Posts Tagged Israel
This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on January 20, as part of a discussion of Israeli strategy.
Ofir Haivry has given a historically well-versed account of the evolution of Zionist and Israeli grand strategy, from Herzl to the present. He also makes a trenchant case that Israel has strayed from the “activist” precedent set by David Ben-Gurion in the early years of the state.
There was always something romantic about the “activist” doings of Israel—forging ties as far afield as Ethiopia and Iran, dabbling in the secessionist causes of the Kurds of Iraq and the blacks of southern Sudan. And, of course, there was the longest and most cherished play of all: the cultivation of ties with the Maronites of Lebanon. Ah, that view from the heights above Beirut. . . .
But as romantic as it all may seem in retrospect, this “activism” failed to achieve its primary end, which was to keep Arab states so preoccupied with other problems that they would avoid war with Israel. In each decade, Israel ended up fighting wars with Arab states: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. Each war had its own dynamic, but together they combined to create the firm impression in the world that the Arab-Israeli conflict was indeed the “Middle East conflict,” the source of all the region’s problems. Israel’s support for the southern Sudanese and Ethiopia didn’t restrain Egypt, its support for the Kurds didn’t deter Iraq, and its backing of the Maronites didn’t stop the PLO from carving out a mini-state in Lebanon. Relationships with Turkey and Iran did nothing to cause Arab states to think twice.
The problem was that Israel’s would-be friends among the region’s minorities were too weak, which was precisely why they sought Israeli support in the first place. Israel’s sub rosa allies, the monarchies of Ethiopia and Iran, were also weak at their cores, and both would be toppled by revolutions, in 1974 and 1979 respectively. Attempts to rekindle these ties never translated into meaningful strategic gains, and one of them, Israel’s mediation in the Iran-Contra affair, totally backfired.
The only way to break the cycle of wars with the Arabs was to get Egypt out of it. Egypt, too, had engaged in an “activist” policy following the 1952 revolution. In his Philosophy of the Revolution (1955), Gamal Abdel Nasser placed Egypt in three “circles”: Arab, African, and Islamic. Egypt began meddling in all of them, thinking this would inflate its importance as a regional power. Instead, this ceaseless “activism” turned into a burden, culminating in Egypt’s disastrous military intervention in a civil war in Yemen, which may have set the stage for Nasser’s humiliating defeat in 1967. Pan-Arabism was the Arab version of “activism,” and it, too, failed. When Anwar Sadat also sought an exit from the cycle of wars with Israel, his first move was to jettison it altogether.
It was the dual failure of Israeli and Egyptian “activism” to end costly wars that drove both countries to abandon it in favor of a direct deal for peace. The contribution of this peace to Israel’s security has been indisputable. Israel hasn’t fought a full state-to-state war since 1973. The costs of small wars, from Lebanon to the intifadas and Gaza, have never approximated those of waging a war with an Arab state—or worse, a coalition of them. No wonder Israel has preferred the stability of Egypt, although it has no way to promote it, and can only pray for it.
The drawback of the old “activism” was that it committed Israel to weak parties who didn’t bring enough heft to the relationships. The list presented by Haivry in arguing for a new “activism” today isn’t much more promising. There is no reason to be in the morass of southern Sudan, for instance, if there is no threat from Egypt, and even then it would be a very weak card. The same is true of the North African Berbers, also of little use to Israel absent a threat from Egypt. The Christians scattered across the Fertile Crescent are vulnerable, and they are emigrating whenever they can. The Druze everywhere sway with the wind, as they must do in order to survive, and they saw enough of Israel in Lebanon to know that they would be foolish to rely on it.
The Kurds, a big item on Haivry’s list, are much more interesting than they were way back when Israel cultivated them against Saddam. If they don’t overplay their hand, they may even acquire some trappings of sovereignty. But Israel will never be more than a bit player there, given that the Kurds are landlocked and Turkey has resolved to play the dominant role. Then there are the Alawites, who, if they did retreat to a coastal enclave in northern Syria–far from certain– would do so in defeat, and would need more than they could give. (Russia would remain their patron.)
As for the Azeris and other ethnic groups in Iran, despite decades of Western efforts to entice them to break off, they remain in a fixed orbit around the Iranian state. (Azerbaijan itself is a better play, although its significance is more economic than strategic.) Ethiopia, again, is valuable only if Israel faces a hostile Egypt, which it doesn’t. Lately, Israel has reached out to Greece and Cyprus, to tweak Turkey. But these are the basket cases of the European Union—better than nothing, but far inferior to any future reconciliation with a post-Erdogan Turkey.
