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.