Joan Scott’s Change of Mind on BDS – Trajectory of Progressive Dogma

Joan Scott, the prominent and influential Cultural Historian, wrote a short article a few years ago, which I think captures that mood of current academic-based progressive sensibilities. She starts with a conversion narrative as the justification for her change of mind: she argues that it was the successful lobbying effort at censorship from Israeli and conservative-Jewish interests of an AAUP conference on academic boycotts supposedly only aimed at discussing the concept, that made her re-evaluate whether a traditional defense of academic freedom as justification for opposing boycotts makes sense in a context where even discussing boycotts is subject to censorship. But the conversion narrative immediately falls apart, in my opinion, as she continues:

What did it mean, I wondered, to oppose the boycott campaign in
the name of Israeli academic freedom when the Israeli state regularly denied academic freedom to critics of the state, the occupation, or, indeed, of Zionism,and when the blacklisting of the state’s critics is the regular tool of state authorities against Israel’s own academic institutions?
That line of argument is not just straight from the BDS literature, but the passing reference to Zionism as an assumed legitimate object for criticism already contains within it the presumed judgement of its illegitimacy. In other words, Scott was already strongly predisposed towards BDS.
Scott continues the article with a principled defense of an Academic Boycott as logical in the context of a broadened definition of Academic Freedom:
Such a boycott refuses to accept the facade of democracy Israel wants to present to the world. It is not a boycott of individuals on the basis of their national citizenship. Quite the contrary — it is an institutional boycott, aimed at those cultural and educational institutions that consistently fail to oppose the occupation and the unequal treatment of non-Jewish citizens. It demands evidence that these institutions provide academic freedom to Arabs as well as Jews, Palestinians as well as Israelis, within the borders of Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza, and support it for Arabs and Jews equally. It says that, in the face of an apartheid that violates both the principles and practices of equality and freedom for all, a principled opposition to boycotts as punitive or unfair makes no sense. In fact, such an opposition only helps perpetuate the system. The boycott is a strategic way of exposing the unprincipled and undemocratic behavior of Israeli state institutions; its aim might be characterized as “saving Israel from itself.”

This quote, I think, contains the heart of modern (academic) progressive sensibilities (and where I think it actually differs from Palestinian aims and goals, whose ultimate goal is exactly the realization of a particularistic nation-state that would make Western progressives uncomfortable):

