Monday, September 29, 2014

Berlin’s Most Unsettling Memorial (New York Review of Books, 2013)

This article was published in the New York Review of Books, June 13, 2013

‘Jews Aren’t Allowed to Use Phones’: Berlin’s Most Unsettling Memorial
Ian Johnson

Artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock with a map of their "Places of Remembrance" project, Schöneberg, Berlin, 2013    Ian Johnson
Twenty years ago this month, Berlin-based artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock inaugurated their hugely controversial “Places of Remembrance” memorial for a former Jewish district of West Berlin known as the Bavarian Quarter. At the time, Germany had just been reunified, and it was one of the first major efforts to give permanent recognition to the ways the Holocaust reached into daily life in the German capital. The 1991 competition called for a central memorial on the square, but Stih and Schnock instead proposed attaching eighty signs hung on lamp posts throughout the Bavarian Quarter, each one spelling out one of the hundreds of Nazi laws and rules that gradually dehumanized Berlin’s Jewish population.

Today, Germany is filled with memorials and institutions dealing with aspects of the Holocaust, including Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and Berlin’s central Holocaust memorial. But Stih and Schnock’s in-your-face signs about Nazi policies, integrated into the present-day life of a residential Berlin neighborhood, remain one of the most visceral and unsettling. I recently walked through the Bavarian Quarter—which is part of Berlin’s Schöneberg district—with the artists to discuss their work and its legacy.

"Jews are banned from choral societies"

Here, There is No Why

Roger Cohen: For ISIS, Slaughter Is an End in Itself

In a famous passage from “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi relates an incident upon arrival in the Nazi death camp that captures the intersection of the human with the inhuman. He and other Italian prisoners have been held in a shed as they await their fate. Levi looks around in search of some means to quench his thirst: 
“I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.” 
There is no why here. The phrase has been reverberating in me since I watched a henchman of the organization that calls itself Islamic State behead two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a British aid worker, David Haines. The men had been broken by their imprisonment. They had been hollowed out, a terrible thing to behold. How many times they must have asked themselves the why of their captivity, humiliation and torture right up to the moment when a small knife was applied, with a sawing motion, to their throats. Each of the three men died alone, unlike the Yazidis murdered in droves, the Shiite soldiers massacred, the women and children slaughtered during the advance of black-clad ISIS forces across northern Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has created a cult of violence that makes the elimination of all nonbelievers the cornerstone of a movement whose avowed objective is a restored Islamic caliphate but whose raison d’être is the slaughter itself.
Read the whole thing, but don't bother with the comments.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Germany's Jewish Problem

Angela Merkel, image from the FP article
If you wish to be disquieted, Foreign Policy has published an article about antisemitism in contemporary Germany - Germany's Jewish Problem: "Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany. But is Angela Merkel doing anything about it?"

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sitting in my apartment in Jerusalem on the Saturday night after Rosh Hashanah, and beautiful scents of flowering trees are wafting in through the open windows.

Chas Newkey-Burden on the “they-of-all-people” argument

I just saw a reblog on Tumblr of a great quote by Chas Newkey-Burden on the learning, or not learning, of the "lessons" of the Holocaust, and thought it should be reposted here:
"Let us strip the 'they-of-all-people' argument down to its very basics: gentiles telling Jews that we killed six million of your people and that as a result it is you, not us, who have lessons to learn; that it is you, not us, who need to clean up your act. It is an argument of atrocious, spiteful insanity. Do not accept it; turn it back on those who offer it. For it is us, not you, who should know better."  
— Chas Newkey-Burden, Oy Va Goy

