What the boy­cotts are telling Is­rael

The Covington News - - OPINION - Richard Co­hen’s is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group and can be reached at co­henr@wash­post.com.

Yet another aca­demic group is mulling cen­sur­ing Is­rael. This time it is the Mod­ern Lan­guage As­so­ci­a­tion. Just re­cently, it was the Amer­i­can Stud­ies As­so­ci­a­tion, which called for a boy­cott of Is­raeli aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions. Be­fore that, sim­i­lar res­o­lu­tions were passed by Euro­pean aca­demic as­so­ci­a­tions, much con­cerned with Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank. Th­ese are asi­nine move­ments in all but one re­spect: They tell Is­rael what it needs to hear.

As many Amer­i­can academics have pointed out, th­ese res­o­lu­tions vi­ti­ate aca­demic free­dom, which, as it hap­pens, abounds on Is­raeli cam­puses but not on those of its neigh­bors, lovely Syria for in­stance. The illogical logic of the boy­cotters prompted protests from many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, some of which noted that Is­raeli cam­puses are pre­cisely where the Amer­i­can boy­cotters are likely to meet their ide­o­log­i­cal soul mates. They are rid­dled with mod­er­ates and lib­er­als.

Oth­ers have pointed out that the boy­cott pro­mot­ers scanned the world and some­how over­looked Rus­sia, China, Cuba and sim­i­lar na­tions where the oc­ca­sion­ally ram­bunc­tious pro­fes­sor is granted ten­ure be­hind bars. There is scant aca­demic free­dom in the Arab world — free­dom of any kind, ac­tu­ally — yet it es­capes the boy­cott move­ment. Can the pro­fes­sors stir them­selves about the plight of women in Saudi Ara­bia? Ap­par­ently not.

For th­ese and other rea­sons, the boy­cott move­ment is ab­surd and makes the var­i­ous academics seem de­tached from the real world. At the same time, they are pay­ing Is­rael a back­handed com­pli­ment. They know that China, for ex­am­ple, would ig­nore a boy­cott launched by the Amer­i­can Stud­ies As­so­ci­a­tion. China is a coun­try, af­ter all, that locks up its dis­si­dent academics and brings out tanks to deal with protest­ing stu­dents.

Is­rael is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Ex­actly be­cause it is a lib­eral, Western state, ruled by law and not by whim, it can be pres­sured. It wants to be­long to the world­wide aca­demic com­mu­nity and, of course, it should.

What mat­ters most about the boy­cotts is what they rep­re­sent — wide­spread and grow­ing an­tipa­thy to­ward the Jewish state. It’s facile to at­tribute this en­tirely to anti-Semitism, al­though it surely lurks here and there. But in Amer­ica at least, anti-Semitism is a spent force — wit­ness the ap­point­ment of the third Jew in row to head the Fed­eral Re­serve. A gen­er­a­tion ago, more than a few com­men­ta­tors would have men­tioned the In­ter­na­tional Jewish Con­spir­acy or some such thing. That now ex­ists only in the rat­tled brain of a Louis Far­rakhan.

None­the­less, there is a spe­cial, wor­ri­some fury di­rected at Is­rael. I hear it from peo­ple who are not in any way anti-Semitic. (I would hear more of it if many peo­ple were not afraid of be­ing la­beled anti-Semitic.) Some­times I think the anger comes from hav­ing re­pressed crit­i­cism of Is­rael lest it of­fend. Sooner or later, though, the emo­tions come spilling out.

What­ever the cause, the fact re­mains that Is­rael’s oc­ca­sion­ally harsh oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank has put it on the de­fen­sive. One only had to see the ex­tra­or­di­nary doc­u­men­tary “The Gate­keep­ers,” in which six for­mer heads of the in­ter­nal se­cu­rity ser­vice, Shin Bet, dis­cuss — and rue — the meth­ods they used to main­tain con­trol of the West Bank, to see what I mean. This is a film — academics take note — that only could have been made in Is­rael. That’s good. But what it says ... that’s bad.

There is fault here to share. Is­rael’s en­e­mies have been of­ten re­cal­ci­trant, some­times vi­o­lent, and Is­rael holds the West Bank, in fact, due to a war started by Egypt, Syria and Jor­dan. To aban­don it en­tails a risk. Will it be­come, as Gaza has, a stag­ing area for ter­ror­ism — a daily bar­rage of rock­ets? This is not some re­mote con­cern. Hezbol­lah is in the north, Ha­mas in the south. The neigh­bor­hood grows ever more dan­ger­ous. Par­ents fret.

I had lunch with Ariel Sharon about a month be­fore he suf­fered the stroke that in­ca­pac­i­tated him and led to his death Satur­day. He strongly sug­gested that he would do in the West Bank what he had done in Gaza — some sort of with­drawal. The de­tails were murky, but his gen­eral in­ten­tions were not. He re­al­ized that Is­rael faced a de­mo­graphic night­mare — too many Pales­tini­ans, too few Jews — and maybe also he re­al­ized that the oc­cu­pa­tion was tar­nish­ing one of the 20th cen­tury’s re­splen­dent achieve­ments, the cre­ation of a na­tion from the ashes of Auschwitz. He did not say.

The boy­cott res­o­lu­tions are coldly bar­ren of his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing or em­pa­thy and painful to read. But what they say is not as im­por­tant as the sound they make. The Is­rael I love is in­creas­ingly hated.

RICHARD CO­HEN

COLUM­NIST

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