The Silver Lining of the Boycott Cloud

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There are several, actually. The proposed British boycott of Israeli academicians has backfired to the point that even the Palestinians were taken by surprise. The aftermath has been a PR bonanza for Israel, with shows of support from government officials, friendly editorials in newspapers around the globe, threats of devastating lawsuits by the indomitable Alan Dershowitz, and friendly bills introduced in Congress. (This is not to minimize the potential damage of the boycott movement. More on that later this week.)

My favorite morsel of good news is a throwback to the way I was raised as a child – to take intense pride in Jewish accomplishment. Even when I face the reality that much of that accomplishment is devoid of immediate Torah content and context, I cannot help but feel that even secular Jewish triumphs owe to the Hand of Providence providing us with the needed tools to survive an increasingly complex galus.

If you feel the same way, you will get nachas from the list of signatories to the petition begun just a few days ago by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. When people obey the instructions, those signing are supposed to be restricted to people with real academic credentials. Moreover, they do not just record their dismay at the British effort. They pledge that if the boycott against Israeli dons and researchers moves along, they will consider themselves Israelis as well, taking themselves out of the give-and-take of international academic partnerships. Given the number of Nobel laureates on the list, this could have a chilling effect on global progress, turning the entire academic world into something on par with the intellectual productivity of the great universities of Riyadh and Kabul.

You will find an expected mix of Israeli academicians, profs from around the world with very Jewish-sounding names (leftists, rightists, atheists and believers, all banding together on this one), and some very non-Jewish ones. It restores a bit of faith in humanity to see apparent non-Jews in Singapore, Poland and Bangladesh affix their names, along with an occasional professor of Islamic Studies. It is thoroughly confusing to contemplate the number of signatories whose reason has survived their appointments to an outpost that makes the British boycott people look reasonable: Berkeley, California.

Mostly, though, it is breathtaking to see hundreds, thousands of names of Jews in the most prestigious schools around the world, occupying named chairs and otherwise standing out as the cynosures of contemporary thought on this planet.

To a non-Jew, scanning the list for a few minutes ought to be a quick lesson on the difference between Jewish importance and Arab irrelevance.

To us, it should remind us how powerful indeed is Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s beracha.

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11 Responses

  1. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Ori – If the other side’s meme was “Useful Arabs vs. useless Jews” that would be a good strategy. However, the other side’s meme is “Poor, weak Arabs vs. powerful, oppressive Jews”. Saying we also have more professors isn’t countering that – if anything, it plays into the argument that Arabs are weak and need to be defended.

    True – but only for leftists, who do not yet amount to most of this country. For the rest, the critical factors in determining whom they will support are whom they can more readily identify with, respect, and who the feel are more useful.

    As a community, we should (and do!) have people on the left reaching out to others on the left and trying to moderate their views on Israel. For those in the center or right, playing the useful Jew card is still vital.

  2. lacosta says:

    i disagree that berkeley holds free speech superior to PC. and remember, that O judaism, and more so Haredi Judaism is SOOO politically incorrect, that under a PC regime our religion would be one that would be potentially bannable [ unless we count women to a minyan, make them rabbis, etc ]

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yitzchok Adlerstein: Much of the outcome of the battle is determined by how Americans in particular look at the two opponents. It is very much part of our strategy to remind Americans at every opportunity that Jews are good for them, while Arabs in general are indeed irrelevant at best.

    Ori: If the other side’s meme was “Useful Arabs vs. useless Jews” that would be a good strategy. However, the other side’s meme is “Poor, weak Arabs vs. powerful, oppressive Jews”. Saying we also have more professors isn’t countering that – if anything, it plays into the argument that Arabs are weak and need to be defended.

  4. dovid says:

    “The Silver Lining of the Boycott Cloud”

    Boycott of Jewish and Israeli interests and individuals is all bad. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the most respected organizations of its kind in the world, was born as a result of the boycott of Jewish musicians in German orchestras that started in 1935.

  5. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Shawn –

    Your penultimate line, abandoning the post’s high purpose and falling into ethnoreligious triumphalism—“Jewish importance”? “Arab irrelevance”? —was disappointing. It’s wrong and counterproductive to boot. We will not defeat the boycott by tarring our adversaries (who aren’t even Arab, in this instance) with the same broad brush of intolerance as so many of them so enthusiastically use to try to tar us.

