Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and modern Israel is its crowning achievement. In the face of unbelievable oppression, refugees from antisemitic Europe and the Middle East built a thriving community to be proud of in their ancestral homeland. They purchased land, revived their own indigenous language, and built up a defensive military capability in response to threats. They did not come as invaders, thieves, oppressors or exploiters of others. Yet they were greeted with shocking violence, organized attempts to keep them out, kick them out, drive them into the sea—even as the Holocaust loomed and in its immediate aftermath.
The United Nations itself voted to affirm the Jewish aspiration to national self-determination. Never in the history of the world were a state’s origins so thoroughly legitimate—legally, morally, as a matter of urgent necessity and epochal justice.
In a heroic War of Independence, the tiny Jewish nation defended itself successfully against the combined armies of the Arab world. Against all odds, the Israelis built a thriving multicultural liberal democracy in the heart of a region not known for it (to say the least). They accepted or made offers to divide the land with their Arab neighbors in 1937, 1947, 1967, 2000, 2001 and 2008. These bids aimed at coexistence, however, were rejected summarily by the Arabs. In what the historian, Benny Morris, has established as a consistent pattern of Arab rejectionism and jihadism—spanning more than a century—they refused to accept any sovereign Jewish presence whatsoever in their midst, no matter how small.
No permanent peace worth having can fail to take these facts into account. So why would anyone deny them?
Why We Fight
That was the message I and my colleague, Alan Johnson (Senior Researcher at BICOM, founding editor of the online journal of Israel affairs, Fathom) delivered last weekend at the invitation of Simon Johnson, CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council, who invited us to Exeter University to speak to a gathering of anti-Israel academics determined to calumny the Jewish state as merely another typical “settler colonialist” enterprise, unworthy of coexisting with its saintly “indigenous” neighbors. At the request of concerned members of the Jewish community, we attended, monitored and participated as dissenting voices in an Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies conference called “Settler Colonialism in Palestine.” We simultaneously stood for academic freedom and made our own voices heard—representing an academically credible Zionist narrative to rebut their contention that the only viable account was their own retread of the tired, rejectionist line.
Throughout the day on both days, in response to presentations by Professors Ilan Pappé, Lorenzo Veracini, Marcelo Svirsky, and others, we made it clear that Israel does not fit their “politically correct” ad hoc “paradigm.” We pointed out that their preferred framework of assumptions itself is driven not by evidence or even common sense, but by preconceived, sanctimonious and implausible “moral” conclusions. These fantasies determine the selection of data, and a simplistic mode of emplotment that obfuscates the fact of real political conflict, in favor of a childish fairy-tale of innocent Arab victims and guilty Jewish victimizers.
As an antidote, in the the spirit of pluralism, I suggested instead the principle of “two narratives for two peoples”—in other words, let’s at least acknowledge that different self-understandings at odds with one another in fact exist in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because they do. Relatedly, Johnson pointed out that their closed-off, monological view tends to make peace between two nations with legitimate claims even more unlikely, because there is less to negotiate that two sides could ever agree on. “You’re the devil! No, you’re the devil!” is unlikely to get us very far, whatever else may be true.
Finally, following his keynote, I challenged Ilan Pappé himself directly—asking the leading anti-Israel Israeli historian if he was not, first of all, an activist dedicated to trying to stigmatize/“delegitimize” Israel, and a “historian” only second, picking his framework of interpretation—and his “facts”—to suit his political purposes. Did he have a roomful of supporters there to applaud his dismissive response (“who after all can claim to be purely objective…”)? Of course, we knew that going in. But we were there to make our voices heard. And that’s what we did. Of that, there can be no question.
Also beyond any doubt is the fact that had we not done so, yet another anti-Israel event on still another university campus would have gone ahead unchallenged and unopposed by any academically credible response. The room of 60 or so was for Pappé and company, and against us, with very few exceptions (maybe one or two). Still we made them think. At times you could see doubt creep into their minds as consternation showed on their faces, momentarily—before clichés, half-truths and falsehoods about the “Nakba” inevitably kicked in to dispel uncertainty.
We asserted a Zionist paradigm—with dignity, civility, and confidence that we were in the right. Changing their minds was never our mission. But setting a precedent and standing for principle was.
Dangerous Nonsense: Ignore It and It Will All Just Go Away?
And yet, there were naysayers, those who objected to say that we should not have participated at all: Either shut them down, protest outside the room, or ignore them instead–but do not enter the room and engage in academic debate with fellow academics over the state of academically acceptable discourse.
