August 13, 2022

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BDS, Anti-Intellectualism, Safe Spaces for Hate: Reflections on the U. Michigan Controversies

In October, the University of Michigan went through a number of controversies concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, one brought on by a faculty member, adherent of BDS, who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel, and the other about a lecture series that included a graphic artist who used his art to accuse Bibi of being the new Hitler, committer of genocide. The following are reflections on what we can learn from these incidents. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, where I am chair of the Council of Scholars, issued a statement at the time of events.

BDS and the opposition to normalization

Opposing normalization, as the BDS Movement does, means opposing compromise – a necessary component of any two-state solution – and often reaches bizarre proportions. It means committing to the totalistic Palestinian narrative whereby Israelis are irredeemably bad and Palestinians unquestionably justified, in which ‘justice’ is defined as a Palestinian state, ‘from the river to the sea.’ It’s not social justice, it’s siding with the most irredentist forces on one side of a conflict, and stigmatizing the other as pariahs… not deserving to even be heard.

That ‘hearing’ – the right of Israel and her defenders to tell ‘their side of the story’ and the duty of serious moral beings to listen – is particularly important in the case of BDS, which uses both misinformation and intellectually dishonest exaggeration to turn Israel into a pariah state.

Ken Marcus, for example, does not, as claimed, “oppose and censor any criticism of Israel” (the dishonest Livingstone Formulation) but only those deemed by formally adopted definitions, too be anti-Semitic hate speech.

By those definitions, for example, the slide presented by Emory Douglas at a required lecture at University of Michigan fulfills the two most extreme criteria of the internationally-accepted definition of ‘anti-Semitism,’ defined by the IHRA, adopted by a number of countries, and parallel to the state department definitionUsing the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; and Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. 

Douglas’ graphic art purposefully blurs the boundary between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Zionist’ by equating Hitler, the quintessence of evil in Western discourse, to Netanyahu. The end result is a particularly distorted replacement narrative whereby the Israelis are the new Nazis, and the Palestinians, who openly admire the Nazis, are the new Jews.

What those BDS advocates signing the letter mean by the “advocacy” opposed by Marcus, is, like the Douglas slide, the kind of hate-mongering against Israel that accuses it of genocide, when, just to take a local example, in the last seven years, Syria has killed five times as many and driven ten times as many Muslims from their homes as Israel has in seventy years of ongoing war. The use of accusations of Israel committing genocide against the Palestinians, when their numbers have grown manifold under Israeli rule, debases the language in order to preach hate… hardly progressive values.

Hitler—Netanyahu comparisons and #BlackLivesMatter

As Bill Burr says, “Hitler’s the benchmark for evil… Anytime you want to say, someone’s evil, you say, ‘he’s the next Hitler’.” So, comparing Netanyahu to Hitler is a code for declaring him the benchmark of evil in the world today.

But such a comparison debases our language beyond recognition. For example, in 12 years of ruling Germany, Hitler deliberately exterminated 6 million Jewish civilians, and started a war that killed tens of millions of people including millions of Germans. In 12 years as Prime Minister of Israel, fewer than 10,000 Palestinians have died in wars with Israel, while the overall Palestinian population living under his governance, has risen from 3 to 4 million! Only the most contorted ‘revolutionary’ logic can find the parallels. This degradation of the language makes substantive discourse impossible, and effectively leaves those subjected to it (students, colleagues) prey to the emotional impact of demonizing war propaganda masquerading as art. It makes clear, nuanced, moral and empirical thinking very difficult, a fortiori, its effects on much needed discussion.

Douglas’ design art, however, boldly declares both Hitler and Netanyahu Guilty of Genocide, defining genocide as the “deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” In order to feature Netanyahu alongside Hitler as co-guilty of “killing large groups of people,” one obviously has to skip over many other candidates since 1945. Netanyahu’s current neighbor, for example,  Bashir al Assad, for example, has, in less time than Netanyahu has been prime minister, deliberately killed hundreds of thousands of ‘his’ people and driven millions of Sunni subjects from their homes (religious cleansing).

