The Israel lobby in the US has had its hands full recently trying to get its agenda of total US support of hardline Israeli government policies implemented, and is fighting back rising criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as well as of its own role in influencing US foreign policy. In doing so it has become much more visible than it once was and has been subjected to much more criticism.
This is a dramatic switch whose origins can be traced to 2007 and the publication of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt, that brought the topic of the lobby out of the shadows and into the open. The predictable smear campaign against them as anti-Semites in order to shut them up not only failed to gain traction, it made the heavy handed-tactics of the lobby itself a focus of discussion. (I have a detailed review of the book here, here, and here for those who do not have access to the book.)
The lobby is still a potent force in US politics but not as much as before as can be seen from recent setbacks. It has failed in its attempts (so far at least) in trying to foment a US attack on Iran. It then resorted to trying to sabotage the P5+1 talks with Iran by trying to get the US Congress to increase sanctions on Iran while the talks were still going on, thus guaranteeing their collapse. But when it encountered strong public opinion against the move and a statement by president Obama that he would veto it, they had to reverse course and persuade their many clients in Congress not to try and ram it through.
The latest setback for the lobby was when the American Studies Association (ASA) in December 2013 voted by a 2-1 margin in favor of a resolution condemning “the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians” and that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students”. The resolution called for a ban on “formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions” and that are “a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students”. The ASA also published an editorial comment along with statements from prominent members.
While not explicitly endorsing the BDS movement, the resolution supported some if its goals. The BDS movement gained wide publicity when Stephen Hawking canceled a visit to Israel to attend a conference. Elizabeth Redden has an article in Inside Higher Ed that explains why academic organizations like the ASA are taking the calls for boycott seriously.
This has resulted in the lobby pulling out all the stops to punish the ASA lest other academic groups get the same idea. They surely do not want to see a repeat of something similar to the academic boycott of South Africa during its apartheid era. Members of the lobby have pushed for the US Congress to pass laws withholding funds from organizations that support the boycott. The New York State Senate passed a bill banning state aid to groups that support the boycott but that seems to have stalled in the lower house as a result of protests against such a move. It is quite extraordinary to try to make the government act against a scholarly association purely for passing a resolution.
But the lobby is active on other fronts as well. When the Modern Languages Association (MLA) ran a panel at their recent conference titled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine” merely to explain what the BDS movement was all about without even having a boycott resolution before it, they received a barrage of criticism. The president of the organization Marianne Hirsch said, “I became the target of an intimidation campaign that took the form of hate-email blasts, public attacks, personal letters and phone calls, and insistent appeals to stop one of the convention’s 800 sessions before it was held.”
As she says:
The specific resolution on the agenda of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly concerned restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Those restrictions are documented on the U.S. State Department website, and the resolution asked the MLA to urge the State Department to “contest” them.
The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution.
As a daughter of Holocaust survivors and as someone who has been doing scholarly work on the cultural memory of the Holocaust for over two decades, I was viscerally upset to read these accusations and to see Nazi propaganda images on my computer screen. But I was more disheartened by how American Jewish organizations and their members insisted on violating the painful history of Jews, including that of my parents, to foreclose discussion of the policies of the state of Israel and their impact on Israeli and Palestinian education.
The irony is, as she says, that the MLA is particularly suited to have this kind of discussion.
When it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, discussion is curtailed before it begins. In a debate that is structured to allow only two clear-cut sides, words lose their meaning. And logic is twisted to stifle expression. Russell Berman, a professor at Stanford, said at an alternative panel, held off-site during the convention: “Criticism of Israeli policies or Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. But the mere fact that one has anti-Zionist views does not prove that one is not anti-Semitic.”
Some words have become so inflammatory that their mere mention unleashes the extreme reactions we’ve been witnessing. “Boycott” is such a word, and, if we could discuss the constellation of issues to which that term applies, we could also put into historical perspective the call to boycott by Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. We could sort out how limited the practical effects of a boycott of institutions rather than individuals by scholarly associations like the ASA would be. We could sort out the ethics and politics of boycott as symbolic action. And we could explore alternative means of expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, means that might be less divisive.
Many people have questioned the MLA’s right to intervene in politics. But isn’t it precisely our linguistic expertise that could help sort out the irreconcilable meanings of words, their irresponsible deployment, and the practices of silencing that ensue? [My italics-MS]
Hirsch concludes her piece by pointing out that it is role of academic organizations to have these difficult conversations and not avoid them for fear of repercussions.
To create the space for the difficult conversations we need to have now and in the future, we must get beyond the silences imposed in the name of academic freedom. We need our academic leaders, our university presidents, not to condemn our scholarly associations, but rather to protect our right to have and to sponsor those important conversations free from harassment campaigns and pre-emptive threats.
As we can see, there is movement in that direction. Conversations about Israel and the distorting effects of the lobby on that conversation that were unthinkable just a decade ago are now happening even within the formerly closed major establishment media much more frequently and by a much wider variety of people.