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Movie Stars, War Criminals, and Criticism of Israel

Once again we are confronted with monstrous contradictions, ideological ignorance as well as inconsistency, and an oppressive and unfair singling out of one group (Israel) that certainly smells of anti-Semitism if nothing else. It’s another one of those moments when the world seems less than sane. Israel a vibrant democratic market economy surrounded by less developed political cultures is targeted by a fringe anti-Israel movement called BDS or boycott, divestment, and sanction.

Daniel Schwammenthal wrote in The Wall Street Journal Europe about how the BDS crowd  might as well label Scarlett Johansson a war criminal of all things because she works for and supports SodaStream a highly successful sophisticated soft drink company. SodaStream is a model of coexistence, sustainability, peace, and corporate responsibility. They make a tasty fizzy drink and the company is operated by the Israelis and Palestinians together including Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. The company is known for its environmental sensitivity and complete equality between Israelis and Israeli Arabs. There are no discrepancies in compensation and the Arab employees average more income than other Israeli Arabs. Again, the factory is an example of cooperation and what future relations could look like between Israeli Arabs and Israelis.

SodaStream has numerous factories but one of them is in the West Bank. That was all it would take for BDS to get fired up and target Scarlett Johansson and Sodastream as war criminals and violators of human rights. Never mind that if Israel is going to create factories and jobs that include Israeli Arabs than the West Bank is probably going to be implicated. I’m sure BDS’s slick public relations arm was drooling at the opportunity to use Ms. Johansson’s celebrity to magnify their own media presence.

Never mind again that this is pseudo-activism designed to keep pressure on Israel along with a constant flow of criticism without paying any attention whatsoever to issues and analysis. The location of the factory would probably end up in that portion of what is now the West Bank that will be the new state of Palestine – someday one hopes. Additionally, the economic infusion and stimulation provided by SodaStream is not insignificant and makes for considerable economic benefits to the local community. It seems as though BDS is more interested in boycotting the factory and subjecting it to inflamed media criticism than it is the well-being of the 500 Palestinians and their families that work in the factory.

But BDS must be taken seriously because they have convinced more than a few governments and organizations to withdraw investments from Israel. The EU is on the verge of preventing funding that benefits anything related to the West Bank. The pressures on Israeli banks that have relationships with settlements is preventing EU investment money from helping various communities. Once again sanity seems to elude these people and their organizations. It will not be long until Iran is one screw turn away from a nuclear weapon but the sanctions imposed on them don’t seem to be very bothersome. Democratic freedoms of all sorts including gay rights struggle amidst Israel’s neighbors but the EU turns a blind eye. Mahmoud Abbas continues to pay salaries and ignore terrorism.

And all this time the EU continues to support Palestinian communities even though their record of development is poor. They support the Palestinian right to ignore serious peace treaty attempts and encourage them in numerous unproductive ways. Everyone knows, for example, that some sort of compromise is going to have to take place in which Israel keeps selected settlements in exchange for giving up others. Moreover, there will have to be adjustments and compromises on all sorts of issues pertaining to refugees, borders, and the definition of each state. And, yes, Israel too must make some changes, but the EU does not work with Palestinians in a pragmatic manner designed to move them toward solutions. The EU does not communicate or use its position as an honest broker to properly direct Palestinian attention.

Academic Boycotts Are Damaging, Anti-Intellectual, and Political Posing

There is truly little more distasteful than boycotting academic institutions for questionable political reasons. I mean if any organization is committed to problem-solving, analysis, and understanding it is academia. The American Studies Association (ASA) is an insignificant but highly politicized minor academic organization that is regularly critical of the United States. Last November the ASA was manipulated by an anti-Israel organization into supporting a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The ASA has about 5000 members and approximately 16% of them voted. A majority of that biased 16% voted in favor of the resolution and it technically passed. Additional details are available at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. For now, let’s look a little more closely at what happened.

Who is the American Studies Association?

The ASA focuses on the study of American culture in general but with a strong anti-American sentiment. On the website you can find numerous resolutions critical of the US and imbalance with respect to the consideration of many political issues.

What is the justification for this resolution according to ASA?

The basic argument is that Israeli academic institutions are part of the system that discriminates against Palestinians. Moreover the playing field between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unequal because academic freedom is denied to Palestinians. And finally, Israeli universities are part of state policies that discriminate against Palestinians. The resolution claims not to discriminate against individual scholars engaged in research. The ASA asserts that this resolution is a form of social justice.

What has been the response to the resolution?

The response has been overwhelmingly negative with many of university presidents and leaders calling for the rejection of the boycott and for the resolution to be rescinded. Moreover, the ASA is a tax-exempt academic organization but such exemptions are denied if an organization is blatantly political. Lawyers are beginning to work on removing the tax-exempt status of the ASA. Lee Bollinger’s statement opposing the boycott appears here.

Still, the media coverage of the boycott has been strong and successful at raising the issue in the consciousness of most people. Many of the distinguished newspapers across the country have been critical of the ASA and these criticisms range from the left (e.g. The Nation) to the right (Commentary). Some criticisms from the left have claimed that the ASA resolution will weaken other causes, and some from the right simply defend Israel’s right to defend itself and question the political and legal challenges in the West Bank. The president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmud Abbas also rejects boycotts against Israel except in certain instances, and these refer to particular products, beyond the green line. The ASA appears to be stunned by the negative reaction and has begun manipulating its website and adopting a stance designed to minimize the damage.

The ASA has shown itself to be counter to the traditions of academic freedom and even potentially dangerous to inquiry and progress. If the resolution has any effect at all it will probably be to damage and make more difficult the work of just those individuals most able to work toward the resolution of the problems between Israelis and Palestinians. Resolutions such as these are typically political posing designed to attract attention rather than solve problems. And although attracting attention is a key component of the political communication process, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond such simplicities and in need of serious attention by serious scholars – not the kind of attention that comes from the safe stances of fashionable progressives who make pronouncements but don’t “get in the fight.”


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