The term ‘large’ as in “large numbers of people” must shed all its meaning in order to pair Netanyahu and Hitler. How many intervening figures, how many nations, how many orgies of violence, all much more suitably equated with Hitler using this definition of genocide, need to be ignored in order to equate Bibi’s thousands with Hitler’s tens of millions?

Douglas’ graphic art is stark and powerful: Bibi/Hitler double face, contorted in angry passion, rising from hell (red background), merged as one face, a single, horned-head of hatred. This is very effective visual rhetoric supporting a ‘revolutionary’ discourse of groups like #BlackLivesMatters, which has adopted the accusation of genocide against Israel as part of its platform, the denunciation of the Israeli genocide of the Palestinians. Is this justice, or picking up the cudgel of your ally in an all-out war?

Why would the organizers of the lecture series want to bring in someone who degrades important language in order to provoke hatred of the democratically chosen leader of the only Jewish state, a speaker who uses the crudest of classic anti-semitic tropes to disseminate a condemnation of Israel as a genocidal state? What kind of ‘provocation’ did the organizers have in mind when they invited him?

And when will they invite a scholar who can help the students decode the language here, who can place the work within a long and disturbing history of hate-speech and war propaganda, someone who can, citing Thucidydes on Corcyra and Orwell on Newspeak, explain the dangers one incurs when one degrades language and mainstreams icons of hatred?

Safe spaces not for Jews, hurting their feelings is a freebee

Academia right now is widely-known (often derisively) for its snowflakes, people who have been victimized, and whose feelings need to be respected, people who, above all, should not be subject to degrading language that hurts their feelings.

Whereas safe spaces primarily traumatized victims whose fragility merits this concern, it can, these days, include professors themselves. Recently, a reviewer recommended rejecting a piece submitted for publication, noting: “I, personally, have felt hurt by what I judge, perhaps wrongly, a deliberate pro-Israel manipulation of historical facts.” Decoded, this means, ‘hearing someone using history to argue for Israel hurts my feelings, and I – and other good people like me – shouldn’t be subjected to that kind of emotional suffering.

At the same time, Palestinian uses of ‘historical narrative’ no matter how at variance with the documentary record (eg, Israelis are the new Nazis, and we the new victims), no matter how demonizing of Israel, do not hurt me…, in fact, they inspire me to pledge to a cause.’

Students  should not be able to stage moral ‘emergencies’ and take over campuses, by crying in professor’s offices at the pain their reading of someone’s criticism has caused them. Justice is applying the same rules to everyone, not promoting mass shamings and intimidating dissent.

The very notion of ‘safe-spaces’ to protect self-declared sensibilities is problematic, and poses serious ‘free-speech’ issues by proscribing in some case legitimate criticism that ‘hurts’ someone’s feelings. But when those safe spaces are reserved for people who aggressively attack others (in this case, but hardly restricted to, Zionists), and then use the safe space to protect themselves from criticism, they deny the accused their self-defense and they violate even their own principles. When the president and dean of Faculty at ConnColl instructed Andrew Pessin not to defend himself, not to explain how he was being misread by those accusing him of promoting genocide, they were not protecting sensitive students who cried in the professors’ offices, but protecting them from criticism. This was a case of safe spaces for bullies.

This leads to the bizarre situation currently prevailing, in which the hurt feelings of Jews are systematically excluded from this consideration (no safe spaces for them), and some of the most aggressive and borderline violent groups are given safe spaces’ fullest consideration and protection from criticism while they launch ‘hate spaces.’ The situation translates into a dynamic whereby not only can some – like Douglas or #BlackLivesMatter – heap the most inflated invective on Israel, but somehow, others are compelled to assent, lest they too become the targets of that shaming. Andrew Pessin received emails from Jews on campus, pleading with him to stop trying to defend himself, because it made things worse for them.

