My Venture with Thoreau is Politically Incorrect

For the most part, I live my life day by day, ducking the ideological warfare that seems to come with the territory, living in Israel.  Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanna, the start of the new year, this year to be celebrated outdoors by the extended family.  Being short on conversational Hebrew, I’ll bring a volley ball and sneak extra pieces of the honey cake.  But as we were returning last night from a leap-and-dive sunset play in the Mediterranean surf, thinking of my fall class on Thoreau, I began to ponder the way one can in a car facing traffic. I began silently to compose to the sway of the Kia Soul — sketch out a response to the strange situation of teaching in defiance of an American political boycott.  You can amble on to another page if you wish, but here’s what you get if you stay.  Beware, it’s a bit long, and mildly ideological — or anti-ideological.  In any case, as you’ll see, a bit tongue in cheek.

Boycotting American-Israeli Academic Exchange:

Moving the agenda forward

Not quite a year ago, the august American Studies Association passed a resolution that put many American Studies scholars on notice. As an American on a work visa teaching Thoreau in Israel, I realized that I was now in violation of a protocol passed by a prestigious academic association to which I belonged.

Passed by a large margin of the membership, the intent of the resolution was to shut down fraternization between Israeli professors and professors from the States — and here I was enjoying my cappuccino at a table in the outdoor café of the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel-Aviv University. Would I be arrested for political incorrectness?

My Israeli colleagues, who liked cappuccino and a sunny afternoon as much as I do, most of them left-leaning (if that matters), seemed more dismissively amused than worried. The resolution from the States was a gentle slap, and a well-meaning pro-Palestinian gesture. What’s to not like? But as the conversation meandered into focus, and a slight breeze made it even harder to leave for other work, a consensus emerged: the American initiative was curiously limited.

One thing was clear. The boycott wouldn’t budge policy in Jerusalem. In fact Bibi (Prime Minister Netanyahu) could only be delighted. He would accept all the help he could get in undercutting leftist or progressive Tel-Aviv and Hebrew University faculties, whose pro-Palestinian leanings he despised.

On the other hand, it only scratched the surface of what could be done. Brainstorming began in earnest. Why limit this well-meaning gesture to travel restrictions? Who keeps track of academics crossing the Atlantic for research or lecture junkets anyway? And what were the consequences for those who turned a blind eye?

The whole project began to seem unimaginative and all too easy to stonewall or cheat. We needed an agenda with more bite. I became secretary for this rump congress, jotting down suggestions served up by my friends.

Here in telegraphic brevity is the gist of the immodest proposals.

  • Publish speaker lists of all conferences where Israelis and Americans co-mingle, and highlight offenders: distribute the lists widely
  • Target articles by Israelis who publish in American journals as well as articles by Americans publishing in Israeli journals: distribute the lists widely
  • Earmark for boycott books published recently by Israeli academics in English that are intended for American academics: distribute the lists widely

We were just beginning to roll. By and large, academics have better things to do than debate the politics of their professional organizations, but the setting was congenial and surely the arrogance of Israeli power was disturbing. Proposals flashed, showing more and more bite. I continued to record them.

  • Earmark for dis-acquisition books in American libraries published by Israeli academics over the past ten years
  • Identify and distribute warnings against reading pro-Zionist books
  • Create a list of dangerous Jewish writers who favor a Jewish state.

The breeze from the Mediterranean picked up, as if to confirm our sense that last Spring’s boycott resolution was little more than a gnat bite. New proposals pushed the envelope; but then, we were brainstorming, not being cautious. There was a mad logic at work.

  • Initiate twitter campaigns harassing Americans traveling to Israel for any reason at all
  • Develop a ‘watch list’ of Americans traveling to Israel, and of Israeli students, professors, or citizens traveling to the States
  • Campaign to have Amazon drop Zionist, pro-Israeli books

Now admit it. Even serious lefties know there’s nothing like Jewish humor.

The best suggestion of all was to declare an all-campus Anti-Zionist day: give free tote bags to students and faculty who cast their collections of old Zionist books in a heap on the grassy quad, to be shoveled up later for recycling.

We stifled a laugh, scooped up our laptops, and aglow with the satisfaction of hours well-spent, dispersed to our offices and classrooms for even better work, Israelis and Americans more or less defiantly arm in arm.