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Lessons from Brooklyn College BDS, Barghouti, and Butler

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This commentary originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 22, 2013.

Reader and correspondent David Lurie has directed me to some not well-publicized revelations about the Brooklyn College BDS event. To begin, the campus BDS chapter defended itselfagainst various accusations of selective and prejudicial admission to the event and other claims, including the discriminatory eviction of four Jewish students. On the face of it, the account of circumstances surrounding admission is conceivable. One can easily imagine the organizers having become overwhelmed by the notoriety and numbers drawn by the event. One can imagine, but since there is no video record of events, we have only the current claims and counter claims.

Why is there no video record of events, which would help clarify the circumstances of the eviction of the four students, confirming or disconfirming different accounts?

Initially, BC-SJP decided not to allow the event to be videotaped by media, at the request of one of the speakers whose remarks were to be published online in The Nation magazine the same day.

While Brooklyn BDS curiously declines to name the speaker who requested the videotape ban, we know that this was Judith Butler, since they were her remarks that were published in The Nation. This is the Butler who opened her remarks by praising the idea of academic freedom and its preservation (!) in the successful holding of the BDS event.

It is not difficult to see why Butler sought the ban on videotaping. It was just last summer, during the controversy over her award of the Adorno Prize, whenvideotape of a 2006 UC Berkeley event revealed her praise of Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive organizations and her advocacy of engagement with them. During the summer controversy, she sought to misrepresent by the written word only what she had actually said, but the videotape exposed the truth. This time, Butler ensured there would be only her official statement. Without a videotape of her delivered remarks, we cannot even know for sure that what The Nation printed is even a completely accurate account of what Butler actually said.

Next, in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman, one of the BDS event organizers, provided an account of the student evictions that contradicts public statements even by Brooklyn College.

The organizer of this month’s controversial forum at Brooklyn College who ordered four pro-Israel students ousted from the event said he acted because the students “didn’t belong” in the room, despite having been escorted there by a vice president of the school.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman said he also acted because it seemed to him that the students “were preparing” to circulate flyers to others in the room — not because they were doing so, as a college spokesman previously alleged.

….

Guzman later told The Jewish Week that college administrators “broke the rules. … They basically snuck them in without our knowledge, into the room.”

Amid the declarations of commitment to academic freedom and free inquiry, we see a contradictory pattern. Butler closed her remarks with a moral imperative.

We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.

This is a characteristic, though unusually lucid example of the mystico-poetic theory-talk that emerged from the influence of Martin Heidegger. The notion of “dwelling” is particularly Heideggerian. Heidegger, in his profound considerations of the nature and function of language, distinguished between the practical use of language, in order to do things, and language that seeks deeper meaning, which gives rise to the poetic. Heidegger, we came to learn, failed drastically himself at managing the intersection of these two roles. Many of his linguistic children actually use a version of the poetic – specialized language like “dwell” – united with more generally impenetrable prose to obscure what they advocate doing (what they might call praxis) in the high fashion garb of intellectual mere rumination: I come to consider, not to act. Or in the reverse rhetorical ploy, seeking the same obscurity of action behind the act of speech, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

Butler could more simply have said, in order to promote model democratic behavior, “We need to listen and speak freely and openly with each other, even when we disagree.” Instead, promoting a kind of realm of transformed being, she declares we must “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.” In such a formulation strong disagreement is not merely a democratic difficulty we need to accommodate; it is fractiousness itself that is as much a feature as a bug of this elevated state of dwelling in free inquiry.

That’s the talk. What’s the praxis?

Butler bans cameras and publishes an official statement, which may or may not represent what she actually said, in a house organ – just as would any common polwho has placed into the Congressional “Record” remarks he later amends, or never actually delivered on a congressional floor. Or some Commissar erecting a verbal Potemkin Village of an occurrence. She does not, by any account, speak up to protest when the Brooklyn BDS modus operandi, according to one of the event’s own organizers was clearly not to “dwellcriticallyfractiously, and freely in political discourse together.”

It is a phenomenon always to be observed how a certain kind of missionary critic will become, by backward projection, that which she, or he, critiques. Witness Julian Assange’s efforts to protect his own secrets.

A truth about BDS that it seeks to obscure, and about many fervid opponents of Israel, is that much like the verbal show of intellectual liberty belied by performance above, they mask their fuller intentions under a cloak of civil rights or, here, academic freedom. In the West today, there are many Islamic fundamentalists who will decry any apparent violation of their rights – which in a democracy they should indeed be entitled to do – while, as advocates of Sharia, they do actually believe in those rights at all. During the McCarthy era, those who appeared resistantly before congressional committees commonly stood on either their Fifth or First Amendment rights. They did have rights to do either, but which choice they made – to refuse to disclose their beliefs in self-protection or to assert freely their right to those beliefs – could reveal much about the integrity of the person’s acts and position.

