Richard L. Cravatts

Moral narcissism and the MLA’s obsession with Israel

Characterized by the same paroxysms of self-righteousness as were evident in the much-maligned and tendentious academic boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA) last month, members of the Modern Language Association (MLA) head to Chicago during the first week of January for the organization’s 129th convention. The annual meeting, which is generally attended by a third of the MLA’s 30,000 members, has, as New Criterion editor, Roger Kimball, wryly noted, customarily “provided observers of the academic scene with a spectacle as appalling as it is rich in unintended comedy,” complete with a “full range of barbarous jargon, intellectual pos­turing, and aggressive politicization that has infected the academic study of the human­ities in this country . . . .”

But this year’s conference promises even more intellectual acting out, given that the MLA’s Radical Caucus has proposed a resolution that will call on the U.S. State Department “to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Why the focus on Israel by these scholars of the English language and humanities? Because, as presiding officer Samer M. Ali smugly put it, as far as the MLA is concerned, Israel deserves to be demonized for its perceived transgressions, and the “question that [attendees] will be debating is not whether Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it.”

The lure of Palestinianism has proven to be positivity irresistible to left-leaning humanists and literary scholars who burrow into Western thought to uncover the dark underpinnings of imperialism, militarism, colonialism, oppression, racism, and, as a result of one of the MLA’s notorious past presidents, Edward Said, the theory of “Orientalism,” a mode of thought which claimed to reveal the inherent racism and imperialism imbedded in Western scholarship and politics. The fascination with Third-world victimism, identity politics, and multiculturalism, coupled with harsh critiques of both the U.S. and its proxy in the Middle East, Israel, have all led academics like those in the ASA and the MLA—whose fields are, in a normal world, unrelated to these issues—to involve themselves aggressively in answering calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions solely against the Jewish state.

As a result of this obsessive reverence for the purported victims of Israeli policies, one panel planned for the MLA meeting has drawn considerable attention, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” which, as the MLA website put it, “addresses the political movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, seen by its defenders as a viable means to end the Palestinian occupation.” Besides its seeming irrelevancy at a conference for scholars of language and humanities, this odious panel has been condemned for its blatant one-sidedness: each of the four panelists is a vocal and avowed ideological enemy of, and proponent of boycotts against, Israel.

One of them, Omar Barghouti, ironically also a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, is the co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which has been relentlessly urging academic associations to institute boycotts against Israel. Barghouti apologizes for and condones the murder of Jews by Arab terrorists, having mistakenly asserted that “International law does give people under occupation the right to resist in any way, including armed resistance.” He also, as is characteristic of those in the BDS movement, accuses Israel of being a racist entity, suggesting that apartheid is “alive and well inside Israel . . ; it is legalized and institutionalized racism and that’s what makes it apartheid.”

Another panelist, University of California’s David C. Lloyd, is one of BDS’s original supporters, whose belief it is that “If there has been anywhere a systematic denial of academic freedom to a whole population, rather than to specific individuals or to institutions, it is surely in Palestine under Israeli occupation.” Moreover, Lloyd has proclaimed, Israel is committing something he calls “scholasticide” on the hapless Palestinians, since, as he wrote, “Palestinian education, like Palestinian culture and civil society, has been systematically and maliciously targeted for destruction, and “in the time-honored manner of settler colonialism, a powerful and well-armed state seeks to extinguish the cultural life and identity of an indigenous people.”

The fulminations against Israel expected from this panel are not surprising given the MLA’s ideological history, nor is the fact that its members have collectively already determined that this panel will be a monologue of vitriol aimed at the Jewish state, not an academic debate, and that there is one oppressor, Israel, and one victim, the Palestinians. When it comes to Israel, even academics, people who have chosen as their life’s work scholarly discussion and open inquiry, are perfectly willing to vitiate what the academy is supposed to represent and abandon even the pretense of honest debate. The PACBI’s own language not only confirms its disdain for Israel’s side of the conversation, it specifically calls for suppressing opposing views, since Israel, in its view, is illegitimate for being a racist oppressor in the first place—exactly what is taking place on the MLA panel. “Events and projects,” PACBI guidelines read, “involving Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis that promote ‘balance’ between the ‘two sides’ in presenting their respective narratives or ‘traumas,’ as if on par, or are otherwise based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the ‘conflict,’ are intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible.” In other words, the default position is that Israel is to blame, and that the Palestinians are blameless victims.