  • State-nationalism as an instrument of oppression
  • State as an instrument of selection of empowered vs excluded; citizens vs others
  • Democracy as a justifying ideology of oppression rather than a reflection of practical reality
  • Privileging of a human rights and equality frame
  • The privileging of universalist (“Human Rights” frames and rejection of separatist ones (as in “Apartheid”)
  • The academic as the spokesperson for the victims of nation-state policies
  • Refusal to accept the legitimate terms of engagement with the state through its own tainted mechanisms of legal and political dissent, since the way they are set up is exactly to exclude, rather than exclude
  • The state as exercising its domination through its institutions – including academic ones
  • An understanding of institutions as inherently legitimating of the state apparatus, unless they explicitly denounce and resist the state
  • The confidence in the ability of the progressive activist to manage individual harm and fallout from attacks on state institutions
I have a feeling that if Scott had to write this all over again she would likely remove the sentence of “saving Israel from itself” as unnecessary and inconsistent with a post-nationalist progressivism (that is actually more consistent with a position of the Zionist left).
The question is whether there are any actual facts that would make a difference to this stance. Scott goes on to list a number of violations that academic institutions and the state of Israel are guilty of, but the list is pretty much copied from BDS propaganda literature, is highly anecdotal, and would not stand up to any rigorous and comparative analysis. I think it is irrelevant. And I think it is exactly irrelevant because as long as Israel exercises a nationalist ideology that excludes the claims on rights by some based on that ideology, there is really nothing that Israeli academic, academic institutions, or even the state can do to sway such academic progressives.
But while I have a lot of sympathies for this type of progressivism, it is too crude an instrument to pass muster for a reflexive social criticism and activism that aims at just change, and encodes a primitive and rather naive understanding of the state and social institutions, and of the positive and empowering, and also terribly dark aspects of national solidarity. I don’t think it makes sense to speak of human rights only as a function of a well-established nation-state. Palestinians have their own quasi-state institutions, several at deadly competition with each other – and the terribly dark side of how human rights are managed by them needs to be part of activism as well, which means a more sophisticated understanding at how claims are apportioned and managed by which institutions. The concept of “Palestinian civil society” is an elision BDS adopts I find morally objectionable exactly because it serves to paper over such dynamics.
It also is supremely incapable of understanding how institutions and states are themselves fractured, and the fissures in Israeli society itself over the definition of the nation and who should be included – including a vigorous counter frame in Israel that rejects the particularistc aspects of the state polity, and pushes for inclusive, non-religious, and non-ethnic political and social rights. And it is incapable of understanding variations and alliances within Israel and across Palestinian and Israeli political landscapes for both complicity and effective resistance to settler-Zionist ideology (which is only one among many competing nationalist and non-nationalist ideologies).
And I think an uncritical embrace of the academic progressive ideology, fails to understand nationalism itself as a redemptive and protective ideology. Nationalism is itself a response to disenfranshisement and oppression because modern individual rights and individual agency are inconceivable outside a nation-state framework that empowers it. This is what scares many Israelis and Zionist Jews when confronting the passionate denial of a right to Jewish national self-determination from BDS supporters. It is a denial of their own right to agency and meaningful existence. I think progressives have a moral responsibility to take Jewish and Israeli history into account and understand the painful implications of a tactic of national delegitimation aimed at Israel.
But it does make me wonder if there is any room today for academics to claim the mantle of a progressive (and be recognized as such) while retaining a concept of progressive national solidarity and self-determination. It may be that strong Jewish and/or Zionist identification is too tainted, both because of the association between nationalism and an inherently oppressive state apparatus, and because of the rejection of any kind of separatist and particularistic group identifications, because of suspicions that its positive solidarity is potentially exclusive of others, all the more so if it seen as carrying privilege. It may be that embracing a more critical position of progressivism requires the acceptance of a certain degree of denunciation by the prevailing progressive culture club.

Jews for BDS – On American over-Identification with Israel

A strange, even if carefully staged, political theater played itself out at the AAA conference. Many young supporters of the Boycott campaign, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, were wearing shirts proclaiming “Another Jew Supporting the Academic Boycott.” At the business meeting, these – along with young people of Arab descent – were foregrounded in bringing motions and offering comments. Notwithstanding the selectively choreographed identity politics, I do believe this moment dramatized something quite different than the intended script, namely the vastness of the gap between Israel and the mainstream organized Jewish community on the one hand, and a very large segment of young Americans of Jewish heritage.

I think mainstream Jewish voices who denounce – as self-loathing Jews – Jewish Voice for Peace and activists who only seem to recall their Jewish heritage when tactically advantageous to invoke this otherwise dormant identity miss the point entirely. I don’t think they are self-loathing Jews in the least. But I do not think that many of any of them have any positive associations with organized Judaism, and most certainly not with Israel. I don’t they are much different than any other American who are committed to universalist values of dignity, social justice, and protection of the oppressed, and see Israel, not as a beleaguered middle eastern democracy trying to survive in a really bad neighborhood, but as the last and anachronistic vestige of Western Imperialism and Colonialism. In a sense then, they overidentify with Israel as part of and an artifice of unjust Western policies, and – as Americans – therefore see it as their noblesse oblige, as their burden of privilege, to attack this potent symbol of American domination by aligning themselves with its victims. Although most do not have any particularly deep sense of Jewish identity, I do think most lift from the rich Jewish heritage a vague sense of a tradition of universalist-oriented commitment to social justice and progressive causes. In this sense, and perhaps this sense alone, they see this vague Jewish identity something cool, cosmopolitan, urban, progressive, and inclusive, and organized Jewish community is just too particularistic and anchored. But much more than that, Israel stands as the single biggest challenge to this self-conception. The very things that made older generations embrace Israel, that enabled Israel to survive, and that continues to inspire non-Jewish conservatives, namely an unapologetic, muscular nationalism that is Western-oriented, is anathema to them, and likely mobilize them even stronger to oppose Israel and align themselves with the Palestinian cause.