    I love disagreeing with you. It’s always so civil, and about subtle but worthwhile points.
    In this case, I will agree entirely with your major point, but take issue with the minor one.
    My intention was not triumphalistic. Triumphalism is almost always counterproductive. It offers a mild sedative for the pain we feel, but actually makes the symptoms worse in the long run. More than I dislike triumphalism, I reject lumping people together and ignoring individual differences. I am friendly with, and have admiration for, too many fine Muslims to make that mistake. I am also aware of times in which the world of Islam ran ahead of the rest of civilization, rather than lagged behind.

    That said, I disagree about how to defeat boycotts, etc. I believe that we are in the middle of a war. In our theater, the war is fought for public opinion, rather than turf. We Western Jews have been eclipsed in our efforts by over ten years of persistence by Palestinian interests in the West, including the US. Much of the outcome of the battle is determined by how Americans in particular look at the two opponents. It is very much part of our strategy to remind Americans at every opportunity that Jews are good for them, while Arabs in general are indeed irrelevant at best. There is no contradiction between offering as much support as we can to moderate Muslims (many of whom are painfully aware of how far behind the rest of the world are their countries of origin), as individuals and as communities, while at the same time underscoring the superiority of Israeli and Jewish cultures over contemporary Arab cultures. It is very much part of our effort against boycotts to show Americans that shutting off the spigot of Israeli contribution to learning will mean poorer quality of life for Westerners; while the Arab world today has value for us only insofar as it fortuitously sits on top of oil reserves.

    cvmay

    “Jewish accomplishment….is devoid of immediate Torah content or context” Why not feel pride in the accomplishments of Jewish academicians in the field of medicine, technology, engineering, etc.?

    I also feel pride, as I wrote. But Torah it isn’t. The difference is that all wisdom other than Torah deals with phenomena of a universe that is limited by dimension and time, a product of its original conditions. Torah, on the other hand, comes from a place that is limitless and eternal. The secular accomplishments of these are important and admirable, but on a different continuum

    Menachem Petrushka –

    I seem to remember that the Arabs invented the Decimal System and Algebra. Not bad for irrelevance.

    I can hardly fault your memory, since some of those discoveries and innovations are between a thousand and two thousand years old. That’s a long time to remember. But I believe that the decimal system has been variously attributed to Buddhists, Indians, and Persians; algebra began in part with ancient Greeks and hit the pavement running with a few Persians, including Omar Khayam. It doesn’t really matter, however, as I explained above.

  6. bag says:

    I’m with commenter #3. Unfortunate paragraph. Could use deleting even now.

  7. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein

    I seem to remember that the Arabs invented the Decimal System and Algebra. Not bad for irreverance.

    Classic Jewish texts are replete with verbose explanations of simple arithmetic problems because either the authors or readers were unfamiliar the Decimal System.

    Chachma Yeish Lahem(Wisdom is G-d’s gift to humnaity in general).

    Menachem Petrushka

  8. cvmay says:

    “Jewish accomplishment….is devoid of immediate Torah content or context” Why not feel pride in the accomplishments of Jewish academicians in the field of medicine, technology, engineering, etc.? It is the hand of gd working through a messenger to bring cures, innovations, inventions and a lot more. I say “Hodu Lahashem Ki Tov, Ki l’olem Chasdo”.

  9. Shawn Landres says:

    R’ Yitzchok, you make powerful and important points. Re: Berkeley, don’t forget that the free speech movement was crucial there — academic freedom is a far more powerful tradition there than political correctness.

    But your penultimate line, abandoning the post’s high purpose and falling into ethnoreligious triumphalism — “Jewish importance”? “Arab irrelevance”? — was disappointing. It’s wrong and counterproductive to boot. We will not defeat the boycott by tarring our adversaries (who aren’t even Arab, in this instance) with the same broad brush of intolerance as so many of them so enthusiastically use to try to tar us.

  10. Charles B. Hall says:

    I just signed. I am signature #3455.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein said, “To a non-Jew, scanning the list for a few minutes ought to be a quick lesson on the difference between Jewish importance and Arab irrelevance.”

    The lesson is powerful for us, but those who make their living through direct or indirect trade with the Arabs (or Muslims in general) or through taking bribes from them, and those whose ideology is anti-American and anti-Israel, and those who have been fooled by the above, can be and have been motivated to ignore the lesson.

    We should also be disturbed by the high proportion of Jewish academics who, whether they support Israel or not, are estranged from Judaism. They are certainly not role models in all respects!