In a recent op-ed, the organizers of the Harvard Israel Conference were “surprised” at the accusations leveled against their event. After all, their purpose was merely to bring the “Israeli spirit to campus” with its “vibrant, innovative and eternally optimistic” character, surely an uncontroversial and peaceful initiative. To make it seem even more neutral, the organizers emphasized that they represent a wide spectrum of political affiliations within Israeli society and beyond; one of them works to promote “dialogue” on American campuses, another is even active in the so called “solidarity” movement. This fine group of young people is surely promoting a noble cause, why make a fuss about the conference?
But fuss there was: sympathizers of the Palestinian cause were troubled by the conference’s apolitical veneer and vexing fanfare. Some Facebook users were critical towards the “peace challenge”, an initiative that promises to reward the best essay on “peace.” A new poster was found hanging next to the original one, replacing the conference’s slogan “Small Country, Big Ideas” with a new one: “Small Country, Big Occupation”. Caustic stickers appeared on the conference poster reminding curious bystanders that the “small country” is also associated with “Apartheid”, “White Phosphorus” and Palestinians on hunger strike, some of them imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial. Finally, two pieces critical of the op-ed were published in the Crimson; one questioning the conference’s biased agenda, the other demonstrating that the conference fits into a larger scheme of Israeli propaganda.
While the organizers went to great lengths to emphasize similarities between their “world-views” and those of their detractors, we think that identifying some of the differences may help us better appreciate the issues at stake.
The first difference concerns priorities: the chief worry of Palestinians and their sympathizers is the injustice towards non-Jewish people in Israel/Palestine, an injustice which affects almost all aspects of the social life of Palestinians and that is seen as part and parcel of the very constitution of Israel as a Jewish state (as recently argued by philosopher Ronald Dworkin). In contrast, the chief priority of the conference is to showcase Israel as a “complex” and “multi-dimensional” entity, an oasis of freedom and democracy and a success story of spirited entrepreneurship. But economics does not operate in some disinterested and apolitical space – just like research and academic institutions in Israel (and elsewhere) are not removed from complicity in the development and innovative refinements of the technologies of occupation. In fact, re-branding Israel in such positive light reminds us of the strategies employed by Apartheid South Africa as a way to shift the attention of its detractors away from its policies of racial segregation. Indeed, one of the most common propaganda strategies sought to highlight South Africa’s “unusually complex, modern society with a pro-Western government, a vital capitalist economy, vast natural resources, and a rich cultural life with ties to Western Europe.”
The second issue concerns the proper mode of discourse. The organizers were offended by the fact that activists chose an “aggressive” path, spoiling their posters instead of engaging in “civil discourse.” Interestingly, a similar accusation was leveled against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. charging the civil rights movement of “divisive” action instead of engaging in a “productive” and “civil” discourse. In his answer to the charge, King wrote from Birmingham jail: “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” Rather than dismissing civil disobedience as a counter-productive means of expression, it should be understood, then, as a constructive creation of tension, provoking dialogue, disturbing complacency, and re-focusing the debate on what really matters: justice.
The organizers of the Israel conference should therefore not be “surprised” by the resistance they have encountered. Admittedly, their glossy posters have been blemished with unpleasant reminders. But those stickers have put the debate back on the right track, questioning priorities and raising the pertinent issue of modes of resistance. There is nothing uncivil about civil disobedience or non-violent direct action, on the contrary; there are situations where it is not advisable to constrain the mode of communication within the confines of what is “polite” or even “legal”. Conformism and obedience can sometimes even be dangerous. As Howard Zinn aptly put it “the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”