May 31, 2013

“Ahistorical activism” flawed

Columnist’s approach to historicizing the tension that grips Israel and Palestine is selective and lacking in nuance.

Luke Brinker’s column, “The Flaws of Ahistorical Activism” (May 21), claims to provide a rigorous historical antidote to alleged histrionic ignorance and hypocrisy on the part of unnamed “campus activists” and other critics of Israel. Brinker accuses the organizers of the May 14 Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) event of lacking a “cursory familiarity with history” and positions himself as the one who will deliver the dose of rationality that will “humble the strident BDS activists” who are intellectually capable of no more than “parroting” talking points. He furthermore essentially labels them as uninformed and hypocritical for maintaining a commitment to human rights that doesn’t allow them to write off the systematic denial of basic rights to millions on account of pride parades in Tel Aviv. Brinker perhaps believes a state can simply “offset” injustice, saving up good karma in order to splurge on some fundamental wrong later.

This is symptomatic of the simplistic and schematic reasoning Brinker employs throughout his column. Brinker claims to present “two countries” which can be explained through a punchy recounting of “history,” as if it were all that simple. The situation in historical Palestine is not a tale of “two countries,” but of millions of people: 1.6 million in Gaza, isolated in a state of constant siege; 2.6 million in the occupied West Bank, of whom half a million are illegal settlers abetted and privileged by the occupying force, and the remainder of whom live in a state of fear with none of the “access to...vital democratic institutions” Brinker ascribes to Israel’s minorities. Eight million of the people between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea are counted citizens of Israel, six of these million being Jews and 1.5 million being Arabs. It takes a poverty of imagination to reduce these swaths of humanity into a simple opposition of “two countries,” one which virtuously enumerates a litany of rights like a model western nation-state, and another that can be easily represented as “xenophobic and irredentist.”

Brinker’s column relies on a faith in crystalline and easily identifiable icons—the worldview he presents is a constellation of discrete, readily-named, pre-packaged concepts, the arrangement of which he attempts to pass off as “history.” His evidence takes the form of a parade of capital letters: Where do we find evidence of Israel’s respect for rights? The Israeli Declaration of Independence. Whence the occupation? The Six-Day War. And where does Brinker look in an attempt to read the souls of millions of Arabs? President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

This argument in the form of a juggling of impressive-sounding signifiers with no consideration of the nuances or true nature of the signified is what underpins some of Brinker’s more absurd claims. Is he truly such a Pan-Arabist that he believes the actions of belligerent states in the 1967 war can justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people unto the seventh generation? Nasser himself would be proud. How can Brinker believe that the fact that only “a quarter of [Palestinians] believe that they can safely criticize their political authorities” delegitimizes any effort to ensure them these very rights? This is an especially off-base claim on his part given the well-documented role of the Palestinian National Authority in advancing the Israeli agenda, even to the detriment of Palestinian well-being.

Brinker’s argument relies on a conception of historical events and figures as larger-than-life; so large, in fact, that they block his view of life in Palestine today. The sole mention Brinker makes of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is in the mouths of imagined screaming activists. Does he really think that his claim to historicity can be taken seriously when he scarcely considers the actual circumstances of Palestinian life or the political economy of the conflict? Despite what Brinker seems to imply, there is in fact a line of reasoning behind the BDS movement that goes beyond a “demonization” of Israel. Whatever one’s stance on Brinker’s conclusions, one should be very skeptical of an argument such as his—an argument that neglects or refuses to directly engage with the claims he argues against. Throughout his column, Brinker assumes what reads to me as a dismissive tone, employing scare quotes and questioning the education and good faith of his opponents, who are fellow students at this university. Tactics such as this are more indicative of a polemical mode than a historical one, a hypocrisy I find far more “genuinely troubling” than what he alleges of BDS.

Ben Chametzky is a first-year in the College.