Nonsense. We’ve heard it for years: “It’s a radical fringe, don’t ‘legitimize’ them.” Well, sorry, but Pappe is one of the most important intellectual framers of the debate, globally. His books are best sellers. His videos are watched everywhere. He is the intellectual organizer, in many ways, of discussions about Israel that matter–taking the lead role in the adaptation of what he calls the “lexicon,” or the terms in which the Arab-Israeli dispute is discussed on campus and off.
But rather than engage with these arguments, urgently, to construct a desperately needed critique and offer an alternative understanding capable of reaching a wide audience, for years we’ve been told that to engage at all, in any way, is “a waste of time.” In place of a serious long-term intellectual project to build an alternative paradigm to the dominant demonizing one, too many “friends of Israel” look instead to PR campaigns, talking points, bullet points, or try to ban or “expose” the other side.
They seem to think that if we ignore it, it will all just go away, which is delusional. Unless you want to spend your whole life in a hasbara bubble, this is where you will find a significant portion of the discussion in academia at the moment. We can change that, but not by burying our heads in the sand.
For Academic Freedom, Against Boycotts: A Challenge to Ilan Pappé’s Followers Everywhere
And perhaps now that we have led the way in not boycotting their anti-Israel conference, they will soon come out against boycotts of all Israeli academics (not just Pappé)? We are in a position to put this challenge to them, at least.
No, I am not naive. I do not mean to seriously suggest that the committed BDSers among them—of which there were many at the Exeter conference—are about to suddenly, over night, give up on their quixotic dream of singling out for boycott just one of the “settler colonial” states they claim to be interested in. But I am saying that, as the coeditor of a book called The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, which Alan Johnson also contributed to, he and I are being consistent—as is the community we serve that expects to see academic freedom honored for everyone everywhere. Even for Jews. Including all Israelis.
The principle that scholars should pursue scholarship without undue outside restrictions is an important value—so I hereby call on Ilan Pappe and all those in attendance at the Exeter conference to join us in honoring it! Reject BDS—with as much vigor as you would oppose efforts to silence you and the views you favor, stand up for the rights of all scholars everywhere.
Be consistent. If you support academic freedom, then support it. If you don’t want to be boycotted when you’re engaged in research and sharing knowledge, don’t boycott others doing the same. Or else, stand accused of hypocrisy. In that case, let the world see who really stands for freedom, mutual respect, liberal norms and common decency–and who doesn’t.
Affirming Louis D. Brandeis’s Unsettling Paradigm
In sum, to those who are gravely concerned (whose misgivings I can understand) about a conference like this going ahead at all—I can say unequivocally that I believe we did something good, worth doing, important even. I am proud of what we accomplished and think that more good will come of it as we keep pressing forward against the predominant tide of political correctness that demonizes Israel in too many sectors of academia these says. To repeat, had we not been there, their all-too-common “postmodern” ideological academic anti-Israelism would have simply gone ahead without us—and so would have gone unchallenged. It happens all the time that way these days, more and more—we gain nothing by ceding the field preemptively. You cannot stop academic freedom in a free society—nor should you want to. But for the sake of argument—alternatively, hypothetically—had the conference been stopped somehow, then our ability to insist that academic boycotts are wrong would be eroded.
Thanks to the forward-looking vision of the JLC, Alan Johnson and I were able to strike just the right balance this time between respecting academic freedom and challenging unbalanced events—in the process landing a series of blows for the legitimacy of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel against those who would seek to call it into question unopposed by any voice of reason. In our absence, they would have.
Yes, academia is in crisis. Particularly with regards to Israel, pathological Western self-hate (political correctness) is a problem. I’ve been saying that for years. No, the way to deal with it is not total disengagement with views we disagree with (or even loathe, speaking for myself, as the child of refugees from Nazi Germany and currently a resident of Jerusalem). As the great Jewish American Supreme Court Justice, Louis D. Brandeis, might have put it: The remedy for offensive speech and singleminded narrow-minded conferences is more and better speech/conferences of our own!
Bearing this vital principle in mind, it is crucial to recall that this preliminary engagement with the “Israel deniers” at Exeter was—as significant as it was—but the first step in a larger strategy aimed at building up a new Critical Zionist paradigm for a “new peace,” as an academically viable enterprise. That and more is on the agenda for the next conference to be held at Exeter—as bargained for when it was agreed that we would participate in this one. When the truth is on your side, as Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and electric light the best policeman.” We flipped a switch. Let there be light! Let it shine on the falsehoods of the “settler colonial paradigm” for misunderstanding Israel.