The notion that ‘anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and Zionist complaints about anti-Semitic anti-Zionism (comparing Israel to the Nazis, for example), are merely excuses for fending off ‘legitimate criticism of Israel’ (Livingston Formulation), has little empirical support, and many problematic consequences: it mainstreams some of the oldest, most poisonous hate and paranoia by laundering it as anti-Zionism; it makes any Jew who feels any solidarity with Israel, by definition, implicated in a crime, subject to mass shaming; it empowers some of the most intellectually regressive forces in academia. Like so many other forms of successful fascism, BDS is profoundly anti-intellectual.

Using the Livingston Formulation warps the discussion, making anyone who tries to defend Israel ipso facto illegitimate. Jewish students who feel emotionally assaulted by so sadistic a moral comparison as Netanyahu and Hitler, have three choices, fight back, suffer in silence, or join the enemy. The former is the road least traveled because of the atmosphere of moral panic dominating much discourse in academe right now. The immense difficulty that a defense of Israel has just to get a ‘hearing’ in print speaks volumes. And it is part of a larger phenomenon that should concern people who do not worry overmuch about the Jews.

This brings us back to the ‘provocative’ approach espoused by the Penny Stamp Speakers Series: why is it, that provoking Jews with really hate-mongering accusations is legitimate, but provoking those who hate Jews (with criticism) is somehow unacceptable?

Has the lecture series invited someone critical of #BlackLivesMatter, or someone to discuss the use of genocidal hate speech to fuel a war against Israel? Would that be too provocative? Or not provocative enough?

Rather than courageous anti-nomian provocation, which defies the too-conservative rules in order to rouse serious reflection and discussion, perhaps the organizers of the speaker series are actually playing according to a rather strict set of rules, set by those who demonize Israel. Douglas may have the right to peddle his hate-wares, but why did the committee give him a platform? And to whom among those whose faces he blackens, are platforms to respond given?

BDS logic

In defense of Cheney-Lippold, a number of professors have explained their justification for boycotting Israel, in defense of ‘Palestinian human rights.’ Obviously, the question immediately becomes, why Israel? Why not China and its longer and far more onerous occupation of Tibet. Why not Sri Lanka for crushing the Tamils? Why not the Kurds and their dispersion among three San Remo-created ‘nations,’ Iraq, Syria and Turkey? There are many more conflicts and causes that could be added to the list.

Anna Balitzer articulated the BDS position:

“Participating in boycotts to advance progressive causes has a long and time-honored history in the United States and around the globe, where people have acted on their conscience and boycotted to express their support for the American Civil Rights Movement, the South African movement to end apartheid, and more recently to express opposition to the hateful politics of the Trump administration… It has been heartening to see a growing number of people around the world similarly heed the Palestinian call to boycott as a way to end Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, including its ongoing destruction of Palestinian homes, theft of Palestinian land, and decades of brutal military rule.

The main problem here is defining ‘progressive. What makes the Palestinian cause progressive? What signs of progressive values have Palestinian leaders and civil-society organizations demonstrated?’ Few political cultures globally show such contempt for the human rights of their own people as the current Palestinian regimes in the WB and Gaza, both of whom engage in extensive brutalizing of dissenters, repression of journalists, oppression of women, use of torture and summary execution as common methods of maintaining power. Under the leadership of the PLO in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, Palestinians are far less well off by any measure of quality of life, including exercise of human rights, than under Israeli.

Why would progressives in the West resonate to the call of Palestinian ‘civil society institutions’ to boycott Israel, when so many of those organizations focus entirely on Israel’s ostensible violations of Palestinian human rights, and, even Norman Finkelstein laments, ignore the serious problems of Palestinians under Palestinian rule. The comparison between how Israel treats Palestinians and how Palestinians treat their own people, in matters of prisons, freedom of expression, equality before the law, women’s rights and freedoms, quality health care access, voting rights, etc. is, in every single case, unfavorable to the Palestinians.

What is progressive about a group that pushes hate, rejects normalization, justifies attacking civilians, and considers compromise and co-existence incompatible with ‘justice.’ Is it Students for Justice in Palestine? Or ‘Students for Just Us in Palestine’?