American Anthropological Association to consider the academic boycott of Israel

The AAA will be debating BDS at its yearly meeting in December. Haaretz has published a depressing article about the increasing scope of the BDS movement, including details about the AAA meeting, which will have several panels with only pro-BDS speakers, including Omar Barghouti, who is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, who is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is a vigorous supporter of BDS. JVP played an important role in persuading the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies that sell construction equipment to Israel. JVP also supports the academic boycott. Only one panel will have anti-boycott speakers.
Harvey Goldberg chairs the Israeli Anthropological Association. “Almost all Israeli anthropologists are employed in institutions that are funded by the state,” he wrote in a letter to the AAA. “A boycott would stigmatize and cause concrete harm to these individuals, whatever their political opinions. 
“Israeli anthropologists – like others around the world – are not accountable for their governments’ decisions. The academic boycott movement claims that Israeli academics ‘are furnishing the ideological justification and technical means for the occupation to continue.’ 
“That is,” Goldberg added, “a serious misreading” which “reveals a true disconnect from knowledge of the situation on the ground.”
Eric Alterman, one of the founders of the AAC (Academic Advisory Council) of the Third Narrative, said:
“BDS has taken over the left and is taking over the universities,” Alterman says. “I would support a nonacademic boycott dedicated to getting Israel out of the territories. But this BDS is pining for the destruction of Israel.”
And while BDS advocates say they are anti-Zionist and disavow anti-Semitism, those who have opposed their efforts say that, in practice, there is no such distinction.
“It’s reawakened liberals like myself to the enduring reality of anti-Semitism. There is anti-Semitism in BDS – quite a lot of it of a nasty variety,” notes Alterman. “I am shocked by its vituperative character and the movement’s unwillingness to even admit it.” 
He has never been so personally attacked as he has been for writing about BDS, he adds, and it saps his energy for the fight. “I am writing less about BDS and Israel in The Nation, because I just don’t need the tsuris. My students come up to me and say ‘I hear you’re a racist white supremacist.’ I’ve been in fights my whole life and have never experienced the level of personal abuse that I have from the BDS crowd.”
In my personal experience arguing with anti-Israel and pro-boycott individuals, I have been accused of supporting genocide (a friend, now a former friend, who accused me of this on Facebook and Twitter). In another exchange with antisemitic overtones, I was charged with suppressing the voice of Palestinians and doing my best to emphasize their powerlessness. Because of my anti-boycott position and my work to bring a anti-boycott speaker, another person accused me of being afraid of having the local community listen to pro-BDS arguments.

And on Twitter, I've received insults from both the far left pro-BDS types who accuse me of hating Palestinians and supporting genocide, and from extreme right-wing Zionists who accuse me of being a hater of Israel. A number of years ago my name was added to a list of supposed haters of Israel by an organization called Masada 2000 (the website doesn't appear to exist any longer, but it's available on the internet archive -

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

At the Gershom Scholem Library in Jerusalem

This is part of a diagram of the sefirot (the divine powers) in a Kabbalistic manuscript from the 19th century. It's right outside the Gershom Scholem Library at the National Library in Jerusalem. Diagrams like this are referred to as "ilanot" - "trees."

"We are here to oppose evil, hatred, and violence"

As I wrote earlier this summer, Jerusalem was consumed by hatred from all sides - first because of the kidnapping and murder of three young Jewish students by Hamas terrorists, and then because of the brutal murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by three Israeli Jews. The war between Israel and Hamas that then broke out further poisoned the atmosphere. When I left Jerusalem on July 17, 2014, it was a relief to leave a city that felt like it was possessed by an evil miasma.

When I returned to Jerusalem last Wednesday, September 17, the atmosphere (at least in West Jerusalem) felt much lighter. The war is over, there are no air raid sirens, no one is running to a shelter or to the stairwell to shelter from missiles, and now people in the western part of the city are busy getting ready for Rosh Hashanah. Earlier today I went with a friend to the Mahaneh Yehudah market and bought fruits and vegetables for the holiday - along with hordes of other people.

I also noticed new big posters plastered everywhere, with the headline "We are Here." It turns out this is a new art campaign by the Jerusalem Season of Culture, in response to the violence and hatred of the summer.

This is the text accompanying the images:
We, the sons and daughters of this land, are opening our doors, walking out into the streets and taking up positions in town plazas to declare: We are here. 
We are here to oppose evil, hatred and violence. We are here to turn the light on. 
We are here to turn walls into bridges. To replace destruction with creativity. To repair what is broken. We are here, armed with a love of humanity and tolerance to fight for the home we love so much. 
We are here because we believe in the good that is in God, in humanity and in the earth. 
We are here because the message will emanate from us to the surrounding hills, throughout this land, and far beyond. 
We are here because we have been silent for too long, and will now shout out the voice of hope.  
We are here.
This of course does not mean that the occupation has ended, or that Arab Jerusalemites do not continue to suffer from discriminatory policies of all kinds, or that all violence has ended in Jerusalem - for one thing, violent protests have continued in east Jerusalem, followed by many arrests.

But it is a step towards sanity.

