Home Culture Books & Authors A microcosm of anti-Zionism on campus

A microcosm of anti-Zionism on campus

Social Justice and Israel/Palestine edited by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper and Mira Sucharov (University of Toronto Press)

The word “social justice” meant little to the broader public a decade ago, but today, it permeates modern culture and has become synonymous with college campuses, progressivism and activism.

For detractors, YouTube wormholes abound with SJW (social justice warrior) compilations, and articles deride the rise of “woke” culture and its potential silencing effects on campuses.

However, according to two academics, Mira Sucharov and Aaron Tapper, the academic discipline of social justice can have a positive political impact. By emphasizing concepts such as rights, justice and oppression at the forefront, Sucharov and Tapper write in their latest book Social Justice and Israel/Palestine, it can empower us to “understand ways to end the suffering and injustice that plague those living in Israel/Palestine and beyond.”

The book aims to provide a more nuanced, and refreshing, approach to those engaged in the seemingly irreconcilable debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Striving to incorporate a diverse spectrum of contributors, Sucharov and Tapper divided Social Justice and Israel/Palestine into two halves, devoted to exploring the “foundational” and “contemporary” debates of the conflict.

Although the intentions of the book were respectable, at times, its execution falls short. As one can divine from topics including “settler colonialism,” “apartheid,” “BDS” and “intersectional alliances,” Social Justice and Israel/Palestine is thematically skewed towards the Palestinian perspective. This is not to question the scrupulousness of the editors or contributors, but merely a reflection of the underlying scholarship today on campuses: such fields are generally anchored, or more sympathetic, to one side of the equation.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the book is the intellectual dominance of the Palestinian perspective. Any politically conscious student on a North American campus today will be familiar with the terminology prevalent throughout Social Justice and Israel/Palestine, which puts advocates of Israel on a defensive footing. Apartheid is not raised in the context of the Hamas’ treatment of LGBTQ people; settler colonialism has an industry journal for which Israel virtually serves as the regular whipping post.

Such apparent lopsidedness cascades through the sections. For instance, in the section on “Apartheid,” the least Israel-
critical article is titled, “Occupation Not Apartheid.” Similarly, on the matter of BDS, the pro-Israel voice is counterbalanced by two proponents of the movement. “Intersectional Alliances” goes much the same way. None of the three contributors articulate any semblance of pro-Israel rhetoric: at best, one argues that Mizrahi Jews should align with Palestinians to unseat Ashkenazic political dominance.

One contributor, Joey Ayoub, demonstrates a drawback in the book’s handling of intersectional alliances. Ayoub’s essay analyzes “Black-Palestinian Solidarity,” covering the relationship’s historical roots beginning with the Black Panther Party’s (BPP). It is superficial at best, misleading at worst. The transnational partnership Ayoub argues that was spurred by conceptions of “imperialism and racial capitalism” is a rather euphemistic airbrush of the BPP and its ilk’s conduct since the 1960s. Ayoub points to the 1967 Six-Day War as the flashpoint for Panther activism on Israel/Palestine when, in fact, the conflict seemingly served as a simple pretext for a reservoir of anti-Semitic vitriol. The Panthers June 1967 publication, Black Power, featured a poem titled “Jew-land,” invoking a call to arms:

“The Jews have stolen our bread/Their filthy women tricked our men into bed/So I won’t rest until the Jews are dead.”

All of this goes without delving deeper into the Black Power constellation of influencers including Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan or Stokely Carmichael. Suffice to say, Ayoub’s halcyon rendering of transnational anti-colonial movements of the Cold War days of yore are not so idealistic under closer inspection.

Such discomforting shortcomings are exacerbated by the prominence of Ilan Pappé’s work in bolstering critiques of Israel throughout the edited collection. Pappé rose to prominence in the ’80s alongside notable academics Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim for their role in challenging traditional historical narratives. These revisionist “New Historians” focused particularly on the foundational mythologies of Israel, the 1948 War of Independence and the Palestinian exodus. While the scholarship unearthed valuable findings – even Palestinian negotiators throughout the ’90s and 2000s referenced these publications – Pappé’s reputation has not aged well. His book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, is repeatedly cited by contributors to Social Justice and Israel/Palestine. 

Such contributors and subjects illustrate the most valuable proposition Social Justice and Israel/Palestine hold for a Jewish audience, namely that contemporary discussions are anchored within a Palestinian-centric lens. This trend is symptomatic of what is happening on campuses broadly speaking: Palestinian activists push for censuring and boycotting Israel, while (mostly) Jewish students react and play catch up. Although academe may not be an ideal proxy for broader societal trends, on campuses, the rhetoric and dialogue ostensibly flow downstream from professorial trends.

The blending of academic literature on Israel/Palestine with activists (several of whom contributed to the book) sprouting from what Peter Boghossian has derisively termed “grievance studies” – fields such as sociology, anthropology and gender studies – has not boded well for Israel’s reception.

Joining the ranks of recent publications as Rachel Harris’s edited collection, Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and Dov Waxman’s The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, Social Justice and Israel/Palestine is a worthy contribution rounding out a field of work seeking to explain the conflict to a broadened, perhaps less-acquainted, audience. Social Justice and Israel/Palestine successfully expands the readership’s perspective of academic developments, and introduces new methodologies and overlooked actors.

Nonetheless, specific voices are absent from the discussion taking place throughout the book. Though the edited volume strove to be a platform for a range of perspectives, on the pro-Israel side, most arguments are rather muted. Apart from a few entries – such as Prof. Miriam Elman’s excerpt on international law and Rachel Fish’s on BDS – ostensible “pro-Israel” contributors counterbalancing the labelling of Israel as an apartheid state or a settler colonial enterprise, are rather tepid and underwhelming.

Social Justice and Israel/Palestine remains an accessible to anyone from the curious peruser to the avidly interested. The book is at its most valuable as an educational tool illuminating for the general public beyond the cloistered confines of academia, the prevailing headwinds afoot on campus today.