Fundamental to Brooklyn College and its political science department’s defense in sponsoring the BDS event was the claim that sponsorship did not signal endorsement of BDS as a policy. I have already discussed the greater complexity of implication in the sponsorship than such simple disclaimers acknowledge. It appears that every other academic department on the Brooklyn College campus recognized this complexity, too, when all 33 that political science chair Paisley Currah contacted amid the controversy, that they might ratify the political science department in co-sponsorship, declined to do so. Brooklyn College English professor and well-known progressive voice Eric Altermanexplained this refusal.

No doubt many if not most of the supporters of BDS are the naïve, idealistic types of people who were attracted to Communism in the thirties, the Black Panthers in the sixtiess, the Nader campaign in 2000 and who knows what will comes next. In certain respects, once upon a time, I was this kind of person myself. But their innocence—and the abuse that results from opposing them—does not excuse our responsibility to condemn the intellectual masquerade in which BDS engages and the destructive consequences it supports.

BDS leader Omar Barghouti has openly, yet disingenuously stated,

While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.

This is an intellectually preposterous notion, tapping into both the deceitful and self-deceptive etymology of the fallacious. BDS promotes the most aggressively delegitimizing view of Israel’s position, policies, and practices in response to over sixty years of rejection and aggression against it from the Arab world. To advocate for the moral imperative of BDS is to reject Israel’s claims to its history, both ancient and modern, and the legitimacy of its efforts to survive as a Jewish state. Barghouti, in fact, advocates the demise of Israel as a Jewish state. These are not different tracks: the perspective on Israel and the effective goal are the same. The claim of a “separate track” is a declarative shell game so poor and detectable that one can see the ball rolling on the table as it shifts from shell to shell.

More openly, Judith Butler, without the aid of rhetorical railroad switches, openly opposes the existence of Israel.

Despite its claims, what the Brooklyn College political science department sponsored was more than an educational exercise in academic freedom, a demonstration of the free inquiry that is the defining activity of a university. If what the department did was no more than place its imprimatur on the BDS event as one presenting an idea worthy of intellectual consideration and debate, then what the department so offered moral standing to is the idea that Israel, in its historic self-defense, is an outlaw state, an idea promoted by two people who believe that Israel should cease to exist and who are committed to promoting that end. The wild and ludicrous arrogance of all those involved in fulfilling this role lies in the smug sense of entitlement to so threaten the legitimacy and future of a whole nation, the fulfillment of a people’s millennial dream of deliverance, and receive no strong and assertive reaction in response. The burlesque of this academic variety review is to pretend that BDS is mere formulas on a chalkboard, the oscillating multi-verse versus a terminal Big Bang, a symposium on Adam Smith and Karl Marx – when instead it is an activist political campaign against one party to an intractable and existential conflict. And supporters of that party, Israel, are supposed to light their pipes and polish their elbow patches and admire the scholarship.

One truth may be that some academics are so accustomed to the flatulent stink of their own quickly dissipating rhetoric – like Butler’s commitment to dwelling in something or other – that they believe they can engage in political activism in the guise of academic inquiry and receive a free pass from those they act against. They think they get to play pied piper, then claim that all they are doing is putting on a concert. A marked case in point is CUNY doctoral student Kristofer Petersen-Overton, the focus of controversy at Brooklyn College himself two years ago, when he was hired, then unhired, then rehired to teach a grad course on the Middle East.

Writing in the Huffington Post to criticize those who opposed the Brooklyn College BDS event, Petersen-Overton offered the standard disingenuous deceptions, claiming of opponents that they had

managed to transform a standard panel discussion on a controversial issue into a cause for pious outrage.

standard panel discussion of two, not discussants, but advocates. But why quibble over nomenclature. It’s just talk, right?

Petersen-Overton also took issue with Alan Dershowitz, whom he termed a

longtime scourge and chief prosecutor of insufficiently pro-Israel academics everywhere.

Yes, that is it, isn’t it – one draws interest from Dershowitz by being “insufficiently pro.”

Curiously, Paisley Currah, in his defense of his political science department – the department that did, ultimately, by unanimous vote rehire Petersen-Overton to teach – a defense that offered that familiar refrain about the non-meaning of the BDS event sponsorship (also conveyed unanimously – not veryfractious that Poly Sci department, are they), not only vigorously contested Dershowitz’s arguments, but characterized him, in his objections, to start, as one of “the usual suspects.”

Interesting phrase. Usual suspects? In what?

Currah specializes in queer and transgender issues, but Dershowitz is a full-throated advocate of gay rights, so he can’t be suspect in that area. Dershowitz is also a noted advocate of civil liberties, so in that cannot reside the suspicion.

Is it Israel? Is Dershowitz a “usual suspect” in regard to Israel? In what? In his ardent defense of the nation? Suspect?

What leanings does this glib phrase betray? Oh, and Petersen-Overton, about whom the issue of contention two years ago was his capacity for academic objectivity, against his record of Palestinianadvocacy, and a similar body of published work? Writing about BDS just this past October, he said,

In this essay, I take it for granted that Israel’s behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories is characterized by extreme violence and racism, defining qualities of all military occupations. We may or not agree as to the particular details of a desirable settlement, but for those of us uninfluenced by either dogmatic messianism or unrepentant sadism, the occupation must come to an end sooner or later. As activists and scholars who take an interest in human rights, we should be willing to consider the ethical and strategic desirability of all forms of resistance. No discussion should be off-limits.

