Judith Butler speaks at the inaugural Open Hillel conference in Boston/Photo by Gili Getz/Open Hillel
(JTA) — Four rabbis are engaged in an animated debate about Jewish law. Three of them agree, but the dissenter is adamant that he’s got it right. He cries out: “A sign, God, I beg You, a sign!”
It begins to rain, but the three in the majority are not swayed. “Another sign, please God!”
The rain picks up and lightning strikes near the rabbis, but still the three refuse to budge. After another plea from the one rabbi, a voice thunders from Heaven: “Heeeee’s Riiiiight!” The three rabbis look at each other, not sure how to react. Finally, one responds: “Well, all right. So it’s three against two.”
This lighthearted parable — an adapted version of the Talmud’s “Oven of Akhnai” story — highlights one of the foundational truths of Judaism: We do not always agree on our foundational truths.
Our disagreements are not a hindrance to communal existence but rather the source of an intellectual diversity. No matter the subject, it is precisely in and through these disagreements that Judaism finds its richest expression.
Open Hillel — a student-led campaign to change a Hillel International rule that, among other things, precludes it from partnering with groups that seek to change Israeli policies through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts — is hosting our first conference this week at Harvard. We are gathering because we believe that the principle of intellectual diversity ought to apply to our politics as well as our theology.
Courtesy of Assaf Gavron and Brooklyn Book Festival
The Brooklyn Book Festival is a highlight of New York City’s early autumn cultural lineup: a bibliophile carnival with back-to-back panel discussions featuring prominent authors from the United States and around the world.
This year Assaf Gavron, a critically acclaimed author who grew up in a moshav near Jerusalem, participated in a panel called “A Sense of Place: Writing from Within and Without.” This particular panel caught my attention because the four participating authors were all male. But the controversy that ensued, as reported by Uri Blau for Haaretz, was not over the panel’s gender imbalance. Instead, it was over Israel: Apparently rather more people reading the description of the event noticed the provenance of its sponsorship — the Israeli foreign ministry.
In response to the program note that the panel was made possible “…with the support of Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in New York,” Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign to Boycott Israel, published an open letter on its website, calling it “deeply regrettable” that the organizers accepted funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Operation Protective Edge. They note that Israel’s latest assault on Gaza “involved numerous potential war crimes.” Among the hundreds of signatories are Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, and Anand Gopal, the Wall Street Journal correspondent whose book on U.S policy in Afghanistan has won wide critical acclaim.
Also in the Adalah-NY letter is this important bit: “This is not, we emphasize, a call to isolate or boycott individual Israelis, but an effort to renounce business as usual with a state that routinely violates international law and basic human rights with impunity.”
I do believe that Adalah-NY is absolutely sincere in its insistence that it is not calling for a boycott of individual Israelis. I also believe that boycott is a legitimate means of non-violent protest. The problem is not the intention, but the potential repercussions. A ban on accepting Israeli government sponsorship would mean, de facto, that Israeli authors, dancers, filmmakers, artists and even academics would be unable to participate in international cultural and academic events.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images
A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.
In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.
Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.
So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?
Pro-Palestinians activists demonstrate in 2010 in Paris, France. / Getty Images
No. It’s not.
The Prime Minister of Israel and the Grand Poobah of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Marching Band can say it as much and as loudly as they want. But the BDS movement is not, as Grand Poobah Malcolm Hoenlein put it yesterday, the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.” And despite what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, when “people on the soil of Europe [talk] about the boycott of Jews,” they are not “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”
No. Stop it.
Though I boycott the settlements, I don’t personally support BDS, for reasons that Bernard Avishai once expressed perfectly in The Nation, and I do not doubt that some members of that movement are unrepentant anti-Semites — just as some members of the Greater Israel movement are unrepentant racists and Islamophobes. Yesh ve’yesh, as we say in Hebrew. There are all kinds.
But there is simply nothing inherent to a call to boycott/divest from/sanction the modern nation state of Israel that is — inherently — an expression of (and here I quote the dictionary) “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”
As the Scarlett Johansson-stoked controversy rages over SodaStream’s West Bank operation, Israel’s centrist Minister of Finance has been considering what effect international opposition to settlement production will have if peace talks fail. And his verdict is pessimistic.
In a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies, Minister Yair Lapid said that if Israeli or Palestinian negotiations break down or hit an impasse, resulting economic actions by Europe could have a major impact on Israel.
“Every resident of Israel will get hit straight in the pocket,” he said. “The cost of living will rise, the education, health, welfare and defense budgets will be cut, and many international markets will be closed to us.” He stressed that the European market, the main focus of his concern, is Israel’s primary trade market.
