Donna Robinson Divine

Word Crimes: Explaining The Gaza War on Campus

The Hamas attacks  on October 7 have, according to specialists, altered the nature of the Middle East Conflict, yet the discourse on the university campus remains largely the same. For all its presumed expertise, the academic study of the Middle East is still imprisoned by words[1] pigeonholing events into presumed moral absolutes that appeal to emotions or to a larger ideological agenda. The apocalyptic images of dead Israelis became the source of ‘exhilaration’ for a Professor at Cornell while they were the prelude to ‘liberation’ for another at Columbia. The Universities have become the staging ground for a discourse that holds butchered Israelis responsible for the horrors perpetuated on them.

Of all the changes that can be documented in the more than seventy-five years since the founding of Israel, none is as dramatic and surprising as the country’s status as a topic of intellectual inquiry. Once a trope for self-sacrifice and solidarity, a testament to the redemption of a bruised and battered people, the Jewish state, today, stands accused of practicing apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and of sustaining itself as a remnant of an outdated and thoroughly delegitimized colonial order. The Jewish state has not simply been re-branded; it has essentially been re-named. Once thought distinctive, Israel’s singularity is now presented as an example of horrific bigotry if not savagery.

Having acquired canonical status, this vocabulary exerts a strong hold on students and scholars substantially degrading the study of Israel but no less wildly misrepresenting what can be said and written about Palestinians. Students learning this language graduate with a vocabulary that identifies Israel not simply as a force hostile to Palestinian interests but also as a major source of the world’s evil. Earning cultural capital for their anti-Israel words and deeds, university professors, in increasing numbers, venture far outside their disciplinary training to propose boycotts against Israeli educational institutions in order to deny their students stipends and research opportunities but also and more importantly to display their righteousness and their progressive credentials. Not only are activist faculty gatekeepers controlling hiring and firing, they are also tutoring young scholars in the art of career advancement: adhere to an ideological catechism and their research will be published in highly ranked journals and/or in university presses as peer review processes increasingly bend to service an anti-Israel crusade.

Consider the term genocide. Commonly associated with the extermination of the Jews and one reason for strong international support for Israel’s founding in 1948, genocide is now defined as the force driving the Zionist project. A word that once engendered sympathy for Jews has been contaminated by becoming a rubric for Israeli policies and a reason to fear Jewish power. A vocabulary, so baked into campus discourse on Israel, convinces students to think this is a permanent feature of the way people always spoke about the founding of the Jewish state and not simply a trendy but highly contested scholarly cliche.

The transfer of the word genocide from its Jewish meaning to its more recent Palestinian one is not an accident but rather a deliberate decision by activists and scholars supportive of the Palestine cause. Of all the catchwords hijacked by the study of the Middle East Conflict, none has turned taboos inside out more than genocide. It has planted in susceptible minds powerful and misleading ideas about the purported savagery of Zionism. But invoking images of the Zionist movement as Nazi-like requires so many inversions of language that the development of the Jewish national home is condemned now not by might or by power but rather by false analogies, misplaced modifiers, and mistakenly applied theories. That the Palestinian population on the West Bank and Gaza has increased fourfold since 1948 (CIA World Fact Book, 2017, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics) should elicit an instant correction if not apology for rhetorical excess. But lack of a single shred of evidence that can corroborate an alleged Zionist genocidal impulse has done nothing to short-circuit its deployment in classrooms and lecture halls. Think how easily the misfiring of a Palestinian Jihad missile killing scores of people in the parking lot of the Ahli Baptist hospital was marketed by major Western media outlets as an Israeli atrocity producing five hundred casualties. Hamas needed an Israeli war crime; so it invented one, and successfully retailed it to CNN, BBC, MSNBC, AP,  The Washington Post, and The New York Times, outlets that retained their headlines, if not their fake pictures, of the so-called depravity long after the evidence was available to debunk it.

To accept Israel’s story told today in classrooms, you must believe in fiction if not in magic. A narrative that imagines a Zionism possessing the power and funds of the empires conquering America and Australia must distort if not bury data and developments. It has to engage in a linguistic alchemy to transpose the plow into as lethal a weapon as the cannon. It must skip over the many diplomatic efforts to resolve the Conflict to suppose that a Jewish state necessarily deprived Palestinians of the chance to create their own. And it must conjure up an Israel surviving largely from a legacy of plunder propped up by resources poured in from a world that still does little but exploit and oppress. That such easily falsifiable propositions have captured the hearts and minds of so many within and without campus perimeters is a staggering achievement for a magical thinking not only reframing history but also proposing to undo it.

The contemporary academic discourse constructed on Palestinians is no less devoid of intellectual credibility. Coiled around a narrative of catastrophic defeat [nakba], Palestinians have become an enduring image of the innocent victim of an historic injustice. 1948 is understood less in terms of its military outcome than as a first cause of suffering, a dislocation stalking politics in Arab lands while stamping Palestinian identity indelibly by its national trauma as a metaphor for displacement, alienation, and indignity.