Monday, September 22, 2014

"The New Assault on Israeli Academia (and us)," by Cary Nelson

This is the full statement written by Cary Nelson on behalf of the Academic Advisory Council of the Third Narrative

The New Assault on Israeli Academia (and us)

--on behalf of the Academic Advisory Council of the Third Narrative

Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, argues that the recently updated guidelines issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) are an alarming ‘assault on academic freedom’. They represent an effort to deprive universities, their faculties and students of ‘freedom of choice, agency, and association’, in an effort to promote hostility and the delegitimization of Israel and Israeli academic institutions, as opposed to peace.
While an individual’s academic freedom should be fully and consistently respected in the context of academic boycotts, an individual academic, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to “common sense” boycotts
PACBI Guidelines for the International Boycott of Israel (Revised July 2014).
As the fall semester begins, we are sure to see a renewal of anti-Israel activism on many college campuses, especially behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The collapse of the Kerry peace initiative and the summer war in Gaza have raised the temperature in an already fiery debate. The group leading these efforts, the  Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) this summer issued updated guidelines ( The new guidelines are alarming. The old rules were already the source of the most far reaching, comprehensive, and invasive academic boycott recommendations; the new ones extend themselves into virtually every element of higher education worldwide. They represent not only a relentless assault on academic freedom but also an effort to deprive universities, their faculties, and their students of much of the freedom of choice, agency, and association that have defined higher education’s principles and ideals for a century.

BDS has, appropriately, come under fire for many reasons, among them that it amounts to a blacklist of Israeli scholars. Examples of this blacklisting are already legion, beginning with early boycott efforts in Britain, in which an Oxford professor refused an Israeli student permission to work in his lab because the student had served in the IDF and Israeli scholars were thrown off the editorial boards of journals.

To evade this criticism, PACBI has offered pious reassurances that the guidelines preserve and honor academic freedom, but it prescribes one specific practice after another practice which leaves academic freedom in tatters. The guidelines forbid institutions from building joint programs and working with one another in multiple ways, and they detail elaborate protocols for blacklisting individual faculty members, staff, and students in countries throughout the world. These are police state style regulations, aimed at ending higher education as we know it.

Here are ten highlights from the July 2014 guidelines, along with reasons to reject them:

1. Any effort to focus attention on Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements is castigated as a “rebranding” project, an effort to “whitewash” the country’s suppression of Palestinian rights. Individuals and institutions guilty of “rebranding”—an activity demonstrable by referencing or promoting a science, social science, or humanities project without also condemning Israeli policy in other areas—therefore deserve to be boycotted and blacklisted. Boycotting the activities of so-called complicit individuals means blacklisting them. This will have particularly serious consequences for students and junior faculty.

2. Like universities in all other countries, Israeli universities are involved in government-sponsored research and receive government funds to support students. Despite this funding, we do not expect these universities to speak for their governments; students and faculty are free to criticize any particular government policies. Were this not the case, it would undermine faculty and student academic freedom to speak free of institutional political coercion. But BDS regards institutional “silence” about government policy to constitute complicity and is therefore a justification for boycotts. It is particularly troubling that PACBI treats Israeli universities as guilty “unless proven otherwise.” In what other context do we treat people or institutions that way?

3. PACBI would have us boycott not only Israeli-organized conferences and exhibitions but also any such event merely co-sponsored by a “complicit” Israeli university or any public or private organization anywhere in the world that endorses Israeli society or interests. This far-reaching organizational and institutional boycott would have a chilling effect on academic freedom everywhere. Also boycottable are “all projects and activities funded, partially or fully, by Israel or any of its lobby groups.”

4. PACBI demands that “projects with all Israeli academic institutions should come to an end.” This demand eviscerates the essential freedom which faculty and students have long had to make their own decisions about what collaborative projects to undertake. It also does direct harm to those Palestinians engaged in collaborative projects with Israeli faculty and institutions.

5. PACBI now condemns “events, projects, or publications that are designed to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective views, or to work toward reconciliation” if they “are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed.” But such efforts typically seek balanced Palestinian and Israeli participation and often build on mutual sympathy and shared human interests. Imposing a confrontational agenda on them undercuts some of the most promising efforts at mutual respect and dialogue in the Middle East. PACBI insists that such projects be based on “‘co-resistance’ rather than co-existence.” The idea is not simply to resist Israeli policies but rather to oppose the existence of the Jewish state.

6. PACBI urges that all faculty and students refrain from publishing in journals based at Israeli universities or published in collaboration with Israeli universities. PACBI also insists we refuse to reprint articles first published in such places, thus initiating an extraordinary blacklisting of publications and their authors. This is a fundamental assault on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas that is its core principle.

