‘Zionist Attack Dogs’? The MLA’s Debate on Israel Might Go Viral

Need a break from grading? Head on over here, where someone has posted a partial record of Modern Language Association member comments on resolution 2014-1, urging the “United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” It is a spectacle. How often do you get to see scholarly colleagues refer to one another as “Zionist attack dogs?”

In January, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly narrowly passed the controversial resolution at the association’s annual meeting. In March, the Executive Council decided to send it to the full membership for a vote, which began on April 21 and will close on June 1. The debate over the resolution took place from mid-March to mid-April, at a site open only to MLA members. Only part of  it has been posted at the link above, but the rest I found this morning mysteriously lodged in the jaws of my Labrador retriever, to be known hereafter as my Zionist retrieving dog.

The debate focuses on three things. The first concerns whether the resolution’s proponents have offered sufficient evidence that Israel’s visa policy deserves to be condemned by the MLA. The second concerns whether the resolution is tied to the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement. I will not try to sort out the first one. The background documents provided by the resolution’s sponsors are here. MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, who oppose the resolution, make their case here.

As for the second, consider the resolution’s two sponsors. Bruce Robbins, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, is on record as a supporter of the boycott campaign. Richard Ohmann, a professor of English emeritus at Wesleyan University, has objected to the boycott campaign, but only because it is too soft. A 2009 letter that he signed accuses Israel of “an insidious policy of extermination of a people” and demands a campaign of “divestment and pressure” that will isolate Israel as South Africa was once isolated. It hardly seems likely that Robins and Ohmann think that the MLA should stop at denouncing Israel for limiting academic freedom.

The third matter in dispute is the most charged: Is the resolution anti-Semitic, singling out as it does the Jewish state among numerous, more blatant and extreme, candidates for condemnation on academic-freedom grounds? Or is the resolution, as one commentator writes, a mere matter of “criticizing the Israeli government and military,” which “is not the same as anti-Semitism”?

If we accept the argument that the resolution is meant to advance the BDS movement, those questions get difficult. Corey Robin, a BDS supporter, concedes that there are people in the movement who want not only Zionism but also Jews to disappear. He responds to the worry of a left-wing critic this way: “You say you’re a left-wing critic of Israel, so I presume you’ve supported some actions against the state. Well, guess what: I bet among those who also support those actions there are people who want the Jews to disappear.” This response is not at all convincing.

A movement that is undecided about Israel’s right to exist and considers Israel a genocidal apartheid regime probably attracts many more anti-Semites than, say, J Street does. It is not unreasonable for Jews, and not just Israelis, to feel threatened by the claim that Zionism, which finally means only belief in the importance of a Jewish state in Palestine, is a racist and exterminationist creed. BDS is committed to nonviolence. But that is not so reassuring when BDS supporters tell the world that Zionists back an illegitimate and genocidal enterprise, but that “of course we don’t want you to hurt any of them.”

It is not anti-Semitic to be involved in a movement that is appealing to anti-Semites, but it should give one pause.

The language of some of the resolution’s supporters, too, is damaging. Remember that the debate is taking place on an MLA-members-only site. The participants are not comment-thread trolls. Yet one of them decries the “humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision-making process of Academia in general.” Another laments how “the Zionist lobby railroads its way through Congress.” And then, almost comically, when someone suggests that “Zionist attack dogs” may be “insulting, contemptible, and unacceptable,” another commenter rises to the colleague’s defense: “Zionist attack dogs” was “probably used metaphorically.”

Because as long as you don’t mean “dogs” literally, it’s cool.

The same defensive commenter helpfully explains that the person who spoke of “Zionist attack dogs” was probably just frustrated by the pressure “exercised on universities by Zionist funders and lobby groups to quell any dissent” and to avoid mention of “Zionist politicians pushing the US into disastrous wars.” What reasonable person could fail to concede that there are “some out there” who “control and twist the media, who silence the truth, who flex their muscle, … who have even pushed the US to wars for Israel’s sake, and who have worked their money or influence to destroy academics or students who express solidarity with the Palestinian cause”?

The anti-Semitic tropes in these statements are not subtle. But even if they were, I wonder why the academic left, which is usually so attuned to the subtlety of racism and sexism, puts up such a high bar for anti-Semitism. Suddenly “But I said Zionist, not Jew”; or “I’m a Jew, so I can’t possibly be in league with haters of Jews”; or “Yes, I’m focusing on the Jewish state and no other state, but so what?”; or “Sure, I’m echoing standard anti-Semitic tropes, but they’re really applicable here” are incontrovertible arguments, and it becomes bad form to suggest that anti-Semitism is at work unless someone is screaming anti-Semitic slogans.

I don’t think that many of the resolution’s supporters harbor conscious or unconscious anti-Jewish sentiment. But I do think that they should be a lot more worried about anti-Semitism, and that any MLA member who has yet to vote should vote against this tainted resolution.

Jonathan Marks is a professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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