The Rolling Stones' first concert in Israel began as the holiday of Shavuot ended, and quite fittingly, too. When better for rock-n-roll royals to journey to the Holy Land than during one of Judaism's three festivals of pilgrimage? Moreover, when better to affirm Israel's identity as a Jewish state and homeland? The Stones' performance in Israel was an implicit rebuke to artists—most notoriously, Roger Waters—who have chosen to boycott Israel selectively. While a slew of acts have canceled performances—among them Elvis Costello, Snoop Dogg, Carlos Santana, and Gil Scott-Heron—the Stones enthusiastically embraced their gig in the Jewish state, with all the panache that has made them the longest-running rock act in the world.
Around the same time as the Stones' gala night in Tel Aviv, the Modern Language Association (MLA), the premier association of literature scholars in the United States, was releasing the results of yet another anti-Israel initiative. It put the pro-BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions) measure to a vote of its nearly-30,000 members—who rejected it decisively. Fully 94% of MLA members proved unwilling to endorse bigotry, dishonesty, and the shameful wish (albeit expressed by only 6% of its members) to single out the Jewish state for opprobrium.
Though the MLA ruled in favor of Israel, the episode revealed that such poisonous beliefs have quite a toehold in an organization supposedly devoted to fair-minded inquiry. To provide an opportunity for members to debate the resolution, the MLA set up a members-only listserv on which opinions for and against it could be posted. The comments on that listserv have now been made public and show the true colors of some of the groups members—who prove to be paranoid, obsessed with conspiracy theories, virulently anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. While every organization has its kooks, these are academics charged with teaching our country's young people. That they are willing to spew such hatred should alarm anyone who expects scholars to place a premium on truth.
One commenter alluded to "Zionist attack dogs" who put pressure "on universities by Zionist funders and lobby groups to quell any dissent." A similar "conspiratorial" comment on the listserv made use of that traditional anti-Semitic trope: that Jews control the media, government, and academia, and use their influence to suppress criticism of Israel. The individual who posted this dreck also decried the "humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision-making process of Academia in general." Clearly, to this worthy professor, opponents of the initiative were not simply in honest disagreement with it, but outsiders gunning for control. It never seems to have occurred to the faction that challenges Israel's right to exist that the fault may lie with the weakness of their argument, not with the tactics of their ideological opponents.
But on or near the joyous Jewish holiday, both American academics and Israeli music fans—applauding Jagger and company loudly—had their say.
The pro-Zionist events on or near this holiday were just one or two victories in a larger war of words, ideas, and emotions. It is a battle to decide: Will Israel be held to the same standards as other UN member-states, or to special ones just for Jewish states? Will the Roger Waters' of the world hold sway, or will other groups who have lately swung through Israel—like the Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Anthrax, Elton John, Megadeath, Lamb of God, Deep Purple, Macy Grey, Guns N' Roses—prove that true "rock gods" smile upon Jew and gentile alike? We hear Lady Gaga is coming soon! Who knows? Maybe her next dress will be made of kosher meat.
As heartened as we are by the endorsement of these influential pop idols, the threat of creeping anti-Israel sentiment is hardly over, especially in the academy. As Russell Berman, one of the founders of the anti-Boycotts group, MLA Members for Scholars' Rights, said, it is "important to focus on the real issue here: how academic boycotts poison academic life." Furthermore, "Scholars as citizens have a right to engage in politics, but much less so in the classroom…. However, in the case at hand, the issue is not whether scholars should engage in civic life at all but rather the specifically bad quality of BDS politics. BDS is the problem, not civic engagement. One has to be willing to make qualitative distinctions like this."
Cary Nelson, another leading Member, put it this way, "what has been the most troubling aspect of the MLA's effort to delegitimate the Israeli state [has been] its clear component of anti-Semitism. All the countries that restrict faculty travel need to be pressed to improve access for research and teaching, but a rag tag group of English and foreign language professors is ill-equipped to judge how any country's security needs shape its visa policies. What is clear from the anti-Semitic comments scattered through the MLA debate is that some of those promoting the MLA resolution singling out Israel are doing so for reprehensible motives. All who support[ed] the resolution [were] tarnished as a result."
Nor are the supporters of the resolution too discouraged. Bruce Robbins, one of the Boycott Lobby's chief spokespersons, and backer of the defeated resolution, said "I think it's a moral victory and maybe a practical one."
Well, if this was the BDS supporters' idea of winning, then we can only wish them many more such victories. Meanwhile, voting with their feet that holiday night, Israelis danced to the music of a few of rock-n-roll's patriarchs—just one more affirmation that Israel is indeed a normal country. And voting with their heads, for once, the MLA professors turned away in disgust from the attempt to apply double standards to one country, and expressed no "Sympathy for the Devil" this time. Rock on.
Gabriel Noah Brahm is Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University, a Research Fellow in Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and a Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) Fellow. He is a contributor to Fathom: For a Deeper Understanding of Israel and the Region, where his critique of the philosophy behind BDS now appears in the current issue (free online). Asaf Romirowsky is the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and co-author of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.