are Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa 2nd ed. (Stanford University Press, 2013), co-edited with Frédéric Vairel, and The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Solidarity Center, 2010).
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University. He has written three scholarly books and edited three academic volumes on issues relating to cultural studies, ethnic studies, and literary theory. His recent books are: The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Duke UP, 2012), and a co-edited volume, Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Duke UP, 2011). He is part of the Public Intellectual Project at Truthout, and blogs at The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Boston Review, and other venues.
LARB Staff Recommendations
A one-of-a-kind forum on the proposed academic boycott of Israel and the BDS movement, featuring Russell Berman, Colin Dayan, Noura Erakat, David...
A one-of-a-kind forum on the proposed academic boycott of Israel and the BDS movement, featuring Russell Berman, Colin Dayan, Noura Erakat, David...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!