Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 1: David vs. Goliath

UPDATE: The second post in this series is now up. And now the third post as well.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting takes place by electronic ballot starting today, April 15th, and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision.

While we have been posting extensively about the boycott here on Savage Minds, so far none of the full-time contributors have expressed their personal opinions on the matter. Over the next few weeks I hope to do just that, starting with a post about my own experience growing up as a Reform Jew in New York City. I have at least two more posts planned as well, including one on boycotts as a political strategy and another in which I try to round-up and summarize some of the writing which I have found most persuasive on the topic.

What follows is a very personal statement and intentionally avoids most of the issues that have already been discussed elsewhere. For those wanting more information I recommend looking through our own archives on the subject, or exploring the blog maintained by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, as well as the anti-boycott blog. But, above all, I recommend you read this post on “Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” Dialogue vs. BDS, and the Report on Israel/Palestine (PDF) prepared by the AAA task force.

David vs. Goliath

I was raised as a Reform Jew in New York City in the eighties and the Judaism we were taught at Hebrew School was little more than Zionist propaganda. As Lisa Goldman recently put it,

for Jewish-Americans, more so than ever for Jews in Israel, Zionism is a crucial element of their identity. The most important element is neither God nor religion but the Holocaust, with its heavy legacy of trans-generational trauma. The lesson of the genocide, many believe, is that Jews need a safe haven. A state of one’s own.

During my weekly Hebrew school classes, as well as related weekend activities and camps, we almost never discussed Jewish religion, ethics, or philosophy.1 Instead, we were taught to think of ourselves as victims of historical persecution stretching back to the dawn of time. We were taught the importance of maintaining our ethnic identity in the face of this persecution.

David and Goliath
“David and Goliath” by Erik Bragalyan

Even as young children, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as little David’s standing up to Goliath. The holidays we celebrated were similarly built around such David and Goliath narratives: Purim celebrates the story of Esther who triumphed over the evil Mordecai Haman,2 and Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus.

Only as we got older did we learn of stories in which the Jews failed to triumph against overwhelming odds: the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. Yet even when learning about war and genocide, there was always the promise of a new David emerging that might once and for all put an end to such historical defeats: muscular Jewish nationalism. The Warsaw Uprising may not have succeeded, but the Six Day War and the raid on Entebbe were another story. Israel’s success meant that Jewish children could sleep peacefully at night. It also meant that Isreal was all that was standing between us and the abyss.

I never went on any of the trips to Israel organized by the school, but we watched films about the wonders of life on the kibbutz. (We were, of course, carefully warned away from socialism with stories about the horrors of collective family life.) I also helped raise money to plant trees in Israel. We were told that the Arabs had not cared for the land properly, turning it into a desert; the implication being that they did not deserve the land because they had been poor caretakers. Such stories of neglect by indigenous inhabitants will be familiar to scholars of all forms of settler colonialism. (I have since heard ethnic Chinese say much the same thing about indigenous Taiwanese.) At the time, however, it evoked a powerful image of Palestine as a desert which was only able to bloom once the rightful owners had returned.

When I was twelve they took us on a weekend retreat where we watched the movie Ticket to Heaven about a man who gets “brainwashed” by a cult and has to be “deprogrammed” by his parents. But unlike that film, unlearning Zionism was not a simple process involving being locked in a room with a professional “deprogrammer.” It took years of reading, questioning, and talking to people who actually knew something about life under the occupation. Thanks to patient friends in college and graduate school, I began to question the simple narrative by which the Holocaust served to legitimize colonialism. I learned about the Nakba by which “led to the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinian Arab population.” I learned how life in Gaza was like living in a giant prison. I began to question the logic of the two state solution. I learned about the rise of right wing extremism in Israeli politics. And slowly, bit by bit, the stories I had learned as a child began to unravel a the seams, creating space for a much more complex story to take its place.

Even as I began to question my Zionism, however, certain habits and reflexes of thought still remained. I would find myself instinctively grasping at straws to support claims I had already come to realize were unsupportable. Recently I encountered similar reflexes while teaching here in Taiwan. We are starting to get exchange students from China and during one lecture, after I said something mildly critical of China, one of these students spoke up to challenge what I said. I was actually quite happy about this because Taiwanese students are usually so passive in class that actually getting challenged by a student felt refreshing. But after the lecture the student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she actually agrees with what I had said about China and that she’d come to Taiwan precisely to get exposed to more critical views, but that defending China’s honor had become a reflex for her so she’d spoken up without thinking. Nationalism works upon is in very deep ways which talk of “imagined communities” often fails to grasp.

