Israel and the Moral Midgets of American Academe

The American Studies Association exposes the deep-seated rot of today's universities.

American_Studies_Association_1A province of the academic Lilliput called the American Studies Association has voted to boycott Israeli academics because of “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” and “the systematic discrimination against Palestinians.” The well-earned criticism of this vote is probably the most attention this organization has ever received outside the parochial precincts of the American university, where “conferences” of like-mindedness pedants regularly gather together to read papers to each other and ritualistically affirm their fossilized political and intellectual orthodoxy. Indeed, what this vote tells us about the corruption of American higher education is more worthy of comment than its impact on Israel’s intellectual life, considering that “American Studies” is a political rather than a scholarly enterprise unlikely to concern genuine Israeli scholars. Martin Kramer’s response gets it just about right: “Boycott me, please.”

The first thing revealed by this vote is the massive ignorance of history, including current events, that permeates American universities. Most obvious is the rote repetition of the phrase “Israeli occupation of Palestine.” This phrase is historically meaningless. There is no occupation in legal terms, because there has never existed a country to be occupied. The territory under question last existed formally as a province of the Ottoman Empire, which has long settled into the dustbin of history because it miscalculated badly and allied with the Central Powers in World War I. The legal disposition, through a U.N. resolution, of this territory by the mandatory powers that replaced the Ottomans after World War I was rejected and violently contested by the Arab nations that attacked Israel in 1948.

Until 1967, this territory was controlled by Jordan, whose annexation of it was never recognized internationally. It came under control of Israel as a result of the defensive Six Day War. Without that event, it is likely that despite international disapproval, the territory would have in time become part of Jordan according to the ancient wisdom that possession is nine-tenths of the law. After all, who boycotts China over its absorption of Tibet? If after their victory in 1967 Israel had behaved as most states do in such circumstances, she would have annexed the territory that by the legitimacy of history is part of Israel, and that was fairly won on the battlefield. And again following the usual practice of most states, Israel then would have expelled all the Arabs. This historically has been the common practice that no one other than the losers complained about after other wars. One and a half million Greeks, for example, were booted out of Muslim Turkey in 1923, from lands their ancestors had inhabited for nearly 3 thousand years, while half a million Muslims, descendants of invaders or Christians converted under the shadow of the sword, were sent to Turkey. Or consider the 12 million Germans kicked out of Eastern Europe after World War II. That’s what happens when a people start a war and lose.

And don’t forget, the Arabs living in the ancient Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria are the descendants of conquerors and occupiers, or recent immigrants drawn by the economic development by Jewish settlers. By any measure of historical justice or coherent thinking, what the historically challenged now call the “occupied West Bank” would have become part of Israel. The only accurate description of this territory is “disputed,” its final disposition dependent on successful negotiations that the so-called Palestinians have never engaged in sincerely, since their ultimate goal is not their own state but the destruction of Israel. And apparently the ASA agrees with that aim, as it refers not to the “occupation” of the West Bank, but of “Palestine,” which the Arabs consider encompasses all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

The same incoherence is evident in the phrase “discrimination against Palestinians.” There is no such thing as “Palestinians.” “Palestine” was the name given to Judea by the Romans after the destruction of the country in 136 A.D., an act of damnatio memoriae by which the Romans attempted to obliterate any trace of the existence of an enemy. Thus they renamed the country after the Philistines, a people that in effect no longer existed. Later Palestine was an administrative unit of the Ottoman Empire, and “Palestinian” denoted anyone living there, including Jews, just as today “Californian” does not refer to a distinct national or ethnic group but to anyone living in California. The Arabs today called Palestinians are not significantly different ethnically, linguistically, or culturally from the Arabs living in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria.

If you have any doubt, listen to Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO Political Department in 1977. “Jordanians and Palestinians are considered by the PLO as one people,” he told Newsweek magazine. Earlier, after the Six Day War, Executive Council of the PLO member Zouhair Muhsin said, “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity… Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.” The idea of a “Palestinian” nation has been a device for promoting the incremental war against Israel, appealing to ignorant Westerners and their own cultural ideals of “ethnic self-determination” or nationhood, concepts alien to traditional Muslim ideas of the ummah, the world-wide community of Muslims united not by blood or nationality but by religion.

This tactic, of course, has been wildly successful, as the continuing duplicitous diplomacy over the “two-state solution,” and as the latest boycott by American academics show. For the latter, another bit of unexamined received wisdom contributes to their demonization of Israel, and that is the continuing currency of “colonialism” as a substitute for precise historical thinking. All that your typical American professor knows about colonialism is that it is a “bad thing” perpetuated by evil racist white Westerners seeking resources and markets from oppressed “peoples of color.” That most human communities with the power to do so have invaded and appropriated the lands of resources of others is a fact ignored by those who substitute epithets for thought. Indeed, if colonialism and imperialism are such serious evils, then Arab Muslims would head the list of malefactors, as their historical record of invasion, exploitation, and occupation from Spain to India demonstrates.

But don’t confuse professors with facts. They have supped from the poisoned chalice of Edward Said’s “orientalism.” His book of the same name, “a work of malignant charlantry,” as Robert Irwin calls it, has for 35 years shaped the beliefs of Western academics about the Middle East. As Martin Kramer writes in his analysis of Middle Eastern Studies programs, Said “rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology.” From the Saidian perspective, then, Israel is a neo-colonialist outpost of the West, an agent of exploitation and oppression of the dark-skinned “other” in contrast to whom the West defines its racist superiority. Thus “every European,” Said alleged, “ in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” Given this oppressive prejudice and blindness to historical crimes, the attacks by Middle Eastern Muslims on these imperialist incursions, particularly the state of Israel, is perfectly justified “resistance” not to be judged or condemned.

In Said’s work one finds the foundational gospel of the academic cult of cultural and intellectual relativism incoherently married to bigoted hatred of the West, the moral and historical idiocy on display in the ASA’s boycott and the hatred of Israel, the only liberal democracy in the region filled with illiberal regimes that scorn the human rights that spoiled American professors claim to uphold. Such political antics and the moral idiocy behind them are just one more symptom of the deep-seated rot undermining American universities.

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