The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict: The Evidence

  evidence-based reports | authored and compiled by
constantine kaniklidis
scholars for peace in the middle east (spme) | director, progressive voices for peace in the middle east (pvpme)


Book  Review: Cary Nelson. Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict & the Movement to Boycott Israel. MLA Members for Scholars Rights and Indiana University Press, 2016. 396 pp. 

The volume "Dreams Deferred" functions admirably as a "concise, accessible guide to the key terms and issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS campaign against Israel, especially as it plays out on our increasingly disharmonious campuses. The essays are grouped alphabetically across 61 subjects or themes, many with fine overview introductions written by the compiler himself, Cary Nelson, jubilee professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a prominent member of the MLA Members for Scholars Rights group that defends the universal principle of academic freedom against the unwarranted politicization of the academy, especially the abridgement of such academic freedom through boycott activity. His previous edited volume (with Gabriel Noah Brahm), "The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel", in some sense was the scholars richly researched guide to the conflict, while "Dreams Deferred" functions as a more accessible - but still encyclopedic - "reader's reference" and handy encyclopedia of the Conflict's critical terms, issues and themes, a tour if you will of the core facts and arguments that elsewhere are all too casually tossed about like verbal weapons, especially in their incarnation in the lawfare of the BDS movement.

Undoubtedly Dreams Deferred succeeds in these objectives, often stunningly, so one avoids engaging with this volume attheir own intellectual peril. And readers should not overlook plumbing the rich supplementary resources of the companion IsraelandtheAcademy website, with invaluable and highly curated pedagogical and organizing aids, flyers, packets, essays, reports, and online link collections, that significantly extend the reach and timeliness of the book itself. 

But there are some reservations that the reader need be alert to. We first note some odd omissions, such as no single entry and focused discussion of the cynically manipulative term “intersectionality”, which is scatteredand disjointed across several essays (but frankly acknowledged by Nelson), and no entry on “lawfare” (the misuse of law as a political weapon) that stands as the primary and most effective non-military armament against Israel (not acknowledged), odd in awork that is so centrally about lawfare.

Second, and more importantly, Cary Nelson's own position on the Conflict, and its potential resolution, which "peeks out" from many essays here, is a complex and controversial one, although wholly legitimate. As he admitted in a recent interview:
if you are a ‘supporter of Israel’, people assume they know what your position is. I commonly get people who are completely astonished that I’ve argued for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.”
[Interview with Matthew Reisz of Times Higher Education (THE): "Israel boycott row ‘destroying relationships’ in US universities". THE. August 1, 2016.],

a perspective that positions him more in line with the sentiments of Michael Walzer and the Peace Now initiative. Furthermore, he goes on to describe his own position as a “mix of wanting to better the lives of Palestinians, which is absolutely critical, and to support the existence of Israel”.

Understanding this helps to understand the Nelson who is the author of the “Nakba” (Disaster) chapter in this volume — as well as editor of the book and author of many other essays — as he tries to presents a balanced view of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians during the Israeli War of Independence. He is right to point out that Irgun and Stern Gang fighters killed ~100 people when encountering resistance in trying to clear Arab gunmen from Deir Yassin, and we are correctly told that some of those killed were civilians, and that moreover there was some displacement of Arab residents. But - and to his credit - Nelson acknowledges that "there was no “centralized, coordinated plan to achieve that end” and that Palestinians largely left out of fear, not forced evacuations. And as a counterbalance, Nelson notes both the brutal attack on and extermination of an unarmed convoy of mainly medical personal proceeding to Hadassah Hospital, and the outright massacre of 127 soldiers and civilians who had already surrendered at Gush Etzion.

Regrettably though the impulse to appear scrupulously even-handed in the allocation of blame leads Nelson to posit that “Recognition of [the Nakba’s] centrality to Palestinian identity is a prerequisite for the sense of mutual empathy that must undergird the peace process” … and that “While there are many exaggerated or unfounded claims put forward by both Israelis and Palestinians, there is a compelling element of truth in each people’s historical narrative. Those core truths must be mutually accepted if peace is to be realized.” Indeed, Nelson goes further, in admitting that his goal in this, and his previous work, is nothing short of:

to define the terms of…a progressive Zionism for our own time. This is a Zionism that honors the reality of the Naqba…looks for ways to promote a two-state solution…Its critique of Israeli government policy is unstinting, while it embraces the right of the Jews to a nation in their ancient homeland."

The problem with this forced equity is that both the historical record here, and Nelson own previous volume, along with independent research from Efraim Karsh (especially in the meticulously scholarshipped work "Palestine Betrayed") among dozens of others, suggest no such thing: the Nakba was largely a "self-inflicted catastrophe" (Karsh), admittedly of tremendous impact in the often tendentiously woven and sometimes wholly invented nationalistic narrative of the very real Palestinian arc of suffering, but the "Nakba" by no means can be seen as an equally compelling truth within one narrative compared to the confirmably evidence-based Israeli counter-narrative, as the latter is not an "alternative" theory or narrative at all except in the sense that evolutionary theory is a counter-narrative to the evidence-free creationist account. These do not occupy comparable evidentiary planes. In the quest for objectivity, Nelson comes dangerously close to drawing false - indeed repugnant - moral equivalencies. This can almost tarnish a book that otherwise scales to extraordinary heights of enlightened scholarship (just savor the included brilliant Robert Wistrich essay on "Holocaust Inversion", or Kenneth Marcus' "Jewish Anti-Zionists: Three Views", or the contributions of Richard Landes, Paul Berman, David Hirsh, Asaf Romirowsky, Kenneth Stein, Kenneth Stern, and Ilan Troen, among many distinguished others) in an arena - the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict - that most popular accounts skims lazily on the surface of, rather plumbing the dark depths of this ultra-complex and dis-integrating debate.

But Nelson's own many contributions are filled with so much of insight and intelligence that it easily redeems all, to make this an invaluable compilation. Nelson himself, without commentary, draws the lesson from the book's title ("Dreams Deferred") that:

"The Jews’ dream of living in peace with their neighbors and the Palestinians’ dream of a state"

Much can be derived from that one stark attribution. In a sense, the entire volume under review can be seen as a commentary and unraveling, a Talmudic essay as it were, of that one contrastive reflection on the divergent and competitive goals at play in the much misunderstood Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. For that we are grateful to Cary Nelson's achievement here, in helping to prepare us for a new world of virulent anti-Israel prejudice, and often cynically disguised antisemitic narratives on campus, and on the world's stage.

progressive voices for peace (PVPME)

Progressive Voices for Peace in the Middle East (PVPME), a Brooklyn based initiative, grew out of the recognition that these next-generation obstacles to peace require effective confrontation through counter-lawfare initiatives and the need for a new rational and equitable discourse in addressing the clash of competitive nationalist aspirations for self-determination in the same land.

Director, Constantine Kaniklidis

Constantine Kaniklidis | Progressive Voices for Peace in the Middle East | 2016.  All rights reserved.