Monday, November 23, 2015

BDS Resolution Poorly Proven, Positional

This weekend the American Anthropological Association voted 1040-136 to boycott Israeli academic institutions. As opposed to last year's Middle East Studies Association resolution which called only for discussion of a boycott, this resolution tells the AAA to "boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights." The resolution was submitted by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. An annotated version of the resolution makes a poor attempt to justify claims in the text. Here are three examples:

Claim: "The United States plays a decisive role in enabling Israel's systematic violations of Palestinians' basic rights under international law."

Citations: Statistic of US annual aid to Israel. Link to Jeremy Sharp's June 2015 CRS Report about radar and missile defense technology (though it mentions the F-35, which could be used against Palestinians). The report does not say the US enables Israeli violations in the West Bank and Gaza - in fact, it notes several cases where the US rebuked Israel for using US aid beyond the 1967 borders. Finally, a statistic about US vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN with no mention of how many related to Palestinians. None of the sources explain how US monetary aid actually creates systematic Israeli violations.

Claim: "U.S. academic institutions facilitate Israeli academic institutions' complicity by continuing to maintain close, extensive and privileged ties with them."

Citation: Jewish Virtual Library list of American universities that have institutional connections to Israeli universities, even those merely exploring "future potential partnerships." There is no evidence given that US-Israeli academic collaboration is facilitating "complicity" in Palestinian rights abuses.

Claim: "Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state's systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians."

Citations: Link to a report from the Alternative Information Center linking Israeli universities to the IDF, but not specifically to "systemic maintenance of the occupation." Link to an article about Ariel University which, being in a settlement, is an outlier among Israeli universities. Links discussing how Ariel University's location makes it an outlier among Israeli universities. Link to an article about the IDF's urban warfare doctrine developed 8 years ago at Tel Aviv University with no explanation of how these tactics "systematically maintain" occupation. Link to a book about the architecture of occupation but no specific citation about academic complicity.

These oversights are egregious because in academia, citations matter. Believing that Israel's academy might be complicit in occupation doesn't make it so. That being said, not every claim in the resolution is unsubstantiated - The resolution makes important points, for example, about targeting Palestinian universities and harassing academics going to and from the West Bank and Gaza. Yet in its over-generalizations, the resolution departs from the fact-based inquiry that is at the heart of social science.

The resolution also suffers from a critical under-appreciation of its authors' positionality. American and European academics bring their own experiences and biases into their work, including their activism. This resolution suffers from under-appreciated positionality as evidenced by its singular focus on Israel. One could level the majority of its grievances, for example, against the American and European academies themselves. 

This is not just an argument about the resolution being "unfair." As written, the resolution implies that Palestinian suffering merits more attention than, for example, Yemenis killed in US drone strikes using technology desgined by US academics. The authors also ignore the complicity of universities across the Middle East in the human rights violations of their government. The suffering of Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is not inherently less important than Palestinian suffering - both matter. AAA members should consider the message the resolution sends to these at-risk communities about how much academic rhetoric about responsibility is credible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Open America's Doors To Syrians

One night during my field work in the Arab Gulf, I received a dinner invitation. Since I had no car, I asked my host if someone might be able to give me a ride. My host obliged and I arranged to meet his friend, Hamid (not his real name) promptly at 8:00pm. At 8:30pm he pulled up and I introduced myself. Upon learning I was American, he apologized and I asked him why. He replied, "If I had known you were American, I would have come on time."

On that car trip and on many other, I learned more about my colleague. Hamid is a Syrian who had lived his whole life in the Gulf. He is kind and genuine, and has a good sense of humor. He is married and works in the banking sector. His son likes to play with plastic airplanes. His daughter is a fan of "Gangnam Style" by Psy, and is named after one of the many types of flowers in the Boston Public Garden, where Hamid went to graduate school.

Eventually I stopped hearing from Hamid, but thought little of it, recognizing that sometimes people get busy. Months later, he called out of the blue. Apologizing for his radio silence, Hamid explained he had been very stressed. His mother and sister were still in Syria. They were close to where fighting had been taking place between Bashar al-Assad's military and rebel forces. "Honestly, I support Bashar," he told me. "Because if he wins at least there will be peace."

Hamid's story is just one among millions. For Syrians caught in an impossible situation, the only solution is to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Awaiting them in Syria is death - often by chemical weapon or barrel bomb attacks - and destruction. The political situation is complicated but the humanitarian situation is clear - Syria has become, for its residents, a living hell.

The story is one familiar to many Americans, or their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Many members of my American Jewish community fled a Europe ravaged by antisemitism, assaults, pogroms, and eventually exterminations. In Manhattan, a Jewish immigrant community emerged on the Lower East Side. Many spoke only Yiddish. They lived alongside other communities - Italians, Greeks, and Irish - seeking respite from war. 

The Jewish immigrant community was not necessarily less of a security threat than today's Syrian refugees, and was probably a greater one. Jews were actively involved in or supporters of radical communist movements at the time, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the children of immigrants from this community. Nonetheless, the contributions of Jewish immigrants to the US from Albert Einstein to Irving Berlin speak for themselves, and  the success of that Jewish community is a fundamentally American story. It's no wonder the US Holocaust Museum, Anti-Defamation League, Joint Distribution Committee, Reform Action Center, and HIAS have been outspoken on behalf of Syrian refugees - their story is ours.