Here’s to the academic life. And its freedoms.

AJA

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Response to Judith Butler at Brooklyn College

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 15. 

Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti

The ironic and the disingenuous are kin. Their commonality resides in a gap, which is the distance between what is said and something else. With the ironic, the distance is between what one says and what one means. With the disingenuous, the distance is between what one says and what one has reason to recognize as true.

Judith Butler is not an ironist – not intentionally so, or perhaps only once, when she opened her remarks at Brooklyn College by referring to the controversy surrounding her appearance with Omar Barghouti at the Students for Justice in Palestine BDS event as a Megillah: “What a Megillah!” By these words Butler sought to wrap her appearance and the destructive impetus of BDS in the comfort of traditional Jewish experience – a tedium, like the tedium of all that Jewish disputation over the millennia, but by that fact merely a part of Jewish experience, just oystaynenzikh over coffee and some rugelach, and not thereby an outlier, something to fear or be rejected. No more than a variation on the time-honored tendency to hakn a tshaynik among the mishpucha.

Butler knew, however,that what she is about is not a comfort, that it would unravel the wrap, and that the arguments against her are so far from a tedium that she would spend all her words to misrepresent and seek to counter them.

Butler closed her remarks – it is the next to last sentence – so:

We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.

She had opened her remarks by saying,

I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom.

This of an event that was closed to the general public, to which the press was barred, and from which voices presumed to be dissenting were ejected.

What an ironist. How disingenuous.

Academic Freedom: What We’re Talking About

The Brooklyn College political science department claimed that to sponsor the event was not necessarily to endorse it. Much of the controversy surrounding the event has hung on this point even while missing it. It is a fine point still lacking – from the Brooklyn College political science department and anyone else who has written on the matter – an effective distinction.

To sponsor is to take responsibility for or to financially underwrite. To endorse is to express support or approval. To take responsibility for is one form of support. To financially underwrite is also a form of support. When the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine sought co “sponsorship”of the event by the political science department, SJP did not, according to department chair Paisley Currah, seek and receive financial support for the event. Financial support raises other issues, but since there was none, they need not in this instance be addressed. Without funding from the department, what could the meaning of “sponsorship” be? Other than the college’s stating what it claims sponsorship is not – endorsement – what is it?

With no other practical purpose, sponsorship can only signal some form of endorsement.

But endorsement of what?

A university can stand in three relations to an idea. One is to agree with and promote it. Most people would argue that this is not the role of a university, but obviously, when one considers it, universities do agree with and promote the idea of free inquiry – academic freedom – and, arguably, a liberal education.

A university may represent ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. This is its primary role. In political philosophy, students learn of utilitarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, anarcho-syndicalism, Plato’s enlightened autocracy. The university will serve as advocate for none of them, but moderate, instead, students’ encounter and engagement with these ideas.

A university will not represent all ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. It will not so represent Nazism or racism (not just the behavior, but a belief in racial superiority) or pederasty as an acceptable model of adolescent development. It is the precise role of the university, however, to acknowledge, in the appropriate context, all ideas and clarify them for educational purposes. In the appropriate classes, students will and should learn about Nazism, what it advocated and what it was. One can imagine the wavering commitment of many, though, were a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to establish a student group on the Brooklyn College Campus and invite David Duke (both a racist and anti-Semite) to speak, while also seeking the “sponsorship” of the political science department.

If Brooklyn College’s sponsorship was not fully of BDS as a position, an advocacy of it, the sponsorship was at least, then, of BDS as a morally respectable idea, so that a university would be fulfilling its proper role not only in acknowledging the idea’s existence and clarifying it for educational purposes, but actually in promoting the idea as worthy of our consideration and our moral intellectual regard and not beyond the pale.

However, when one rejects bias and discrimination and corrupt historical revisionism, such as Holocaust denial, one does not only reject them as supportable practices, but as ideas worthy of our serious engagement. The role of the university is to permit students who are led to engage an objectionable idea to so engage it, even, where appropriate, to educate them in its nature. In that is the academic freedom. Academic freedom does not require that the institution place an imprimatur of sponsorship upon an extra-mural event, an imprimatur that has no other, practical meaning but the symbolism of the sponsorship. The choice to provide such an imprimatur can only reasonably be interpreted as a signal that the ideas to be presented at the event are worthy of consideration. This Brooklyn College, in mischaracterizing the nature and responsibilities of academic freedom, disingenuously fails to acknowledge, as does Judith Butler, who actually does endorse BDS.

An Unreliable Narrator

“That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers.”

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself

Still prefatory to her actual attention to Israel, Butler felt compelled to acknowledge the Brooklyn College event’s most vocal and high profile critic, stating that it had been asserted that

no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

No doubt, the audience was amused by this deflationary poke. Of course the gibe was at Alan Dershowitz, who it is my understanding is capable of offering his own defenses, but we learn something from the specific claim of the criticism. Here is what Dershowitiz actually said to this point:

The event shouldn’t be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw it’s [sic] support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.

