The Academic Engagement Network and Indiana University Press have released “Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, & the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State“ by Cary Nelson.
Nelson is a professor of Liberal Arts and English at the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign. His liberal arts background gives him an uncommon insight into the worst part of anti-Israel and antisemitic attitudes on college campuses today.
The centerpiece of the book is four chapters that each take on the writings of one of the four major intellectual leaders of the anti-Israel movement: Judith Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi and Jasbir Puar.
In each of these chapters, Nelson methodically destroys their arguments, one by one. He doesn’t just prove that, say, Jasbir Puar is a liar in her claims that Israel purposefully maims and stunts the growth of Palestinian children – he goes through their entire written record on the topic of Israel and shoots down their arguments, one fact at a time.
Nelson’s audience seems to be fellow academics who can be convinced by the arguments of these BDS supporting, Israel hating professors. Nelson has spent several years visiting Israel and the territories and has done an admirable amount of original research as well as in compiling the facts that prove these academics are wrong. He is careful not to accuse anyone of using antisemitic arguments unless the evidence is overwhelming.
Nelson even admits being an admirer of Butler’s work on gender, but that doesn’t stop him from going through her almost unreadable prose, extracting her main argument (that Jews are naturally disposed to be forever in the Diaspora and it is actually anti-Jewish to want to live as free, independent people in the Land of Israel) and then demolishing it.
If that was the entire book, it would be worth reading (although the sheer amount of fact checking gets overwhelming after a while.) But Cary Nelson also takes a larger view. He provides a critical analysis of the entire BDS movement and its philosophy, and shows that its claims to non-violence are specious (as their plan for a binational state could never come about without war) and that their claims to only be against Israeli institutions and not individuals are absurd. He brings example after example of BDS intimidation on campus, and highlights how universities are ill equipped to protect students and professors who are the victims of BDS campaigns.
Yet Nelson remains intellectually honest and consistent – he is a champion of free speech and academic freedom, and he explains exactly what and what is not acceptable on campus while adhering scrupulously to those principles. A professor can teach a class in as biased a manner as he wishes, but he cannot intimidate or punish students who disagree. The book brings a number of examples of cases of extremely biased courses, based on student reports, syllabi and required reading lists.
Nelson also goes behind the scenes on the campaigns by BDS to take over major academic disciplines and associations, often using underhanded methods. He notes how BDS has exposed the shaky foundations of the liberal arts and how a now second generation of anti-Israel academics have turned entire disciplines into the opposite of what academia should be. He highlights how difficult it would be for any Zionist to survive in this academic environment which has been so thoroughly politicized. Most of all, he shows that the embrace by academia of “scholars” who literally make up lies to support their arguments endangers entire academic disciplines that end up looking foolish or worse by allowing these lies to go unchallenged.
After showing that Israel is a bastion of academic freedom and that Arabs are not discriminated against in Israel, one of the most important chapters deals with the little reported lack of Palestinian academic freedom. This chapter involved significant original research and Nelson spent time talking with Palestinian professors and students, describing in harrowing terms how intimidated students are by the political forces on campuses in the West Bank and Gaza. One professor who dared bring students on a trip to visit Auschwitz was not only fired but he was nearly assassinated by terrorists who booby trapped his car to explode when it warmed up from being driven – the car exploded prematurely on an unusually hot day.
The hypocrisy of the BDSers who claim to care about Palestinian academic freedom while there is so little of it in the territories is clear, and has never been described as well before.
Nelson, quixotically, describes a number of things that Israel and the Palestinians could do unilaterally to create an atmosphere where he believes a two state solution can be successful. Nelson did enormous amounts of research into the issue, speaking with lots of Israelis and Palestinians who want peace and who have practical ideas (many of which have merit.) I believe that his wishful thinking, combined with his conviction that a two state solution is the only possible solution, has given him some rare blind spots about exactly how rejectionist and antisemitic the Palestinian people and leaders have become, and how most of them look at a two state solution as only a stage towards their own version of a one state solution. He addresses many of the concerns as far as he can but I don’t think he quite gets that there is no solution possible with today’s Palestinians, and the only thing to do is to manage the conflict, and not pretend to end it. His ideas for peace are useful in the context of the rest of the book, however, because he can credibly show that the BDS groups who pretend to want peace have no interest in any type of two state solution, and there are no comparable peace plans on that side.
The other part that bothers me about the book is Nelson’s obvious antipathy both towards Israeli settlers, who he tends to dismiss as religious fanatics, and the Likud government that dominated Israeli politics of the past decade. Nelson insults Benjamin Netanyahu as a racist while at the same time emphasizing how much Israel has been working to improve the lives of its Arab citizens – exactly during Netanyahu’s premiership. He praises Israel’s Supreme Court for scrupulously protecting equality of all citizens under the law – but he implies that demolitions of terrorist homes or of illegally built Arab structures are a serious human rights violation, ignoring that the same Supreme Court has allowed that to occur in most cases.
My last nitpick is that Nelson, while fully supporting Israel’s right to exist, does not seem to understand the importance of the heartland of Eretz Yisrael – of Hebron, Bethlehem, Shiloh, Bet El – to the very souls of Jews. His desire for a two state solution seems to force him to minimize the importance of the holy places, which he seems to understand intellectually but not viscerally. Israel without the Biblical cities is just another secular nation. We don’t need a Jewish Singapore. The very reason that the Arabs insist on ownership of the most holy places in Judaism is because they understand how separating Jews from their ancestral lands and sacred places is the most effective way to destroy the very heart of Israel.
Nelson, who is an expert in poetry, has a chapter on how colleges could improve their teaching about the region by suggesting a course in comparative poetry between Jewish and Palestinian writers. It is certainly an appropriate topic for a college course. Poetry can illustrate the feelings (and myths) of a people better than most other mediums. Yet the poets Nelson chooses to stand in for Israel are all secular, all against the “occupation.” If Nelson wants to tell the stories of people through poetry, he should include the works not only of the Israeli superstar poets but also the burgeoning number of religious and settler poets who write of their love of the land in a much different style than the secularists. Given that he wants everyone to empathize with the others’ feelings, settlers are no less human than secular Israelis and Palestinians. It is necessary to humanize the settlers, something that hardly happens. Whether one agrees with them or not, they choose to put their lives on the line every day to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors and to hold on to that right. That is the stuff of poetry.
I apologize for spending too much of the review on the small parts that bother me (I have that habit.) I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. Israel Denial is an epic response to BDS and its pseudo-intellectual underpinnings. The book is a huge challenge to the liberal arts academic community to respond to this attack on their very foundations.
Israel Denial is a model of what academic scholarship in the liberal arts should look like.
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