For many reasons I’ve been neglecting this blog. One is that I’ve been preparing a manuscript, Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, correcting page proofs (not fun). I’ll hold the real thing late this September. It’s been a marvelous experience, shaping my thoughts, weaving them, struggling to get the contrapuntal flow of Thoreau’s thinking right, musically and conceptually.
You may remember that I’ve been out of the country, too, and setting up life in Maine this Spring has distracted me from the routines that used to contain spaces for blog meditations. Interestingly, what has brought me back to this blog, at the present moment, is not so much Thoreau as an uninvited intrusion of difficult politics. I don’t enjoy political battles, but after two years in Israel teaching Thoreau (yes, Thoreau) I find myself here in the states once more aware, in a way I can’t duck, of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).
My first exposure was the news, a year and a half ago, of an American boycott of Israeli academics. I was teaching in Israel when I read that the American Studies Association, with which I was loosely connected, had passed a resolution banning Israeli academics from appearances at ASA conferences — and condemning travel of academics from the states to Israel.
I didn’t worry about my political position. I approved of Israeli women who cited Thoreau in their defense when they revealed that they had been illegally transporting Palestinian women, disguised as secular Jewish women, through the military checkpoints for a day at the beach with their kids near Tel Aviv. Civil Disobedience was a noble device and moral witness.
But what about my colleagues at Tel-Aviv University? Some belonged to the American Studies Association. Many more, in any number of fields, had earned their degrees in the States and were internationally respected scholars. They were obviously in a ticklish situation. You could stonewall the attempt to keep you out of a conference. It was unlikely there would be any enforcement. Nevertheless, the edict was insulting.
I joined the debate by suggesting that ASA boycott sponsors think more progressively. Why stop with a ban on conference presentations? Ventriloquizing The Very Reverent Jonathon Swift, I suggested that books by Israeli authors on Thoreau or Emerson be banned, even burned. At the least they could demand that libraries purge their shelves of material by Israeli academics. A colleague met the boycott head-on in March. Invited to a literature conference in London, he politely asked if the ban meant that if he attended he’d be expected to eat at a separate lunch counter.
The BDS movement involves pressure on Churches and Universities to divest their portfolios of any links to companies working in the West Bank. Delegitimizing Israeli military occupation or US support of the occupation is not a ridiculous aim. But trying to prevent Israeli academics from attending scholarly conferences is just a step away from asking academics fraternizing with Israeli professors to paste yellow stars on their conference name-tags.
Happily for my sanity, just this afternoon I listened via internet to Daniel Barenboim, the renowned pianist and conductor and co-founder, with Edward Said, of West-East Divan Orchestra, give the Edward Said lecture in London. The orchestra is made up of young Arab and Israeli musicians. That’s grounds for hope.