Feud Over Israel Erupts at Jewish Institutions

Museums and Schools Scrap Speeches by Perceived Critics

3 Battles: Rashid Khalidi, Judith Butler and John Judis hold divergent views on Israel. But their perceived criticism led all three to be shunned by major Jewish institutions.
3 Battles: Rashid Khalidi, Judith Butler and John Judis hold divergent views on Israel. But their perceived criticism led all three to be shunned by major Jewish institutions.

By Hody Nemes

Published February 26, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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Cohen cited the recently published Pew Research Center study of American Jews, where, he said, the shift among younger Jews is clear. “The conventional communal leadership in the U.S. has only two compartments,” he said. “One is pro-Israel and the other is anti-Israel. So it’s hard for them to understand that there’s a third compartment: pro-Israel, critical of its policies.”

One sign of the shift can be seen at Vassar College’s Jewish Union, which on February 18 joined Swarthmore College’s Hillel in publicly rejecting Hillel International’s guidelines. Those guidelines bar collaboration with speakers or groups that “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” or deny its right to exist.

Now, even some public intellectuals who have taken the lead in opposing the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — or BDS, as it is known — are protesting efforts to banish BDS supporters and other strong critics of Israel from Jewish venues altogether.

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth publicly condemned the American Studies Association, an academic grouping of scholars in the American studies field, when it voted to support a boycott of Israeli universities last December. The ASA’s boycott resolution, which was passed to protest Israel’s policies towards and alleged restrictions on Palestinian scholars, targeted only official representatives of Israeli schools but specifically exempted individual Israeli scholars.

In a December 19 opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times, Roth termed the move a “repugnant attack on academic freedom.”

Then, on February 24, Roth found himself in the position of criticizing the Jewish Museum for scrapping a talk on Kafka by a prominent Israel boycott supporter and anti-Zionist, Judith Butler.

“What a sad commentary on the Jewish community’s tolerance for debate these days!” Roth wrote under the name of psychotherapist Sigmund Freud, whom he portrayed as part of the same speakers series in which Butler was slated to appear as Kafka.

“Freud,” as Roth fashioned himself in an article in the Huffington Post, likened the motivations behind the ASA boycott to those behind the Butler event cancellation: “[C]ultural boycotts are so debilitating – whether it’s the refusal to hear from Israeli professors or the refusal to hear from an anti-Zionist philosopher,” he wrote. “You can lose your ability to learn from difference and conflict – the wellsprings of real cultural development.”

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