It must be said.
Several months ago I received an email marked urgent from one of the professional organizations to which I belong. Addressed to “Concerned Faculty Member,” the missive urged me to sign a statement promising that I would not teach, lecture or offer any other assistance to any school located in Israel. It instructed me to participate in the campaign to boycott, divest in and sanction Israel (B.D.S.) on the grounds that Israel was an apartheid state engaged in war crimes and human rights violations against Palestinians. The message implored me to encourage the board of trustees of my institution to divest from any businesses operating in Israel or in the adjacent occupied territories. An attached photo with a hand emerging from a pile of gray rubble was captioned, “Your American tax dollars at work.” Perhaps I would like to hang the photo on the door of my office.
My reaction was simple. Why was Israel being singled out for such condemnation? Was its treatment of religious minorities less tolerant than that practiced by its neighbor Saudi Arabia? Did it fail to match the high human rights standards set by the chemical-weapons-using regime of neighboring Syria? Was the occupation of the West Bank more brutal than the longstanding illegal annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China? Why weren’t Concerned Philosophers flooding our business meetings with motions to boycott Saudi Arabia or Syria or China? Why was Israel—and Israel alone these days—singled out for such bitter excoriation?
I informed my interlocutor that as a result of his plea I was applying for a Fulbright Fellowship to work in Israel, preferably at Hebrew University. I attached a photo of the stainless steel menorah I had just placed beneath the crucifix in my office.
Several weeks ago an old Presbyterian friend informed me that the B.D.S. movement had recently triumphed in the precincts of her own denomination, the Presbyterian Church-U.S.A. By a vote of 310 to 303, the church’s General Assembly had voted to disinvest in three corporations that B.D.S. activists claimed were enabling the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The assembly’s moderator, Heath Rada, insisted that “in no way is this [resolution] a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters,” but a boycott is an odd way to show affection. An important sign of the times, the divestment vote indicates how deeply the stigmatization of Israel has penetrated mainstream Protestantism—and there are few sectors more intellectually and economically elite within that mainstream than American Presbyterianism.
In recent days I have received three communications from Catholic organizations condemning the Israeli attack on territories within the Gaza Strip. What is striking in all three email alerts is the omissions. Not a single missive mentions, let alone condemns, the missile attacks by Hamas, the terrorist organization currently ruling Gaza, against civilian targets in Israel. None of them mentions the bias-related murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank in June.
In passionate rhetoric, the statements of concern focus uniquely on the military actions of Israel, as if a series of effects had suddenly appeared without any explanatory cause. Two of these organizations encouraged a boycott of Israeli products to protest the war. I could not help but note that in its bullet-point list of action items for justice, one organization also urged its members to work to end the United States boycott of Cuba, not exactly a world leader in promoting human rights.
As imperfect as any other government, the State of Israel should not be immune from criticism. Many unilateral claims and histories will require correction through patient diplomacy if any simulacrum of peace is to be achieved in this tormented region. Every effort should be undertaken to de-escalate the current outbreak of violence and to reignite negotiations toward an equitable reconciliation. Nonetheless, our growing moral obsession with the mote in Israel’s eye is disturbing. This scapegoating suggests that an ancient, lethal prejudice has yet to die.