Dershowitz’s focus, we see, was on the political science department’s sponsorship of the event, and he considered it sufficient merely for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. Alternatively, he offered himself or anyone else who could represent the opposing view to participate in the sponsored event.

If Butler cannot accurately represent in a single sentence the content and the rather simple alternative proposal of one single other sentence, how may she be trusted to offer an account of matters so complex and profound as the history and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In the same paragraph, Butler had asserted,

If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech.

She attempts to refute the two proposed claims – Dershowitiz must speak and BDS is hate speech – by presenting them as contradictory.

So in the [case of hate speech], it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the [other] instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening.

In the two quotations above, Butler makes three additional misstatements. First, it may be that in the rhetoric department at U.C. Berkeley hate speech is not protected speech, but in the United States of America, it is protected. It is also, wherever it may direct its hate, a viewpoint. It may be an ugly, emotion laden viewpoint, but it takes a view, and it has a point, and not infrequently in our contentious activist world, movements are constructed around those points.

A ” quick succession of contradictory claims” is surely inimical to informed discussion and debate. So, too, is the inability to accurately describe reality in even a single sentence.

Butler sets next on refuting claims that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. She asks,

[W]hy would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic?… [W]hy would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic?

She introduces her summation of this rhetorical display, with

For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic….

The level of disingenuousness in these loaded questions and distorted characterization is truly remarkable. It is the first demonstration of a fair and critical mind, capable of stepping outside the frame of its own narrative, to be able to represent its interlocutor’s argument in the opponent’s own terms. The challenge then is to refute the terms of the opponent’s argument and offer one’s one own terms in rebuttal. Yet when Butler, a believer in narratives, calls in her closing for us all to “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together,” she is so opaque to herself that even when she assumes the rhetorical stance of stating her opponent’s position, she cannot, even to the level of a lone introductory phrase, represent it honestly, so as to attempt the refutation honestly.

All the preceding is sufficient to demonstrate Butler’s level of reliability as an interlocutor in debate. (There is far more of this kind of inaccuracy and mischaracterization in her five thousand words than is accounted for here.) At Brooklyn College she had two major points to make about Jews, and the first continued this pattern of misrepresentation, but at this stage, in the critical matter of Butler’s own special concerns, more subtly.

Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people.

….

The second point, to repeat, is that the Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated

This argument is both obtuse and a straw man. No significant party, if any, claims that Israel is “the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people” that Israel is “co-extensive with the Jewish people,” or rejects the manifest reality that the “Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and … Zionism.” No more than is France the exclusive representative of the French people or Russia of the Russian people. People of French ethnic origin, like any other, may, and do, live in other nations, may engage French cultural practice, may feel a sense of French identification even while preferring to live elsewhere, may criticize French society or government, may even give up their citizenship for another, while remaining ethnically and even recognizably “French.”

Of course, Jewishness, serving as both ethnicity and religious faith offers conceptual complications for nationality. So does all of human history. The French pied-noir of colonial North Africa found themselves after Algerian independence no longer acceptably Algerian and not comfortably French. Unlike most other nations, nationality in the United States has nothing to do with ethnicity. In contrast, no one expatriating to Russia and gaining Russian citizenship would ever, nonetheless, be considered “Russian.” Those of Irish descent in the U.S. frequently feel very strong identification with Ireland, as during the long conflict in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, they remained American in citizenship and in equally strong identification. They criticized one side or another in Ireland, yet if a grandparent was born in Ireland, are automatically eligible for Irish citizenship. These complexities of social organization are the rule. The question is whether we generously accommodate them – in honor of the impulse toward affective association that leads all peoples, Palestinians, too, to wish to dwell together in commonality –  or we choose one anomaly among others as the reason for prejudicial exception against Israel and Jews, under the pretense that there is any kind of categorical consistency to nationality.

One atypical feature that Butler exploits regarding Israel is the apparent lexical distinction, in English, between the words “Israel” and “Jew.” This is unlike the obvious relation of “France” to “French” and “Russia” to ”Russian.” The apparent verbal separation seems to provide an opening for making just that argument of separation between Israel and Jews. On the contrary of course, etymologically, Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew are the descendents of Jacob, who have struggled with God, the Hebrew people – Jews.

Why are not citizens of the United States called United Statesians? What crisis of authority in representation– if voluntarily accepted – does this present? Would the likeness to other national identifications be easier to recognize if Israel changed its name, to suit the modern lingua franca, to Jewland?

Or would such an alteration only highlight all the more the true issue at the core – the objection by Butler that there be a land for the Jews?

Before Butler got to that central conviction, however – her objection to the existence of a land for the Jews – there was one more logical stumble to make on the way to her lurching conclusion. It is easier to dispense with Israel if one can argue that Israel deserves to be dispensed with.

If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law.