I would love to say that powerful argument won the day. I’d like to claim that intellect and facts persuaded the members, and whether the resolution was won or lost, its decisive outcome was a result of profound and significant reflection.
The first resolution before the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly served to censure the Israeli government for preventing the free and open travel of American academics to Palestine passed, despite little but anecdotal evidence.
The removal of the term ‘arbitrary’ from the original proposal in response to critical evidence proving the procedural legitimacy of Israel’s actions left a resolution which declaimed that Israel should no longer be allowed to control its own borders. With only 142 Americans denied access to Israel out of 626,000 last year, it seems ludicrous to consider a denial rate of 0.023% prejudicial and illegal. But that didn’t stop the resolution from passing 60:53.
Unfortunately, the public farce that was the Delegate Assembly made it impossible to take any of the process seriously. United in condemnation of the MLA officers who managed the room, both those who spoke for the resolution and those who spoke against it were mainly silenced by the arbitrary application of rules of governance, which frequently left the officers huddled at the back of the stage.
This year’s MLA was supposed to be discussing the crisis of affairs in the Humanities. Only a lucky few of the graduate students on the market with their freshly minted PhDs will find jobs in academia — ever.
The increasing corporatization of higher education is driving the scholarly agenda, as funders begin to dictate the scope of the university’s educational mission. Students are being pushed into ever higher debt in order to get undergraduate degrees, which further drives the expectation that only high paying jobs in business, accounting, and computing, to name but a few fields are worth their time and money.
Only those who anticipate that they will be able to carry mortgage sized debt, some for the next 25 years, can embark on advanced degrees in Law, Psychology, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary sciences, without strong financial support from family. All that is to say, we are making education for the rich, and for those who think they’ll probably be rich. We are making it for those who don’t already carry financial burdens for their families, for the families they hope to have, and the communities they’d like to one day contribute to.
On Sunday, the American Studies Association, of which I am a member, voted to support the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society. Included in their announcement of the vote are the statements of 13 scholars in support of the vote, among which I am included. Here is my statement:
I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States, so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.
I offer the personal information in this statement so that people will know that I have an immediate interest in a just outcome for the Palestinian people, which would also be a just outcome for the state of Israel. Simply put, I want my grandchildren to grow up in a democracy, not in a state that proclaims itself a democracy while denying human rights to a population under its control — a population that has the right to a sovereign state of its own on territory currently under the colonial domination of Israel. We should remember that Palestinians on the West Bank live under Israeli martial law. I also believe that in the long run Israel cannot survive caught in the vice of this political contradiction. And I want Israel to survive.
Professionally, I have my investments as well, to which the statement alludes. As a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, I am acutely aware of how the agendas of settler colonialism — land grab being the primary one as it is in Palestine — actively decimated the Indigenous population of the United States from an initial estimate of four to five million in 1492 in what would become the lower 48 states to 250,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. While the Native population has been growing since then and since 1924 Native peoples are citizens of the U.S., nevertheless the lasting effects and ongoing forms of settler colonialism are instrumental in making Native peoples the poorest of the poor in the U.S.
I appreciate Hillel Halkin’s passionate response to a cartoon that supports the boycott of Israel, promotes anti-Semitism, and advocates a viewpoint that he insists must not be permitted in a Jewish newspaper.
Unfortunately, that is not the cartoon I drew.
My cartoon pilloried the absurdity and intellectual vacuity of hasbara, the public relations effort by Israel and its supporters to disseminate the Israeli point of view. It was a satire of chauvinistic Jewish discourse on the issue of Israel in light of the recent uproar against Stephen Hawking, and it made no comment either for or against what Halkin calls “the Israel boycott movement.”
To be sure, Halkin alludes to the actual content of my cartoon in order to summarily dismiss it, insisting that the most jingoistic critiques of Hawking — particularly of the “He Should Discard His Israeli-Made Intel Voice Chip” variety — were fringe and marginal. Hillel Halkin’s claim is not supported by fact. But having made this claim, he goes on to insist that my cartoon can only be read as a championing of boycotts. “It is a pro-boycott cartoon,” Halkin concludes about a satire of contemporary Jewish debate.
If Halkin would prefer to discuss the boycott movement rather than a cartoon about hasbara, he might be surprised to learn that I am not an advocate of boycotting Israel for the same reason that I am not an advocate of censoring items from Jewish newspapers based on ideological filters. I have faith in open discourse, I have confidence in the capacity of people to reason and grapple with opinions they might not agree with, and I feel that when we start outlawing the free exchange of ideas, we sacrifice much more than a single cultural exchange or cartoon.