And if the latter, are people like Cheney-Lippold, who think BDS is about human rights and civil society and reaching a just peace, dupes of demopaths? Or are they in favor of Palestinian sovereignty over every grain of sand ‘from the river to the sea,’ of denying Jews the right to self-determination? It’s a powerful if perverse metaphor to make the Jews (via Israel) the new Nazis, and the people who admire Nazis more openly than anyone else, into the new Jews. To utter it may be legitimate in a society that prizes freedom of speech (even if blows a hole in the post-modern Jew’s safe spaces), but it should hardly determine, to the degree that it does, who should be heard (Emory Douglas) and who not (Zionists).

Indeed, this metaphor can currently dominate so wide a range of attitudes only by relying on the suppression of speech of the ‘other,’ of the accused. In order for such absurd comparisons to ‘stick,’ those making them must deny those they attack the right to defend themselves in public. Mass shaming, and no platforms for self-defense. These kangaroo courts lie at the heart of the indictment of Israel (Joe Sacco at a Penny Stamps Speaker Series explained: “Israel being a terrorist state… Israeli soldiers [are] unworthy of being represented as actual human beings in his artwork…”) one of major victims of #FakeNews in the 21st century. Right now, on college campuses, there are an unknown number of School newspapers that refuse, on principle, to give any space to a defense of Israel.

As Linda Sarsour explained to her fellow Muslims:

…if you’re on the side of the oppressor, or you’re defending the oppressor, or you’re actually trying to humanize the oppressor… then that’s a problem sisters and brothers, and we got to be able to say: that is not the position of the Muslim American community.

So again, rather than brave ‘provocation,’ the people who organize the talk series, and in so many other places, are actually yielding to bullies pushing hate speech in the name of ‘human rights.’ How does that in any way further progressive values and causes, rather than the most primitive war-mongering masquerading as ‘justice’?

Is this call of Palestinian ‘civil society’ to boycott Israel, a progressive policy designed to end the exceptionally cruel Israeli occupation? Or is it a regressive call to shut out the voice of the other, the ‘other’ who is accused of committing the very crimes his most violent accusers openly wish they could commit? Is this holding Israel to a universal moral standard, or a combination of tyrannical superego (a Jewish specialty) and the humanitarian racism of low expectations in which we not only don’t hold Palestinian rulers to any moral standards, we actually accept their moral attacks.

11 Angry Men: Damage to the academy, intellectual integrity, failing the students

The ultimate victim here, is the progressive culture that created the modern and post-modern universities, and the information profession at whose heart it stands. The degradation of language, the shutting down of debate and silencing of the voice of the defendant, the mob rule of aggressive snowflakes, demanding concern for their and their friends’ feelings (the victims), running roughshod over the feelings of others (those designated as victimizers)… all of this bodes ill for the world of knowledge, inquiry and open-mindedness progressives and academics normally pride themselves on.

The remarkably shoddy nature of both the moral and the empirical reasoning currently used to condemn Israel, which commands the loyalty of an unknown number of academics, suggests a serious debasement of intellectual standards in today’s academia. And much of it can be laid at the feet of this discourse of demonization and delegitimization that drives BDS, and convinces otherwise well-intentioned academics not to give Israel the platform to defend herself. In a world where defending Israel is too provocative, but comparing her to the Nazis is just right, people are in moral and intellectual disarray.

This has larger and more specific implications. Not writing Letters of Recommendation for students is just one of many policies promoted by PACBI/USACBI. There is a host of recommendations for how faculty who support BDS can actually, individually implement the academic boycott irrespective of their institution’s policy. Administrators need to understand that just going on record with some anodyne public statement that the school doesn’t support academic boycott of Israel is insufficient. Administrators need to ensure faculty compliance. Otherwise they encourage an intellectual atmosphere in which avoiding this private world of punishments leads students to avoid tackling hard, provocative topics that challenge this hate-speech, and instead, acquiesce or conform to gain favor. This is, on one level, a systemic assault on the principles of a free discussion.

If people make up their minds without hearing and probing both sides of a conflict, if they make momentous moral decisions based on one side’s ferocious accusations, then they violate all norms of moral and intellectual integrity. They court the very disorientation that the institute they have joined was set up to avoid.





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