Thinking about Thinking: Kenneth S. Stern and How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen

In this lead-off contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), Anna Maria Del Col, Marketing Manager, Humanities, shares an excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by Kenneth S. Stern. When considering today's theme of "How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen," Stern's book offers valuable advice.

By Anna Maria Del Col

There are a lot of great things about working in publishing – and in particular, academic publishing. Every day, we get to shape and share ideas, work closely with language, learn new things from leading experts in a wide range of disciplines, and hopefully contribute to making the world a slightly smarter and better place. But once in a while, in the normal course of our work, we come across a particular author or book project that can entirely change the way we see the world, and how we try to behave in the world.

For me, the most recent author to have this kind of impact is Kenneth S. Stern, whose book project, The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, is set to launch our New Jewish Press imprint in Spring 2020. Stern, who has dedicated his life to fighting antisemitism and defending human rights, and who currently works as the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, should inspire us all to become better global citizens.

I think everyone must go through phases where the media cycle becomes unbearable – the conflicts around the world seem unsolvable, the hatred seems endless, and rational thought seems to have completely disappeared. I was entering one of those phases when we signed Kenneth S. Stern and starting planning for the publication of The Conflict over the Conflict. To learn more about the project I began to read the prologue – and I would like to share an excerpt from that prologue here. Even though his project is focused on the Israel/Palestine debate, and how it plays out on North American college and university campuses, there is a real wisdom to everything that Stern says. He offers a model for how to think rationally about any kind of conflict. His lifetime of dealing with the topic of hatred is inspiring, and makes it clear that disengaging is not a solution.

I cannot think of a better book project to share with the world to help kick off University Press Week 2019. The theme this year is “Read. Think. Act.” Reading The Conflict over the Conflict will make you think about how you think, and it will force you to act for good and to act rationally. It is exactly the book the world needs right now.

Note: This excerpt is taken from the unedited manuscript. It has not been copy edited, typeset, or proofed and footnotes have been removed. Advance page proofs will be available soon. You can contact our publicist, Chris Reed, for more information about advance proofs for media purposes.

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Excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate

By Kenneth S. Stern

PROLOGUE

From the 1970s until a lawsuit shut it down in 2001, the Aryan Nations – perhaps America’s most significant neo-Nazi group at the time – had a compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, not far from Spokane, Washington. It was a Hitler-worshipping, Holocaust-denying, racist and violent enterprise, and some of its members were bent on using guns and bombs to promote white supremacy.

The group “The Order” was founded by Aryan Nations members. It robbed banks to support a white supremacist revolution. In 1984 it assassinated one particularly hated Jew, Denver talk radio host Alan Berg, who had enjoyed needling white supremacists on his program.

Randy Weaver, who lived in nearby Ruby Ridge, Idaho, socialized with other white supremacists at the Aryan Nations compound. In 1992 federal agents tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant, and during an armed standoff U.S. Marshal Bill Degan was killed, along with Weaver’s wife and son.

Buford Furrow was another Aryan Nations member. He walked into a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, firing at least 70 rounds from a semi-automatic weapon. He wounded five people, including three children. Then he shot and killed a Filipino-American postal worker.

To the human rights and Jewish communities in the Inland Northwest, the Aryan Nations and the hatred it inspired in others was a direct and constant danger. A Jewish woman bought Chanukah giftwrap and discovered razor blades inside. When Temple Beth Shalom (Spokane’s main synagogue) remodeled, its classrooms were placed in an inner courtyard, protected with bullet-proof windows. Some members of the congregation came to services armed. Black law students at Gonzaga University received threatening racist letters, and some left. Bombs were planted at a Planned Parenthood office and the Spokesman Review newspaper. A pipe bomb went off in the home of Coeur D’Alene Idaho parish priest Bill Wassmuth (with him in it). Luckily, he wasn’t injured.

Activists in the region organized and pushed back. In 2001 the compound was closed, after Aryan Nations guards shot up a car passing by their property, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with local attorney Norm Gissel, filed suit. The area is now vacant. But the leaders in the community remain concerned about the potential for racist violence to disrupt their lives. Ten years after the compound closed, a white supremacist put a radio-controlled bomb in a backpack along the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day march. Many children were among the marchers, and no doubt some would have been maimed or killed if the bomb had exploded. It was filled with small fishing weights, covered in an anticoagulant found in rat poison. Fortunately, the device was discovered and deactivated.