This may be as good as it gets, and the Mossad could be kept busy collecting little bits and pieces of the shattered mosaic. But let’s not rule out alternatives to an alliance of weaklings.
One is some kind of cooperation with the Arab oil states, which are economically powerful but militarily exposed, and which are worried (perhaps excessively so) that the United States might sacrifice them to a reconciliation with Iran. No, they are not “natural” allies of Israel, and in the Saudi case, they are as distasteful to Israelis as Israelis are to them. But here, too, there are significant differences. The statelets that line the Gulf may funnel money to Islamists in Syria and elsewhere, but at home they are comparatively tolerant, to the point of allowing Arabs and Muslims to fall into the minority through the importation of foreign workers.
The emirs who build extensions of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, open branches of American universities, and put their resources not into weapons but skyscrapers, are more than just “Sunni authoritarians,” in Haivry’s phrase. These small states represent the most functional part of the Arab expanse (remember, it’s all relative), they’re not totally benighted, and they have strengths to offset their weaknesses. If Iran’s power grows, and confidence in the United States diminishes, these micro-states will do what it takes to survive, perhaps opening opportunities for Israel.
They are also in league with Egypt and Jordan, which remain bound to Israel by treaties that have stood many tests. The behind-the-scenes cooperation between Israel and the military in Cairo and the monarchy in Amman remains far-reaching. Those observers who, only a few years ago, wrote off the generals and the royals as vestiges of the past have a lot of explaining to do. Just as important, the ruling elites in both countries have shown grit in the face of challenges, and they can deliver on security when it is in their interest to do so. The simple geographic fact is that they are the custodians of Israel’s two longest borders, and no amount of romantic adventure in distant corners can substitute for solid relationships with immediate neighbors.
It would be splendid if all these considerations could be cast aside in favor of building, as Haivry writes, a league of “forces in the Middle East seeking self-determination, democracy, and liberty.” The problem is that these forces don’t have much force, and their commitment to the lofty principles that underpin Western modernity is far from unequivocal. In any case, the prevention of war is just as moral a pursuit as the promotion of democracy, especially where prospects for the former far outweigh the unlikely success of the latter. Even the United States, the greatest champion of liberty in human history, has been humbled by its failure to spread its values in the Middle East. Fortunately, Israel has shown that it can maintain liberty even in a region that is unfree. It can afford to wait until the peoples surrounding it transform themselves, however long it takes.
Israel has also shown that it can flourish even in the absence of a Palestinian state. In Israel, the question of whether the status quo on this front is sustainable is a subject of political disagreement, but it doesn’t break down along the lines of support for “activism” versus “stability.” For example, one might get the impression from Haivry that Amos Yadlin, the former chief of military intelligence, is a potential “activist” who sees opportunities everywhere except in the Palestinian track. In fact, he so supports a Palestinian state that he would have Israel thrust it upon the Palestinians even if they don’t want it—as a way to stabilize Israel.
Yes, there are some who believe that Israel, like Arab regimes, is also losing legitimacy (through its own actions or hostile “delegitimation”), and so must be saved by an alternative “activism” personified by John Kerry, who presents Mahmoud Abbas, the old-guard head of the Palestinian Authority, as a new “opportunity.” The problem with Abbas is that he is just another one of the weaklings, reliance upon whom is more likely to drain Israeli power than enhance it.
Which brings us to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. It is absolutely true that the United States is retrenching (the result of its own deep disillusionment with the “activism” of George Bush’s “forward strategy for democracy”). Elsewhere I have argued that Israel needs to think about a “Plan B” for a post-American Middle East. But I must also admit that no one, myself included, has one. I recently chaired a panel of Israel’s most astute strategic thinkers, from the full range of the political spectrum, but when I asked them what could be done to offset American retrenchment, their answers were identical: there is no alternative. If India is indeed a “principal candidate,” as Haivry suggests, it will be a long time before any outside power fills the vacuum, so Israel will have to find ways to do so itself.
In particular, it will have to make sure that Iran doesn’t fill that vacuum. To some, Israel’s preoccupation with Iran may seem excessive and obsessive. I myself think it can be best apprehended by viewing this single image. Look at it carefully. Today, no regional power is capable of making this nightmare scenario come true. If Iran emerges with such a capability, Israel’s entire grand strategy will have to be revamped to embrace a very different kind of “activism,” well beyond drinking coffee with Kurds and Druze.
