As has been widely reported, the American Studies Association, the umbrella organization of academics devoted to the study of US literature, history and culture, recently voted to join the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
In the days since that historic vote, numerous high-profile US supporters of the Jewish state have vehemently decried the scholarly association’s historic decision.
The first to do so was Lawrence Summers, one-time Harvard president and prime architect–in his role as deregulator-in-chief of the finance industry–of the recession that has robbed millions of Americans of their jobs, savings and homes. He has been followed by numerous others such as Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic and by Michael Roth president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Reading their reactions to the democratically determined posture of the ASA, one particular argument appears with almost metronomic predictability. It goes something like this:
“Considering all the countries in the world where human rights abuses are rife, why in the world is the ASA so concerned about Israel, the only “democratic state” in the Middle East? Why is this organization, along with the millions of others who support the BDS movement, “singling Israel out” for such punitive treatment?”
One is left to wonder. Do these people always treat the intelligence of their audience with such contempt? Do they always assume that those to whom they speak are deeply ill-informed about the structural realities of contemporary politics and incapable of the most basic logical inductions in regard to the nature of Israel’s relationship with the US?
As anyone who has not been living under a rock for the last 50 years knows, Israel has, it is true, long been “singled out” in America…. for extraordinary levels of financial, military and diplomatic support from the United States government.
Indeed, it could be said without exaggeration say that no small and putatively sovereign nation in modern history has ever been the object of such lavishly favorable treatment from a Great Power. There is nothing remotely comparable to the US’s indulgent treatment of Israel in Spain’s or Great Britain’s long historical runs as the world’s hegemon.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the current US President who declared quite famously that the US and Israel must “work in lockstep” within the theater of international politics. Or, we could listen to the current Vice-President and current Secretary of State who frequently remind audiences that there is “no daylight” between the US and Israel when it comes to strategic goals in the world.
Is there any historical precedent—within a political establishment that constantly talks about how partisan politics must “stop at the water’s edge”– for the pledge made by house minority leader Eric Cantor to the Israeli Prime Minister in November 2010 that he would “serve as a check” on his own country’s presidential administration should it begin to consider policies that he deemed detrimental to Israel?
Is there another country that could purposely try to sink a US warship, the USS Liberty in 1967, and never suffer any sanction or recognizable alteration bilateral relations for doing so?
Is there any other country that could assassinate an unarmed US citizen in an act of piracy on the high seas–Furkan Dogan in 2010–and not only not be called onto the carpet for it, but also have the operation–patently illegal under the international laws of the sea–that led to the death be met with virtual silence by US State Department spokespersons and praise from a considerable part of the US Congress?
Can we imagine a situation where a person from another country who had become a billionaire working mostly in US industry could go on national TV in his native land and brag openly, and without apparent fear of consequence, about how he had helped steal nuclear secrets from the United States? This is exactly what happened a month ago with the Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan.
Is there another country (besides perhaps certain members of the so-called Five Eyes Group of English-speaking nations) that has direct access to the raw data from US citizen communications currently being swept up by the NSA?
Can we imagine the US allowing analysts in any of those “other” countries–whose situations everyone is now supposed to critique before ever deigning to critique Israel–to scrutinize virtually without limits and for their own particular purposes the private communications of American citizens?
And these are only a few of the many examples of the extraordinary US indulgence of Israel that could be adduced here.
No, for at least 46 years and arguably more, the US-Israel relationship has not been “normal” at all, which is to say, in any way comparable to any other bilateral relationship (with the possible exceptions of those it has with the UK and Canada) maintained by the US.
Summers and the small army of people echoing his message on letters-to-the-editor sections around the country know this quite well.
So why are they pretending this is not the case, and that, correspondingly, any systematic critique of Israeli behavior must first pass the test of comparability to that of various and sundry countries around the world?
Because they are interested in doing what many people do when they find themselves with a largely untenable long-term position: steer the conversation from going where they don’t want it to go.
And where is that?
Away from the matter of Israeli behavior, and more specifically, how the fundamental legal design and international comportment of the Israeli state corresponds (or not) to the democratic values most Americans claim to believe in.
If you can ball people up talking about the issue of the Israeli human rights record in relationship to other places that have nothing remotely approaching the privileged, 51st State treatment accorded to Israel–and thus clearly unable to be compared to it in any meaningful way–you can avoid having people talk about things like the following.
