On college campuses across the US there have been noisy, often ugly, anti-Israel demonstrations and other activities. Highly emotional radicals, many sporting the updated Che Guevara look, regularly spew overheated hate-filled rhetoric, comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and even Nazi Germany. At places like San Francisco State, venomous attacks against Israel have spilled over into overt anti-Semitism and assaults against Jewish students and faculty.
But something much more subtle, but no less insidious is showing up on campuses this semester.
Last week, the University of California at Irvine campus played host to an academic lynching of Israel, free of the incendiary rhetoric that, while infuriating, is easily dismissible as the rantings of political extremists. The forum staged at Irvine by the international studies program was an assault on the very legitimacy of Jewish nationalism, couched in the polite language of academic objectivity.
The symposium, billed as a "panel discussion about life today in Israel and Palestine and visions of the future," included two Palestinians and two Israelis who, employing the softest of rhetoric, took the 200 or so people in the audience through a two-and-a-half hour indictment of Israel's existence. It was, as they repeatedly stressed, only the abbreviated version, given the time constraints of the forum.
When challenged about the one-sidedness of the symposium, Mark LeVine, the event's organizer, who is an assistant professor in the history department, defended the panel's make-up by noting that while no mainstream Israeli views were represented in the discussion, there were also no representatives of Hamas! When asked later if he would arrange a subsequent forum at which the pro-Israeli position could be presented, LeVine emphatically stated that he would not, as he saw no difference between the government of Israel and Hamas.
Headlining the event were Oren Yiftachel, chairman of the geography and environmental development department at Ben Gurion University, and Rema Hammami of the women's study center at Birzeit University. Yiftachel and Hammami, who work as a team, are part of a traveling road show that has more gigs booked on their current tour of America than Bruce Springsteen.
In contrast to scruffy revolutionaries who stage anti-Israel street theater on the university quad, Yiftachel and Hammami, whose wardrobes were assembled at The Gap rather than the army surplus outlet, look like they could be cohosting the Today Show. Never once do they resort to the sort of hate speech that so often mars these sorts of events. Terms like "ethnic cleansing," "apartheid" "colonialists" and "war criminals" are noticeably and deliberately absent from their seemingly objective assessments of Israel and its policies.
Unlike their more rowdy compatriots, Yiftachel and Hammami are a far greater threat to the image of Israel in this country because they understand the art of propaganda. They scrupulously avoid the code words that tend to turn off all but the most committed Israel-haters. They preface their presentations with a disclaimer that what they are promoting is "pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian." From there, they proceed to lay out the "facts," for those who are unfamiliar with the facts, in a such way that any reasonable person would conclude that Israel is a monstrous obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
Yiftachel, the more widely published of the two, lays out the team's velvet glove assault against Israel's legitimacy in a 1998 article in the Middle East Report entitled, "Democracy or Ethnocracy: Territory and Settler Politics in Israel/Palestine." Contained in that article are all the uglier accusations against Israel, only in kinder, gentler language.
Yiftachel never accuses the Israelis of "ethnic cleansing"; rather, he writes about policies that result in "the spatial exclusion of Palestinian Arabs." He doesn't call Israelis "colonialists" who have no legitimate claim to land; instead, he writes, "To be sure, the 'return' of Jews to their ancestors' mythical land and the perception of this land as a safe haven after generations of Jewish persecutions was powerfully liberating."
While he claims to favor a solution that is pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, Yiftachel subtly denies that Israel is even a legally justifiable entity. "Israel as a definable, democratic political entity simply does not exist. The legal and political power of extraterritorial Jewish bodies and the rupturing of state borders empty the notion of 'Israel' of the broadly accepted meaning of a state as a territorial-legal institution. Hence, the unproblematic acceptance of 'Israel proper' in most social science writings (including some of my own previous work) and the media has been based on a misnomer."
In other words, even an Israel that returned to the pre-1967 borders would not be a legitimate political entity, in his opinion.
Yiftachel also advances the notion that Israel is an apartheid regime, but avoids that highly charged term. "I argue that the Israeli polity is governed not by a democratic regime, but rather by an 'ethnocracy' which denotes a non-democratic rule for and by a dominant ethnic group within the state and beyond its borders." The dominant ethnic group to which Yiftachel refers is Ashkenazi Jews.
Most college students -- even those who are ignorant of the politics and history of the Middle East (in other words, just about all of them) -- are sophisticated enough to dismiss the ugly hate speech of radicals who equate the Star of David with the Swastika. It is quite another matter to ask them to engage in critical analysis of the disinformation of two attractive academics -- one Israeli and one Palestinian -- who softly denounce Israel in measured tones. It is virtually impossible for American students to form anything but a negative image of Israel when their academic institutions exclude the "radical extremes" from the discussion -- namely Hamas and everyone in Israel who is to the right of Gush Shalom and Meretz.
The blood libels of the type that appeared on the San Francisco State campus last May are horrifying and demand a response from not only American Jews, but from all people who abhor hatred and violence. What American Jewry and supporters of Israel need to be especially vigilant of, however, is the sort of activity that took place on the campus of UC Irvine and many other institutions around the country where Yiftachel and Hammami will be taking their act.
In the long run, this sort of pseudo-academic assault against the legitimacy of Israel conducted in a lecture hall is far more dangerous than the crude sloganeering that takes place the quad because it is seemingly void of the hatred that even the casual observer can easily detect.
It is a clever attempt to redefine the centrist position in the Middle East conflict as one that calls for the bloodless dismantlement of Israel, while defining Hamas and the Israeli government as equally extreme. When those become the accepted parameters of discussion, Israel's position will be dangerously undermined.
(formerly of Denver)