October 22, 2019

Criticism Remains

Shortly after the bomb went off at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, killing seven and wounding more than 80, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, sent off a strongly worded statement of sympathy.

"The leaders of American higher education join me in condemning — in the strongest possible terms — yesterday’s terrorist bombing and the terrible loss of life at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The heart-wrenching deaths of seven people — five of them Americans — is only made more appalling by the fact that this terrorist incident targeted an institution of higher learning, long considered places of peaceful dialogue."

The heart of the statement, unequivocal condemnation coming from an academic institution, surprised me. I wondered if the attack had prompted faculty and students, particularly those on the left who have been most critical of Israel, to alter their stance. Had violence coming so close to home dislodged some of their support for the Palestinians? I decided in a random way to call professors at different universities.

The first call went to a friend at a Texas university. He is Jewish, in his 40s and self-described as an active member of the academic left. He doesn’t keep kosher, but his children attend Jewish day schools. He has been a staunch critic of Israel, often likening its policies to that of South Africa under the Afrikaners.

"For me, that act was the last straw," he said. "Maybe mine is a visceral reaction or maybe just a class response, but universities seem to me the last bastion, the brightest hope for future leaders and for a present-day dialogue."

But he also was most concerned that he not be identified, either because he might change his mind between now and the beginning of the new term later this month, or simply to protect himself from repudiation by his liberal colleagues for shifting his support toward Israel.

His voice, however, was the only one among many that reflected a new consideration. At Harvard, I talked to Patrick Thaddeus, an eminent professor of astrophysics. Thaddeus, who is also a friend, and not ideologue of the left or the right, had just returned from a conference and a stay in Britain and so felt more comfortable describing the reaction there — though he did not seem to believe the responses at Harvard of people on the left would be much different. Speaking generally, he explained, there is still widespread sympathy for the Palestinians among British and European intellectuals on the left.

These men and women are not anti-Semites, he emphasized. They are critical of America, of globalism and of Israel and see the three as linked. But they are especially suspicious of Ariel Sharon and believe he is out to get the Palestinians. In their view, Palestinians are the victims; Israelis the colonial power. Even the peace proposal that Ehud Barak offered, they believe, for all its generosity, would have created a colonial situation for the Palestinians, with blocked roads and Israeli settlements in their midst.

The bombing at Hebrew University had changed nothing, altered few if any beliefs.

When I asked why the killing last month of Hamas military leader Salah Shehada and the accidental death of nine Palestinian children was called by the left an Israeli war crime, while the Palestinian attack on Hebrew University with its seven deaths was described as folly and a misjudgment, Patrick explained to me that for those on the left, one action was carried out by a state (and so was a war crime) while the other was the act of an ill-defined group.

Not everyone on the left shared this view. Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation magazine and a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, thought both were war crimes. His primary commitments, I believe, are to civil rights, the First Amendment and the struggle for social justice here and abroad. It is in this context he feels the Israelis are at fault.

Many of Navasky’s friends (and readers of The Nation, as well) are Jewish, as is he, and a typical sentiment expressed at Nation magazine parties is that he and The Nation are wonderful on everything except Israel.

The difficulty in the Mideast, he believes, is that each side moves in the wrong direction following a murderous act. After each terrorist incident — Hebrew University is as important as any — Israel and the Palestinians should redouble their efforts to achieve some kind of peace. Instead, each side seeks retribution.

As for the effect of the bombing on Columbia’s left, it would be difficult to predict, he said. After all, he pointed out (as did others), this is summer and the campus is relatively quiet.

This was also the first reaction of Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC. The campus was quiet; most people were away tending to families, research, private lives. And while horrified by what occurred on the Hebrew University campus, she wonders if it wasn’t "naïve to think that anyplace, even a university, could serve as a sanctuary."

In the end, she says quietly, "Human life is human life," wherever the attacks and the deaths occur. "The most important thing is to still be talking — to still keep working for peace."