Last Wednesday Dan Senor, a neoconservative investor, “geopolitical expert,” and writer, came to speak at the University of Rochester. The topic of his speech? “Israel’s Economic Miracle,” coincidentally the subtitle of his new book. Given Senor’s past, the fact that the university’s president, Joel Seligman, would be introducing him provoked the ire of what fragments remain of this campus’ left-wing organizations.
While the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business technically invited Senor to speak, the event was heavily assisted and publicized by a student association, Israel Council. This club is typical of the right-wing Zionist groups that pervade undergraduate campuses around the country. Prior to the event, Israel Council’s spokespeople repeatedly emphasized that their members do not necessarily agree with Dan Senor’s political positions. An oft-repeated cliché begged the student body to understand the difference between a talk on Israel’s economic opportunities and an endorsement of his views.
At the same time, Dan Senor’s talk happens to be during Israel Peace Week (and is in fact the capstone event), a publicity stunt designed to whitewash Israel’s image. This “week dedicated to peace” is complete with members handing out fliers produced by StandWithUs (a wonderful institution that is in no way racist) and an embarrassing video of students and professors dispelling “myths” about Israel (apparently most of the bad stuff we hear about Israel “is just totally crap, to be honest”). The fact that Senor’s cousin attends the university only furthered suspicions that a little more than pure coincidence was afoot here.
Senor lauded the Israeli government’s sponsorship of millions of Jewish migrants. To a certain extent he is correct. Being Jewish is enough to settle in the State of Israel. However, he goes on to characterize the only two traits that all Israelis share—a “common prayer book and history of persecution”—supposedly a testament to Israel’s commitment to pluralism, but completely overlooking one in five Israelis who are Arab. As if to show further proof of Israel’s industrious and liberal atmosphere, Senor mentions the large number of Israelis who work in China, casually avoiding any mention of an Israeli company where Chinese workers must sign a contract stipulating they won’t marry or have sexual relations with Israelis.
While the imaginary society he constructs would be crucial to the free flow of ideas, Senor lays the credit for building a class of entrepreneurs at the feet of the IDF. More specifically, the Israeli army’s command systems function with the minimum structure necessary to maintain order. This is supposed to provide rank and file soldiers with chances to practice their reactions to new situations and allow them to take responsibility for their own actions. We all know exactly how much liability they are under, but what Senor fails to take into consideration are the real world implications of setting up teenage recruits to “practice” with human lives. Does he think that storming an apartment in Hebron and murdering an old man in his sleep is an experience necessary to further one’s entrepreneurial spirit? How comfortable is Israel Council with hosting Dan Senor—a man who bases Israel’s “economic success” on war profiteering—during Israel Peace Week? His justification for Israel’s “economic miracle” hinges on two crucial aspects—an ostensibly open and heterogeneous society and its military structure—that do not incorporate reality.
Senor then mentioned the “campaign of delegitimization” that is terrorizing Israeli society, but I struggle to ascertain what is legitimate about an economic system in which success is based upon the continued existence of an organization that is maintained by 3.1 billion American dollars each year.
Of course, this aid is due to Israel’s existing “in a constant state of war since its founding” and hence brings us to yet another reason to study this “economic miracle” that has somehow flourished despite being “surrounded by enemies.” Senor bemoans the troubles Israelis must go through in order to sell their products: travelling thousands of miles away, all because of an unwarranted Arab boycott on Israeli goods. It would be insulting to assume that Senor is so misinformed as to be unaware that, for example in Egypt, the boycott is administered by civil society, not the government. Translation: Israeli goods have no market because people have a principled objection to the Zionist project. On the other hand, it is equally peculiar that Senor (a figure who was invited to speak on Israeli economics and was praised for his expertise) would forget such a basic theoretical implication of economics: no one has a right to sell products. Rather, goods are produced to satisfy wants. If no one wants the good, producers’ rights are hardly being infringed upon.
This expansion of geopolitical scope gave Dan Senor the opportunity to analyze the recent events in Egypt, all with the direct encouragement of President Seligman. Drawing on the considerable public speaking education he received from the Carlyle Group, Senor expressed his solidarity with the protesters, and chastised the US government for its “one-dimensional caricatures” of Egyptians as either in the Mubarak camp or for the “dangerous” Muslim Brotherhood. He seemed remarkably puzzled as to how our government missed the existence of such a large secular group of protesters. What Senor’s explications fail to illuminate is that adding one additional point to an axis does not endow it with extra dimension. This level of jejune analysis is strange in light of Senor’s “extensive travels throughout the Arab world” (concerning this one faculty member remarked, “yeah he’s travelled there…at the head of a column of tanks”). Characterizations of Egyptians into disjoint pro-Mubarak, evil Muslim Brotherhood Islamist, or secularist groupings is doing State Department math (2+1=3 threats to Empire). President Joel Seligman’s appraisal: “a splendid answer.”
As evidenced by his rigid support of government ideology, it should be no surprise that Senor holds Salam Fayyad, US-government favorite, in high esteem. The disputed Fatah prime minister is well known by Palestinians mainly for increasing their misery while enjoying trips to Europe and a mansion in Ramallah. Fayyad has done his best to quash any meaningful resistance to colonial domination, even going so far as to congratulate Israel on its creation. Despite this, the university’s guest pundit guilelessly raved about Salam Fayyad’s economic know-how and progress in Ramallah, a progress that seems to enrich only the Palestinian elite and is heavily financed by international subsidies.
Dan Senor’s arguments and positions betray a complete lack of basic economic and political knowledge—perplexing in view of his extensive education and experience. Without mentioning this, our university’s president introduced Senor as “a man who has written a brilliant book.” In fact, President Seligman plugs The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle as “one of the most fascinating books on innovation.” Perhaps the innovations Seligman refers to are the bold initiatives to dispossess an entire people; to terrorize Gazans by sonic booms and haphazard shellings; to humiliate and torture anyone who dares raise a fist against the occupation. Senor’s book may be about innovation, but there is nothing innovative about such blatant factual misrepresentations and ethical fallacies. He is a gift to the Israeli military, which recently spent 1.6 million dollars on “new media warriors” to propagandize every aspect of Zionism.
Israel Council has attempted to frame the issue in terms of academic freedom or the First Amendment. They have used President Seligman’s prior positions on such topics as a justification for Senor’s invitation. However, Dan Senor’s arguments hinge on unmitigated academic dishonesty. The University of Rochester is a research institution that prides itself on integrity. There is a difference between respecting freedom of speech and inviting a guest whose research is misinformed at best, and fraudulent at worst. Senor’s words and ideas are based on unabashed falsifications of the record and hackneyed arguments. They are in no way worthy of President Seligman’s enthusiastic introduction. Freedom of speech is a negative liberty. No one is attempting to silence Dan Senor, but there was no justification for bringing him to this campus and advertising his latest work to boot.
Considering the difficulty students had in finding out Senor’s history, it seems possible that President Seligman was not aware of Senor’s views and prior actions. When a figure made unsavory comments in the past that elicited negative reactions from the Rochester community, our president eventually made a statement condemning the figure’s views, noting explicitly: any kind of stereotyping “is inconsistent with [the University of Rochester’s] core values and would be inappropriate when applied to any race, any religion, any nationality, or either gender.” Hopefully, Senor’s talk will inspire the same reaction. If not, the prospects for upholding this university’s “core values” in the future are dim.
Boian Boianov is an undergraduate at the University of Rochester and has volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement in the Occupied West Bank.