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The Biter Bit!

It is one of life’s little pleasures to see the habitual biter bit: badly. Our little band of malcontents-narcissists-egotists (both of the megalomaniac and common garden varieties) and anti-Semites, otherwise known as the BDS Boytjies, have been wetting themselves in excitement recently because activists within the ASA (American Studies Association) announced a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Instead, however, of the expected plaudits for their “courageous stand” they have been repudiated as bigots and nincompoops by their betters.

The American Studies Association is a relatively minor player on the American academic stage and through this ignorant and bigoted action they have rendered themselves even more superfluous. A number of Universities departments promptly handed in their resignation from the organisation and they have been lambasted by major leaguers like the American Association of University Professors. In addition many prominent academics in their personal capacities have publicly excoriated their ignorant and bigoted posture. For more detail see here and here. It should be said that al-Jazeera supported their stand and they have Richard Falk to call upon for further endorsement.

The poverty of their intellectual justification is revealed by the response of the ASA President to the query “why Israel?” The fatuity of his reply “one has to start somewhere” is not easily bettered.  Not quite as pathetic but equally revealing was their more complete justification expressed in the following unctuous and ungrammatical terms “The association’s endorsement of the boycott is an expression of the academic freedom, whose commitments to social equality, anti-racism and anti-colonialism have been at the forefront of critical transformations in the humanities and the social sciences.”

 Besides the inherent contradiction and self-endorsement contained within that statement, “commitments to social equality, anti-racism and anti-colonialism” are not the primary mission of academics. Such empty sloganeering and coercive doctrinal posturing is more traditionally associated with religious or political ideologues than with scholars whose primary mission is a disinterested search for truth in all its complexities and contradictions. It is a sad measure of the slide of the humanities and social sciences into quasi-religious cults rather than engaging in the serious scholarship  required to expand our frontiers of understanding. The same arrogance and wilful ignorance that the literary critic CS Leavis displayed a half-century ago in his attack on CP Snow’s “The Two Cultures”, is manifest in the rhetoric and moral grandstanding of organisations like the ASA. Of course, that is par for the course for BDS activists from whom nothing better is expected than vulgar propaganda.

For a more inspiring and hopeful approach to academic responsibilities here is a quote from the President of Kenyon College Sean Decatur,  “From its origins in classical civilization, the study of the traditional liberal arts is meant to deepen our understanding of the human condition, including moral and ethical dimensions of our society, in order to enhance our capacity as citizens. Through the study of literature, history, and philosophy, scholars, faculty, and students struggle to arrive at a deeper understanding of their own worlds. One can look at the course offerings at the American Studies Department at Tel Aviv University and find courses similar to what one would find at Kenyon, including, for example, ‘The Age of Thoreau’ and ‘African-American Literature.’ And I am certain that the readings and topics of these courses stimulate discussions that are simultaneously similar to those at Kenyon, but, due to the context, fundamentally different. Imagine discussions of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ in the context of a nation facing ethnic and religious strife, or reading Thoreau and Emerson in the context of a nation struggling with both existential challenges and the process of defining for itself concepts of justice and equality. As the leader of an academic institution, I consider this an excellent example of the potential transformative power of the liberal arts, raising questions and generating discussions that both transcend time and place and also brightly illuminate current issues.”

 Decatur goes on to state: “This is among the most powerful arguments in opposition to the decision of the ASA to boycott institutions from Israel. Regardless of one’s views on the political solutions to Israeli/Palestinian relations, the cultural transformation needed to find peace in the region will depend on these types of discussions, which in turn require strong academic institutions with free and unfettered exchange of ideas with scholars from around the world. Collaborations among individual scholars and among institutions have the potential to support and nurture this cultural transformation. We should not be shutting out one side or the other, but rather open ourselves to engage in meaningful, substantial dialogue on fundamental questions with all sides.”

Only too often mediocre academics relinquish such challenges for the rather more immediate gratifications of moral posturing. Sometimes what we need is simply a healthy dose of moral clarity and realism. Here are two such contributions. The first is by that ardent pro-Zionist, Phyllis Chesler, in response to the attempt by UNICEF to selective smear Israel for the “abuse” of Palestinian children. The second is also by a Zionist who takes Israel to task for a case of moral stupidity and needless malice. A healthy society capable of self-defence and growth needs both realistic self-esteem and responsiveness to healthy criticism. These two articles supply the necessary medicine.

My next post: the two state solution revisited.

Mike Berger




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