The possible parameters of such a posture deserve fuller treatment, but it would be better not to have to go there at all. That is why Iran must remain at the top of the agenda, and that is why Israel mustn’t be distracted by Arab springs, Islamist winters, and various photogenic “awakenings.” It must keep its eye on this ball, lest the ball become a fireball. No ramshackle structure of “partnerships” will matter if the image above becomes not just thinkable, but feasible.
The strength of Zionism and Israel has been their adaptive character, and particularly their ability to identify extraneous sources of power and to draw upon them to build independent Jewish power. Our heirs in the decades to come will judge us by whether, in these times of relative security, we prepared Israel for more troubled days. There can be no substitute for independent power, in the absence of which our fate would be comparable to that of Kurds, Christians, and Druze. By all means, let us seek new friends. But let us not forget that we must prepare ourselves to survive as a people that dwells alone.
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Dear Fellow Members of the American Studies Association (ASA),
We are pleased to report our progress toward our next boycott resolution. As you know, our president, Professor Curtis Marez, gained some notoriety from a quote given by him to the New York Times. He had been asked why, given the widespread abuse of human rights around the world and especially in the Middle East, the ASA had chosen to boycott only Israeli universities. His answer: “One has to start somewhere.”
This prompted questions as to where we would go next. So we took our lead from a statement by Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” In that spirit, we have decided that our next boycott should be leveled against additional universities that collaborate with their governments and militaries in developing weapons and other technology used to violate human rights around the world. And since we are the American Studies Association, we have decided to focus our quest in these United States, where perhaps, right under our noses, universities are falling short of our own new standards of academic virtue.
Our attention has been drawn to the University of California at San Diego—where, so it happens, Professor Marez chairs the department of ethnic studies. We begin with a basic data point, taken from a 2012 press release by the UCSD News Center under the headline: “UC San Diego Maintains Strong Ties With Department of Defense.” The item notes that UCSD (itself situated on a former marine base) “has maintained a strong connection with defense initiatives for the military and U.S. government over the past five decades…. During this fiscal year alone, the Department of Defense has granted more than $60 million to support various basic and applied research studies at UC San Diego.” To this must be added grants from defense contractors, who are thick on the ground in San Diego.
After an intensive internet search, we have discovered where some of this funding is going. The 2012 news item, quoted above, mentioned that the most recent DoD grant, for $7 million, went to a team of physicists, biologists, chemists, bioengineers, and psychologists, “to investigate the dynamic principles of collective brain activity.” Nothing could sound more sinister. (Although our critics, pointing to our earlier boycott resolution, have claimed that “collective brain activity” does not have much potential.) Social scientists are also doing their share. For example, there is the political scientist doing a DoD-funded project on “cross domain deterrence,” in collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. (E.g., you threaten a student with a failing grade, and they threaten back with harassment charges.) And there is the economist, funded by DoD and Homeland Security, asking “Can Hearts and Minds be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq.” (In a word: yes, but every academic dean knows that anyway.)
However, there are projects far more ominous than “collective brain activity,” such as weapons systems, and particularly drone warfare. San Diego is the nation’s biggest center of military drone production, with the massive presence of General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, the two leaders in the field. General Atomics makes the Predator and the Reaper, Northrop Grumman makes the Golden Hawk and the Hunter. We remind our members that in the fall, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports on civilian casualties in U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan (Pakistan) and Yemen, respectively. Both reports are replete with disturbing case studies. Amnesty expressed “serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Human Rights Watch concluded that “US statements and actions indicate that US forces are applying an overly broad definition of ‘combatant’ in targeted attacks… These killings may amount to an extrajudicial execution.” We have already received direct calls from Waziri and Yemeni civil society organizations, demanding our action. (We discount the one that began: “Oh, ye unbelievers of the ASA…”)
Just how much contract research on drones is done by UCSD? In July 2012, MuckRock News made a request under the California Public Records Act (the California equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act), asking to see “all contracts between UCSD and government agencies or private corporations for services relating to aerial drones, UAs, UAVs and UASs (‘drones’).” A year and a half later, UCSD has yet to produce any contracts, claiming that it is backlogged with other requests.