I think it is a misreading to see this as self-loathing. It’s a very thin identification with Judaism perhaps, and much more an American progressive alignment that tries to confront their own sense of privilege, while finding a space for doing good and making a difference for social justice. And in that sense, nothing can be a more potent symbol than Israel, not as a Jewish symbol, but as an American one. This is an over-identification with Israel as “the ugly part of us”, where “us” is Western and American colonial power,  and not at all as an Other that needs to be understood and translated. It is also a repudiation of both Israeli and Jewish organized insistence that Israel is necessary for the Jews, or that a robust and deep Jewish identity is needed. It also, I think, reveals a confidence that anti-semitism is a non-issue for them. It neither haunts them, restricts their sense of opportunities and social relations, nor targets them – as long as they remain committed to the Palestinian cause.

I don’t think Israel has an answer for these kids. Successive governments have done their best to eradicate the charismatic progressive movements on the left, leaving only settler Zionism as the remaining charismatic movement engaged with building something from a value-based perspective. To mobilize these kids would require something quite painful for Israeli leaders, namely legitimating the very progressive forces and projects in Israel they consider enemies and draw them into something that would appeal to their progressive energies.

And the organized Jewish communities too have no answers. The knee-jerk reactions to exclude all those who are remotely critical of Israel, such as J-Street, and banishing boycott-friendly events and activism from campus Hillels, has only served to shrink the space for engagement that doesn’t simply consist of rejection. And I don’t think Jewish organizations have noticed the way that their own identification with Israel has become part and parcel of an American cultural political landscape and dialectic, and increasingly aligned them with conservative political forces that embrace Israel for the very reasons young activist reject it, namely as an overidentified extension of Western civilization, democracy, and entrepreneurship, and an unapologetic robust nationalism.

Israelis of course overidentify too with America and the West, assuming that no cultural translation is necessary in engaging with Americans and American Jews. The result is an almost humorous bilateral misrecognition where they speak completely past each other even as they assume they are speaking the same cultural language.

Notes on the Jewish Future

On October 18, I attended a fundraising event/conference titled “What Comes Next? Conversations on the Jewish Future,” in honor of Jewish Review of Book’s 5 year anniversary.

The whole day event took place at Yeshiva University’s Museum of Jewish History in New York, and the lineup of speakers looked promising, some drawn from the editorial board and regular contributors to the journal, with some added speakers from the world of politics. I had high hopes. I usually read the quarterly journal from first to last page, finding just about all the content interesting, topically and intellectually.

So what have I learned? Not much. Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. I did learn a few things – it’s hard not to learn something from world leaders like Henry Kissinger or academic scholars like Ruth Wisse – but not much about the Jewish future.

The missed opportunities for real intellectual engagement were plenty. I wonder if the lack of involvement from cultural Judaism and reform Judaism were partially at fault. The day was kicked off with a presentation by Alan Cooperman from the Pew survey which identified those two streams of self-identified Jews as the largest a long with the familiar finding that intermarriage is the largest problem for liberal Judaism, while modern orthodox and ultraorthdox seem well buffered from this problem and are able to keep their numbers at replacement rate if not more. Seems terribly odd to try to address “what comes next” in Judaism without including reform and cultural Jews. I wrote a longer summary of the event, but here are some questions that remained unasked let alone answered:

  • Why should American Jews living in a diverse and tolerant society choose Jewish partners and an immersed Jewish life for themselves and their children?
  • Are there ways to practically, philosophically, and theologically “maximize” opportunities for Jewish engagement within the context of intermarriage?
  • Does that require creative approaches to understanding Jewish identity and a form of “on-ramping” that reconceptualizes Jewish law on this issue?
  • Is there anything Jewish about Israel that can offer a positive and progressive aspect to American Jewish identity, or is Israel an obstacle to a modern, positive, progressive Jewish identity?
  • What does it mean to be grounded in a conception of a progressive heritage of social justice, when Israel stands as a symbol of injustice and intolerance?
  • Does it mean that today, Zionism is incompatible with cultural and Liberal Judaism?
  • Or does it mean American Zionism and its story should be narrated less from a perspective of a State besieged by enemies that must be defended against, and as an outpost of Western civilization and democracy, and instead focus on the creative progressive foundations that made this unique project possible in the first place, and as a source of future creative energies, models, and philosophies to imagine renewed social solidarity based on social justice, in Israel as well as America?
  • Can such a Zionist reconceptualization be enough to sustain resonance and relevance across daily (Jewish) practices? If so, how?
  • If the occupation continues with the same demographic trends, and the lack of progress on peace, and Israel requiring increasingly intrusive means of separation and control to suppress violence, what would that mean in terms of Israel’s perception as a democracy, as the David surrounded by hostile Goliaths, as the Western outposts in a sea of dictatorships, and what would any shifts in such images mean for identification of the US with Israel and ability of pro-Israeli forces to mobilize political support?
  • And how can rabbinic Judaism be relevant to address broader issues of social justice and engagement with a non-Jewish majority for the vast majority of Jews who crave relevance and engagement with not just broader segments of the society they encounter, but indeed for the global stage?
  • Why are responses to global warming, racism, and deep social inequality not a halakhically grounded set of tools and institutions, and part of daily enacted and resonant practice?
  • What are the future long-term pictures of American and Israeli cultures and values, and what do they mean for how Judaism would need to re-align to remain relevant? And would they go in different directions and create gaps that would need to be bridged?

On Reconstructionism

I have been reading Mordecai Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization” as well as Mel Scult’s “The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan.” Actually, I started on Scult first, but while well written, I found the parts I am particularly interested in, namely Kaplan’s sociological imagination, missing. For those who don’t know who Kaplan was, he was a Jewish rabbi, professor, and philosopher, and the founder of the 4th stream of Jewish denominations, reconstructionism. Kaplan published his mammoth work in the early 30s although many of the ideas had been developed and published earlier. Kaplan was frustrated with the widening gaps between the practical and spiritual realities of American life and not only traditional Judaism, but also Conservative and Reform responses to modernity. Taking what one might call a democratic, progressive variant of functionalist sociological approach to the problem at hand, Kaplan argued that fundamental practical social realities and political inclusion in American life had radically changed conditions for Jews in America. A concept of a supernatural God that dictated practices and beliefs in this world, and an acceptance of injustice and suffering as a temporary transit point to salvation in the afterlife simply, did not align with the sociological realities of Jews in America, in their new found opportunities for self-expression, individual realization, spiritual meaning, and sources of satisfaction and worth in work, education, entertainment, the arts, and social relations that could be found outside of the confines of a narrow Jewish community. Kaplan believed that to address this problem required a radical reworking of what Judaism meant through a sociological lens. Judaism needed to be reconceived in such a way as to be perfectly aligned with American life. Embracing what he saw as the immensely creative potential of American spiritual life, his response was to constantly find ways to maximize the Jewish in American Judaism. This required not just a reinterpretation of the vast Jewish heritage to emphasize those aspects that particularly resonated with American life, but also to embark on institution building that proactively insisted on funneling as much as possible of practical life through such institutions to build practical solidarities (both organic and mechanical to borrow from Durkheim) at the experiential level. He was the founder and director of one of the first Jewish community centers that incorporated a gym and pool in addition to a sanctuary open to the working class immigrant Jews, and not just the affluent established ones who had closed themselves up into exclusive synagogues – “shul with a pool” – to carry this sociological vision further. I find this project fascinating and am eager to continue to read him with an updated sociology in mind and a set of new practical realities that Kaplan did not have to confront. I am also interested in Kaplan’s positive support of Zionism – remember that this is pre-state Israel and most of American Judaism was indifferent or somewhat hostile to a Jewish nationalism that could call into question the status of Jews as loyal citizens of their host countries. It seems that Kaplan saw Zionism and in particular Ahad Ha’am’s vision of it, not as a replacement for an reconstructed and authentic American Judaism, but as a national project that was likely to focus the energies of Jews, giving them a point of pride and anchor in a joint national project, and strengthen communal solidarity. If this is so, what happens when the liberal and progressive underpinnings of such practical Utopian visions, once solidified in state bureaucracy losses its reason d’etre and with it, its charismatic potential? And what happens to a vision based on construction (a nation and a reconstructed agentic self, as well as actual settlements and institutions) once the space for such building and construction disappears? This is no less than the seminal challenge of American and European Judaism and how it should or shouldn’t relate to a Jewish homeland that has lost its charismatic pull for progressive nation building.