Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Incredible Flakiness of Being Martha Nussbaum

There's no shortage whatever of new books which put the case for Palestine, but try finding a relevant book review or author interview in the books section of the Sydney Morning Herald's weekend Spectrum supplement and you'll be wasting your time.

Space, however, can always be found for a spread on people like Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law & Ethics at the University of Chicago, author of a new book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, and over here for the Melbourne Writers Festival.

In interview with Fairfax senior writer, Ray Cassin, in last weekend's Spectrum, we learn that Nussbaum is a supporter of religious freedom and cultural diversity: "[T]he nations that have most successfully embraced religious freedom are those that derive their sense of nationhood from political ideals and constitutional arrangements that support them, not from ethnic homogeneity." We learn also that she values "the spirit of individual dissent," advocates "critical thinking," and enjoins "speak[ing] up for what's right, even if it costs you something."

Nothing exceptional there, of course, but then these ideas do need all the support they can get. But, I wonder, does Nussbaum practice what she preaches?

As a convert to Judaism (which she has elsewhere defined as a "moral identity, connected to the love of justice"), the obvious test for her credibility in speaking on these matters, given Zionism's conflation of the faith with itself, and its projection of Israel as a 'Jewish state' for 'the Jewish people', is surely where she stands on the subject of Israel.

Sadly, far from distancing herself from the Zionist project and its crimes, or better, speaking out against it as one of the greatest injustices of modern times (in addition to being the most protracted: 1917-2012), Nussbaum really cannot see what all the fuss is about.

In fact she travelled to Israel in 2002 to receive an honorary degree from the University of Haifa, and although "many people urged me not to go," she wrote in an account of her trip, she was "determined to affirm the worth of scholarly cooperation in the face of the ugly campaign, waged mostly in Europe, to boycott Israeli scholars and refuse cooperation with them." (A different Israel, The Nation, 18/7/12)

It is telling that nowhere in her account of a visit she claims was motivated by opposition to an "ugly [boycott] campaign" are the horrors of Israel's Operation Defensive Shield mentioned. From March 29 to April 21, 2002, Israel used Merkava tanks, Apache attack helicopters and F-15 fighter jets to kill 220 Palestinians and injure hundreds more. Thousands were arrested, and Palestinian economic, social and residential infrastructure was devastated.

Apparently, Nussbaum was too busy soaking up imagined good vibes at the university to notice anything untoward on the other side of the Green Line: "Campus life seemed remarkably peaceful, as Arab and Jewish students continued to learn side by side and interact without suspicion." In fact, come the award ceremony, so "relaxed in my moralistic heart" was she that "I gave my speech about global justice and the limits of nationalism, and then I sang 'Hatikvah' like everyone else. And for the first time that sort of speech and that song did not seem to be so ill-suited to each other."

And,  from the same essay, how's this for our champion of critical thinking? She finds Israel "a source of much embarrassment" because Zionism "seems in tension... with the cosmopolitan goals of justice for all that... ought to be the goal of a good Jewish life." Seems!

Years later, writing in Dissent Magazine, Nussbaum still had it in for any initiative to boycott Israeli universities, this time invoking the McCarthy era (Against academic boycotts, Spring 2007) to bolster her case. Try as I might, however, I could find no murmur of protest from her at the McCarthyesque activities of the Middle East Forum's Daniel Pipes and his notorious Campus Watch website which compiled 'dossiers' on American Middle East studies academics who were in any way critical of Israel or US policy in the Middle East and encouraged students to dob them in, a process which led to the victims being bombarded with hostile spam, having their names hijacked in bogus emails, and receiving death threats. Nor to my knowledge did Nussbaum bat an eyelid at Pipes' campaign to have Middle East area studies programs defunded.

One of Pipes' targets was Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle Eastern history and director for the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum's own university. Did she, I wonder, speak up for him? I doubt it.

What a flake!

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