Nevertheless, your association has managed to uncover some specific instances. In 2006, the university’s Structural Engineering Department did a project to boost the payload of the Hunter. According to Northrop Grumman, the project helped to “add additional communications, intelligence and weapon payloads to the Hunter, expanding the capabilities of the fighter.” (Here is a photo of the Hunter on campus.) UCSD has also had a partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in which students worked on “damage detection for composite wings of the Predator UAV.” Interest in this subject continues, and two Predator wings were recently installed at the university for testing. (Here is a photo of two students posing with the wings.)
We intend to keep digging, but we believe this is enough to justify action. Remember the words of Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” Given that UCSD works closely with the U.S. government and military in developing weapons and other technology employed by the United States (including the CIA) to perpetrate extrajudicial executions and other violations of international humanitarian law, UCSD is obviously a candidate for boycott by the ASA. Our standards, to be compelling, should be consistent.
We have also been apprised of the following, by the Students for Justice in Palestine at UCSD: “UC San Diego is built upon indigenous Kumeyaay land just as Israel is built upon indigenous Palestinian land.” This being so, there are even further grounds for implementing a boycott, as UCSD stands on occupied Kumeyaay territory. Even the chancellor’s residence sits in the midst of a Kumeyaay cemetery. We know the analogy is not perfect: if you drop a shovel in indigenous Palestinian land, you might still strike an ancient Jewish grave. Nevertheless, we believe the parallels are compelling, and that this is further reason to boycott UCSD.
We are certain no difficulty would be caused to Professor Marez were his university to be boycotted. This would only preclude “formal collaboration” with his institution, so he could continue to participate in our annual conferences. And we are certain the pressure on him would lead him to stand firm in the faculty lounge and confront his scientific colleagues, and above all the chancellor of UCSD. The chancellor himself is a computer engineer who spent years working at the Department of Defense (at DARPA, its basic research branch), and later served as an adviser to DARPA on unmanned combat air systems. But we are sure our boycott, and the persuasiveness of Professor Marez, would lead the chancellor to reverse the university’s immoral course.
An ASA boycott of the University of California at San Diego would be a bold act, demonstrating our adherence to consistent principle and our solidarity with the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, who live in constant fear of deadly U.S. drone attacks. In protesting these U.S. government violations of international humanitarian law, we have to start somewhere. Fellow members: let us make clear, in no uncertain terms, that we do have the courage to speak truth to power, even if it means sawing off the limb on which we sit!
•This parody first appeared on the Commentary blog on January 7.
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— Michael Koplow (@mkoplow) January 9, 2014
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 20.
Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”
But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.
In 2005, the University of Tehran established a Department of North American Studies, as part of a new Institute for North American and European Studies. The notion was that Iran needed to school experts on America, but in a way that wouldn’t pollute them with traces of sympathy for their object of study. For that, the project needed a regime loyalist knowledgeable about America but appropriately contemptuous of it.
Meet Seyed Mohammad Marandi. Born in the United States to an exiled Iranian physician, Marandi came to Iran at the age of thirteen, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, did an English lit Ph.D. in Britain, and worked his way up the university ladder, becoming director of the new department. Marandi is familiar to every Iran news addict. He’s the fellow the international networks can always depend upon to defend every action of the regime, from suppression of the “Green Revolution” to the shocking execution of dissidents (sorry, “terrorists”). This is a man capable of acclaiming Ayatollah Khamenei (a “just, pious, and courageous” leader) as being perhaps even greater than Ayatollah Khomeini himself—”as he did not have the advantage of being the Founder of the Revolution.”
The ASA brought Marandi to the United States for its annual conference in 2005. An American academic who knew Marandi in Iran at the time told the story:
Someone suggested to the leadership of the ASA that the organization invite him to attend the annual meeting that year in Washington, D.C., all expenses paid. The ASA paid for him to come and gave him a free registration and money for a hotel, and it didn’t ask him to do anything other than roam the corridors of those opulent hotels.
So Marandi got a taste of “state of the art” scholarship in American studies. As it turned out, this wasn’t as valuable as it might sound, or so his American friend reported:
The topics that this director found himself learning about, as he made his way through the hallways of this grand hotel, were so esoteric as to be of no help to him in planning how to teach himself American studies so that he could teach his students. He would stay for a few moments at each panel, trying to relate it to the needs of the institute he was building back home, before he staggered on to the next.