These days the potential for new recruits is obvious. Confederate flag stickers or license plate holders are on the occasional vehicle. White supremacist posters have been found on lampposts in downtown Spokane.

The region is small enough that most of the veterans of the struggle against the Aryan Nations and its legacy know each other. Many come from the Jewish community, and from the local peace and justice groups, particularly the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS). They know that they need to work together to be effective. But for eight years, they didn’t speak to one another. In fact, they frequently refused to be part of coalitions with the other, or even in the same room.

What would cause them to be at each other’s throats, despite the threats from virulent racists who frequently were armed or had plans for murder, were endangering their children and might be living across the street?

The problem – some might say an abstract problem – was over 6,700 miles away.

Israel.

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What is it about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that makes people nuts? In 2018 pro-Palestinian students disrupted a UCLA program on “indigeneity.” A protestor stormed on stage and ripped down the Armenian flag, apparently not willing to have it displayed near an Israeli one. Instead of listening to the panelists, or waiting to ask hard questions, the disrupters shouted “We don’t want two states; we want ’48” and “One, two, three, four, open up that prison door, five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a terrorist state.” Also in 2018, Israel passed its “Nation-State” law, making it easier to discriminate against non-Jews while downgrading the status of Arabic. A Palestinian student at Stanford University reacted with threats against his classmates, promising to “physically fight” Zionists; four hours later he amended his post to say he’d “intellectually” fight them.

Within the Jewish community, while Israel can be a uniting issue, it is also a great divider. As Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a co-founder of Open Hillel, has observed, Jewish students from all types and levels of observance can come together easily at a college Hillel (the mainstream Jewish organization on many campuses) for a meal after different services. Breaking bread with people who disagree about Israel, she says, is much more difficult, if not impossible. Jews who are pro-Palestinian sometimes say supporters of Israel are racists; pro-Israel Jews sometimes call Jewish pro-Palestinian activists traitors.

I observed a similar phenomenon to the one Sandalow-Ash described during my nearly 25 years on staff at the American Jewish Committee (one of the two large Jewish “defense agencies”). I had Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and secular colleagues, as well as others like me who were atheist. No one felt less part of the AJC family because of how, or if, they observed the Jewish religion. I was never asked if I was going to High Holiday services.

But there was tremendous pressure on all staff (including non-Jewish staff) to attend the annual Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There were multiple memos, the tone and content of which suggested it would hurt one’s career not to show up, even though the parade was on Sunday, a day off.

The organized Jewish community is particularly concerned about how Israel is portrayed on campus, for two reasons. First, tomorrow’s leaders are today’s undergraduates, and if being pro-Israel is part of your faith, you don’t want future professors, journalists, and lawmakers to view Israel poorly. Second, you worry that Jewish students who care about Israel deeply and hear vile things about it will feel as disturbed as if someone had said something hateful about Jews. While, as we will see, there have been deeply disquieting incidents, pro-Israel activists claim that the college campus is a hotbed of antisemitism, which it is not.

Meanwhile pro-Palestinian campus activists say these Jewish groups are using legislative and other means to suppress their First Amendment right to express pro-Palestinian political views. These claims and counterclaims, about who is trying to silence whom over Israel on campus, are taking place in an environment where many would sacrifice free speech to “protect” students from ideas they might find disagreeable.

This book is not a catalogue of every bad act by either side in the campus wars over Israel and Palestine. Rather, it is a call to action. The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult discussions. Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise. How did we get here? What can be done?

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To continue on Day One of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Virginia Press
Blog: https://www.upress.virginia.edu/blog
Twitter: @uvapress

University of Wisconsin Press
Blog: https://uwpress.wisc.edu/blog/
Twitter: @UWiscPress

University Press of Florida
Blog: https://floridapress.blog/
Twitter: @floridapress

University of Minnesota Press
Blog: https://uminnpressblog.com/
Twitter: @UMinnPress

University of Nebraska Press
Blog: http://unpblog.com
Twitter: @UnivNebPress

Vanderbilt University Press
Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress
Twitter: @vanderbiltup

University of North Carolina Press
Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
Twitter: @uncpressblog

Georgetown University Press
Twitter: @GUpress

Purdue University Press
Twitter: @purduepress