Timothy J. Reiss Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Timothy J. Reiss is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. His most recent books are Against Autonomy: Global Dialectics of Cultural Exchange (2002), Mirages of the Selfe: Patterns of Personhood in Ancient and Early Modern Europe (2003) and the edited collections Music, Writing and Cultural Unity in the Caribbean (2005) and (co-ed.) Topograreissphies of Race and Gender: Mapping Cultural Representations (2008-9). He is currently finishing a book on Descartes and his age’s political practice and thought, another on rethinking the Renaissance as part of long continental and oceanic intercultural exchanges, and an edited collection on Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Sign the “Open Letter” calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only the signatures of (former or current) MLA members will be included.

Concerning the MLA, Israel and BDS, I have more than once been told that the issue is not one for a language and literature professional association that is not a political organization. To take a Kantian aesthetic autonomy stance in this case is of course hypocritically selective, since we have taken many political positions over the years (not least over South African apartheid), when the issues pertained to our professional concerns. Apropos of BDS, these concerns are deep indeed, even could we ignore the daily tortures Israel inflicts on Palestinians, ongoing theft of land, orchards and other property and the often increased individual and collective military and civil assaults. But we cry about academic freedom as our particular (professional) realm, we cry about intellectual freedom more broadly, as do Israelis—for themselves (not least against BDS). We readily ignore the fact that Israel has forever restricted Palestinian rights to those freedoms, and continues to do so. Everything we study touches how people think, how we act, morality, speech, worldly and spiritual acts, events, thoughts, deeds. These are, however we define it, what literature and the arts are about—who, what, why humans are—all humans. Israel has for decades been trying to prevent Palestinians from such expression. And while I believe those of us from “First World” cultures, above all European, to be responsible to a past for which we may not be responsible but from whose oppressions we benefit, silence on ongoing oppressions against which collectively raised voices can have a beneficent effect does make us responsible, now, for those oppressions.

“We cry about academic freedom as our particular (professional) realm, we cry about intellectual freedom more broadly, as do Israelis—for themselves (not least against BDS). We readily ignore the fact that Israel has forever restricted Palestinian rights to those freedoms, and continues to do so.”

Coming from a family associated with modern Israel from far before its start, I write this in great pain of spirit. My grandfather (born in the grand 1848) settled in Manchester from Heidelberg in his twenties or thirties, to establish an English branch of a family textile business that prospered so well before World War I, that even when I went up to Manchester in 1960 and opened an account at the main Lloyds Bank for my student loan, an elderly manager called me in to offer all the “help” he could. Since the 1922 crash had destroyed the firm and I knew nothing of this erstwhile wealth, my father had to resolve the mystery. My grandfather must have been quite enlightened. Having said he would pay for whichever of his children first wanted to go to University and could get in, he did not blink at this being his firstborn, a girl. She went on to become a quite well-known suffragette in the north, author of The Rights and Duties of Englishwomen, the first woman barrister in Manchester (and second in England) and a judge on the Northern Circuit Court. She took all her degrees at the University of Manchester, so I must think it there that she first met and became friends with Chaim Weizmann, a lecturer at the University from 1904 and living in the city for thirty years before going to Israel to become its president in 1949. I’m not sure when Erna went to London to study for the bar, but as Weizmann moved there too for a while during the war, perhaps they further solidified their friendship there. Certainly, during the Versailles conference she worked often with Weizmann as his assistant. I assume these ties continued during their years living in Manchester proximity, my aunts in Didsbury at the end of the Palatine Road out of the city centre, still known to the bus conductors of my student days as Yidsbury and the Palestine Road.

Meantime, my father, five years younger than she (with two siblings in between) and 21 at the war’s outbreak, was sent first to the Dardenelles before returning to the Western Front in 1916, where he remained at least until the first months of Paschendaele in July-August 1917. But he had joined what became the Jewish Legion early enough to march into Jerusalem with Allenby and his troops in December. Through the following year, my father led a company in the Legion, with both Ben Zvi and Ben Gurion under his command, promoting the former to sergeant—that, at least, was my understanding, my sister recalls it as the latter. What is certain is that in the late fifties and sixties, when my father had at least once and at times twice a year lengthy business in Tel Aviv, he would lunch with Ben Gurion, as old comrades in arms. (I have no idea what happened to any ties with Ben Zvi.) Weizmann, Ben Zvi and Ben Gurion (like Herzl) were secular zionists, two of them at least not just open to living equally and at peace with Palestine’s Arabs but, in Ben Gurion’s case, pushing quite hard for it. My own family, believing throughout those years in the right to a Jewish homeland, were never the fervid zionists that these future leaders were, maybe because they had not known the pogroms of central and eastern Europe. But all believed strongly in a secular state and hoped it able to accommodate as equals those peoples of Palestine who remained in and on the land. The Six Days War dealt that ideal a fatal blow, as did the growing influx of ultra- and Orthodox Jews from central Europe and the Soviet Union. I remember my father growing ever more depressed by his visits and, as a man who had also fought in World War II, when being a German Jew meant something quite other than what it had during the First, horrified by conduct that increasingly smacked of that whose evil, after WWII, allowed Israel to assert in the world’s eyes its moral right to exist. I cannot imagine what he and so many coevals would be suffering now. I cannot think they would do so in silence.

