Thursday, March 6, 2014

Choosing Sides?

In the classroom I have generally preferred to draw a strict line between my own personal views and what I teach my students. But as a Jewish scholar-blogger who works on the Middle East, and particularly on Israel/Palestine, it is getting harder and harder to maintain that wall. Mostly that’s because a series of external developments combined with an intensifying rhetorical war between those who call themselves “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” have forced one to either “choose” a “side,” or face mockery, insult, and disparagement across the new and the old media. As Steven Cook has confessed regarding the study of Turkey, it just makes studying the region “no longer fun.”

I think that applies to more and more Jewish academics who study the region these days. The question now is what to do about it: embrace the blurring of the lines, or continue the fight to keep them? I think it’s time to blur the lines and take a firmer position on the issues.

It’s not a suddenly-new problem. Debates over academic freedom and what it means in practice are as old as academia. Middle East studies, specifically, has been wrestling with how to balance personal preferences and opinions, external pressure, and scholarly objectivity for quite some time.

But contemporary developments in academia, in public policy, and in the world are merging academic responsibility and ethical responsibility. The growing profile of the BDS movement, the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and the new and urgent appearance of workshops, conferences, and debates on Israel/Palestine taking place directly in academia mean that short of simply retreating into the ivory tower, I’m not sure there’s much we can do to stop it.

At the same time, the American Jewish community in particular is undergoing big changes, particularly when it comes to questions about the position of Israel in our communal identity and the appropriate vehicle for advocacy on it. Whether one identifies with the Zionist right, the Zionist left, the anti-Zionist right, or the anti-Zionist left, the combination of all these developments have meant that demands for the public expression of our views are growing.

Embracing an ethical-activist position might be the best response. As an IR scholar, I can also say this fits well with the history and nature of IR itself. Silly arguments that political scientists aren’t doing enough to influence policy notwithstanding, IR has long been about making the world a better place. The debate between the idealists and realists that characterized the emergence of the field wasn’t just about explaining world politics; it was also about what we should do regarding contemporary conditions of world politics. Constructivist, critical, Marxist, and gendered approaches are all also about the role of scholars in improving the human condition.

Using our scholarly knowledge to explain and to prescribe to policymakers and the public is one critical facet of our work. But at least when it comes to studying Israel/Palestine, the very issues at stake (human dignity, human rights, security and safety, national identity, self-determination, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab bigotry) seem to behoove us to take something like a more activist position on the issues.

For some of us that means signing petitions; for others, it means joining organizations that promote one side over the other or dialogue between them; and so on. Doing any of this will, of course, earn the opprobrium of those opposed to our actions. But that will be inevitable anyway. Why not start doing some good anyway?

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