In an action that has become a matter of international controversy, the American Studies Association recently passed a resolution endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
As a former president of the ASA, I joined seven other former presidents in a letter expressing our dissent from this resolution.
I am not speaking for my fellow co-signers. Instead, I offer my own reason for opposing the boycott, guided by a belief that arises from 30 years of uncomfortable reflection.
I believe that scholars from Israel and the United States, rather than keeping their distance from each other, should converge in a vigorous and searching conversation comparing the Israeli history of occupation and displacement of Palestinians with the American history of conquest and displacement of Indian people.
I have steadily and purposefully avoided making that statement for decades.
In the early 1980s, just out of graduate school and in my first job at a university, I attended a luncheon with a visiting Israeli scholar who was both a member of a kibbutz and a historian of the kibbutzhim movement. The visitor had asked his hosts to track down and invite the campus’s Western American historian, since he was going to draw comparisons between contemporary Israeli communitarian settlements and nineteenth-century utopian, communitarian colonies in the American West.
I listened to his talk with eager curiosity. But when the Israeli scholar spoke of Western American settlers who founded communities with dreams and high hopes, his stories acknowledged no prior presence of Indian people. When he spoke of the ideals and visions of the kibbutzniks, his stories acknowledged no prior presence of Palestinians.
I was young, I was deeply uneasy, and I could not, for my life, decide what to do. I valued then, as I value now, the existence of Israel as a refuge for a people who have endured persecution and oppression beyond comprehension. But did that mean I should remain silent? Should I raise my hand and speak of the uncomfortable parallels between the territorial expansion of these two nations? Should I propose that the history of idealistic people moving into new territory remains ungrounded, if we do not, at the same time, speak of the displacement of the other people who claimed that territory as home?
I kept quiet at that luncheon.
And I stayed quiet for the next 30 years, until the American Studies Association council forced my hand.
“We believe academic boycotts to be antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands,” we said in our letter of protest on Dec. 12, 2013. “We see an academic boycott as setting a dangerous precedent by sponsoring an inequitable and discriminatory policy that would punish one nation’s universities and scholars. Our task is to open conversation, not to close it off, and to do so with those who reflect ideas (and support policies) with which many of us may strongly disagree.”
When I signed this letter, I surrendered my right to silence. Supporting the cause of “opening conversation, not closing it off,” I forfeited the option of sitting on the sidelines.
I enter the conversation trailing behind a remarkable ally. In mid-November, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit published “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” and gave me a framework for my unsettled and disorderly thoughts.
“I cannot help but feel proud of Israel,” Shavit writes. “I was born an Israeli and I live as an Israeli and as an Israeli I shall die.” His descriptions of Israel’s vulnerability, embedded in concentric “circles of threat” from enemies, are stark and disturbing. “For as long as I can remember,” his first sentence reads, “I remember fear.”
And yet Shavit heads straight to the statement I skirted for so long. In promoting the movement of Jews to Israel, Zionism, he writes, “intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another.”
Reading “The Promised Land’s” story of West Bank settlements, a Western American historian is soon immersed in historical comparisons: from the religious tenor of both Manifest Destiny and Zionism, to the widespread belief that the conflict between the previous inhabitants and the “settlers” and “pioneers” would be resolved by the “vanishing” of the natives; from the driving power of an agrarian vision, to the interplay between brave individual enterprise and essential support from the central government, including the deployment of the military.
Did the founders of Ofra, a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, Shavit asks, “not understand the inherent contradiction wedged between Jewish Ofra and the dense Palestinian population surrounding it?” They did understand, Shavit says, but “when they came to settle, they were more ignorant than evil.”
In the relationships of Americans to their past and of Israelis to their past, ignorance is no longer an option.
And now the American Studies Association is positioned to offer an alternative to ignorance.
Here is my request to the association’s leadership: Please end the boycott, and please celebrate your change of heart by inviting Ari Shavit to speak at a plenary session at the next ASA conference, Nov. 6-9, 2014, taking place in that complicated borderland, Los Angeles. After his speech, assemble a panel of Western American historians and members of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (a group that has declared its own version of the Israeli boycott) to engage in a lively conversation with him on the similarities and the differences between the histories of territorial expansion in the United States and Israel.
And if someone can help me figure out the name of the scholar who I heard speak in the early 1980s, that very interesting kibbutznik will be a welcomed guest as a speaker at our Center of the American West. In the way of old-timers reuniting, he and I will pick up where we left off on our conversation 30 years ago.