On the Academic Boycott of Israel

by Akim Reinhardt

Torn pagesLet me begin with some personal disclosure. I am a half-Jewish American who has never been and has no personal connection to Israel. In the early 1960s before I was born, my mother, who has otherwise lived her entire life in The Bronx, spent two years on a northern Israeli kibbutz named Kfar Hanassi. Over the years she has occasionally told stories of her time there and maintained some long distance friendships. That one, small tangent is the full extent of my personal association with Israel; in other words, there is virtually none.

In addition to having never been to Israel and never having had any friends or known relatives who live there, I also have no spiritual connection to the place. Though raised Jewish, my inter-faith parents were ambivalent about religion and occasionally outright hostile to organized, institutional forms. I have also been an atheist my entire adult life. The city of Jerusalem and holy sites like the Wailing Wall have no more religious meaning to me than Catholic Cathedrals or Buddhist monasteries. I simply admire the architecture, as the old saying goes.

Yet despite all this, I'm well aware of the hold that the concept of Israel has on American Jewry in general, which is why I disclose my Jewishness. For many American Jews, regardless of their religiousness or lack thereof, Israel is a powerful symbol. As someone whose maternal Jewish grandparents fled Poland and Rumania not terribly long before WWII, and whose grandmother lost almost all of her entire extended family in the Holocaust, I understand that.

You can't grow up with family stories of violent, pre-war persecution, narrow escapes, the two cousins who survived unspeakable horrors, and seemingly countless dead relatives you never met, and not be affected. Refugee trauma is real and it often reverberates down through several generations.

So even though Israel is a place I have virtually no connection to whatsoever as a country or religious site, I am cognizant of the potent symbol it remains for millions of Jews who don't live there. For many Jews, the historical trauma of the Holocaust, not to mention the longer history of persecutions, violence, and ethnic cleansings in Europe and the Middle East, is real. Although most of today's Jews have never experienced a pogrom, survived a concentration camp, or been a refugee, for many of them the echoes of that past remain.

Thus, for many ethnic Jews, Israel continues to stand as the symbol of last resort, the theoretical lifesaver against the turbulent tides of history. I recognize the power that symbol has for many American Jews. It has the capacity to color people's interpretations, definitions, and understandings of Israeli affairs, particularly if they, like myself, have no real connection to Israel, thereby rendering it more abstract.

I do not believe that Israel, as a symbol to Jews, colors my own thinking of Israel the nation. Nonetheless, disclosure is important, particularly because I am going to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions ovement (BDS) against Israel. Some people may suspect that being half-Jewish (my father's family are White Protestants from North Carolina and California) affects my understanding and interpretations. I don't think it does, but I certainly won't hide the fact or pretend its irrelevant to everyone.

Read more »