Israel Denial: Doing Something Positive to Fight Academic Lies
A new book has just been published. Israel Denial seeks to take the rug out from beneath the feet of scholars pushing vilification of Israel and promoting discrimination against Israeli institutions by discriminating against Israeli faculty and students. This is an important book for those who want to be equipped with fighting what is called academic BDS, a misnomer for what is really happening. It is just plain discrimination and suppression of freedom of expression, academic silencing, perhaps even guerilla warfare conducted via the automatic legitimacy afforded those who walk the halls of higher learning.
Cary Nelson, author of Israel Denial, has a long history of activism alongside teaching and research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In an email, he told me that his:
. . . first involvement in the effort to oppose boycotts dates to the 2006-2007 academic year, when the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly first debated a resolution to boycott Israeli universities. I stood up in a large meeting and opposed them, but also mocked their arguments. Reporters in the room reported what I said; then one thing led to another. There were many unsettling developments thereafter; I had spent 20 years helping to organize grad student unions from coast to coast, but I gave up after many joined the BDS campaign. I had many friends on the left who turned against Israel and stopped talking to me.
Being rejected by friends on the left is an experience common to many who support Israel in spite of the fact that some of those who support Israel can be considered on the left as well. I think that Nelson would say he is liberal. In his book, he certainly comes off as a leftist, at least to this Israeli reviewer, in any case.
He is a unique leftist – one who invests much in examining the evidence behind his views. That should not be so unique for an academic; it should be par for the course. Unfortunately, academia has become toxic and superficial where Israel is concerned. And Nelson’s 427-page tome (plus another 120 pages of notes and the index) sets out to change the nature of the discourse.
Nelson has visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) many times. He has met with academics in both. I do not think that many other scholars can claim a similar investment of time and resources to do their research on the topic in the field. In fact, Nelson told me:
It is astonishing how unwilling the hard core BDS activists are to consider anything other than what they have memorized. They resort to personal insults, often rather vulgar ones. On the other hand, there are thousands of people who have no idea how shoddy some BDS so-called scholarship is and people sympathetic to Israel or supportive of a 2-state solution need the evidence they can use to dispute pseudo-scholarship.
We see an example of the slogan-based arguments in-a-nutshell on the BDS website:
Israeli universities are major, willing and persistent accomplices in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
These have become catchwords that apparently need no definition or explanation: occupation, settler-colonialism, apartheid. But, along with other undisputed propaganda bytes, Nelson does thoroughly examine these oh-so-fashionable terms in depth. The centerpiece of his book is a four-chapter well-documented critique of four authors of “shoddy . . . BDS so-called scholarship” that university presses have published in book form, giving them a legitimacy that I dare say would not have passed the reviewers’ desks without having been debunked and rejected before Israel became equated with evil incarnate.
Judith Butler, a gender theorist and political philosopher, has long been influential and remains so. Her reputation rests upon solid earlier research and carries over to her new field of Israel bashing. In Israel Denial, Nelson claims that:
More than any other faculty member, Butler works to persuade people that anti-Zionism must be at the core of any credible contemporary ethical system. (Page 71)
And, in fact, Nelson began his examination of the academic Israel bashers with her. In 2014, he wrote his first critique of her work and has been reworking and revising this piece over the years between that earlier chapter in a book published in 2015 and this new one.
On the first page of his review of the 2015 edited volume, David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Stanford University, accused Nelson of “an ad homina attack on Judith Butler” but he never defined ad homina attack and gave no examples of such in the remainder of his review. This is exactly what academic BDS “scholars” do: they attack without providing back-up for their bombastic statements. Furthermore, Palumbo-Liu should know that there is no such term as ad homina; the correct spelling is ad hominem. That the journal that published his review let that one slip through, uncorrected, hints at a similarly shoddy review process.
Ad hominem means attacking the person making an argument rather than engaging in debate about the ideas raised in the argument. Just like I saw no evidence of any personal attacks on Butler in Palumbo-Liu’s review, the chapter critiquing her writing in Israel Denial was similarly devoid of it. What the reader gets is a principled and detailed analysis of her claims with research documentation to support the issues he raises.
As we saw above, in the one sentence quoted from the BDS website:
. . . it only takes a sentence to register an accusation, . . . (Israel Denial, Page 261)
And then Nelson goes on to say that:
. . . it may take weeks of research and many pages to refute it definitively.
That is what the book seeks to accomplish: to invest time in the research and the writing in order to point out the deficiencies and distortions served up as academic professionalism.
Both Elder of Zion and Abu Yehuda discuss Nelson’s treatment of four of the major so-called scholarly Israel bashers, Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi and Jasbir Puar. I see no need to repeat what they have written and happily refer you to their articles.
Israel Denial is most certainly a worthy reference book to have to develop a proficiency in debating with academics who discriminate against Israel and against individual Israeli academicians even though they claim not to do the latter. Nelson provides enough documented examples of discrimination against individual Israeli faculty and students and I could add another few examples from people I know personally.