Now certainly all true democrats will acknowledge that every proclaimed democracy faces the moral compulsion to pursue complete and perfect democracy. The United States pursues that so far elusive goal too. But the “if/(then)” conditional Butler puts forward commits the “all or nothing” variation on the fallacy of false dilemma. In full context, she is claiming that Israel is discriminatory toward its non-Jewish citizens. (Butler chooses to say “population” rather than citizens, perhaps because that in itself would speak well of Israel and would raise the inevitable contrast with Lebanon and Jordan, where Palestinians citizenship and rights have been dramatically and increasingly problematic.) Her all or nothing claim is that if Israel has deficiencies in its equal extension of rights to all of its citizens, then, by dint of that imperfection, it is not a democracy at all, and is clearly a deserving target of its critics. We would find by this fallacious logic that probably nary a democracy in the world is actually a democracy, including certainly the United States during the long period of African slavery, the longer period of female and Indian disenfranchisement, and even until today, when LGBT Americans do not enjoy fully equal rights.

Butler’s continuous forays into illogic are not ultimately a difficulty in her arguments against Israel, though, since Israel should not exist to begin.

The Exile of the Jews

The essential argument against BDS that Butler sought to refute is that it is discriminatory, hateful, anti-Semitic, even destructive.

I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement.

Butler claimed that she does not agree with all expressions of the BDS movement, yet she chose to appear with Omar Barghouti. Omar Barghouti expressly seeks the end – the destruction – of  Israel and of a Jewish state.

While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.

Butler also offered a risible protest against the abuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies by defenders of Israel, when anyone conversant with the contemporary contours of this debate knows that such comparisons, of Israel to Nazi Germany, in word and in image, have become a nearly daily commonplace from foes of Israel – even from Omar Barghouti.

Avishai D. Don, writing for the Harvard Crimson almost exactly a year ago on the subject of BDS and Barghouti’s book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, said,

But the BDS movement hides its ultimate goal of dismantling the Jewish state behind its public rhetoric.

….

Utilizing the vocabulary of international norms, the movement actually systematically attempts to undermine the international consensus that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

This is what Butler did disingenuously at Brooklyn College, first, by appearing with Bhargouti, and second, by failing to acknowledge at that college, that educational setting, that she, too, does not merely seek to correct Israeli policy, but actively opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. She did hint at her position, though.

When Zionism becomes co-extensive with Jewishness, Jewishness is pitted against the diversity that defines democracy, and if I may say so, betrays one of the most important ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.

Butler does not explain why the Frenchness of France or the Japaneseness of Japan are not so “pitted against the diversity that defines democracy” that the existence of their states, too, need be opposed. However, she does manage to misrepresent the truth in yet another sentence. Butler refers to one of the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.” What shall we say of thinking that characterizes as an ethical obligation what was actually an existential necessity, a necessity that met its ultimate failure in the Holocaust – a failure that should have served irrefutably for all as the irresistible historical peroration of the necessity of the Jewish state? But Butler has stated on more than one occasion that she does not, in her public utterance and advocacy, feel compelled to seek accordance with reality.

It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.

Butler wrote those words in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, and it is in that work that she fully makes the case for the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition.” Alan Johnson sums the argument in his Fathom review of the book.

Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought ‘not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.’ By returning to the diasporic experience we find a ‘Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation’ and a means to effect ‘a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.’

Words on a page, their reception by the eyes, the scanned processing in rapid succession, for immediate comprehension, of the ideas of a text may not always deliver their full effect. Sometimes what has been said needs to settle, to descend deeper into comprehension with the full weight of meaning and implication, and in some cases, the effrontery of its claim upon the world. Butler argues not only that Jews drew from the Diaspora, their long exile in often and ultimately almost always hostile foreign lands, the experience and insights of an expanded and deeper moral nature. Butler is arguing, too, that this exilic nature has finally actually become the Jews: consigned to exile, Jews should now be condemned to it, for clearly there are millions of Jews who do not wish it. This is of no concern to Butler, for whom impossibility is no bar to reason, like labeling as a “solution” the kind of proposal that millions would fight and even die to prevent.

Jews, for Judith Butler, are to become the symbolic sacrifice on the ideational alter of post-nationalism, for their renewed exile will represent “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.” The God of Abraham and of Moses would let his people go. Cyrus the Great would release the Jews from captivity in Babylon. But Judith Butler will exile them forever.

Who today would theorize that the African Diaspora, having been stolen from their homes and submerged in the depths of servitude had actually – look at the riches of culture they have produced out of their pain and endurance in so many nations – found their true and greater natures in an ethic of selfless service, to which perhaps they should return? Who would philosophize that the indigenous populations of the world – those whom Butler and her allies continue to abuse by co-opting the vocabulary of their cause as a weapon against not Israel, but Jews – who would argue that in their centuries of conquest, abuse, and loss, their alienation from spiritual relation to their lands, indigenous peoples have been transformed by history into a moral exemplar, and that only through their continued disconnection and their yearning for reconnection can they serve to lead us away from materialism and back to a purer relation to the earth?

