I taught American Studies courses for many years. I felt the subject was an ideal way to integrate a number of fields, like history, politics, literature and film. I was recently taken aback by the American Studies Association’s vote to boycott Israel’s higher-education institutions -- the first boycott the Association ever initiated -- to protest the country’s treatment of Palestinians. It was a politically counterproductive decision, as it led to a backlash rather than support, with an outpouring of criticism from sources ranging from the US Congress and the AAUP, to Washington Post editorials, and with the presidents of at least 100 U.S. colleges condemning the vote.
More importantly, though there is no denying that profound civil and human rights problems have been caused by the presence of settlements and by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a group of distinguished American scholars stated that the boycott "would punish scholars simply because of their nationality." There is also the fact that Israeli universities have little immediate affiliation with the Israeli government, and their faculties are often critical of government policies.
A double standard is involved (one that Israel’s critics more often than not use), since the ASA never directed a boycott at countries like China, Sudan and Myanmar, among others, whose human rights abuses dwarf Israel’s. I know that some of the ASA members crafted deeply felt arguments to justify their decision, But having spent a lifetime teaching in a university, and knowing too well how learned and smart academics can often respond like political lemmings (I was sometimes guilty of that myself in the ‘60s), I presume a great many of the votes were probably unthinkingly reflexive in nature.
Of course a wrongheaded, mainly symbolic decision by the small 5,000-member ASA carries little impact, and in the scheme of things is utterly insignificant. What’s crucial when dealing with the Israel/Palestinian conflict is trying to figure out how both warring parties can ever free themselves from the quagmire they have been trapped in for decades. And at this point, however dogged is Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to work out a formula for peace, it’s hard to believe, given the obstacles both sides predictably raise, that a breakthrough is possible.
A new book, "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel" (Random House) by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, is a mixture of personal and family memoir, Israeli history, and political and social analysis. It is an ambitious, critically nuanced, slightly overwritten book that avoids polemics, and that painfully shows us how difficult the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is.
Shavit’s book is a complex balancing act. A fourth-generation Sabra, he is a passionate believer in the Zionist enterprise, seeing it "as the most amazing revolution of the 20th century." He views Israel as "a life saving project" that is astonishingly vital and successful. But he also expresses an existential fear that "my beloved homeland will crumble as enormous Arabic masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses and eradicate its existence."
Shavit was once a part of the peace camp as a young activist and a journalist, but now his position could be more accurately defined as centrist. He is morally outraged by the occupation (he regards it as Israel’s "malaise"), and he’s for a two-state solution (he sees the settlements as a folly) on both political and moral grounds. However, he’s critical of the left wing position as well, feeling that it’s naive to believe that withdrawal from the West Bank, despite its necessity, would provide a quick fix solution. In his words, "the left was counting on a peace partner that was not really there."
In his sweeping account of Israeli history, Shavit takes us from the achievements of his great-grandfather, who led a group of Zionist pilgrims to Palestine from London in 1897, through the ethnic cleansing of 50,000-70,000 Palestinians from the predominantly Arab towns of Lydda and Ramle during the 1948 War of Independence, to an overly sanguine analysis of the triumph of new politics ushered in by the 2013 election.
The chapter on Lydda powerfully details the darker side of Israeli history. It makes clear just why the Nakba, the "Catastrophe," the Palestinian exodus because of flight and forcible expulsion of more than 700,000 refugees during the war of independence, remains a horrific, indelible wound. While Shavit considers it his duty to deal with Israel’s transgressions, he feels the context has to be understood. When it comes to Lydda, he sees the choice as a stark one: If it wasn’t for the army doing "the dirty filthy work," the nation wouldn’t have been born.
One may agree with Shavit that Israel is "walking a tightrope over the abyss" without fully accepting his belief that the hope of peace in this generation is impossible. However, he writes from the center of the Israeli experience, and most of the ASA voters and I myself write as outsiders, removed from Israeli history and society. That makes me incapable of fully sharing Shavit’s intense love for his country, and makes criticism difficult. Whatever reservations I feel, Shavit’s book radiates an intelligence and epic sweep that only merit respect.
Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com.