The charges of racism and oppression also enable the left-leaning members of the MLA to excuse the moral transgressions of the victim, and, as an extension of that thinking, to single out Israel and America for particular and harsh scrutiny owing to their perceived “institutionalized” racism and greater relative power. The self-righteousness the left feels in pointing out Zionism’s essential defect of being a racist ideology insulates it from having to also reflect on the social and cultural pathologies of Arab states, since, as Harvard’s Ruth Wisse has pointed out in If I Am Not For Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, liberals can excuse their own betrayal of Israel by holding it fully responsible for the very hatreds it inspires. “In the case of the Arab war against the Jewish state,” Wisse wrote, “obscuring Arab intentions requires identifying Jews as the cause of the conflict. The notion of Jewish responsibility for Arab rejectionism is almost irresistibly attractive to liberals, because the truth otherwise seems so bleak.”

The rectitude of the MLA academics pushing for condemnations of Israel manifests itself as what Boston University professor Richard Landes has termed “moral narcissism,” the tendency of members of the well-meaning, intellectual elite to align with causes and ideological positions which are based, not on the actual viability or justice of a cause, but on how the moral narcissist feels about him- or herself by committing to a particular cause or movement. “A moral narcissist,” observed legal commentator Jay B. Gaskill, “lives in a self-approval bubble shared by other moral narcissists who collectively have agreed that their cocoon of mutually agreed moral gestures and self congratulations [sic] will constitute a perfect and sufficient engagement with an imperfect world.” Like other members of the academic left, who believe their worldview is correct because it seeks to create a world in which social equanimity will be realized by the downtrodden, members of the MLA, similar to their like-minded brethren in the ASA, are content to support such intellectually dishonest campaigns as academic boycott because it enables them to denounce Israel as an imperialistic, racist, militaristic oppressor. “Moral narcissists,” said Gaskill, “have adopted a camouflage strategy to escape the moral disapproval of others [and] . . . they accomplish this camouflage by cloaking their narcissism in the trappings of ‘social justice positioning.’” The moral narcissist’s reasoning may defective, ahistorical, counter-intuitive, or just wrong, but he still feels good about himself. But in this worldview there can be only one enemy of justice, and Israel is that enemy.

One wonders why, in asking the U.S. State Department to monitor and report on instances in which U.S. scholars are denied access to Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, the MLA’s resolution limited the request only to instances in which students and faculty are denied access to educational institutions as a result of Israeli policy? Would not the self-anointed guardians of academic freedom and unrestrained academic debate be concerned with similar injustices plaguing other nations surrounding the one country, Israel, where they have now focused their moral opprobrium?

The MLA is silent, for example, about the situation in Egypt where universities in November reversed their policy of preventing police from entering campuses to suppress student protests. A Cairo University student was shot in the head and killed by police one week later; at Al-Azhar University twelve students were sentenced to 17-year terms for a campus takeover, thirty-eight students were sentenced to year and a half sentences for protests, and another student was killed in his dorm by police.

No MLA resolutions were forthcoming when bomb blasts decimated the campus of Aleppo University in Syria during exam week, killing 82 and wounding 192 in the explosions. The MLA resolution also apparently does not request that the State Department monitor other instances where students are denied access to their schools, such as the September 2013 incident when security forces of the genocidal thugocracy of Hamas beat up and dispersed some 200 Palestinian students attempting to enter Egypt and travel to their universities through the Rafah crossing. Hamas has also been actively recruiting students from West Bank Palestinian universities and sending them through its dawa, or indoctrination, centers to recruit them into Islamist ideology and jihad.

The MLA scholars whose entire professional lives are defined by a love of books and learning were also curiously silent when two-thirds of over 80,000 historic books in the Greek Orthodox Al-Saeh Library in Tripoli were destroyed by arson this month, the fire set by Muslims enraged after a pamphlet insulting Mohammed was allegedly found in one of the library’s books.

One might expect that the MLA would also be concerned with women’s rights in the Middle East, given members like Berkeley’s feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, who notoriously delivered a paper at a past MLA conference entitled, “The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?,” and who more recently, and almost surreally, commented that it is important to view “Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.” Perhaps MLA resolutions should be passed to help offer Muslim women greater educational opportunities, since statistics indicate that while only 22 percent of men in the Middle East and North Africa are illiterate, that rate soars to 42 percent for Muslim women. Hamas also imposes dress codes on girls, and a UN report noted that in Egypt, over 99 percent of women and girls had experienced sexual harassment in some form.

And, finally, if MLA members are so concerned with education and Israel, and the side effects of social strife, perhaps they should also ask for State Department reports on the unrelenting rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza into southern Israeli towns, such as Sderot, where over 43 percent of middle school students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of prolonged shelling of civilian neighborhoods and schools since the 2005 disengagement.

Of course, the MLA’s Radical Caucus is silent on all of these obstacles to education and the free exchange of ideas, both in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and the wider world of Israel’s neighbors. It is easy to demonize Israel, and certainly it requires no bravery in academia, where moral narcissists console each other in an echo chamber of good intentions, willing to sacrifice academic integrity, true scholarship, and vigorous, honest debate in the process.

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel Hatred, and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.
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