Is Israel Really The Worst Country On Earth?

The American Studies Association has voted to initiate an academic boycott of Israel ostensibly to protest its denial of civil rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories.   Forgetting for a moment Israel's unique security concerns (what would the US do if Mexico routinely lobbed rockets and artillery shells into US border towns), the implication is that the Palestinians in Israels have it worse than any other group in the world, since this is the first and only such boycott the ASA has ever entered into.  Is it really worse to be a Palestinian in Israel than, say, a woman anywhere in the Arab world** or about anyone in North Korea?  Do academics in Cuba have more ability to write honestly than they do in Israel?  I doubt it.

The only statement the ASA makes on the subject that I can find is in their FAQ on the boycott

7) Does the boycott resolution unfairly single out Israel? After all there are many unjust states in the world.

The boycott resolution responds to a request from the Palestinian people, including Palestinian academics and students, to act in solidarity. Because the U.S. contributes materially to the Israeli occupation, through significant financial and military aid - and, as such, is an important ally of the Israeli state - and because the occupation daily confiscates Palestinian land and devastates Palestinian lives, it is urgent to act now.

A couple of thoughts.  First, I am not sure why US material aid is relevant to choosing a boycott target.  I suppose the implication is that this boycott is aimed more at the US than at Israel itself.  But the question still stands as to why countries like Saudi Arabia, which receives a lot of US material aid as well, get a pass.  Second, the fact that Palestinian academics can seek international help tends to disprove that their situation is really the worst in the world.  I don't think the fact that the ASA is not hearing cries for help from liberal-minded academics in North Korea means that there is less of a problem in North Korea.  It means there is more of a problem.

I am not a student of anti-semitism, so I can't comment on how much it may explain this decision.  However, I think it is perfectly possible to explain the ASA's actions without resorting to anti-semitism as an explanation.  As background, remember that it is important for their social standing and prestige for liberal academics to take public positions to help the downtrodden in other countries.  This is fine -- not a bad incentive system to feel social pressure to speak out against injustice.  But the problem is that most sources of injustice are all either a) Leftish regimes the Left hesitates to criticize for ideological reasons or b) Islamic countries that the left hesitates to criticize because they have invested so much in calling conservatives Islamophobic.

So these leftish academics have a need to criticize, but feel constrained to only strongly criticizing center-right or right regimes.  The problem is that most of these are gone.  Allende, the Shah, Franco, South Africa -- all gone or changed.  All that's left is Israel (which is odd because it is actually fairly socialist but for some reason never treated as such by the Left).  So if we consider the universe of appropriate targets -- countries with civil rights and minority rights issues that are not leftish or socialist governments and not Islamic, then the ASA has been perfectly consistent, targeting every single country in that universe.

** To this day I am amazed how little heat the gender apartheid in the Arab world generates in the West in comparison to race apartheid in South Africa.  I am not an expert on either, but from what I have read I believe it is a true statement to say that blacks in apartheid South Africa had more freedom than women have today in Saudi Arabia.  Thoughts?

Update:  I twice emailed the ASA for a list of other countries or groups they have boycotted and twice got a blurb justifying why Israel was selected but with no direct answer to my question.  I guess I will take that as confirmation this is the first and only country they have ever targeted.  They did want to emphasize that the reason Israel was selected (I presume vs. other countries but they did not word it thus) had a lot to do with he fact that Israel was the number one recipient of US aid money (mostly military) and that it was this American connection given they represent American studies professors that made the difference.  Why Pakistan or Afghanistan, who treat their women far worse than Israel treats Palestinians, and which receive a lot of US aid, were not selected or considered or mentioned is not explained.  Basically, I would explain it thus:  "all the cool kids are doing it, and we determined that to remain among the cool kids we needed to do it too".  This is a prestige and signalling exercise, and it makes a lot more sense in that context, because then one can ask about the preferences of those to whom they are signalling, rather than try to figure out why Israel is somehow the worst human rights offender in the world.

By the way, by the ASA logic, it should be perfectly reasonable, even necessary, for European academic institutions to boycott US academic institutions because the US government gives aid to such a bad country like Israel.  This seems like it would be unfair to US academics who may even disagree with US policy, but no more unfair than to Israeli academics who are being punished for their government's policies.   I wonder how US academics would feel about being boycotted from European events and scholarship over US government policy?

  • Rodrigo

    I think you meant Pinochet (right-wing) instead of Allende (left-wing communist).

  • esoxlucius

    I'm a little confused. Haven't you suggested at several times on this blog that someone inflicting a worse wrong isn't an argument against a lesser wrong? I never looked at the Israel thing with a right-left filter but I have often wondered why the US is giving them anything at all. And, while we are at it, how much different is what the US and the world did to Palestine from what the US did to the Native Americans? It looks the same to me. Here's your postage stamp of land and refugee reservation Mr. Native Palestinian, we'll be taking the rest of your land and putting "settlements" on the fringe until we have it all. Thankyouverymuch. Please step aside for the chosen people, manifest destiny and all that...

    There is no difference between the slur of anti-semitism to stop criticism and the slur of racism to stop criticism. Oftentimes criticism is earned and well deserved.

  • a_random_guy

    My history is pretty rusty, but as I recall the population of Palestine basically consists of the descendants of the the population move to make room for Israel after WWII. The land was taken from the surrounding Arab nations and the agreement was that those nations would absorb the displaced population. They refused to do so, as a way of pressuring Israel and attempting to cause its nationhood to fail early on. If I may oversimplify: Palestine is basically what happens to a refugee camp after 60 years.

    One can discuss the right and wrongs of this all day, and I can see arguments on all sides. Israel certainly does mistreat the Palestinians. That said, the Palestinians mistreat Israel at every opportunity as well. It's frankly a local dispute that the parties in the region need to sort out, with support from the UN.

    The fact that the ASA sees this issue as somehow black and white, rather than the muddled gray it actually is, does not speak terribly well of their members or their organization.

  • Sam L.

    Well, way back in '48, the other Arabs told the local Arabs to get out of Dodge so as to be out of the way of the fighting, and many did. The Arabs lost that fight. They've lost those fights ever since. The other Arabs don't like the Palis enough to take them in, so there they squat.

  • JoshK

    I think the fact that they've gone less and less socialist with their economics and have done alright stirs something up in those folks.

  • Joe_Da

    Sam L stated one point overlooked by many of the pro palestinians.
    In addition a second factor overlooked by the pro palestinians is:
    A large segment of the palestinians are from Jordan viewed somewhat as a lessor class of people than the jordanians which is a part of the reason the other arab countries did not take them back after the 1948 war.

    When the zionist movement began in the late 1800's through the 1940's, a large portion of palestinians living in jordan migrated to Israel because of the growing prosperity in the area. The middle east including palestinian/israel area was not well developed and as the jewish population from europe and western russia moved into the area, bringing significant improvements to the living standards in the area.

    Lastly, those condemning Israel, seem to forget the large expulsion of the jewish population from the arab countries after the '48 war, including the large jewish populations in iran, iraq, libya, egypt, etc

  • MS61

    And that is why the ASA must pass a resolution rejecting all collaboration with the US Government, including any grants, until such time as the US returns these illegally occupied territories to its native inhabitants.

  • Joe_Da

    Would the same standard apply to all the arab countries that expel their jewish population after the '48 war.

  • Jess1

    "I am not an expert on either, but from what I have read I believe it is a true statement to say that blacks in apartheid South Africa had more freedom than women have today in Saudi Arabia."
    I claim no expertise - just experience with the Arabic Peninsula. What I can say is that I witnessed behavior towards women in general that would be shocking to Westerners, that was not only allowed, but encouraged.
    Of course, that makes me some sort of Israel loving apologist. Or something.

  • MingoV

    "I think it is perfectly possible to explain the ASA's actions without resorting to anti-Semitism as an explanation...."

    The ASA isn't anti-Semitic, because Semites are Jews and Arabs. The ASA is anti-Israel.

    Palestinians living within Israel and under Israeli rule (not the ones living under Palestinian despots) have a better life than most Arabs (except those related to monarchs). Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan don't fare as well. But, hell, let's single-out those evil Israelis.

  • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

    Interestingly, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has come out in opposition to boycotts of Israel. He does support boycotts of products manufactured by Israel in settlements in the West Bank, but his position puts him in opposition to groups like the ASA. http://www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-we-do-not-support-the-boycott-of-israel/

  • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

    I see this "They can't be anti-semitic because Arabs are semites too" argument a lot and find it pretty tiring. Words and phrases evolve and take on new meaning over time. Whatever the origin of the word "semite", anti-semite has come to mean hatred of jews.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    "It's frankly a local dispute that the parties in the region need to sort out, with support from the UN."

    The UN has done nothing positive to help this situation and it has had many years to try. The problem is that at least one party to the dispute and likely both have no interest in sorting it out short of the complete annihilation of the other party.

  • makes sense, sort of

    Israel is the only one of those countries with really established research universities - maybe they have good teaching at the universities in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, but not the same kind of international profile. Not much effect.

    Also, while Saudi Arabia is undeniably bad, the Arab World isn't all the same - BYU had a fair contingent of middle eastern students, and they were almost always shocked at how conservative it was. Way more intense than anything they'd seen in Gaza, Beirut, or Karachi.

  • jhertzli

    In related news, antiquarians hate quarians, antidotes are opposed to dotes, and don't get me started on anticipation...

  • jhertzli

    I had never heard of the American Studies Association before last week. Why should I be impressed?

  • werewife

    Wilhelm Marr, a German politician, coined the term in the 19th century as a replacement for "Judenhass" (Jew-hate) because it made his party's platform sound classier. No Arabs, Berbers, etc., were involved or even thought of at the time. The term "Semitic" originally referred to a family of languages.

  • MS61

    Yes, Joe Da it should. In addition, the ASA needs to extend its boycott to the United Kingdom until such time as all historic land of the Celts is restored by the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invaders. Latin America would also be a fruitful place for an ASA boycott until such time as their native inhabitants get their land back. And let's not forget the Han Chinese in Tibet and the Aryans in India. And, for that matter, the Arab occupation of North Africa and the oppression of the Berbers. So much to do!

  • irandom419

    I'd like to see them drive around with a COEXIST sticker in the Palestinian territory and then in Israel. Hopefully, they'll fair better than the people who made Paradise Now.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradise_Now

  • NL7

    It's a little bizarre that Israel gets criticism for regularly excluding Palestinians from jobs inside Israel, and for making IDF service a virtual prerequisite to many jobs (thus disqualifying non-Druze Arab Israelis, as well as haredim and others), yet the US, Australia, Europe, and many other countries have similar open efforts to exclude, marginalize, punish, arrest, and deport migrants coming to work or live within their borders. I'm entirely against immigration controls, but it's quite inconsistent to label it apartheid in Israel but not elsewhere.

    I'm also not in favor of boycotts, generally. They mostly serve to make the boycotters feel good about themselves. I'm a believer in protest over boycott. If something is so hateful to you, then go there and talk about it openly. Cutting people off just causes cognitive dissonance and reinforces a feeling of isolation. Much better to engage than to exclude.

    Just stylistically, I don't think the way to protest exclusionary government policies is to pursue exclusionary economic behaviors.

  • NL7

    Saudi, the gulf states, and China are known for making gifts to third world countries of hospitals, equipment, sports centers, universities, etc. If one wanted to protest these states, they could also protest the institutions or countries that accepted their largesse. Maybe doctors could refuse to work in Saudi-purchased hospitals, universities refuse to do study abroad programs to institutions funded by China or whoever, etc. To be clear, I'm not in favor of that. But there are avenues for academics to actively oppose the existence or behavior of some of those countries.

  • NL7

    Also, the lands in Eastern Europe formerly dominated by German-speaking elites should be returned to Germany, because if history shows us anything it's that everybody loves when the Germans quickly accrete more power and territory.

  • MS61

    Perhaps it would be best for us to pick some arbitrary starting date when everyone in the world can go back to their respective corners. Maybe we'd get it right this time! How's 1000 AD sound? 1AD? 1000 BC? 5000 BC?

  • Ari S.

    Being Anti-Israel is the new politically correct way to be anti-semitic. There are over a hundred thousand people killed recently in Syria, and over a million displaced. Nobody is boycotting anything there. Arabs with Israeli citizenship vote, they have parliament seats, they go to universities. Did any South Africans get to do that anywhere during apartheid? This is really pathetic bandwagon boarding, it has become topic du jour to say one opposes Israel and people don't even know the facts straight.

  • Gdn

    "First, I am not sure why US material aid is relevant to choosing a boycott target.  I suppose the implication is that this boycott is aimed more at the US than at Israel itself. "

    That's exactly it. It is an expression of Anti-Americanism.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} But the problem is that most sources of injustice are all either a) Leftish regimes the Left hesitates to criticize for ideological reasons or b) Islamic countries that the left hesitates to criticize because they have invested so much in calling conservatives Islamophobic.

    You missed option 3, which is almost certainly accurate, and pointed out many many moons ago by P.J. O'Rourke -- "Some listen, some don't."

    IIRC, his context was protests about Apartheid in South Africa, vs. obvious civil rights injustices in the USSR or China. South Africa listened to the complaints, and did make an effort to fix things -- debatably not enough, or not fast enough -- but they DID LISTEN AND RESPOND.

    Make the same complaints against regimes like Russia or China, NoKo or any other despot -- the only response you're going to get is "Fuck Off!".

    Which latter gets you laughed at and, more critically, does not make liberals FEEL GOOD about themselves.
    So they protest the ones who listen rather than the ones who REALLY, REALLY ought to be protested.

    ...Because, to a liberal, after all -- if it doesn't make you FEEL good, why the hell would you bother doing it?

    The term you seek, here, btw, is "narcissism". And yes, it's one of the defining characteristics of most lefties.

  • Ari S.

    I think this speaks for itself: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-bletter/guess-whos-valedictorian_b_3602610.html?utm_hp_ref=tw Arab a

    Valedictorian at Israel's Top Medical School.

  • bigmaq1980

    "I wonder how US academics would feel about being boycotted from European events and scholarship over US government policy?"

    We may find out soon enough as the over reach with the NSA becomes a cultural symbol of the "overbearance" of America. That pot is just starting to simmer, and will have wide implications.

  • elliotdiafono

    Many people are afraid to criticize Muslims. When drawing a cartoon gets you killed or gets you death threats (while protest riots result in a number of murders), it is easier to find a target which doesn't hold that risk.