Those discriminated against often share the views regarding the so-called occupation and infringement of Palestinian Arab human rights with those who refuse to collaborate with them. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the long term, because actions have consequences. Will Israeli leftwing academics begin to challenge the lies and superficialities of their accusers or will they double down on their opposition to Israeli government policies as the BDS movement is hoping will happen? I do not think Nelson took on this question but it is an interesting and important one to follow up on, I think.
In form mirroring comparative literature studies, Nelson sets up an interesting paired chapter section: Teaching for hostility versus teaching for empathy. The first examines the contemporary norm of teaching with the goal of delegitimizing the State of Israel. Nelson presents course syllabi and tactics used by instructors to suppress alternative views. The second chapter in this pair offers an alternative: teaching the poetry of both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs in order to gain deeper understanding of the psyches of both sides of the conflict.
Nelson notes (and there is a lot of documentation supporting this outside of his book) that before the 1967 Six-Day War, the Arabs of what Jordan called The West Bank identified as Arabs and only after Israel won the war and they fell under Israeli jurisdiction did the Palestinian identity begin to be adopted by the people. Therefore, the trajectories of Israeli and Palestinian Arab poetry will be quite different. But that need not prevent a comparative study. Nelson suggests that:
Poetry . . . has special power to promote nuance and subtlety. The kinds of courses that most regularly provide an alternative to the Manichean goals of those described in the previous chapter [on teaching for hostility] are courses that place Jewish and Palestinian historical narratives side by side. (Page 295)
I would argue that there is value in a comparative study of Jewish and Palestinian Arab poetry, not for the “historical” narratives, because narratives are stories people tell themselves and not necessarily faithful to history, but for the emotional depth and perspective offered by the poets, for the nuance and subtlety. It would be challenging for students and instructors alike and the value in such a venture is precisely that challenge. There are problems in the offerings Nelson presents (discussed more thoroughly in Elder of Zion), but I value this chapter as an important invitation to think outside the box.
Nelson also challenges the Israel bashers’ claim that it is the Israeli “occupation” that restricts academic freedom in the universities in the PA by examining suppression of freedom on the part of the Palestinian leadership. He gives examples of what happens to Palestinian professors who dare to promote critical thinking, who dare to humanize the Jews, thereby suggesting that normalizing relations with Israel might be a possibility they might hope for. If Israel-bashing academics are concerned, truly concerned, about the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students, then they should be concerned that the leadership of the PA does not allow such freedom.
I did my own mini-study of the situation in the PA in 2016 and published it on my website. I wrote to PA universities, posing as a Canadian interested in entering one of their programmes offered to foreigners. Their responses to me, a potential tuition-paying student, were very different from what they tell academics intent on delegitimizing Israel (see here and here). It is easy, without leaving the comfort of your own desk, to examine claims that Israel suppresses travel of Palestinian students and faculty to international conferences and ability for PA institutions of higher learning to invite international scholars to teach in the PA. All one needs to do is open the annual reports of the universities as I did for this article. The universities have to prove their effectiveness to potential donors and this is done quite in the open at the same time that they feed lies to naïve or duplicitous Israel bashers. Nelson has done a great service to fighting these lies with his chapter inviting others to examine what really happens on campuses in the PA – the good as well as the bad.
The biggest problem I have with Israel Denial is where Nelson writes about the Two-State-Solution. He justifies attention to this topic as a way out of the unending cycle of mutual hostility between the Israel bashers and the Israel supporters that goes nowhere. The book begins with the Two-State-Solution and ends with the Two-State-Solution. It is a huge distraction and totally unnecessary to this volume. Were I so inclined, I could critique these chapters as thoroughly as he has critiqued Butler et al.
Particularly problematic is the fact that Nelson does not include in his discussion other ideas that have been raised that are outside the one-state/two-state dichotomy, such as Mordechai Kedar’s suggestion for an emirates arrangement. No discussion on possible peace arrangements is complete without including such alternatives. I suggest that future editions of this book leave that topic out altogether and that Nelson apply his energies to putting together an entire book documenting and exploring the relative potentials for all the various alternatives for achieving peace that have been proposed to date. Perhaps this might even lead him to raise his own unique proposal unlike what has already been put on the table.
University students around the world have typically been instrumental in societal criticism and change. They protested apartheid in South Africa, civil rights denied to African Americans, communist suppression of society in China at Tiananmen Square, anti-Russian protests in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the Paris riots of 1968, and more. The contemporary banners of protest are directed against Israel. Nelson writes:
. . . the [BDS] movement offers students and faculty in North America and Europe opportunities to feel good about themselves, and to take symbolic actions that announce they stand for an abstract principle of justice. (Page 22)
And in order to continue to support the delegitimization of Israel, they need to deny, either willfully or naively, the purposes of the founders of the BDS movement – the erasure of Israel from the world map. Nelson comes along and says: Open your eyes, open your minds, be curious, be critical, evaluate your own assumptions. He does not tell the reader WHAT to think, but he does say THINK! Think for yourselves. And in his critiques of four of the major Israel bashers, in his examination of PA suppression of academic freedom, in his suggestion for a new course of comparative poetry, he shows how it is done. I do hope that Israel Denial reaches its intended audience.
Photo credit: Image of Cary Nelson taken from his personal website.