Now a new generation of refugee families - fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters - await the opportunity to write the next chapter of this story. 

Practically, admitting Syrian refugees is good politics. It is relatively cheap, demonstrates American leadership, allows us to capitalize on the skills and expertise of the 39% with college degrees, gives the US leverage to pressure the EU over its refugee policies, and highlights the pluralism at the heart of the American nation. These refugees are not a significant security threat. They are vetted extensively, and seek only the opportunity afforded to every single one of the families whose children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now sit in governors offices across the United States of America. 

But it is also consistent with our fundamental values to admit Syrian refugees. As a country of immigrants, we work together to address not only out challenges, but those of the world. We are risk takers, entrepreneurial and tenacious when we find ourselves in a bind. Most importantly, we are compassionate beyond material self-interest. Accepting refugees is good politics, but it is also consistent with our most fundamental American values.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Settlement Labeling A Wake Up Call To Bibi

Today's decision by the European Union to label products from West Bank settlements is both unfair and hypocritical. The decision singles out Israel while ignoring other ongoing settlement in the region, most prominently Turkey's decades-long settlement project in Northern Cyprus. The EU calls this project an "internal matter" yet has no problem interfering in Israel's conflict with Palestinians.

At the same time, Israel's government has completely failed in its reaction to increasing isolation in the international system. Isolation isn't (entirely) Israel's fault, but it is Israel's problem. Yet Israel's policy reaction to today's decision shows how ill-equipped the Netanyahu government really is to address isolation as a political threat.

In response to the EU's decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called settlement labeling anti-Semitic. Liberman went so far as to make reference to Holocaust imagery of Jews wearing yellow stars. These assertions are without merit. People are not vegetables, and settlements are not Jewish. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reacted somewhat more reasonably, saying the EU should be "ashamed of itself" and pointing out that the labeling comes as Jews in Israel are being stabbed in the streets.

Both of these statements play well with a frightened Israel domestic public and Jewish diaspora. But neither solve the problem. In fact, they make it worse.

International isolation is a major threat to Israel. The labeling initiative is the latest in a series of moves to make Israel a pariah in the community of liberal states. To weather this storm, Israel must convince a critical mass of the international public that it is a member of the community. This goal should not be impossible to achieve. Israel has a stronger democracy than any other country in the Middle East, extensive economic and political ties to liberal states, and an open discourse on the ways in which it falls short at protecting liberal values. It can't convince everyone, but Israel can convince enough people to mitigate the threat isolation poses.

Yet for all its speeches and antics, the Netanyahu government has shown total incompetence at actually addressing the problem. Rather than try to mitigate isolation, the Prime Minister has appointed a UN ambassador who has no place in a diplomatic setting, and an English spokesman who thinks the President of the United States is anti-Semitic. Rather than frame Israel as a member of the community of nations in his UN speeches, Netanyahu castigates it. Rather than downplaying settlement labelling by calling it a "disappointing move that casts a shadow on Israel's strong historic relationship with its European friends," the Netanyahu government's statements only strengthen the growing attempt to "other" Israel. The reaction is strong - and plays right into the hands of those seeking to frame Israel in ways that harm it.

More importantly, today's decision will not be the last time Israel faces isolating attacks over its settlement policy. Over the long term, isolation can be stopped only by demonstrating a credible commitment toward reducing settlement growth and pursuing a sustainable alternative to the status quo. Settlement labeling is smoking gun evidence that conflict management will not work. The status quo cannot be maintained - it is getting consistently worse. And the Netanyahu government's reactionary tactics are exacerbating the very threats it should be trying to prevent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Honoring Rabin's Legacy

Today marks 20 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Prime Minister was shot moments after speaking at a peace rally in downtown Tel Aviv. In the years following his death, tensions between Israel and the Palestinians led to the Second Intifada, numerous wars, and the stagnation of the peace process.

Rabin's death strikes pain among a young generation of Israelis who, unlike today's youth, knew a real hope for peace. Rabin's assassination was a dream deferred for Israelis who hoped that in 20 years time, Israelis and Palestinians could have peaceful if not amicable relations. Instead of hope, a cold cynicism grips Israeli society today. Israelis see no realistic alternative to a constantly deteriorating status quo, endless rounds of violence, and leadership which cannot or will not take action to change course.  

Hope did not die along with Prime Minister Rabin. During the 2011 protests, for example, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in support of social change. Across the political spectrum, the people assembled in support of a sustainable future. They reaffirmed the idea that the State of Israel is an important achievement - one worth protecting, improving, and preserving. 

Yet it also cannot go unnoticed that certain aspects of Israel's politics are simply unsustainable in the real world. Israel's government continues to fund a settlement project which diverts money away from young families, Holocaust survivors, security needs, and economic growth. It has no plan for changing a military presence in the West Bank that is economically and politically unsustainable. It continues to under-serve the poorest members of Israeli society. Its antics in the international community create more isolation at a time when international support is critical.

At the heart of the Rabin legacy was a vision for the future. While there is reasonable debate over whether the vision is achievable, it was a vision nonetheless. On this somber anniversary, Israel's leadership can best honor Yitzhak Rabin by adopting the same long-term outlook that created the Oslo Accords and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty that pays dividends to this day. Long-term planning in the Middle East is never easy. But a long-term vision of what Israel ought to be as a state is a critical element of its future survival.