Stumbling across the promo ad for an upcoming lecture at the University of Washington, the words “A Half Century of Occupation” resting upon an ink-blot stained map of Israel, one could be forgiven for assuming it is sponsored by an anti-Israel group on campus – it is in fact sponsored by the Stroum Center for Jewish studies.
Of Seattle’s Jewish institutions, few are as revered as the University of Washington’s Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. Since its inception the center has maintained a robust engagement with the local Jewish community, offering popular lectures, programs and exhibits.
Thus some in Seattle’s Jewish community were taken aback by the Stroum Center’s hosting of an upcoming public lecture by Israel-critic Gershon Shafir titled “Unsettling the Occupation“. In his books, classes and speaking engagements Professor Shafir promotes a single overarching theme of Israel as a “colonial enterprise”, the Jews of Israel being a foreign transplant. In the academic world such views are de rigueur, as courageous as lauding the benefits of coffee in the Starbucks boardroom. But to the lion’s share of world Jewry, the notion of the Jewish people as alien invaders in their indigenous homeland is considered both offensive and dangerous.
At a time when many Jewish students feel it is increasingly unsafe to publicly support Israel on campus, some questioned whether promoting the portrayal of Israel as a hegemonic, colonial power was helpful. The Amcha initiative has documented over two dozen anti-Zionist/antisemitic incidents at the UW in the past two years. Because of the frequency of such incidents, the University of Washington was ranked seventh on a list of the 40 worst colleges for Jewish students. Earlier this year, Jewish Studies major Adam Rozen-Wheeler was manning an Israel information table on Red Square when the display was vandalized by a member of an anti-Zionist student group. Rozen-Wheeler shared that he is “disappointed that Jewish Studies is providing a platform for this kind of view”.
In his lectures, available online, Shafir asserts that Israel maintains “a settler colonial framework” on “both sides of the green line”. Shafir labels the establishment of communities within the green line as “Judaization“.
Rejecting the wider BDS movement, Shafir instead champions a targeted boycott of selected Israeli politicians. Under the aegis of Scholars for Israel and Palestine, an organization of which he is a founding member, Shafir advocates that the U.S. and EU governments impose visa restrictions and freeze the foreign assets of those Jewish Israelis with whom Shafir and his cohort politically disagree.
Cary Nelson, Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, told Haaretz that he sees Shafir’s targeted boycott as an assault on free speech. Nelson asserts that Shafir’s boycott proposal “would take us down a route of increasing hostility that can only further isolate Israel from the world community and undermine efforts to build the cooperation necessary to a negotiated settlement”
For the most part, the Stroum Center’s public lectures have focused more on the cultural, historic and sociological aspects of Jewish studies, avoiding one-sided political expositions, but this may be changing. In 2015, the Stroum Center hosted a lecture by Sayed Kashua an advocate of the “one-state solution” and supporter of boycott efforts against the Jewish state.
JJ Surbeck, a consultant on Middle East affairs, human rights and international humanitarian law and former legal adviser to the International Red Cross, believes the Stroum Center’s Shafir lecture lacks balance and raises concerns of fairness. Says Surbeck “If these academic gatherings had any intellectual integrity, they would have invited people with opposite views in order to spur a real debate.”
The lecture titled “Unsettling the Occupation: Israel and Palestine in 2017” shares the theme of Shafir’s latest book “A Half Century of Occupation Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict” (currently at #204,951 on Amazon).
We reached out to Stroum Center Director Noam Pianko who declined to comment on the concerns raised in this article. Pianko serves on the Regional Advisory Council of New Israel Fund, an organization that funds groups and publications hostile to Israel.