A major American university is currently hosting a visiting novelist who says that Israel is a deeply racist country and that its creation was a "catastrophe."
And the Chicago Jewish Federation is helping to foot the bill.
The Israel Studies Project at the University of Illinois, which was created by, and is funded in part by, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan of Chicago, invites Israeli writers and academics to spend time at American universities. This year's choice, Sayed Kashua, certainly has some interesting things to say.
Kashua is an Israeli Arab novelist, newspaper columnist, and television sitcom writer. He has strong opinions about Israel and is not shy about expressing them.
Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian on July 19, 2014, Kashua declared: "I despair to know that an absolute majority in the country does not recognise the rights of an Arab to live."
In the same article, Kashua also accused "the politicians and the media" (a pretty broad swipe) in Israel of "differentiating between blood and blood, between peoples."
And he claimed that "on panels that I participated in, it was said that Jews are a superior people, more entitled to life." What panels? Who said it? Whom did the speakers represent? No details from Kashua; he preferred to paint a portrait of the entire State of Israel as profoundly racist, and the lack of evidence to back that up was not going to get in his way.
But Kashua's feelings about Israel are not simply a response to what he sees as the racism of Israelis today. Rather, he sees the very creation of Israel, back in 1948, as--in his words--catastrophic. In an interview with The Daily Beast on May 15, 2012, for example, Kashua referred to “Israeli independence—what we Arabs call al-Naqba, ‘The Catastrophe’." In various other interviews and articles, he has likewise referred to Israel's creation as "the Naqbah."
Kashua has been very much a part of Israeli society. He is an Israeli citizen. He is a popular Hebrew-language novelist. For many years, he authored a weekly column for the leftist Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and wrote a sitcom on Israeli television about Israeli Arabs. Yet despite all that, he still regards the very creation of the State of Israel has "the Naqbah," something that was horrible, that never should have happened.
Never mind that Israeli Arabs have all the same rights as Israeli Jews, that there is an Israeli Arab on the Supreme Court, that Israeli Arabs have served as Israeli consular officials abroad. No, in Sayed Kashua's view, most Israelis are awful racists and it was a Nakbah, a catastrophe, that Israel was ever created.
Here's what the Israel Studies Project at the University of Illinois states on its website about visiting Israeli scholars: "All our visitors are highly visible on campus. They give major public lectures, visit classes, and lead workshops. They are also active in the community, speaking on WILL-AM, the local NPR station and visiting Hillel, Sinai Temple, and the Rotary Club."
What will they think if Sayed Kashua, on a visit to Sinai Temple, or in an interview with the local NPR station, reiterates his view that Israel's creation was a catastrophe; and that "an absolute majority in the country does not recognise the rights of an Arab to live"?
University of Illinois Professor Matti Bunzl, director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, announced that he is "beyond thrilled" at the "marvelous development" that Kashua is coming to campus for the year. Will Prof. Bunzl be "thrilled" if Kashua says on WILL-AM that Israel's creation was a catastrophe? Will he consider it "marvelous" if Kashua tells the Rotary Club that most Israelis "do not recognize the rights of an Arab to live" ?
America, like Israel, is a free country and Sayed Kashua will be just as free here, as he was in Israel, to call Israelis racists and to characterize Israel's establishment as a catastrophe. The question is whether donors to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago feel that this is an appropriate use of their money.
[Moshe Phillips and Benyamin Korn are members of the board of the Religious Zionists of America]