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Israel is not a 'democracy' [Letter]

Commentator Kenneth Lasson argues that universities should not boycott or divest from Israel, nor "inhibit Israeli scholars and scientists from obtaining grants or publishing learned articles" — all in the name of academic freedom ("Academic extremism threatens democratic values," Jan 29).

He claims the reasoning behind the boycott is flawed because "Israel has long been the most diverse, inclusive and tolerant of any Middle Eastern country," and further suggests that the boycott and divestment movement have their origins in an unsavory attempt to "draw a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism."

The latter charge is a shameful attempt on the author's part to draw attention away from the very real issues surrounding the modern state of Israel by name-calling. Furthermore, it does not make historical sense, because the earliest and most vociferous critics of Zionism were themselves Jewish.

George Washington University historian Howard M. Sachar quotes legendary Jewish author Stefan Zweig as saying "I can still remember the general astonishment and annoyance of the middle-class Jewish elements of Vienna [over the publication Theodore Herzl's 'The Jewish State']. Why should we go to Palestine? Our language is German and not Hebrew."

The belief that Israel is a beacon of democracy and religious tolerance in a region otherwise marred by theocracy and fascism is one of the most under-examined notions of our time. Israeli citizens are indeed accorded a wide array of political, economic, territorial and religious rights. But who is entitled to Israeli citizenship?

According to Israeli law, the answer is children of Israeli citizens, Jewish people and their children and converts to Judaism according to prohibitively strict orthodox standards, who are subject to removal at a later date.

This definition includes huge numbers of people in Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States and South America, while excluding the majority of people who had lived or whose family had lived within the present physical boundaries of Israel between the 100 A.D. and 1948.

It also excludes people currently resident in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel holds in a legal limbo, refusing to either recognize them as separate and sovereign entities with the right to freely form their own government, control their territory or move between those territories, or as Israeli subjects entitled to equal protection under Israel's laws.

The author's charge that boycotts are an attempt to advance a political agenda over "reasoned discourse in a chaotic world" is, again, hypocritical, since he is using his ostensibly disinterested commentary to promote the Haifa Summer Law Institute, which he directs.

Lasson's argument is that the academic boycott of Israel is anti-academic, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic. He is wrong because academic institutions both can and must make choices about their supporters and the actors whom they choose to support.

Israel has not been "democratic" in any meaningful sense since the 1960s, and America and the success of Jewish Americans (the second-largest population of Jewish people on the globe) are living proof that Zionism is not of existential importance to the Jewish people.

William Cooper, Baltimore

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To respond to this letter, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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