On 20 December 2013, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, published an article in Politico in which he smears American Studies Association (ASA) President Curtis Marez as anti-Semitic.
I wrote the following in response to that completely unfounded (and libelous) accusation, as well as to Oren’s deeply troublesome arguments in general. Oren, readers may remember, is the same person who tried to kill a 60 Minutes story on Palestinian Christians and encouraged prosecution of the Irvine 11.
Politico declined the article without comment, after having sat on it for many weeks. I repeat my insistence here that Oren offer Professor Marez a public apology.
Congress has no business legislating academic freedom
In a recent Politico piece, Michael Oren expresses concern about the growing movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, urging the United States Congress to intervene in the governance of both scholarly organizations and university departments: “Laws could be passed withholding federal or state funding from any academic program that knowingly blacklisted Israeli scholars or institutions or cooperated with associations that did.” (Note: Earlier this month two members of Congress did introduce a bill precisely along the lines Oren proposed in December).
This is a troublesome idea for various reasons. First, Oren misrepresents academic boycott, which is deeply opposed to any sort of blacklisting and carefully avoids targeting individuals.
Oren’s language erroneously suggests that Israeli scholars are somehow put in danger by boycott, which in fact is a nonviolent tactic.
The luxury of safety is unavailable to the Palestinian university employees who must survive a military occupation.
More important, Oren’s call for Congress to legislate the conduct of scholarly communities is not in any way an endorsement of academic freedom.
To the contrary, it opens the door to all kinds of interference that would profoundly restrict the ability of faculty and students to practice free speech.
A key function of academic freedom is to allow scholars to articulate controversial viewpoints without fear of recrimination from the state.
Oren wants American Studies scholars punished for exercising their legal right to express opposition to a nation-state’s behavior.
Oren also observes that because of boycott, Israeli novelist Amos Oz “could not attend a seminar on conflict resolution in the United States.” This is simply untrue.
Nothing in boycott principles precludes Oz from traveling wherever he likes; nothing precludes institutions from hosting him unless he is acting as a representative of the Israeli government.
Oren’s invocation of the 1977 boycott laws is apocryphal. Those laws have nothing to do with private nonprofit organizations like the American Studies Association.
Likewise, Oren is on shaky moral and legal ground when he celebrates the arrest and prosecution of 11 UC Irvine students who interrupted one of his speeches.
Israel is virtually untouchable as a subject of open criticism. Oren pays lip service to the notion that criticizing Israel is acceptable while making clear that there is no such thing as prejudice-free criticism of Israel, the very sort of exceptionalism those students, and academic boycotters, aim to undermine.
Who is the bigot?
Oren spends much time characterizing academic boycott as “racist” and “bigoted,” an odd claim for somebody defending a nation whose very identity (and main criterion for citizenship) is predicated on the exclusion of non-Jews.
Oren’s accusations of racism and bigotry are devoid of evidence. Nothing in the literature or actions of ASA boycott advocates even hints at racist or bigoted behavior.
In actuality, the commitment of boycott advocates to combat all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, is unimpeachable, and certainly much more impressive than Israel’s record on such matters.
Oren’s claims are serious, worthy of careful scrutiny and strong evidentiary backing, yet he deploys them seemingly with none of the former and certainly with none of the latter.
The most troublesome feature of Oren’s piece, however, is his contention, rendered in a conveniently all-encompassing passive voice, that ASA president Curtis Marez is anti-Semitic.
Oren bases this contention on a New York Times article in which Marez, asked about the ASA’s focus on Israel, is quoted as replying, “one has to start somewhere.”
This quote is decontextualized from a much longer and more thoughtful response Marez had provided, something Oren could have learned had he bothered to contact Marez.
The Times later added a more complete version of Marez’s comments to the online version of the story in which he said that Americans have “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because [the US] is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.”
This addition was published well before Oren’s essay.
Oren’s slipshod methodology doesn’t cut it when a writer presents an argument he knows will impugn his subject’s character.
Marez is well-known in the community of American Studies scholars. His reputation is impeccable; his skill as a scholar and administrator is widely admired. He has never been implicated in any iteration of anti-Semitism. Oren should offer a clarification and apologize to Marez.
Oren’s approach to the issue of boycott is that of a person scared of a growing nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation.
Boycott has opened a conversation
The fear is warranted; boycott has opened a conversation that Oren himself has worked hard to suppress. Even so, getting Congress – or the New York State legislature – involved in the affairs of academe is a terrible idea.
Oren need only look at the closure of the department of politics at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and its deleterious aftermath to see what kind of disaster awaits the arrival of the politicians’ oversight.