Parasha Va-era

A “Ribbiting” Debate
Just a few weeks ago,   the American Studies Association, an academic organization, voted overwhelmingly to sever ties with all Israeli academic institutions.  This is part of a larger boycott movement in the West that has been the source of great concern to Israel and its supporters.  In recent weeks a Dutch water company severed its ties to its Israeli counterpart. Canada’s largest Protestant church decided to boycott three Israeli companies. The Romanian government refused to allow its citizens to come to Israel to work in construction.
The American Studies Association resolution calls for the organization to boycott “formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”
One has to wonder why the American Studies Association chooses to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Israel is, after all, a democracy and as such the faculty members have complete academic freedom. Why not boycott China, for example, a country with a population of 1.3 billion people and a well established history of intolerance of dissent. The New York Times reported that in October of this year Peking University dismissed Professor Xia Yeliang for advocating freedom and democracy.  His troubles began when he signed a petition in 2008 urging more freedom and democracy in China. The originator of that petition, known as Charter 08, is serving an 11 year sentence for subversion.  According to the Times, the dismissal of Professor Xia is part of a larger crackdown on scholars, lawyers and writers who have been advocating for more freedom.  This has been part of a campaign of “ideological purification” to suppress dissent in China.  Yet when asked the sensible question about why Israel was singled out for boycott, Curtis Marez, an Associate Professor of ethnic studies at the University of California responded, “We’ve got to start somewhere.”
To get some insight into these issues we can look at a curious debate recorded in the Talmud. This debate is related to our parasha for this week. In our parasha, Moses is calling forth the first plagues to be brought upon Egypt. Dam – blood; Tsefardeyah – Frogs. Only the word Tsefardeyah , frog, is in the singular, not the plural. “Frogs” would be “Tsefardim” in the Hebrew.  This led to a disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva maintains that there was only one frog, like the Torah literally says, and that it came up on the land.  That frog gave birth to many frogs, which then swarmed over Egypt. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that there was only one frog, like the Torah literally says, that came up on the land. That frog then whistled to all the other frogs in the Nile, who joined it. They all then swarmed over Egypt. The Talmud records Rabbi Eliezer’s disdain for Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation.  “Akiva, go back to studying the minutia of the law, for which you are capable, and leave the creative interpretations of Torah to me!”
Why was Rabbi Eliezer so harshly dismissive of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation?  As it turns out their differences were more profound than it appears on the surface.  These men were living during the Hadrianic persecution of the second century. The Roman Emperor Hadrian had forbidden three critical practices for the Jewish people: the practice of circumcision, the teaching and study of Torah, and the observance of Shabbat. The Emperor  was in the process of building a Roman Temple on the Holy Mount in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva were actually debating the nature of this anti-Jewish animus.
Rabbi Akiva, who held forth that the one frog had given birth to all the other frogs that swarmed over Egypt, was not talking about frogs at all. He held the theory that one man, in this case the Emperor Hadrian, could be responsible for spawning hatred against the Jewish people. Eliminate this one man, thought Rabbi Akiva, and you eliminate the source of the hatred that is influencing everyone else.  A corollary of this theory is that if one eliminates the behavior that is causing the hatred, then the hatred will cease as well.  Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, holds a different theory. He believes that anti-Jewish feelings were spread throughout society.  All it took was one influential person to call it forth, and it sprung seemingly out of nowhere, like frogs coming out of the Nile.  In this case the one frog is not the cause of the antagonism; it is merely the precipitant of it , the catalyst that calls it forth. In this case it is not any particular behavior of the Jewish people that causes the hatred; rather, it is the inability of a society to tolerate a minority in their midst with distinctive beliefs and practices.
I have to admit I do not know whether Rabbi Akiva’s understanding or Rabbi Eliezer’s understanding better explains the American Studies Association decision to boycott Israel, and others like it.  Is it, as Rabbi Akiva would have it, simply that Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories is responsible for the calls to action against her?  Or, is Rabbi Eliezer right – that anti-Jewish feeling is endemic in Western societies, and that it is the very existence of Israel, that brings forth antagonism against her?  This is not to say that there really is one correct answer to this vexing question – only that we ought to beware of simplistic solutions or answers to such a highly complex  issue. 
Shabbat Shalom

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Hopefully accidentally, since I can't imagine an ethical person doing this on purpose, this piece reproduces a distorted, truncated quote from ASA president Marez. The original NTY story of record on-line shows the whole, undistorted quote: “He argued that the United States has “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.” While acknowledging that the same could be said of a number of oppressive governments, past and present, he said that in those countries, civil society groups had not asked his association for a boycott, as Palestinian groups have.” It's also the case that the US sanctions many nations, not Israel and "singles" the nation out itself by not taking any action when it would in other cases. Boycotts are a peaceful way of responding to what has been an intractable political problem. But no matter what you think about this controversial issue, can't we all agree that we should respect evidence and not distort the truth to make a political point? Don't people fact check quotes anymore?

  2. Marc Rudolph

    Dear Anonymous,

    I will let people make up their own minds as to whether I reproduced a "distorted, truncated quote"for ASA president Marez. I do not think I did. Because I did not quote him at length does not mean I distorted his quote, or left the wrong impression with my readers. Let people follow your link to the NYT article and decide for themselves.

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