Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A balanced account

Jane Kramer's article in the latest New Yorker is not fully online, so I'll sum up: Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard, wrote a book that shows that the ancestors of your typical Zabars customer may not have been in the Holy Land as far back as some believe. Being neither an anthropologist nor a person of faith, I say, fair enough. I don't have any idea who was where in ancient times, nor do I have anything invested in thinking it went one way or another. Kramer presents Abu El-Haj as brilliant and physically stunning. That may be, but Abu El-Haj cannot have negative qualities for the purpose of the article. She is, above all else, the victim of the oppression of poorly-informed, knee-jerk pro-Israel activists. Which would make anyone look pretty damn fantastic.

A good part of Kramer's article is a detailed account of just how Jewy things are up at Columbia, a subject that's been dealt with in similarly unpleasant terms before. Because, you see, if a university has a large Jewish population, it by definition has a sheltered, ignorant student body, incapable of seeing the Higher Truth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, i.e. that Israel is teh evil.

The fight against this professor strikes me as poorly chosen. While one need not be an expert in political science to understand the Walt-Mearsheimer book, if you don't know anything about anthropology, your heartfelt convictions about who was where when are bound to come across as irrelevant.

What got to me about this article was that it presented a world in which to be pro-Israel is to be a fool, that if you know 'the facts,' you will realize that Israel must be dismantled, pronto. Obviously a recently-tenured Ivy League scholar will know more about a subject than an angry, politically-biased Barnard alum with no expertise in the field. That said, graduate study does not automatically point a person to one or another particular view on controversial political issues. By this I mean, you can attend seminars, write papers, and emerge pro-McCain or pro-Obama, pro-choice or pro-life, and, yes, pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. There is not one 'informed' take on these issues.

Portraying those who happen to disagree with you as uninformed hicks is unfair but effective. It's commonly assumed, beyond Kramer's article, that young people are only pro-Israel because their stifling and paranoiac parents sent them to Zionist summer camp and gave them no choice in the matter. As though, if they only had exposure to different viewpoints, they would learn the error in their ways. Well, as someone who came to these ideas on my own, through, yes, readings I did while a French major in college, I'm either the exception to the rule or an example of why writing off all thoughts on Zionism by anyone Jewish is, to put it mildly, problematic.


Daniel said...

This write-up reminds me of the time you accused me of calling for Israel's destruction because I thought it tasteless to hold an Israel Day parade while the country's in the process of self-asphyxiation.

Nowhere in that article did the author even remotely suggest "that Israel must be dismantled, pronto," nor that there is only one correct way to interpret the data on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, the piece focused on both how Jewish students who have been sheltered from criticism of Israel in their pre-undergraduate education overreact when they first encounter such criticism on campus, and how militant Zionist activists -- primarily off-campus -- are interfering with the tenure process at private universities. Her conclusion is that, in doing so, both groups are sweeping up innocent people in their conquest to control the nature of the discourse on campus.

If anything, your remarks prove only that whether you are indoctrinated in Zionist summer camp or by reading Herzl's reports on the Dreyfus Affair independently, that assuming a Zionist identity eventually turns one into a paranoiac. No matter what the substance of a person's position is, through the Zionist lens, if it's critical of Israel or Zionism, it's a call for the destruction of Israel and the extermination of the Jewish people.

Withywindle said...

There have been fairly detailed write-ups, at Columbia and on the blogosphere, about how she committed professional malpractice to erase Jews from ancient Israel, pretty obviously with a modern ax to grind.

schMaltzLover said...

Phoebe wrote:
"though, if they only had exposure to different viewpoints, they would learn the error in their ways"

Yep. That's why we're here, Pheobe.

smchMaltzLover said...

Read the Allen Segal bit -- he comes off as a little unhinged -- power arm versus bulldozer!?

But it's the personal attacks -- similar to the snide comments by Phoebe about el-Haj's looks -- that are the most petty. El-Haj's discussion isn't that disimilar to discussions about the use and abuse of archeology in South Asia, both India and Pakistan. The nasty rhetoric against her -- even by our beloved Phoebe -- says more about her attackers than her work.

