US BDS activism reaches the third rail

By Heike Schotten. Original publication:

Trains typically run on tracks consisting of two rails, but when they are powered by electricity, they run on a third rail that supplies the train with electric power. Third rail systems are often used for mass transportation because they are so efficient. The third rail is nevertheless hazardous. If you touch it, you might die from electrocution.

Israel is often called the third rail of US politics. This means both that support for Israel powers US politics and also that anyone who dares to question it will pay the price.

It also means that Israel’s sacrosanct status is a particularly efficient means of keeping status quo US politics running, even as it effectively wards off interference with its invisible machinations.

Israel’s third rail status in US politics is the reason why the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in the United States has lagged behind that of many European countries. It is not simply the clout of the Israel lobby or the shared US-Israeli imperial foreign policy agenda that protect Israel from scrutiny.

It is also the reflexive cries of “anti-Semitism!”; the ostracism and demonization of critics of Israel in families, workplaces, and communities; the threats, intimidation, demotion, and firing of public critics of Israel. Each of these functions effectively as the equivalent of a subway sign declaring: “Third Rail: Do Not Touch.”

The latest and most significant BDS victories in the US, however, make enormous strides toward dismantling Israel’s third rail status in US politics, in particular because of where they have occurred: campus Hillel houses (a national Jewish student organization) and the so-called ivory tower of academia.

In academia, of course, the victory is by now well-known: the American Studies Association (ASA) resolved — by a significant majority of those voting — to boycott of Israeli universities. Meanwhile, in a less-remarked upon but no less remarkable development, Swarthmore College declared its Hillel House an “Open Hillel,” meaning that it will not exclude from membership Jewish students who are critical of Israel or endorse BDS (as Hillel International mandates).

The ASA was not the first academic association to endorse academic boycott — that honor goes to the Asian American Studies Association. Nevertheless, the spate of academic resolutions regarding Israel (a more moderate one was considered at this year’s American Public Health Association meeting) is truly remarkable.

Moreover, the sheer volume of discourse produced about the ASA vote — now impossible to summarize, much less representatively index — means that this event has exceeded the goals of its organizers and is reverberating far beyond the hallowed halls of academia. To wit: stories and editorials condemning the ASA vote have appeared in the national papers of record, including the New York Times and Washington Post.

The usual suspects have penned the usual screeds deploring the “anti-Semitism” of BDS (including the indefatigable Alan Dershowitz and reliably frumpy neocon Charles Krauthammer), while dyed-in-the-wool Zionists are busy proposing legislation to punish universities and organizations engaged in boycott. Meanwhile, the rest of the country has been learning about professional academic associations, what they do, and why they might be interested in taking a position on a political issue.

And the defenses of the ASA vote have been amazing — moving, erudite, and profound in their taking seriously the meaning of both “public” and “intellectual” (see, e.g., Robin Kelly as well as this sampling of speeches from the ASA vote itself).

Meanwhile, on campuses, as universities from Brandeis to Penn State (Harrisburg) have severed their ties with the ASA, faculty and students have been pushing back: faculty at Trinity as well as a collection of Indiana faculty (among others) have courageously called out their presidents’ condemnation of the boycott; at Northwestern University, the students filed a petition in protest of their president’s public condemnation.

Then, of course, there was the cascade of further academic boycott decisions in the wake of the ASA vote: the governing council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association declared its support of the boycott, as did the University of Hawai’i’s Ethnic Studies Department — the first academic department at any US college or university to do so. Next up: the Modern Languages Association. Stay tuned.

Why has the ASA vote been such a high profile victory? Although Norman Finkelstein recently dismissed the ASA victory as a mindless distraction by out-of-touch activists, the ASA vote has been rightly cast as a tipping point by PACBI and a turning point by David Lloyd, one of the founders of USACBI.

Steven Salaita speculates that the higher profile of the ASA and some of the vote’s lead organizers led to increased media scrutiny, and also gave the opposition more time and motivation to galvanize. My own guess is that the ASA’s identity as the American Studies Association (rather than the Asian American Studies Association or the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association) also had something to do with it.

To those unfamiliar with American Studies beyond its name, one might expect a field consisting of paeans to the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and U.S. exceptionalism of various sorts. Yet American Studies is actually a highly critical field influenced by feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism, and anti-racisms among other approaches and is deeply critical of American exceptionalism. Its support of academic boycott, then, can be marshaled by Zionists and other conservatives as part of a larger U.S. “culture war” and a betrayal of “American values.”

Of course, the fact that public criticism of Israel by an “American” Studies Association could be understood as a betrayal of “American values” makes clear that unwavering support for Israel is intrinsic to American values, that questioning American values is perceived by critics as tantamount to their destruction, and, therefore, that there is significant overlap between American values and Zionist values.

As J. KÄ“haulani Kauanui makes clear, to take on Israel’s status as a Zionist settler colonial project requires challenging the very foundation of the United States itself.

As such, critique of Israel cannot be tolerated for fear that the underpinnings of the US settler project might be subject to critical scrutiny.

A similar shattering of taboos occurred when Swarthmore College students declared its Hillel House an “Open Hillel,” meaning it will hence forward welcome members of all political positions regarding Israel. This is only the latest development in the Open Hillel Movement of students across the US seeking to challenge the orthodoxy of Hillel International and the Jewish establishment more generally (see the excellent campaign timeline here).

That Hillel is a Jewish establishment player and Zionist proxy — not simply a campus group promoting Jewish student life — was made even more explicit when it recently partnered with AIPAC, clarifying the groups’ joint intention to “empower, train, and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.”

Each of these victories represents a profound step forward for BDS in the US. They are significant in themselves, but they are especially important because of the unlikely places in which they occurred: Hillel, an institution of the Jewish establishment in the US, and academia, a place that, as Stanley Fish’s multiple blog posts make clear, Americans would prefer to remain “neutral” or free from political positions of any sort.

These victories demonstrate that the default views of mainstream American and Jewish life are, in fact, neither neutral nor objective, but distinctly partisan and pro-Israel. In touching the third rail of American politics — precisely in those places presumed to be beyond or outside politics themselves — the BDS movement is not only achieving major victories but also doing valuable work in unmasking the ideological workings of American liberalism and Jewish establishment politics.

Support of Israel is increasingly becoming a partisan position in the U.S. The conflation of Jewishness and Zionism is increasingly a partisan position within Judaism. These are signs of a sea change, and the necessary foundation of a real overhaul of U.S. political discourse on Israel.

Far from being a “cult,” as Finkelstein would have it, BDS is increasingly mainstream and reaching the “broad public” he insists it must. The media is increasingly promoting the voices and positions of BDS activists (see, e.g., recent editorials in the Financial Times and, by Omar Barghouti, in the New York Times).

The stepping up of embarrassing hasbara efforts in public spaces such as subway stations suggests Israel knows all too well it might lose the battle of public relations in this country. It shows that the third rail might be less and less hazardous to the touch and increasingly an electrifying force for change in U.S. politics.

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