Counterpunch: Uproar over upcoming BDS conference at Penn
Conference that will feature JVP seminar promises opportunity for open discussion of Israel.
by Vijay Prashad, Counterpunch (1/24/12)
It is not easy in the United States to have a real, factual discussion about Israel. When Norman Finkelstein came to give a lecture at my college a few years ago, a small minority of the faculty and students were enraged. The faculty boycotted the lecture, but the students came. After Norman spoke, these students put their hands up, and one after another read from a script seemingly authored by a Hasbara agency. Then, as Norman frowned and held his own, one young man got up and said, “I have a genuine question….” That was sufficient. The firewall had been breached. He was sincerely disturbed by Norman’s narrative of events against Gaza, and could not square his ideology with the circles drawn by Norman’s data.
The student’s hesitation before the facts resonates with what Peter Beinart noted in the New York Review of Books (2010). Beinart recounts a survey conducted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz for several prominent Jewish philanthropists who wanted to know why Jewish American college students were not more vigorous in their rebuttal of criticism of Israel on campus. One of the moments that worried the philanthropists was the refusal by the student senate at Brandeis to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Israel in 2008. Luntz found that the young Jews want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its policies, that “young Jews desperately want peace” and “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” Luntz recommended that the philanthropists use the word Arab (“wealth, oil and Islam”) rather than Palestinian (“refugee camps, victims and oppression”) so as to spin the youth to a pro-Israel agenda.
The failure of this PR opens the door to discussion of US and Israeli policy in West Asia. The Arab Spring has clearly broken the view of the Arab as terrorist. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to the Arab Spring, that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East” and that this has to do with culture, was an embarrassment of self-delusion. Netanyahu came to Congress to go mano-a-mano against Obama, the US felt forced to throttle the Palestinian case in the UN, and then, more absurdly, the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler suggested that Netanyahu send a Mossad team to assassinate President Obama: this kind of unseemly pressure had the opposite effect on those who pay attention to West Asian politics, and in particular among young American Jews.
Part of this hysteria is the over-reaction to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign that began in the margins of political life and has now gradually shuffled to the center. It is a victory for the BDS campaign that it has been able to ruffle so many feathers so quickly. No longer is it being discounted. The defenders of Israel right or wrong believe that no opportunity to censure those who criticize Israel must be left unsiezed. Every article must be challenged, every speaker must be condemned: any criticism of Israel must be suffocated. BDS is now taken very seriously because the movement has had an impact on our intellectual and political life.
BDS emerged in 2002 during one of the more virulent assaults by the Israeli armed forces on the Palestinian people. The next year a group of beleaguered Palestinian academics published a Call for Boycott, and in 2004 the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel put out its appeal. What is to be underscored about these documents is their measured character: for intellectuals who have little access to books and almost none to travel, as well as constant worry about bombardment, their documents are not at all vindictive (I return from a conference in Beirut, which could not be attended by a professor from al-Quds, who did not get his visa in time – tickets are bought and forfeited; when I tell another professor that I would like to send him a book, he says not to bother since he’ll not see it for months). The academic freedom of the Palestinian institutions of learning have been deeply compromised by the Israeli occupation. It is in this light that these academics proclaimed with Mahmoud Darwish, “besiege your siege…there is no other way.”
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