But Jews should be returned to exile from the land that was, and is again, their own in order to model “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.”

Butler  finds difficulty with the term ant-Semitic. She argued repeatedly at Brooklyn College against its use and applicability to the selective and discriminatory policies she promotes. It has become, to her mind, a term subject to “radical misuse.” Here is another term, then, to describe her convolution of Jewishness, perhaps fresher and more forceful to her mind. It is an obscenity.

AJA

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The Israeli-Palestinian Textbook Study Fraud

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 8. 

Palestinian children march during the 39th anniversary celebration of the founding of Fatah.

You think you’re a person of good will and fair minded. You are a strong and aggressive advocate for Israel against its many and varied enemies, malicious or misguided, but you are not single-minded: you support two states for two peoples – Jews and Palestinians – both with ancient historic claims to their presence on the land, and have always opposed the settlement project. Even more, however, you have committed yourself to opposing, wherever it reveals itself, the vile and unyielding hatred and rejection of Jews that disfigures Arab societies and humanity. Still you wish always to be fair and intellectually honest: this six decades long dance of aggression and defense, of control and resistance has been unavoidably a test of everyone’s empathy. Even those on your side – those of whom you are one, the Jews, those whom you support and whose greater justice and openness to resolution of the conflict is recorded on every page of the historical record – even they, for they are human, will err, will convince themselves of a falsehood, will stand defensively resistant to the evidence that disproves some dearly held conviction.

When, then, you read of a scholarly study – “Victims of our own Narratives?” it is called – the results of which appear to disprove just such a crucial conviction, that Palestinian educational materials incite hatred of Jews, you brace yourself. You have seen the videos of very young Palestinian children inculcated through song and pageantry in the murderous glorification of suicidal “martyrdom.” You have seen the parades and dedication ceremonies with the speeches in honor of people who fought no armies, but have blown up, instead, buses with civilians and children on them. (If torture of Al-Qaeda leaders was a stain on American moral distinction, what corruption of the soul is it to stand in celebration of the dismembered bodies in pizza parlors?) You could go on and on.

Still, you tell yourself, you could be deluded – the victim of a comforting, but false narrative – about the totality of this demonization. Who can ever be immune? How many stories of the past, repeated in chorus after chorus, become a substitute for actual memory? Prepare yourself, you say. Be honest. Judge the evidence as it reveals itself. The truth is great and complex. It needs no lies to champion its ascendance.

You read of the study’s supervisor, Bruce Wexler, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Yale. You read of the balance of nationalities of those who work on the study, and of the advisory board of distinguished figures. There is the balance, too, and the distinction, of the lead researchers, Palestinian scholar Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, and Israeli Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University. The study was commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and even financially underwritten by the U.S. State Department. It all shapes an impressive imprimatur.

The results?

Academic Study Weakens Israeli Claim That Palestinian School Texts Teach Hate,” headlines The New York Times.

Textbook Study Debunks Myth of Palestinian Incitement,” asserts Al-Monitor, the sexy new voice of Middle East reportage.

Textbooks show both sides to blame for enmity,” reports The Jerusalem Post.

Textbook study faults Israelis and Palestinians,” the Associated Press informs with balance.

Both Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks largely present one-sided narratives of the conflict between the two peoples and tend to ignore the existence of the other side, but rarely resort to demonization, a U.S. State Department-funded study released Monday said.

Even, already, the story – to speak of narratives – is told on Wikipedia.

A comprehensive three year study (2009-2012), regarded by its researchers as ‘ the most definitive and balanced study to date on the topic,’[4][5] found that incitement, demonization or negative depictions of the other in children’s education was “extremely rare” in both Israeli and Palestinian school texts, with only 6 instances discovered in over 9,964 pages of Palestinian textbooks, none of which consisted of “general dehumanising characterisations of personal traits of Jews or Israelis”.[4]

Oh, dear, you think.

Be a man, you tell yourself.

You continue to read, whatever you can. Maybe you seek an escape hatch. Let us be honest about that. Because we are all being honest in all we do here, are we not? But you also know that in this matter – in all matters, of course, but especially in this matter of Israel and of Jews – it is wise always to read a little more, learn a little more, know something more. You learn that Israel’s Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar has rejected the study out of hand. That is troubling. Such a reputable academic study, simply dismissed. This will look bad, and rightly so.

And then you read of Bruce Wexler’s response to the rejection.

“That man cannot see beyond the blinders that have come into his mind by developing as a product of a national narrative that can’t understand the types of things we’re talking about here, and by the way, national leaders who have those blind spots, like he does, make for poor and dangerous national leaders.”

You pause. You think, something is not right about that comment, its tone and its condemnation. Where is the scholarly temperament? Where is the neutrality? Surely, Wexler, a professor of psychiatry who is seeking accurate descriptions of reality, whatever they may be, committed to the tale told by the evidence and not invested in the climax – surely he would understand that an outcome upending the firm beliefs of only one party under study would be disturbing. He would anticipate that. And his role, his neutral and scholarly role, would be, surely, to defend and advocate for the integrity of his study, in the long term interest of advancing knowledge, but not to attack those under study for failing to acquiesce in the study’s conclusion. How often do researchers treat the subjects of their study with contempt?

