A friend in the academy pointed me to a new faculty organization founded to confront the BDS “menace” and the threats to Israel’s existence on campus. Israel and the Academy (IA) seems to be a group centered around Cary Nelson, perennial campus Israel advocate. Under Publications, the site lists only one: Nelson’s upcoming, Dreams Deferred, his supposed “guide” to BDS. The IA website was registered in April 2016.
There are, of course, a number of pro-Israel faculty groups, chief among them Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). Former UC Chancellor Marc Yudoff also founded the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), a high-profile, well-funded (by the Schusterman Foundation) anti-BDS group. A number of the IA Advisory Board members are affiliated with SPME and/or AEN. Signatories to the new group include:
Russell Berman Stanford
Paul Scham University of Maryland
Debra Dash Moore University of Michigan
Naomi Sokoloff University of Washington
There are also two somewhat odd signatories: Alan Johnson, who is editor of BICOM’s hasbara publication, Fathom. BICOM is the UK’s version of Aipac. Second is Menachem Kellner, teaches at Israel’s Shalem College, the academic offshoot of the pro-Likud Shalem Center.
I suppose what’s new about IA is that is laser-focused (as they say) on BDS. Its purpose appears to be to provide curriculum and pedagogical tools to rebut the claims of BDS. Its mission statement reads in part:
Enriched with content provided by hundreds of faculty members across the world, Israel in the Academy aims to educate, inform, and empower those who believe in the existence and legitimacy of a secure and democratic homeland for the Jewish people and who are convinced that that goal can only be secured by providing for the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. To make that possible we must bring an end to efforts to delegitimize Israel and to prevent the mutual empathy and dialogue that we see as essential to negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We also need to increase and enrich both historical knowledge and knowledge of the contemporary scene.
Israel and the Academy is a natural outgrowth of the MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, a voluntary organization that stands for the universal principle of academic freedom. The group was founded to analyze and organize opposition to efforts within the Modern Language Association to abridge academic freedom through boycotts and other means. Israel and the Academy seeks to support such efforts across the humanities and social sciences while also providing pedagogical resources to further discourse and understanding surrounding modern day Israel and its historical context.
This statement actually mentions the word “Palestinians.” But there is no consideration in it of the interests of Palestinians. The name of the group itself, Israel and the Academy, gives away where its true sympathies lie.
There is the unsubstantiated claim that BDS somehow removes the possibility for mutual empathy in resolving the conflict. But with the pro-Israel advocacy of the group being clear, I don’t see any empathy by these faculty for the Palestinians themselves. So how do they propose to solve the conflict without that?
When I shared the mission statement with several faculty I know, one noted the “error” in a formulation above. In effect, those who support this statement don’t support a Jewish state, since they advocate a: “secure and democratic homeland for the Jewish people.” As anyone who has above average reading comprehension knows (apparently not the academic who wrote this), this mentions a “democratic,” but not “Jewish,” homeland. It doesn’t even mention a “Jewish state,” which is the standard hasbara/Likudist formulation. If that’s what they meant (they didn’t), then I’m all for it. I see Israel as a homeland for two peoples. It can be a single democratic state as well for both.
The Haaretz article linked above does refer to a “Jewish state” in quoting the mission statement:
According to its mission statement, Israel and the Academy “aims to educate, inform and empower those who believe in the existence of a secure and democratic Jewish state…”
Which indicates some confusion on IA’s part and points to the slapdash nature of the enterprise.
As a former PhD candidate in comparative literature I’m all in favor of integrating politics and social analysis into literary discourse. But this seems an especially sloppy and artificial attempt to offer pro-Israel professors tools to indoctrinate their students. Nor have I ever seen faculty who favor BDS circulate materials to inject their own political point of view into the classroom.
Supporters of the MLA campaign to endorse BDS have launched their own website. It’s worth a visit.
One of IA’s members, Russel Berman, lectured at the University of Washington under the auspices of SPME. One of the goals he mentioned in his talk was to “model civil discourse.” In light of the successful campaign to drive Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois, his pro-Israel opponents propounded a theory that the subject of Israel and Palestine required “civil discourse.” Faculty who violated this artificial code were somehow trespassing on this ‘sacred’ value. In truth, they were violating a truly sacred principle of free speech and open academic discourse.
Note the mission statement above upholds “academic freedom,” which supposedly will be stifled by boycotts. No word here about the damage to Prof. Salaita’s career based on claims that his speech violated some sort of academic code. In other words, the pro-Israel academy wants its cake and to eat it too: BDS violates academic freedom; but professors who support BDS should lose theirs.
Yet another irony of Berman’s UW talk was that during the Q & A period he took a question about campus Palestinian solidarity activists and said: “they’re nuts!” So much for modeling civil discourse.