A rage supposedly suppressed for decades transubstantiated the murder, rape, and torture meted out on October 7 into a manifestation of liberation because Hamas is fighting for goals supposedly taken to be pure and sacred: undoing the consequences of 1948. Insisting that the nakba is something that can be undone betrays a remarkable view of history—it never ends. It not only hovers over political decisions, it also structures—indeed imprisons–them. A narrative aimed at unity by focusing not on what can be done in the present but rather on what should be undone from the past may be therapeutic but is more than likely to embody a nihilism that leaves it bereft of tangible achievements.

In the past, when a war erupted in the Middle East, its causes, the strategies, tactics, and likely outcomes were analyzed by scholars whose views could be tested in a clash of argument and debate. But professors now prefer to hurl charges filled with a staple set of words proclaiming Palestinians as still victims of an extraordinary injustice and therefore an open wound building inevitably into a violent cathartic discharge. While universities today typically hold intellectual discourse captive to student emotions–raising questions about a text or a history can be interpreted as an ominous assault if they ‘trigger’ discomfort—they are apparently having trouble stretching their sensitivity far enough to include dead Jews who were victims of heinous acts of slaughter.

The fault line dividing the old oppressive order from the new progressive just world runs decisively and deeply through Palestine. Insisting that Israel possesses an imperial-like power, Palestinians are presumably left with no choice but to appeal to people of goodwill everywhere to become their tribunes for restitution. Draped in this veil of virtue, Palestinians are assigned passports to the status of righteousness based on their claims as victims of a devastating oppression. Not only part of the ‘wretched of the earth’ across the globe but also conscripted via intersectionality into a community marked as subordinate because of their skin color, Palestinians have transitioned their combat from the ethno-national into one whose touchstone is race. Thus do Palestinians explain and justify the reasons why they have no choice except to press on with their battles against Israel. For when the idea of Palestine as a territory for two states for two peoples threatens to dissolve the very center of Palestinian identity as ultimate victim, it becomes not only unjust but also unimaginable.

This narrative is pitched to fit in with campus campaigns for social and racial justice as activists churn up their rhetoric to include every imaginable war crime no matter how totally unmoored from reality it might be. Nesting Israel into colonialism thus denies Jews the possibility of legitimate self-determination because it stamps their nationalism as nothing more than a colonialist variant while defining down the country’s achievements as the outcome of one or another imagined bloody crime. Rebranding Israel is now not only a sign of moral authority, it is also a signature of trendy academic expertise. It would normally require no heavy intellectual effort to condemn the monstrous Hamas attacks. But for many embracing progressive politics, even dead babies, young children, and the elderly must be held accountable for the ‘Occupation’– although its meaning in this case is more metaphoric than real given Israel’s Gaza withdrawal in 2005– and for the suffering endured by ordinary Gazans who are powerless and hence innocent no matter what they do to Jews.

Nothing has done more to diminish the incentive among Palestinians for calculating their own political interests than the idea that Zionist successes automatically translate into Arab failures. As much as the hardening of the progressive perspective supposedly places an indelible stamp of guilt on Zionism and Israel, it also injects a brooding pessimism and passivity suggesting that Palestinians cannot control their own destiny because they confront an enmity so implacable and evil in character that unless the world is totally mobilized to destroying it, they will never be given the independence enjoyed by other nations. By turning their confrontation with Zionism into a clash of civilizations, the dominant narrative has denied Palestinians the chance to cultivate the capacity for flexible responses and for the creation of a politics capable of responding to shifting circumstances compromising the notion that Palestinians, themselves, can forge their own national future.

The unacknowledged problem with this perspective is that it banishes Palestinians from their past while at the same time immersing them in its distortions. It closes off access to the real options available for advancing Palestinian political interests by never considering whether total opposition to Zionism became a self-fulfilling strategy for failure. Would sharing the land when Zionists accepted much more equitable proposals for dividing the territory—as in 1937 or 1947 or even in 1949—represent a road not taken and one that would have given Palestinians a base for their own nation-state? Would a Gaza Strip ruled by people willing to live in peace with Israel have brought a better life for its population? Engendering fatalism about politics as the art of the possible while making a totem of the impossible may satisfy the conceit and political interests of leaders but does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people.

What should be happening on campuses regarding the Middle East Conflict –meticulous research with a careful examination of data and events aiming for clarity–has too often been discarded for an advocacy that masquerades as scholarship with books and articles feeding each other in a cul-de-sac-like an echo chamber claiming a kind of ‘intellectual legitimacy’ through repetition rather than through a process of objective verification.

The acclaim wrapped around Hamas attacks has provoked denunciations—fair enough. But that it did not trigger questions and discussions is a missed opportunity. What kind of liberation can Palestinians expect from people willing to unleash this kind of violence? Will Palestinians gain individual freedom from such a victory? The same experts who caution Israel to think long and hard about what will happen once Hamas is defeated militarily should also consider what is likely to follow if Hamas wins? These are critical questions particularly for social justice warriors who call to make Palestine whole from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Because if the terrible toll exacted by this more than hundred years’ war produces only shouts and slogans, then the academy, itself, is likely and rightfully to be listed as one of its casualties.

[1] See Israel Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 2019, Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government emerita at Smith College, where she taught a variety of courses on Middle East politics. Able to draw on material in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, her books include Women Living Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives; Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power, Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine, and Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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