On Wednesday February 11th, the Middle East Center and Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania co-sponsored a panel discussion entitled "War on Gaza: A Teach-in and Discussion with Penn Faculty and members of the Penn Community." It brought together academics and local activists to a forum for discussion and expression critical of the "Israeli Occupation," to paraphrase Ania Loomba, the panel's chairman and a Penn English professor.
The event attracted a large crowd of students and members of the Philadelphia community, with many sitting on the floor and standing for the entire event, which lasted over two hours. The doors to the outside remained open to provide ventilation for the overcrowded room; not only did passing sirens blare, but a dog wandered into the room off the street, lending the event a fleeting hilarity in light of the topic being discussed.
The first speaker, history professor Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University, charged—without citing any supporting evidence—that Israel's military actions in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009 were planned in mid-2007 in order to "[destroy] the Palestinian National Authority's (PNA) militant rivals there [i.e. Hamas], and eventually bring it under the a PNA cooperating with Israel."
After Israel had installed its PNA "proxy" in Gaza, Davidson asserted that it "might [re-introduce]…its colonists" to the area. He continued with a conspiratorial reading of Israel's 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which involved the complete withdrawal of military force and forced removal of settler communities: "It seemed wise to get the colonists who were there out of the area, as their evacuation would allow the entire strip to be turned into a free fire zone."
Staying the course, Davidson blamed Israel for Palestinian violence: "Whatever Palestinian violence Israel suffers is the reaction…to conditions that…the Israelis themselves have created." Utterly ignoring Israel's efforts at negotiating a peace settlement over the past 20 years, Davidson blamed Israel for the failure of the peace process: "Since 1988 the PLO has been seeking to negotiate a two state solution…but the Israelis never intend to allow any of these sorts of compromises. To do so means abandoning their colonization projects, which are worth more to them than peace."
In a discussion of the Israeli air and sea blockade of Gaza, Davidson trivialized the murder of 10 Israelis (9 of whom were civilians) in 2008 by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza: "Hamas responded to this situation by increasing the number of…rockets fired into Israel….These did little damage but were symbolic acts of resistance."
When a student critical of Davidson asked a question and commented, "Every death, I feel…doesn't matter Israeli or Palestinian, every death is terrible and it pains me when I read about it," Davidson interrupted the student and yelled, "How seriously?" This outburst drew even the ire of his fellow panelists, who turned to Davidson with looks of shock on their faces.
University of Pennsylvania political scientist Anne Norton, who spoke next, alluded to Israel's historical role as a refuge for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in a reprehensible attempt to accuse Israel of committing genocide:
I think we have to ask where the danger of genocide is in our time. Who are the enemies singled out by their religion or their blood?..I think…the camps are here, at Guantamo, Abu Ghraib, and Gaza. It is Muslims who are habitually reduced to bare life, it is Palestinians who are denied a state a homeland, who are in exile, and are threatened with annihilation.
Norton's politicization of genocide omits its fundamental elements as defined in Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948: the "intent to destroy… a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Moreover, her loose and ahistorical attempt to smear Israel and the U.S. only cheapens the term and makes accurate charges of genocide more difficult to apply convincingly.
The final speaker was political scientist Ian Lustick, also from the University of Pennsylvania, who set the tone for his lecture by describing America's relationship to Israel as "like [that of] a friend to a drug addict."
In discussing Israel's supposedly "disproportionate" use of force in Gaza he continued his years-long apologia for Hamas by dismissing its use of human shields while implicitly accusing Israel of also using human shields:
Imagine that the Palestinians had rockets that could hit Tel Aviv, and they shot a couple of rockets at the headquarters of the Israeli military, the defense ministry, which is located absolutely in the center of Tel Aviv, and they killed 100 civilians because they actually missed. Couldn't they say they are hiding their military behind civilians?
This facile analogy ignores the Israeli Air Force's efforts to spare civilian casualties through the specific targeting of military assets so that any civilian casualties among the Palestinians occur in spite of Israel's policy and not because of it. In stark contrast, Hamas's rocket attacks target heavily populated civilian areas with little or no military value—a strategy that makes a mockery of Lustick's desire to draw a moral equivalency between the two sides. His argument also attempts to blur the distinction between the placement of the Israeli military's administrative offices in Tel Aviv and Hamas's use of civilian structures such as mosques or schools as launching pads for rockets aimed at Israel.
For all their criticism of supposed Israeli conspiracies, "genocide," and "colonization projects," the panelists failed to provide evidence to support their assertions. From Davidson's unfounded charge that Israel left Gaza to create a "free fire zone," to Norton's gross misapplication and cheapening of the term "genocide," to Lustick's attempt to draw a moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas, the speakers typified the politicized, tendentious nature of contemporary Middle East studies. Penn would do well to offer the university community panels of unbiased scholars committed to giving balanced, informed presentations that seek to edify rather than indoctrinate.