7. PACBI insists that people refuse to serve as “external reviewers for dissertations, writing recommendations or other forms of refereeing such as advising on hiring, promotion, tenure, and grant-making decisions at Israeli universities” unless the university declines to use their names in any way. The prohibition of these standard academic functions not only contravenes academic freedom, it also directly harms both Israeli and Palestinian faculty who would benefit from referee support. This principle could also lead to the backlisting of faculty referees.

8. PACBI argues that an  “international faculty should not accept to write recommendations for students hoping to pursue studies in Israel,” once again abrogating standard faculty rights and directly harming the students involved. Student programs housed at Israeli universities are characterized as “schemes” meriting boycott and efforts to close them down. Jewish students of course are the primary target of efforts to close down study abroad programs in Israel. They are also key recipients of what would now be targeted scholarships or fellowships from pro-Israel organizations.

9. PACBI guidelines prohibit visits to Israeli universities if they include any links with the institution visited. Violators once again could be subjected to blacklisting and boycotting. In a blatantly discriminatory gesture, the guidelines advise that “If conducting research at Israeli facilities such as archives does not entail official affiliation with those facilities (e.g. in the form of a visiting position), then the activity is not subject to boycott.”

10. PACBI contends its guidelines establish a “picket line” prohibiting all the activities it lists, including visits to Palestinian universities by faculty who have earlier visited Israeli universities and therefore “contribute to the false perception of symmetry.” Once again the academic freedom of individuals is curtailed, potentially leading to the blacklisting of violators, and undermining the potential for interchanges promoting peaceful resolution of the conflict.

PACBI and its BDS allies have long argued that academic boycotts are directed at institutions, not individuals. The expanded July 2014 guidelines demolish that fiction. Israeli faculty, they generously advise, should not be automatically boycotted; they should simply be treated like all other potential “offenders.” Meanwhile, the PACBI endorsement of “common sense boycotts” strengthens what is already guaranteed by what is a complex and contradictory document: that academic boycotts will be inconsistently implemented and that inventive and often malicious individual boycott initiatives will multiply. Whatever their attitudes toward Israeli state policies may be, all members of the academy should condemn these guidelines and resist their adoption and implementation by every nonviolent means possible.

The BDS agenda promotes hostility, not peace. It aims to limit contact with both Israeli and Palestinian faculty and students and eliminates many traditional applications of academic freedom for faculty and students worldwide. As the year progresses, concerned faculty and students need to counter the PACBI/BDS campaign with a thorough analysis of its aims. They also need to embody reasoned argument and debate. That is the best way to respond to a movement that often works through intimidation and hyperbole.

Note: PACBI published two versions of its guidelines this year—the full version I discuss and a condensed version designed, presumably, for recruitment and wide distribution. People will likely consult the longer version for detailed guidance.

This statement was published today in the peer reviewed online British journal FATHOM. It is issued in North America on behalf on ACC, the Academic Advisory Council of the Third Narrative, a faculty group supporting a two-state solution and seeking justice for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, co-chair of the Third Narrative’s Academic Advisory Council, and the co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, scheduled for distribution by Wayne State University Press in October. He was president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006-2012.

Academic freedom threatened by new boycott guidelines from BDS movement

PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel) issued new guidelines this summer for those who want to boycott Israel. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) has written a sharp critique of the new guidelines in which he demonstrates how they further restrict the academic freedom of faculty who have anything to do with Israel. His statement is available at The New Assault on Israeli Academia (and Us), published on the website of The Third Narrative.

