(This essay originally appeared in the Algemeiner on April 3, 2014.)
I regret to say that a fair number of people I respect (and some not so much) have signed on to a statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, evince as it may the best of intentions, is nonetheless, in truth, very considerable twaddle. I speak of the statement of principles of the Third Narrative Academic Advisory Council. The council, we are told,
[w]ill function as an advisory body to The Third Narrative (TTN), facilitated by Ameinu. The Council will seek to create a unique, middle ground, organizing space at TTN for progressive academics and will engage academics from across North America.
The statement goes on to list varied activities all of which relate to the promotion of academic freedom. This focus suggests that a pivotal organizing impetus for the formation of the council, perhaps even the conception of a “third narrative,” has been the recent and growing movement toward academic boycotts directed at Israel. That is a vital concern, and along with that concern the council promotes, essentially, empathetic evenhandedness (the “third” narrative) and the two-state solution. Plenty of people have made claims to the latter beliefs, so, again, it seems apparent that the particular motivation for the formation of this council of academics is the current growing threat to academic freedom by the BDS movement, which, not by the way, the council statement never mentions by name. Thus, since the statement of principles begins its introduction averring that
[s]cholars and academics should play a positive role in asking difficult questions, and promoting critical thinking, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict,
I am going to offer a little of that difficult question asking and critical thinking promotion.
The opening sentence of the introduction states,
We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.
Well, no, one does not have to be either of these two given alternatives, but such a formulation suggests that in order to be pro one an individual must by logical entailment be anti the other, as ifpro-Palestinian were the conceptual complement of anti-Israel instead of a historically contingent pairing that is the consequence of political choices. To put a fine point on it, one may well be, as many people long have been, pro-Israel and still be a supporter of the two-state solution – and thus feel “empathy for the suffering and aspirations” of Palestinians and be not anti-Palestinian – as well as an opponent of academic boycotts, as most everyone also has long been. In other words, this is not a new position to take.
Still, the founders and members of this council felt prompted to form it and to frame what they chose to call a “third narrative.”
The listed principles (a-g) are seven. They are on their face unobjectionable to reasonable people, though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one, historically, that has seen, even until today, very large numbers of unreasonable people. The principles are almost all couched in the evenhanded vocabulary of “both sides.” Almost all.
Principle c) avows,
We believe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank not only deprives Palestinians of their fundamental rights, but is also corrosive to Israeli society and is incompatible with the democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.
Now, certainly the framers of this principle know that elements of it are disputed. Some people – one will presume among them those signing onto the statement – might call any dispute over the wording of “occupation” to be disingenuous caviling. Others will call it the making of meaningful distinctions. But the council does here take a clear position that it is not. Okay. Fine. Being evenhanded and balanced and all that, with “empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples” does not mean not having any point of view at all, and here, obviously, on this point, it goes against Israel. Being evenhanded and balanced and all that, one presumes that elsewhere among the principles or in the statement one will find articulated some expression of specifically blameworthy Palestinian behavior – not because one should make some up, so to speak, just to pretend to be fair, but because there is actually blameworthy specifically Palestinian behavior to perceive?
Principle f) asserts,
We reject the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong, and sets out to marshal supposed evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration. Scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach. As academics we recognize the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, but strive to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency.
Yet, those rigorous standards of research and analysis, when applied in principle e), to “rhetoric used by both sides” [emphasis added] offer no specific acknowledgement, as with Israeli “occupation,” to the institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. In principle d), where the council “cannot condone the use of violence targeting civilians,” but names no national names, its rigorous standards fail to detect over the organizational, terrorist history of the PLO and its constituent members, and in the onslaught of the second Intifada, and in Hamas missile and rocket attacks on Israel a purposeful policy of violence targeting citizens of which there is not the remotest like on the part of Israel.
The call, in the interests of peace, is that one show to both peoples a balanced “respect for their national narratives.” This is not to say – it does not say – intellectual recognition of a narrative. It does not say, as part of the reality of negotiating some resolution to conflict with foes,accommodation in an acceptable way of a foe’s narrative. It says “respect” for it. The anti-Semitic narrative, the “settler-colonial” interloper with no ancient history on the land narrative. The rejectionist narrative. Respect for it. And this would be “to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency”?
While I know specifically that it is not so for many of the individuals who have signed the Third Narrative Advisory Council Statement, the statement, as a joint product, does give off a whiff of something. It has the odor of sweaty discomfort to it. The rotten BDS movement has made unnerving advances into academic terrain, and these scholars recognize how awful and frightening that is. Yet, though BDS is clearly opposed elsewhere on the Third Narrative website, omission of any direct reference to it in the advisory council statement, and to BDS’s provenance, is glaring. The unwillingness, despite all the conspicuous rhetoric of balance, to specifically cite Palestinians for wrongful behavior in any instance, while showing no such reserve about Israel, feels telling.
The Third Narrative has the odor of offering people a way to take a stand, in the current moment, seemingly supportive of Israel, but while holding their noses. If you want to oppose academic boycotts, but you don’t want to call yourself pro-Israel or specifically criticize Palestinians for anything, you now have a statement you can endorse or even sign, and when you do sign it, you may notice something about all the other names of people supporting a “third” narrative and its “unique, middle ground”: they are almost all Jewish names, without a recognizably Arab name among them.