Something not right.

And you wonder about “blinders that have come into his mind by developing as a product of a national narrative that can’t understand the types of things we’re talking about here.” You wonder, is that a response merely to Sa’ar’s dismissal of the study? Because it does seems to reveal an already existing perspective.

Let’s read some more, you tell yourself. Let’s see if this leads anywhere.

You begin to read from varied sources widely varying reports on the number of textbooks studied, from “3,000 texts, illustrations and maps,” in the notoriously biased Guardian, by the notoriously biased Harriet Sherwood, to various reports of four hundred plus Israeli textbooks to only one hundred plus Palestinian. The account apparently most familiar with the contents of the study puts the number at 74 Israeli books and 94 Palestinian. Already we see wildly imprecise or misreporting. Perhaps there were various levels of more focused scrutiny? By what process of selection?

ABC News reports,

The study analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books, covering grades 1-12 and teaching social sciences, geography, literature, religion, Arabic and Hebrew. The Israeli books were from state-run secular and religious schools, as well as independent ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. The vast majority of the Palestinian books were used in government schools, and only six in private Islamic schools.

All accounts tell us the same: that the Israeli textbooks were selected both from public schools and “ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools,” presumably with the expectation, reportedly borne out, that a higher level of religio-ethnocentric characterization would appear in the Orthodox books.  ABC notes above that only six textbooks were from private Islamic schools and no account you read even addresses whether any textbooks were drawn from Hamas controlled Gaza. If it seemed important to select – and announce the selection – textbooks from ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, anticipating some extremity of representation, or at least thinking it a distinct segment of society requiring discrete inclusion, then why would there not be the same call with Hamas? You read in the Guardian, too, that Israel’s Arabic texts for Israeli Arab schools were not included in the study. You think to yourself that somehow – really having no idea how – such an inclusion might be very instructive. You think you are detecting a number of questionable omissions.

Then you read that the study, its authors claim,

employs a new methodology to produce a transparent, simultaneous, comprehensive and scientifically rigorous analysis.

Central to this methodology was to identify and count “negative” portrayals of “the other.” You think that there is a fair degree of subjective and not “scientifically rigorous” evaluation involved in consideration of what constitutes “negative,” but you go on. When you go on, you discover, for instance, that statements of fact such as, teaching about Iraqi pogroms,

[o]n the holiday of Shavuot, Arabs attacked Jews and murdered them, including women and children

are evaluated as negative. As is

[t]error struck again and again, and reached a climax in the period after the war with the murders of 13 students and teachers from Moshav Avivim on their way to school (May 1970) and 11 athletes at the Munich Olympics (September 1972).

Just as is the judgmental (and factually incorrect)

Zionism is “a colonialist political movement founded by the Jews of Europe in the second half of the 19th century… [intent on] displacing the Palestinian people in Palestine from their land.”

Or would be “Jews are the descendants of pigs and apes.”

You begin to realize that this new “transparent” and “comprehensive” methodology is actually not very new and now very common. Though, yes, it is transparent. As can frequently be found in a similar misconception of objective reporting, this methodology counts only occurrences and claims, but does not interpret their meanings or assess their truth. Simply, Mr. Churchill claims and Mr. Hitler denies the claim. Were such an objective and “scientifically rigorous” approach taken to the analysis of current or historical events, both Mein Kampf and all of Winston Churchill’s various speeches over the course of the 1930’s warning of the dangerous militaristic rise of Germany would simply be counted, with no further assessment, as “negative” depictions of “the other.”

Of course, the details of the study are many and much greater, but confidence in its quality is crumbling. But how can this be, from such highly qualified people? So you seek to educate yourself about the figures behind the study.

Bruce Wexler, you discover, is the founder of A Different Future, an NGO committed (as are we all?) to seeking peace in the Middle East. Fundamental to its vision is the equalizing belief that

Extremist minorities perpetuate the conflict in pursuit of their own agendas.… Acts of cooperation that humanize the “other” and build trust get little exposure while extremist groups receive free media coverage worth millions of dollars. [Emphasis in the original]

Wexler has written Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social ChangeAccording to MIT Press,

In Brain and Culture, Bruce Wexler explores the social implications of the close and changing neurobiological relationship between the individual and the environment, with particular attention to the difficulties individuals face in adulthood when the environment changes beyond their ability to maintain the fit between existing internal structure and external reality. These difficulties are evident in …the meeting of different cultures…and the phenomenon of interethnic violence.

You begin to understand better now Wexler’s response to Sa’ar. If one is party to conflict, if one believes in one’s position in the conflict and rejects attempts to make disappear through “scientific” study the human reality you live in that conflict, then you are ipso facto determined not by your critical analysis of your circumstances, but by neurobiological disability “to maintain the fit between existing internal structure and external reality.” You protest, the psychiatrist tells you, too much.