–That, despite the New York Times’s and much of the mainstream media’s attempts to convince Americans of the contrary, the only uninspected, which is to say, completely rogue and unaccountable nuclear program in the Middle East belongs to Israel. And it is not a small program, having, according to most reports, around 200 warheads.
Therefore, the only country really capable of “wiping” some other country “off the map” or coercing it into obeisance through nuclear blackmail in the eastern Mediterranean, the Mashriq and Iran is Israel.
And no amount of talk (are you picking up on the pattern of argumentation yet?) about Iran’s completely non-existent nuclear bomb program—the official assessment of the Directorate of National Intelligence of the US, not mine–can change this fact.
–That Israel is an ethno-state, which is to say, a place where one must possess certain blood lines to accede to the fullest possible level of citizenship. Those who do not meet these requirements can live there, but in a decidedly second-class status.
Israel is, of course, not alone among nations in offering citizenship on the basis of blood rights or jus sanguinis.
Where it does stand out in the international context, however, is in the way it does this while simultaneously denying full civic rights to millions of its native inhabitants. This means that a Jew from the USA or Russia can move to Israel and be granted that highest level of citizenship almost instantaneously. This, while the Palestinian whose family has lived in the territory now controlled by Israel for centuries is forced to inhabit a relative civic limbo in the same place, with all that that entails in terms of the potentially capricious encroachments of the state in his or her life.
As part of this approach to managing citizenship, Israel forcibly prevents its already second-class but quite native Arab citizens from living as united families within the borders of Israel after marrying fellow Palestinians from the occupied territories or any other place in the world.
So pervasive is the emphasis on ethnic belonging that security officials at Ben-Gurion Airport blithely slot passengers into differing security protocols–and here I speak from personal experience—according to how they answer the following thinly veiled question regarding one’s pertinence to the most legally favored group: “Are you an Israeli or do you have family in Israel? “
I don’t think that most Americans I know would associate this model of state, and these behaviors (and this is a very small sample), with any system they would be happy or proud to live in, nor as anything they understand to be truly democratic.
And no army of spinmeisters repeating the mantra that “Israel is the only Democracy in the Middle East” can change this salient fact.
–That Israel has a large and growing population of religious citizens that is not only every bit as intolerant and backward-looking as the worst Muslim fanatics in Arab countries, or the worst Christian fundamentalists in the US, but that has a considerably larger control over the political institutions of the country than is the case here or, for that matter, in the great majority of Islamic countries.
Yet, this is hardly ever talked about in our press, or by self appointed spokesmen for Israel such as those mentioned above. Rather, Israel’s most fervent supporters in the media constantly tell us (there’s that pattern argumentation again) about all those terrible Arabs that want to impose sharia law on the world. Nary a word about how the haredim are encroaching daily upon the democratic freedoms of secular Israelis.
–That the current Prime Minister of Israel, apparently unaware that he was on camera, openly bragged in 2001 about his ability to manipulate the very same Americans that, in no small measure, have funded his political career and have generally supported his government’s efforts at ethnic cleansing (that is my understanding of what it is called in other parts of the world when you take over lands by force, displace the autochthonous inhabitants and place settlers of a different ethnic or national background on the seized territory), as well as how he actively undermined the Oslo peace accords (brokered by the US) to which his government was a signatory.
All this from a man, and from there, a government apparatus, that constantly tells the US and the world (there’s that pattern or argumentation once again) that they have “no partner for peace” on the Palestinian side, no person of demonstrable good will ready to talk in serious and reasonable terms about the future of the region.
What Summers and those that echo his words want most of all to avoid is an honest and wide-ranging conversation among Americans about how, and to what degree (if at all), our joined-at-the-hip relationship with Israel benefits the average citizen of this country.
If they were really the great friends of Israel they claim to be, they would repeatedly, indeed doggedly, say to their friends living in the Jewish state, as well as those living here for whom it is a prime object interest and concern, what an old Jesuit, channeling the Gospel of Luke, one told me at the height of my youthful self-absorption:
“To whom much is given, much is expected”.
This is essentially what the ASA is saying to Israel.
It is a shame that instead of using their well-placed voices to second the call to have Israel live more fully within the parameters its publically proclaimed moral codes (you know, the only “democracy” in the Middle East), these prominent opinion leaders insist on throwing rhetorical smoke bombs designed to obscure the most important issues at play in the country’s present-day political and social drama.
Thomas S. Harrington teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College.