The ASA’s patronage of Marandi’s shop didn’t end there. In 2006, the Center for Distance Learning at SUNY Empire State College received a “partnership grant” from the ASA to promote its ties with Marandi’s department—”seed money” for a full-blown exchange. (It didn’t happen.) And in 2007, Marandi was back at the ASA, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, to present a paper savaging literary memoirs written by Iranian critics of the regime, some of which had become popular in the United States (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis).
If anyone had any doubt about Marandi’s standing as a regime stalwart, it should have been dissipated by the regime’s simultaneous purge of university faculty, at the University of Tehran and elsewhere. In September 2006, President Ahmadinejad launched a tirade against “the continued presence of liberal and secular professors in the country’s universities.” Word came that these professors were being retired en masse. The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) issued a letter urging that “Iran’s universities use transparent and non-discriminatory criteria in any decisions regarding compulsory retirement, and that no academics face dismissal solely or mainly because of political views that they express peacefully.” In May 2007, MESA issued another letter, noting that over the previous year, “students and professors from numerous Iranian universities have been disciplined, fired, forcibly retired, expelled, and otherwise harassed on grounds that are clearly related to their political opinions and associations.”
After suppression of the “Green Revolution,” the dismissals accelerated, provoking a flood of protests by human-rights organizations. In October 2009, MESA wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, protesting the “harassment and dismissal of university faculty on grounds of political and ideological dissent,” and lamenting that “the abuses of power by the Iranian state and the atmosphere of fear to which students and faculty are subjected on and off the university campuses [are] by far among the most dismal in the world.”
Yet through all this turmoil, Marandi and his university program flourished, and he became the go-to man for the official point of view in the world media. At times, his slavish fealty to the regime, expressed in perfect American English, exasperated even the most indulgent interviewers. In one particularly memorable exchange, at the height of the street violence, Fareed Zakaria lost his patience, asking Marandi this question:
Do you worry that you will be seen in history as a mouthpiece for a dying, repressive regime in its death throes? That twenty years from now you’ll look back, and the world will look back at you, the way it did some of those smooth-talking, English-speaking, Soviet spokesmen who were telling us right in the middle 1980s, that the Soviet Union was all just fine and democratic and wonderful?
When Marandi retorted he was an academic and no one’s mouthpiece, Zakaria asked why “the only person we are allowed to speak to [via satellite from Iran] is you.”
Marandi’s performance during the “Green Revolution” seems to have put him beyond the pale, perhaps even for the ASA. But the episode casts a harsh light on the ASA’s latest decision to boycott Israel’s institutions of higher education. Israeli academe is chock-full of people who make names for themselves by lambasting the Israeli government of the day and the “occupation,” if not the very premises of Israel itself. Take Tel Aviv University, where I spent twenty-five years. There I was a colleague of the late Tanya Reinhart, a linguist who habitually accused Israel of genocide, and Shlomo Sand, a historian who has written two books insisting that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are Zionist fabrications. (He’s also written a tract on when and how he stopped being a Jew.) These Israeli professors have no remote equivalents at the University of Tehran. But the ASA now boycotts Tel Aviv University, not the University of Tehran, and even worse, it has a record of legitimating the very faction on the Tehran campus installed by the regime as part of a purge.
Now that I think about it, the ASA boycott resolution of Israel provides a perfect opportunity for the ASA to renew its links with Marandi and the regime’s “American studies” project. After all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that leads the world in promoting the isolation of Israel, as a prelude to its eventual dissolution. It’s a natural partner. So what if institutional members of the ASA like Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg drop out? There’s always the University of Tehran to take their place.
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This article first appeared at Foreign Policy on December 20.
I am now subject to a boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA), an organization of professors that includes roughly 5,000 members. The resolution, passed by the organization’s rank-and-file on Dec. 15, supposedly doesn’t apply to individuals, but it applies to me. The ASA explains:
The American Studies Association understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others) … until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
Since I am the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, an accredited Israeli academic institution, I’m clearly subject to the ASA boycott. And while my fledgling liberal arts college doesn’t have any “formal collaborations” with the ASA, it’s the thought that counts.
So just what was the ASA thinking? I don’t follow American studies—my field is the Middle East—and until this episode, I hadn’t heard of the organization. What I know about such associations comes from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an organization of scholars who study the region. Needless to say, MESA has had plenty of boycott advocates among its leadership and rank-and-file. A few years back, they tried to pull MESA onto the boycott cart, but they failed.
