I am no fan of Lisa Durden, recently fired from her position as an adjunct professor of communication at Essex County College, a community college in New Jersey. I do not care for commentators who make broad generalizations about “you white people,” and her politics are far to the left of mine. Yet it is precisely as an academic conservative that I must say, to coin a phrase, I’m with her.
In January, I wrote about a surprising and heartening turn of events at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, an academic organization devoted to the study and teaching of language and literature.
In 2005, a coalition of organizations claiming to represent Palestinian civil society issued a call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. Since then, the BDS movement has acted, in church organizations, on college campuses, and elsewhere, to make Israel the equivalent of apartheid-era South Africa; a pariah state. BDS has been active in the U.S., and COMMENTARY has covered many of its individual wins and losses. But it is worth pausing every now and again to consider its overall effect on American public opinion.
Last year, students at Brandeis produced what I was sure would be a long-reigning champion in the “you can’t make this stuff up” department. Brandeis’s Asian American Student Association (AASA), in order to draw attention to “microaggressions”—unintentional slights—against Asian students, put up signs displaying various offensive statements and questions, such as “I totally have an Asian fetish” and “Why can’t people learn English when they come to this country?” Lest anyone mistake their intention, the Association explained on its Facebook page: “These papers are invasive of a space that you often inhabit and must pass through; similar to how these remarks invade our communities and the space we share as a whole: Brandeis.” They also included on the signs a web address where students who bothered to look could have found an explanation.
The case for firing Karega seems strong. Karega was untenured. Her case was reviewed by an elected faculty committee, a plurality of which voted for dismissal. She was represented by counsel and permitted to present evidence in her favor. No one would shed any tears if every faculty member who held views as straightforwardly unhinged and hateful as Karega’s were fired after such a review.
The BDS movement in the United States seeks, as it does in other nations, to make Israel into a pariah state. How is it doing? The most recent Gallup report, which includes its 2016 results as well as some numbers from prior years, is one indication that BDS is failing here.
In 2005, when the most recent wave of boycott activity commenced, Gallup asked survey respondents: “In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or with the Palestinians? 52 percent sympathized more with Israel, 18 percent more with the Palestinians. More than ten years of relentless campaigning against Israel later, and 62 percent sympathize more with Israel, 15 percent more with the Palestinians.
Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, and Kenneth Waltzer, professor emeritus of history at Michigan State University, responded sensibly to all this in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (behind a pay wall). They noted, correctly, that Puar’s talk was part of a history of anti-Israel activity at Vassar that has occasionally crossed the line into overt anti-Semitism. They added that the Puar lecture was a new low and that faculty members and President Catharine Bond Hill ought to “confront [the] wave of anti-Semitism with… free speech and rigorous academic inquiry.” They didn’t say Puar should have been barred from speaking, though their argument implies that sponsoring her talk was breathtakingly poor judgment. They merely called on members of Vassar’s faculty and administration to challenge Puar’s claims.
Last week, I reported on the appearance at Vassar College, co-sponsored by their Jewish Studies program, of Jasbir Puar, a Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Rutgers University. As I noted then, Puar accuses Israel of deliberately maiming Palestinians, rather than killing them, out of some combination of cruelty and greed. At that time, I did not have a record of the speech, which took place last Wednesday. But members of Fairness to Israel, a group of Vassar alums and parents organized to counter the propagandizing that passes for academic discourse about Israel at Vassar, were present and recorded and transcribed Puar’s talk. Assuming the accuracy of the transcript, Puar did not disappoint.
Much of it was evidently incomprehensible. Here is a sample, a part of her description of her project “How Palestine Matters”: “How Palestine Matters situates the geopolitical that has been obliviated in the resurrection of the ecological and the geographical in emergent fields of new materialisms and anthropocene studies.”