Friday, March 17, 2006

Are We Losing It?

"Paradise Now," a movie that appears to celebrate Palestinian suicide bombers is nominated for an Academy Award and there are Jewish protests. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is released and more than a few Jews react as if our security is in danger. A British play making a martyr of Rachel Corrie, the anti-Israel activist who placed herself in front of an Israeli bulldozer and was killed, is scheduled for an obscure Manhattan theater and there is much hair-pulling. Lord Richard Rodgers, a noted British architect who was given the plum Javitz Convention Center expansion assignment, promotes a boycott of Israel and there is semitic wailing. It is hard to keep up with events at college campuses as academic appointments of persons who are said to be hostile to Israel evoke opposition from pro-Israel groups. There is additional Jewish opposition arising from anti-Israel speakers being invited to speak at various campuses. Even Brandeis University isn't spared.

What's going on? We seem to have an enemies list longer than Richard Nixon's. Are we losing it in the sense that we are engulfed in a world of Israel-hatred, maybe also the hatred of Jews? Is what was previously a bad situation getting worse?

Are we losing it in the emotional sense, flipping out over minor incidents and even mirages? Put otherwise, are we living through a real nightmare or just having bad dreams?

There are reasons to be worried. All of the world isn't quite against us, but too much of it is, starting with the vast and increasingly fanatical Islamic world. European governments aren't friendly, nor are many Europeans. If the reaction to the Danish cartoons doesn't scare us, what will? Our emotional stability is not helped by the steady drumbeat of severe criticism of Israel emitted by various cultural elites, members of what may be referred to as the intelligentsia who manage not to be too intelligent about horrific acts that are occurring with regularity in too many other countries.

This does not mean that we should arise each day breathing fire and ready to do battle with all whom we regard as hostile. As in all social relations, it is necessary to pick our spots, even necessary at times to ignore some who may give offense. Else, we will be occupied with nothing other than constant challenges to those whom we have labeled as hostile.

We have to choose our battles, meaning also what not to protest against. A good place to start is the two prominent and intertwined zones referred to as academic freedom and freedom of expression. Unless what we perceive to be hostile is entirely unambiguous and does not entail issues about which there is legitimate public debate, we should not protest when Arabists are appointed to university positions. All we have a right to ask for is that students not be punished for offering opposing views and that the faculty promotes a variety of scholarly opinions. Possible exceptions - and they must be rare - are academics who are Holocaust deniers or who aided the Nazis. It is not sufficient to oppose an Arab or Islamic scholar simply because we can locate views that we regard as hostile.

If only because any other strategy results in even greater harm to our interests, we should not challenge speaking invitations to those whose views about Israel we do not like. All we need to do is insist that our side get a fair hearing. Our strategy needs to be pro-free speech. I recognize that hostile speech is often harmful and that contrary to what some civil libertarians believe, additional speech presenting the other side is often not a sufficient antidote.

It should be noted that what appears regularly on the Israeli stage and in Israeli movies, as well as in Haaretz, isn't any less hostile to Israel than what we often object to in this country. Amira Hass and Gideon Levi, both Haaretz journalists, emit a constant stream of anti-Israel venom.

When governments are implicated in anti-Israeli acts and policies, there is an obligation to protest. If anything, we have been too reticent in our objections to positions taken by European governments and leaders. We also need to be unsparing in our resistance to divestment and boycott campaigns of the kind that have become routine in England and elsewhere in Europe. This is serious business and also nasty business and, at least in this country, we have the tools to strike back because of federal and state legislation that forbids participation in anti-Israel boycotts.

It is good that we reacted sharply to Lord Rodgers' significant involvement in boycott activity. But it is troublesome that Jewish leaders have now rushed to judgment and given him a clean bill of health despite his hosting in his office just a few weeks ago a meeting of architects and planners who promote the boycott of Israel. His subsequent explanation, after his assignments were put at risk by our opposition, that he did not know what the meeting was about is not credible and it is naie and wrong to so quickly let him off the hook. Rodgers'hiring of Howard Rubenstein does not inspire confidence in his probity. We should not fall prey to the dubious wiles of public relations mavens.

Finally, rather than focusing obsessively on every possible anti-srael statement or event, we might focus more on providing support to those who support Israel. They are our friends, particularly Evangelicals and other Christians who have given Israel enormous assistance, both political and financial. Shamelessly, we have endeavored, as through reckless statements by Eric Yoffie and Abraham Foxman, to alienate these friends. Their anti-vangelical attacks are more harmful to Israel than a play about Rachel Corrie.