Zionist reflexes are not unique to Jewish kids from NY. They seem to exist at a more general level in European and American public discourse as well. I see non-Jewish politicians, media personalities, and even academics reflexively defending Israel, portraying anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, unquestioningly accepting the necessity of a two-state solution, and refusing to engage in any way with Palestinian political aspirations. It is as if the slightest break in our collective resolve would open the door to the ultimate evil. “Never again” means you are either “with us or against us” and the failure to be “with us” is too horrible to contemplate.

At a very basic level I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of these deeply ingrained assumptions. I don’t expect those people on Facebook who write “Disgusting” every time I post about the boycott to change their minds, but my public support of the boycott, and of the BDS movement more generally, has already sparked dozens of conversations with people who are genuinely curious and open-minded. In this sense the boycott resolution and the resulting discussion have already done a lot of the work I hoped they would, but I still think AAA members should vote for the boycott. In my next post I will try to explain one reason why I think an actual boycott, and not just this discussion about the boycott resolution, is still important.

  1. My brother went to a different Reform Hebrew school and had a very different experience, one that did indeed involve interesting discussions of ethics and philosophy. 
  2. Thanks to reader “yogi” for the correction. I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention in Hebrew school! (Or just have a lousy memory…) 

3 thoughts on “Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 1: David vs. Goliath

  1. Kerim,
    A compelling story. I completely agree with your position on the boycott. If the Israeli government banned Noam Chomsky, we should be ready to return the favor. And I would gladly vote in favor of it, if only I wee a member of the august AAA.
    However, as so often happens with metaphor, the David and Goliath analogy you employ is far more complex than the usual interpretation of the brave underdog (with God on his side) pitted against the powerful heathen warrior. Check out the introduction of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, David and Goliath . . ., in which he explains that in the military of ancient Judea a figure like David, a “slinger” was a feared adversary of a conventional armored soldier like Goliath. The accuracy and force of a slinger’s projectile were comparable, one military analyst noted, to that of a high-caliber handgun. A soldier waving a bronze spear at a slinger would not have had a chance.
    The analogy also contains a bitter irony. Although we celebrate the underdog, both Israel and the U. S. have become Goliaths, raining missiles down on the hapless residents of Gaza, tasking drones to murder Pakistani villagers. We may pause to wonder, though, whether the superior power of the slinger has come to rest with our opponents. Are Gaza and Racca home to new Davids?

  2. I’m glad to read about Kerim Friedman’s experiences. I grew up as a child of the Holocaust (my parents escaped; my grandparents and many relatives were deported and murdered). The lesson that I was taught overtly, by my totally secular parents, was to shun prejudice. The other lesson that I learned from them, by osmosis as it were, was what I now know is called “Tikun olam” or “make the world a better place.” I recognize that, had my parents traveled south from Czechoslovakia instead of west, I would have been born in Israel and not in England – so I have particular sympathy for those who are Israeli by birth and not by choice.
    I have always felt that the Palestinians deserve their own state – an unpopular opinion among the American jews among whom I live but a natural outgrowth of my upbringing.
    I have close friends in Israel – their mother traveled south from the very same courtyard from which my father traveled west. We share, however, the same political opinions. The son of one of my father’s friends was even imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army of occupation.
    I visited them all last month – my first visit to Israel in many years. I was astonished by the enormous Arab presence that was barely apparent in the 1960s when I visited on several occasions. In the Galilee, there are small Arab towns everywhere, each with several minarets. If I were a working-class Arab in the Middle East, I’d want to live in one of these towns, for sure.
    Since I lecture in Mongolia to young scientists, I thought it only appropriate to offer to lecture to young Israeli scientists and I was invited to Haifa University to speak. There were clearly many Arabs at the university – women in headscarves identified themselves. Arab men were indistinguishable from Jewish men but I was told that my audience was a mixture of both.
    So I personally and deliberately acted (without payment, too) in direct opposition to an academic boycott.
    Do I have any regrets? Am I remotely conflicted? Absolutely not. The campus is like any other campus, the students like any other students – smart and eager to learn. I am pleased that I was able to contribute, in a small way, to the education of Israel’s young scientists. I have no problem with those who feel morally obliged to participate in a boycott. But my personal feeling is that a boycott will only serve to show support to those who oppose the present government. It will do nothing to dislodge or discourage this government. However, it will certainly reduce the effectiveness of a secular Israeli education.

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