Come home to Israel…

Binyamin Netanyahu is back to grandstanding as king of the Jews — just days after announcing that he would be speaking to the US Congress as “a representative of the entire Jewish people” — telling European Jews that they will always be victimised by non-Jews as long as they stay in Europe, so they should move to Israel, where they can be victimised by fellow Jews instead. But at least in Israel Jews can pray in peace without armed police protecting them; because in Israel the armed police will break up their prayer sessions and arrest them (if they’re women and not Orthodox).

Odium ex nihilo

The Guardian quotes actress Maureen Lipman saying that the recent attacks in Paris have her thinking of leaving London for the US, where you can be shot to death in a supermarket in an entirely nondiscriminatory and racially neutral way. (Israel was also on her list of destinations, because it is a place where Jews are famously safe from terrorist attacks.) But I was struck by this comment:

When the economy dries up, then they turn on the usual scapegoat: the usual suspect –the Jew. There is one school of thought that says it’s because of Israeli policies in the West Bank, it isn’t. There’s been antisemitism for the past 4,000 years.

It is common to link modern antisemitism to trends since the middle ages. Some say nothing has really changed since Tiberius. Some go back even to the Hellenistic period. Lipman almost doubles that history.

Some people have remarked on the weird persistence of antisemitism in places like Poland despite the absence of any significant numbers of remaining Jews. Lipman’s bracing theory is that antisemitism also pre-existed the Jews. As the prayerbook says, וְהוּא הָיָה וְהוּא הֹוֶה ,וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה: It was, it is, and it ever will be.

Perhaps, just as some say that antisemitism maintained the Jews as a distinct people through the Middle Ages, pre-existing antisemitism actually called the Jewish people into existence. As Sartre famously said,

Loin que l’expérience engendre la notion de Juif, c’est celle-ci qui éclaire l’expérience au contraire ; si le Juif n’existait pas, l’antisémite l’inventerait.

The concept of the Jew does not arise from experience, but rather the Jew serves as a pretext to explain [the anti-Semite’s] experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.

The great cartoon shortage

I just came across this report on a call by cartoonists (including the second-place finisher in the 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition) for the Angoulême International Comics Festival to boycott ‘any Israeli entity that does not “promote freedom and justice for Palestinians.”’ I take the role of cartoonists in a free society very seriously, but I can’t help thinking that the attempt to force the Zionist oppressors to their knees with a cartoon boycott would be a great subject for a cartoon.

Math and science

Corey Robin updates us on l’affaire Salaita. I was struck by his comment

Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president[…] Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences. During the summer, lots of folks dismissed this story because the natural sciences weren’t involved. Well, some of them are now.

Math and statistics aren’t really natural sciences, in the crucial economic sense. The people who dismiss the boycott because it’s just the humanities and social sciences are somewhat expressing a sense that those academics are woolly-headed cultural relativists; but even more, I think it’s about the idea that “serious” academics have big grants and big labs and generally deal with big money. Chemistry is the outlier here. Math and statistics are still much more constructed on the same economic model as the humanities, hence barely one step removed from socialism.

Association by guilt

Guilt by association — you’re friends with a terrible person so you must also be one — is generally recognised as a pernicious logical fallacy. But what should we call this comment by Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson, explaining why Norwegian trauma surgeon Mads Gilbert has been banned from returning to Gaza after he made critical remarks about the Israeli military activities this past summer? Dr Gilbert, he opined, is

not on the side of decency and peace and he’s got a horrible track record. I wouldn’t be surprised if his acquaintances are among the worst people in the world.

In other words, he’s a terrible person, so I’m sure his friends are too. Is this association by guilt?

The sense of place

I read with amazement the new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit.  For a book that is so attentive to the physicality of the land, and the particularity of place, it struck me as surprisingly willing to use place names in their platitudinous sense, in a context that made them leap off the page in bizarre ways:

By his very presence, he turns En Harod into the Mecca of the kibbutz movement.

… has turned a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

After seven and a half years in inferior and mediocre Sephardic institutions, Aryeh Machluf Deri had reached the Eton of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world.

If the thought of the Mecca of “dance, drugs, and casual encounters” doesn’t make your head spin (imagine, conversely, describing the Kaaba as “the Reeperbahn of pilgrimage and divine ecstasy”) then surely the thought of an ultra-Orthodox Eton must.

In all seriousness, the book accomplishes something I would have thought impossible: It tells the story of Israel from a Zionist perspective, while refusing to look away from, dismiss, or otherwise morally diminish the suffering inflicted upon the Arab population of Palestine. Ultimately, it’s the most depressing book on the subject I have ever read, not because of the horror that is recounted, but because holding up the justice and injustice of both sides to the cold light leaves the reader (and the author) with the sense that this is a paradox of justice that has no resolution, a doom of eternal conflict. Other books, like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, that take a much harsher tone toward Israel and its political establishment, arouse a sense of moral fervour, a sense that just a bit of generosity and good will could bring both sides to the promised land of peace. Shavit’s is the disillusion of an old man, who has seen the rise and fall of grand hopes, and sees the avoidance of destruction as the best that his country can hope for.

