What Kind of Academic Signs These Anti-Israel Petitions?

A year and a half ago, January 2009, David C. Lloyd, Professor of English at the University of Southern California, wrote a three-page petition concerning U.S. relations with Israel, which he addressed to incoming President Barack Obama. His petition was endorsed by nine hundred signatories, most located at universities and colleges in the United States, but some affiliated with academic institutions in Canada, United Kingdom, and even Israel.

Lloyd's petition was notable not only for its criticism of Israeli policy -- that is standard fare among the set of academics who subscribe to a post-colonial view of the world -- but rather for its demonizing of the Jewish state.

His technique was anything but novel. It associated Israel with pre-Mandela South Africa. Lloyd's South African-linking brushstrokes were many and crude, citing "collective punishment," "apartheid regime," "racist regime," "besieged Bantustans," "crimes against humanity," and "ethnocidal atrocities." These were layered on his fact-distorting canvas like icing on a poisoned cake.

The petition was written just weeks following the December 2008 Gaza war, which was Israel's response to the more than six thousand rockets launched randomly and sporadically from Gaza into Israel over a three-year period beginning in 2005. While Professor Lloyd describes in much detail the damage inflicted on Gaza by the Israeli response, the petition completely ignores the casus belli -- Hamas' rocket-shelling and terrorist activity. Even Egypt warned Hamas prior to the Gaza war that its violent provocations would invite an Israeli response, and when that response came, Egypt pointed its accusing finger at Hamas. That, too, Lloyd ignored.

Lloyd's anti-Israel petition found its way to over 150 campuses, although a dozen -- among them Hofstra, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Minnesota -- account for a disproportionate number of signers.

But accepting as genuine the petitioners' stated goal of seeking social justice in the Middle East, I thought it fitting to contact the signatories of the Lloyd petition to offer them yet another opportunity to express their commitment to social justice in the region, this time by endorsing a Statement of Concern regarding human rights abuses practiced against gays and lesbians and against women in general in many of the Middle Eastern countries, including the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The idea was really uncomplicated: Since they expressed a concern about social injustice in Israel, they might also be willing to express their concern about human rights abuses practiced against women, gays, and lesbians in other parts of the Middle East.

The detailed material for this Statement of Concern was gathered from sources as widespread as U.N. agencies, survey research units, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, scholarly journals, and social justice-related NGOs such as Asylum-Law and Human Rights Watch.

The Statement provided evidence of both the practice and the condoning of the practice by religious, political, and even academic authorities of honor-killing, wife-beating, and female genital mutilations. Documentation was offered for specific countries, for specific practices, and referred to specific authorities condoning the practices identified.

Unlike the Lloyd petition, the Statement concerning discrimination of women and gays and lesbians in the Middle East was not designed to petition President Obama or any other persons or organization. The four-page Statement, along with its signatories, was simply to be placed in the public domain in whatever manner was appropriate and which budget allowed.

It made no reference to the content in the Lloyd petition, however distorting that content may have been. It simply addressed the issues of human rights violations of women, gays, and lesbians in the Middle East. The expected signatories to the Statement were to be drawn only from those American academics who signed the Lloyd petition.

The process of authenticating those signatories was anything but problem-free. It required painstakingly checking through the websites of the nine hundred signatories, and through appropriate department or college websites when personal ones were unavailable. Graduate-student signatories were included when evidence of teaching or published research was available. Excluded were non-academics and non-American academics, and they were many. That screening reduced the number of signatories to be contacted from nine hundred to 691. Some of the 691 were dead ends so that in the end, 675 e-mails -- with the Statement attached and a request for support -- were sent, received, and presumably read.

Here are the findings. Only thirty of the 675 "self-described social-justice seeking academics" responded, 27 of them agreeing to endorse the Statement. But these 27 signatories represent less than five percent of the 675 contacted. In other words, 95 percent of those who had signed the Lloyd petition censuring Israel for human rights violation did not sign a statement concerning discrimination against women and gays and lesbians in the Middle East.

Surprised? If so, prepare for yet a bigger surprise. As many as 25 percent of the Lloyd petition-signing academics were faculty associated with gender and women studies departments. Yet of these, only 5 endorsed the Statement calling for attention to the discrimination against women in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. Put more bluntly, 164 of the 169 faculty who had chosen to focus their life's work on matters affecting women, and who felt comfortable enough to affix their names to Lloyd's petition censuring Israel, chose not to sign a Statement of Concern about documented human rights violations against gays, lesbians, and women in the Middle East.

What should we make of this? Perhaps it is that we should be aware of what we don't see when we see petitions and their signatories. While academics are entitled to voice opinions no less than anyone else, those -- as in the Lloyd petition -- who explain their criticism of Israel and demand change in our relationship to that Jewish state on grounds of "social justice" may indeed have other agendas in mind. What they were willing and unwilling to sign tells us a great deal about who they are and what social justice means to them. It appears their "social justice" is reserved only for their own kind. And it matters. After all, many of them teach "social justice" in their classrooms. 

Fred Gottheil is Professor, Department of Economics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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