Carrying on in the tradition of Edward Said, a comparative literature professor with no expertise in Middle East affairs who became the icon for the anti-Israel pseudo scholars who followed him, Amy Kaplan, the Edward W. Kane Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a book on the U.S.-Israel relationship. To celebrate its launch, Penn’s Middle East Center and Department of English organized a panel of seven academics on October 15 to discuss Our American Israel: The Story of An Entangled Alliance.
A graduate student recorded and took notes at the event, which was held in a small room and attended by a crowd of approximately fifty people, mostly older faculty. The good news was that only about a half dozen students bothered to sit through the lunchtime recitation of anti-Israel tropes.
Leading off the discussion was Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi, a well-known Israel hater and former PLO spokesman, who lavished praise on Kaplan’s book. He was particularly impressed with how she argued the “awful movie Exodus” influenced Americans to support Israel. Most of the panelists found Kaplan’s analysis of the film to be evidence of the author and director’s sophisticated manipulation of the American psyche. Rebecca Stein, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, saw it is an allegory of the American Revolution, for example, that retells the history of Israel’s founding as a Hollywood-style Western cannily using Paul Newman’s “radiant whiteness and hyper-masculinity” to “forge a popular American identification with Israel that would last decades.”
It is easy to understand Khalidi’s disdain for a film that so vividly captured the Jewish fight for statehood against what were then seemingly overwhelming odds. The film created a positive image of Israel he abhors. Of course the focus on a movie released in 1960 ignores the fact that American sympathy for Israel predated the film and has grown to its highest level in the last decade, more than half a century later. Ultimately, Kaplan’s brilliance, for Khalidi, is in “drawing the mythologies of these two separate colonial societies together.”
Not surprisingly, Penn’s Ian Lustick, long hostile to the Jewish state, was impressed with Kaplan’s argument that the United States does not follow its interests when it comes to Israel. This is an old saw that neglects the fact that Israel alone in the Middle East shares American values and interests. Worse, he claimed that American policy has “systematically destroyed the careers, hopes, and plans of hundreds of moderate Israeli politicians by undermining and proving false that we must take world opinion and American opinion into consideration.”
Lustick ignores the overwhelming public support for Israel and the belief that it is a valuable American ally. Furthermore, the absence of a left-wing alternative to Netanyahu has nothing to do with U.S. actions and everything to do with the Israeli public’s shift to the right. This occurred after years of rocket fire and seeing that evacuating Gaza resulted in more terror, which convinced even opponents of the “occupation” that withdrawal from the other disputed territories is too risky absent a radical change in Palestinian behavior and attitudes.
Returning to the popular leftist invention of Israel as a settler/colonialist state, Shira Robinson, an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, argued that politicians and cultural producers disavow the “violent dispossession required in Jewish state building in Palestine” to avoid reckoning with America’s own settler/colonialism. She also praised Kaplan’s analysis of American-Israeli law enforcement cooperation after 9/11. Apparently, the notion of two countries with similar concerns and knowledge about terrorism working together is somehow unseemly. Hence, she praised Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) for opposing what they call these “deadly exchange.”
Admitting she comes from an anti-Zionist family, Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study discussed the liberal narrative that following partition the Jewish state would not dominate the Arabs living there. She quoted a line that she says sums up Kaplan’s book: “These liberal narratives blinded them to the violent dispossession that created a new refugee crisis and would lead to the revival of the Palestinian nationalist movement.” If that’s the book’s essence, it is seriously flawed. Israel did not dispossess the Palestinians or create the refugee crisis. Had the Arab states not invaded, not a single Palestinian would have lost their home. Thousands of Palestinians fled in anticipation of the war and thousands more in response to calls to leave by their leaders, and a human desire not to be caught in the crossfire. None of these facts fit in with the myths spun by the panelists.
In the Q&A that followed, a woman saying she was with JVP asked how the book could help her understand how to obtain justice for the Palestinians. Lustick alluded to Robinson’s prediction that “the collapse of liberal American Zionism under the weight of its own contradictions” and then suggested this “opens up real intersectional and other opportunities for alliances.”
This is a mischaracterization, as Jews falling for the intersectionality trap are surely not Zionists, as no Zionist would join coalitions with groups that deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination. The “collapse of liberal Zionism” is also largely wishful thinking, as most American Jews consider themselves liberals and their vitality is evident in the debate between them and Israelis over political and religious issues.
When asked by another questioner what the book could do in Israel for Israelis, Scott gratuitously said “that is, if it’s not banned.” In a more serious response, Lustick said Israelis might take notice of the book’s description of their shoot and cry behavior. The argument is that Israelis feel moral and validated because they shoot and cry afterward or cry over having to shoot. The reason why Israelis might have to shoot is not mentioned, nor is the distinction between Israelis who do regret having to use violence in response to terror and the terrorists who celebrate their barbarity.
Overall, the panel allowed the academic anti-Israel echo chamber to reverberate unchallenged on the Penn campus. The narrative that Israel can do no right, and anyone who supports the Jewish state is foolish, ill-informed or manipulated by Hollywood or other nefarious forces met with audience approval. As is typical of such convocations, no panelist offered opposing views; only harsh critics of Israel who could be counted on to offer gushing approval of Kaplan’s book were invited. And, equally predictable, the Palestinians emerged as blameless victims of Israeli perfidy.
Dr. Mitchell Bard, a Campus Watch Fellow, is the author/editor of 24 books, including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict; The Arab Lobby; and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.