What's at stake when anti-Zionism aims for academic respectability?
A potentially ugly row is brewing in the United Kingdom over an academic conference, due to be held at the University of Southampton in April, which carries the title, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.”
Given that a sentence construction like that one will leave most people with their eyes glazed over, let’s just cut to the chase here. The real title of this conference is, “Does the State of Israel Have a Legal Right to Exist? No, Of Course it Doesn’t.”
Hence the growing volley of criticism heading in the direction of Southampton, one of Britain’s better universities. Even politicians are weighing in. Lord Leigh, a prominent member of the Conservative Party, had this to say: “It is very disappointing that a distinguished university like Southampton has organized this conference. They have never held a conference questioning the right of existence of any other country.”
Lord Leigh is absolutely correct on this point, but that won’t bother the organizers one jot. The clue as to why is in the word “exceptionalism” in the conference title. Israel, uniquely in a world that is still dominated by the nation-state system, is a state built upon violence and ethnic cleansing, and the task of academics, therefore, is to unravel the legal implication that inevitably follows: that as a sovereign entity, the Jewish state should be dismantled.
I have to admit that I’m undecided as to how serious a problem this conference is, although it’s important to note that British Jews are incensed by it, and are even circulating a petition appealing to Southampton University not to sully its good name by lending it to a motley crew of fanatical anti-Zionists.
Given that, let me offer one reason as to why we shouldn’t be overly worried. Many of the speakers have been around for what seems like an eternity—so long, in fact, that if Israel, heaven forbid, were to disappear, the immediate result for these folks would be unemployment.
I’m talking here about names like Ilan Pappe, Haim Bresheeth, and Uri Davis, Israelis who have made a career out of denouncing their former country as a racist state beyond reform. I’m talking, too, about Arab propagandists like Victor Kattan, Nur Masalha, and conference co-organizer George Bisharat of the University of California, all of whom have been pushing the “one-state” option—code for the elimination of Israeli sovereignty, and a goal that could only be achieved by exterminating and expelling the vast majority of Israel’s Jewish population—for decades. Gathering these people, along with their fellow genocidaires like Virginia Tilley, another American academic, under one roof is certainly a distasteful proposition. Yet it remains to be seen whether these voices will echo outside of the chamber that Southampton University has so kindly provided them.
Indeed, leafing through the conference program, you get the distinct sense that the proceedings could easily descend into farce. Keynoting is the veteran Princeton University professor Richard Falk, until last year the U.N. special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, who has established himself over the years as a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, an apologist for the brutal former Gaddafi regime in Libya, and a specialist in outrageous statements such as his conclusion that the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 was a form of “resistance” to America’s “global domination.” For those and other reasons, Falk is regarded—at least outside of his ever-diminishing circle of admirers—as a lunatic whose loathing of his Jewish origins has been a public spectacle throughout his career.
Then there are the unknown names. One that caught my eye was that of Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, another Israeli and a former journalist with the Ma’ariv daily newspaper. The subject of a flattering profile on the anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss, Yeshua-Lyth introduced herself by saying, “I remember myself as a journalist explaining that a secular democratic state is actually a call for the annihilation of Israel. Today I say the same thing. It’s true, but now I support it.”
It is amazing that a conference supposedly predicated on the imperatives of international law should feature a speaker who speaks of the “annihilation” of the Jewish state like she’s ordering a cup of coffee. But that’s actually what Yeshua-Lyth was doing when she uttered that obscenity; according to the Mondoweiss contributor who interviewed her, their conversation took place in a cafe in Tel Aviv’s trendy Florentin neighborhood. While sipping her latte, Yeshua-Lyth, clearly warming to her theme, described herself as a dissident and an “opponent of the regime.” Kol Hakavod, as the Israelis might say—an easy sentiment to express when you haven’t got the Mukhabarat, or secret police, breathing down your neck. It’s also a sickeningly immoral one: barely four hours away from the bars and coffee shops of Florentin is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II—to be precise, in Syria, where the number of refugees and displaced (more than half the country) makes you wonder in despair why the Palestinian Arab refugee population created by the exterminationist war launched against Israel by the Arab states in 1948 is still the favored obsession of academics ostensibly specializing in the Middle East as a whole.
So on one level, this conference is more of the same: the same speakers, the same themes, the same visceral hatred not just of the Jewish state, but of the expression of Jewish identity in nearly any form you can think of. (There is a grudging acceptance of those Jews whose sole mission is to campaign for the so-called Palestinian “right of return.”) You need only look at the output of the main conference organizer, Southampton professor Oren Ben-Dor (yep, another “ex-Israeli”) for confirmation. For Ben-Dor is known, when he is known at all, as a particularly sycophantic defender of Gilad Atzmon, the “ex-Israeli” jazz musician and writer who flirts with Holocaust denial and believes that American Jews are living proof that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was not the vile fabrication that most respectable historians have judged it to be.
But I’m reluctant to summarily dismiss the conference as irrelevant. The reason is simply this: Ben-Dor’s initiative aims to turn anti-Zionism from a variation of traditional anti-Semitic ideology into an academic methodology. In other words, the point of departure for this conference, as well as the writings of its participants, is that Israel’s illegitimacy must be recognized as a “fact” that is not open to debate.
Given how Middle East studies have degenerated in America in recent decades, as documented by academics like Martin Kramer, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Southampton conference repeats itself on this side of the Atlantic. And the danger lies not in the impact these ideas will have on the policy of the current and successive administrations, but in the establishment of a norm among students of the Middle East that Israel, by definition, shouldn’t be in the region in the first place.
I’ve often said that the United Nations’ notorious 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism was never really rescinded, despite a one-line resolution that hurriedly dispensed with that formulation in 1991. The Southampton conference, along with annual events like “Israeli Apartheid Week,” is evidence that the warped, Soviet-inspired ideology behind “Zionism is racism” still remains a factor in apparently informed debate about the region. For Southampton University, therefore, the immediate issue is its academic reputation. But for the Jewish community, inside and outside of Israel, the stakes are infinitely higher.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily, and many other publications.