Over the weekend, we went to a joint Bethlehem-Washington National Cathedral service, possible through the magic of Skype. About 300 Washingtonians sang Christmas carols with the congregation of Mitri Raheb’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem—and blended joint services in English and Arabic. I was cheered that the congregants in Bethlehem were a good deal younger than our group. Christians in the Middle East may be facing the greatest crisis in their history; it’s tragic to look back at the far from optimal situation Christians enjoyed in Iraq, Syria, the occupied West Bank, and Egypt at the time of the last millennium, thirteen years ago, and realize that period, compared to the present, must loom as a golden age.

Speaking of Bethlehem, this was interesting: in the center of London, a major church decides to demonstrate to people what Israel’s separation wall does to the city. It surrounds Bethlehem on three sides, cutting residents off from access to Jerusalem and turning the city into a ghetto. I wonder if major American churches, who have taken some great initial strides towards working for justice in Israel and Palestine in the past year, might learn something from the example of St. James.

Of course the major focus of Israel-Palestine action was the boycott vote of the American Studies Association, previously discussed here. The pushback against the vote has grown intense, with major Jewish organizations putting pressure on the universities to come down hard on the ASA, while figures like former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren and New York assemblymen Dov Hikind call for legal action to be taken against the professors. If Oren and Hikind believed they could get a law passed making it illegal to criticize Israel, their fierce First Amendment convictions would kick in to persuade them that free speech is a higher value. Well actually no, I don’t think that.

One tactic of the ASA denouncers is to take a quote from Curtis Marez, the president of the ASA, and use it to try to illustrate the organization’s idiocy. Leon Wieseltier did it like this:

One has to start somewhere, explained Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA), which had just announced an academic boycott of Israel. He was responding to a reporter’s sensible query about the justice of singling out Israel for punishment when many countries in this heartless world have human rights records that are significantly worse, and his chillingly casual words are a measure of the moral and intellectual vapidity of what the ASA proudly described as “an ethical stance.”

And then Jeffrey Goldberg, like this:

Marez, an earnest but unskilled propagandist, failed this very basic test. When New York Times reporter Richard Perez-Pena asked him why Israel, alone among the countries of the world, was chosen for excoriation and isolation—the ASA has heretofore boycotted no other country—Marez “did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable.” Marez then compounded his error by telling Perez-Pena, in his organization’s defense, that “one has to start somewhere.”

“One has to start somewhere.” Let’s stay with this statement for a moment.

And then Congressman Eliott Engel, whose open letter to Marez was given space in the Washington Post.

Unfortunately, your response that “we have to start somewhere” when queried about this contradiction only serves to highlight your organization’s bias against Israel. If you must “start somewhere,” than I strongly suggest the ASA turn its attention to Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s forces have indiscriminately shelled universities, killing students even as they sat for exams.

I could go on for a while: a Google search combining Curtis Marez and this little resected quote generates 18,000 mentions. It’s propaganda by massive repetition, trying to drum into us that these radical academic evildoers want to “single out” Israel for condemnation, and can offer no good explanation for why they do so.

But Wieseltier, and Engel, Jeffrey Goldberg et al. leave out the heart of Curtis Marez’s quote, according to the New York Times:

He did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable, but he said, “one has to start somewhere.”

He argued that the United States has “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.” While acknowledging that the same could be said of a number of oppressive governments, past and present, he said that in those countries, civil society groups had not asked his association for a boycott, as Palestinian groups have.

So yes, rather than boycotting Venezuela or China, where the United States gives no aid and has no influence, why not wield the boycott weapon in a place where our leverage and moral responsibility is vast and the oppressed have explicitly asked for it.

I don’t know whether an academic boycott is the best measure to change things in Israel/ Palestine, but I am fairly certain that the ASA’s resolution, like the Methodist and Presbyterian resolutions last summer, have provoked more serious discussion of the Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians than all the efforts at gentle diplomatic suasion which date to 1970′s (and, where the ’48 refugees are concerned, to the ’50′s), and have gotten precisely nowhere. As Dahlia Scheindlin of the invaluable Israeli website 972 put it,

Moreover, the boycott message really isn’t about academics. It’s directed at a far larger audience: the Israeli government, the Israeli and Jewish people, interested parties, activists and political leaders on all sides in Europe and the U.S. Unfortunately, there is nothing like this issue to get people engaged. One may hate the boycott, but one certainly feels it. Positive engagement is what America has done for all of Israel’s existence. It has not worked.

Boycott gets many people talking. It will have many Jews and Israelis wondering if it’s all worth it: destroying Israel’s deep desire for success and acceptance, for start-up nation status, all for the sake of controlling millions of Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement, civil rights, self-determination, economic and social development and often, basic needs.