Boycott advocates haven’t tried since, and for good reason: There are just too many people in MESA who know something about the Middle East. And by those standards, it’s not self-evident that Israel should be singled out and boycotted for its supposed transgressions. All you have to do is peruse the “intervention letters” sent by MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom. These letters-in-a-bottle to the likes of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan protesting dismissals and show trials of scholars and police violence on campuses are a pretty good indicator of where academic freedom in the Middle East is truly imperiled.
ASA president Curtis Marez acknowledged that some countries in the region have worse human rights records than Israel. However, he then justified the boycott with the unforgettable claim that “one has to start somewhere.”
If you know nothing about the Middle East, and have made a studied effort not to know more, you might think that “somewhere” is Israel. That’s because Israel and the Palestinians get outsized attention—in America. The crimes of others are ignored: What Syrians do to Syrians, Egyptians do to Egyptians, and Iranians do to Iranians—especially to professors—just isn’t compelling news, no matter how horrific. In that sense, the boycott resolution perfectly mirrors the U.S.-centric bias of the ASA: Everything over the horizon, beyond the continental scope of “American studies,” is just a vague blur of media caricatures.
One of the ASA’s central ideological prisms appears to be that the United States is an aggressive empire. Just scan the program of last year’s annual conference, titled “Dimensions of Empire and Resistance,” which was billed as a reflection “on indigeneity and dispossession,” the “course of U.S. empire.”
The United States has a range of allies and clients in the Middle East—but only Israel is viewed positively by a large majority of Americans, while Israelis themselves are overwhelmingly pro-American. For the ASA, that appears to be the bill of indictment right there. The surly Saudis are deeply ambivalent about America, but they’ve spread hush money across the American academic landscape, so don’t expect them to be boycotted. No, it will be Israel—as punishment not for its offenses, which aren’t the worst by any means, but for its “special relationship” with the United States.
I’m not exactly sure what I should do to get myself off the ASA’s blacklist. The organization posed this very question in an explainer about its decision, and could only conclude: “This is a difficult question to answer. The boycott is designed to put real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation and in extending equal rights to Palestinians.”
Although this isn’t an answer at all, it suggests that I should abandon what I believe under pressure—acting not out of conviction, but out of fear for the fate of my institution. Instead of speaking truth, I am supposed to distort my truth. The boycott presumes that I am akin to a widget exporter, so focused on my bottom line that I can be turned into a lobby for just about any cause with the sufficient application of “pressure.”
Here is the fatal flaw in the boycott’s design: If I, as a scholar, were to change my tune under “pressure,” my credibility would be rightly destroyed, and I would lose my power to convince anyone of anything.
Let’s say that I’m on a first-name basis with a few Israeli cabinet ministers (I am). According to the boycott’s strategy, I should request a meeting with each of them, and tell them it is time to “end the occupation and extend equal rights to Palestinians.” “Why?” they would ask. What has changed since the last time we had a conversation?
In the past, I spoke out of conviction, in terms of what would best serve the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. So why should they give a whit if, now, I tell them I speak out of fear for the standing of one institution, cherished though it may be? I would not only be unconvincing, I would become contemptible in the eyes of others and, above all, myself.
So I regret to inform the ASA that I will not knuckle under. I would sooner resign my presidency than alter, by one iota, my considered view of what is best for Israel. I may not be right (especially by the standards of the ASA resolution, which, if Peter Beinart’s assessment is correct, implies that the best thing for Israel would be its total dissolution). But it is my truth, arrived at freely, and the suggestion that I might be pressured into distorting it presumes that I, and my fellow heads of Israeli universities, lack all intellectual integrity. To which my reply is: Boycott me. Please.
While we languish under boycott, Shalem College will continue to do our best to bring to Israel the benefits of an American-style education. Ours is the first institution in Israel to find inspiration in the American tradition of the small liberal arts college. Shalem Press, our scholarly imprint, has commissioned and published outstanding Hebrew translations of The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. These works are now assigned in dozens of university courses throughout Israel. We will continue to bring the most important American ideas to Israeli readers in Hebrew. And we will continue to teach our Israeli undergraduates the fundamental ideals behind the world’s greatest democracy, and their origins and resonance in the Jewish tradition. Boycott or not.
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This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 2.
Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”
It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”
The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.
Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.
For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):
When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.
In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”
And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:
The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.
Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).
President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)
Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.
Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.
The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.
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