Phoebe said...

1) I did not make a snide comment about this professor's looks, nor do I have any idea what she looks like. All I said was that anyone looks good (in the broader sense) when portrayed as the victim of a vast Zionist conspiracy.

2) It's odd to me that this blog seems to largely attract comments from those who despise everything I write. If this is the case, why are you reading? Even if, at long last, I agree that every single post I've written was Wrong!, and come around to whatever the opposite is of what I think, would that be such a great gain for humanity? I think not.

Withywindle said...

Mm, hope that comment doesn't apply to me. I find what you write interesting, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. I actually don't post most of what I disagree with you about, since I figure the disagreements are obvious and boring, and its your blog.

Daniel said...

It's odd to me that this blog seems to largely attract comments from those who despise everything I write.

Speaking only for myself, I can affirm that to not be the case. When you're not being a knee jerk Zionist, you can be quite thoughtful and entertaining.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle: Now that you've mentioned you disagree all the time without saying it, you've said it, which doesn't help your case.

Daniel: My response to your comment didn't prove me un-knee-jerk enough for your tastes?

Withywindle said...

Disagree much of the time, not all the time; and disagree is not synonymous with despise. You know, you just elicited two compliments in this comments thread, from people with more or less opposite politics, at least as far as Israel is concerned. Why not consider the possibility that your commenters actually appreciate your writing, and comment, no matter how annoyingly, because they do.

ck said...

daniel: Phoebe is the least knee-jerk Zionist I know. Calling her that is more reflective of your biases than of the caliber and quality of Phoebe's ideological orientation. Let me ask you this - is it even possible to be anything but a knee jerk Zionist in your opinion? Can you name me a few Zionists that you respect? Maybe just one or two even?

Petey said...

"What got to me about this article was that it presented a world in which to be pro-Israel is to be a fool"

More accurately, the article presented a world in which a lot of pro-Israel folks were running around being foolish. Or, in short, Phoebe doesn't like the mirror.

But just because Allen Segal or Phoebe is foolish about certain issues concerning Israel doesn't mean that to be pro-Israel is to be a fool.


The Kramer article was good precisely because it neatly portrays the know-nothing paranoia that animates a lot of discussion of Israel among a prominent chunk of the American Jewish community.

Anonymous said...

Born in 1958, I didn’t have strong opinions regarding the Israeli – Palestinian conflict until the Camp David Summit fell apart. Up until then I thought a reasonable two-state solution feasible and desirable. However in the wake of the 2000 summit I became as radically pro-Israel as any neocon out there – despite the fact that on any other issue I’m far left.
The Israeli’s offered as much as any “winners” have ever offered to the “losers” in a war. Was it everything the Palestinians’ wanted? Of course not. When you are consistently on the losing side in wars you don’t get to dictate terms. I’m not arguing might makes right; I am arguing all of human history ain’t gonna be overturned for this one issue.
And what did the Palestinians do? They rejected it.
Now, examine the foundation documents of any Palestinian organization (the PLO, Hamas, etc) and you will find calls for genocide – every last one demands the destruction of the state of Israel. Do not take my word for it – go read them yourselves.
The Israelis have proven themselves open to a peaceful two state solution: the Palestinians have proven themselves amenable to nothing short of the destruction of Israel.
Yup, Israel has done a lot of bad things over the years: they can be brutal occupiers; they have caused a lot of suffering; they have jailed political leaders; but they are not demanding genocide.

ck said...

petey said "More accurately, the article presented a world in which a lot of pro-Israel folks were running around being foolish. Or, in short, Phoebe doesn't like the mirror."

One doesn't follow from the other. Just because some Zionists are foolish, it doesn't mean that all Zionists are foolish. I mean Logic 101, hello? Phoebe hardly merits that sort of characterization.

schMaltzLover said...

I am sorry if I offended you Phoebe (in case the comment was directed at me). I am a true MaltzLover, and enjoy reading your thoughts, even (especially) when I disagree.