British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking waded into the Israel debate last week by announcing his decision to boycott an academic conference. Eli Valley, the Forward’s artist in residence, offers his own unique graphic take on the controversy.
Got wheels, Mr. Hawking?
As it transpired, the brouhaha surrounding Brooklyn College’s BDS event was a good deal of hullabaloo over not a lot. Roughly 300 people turned up to listen to Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti speak about the need to boycott and divest from Israel, while outside the hall 150 protested either in favour of or against the event and the movement. In the end, those proposing that the event be shut down were made to look rather foolish.
Far better, perhaps, that Alan Dershowitz and others sought to negate their right to speak redirect their efforts and energies into cautioning against BDS’ even tacit acceptance by those liberal Zionists who earnestly wish to see the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the coming about of two states for two peoples. BDS, it has become apparent, has no interest in this – indeed, as a movement and an idea, it is fundamentally incompatible with Zionism.
That much is evident from its manifesto. For, in addition to advocating an end to the occupation, the dismantling of the Security Barrier, and the recognition of full rights for Arab Israelis, BDS demands “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” At present, there are five million Palestinians – one third residing in villages and camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding states – who are refugees according to the UNWRA standard.
Setting aside the impracticality of the proposition — would the Israeli authorities evict Jewish families from their homes in Haifa and Yafo? — permitting the influx of that many Palestinian exiles would only serve to undo and end the Zionist project. Instead of there being one Jewish and one Arab state between the river and the sea, there would instead be two Arab-majority states, and with time, one state. As such, and as Yair Rosenberg has argued, the right of return and BDS is “antithetical to the two-state solution, the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepted by majorities on both sides and the international community.”
You can’t say Alice Walker doesn’t put her money where her mouth is. The news that the Pulitzer-prize winning American novelist has refused to authorize a Hebrew-language translation of her landmark novel “The Color Purple” comes as little surprise. She has been involved for decades in pro-Palestinian activism. Initially drawn to the cause after the Six Day War in 1967, Walker has since been a vocal and personal advocate for Palestine, calling Israel “the greatest terrorist in that part of the world” in interviews, and even volunteering to join the 2011 flotilla named “The Audacity of Hope” that set sail to protest the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.
It’s not the first time that Walker has withheld her work from a particular market for political reasons, either: She would not allow a film version of “The Color Purple” to be shown in South Africa until after Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency. The parallel is not lost on her; in fact, it’s central to her argument. Walker invoked the South African situation explicitly in her letter to Yediot Books, which was to be the publisher of the translation. She denounced Israel as “far worse” than South Africa and in 2009 was one of many signers to a petition that referred to Israel as having an “apartheid regime.”
The obvious question is what kind of effect — if any — withholding a translation will have. Walker says she never meant to deprive any readers. Her letter expresses a hope that, like the eventual release of the movie in South Africa, “The Color Purple” may one day be enjoyed in Israel “by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace.” She wants to share, not to censor. “But,” she writes “now is not the time.”
Publishing a book involves more than just literary creativity. It’s part of a business, one that’s competitive, globalized, and political, and the translation of a book like Walker’s can often bring all these elements into play in dramatic ways.
I’m still reeling from the news yesterday that the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just Israelis on the left that are outraged by this. In this morning’s Maariv, Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most prominent and influential columnists, tears into the new law, expressing much anguish — you can read the original Hebrew or a translation. He is not, by any stretch, sympathetic to boycotts, which he calls “childish” and “fairly silly.” Caspit was in fact the first Israeli journalist to publicize the findings of the right-wing group Im Tirzu, which painted an ominous picture of the human rights NGOs operating in Israel. This is no knee-jerk leftie. He’s just shocked about what happened yesterday:
The idea of a boycott law was not born in sin, but the baby itself yesterday emerged into the world as a bad thing. Yes, I too think that Israeli companies that won tenders to build in the Palestinian city of Rawabi on condition that they boycott the settlements should suffer from government sanctions. The government has the tools to do this. And I also think that theaters that receive government funding cannot boycott Ariel. In this matter too, there are tools to handle this. But when this law is also applied to private people, and when the determination as to “what is a boycott” is taken away from the court and given to bureaucrats, and when private citizens can be convicted for voicing their opinion, based on the determination of those bureaucrats and also to sentence them to pay compensation even without proving damage, this is fascism. This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people’s mouths. This is a thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging.