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What Israel’s Nightmare Trajectory May Mean On Campus

Tom Friedman
By TTN Blog
Robert Jennings

Robert Jennings

This post is drawn, with the permission of Robert Jennings, from statements he made on a lengthy email discussion thread of The Third Narrative Google group.  He began with NY Times columnist Tom Friedman’s nightmare scenario of the Middle East, “The Many Mideast Solutions,” which includes Friedman’s view that Netanyahu has probably insured a one-state future for Israel and the Palestinians, replete with “a continuous, low grade civil war.”  Jennings has an MA in anthropology and is currently enrolled in a joint PhD program in Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, focusing on the archaeology and history of the Ancient Near East.  

Given the increasingly dark prognosis for finding peace and security for Israel and the greater Middle East region any time soon, Jennings speculates on how progressive pro-Israel academics should conduct themselves strategically in today’s increasingly politicized and polarized academic environment.  He also observes how the career prospects of aspiring Jewish academics like himself are impinged upon by the growing anti-Israel atmosphere in his and other fields of study:

I think that our group needs to have a backup plan if and when it becomes abundantly clear that the classical two-state solution is no longer viable. We cannot, on principle, endorse the BDS movement so long as it insists that academic and cultural boycotts are an inseparable part of a movement that hopes to use economic pressure to change Israeli policy. We also cannot endorse a fully democratic one-state solution with a Palestinian Right of Return, as that will be political (and probably physical) suicide for Israel’s Jewish population. In order to keep our credibility on campus without selling out Israeli Jews, we may need to start talking seriously about some sort of power-sharing agreement between Israelis and Palestinians which gives the Jewish minority a final veto over any policy in an Arab-majority state, or perhaps think about the sort of “confederal two-state solution with freedom of movement between the two states” that both Reuven Rivlin and Avrum Burg have advocated.

We may also want to start seriously “negotiating” with campus BDS movements — i.e., offer to stop blocking their economic boycott and divestment initiatives if they stop insisting on academic and cultural boycotts, and get rid of their hardcore “anti-normalization” ideology. We need to treat this as an on-campus war, and the BDS movement as our enemies. But as Obama has said, you don’t negotiate with your friends.

The BDS movement is becoming more and more powerful on campuses in the West, and is striking at young Western Jews’ prospects at academic careers in certain fields. This is accompanied by a general acceptance (even encouragement) of incivility directed at pro-Israel Jews in academia.

Take my own field of archaeology. Because of the success of BDS in North American anthropology departments, doing archaeology in Israel is becoming increasingly difficult for young archaeologists. Most North Americans who do archaeology in Israel via secular universities are Jewish. In effect, BDS is holding my career hostage to the actions of the Israeli government. I am not the only young Jew in academia who is in this situation. In my case, it has gotten to the point where I am considering making Aliyah so that I can pursue my academic career more easily.

Additionally, I believe that some form of economic pressure will be necessary for Israel to meet the minimum necessary conditions for Palestinians to agree to a two-state deal. And I do suspect that conditions on campuses here would get a bit more civil if a large group of progressive pro-Israel academics made a unilateral gesture offering to abstain from (not support, just abstain from) campus divestment initiatives in exchange for an end to BDS-supporters’ policies of academic blacklists, anti-normalization, and general harassment of people they disagree with.

I think I speak for a lot of diaspora Jewish students when I say that, yes, I do care about Israel’s security, but my more immediate concern is to get BDS-supporters who have power over me to just stop bothering me, and let me pursue my career in peace. Yes, while BDS’s policy of anti-normalization makes dialogue difficult, it is not impossible. We all know individuals who support BDS, and this would have to start with us talking to them as friends and colleagues.

I am not asking Ameinu or any other organization to change its position. I am posing the question of what pragmatic steps we can take on-campus to help progressive pro-Israel students who are being marginalized by the dominance of BDS in progressive campus circles.

As for binational and confederal solutions: I understand they are a long way off, and absolutely contingent on continued Jewish control of any such entity’s military, along with a power-sharing agreement that gives Jews at least 50% representation in such an entity’s government, regardless of population ratios. I personally would prefer a conventional two state solution; and I support steps that would help create a two-state reality on the ground — such as settlement boycotts, settlement freezes, and economic policies that would incentivize the settlers to move back within the Green Line.

But respected Israeli figures are already talking about binationalism: e.g., President Rivlin, Avrum Burg, Meron Benvenisti (former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kolleck). They represent a recognition by elder statesmen — Benvenisti and Rivlin both lived through the 1948 war — that a non-confederal two-state solution might not work. I too think we need to start contemplating the details of such a binational solution in the event that Friedman’s nightmare becomes an irreversible reality.

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