This is what the Third Narrative is:
Anyone interested in the Middle East these days will be subjected to a relentless barrage of accusations against Israel on the Web, on campus and in other settings. Some of these attacks come from the far left, from activists trying to appeal to Jews and non-Jews who are committed to human rights and social justice. 
Often, these critics are not just attacking specific, objectionable Israeli policies and behavior. They treat Israel as the epitome of evil. They portray the entire Zionist enterprise, from the 19th century to the present, as nothing more than a racist, colonialist and immoral land theft. Many are active in the movement of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, calling Israel an Apartheid state. 
At Ameinu, a North American Jewish organization that supports progressive causes in Israel, the U.S. and Canada, we have often criticized Israeli policies and behavior, including settlement expansion, racism against Arabs and crony capitalism. But we believe too many of Israel’s left-wing critics cross the line that separates legitimate, productive criticism from polemical, inaccurate and unfair attacks. 
At the same time, too many voices of those who reflexively support –or passively accept—the Israeli occupation and the morally indefensible status quo in the Palestinian territories are going unanswered. 
The Third Narrative initiative is our response to this situation. We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. When it comes to this conflict, the truth is rarely black or white; it resides in a gray area where advocates on either side typically don’t like to venture. That is where we try to go with The Third Narrative. 
We feel a deep connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. We are also committed to social justice and human rights for everyone. Some say those commitments are contradictory, that particularist attachments to a state or a people can’t be reconciled with universal values. Our response is that belonging to a people, a community larger than ourselves, is a basic human need –indeed, it is our right. And balancing our communal attachments with a commitment to humanity as a whole is our responsibility. 
In fact, our ties to Israel might make us even more disturbed by its current direction than those that have no ties to it. But we are alarmed by the increasingly widespread rhetoric that refuses to recognize any justification whatsoever for Israeli positions or the Jewish state. And we think the American left –Jewish and non-Jewish—could use a third narrative, one that neither reflexively attacks nor reflexively justifies Israeli policies and actions.
I joined its academy advisory council earlier this year. This is the introduction to its statement of principles:
We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. We believe that empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples, and respect for their national narratives, is essential if there is to be a peaceful solution. Scholars and academics should play a positive role in asking difficult questions, and promoting critical thinking, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. To achieve this goal we insist on the importance of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, and so reject calls for academic boycotts and blacklists, as well as efforts to punish academics for their political speech, including even those who support the academic boycotts that we oppose.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Back in Jerusalem! Gay Pride and Selichot

I'm now back in Jerusalem. I've come for three weeks, to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur here. After that, I'm going to Germany because I have received a fellowship to do research at the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum, in northwestern Germany. I will be at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg, "Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe" until mid-August 2015. My research project is "Angels’ Tongues and Witches’ Curses: Jewish Women and Ritual Power in Late Antiquity."

I spent the last two months in the US getting ready - cleaning up and renting my house, moving my office, tying up the loose ends at work - and now the year is finally starting. While I'm in Jerusalem I'll be going to the National Library and working on a book review for the upcoming SBL annual meeting in San Diego. (I'm participating in a book review session on Jim Davila's translation of much of the Hekhalot literature - Hekhalot Literature in Translation).

On Thursday night, I went to the Jerusalem gay pride march. It was originally scheduled for earlier in the year, in August, but because of the war, it was postponed until September. I was very glad to get to go - for several years it's been held in August, when I'm usually back in Ithaca after my summer stint in Jerusalem. About 2,000 people came - fewer than in years past, but still a nice lively crowd.

Part of the giant flag held by Meretz Jerusalem supporters

Pepe Alalu, leader of the Meretz-Labor party in the Jerusalem city council, being interviewed by Walla.
The sign reads: "Orthodox women, straight women, and supporters!" The small signs read: "Religious women supporters"

Students from the youth movement of the Conservative movement in support of LGBT rights
The band playing before the march started.

On the way - walking up King George Street
Turning down Agron St. to Independence Park
People in Independence Park
Tonight I went to selichot (a special service of penitential prayers held on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah). It was held at the Tahana Rishonah (the entirely renovated Jerusalem train station on Derekh Hevron). This is not the usual place for the selichot service, which is usually held in the synagogue, but the Tahana hosts many alternative prayer services, usually on Friday afternoons before Shabbat begins. This time, the Zion congregation organized the service, and it was wonderful. To see some photos, go to Facebook. In the summer, a friend in Jerusalem brought me to this congregation for Friday night services, and it's the only place I went then. I'll also be going there for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. It was organized only about a year ago, and is very musically oriented, in both the Ashkenazi and Mizrachi traditions. It's a Masorti congregation that is open to everyone and calls itself an "Eretz-Israel congregation." "Eretz Israel" literally means "land of Israel," and what they mean is that Jews of all kinds are welcome, and that it is a melding of all of the traditions of Jews living in Israel. The rabbi is Tamar Elad Appelbaum, who is a wonderful spiritual leader.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

What do the UN observers in Jerusalem observe?

Aryeh Eldad on the UN observers who still stand helplessly on the Golan Heights and those who squat at Government House (Armon ha-Natziv) in Jerusalem.
They have cost billions, and nobody reads their reports. That money could have been used to resettle Palestinian refugees or to feed the starving in Africa. And they sit in Jerusalem like a bone in the throat, like the remnant of a foreign commissioner in Jerusalem, like the vestige of the demand to internationalize Jerusalem. The time has come to end this farce.