Mixing up the issues

The Salaita fiasco rumbles along. I have commented before on the case, where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took advantage of ambiguities in its hiring process to try to destroy the career of a tenured professor of American Indian Studies, whom they pretended to want to hire, and then fired after he had resigned his old job, but before his new contract had formally started. (Admittedly, by presenting it in these terms I’m pretending that it is not just a giant cock-up. This is what it looks like if you try to pretend that the people acting for the university have any idea what they’re doing. Depending on your perspective, I’m being either generous or unfair.) The current state of play is well summarised here. This was punishment for anti-Israel tweets that had attracted unpleasant attention of some of the university’s major donors.

Anyway, having made her university a place where senior academics need to consult with expert legal counsel before accepting a job offer — if they even want to challenge an international boycott and join an academic pariah — UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise (who insists, according to the Chicago Tribune, simultaneously that “she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision” and that “there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.”) has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that

“People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” she said in an interview. “I stand by the fact that this institution and all of higher education stands on the bedrock of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that we should be and are the place where we deal with the most contentious and difficult and complicated issues that face the world, and that we have to provide the platform where discussions that are difficult and contentious and uncomfortable and unimaginable happen.”

That’s the kind of careful thinking on challenging questions that we look to academic leadership for! Some confused people are mixing up the issues. UIUC stands foursquare behind the principles of academic freedom, and the open discussion of “difficult and contentious and uncomfortable” issues, while confronting the completely unrelated practical real-world challenges of firing a professor for openly making contentious and uncomfortable statements in a public forum.

Or, as the irrepressible Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith since before the Flood, more succinctly put it,

Donors give money and they expect certain things. There’s nothing wrong with them voicing their opinion.


After the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many physicists felt that their discipline’s principles had been betrayed. Oppenheimer said that physicists had “known sin”. Their abstruse subject, seen as a pure source of enlightenment, had revealed its enormous destructive potential. The healing arts, the quintessence of noble pursuits, have also been showing their dark side, as the power to cure disease is inseparable from the power to cause disease. An Oath Betrayed was the title of a recent book on the role of U.S. physicians and psychologists in facilitating torture in Guantanamo. And now, yet another betrayal: The BBC reports that

The apparent killing of a US journalist by an Islamic militant with an English accent is "an utter betrayal of everything British people stand for", the foreign secretary says.

What of goodness and purity remains in the world, when even English accents may also be deployed for nefarious ends? (Of course, in Hollywood films they are used for almost nothing else.)

More profoundly, two thoughts occur to me: Continue reading “Betrayal”

Respect for others’ perspectives

It sounds like a good idea, but can get you trapped in contradictions. With regard to l’affaire Salaita, which I commented on here. Much more information from Corey Robin here and here, including links for various subject-specific petitions; a general academic petition (which I have signed), committing to a vaguely defined boycott of U Illinois until Salaita is rehired, is here. The public opposition to Salaita has been led by UI English professor and former AAUP president Cary Nelson. Leaping to his defence is Stanford German Studies professor Russell Berman:

Given that Illinois has a diversity policy that includes respect for others’ perspectives and world views, and that Salaita’s tweets “indicate that he would not respect others’ opinions on the Middle East,” Berman said Nelson’s conclusion “is reasonable, and I agree with him.”

Agree or disagree, Berman added, the “ad hominem attacks” on Nelson are “reprehensible.” Similarly, he said, “it is appalling when [Salaita’s supporters] blame pro-Israel or Jewish groups,” as some commenters have. Berman said that there’s no evidence thus far, only innuendo, that outside pressure influenced the university’s decision and the “fact that pro-Israel groups are nonetheless blamed is evidence of a rampant anti-Semitism in this affair, cut from the same cloth as the recent riots in France.”

The most important thing is to respect other peoples’ opinions! Since the people who disagree with me are a howling mob of rioters, they must be silenced. Dismissal from their jobs is too good for people on that side of the argument, since they have no respect for diversity of opinion.

Fortunately, the silent majority supports Nelson, as he is quoted in the same article saying

ad hominem attacks are also a BDS strategy that serves to silence opponents. Many faculty who believe the university made the right decision about Salaita are now unwilling to say so publicly.

Perhaps Nelson could do more to contribute to that climate of respect that he craves, where no scholar is silenced by the gripping fear of public criticism or, I don’t know, losing their jobs.

As Tom Lehrer famously declared (introducing his song “National Brotherhood Week”), “I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!”

“One bomb”

The efforts of the Israeli right wing to politicise the Holocaust are nothing new, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the recent parade of Israeli parliamentarians through Auschwitz. What particularly struck me in the report of the Jewish Chronicle was this quote from Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett:

The lesson is this: only Israel will defend Jews. We can never and we will never rely on anyone else.

One bomb [from the Allies] would have stopped the murder machine, and yet no one bombed.

I find it intensely disturbing that a man so obviously delusional about what could be accomplished with “one bomb” is near the top of a government in possession of a large nuclear arsenal.