What about those co-leaders of the study, you wonder, Adwan and Bar-Tal? Like Wexler, they are academics of impressive certification and residence. What you discover, though, is that Adwan is co-directors of PRIME – the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East – the prime project of which is the “Dual-Narrative History Project” the proposal of which is “’Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative’ in Israeli and Palestinian Schools.”

Adwan and the late Dan Bar-On, an Israeli who was co-director of PRIME and who was strikingly unsympathetic to the Israeli view of the conflict, co-authored a book, Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.

Adwan’s co-director of the textbook study, Bar-Tal, is author of book reminiscent of Wexler’s:Intractable Conflicts: Socio-Psychological Foundations and Dynamics.

A commonality begins to come into view: researchers in the field of peace and conflict resolution studies who conceive of conflict as misunderstanding that has been locked into neurobiological and socio-psychological dynamics. It is the project, you begin to see clearly, of Wexler’s work and of Adwan’s and Bar-Tal’s to erase distinction and difference, to establish parity between Israeli and Palestinian narratives, so that neither can claim the high ground of greater truth. Working from the belief that conflict is the product of misunderstanding, the researchers reduce the historical record and the current ideas of antagonists to hardened circuitry and narratives mistaken for reality. Everyone is the same in misunderstanding, and if we can let go of all the pain and the grievance (here – here’s a tissue – have a good cry), then all that stands between Israelis and Palestinians is the land.

You understand now that Wexler, Adwan, and Bar-Tal have their own narrative of the world, and of the world of Israel-Palestine, and not very remarkably they have written that narrative into their study.

But it is worse.

You realize this is all a dead end. You realize it is an intellectual boondoggle, a scientific research Goldstone Report. The researchers, biased to begin, not just against Israel’s position in the conflict, but against the conceptual ground of Israel’s position – that conflict can be the product of intention, and not simply of misunderstanding – produced results through highly questionable and even absurd procedures that confirmed what they already believe and that shape a lens through which they already see the conflict. Yet as always, such an account is self-contradictory

The researchers’ motivating conception is that conflict, rather than intentional and contentious, is the product of parallel and dueling narratives that cannot read each other. The conclusion of the textbook study –  which based on all you have now learned about the intellectual drives of the researchers, is believed, if not even intended, to apply not just to education, but all Israeli claims of Palestinian incitement – is that Israeli claims about Palestinian educational practice constitute a false narrative that Israelis have become habituated to read and recite. Israeli claims of an objective record of rejection and offense are a chimera. But when Bruce Wexler feels antagonized by Gideon Sa’ar’s rejection of Wexler’s study, that is no chimera or false narrative, no hardening of the neurobiological circuitry, but an actual offense that Wexler will objectify as the “blinders” in Sa’ar’s mind, blinders that make Sa’ar, in Wexler’s doubtless judgment “dangerous.” But Israelis have no ground upon which to call Palestinians a danger to them. That is just a story.

Another story, related by Palestinian advocates, is that the power imbalance between the two parties obviates the normal expectation of equality of action and reaction between them. This is even the rationale of so many for the obsessive concentration on Israel and what it does and does not do to advance the cause of peace, with little consideration of Palestinian behavior. Israel’s greater power, according to this argument, its military might and control, is already a kind of precondition to negotiation and resolution that Palestinians must meet, so the Palestinian side, excused in its passivity, is entitled as well to demand some other, more common and particular, equalizing precondition, such as a halt to settlement construction. Viewed through this lens, Palestinian preconditions are not one-sided and unequal demands at all, but equalizers of human and political dynamics.

However, there is a different lens through which to view what is actually a contrary truth. For while in this peace-promoting vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict what the two sides want is the same – self-determination for their people in lands of their own – what they have to barter with in the negotiation of their futures is far from the same. What the Israelis have, that the Palestinians want and bargain for, is land and control over it. What the Palestinians have and Israel bargains not to gain, but eliminate, is hatred, rejection, and violence without limits. But the concrete concession of land and authority, once given, are not easily regained, not without great cost, while the surcease of hatred is an achievement poorly measured, and rejection and the violence easily resumed.

Israelis can see Gaza from where they live, you think. Can Bruce Wexler?

In this Palestinian power of negation – a six decade commitment to privation, and to withholding from Israel, at whatever cost, fulfillment of Israel’s dream of an end to enmity, of the accomplishment of normalcy and the elimination of the existential question – it is, through a different window on the world, Palestinians, actually, who hold the power: “The Al-Qassam Brigades love death more than you love life.”

You conclude that this latest  “peace and justice charade” is part of the ever expanding campaign to delegitimize not just Israel today, but the ancient and modern history of Israel, and the truth of the unprecedented enmity against Israel, and of the six decades of conflict forced upon it. It is the “scientific” arm of a widening campaign. The campaign seeks to test, through also political and international organization, linguistic and conceptual manipulation, reimagination of old caricature and stereotype, legal warfare, groupthink and more whether through sheer force of ideological will, reality can be inverted, the history of a people and a nation perverted, and the day be made the night.

It is not, you think, as if it has not been done before.

AJA

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