“Palestinian teachers and research have always been oppressed by the Israeli government—difficulties or simple forbidding of travel, of participation in congresses, sharing in the same infrastructural and logistical benefits, quite simply, in the same academic freedom that Israel is constantly calling for for its Jewish citizens.”

For my own part, touching present issues, I had to take another small step in responsibility eighteen months ago. The following letter to the Royal Society of Canada is self-explanatory and, I am told, bears repeating in the present circumstance [I omit its French doublet]:

To the Administration and Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada

I am proud to have been a Fellow of the Society since 1983, and a Life Fellow since 2007. I thank you all.

I am also a Jew.

And I learned a few days ago, after reading rather by chance the Society’s news, thanks to email, that in May the Society, with a ballyhoo signaled by the presence of Israel’s president and Canada’s governor general, has affiliated itself with its Israeli homologue. Was there any consultation with Fellows? My shame is nigh inexpressible.

The Society claims to represent academic freedom, of research, teaching, education in all its forms. I learn this affiliation at the very time when Israel has chosen to destroy yet again in Gaza more than 170 Palestinian schools, more than 90 schools “protected” by the UN, at least one University. Even if, as an academic Society, we claim to have nothing to say about the death and wounding of tens of thousands of civilians, of the destruction of their homes, mom-and-pops, factories, shops, parks, hospitals, of yesterday’s murder, without trial, of two of the people accused, up till now without public proof, of having abducted the three young men whom Israel used as an excuse for more than 50 days of attacks against Gaza, of the theft, towards the end of those attacks, of yet many more acres of Palestinian land, and of the collective punishment of the Palestinian people—all actions contravening international law, several UN Resolutions, and the most elementary morality, it is incumbent upon us to cry out against the deprivation of academic rights of which we claim to be protectors. Setting aside the recent, entirely deliberate, destruction (which, you may say, hadn’t yet happened in May), Palestinian teachers and research have always been oppressed by the Israeli government—difficulties or simple forbidding of travel, of participation in congresses, sharing in the same infrastructural and logistical benefits, quite simply, in the same academic freedom that Israel is constantly calling for for its Jewish citizens.

That our Society should have chosen to be affiliated with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (!!) ties us all directly to these terrorist and illegal Israeli actions. Was there any effort, when this affiliation was undertaken, to guarantee Palestinian academic rights? Has there been the slightest protest now? To my great regret, I have no choice but to resign my Fellowship in the Society.

Timothy J. Reiss

           I need not say more on this topic. The outright, open military assault on Gaza may be paused. The rest continues in one form or another. This is why another topic needs addressing: the effort to suppress critical outcry by the utterly dishonest elision of criticism of Israel and anti-semitism.

There are certainly those who identify as Jews and assert Israel to be acting in their name, whether Israeli or not. Doing so, they do help identify Israel and all Jews, and repeat Israel’s prime-minister’s claim to be speaking in the name of all Jews everywhere, as he did last year in Paris. He has no such right. Despite what such as Senator Feinstein and others in this country want to claim, to be a Jew is not to be an Israeli, just as to be an Israeli is not—unless Netanyahu and his cohorts have their final way—to be a Jew. This position stated by a Jew can elicit from the baying hounds of the JDL and its ilk cries that one is a “self-hating Jew.” I can but say that self-hatred should be the sentiment of those Jews who do identify with what Israel is doing in their name—and if I do not say “what Israel’s government is doing” that is because, tragically, such activities are far from just the government’s. To say all this is not to be anti-semitic. It is to cry out at what a pariah nation is doing to another people, a people whose land and traditions it has stolen and continues to steal, a people all too many of whom it has killed, tortured, robbed, imprisoned and oppressed in countless ways, and continues to kill, torture, rob and imprison—and for whom freedom of expression, freedom to meet, freedom to travel, freedom to engage in academic research and writing, freedom to teach that research and writing are mostly anguished dreams. The MLA owes them our voice.

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