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Renowned Professor Outraged After Being Accused of Saying Nice Things About Israel

Harvard’s Catharine MacKinnon correctly noted the Israel Defense Forces’ ethics. But when a colleague accused her of praising the Jewish state, the celebrated scholar went on the attack.

James Kirchick
February 26, 2018
Via YouTube
Catharine MacKinnonVia YouTube
Via YouTube
Catharine MacKinnonVia YouTube

Before Kendall Myers was sentenced to life imprisonment for betraying secrets to Cuba, he was an avid proselytizer for the London Review of Books. As recounted in Toby Harnden’s 2009 Washingtonian profile, the former State Department analyst (who had spent 30 years spying for the Castro regime) would pass copies of the Review to his neighbor in the tony D.C. Westchester building along with the endorsement that the magazine was “much better on Palestine” than its American inspiration, the New York Review of Books. That publication, known for printing Tony Judt’s call for a binational Palestinian state and Peter Beinart’s jeremiads against the “American Jewish establishment,” was, Myers sniffed, “too Israeli.”

Myers has thankfully not been heard from, on politics or the relative merits of book reviews, since his sentencing nearly a decade ago. (“I see no sense of remorse,” the federal judge told Myers and his wife, who assisted his espionage, at the couple’s sentencing. “You were proud of what you did.”) But I was reminded of Myers’s recommendation when reading the letters section of the current London Review. There, the feminist American legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon can be found angrily responding to a review of her most recent book, Butterfly Politics. The reviewer, Lorna Finlayson of the University of Essex, had taken exception to MacKinnon’s 2008 acceptance of an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in defiance of the academic Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel. (Moreover, “one of the people honored alongside her was Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher and critic of ‘Islamic extremism.’”) Adding insult to injury, MacKinnon returned to the Zionist entity in 2014, where she “delivered a speech at the Kiryat Ono Academic College in which she praised the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as ‘the only army in the world that does not rape the women of its occupied people.’” Citing the Israeli historian Benny Morris’ work on the 1948 War of Independence and a 27-year-old Amnesty International report, Finlayson disputes that this is in fact the case.

Finlayson also takes issue with what she calls MacKinnon’s “broadly pro-American narrative when it comes to global politics.” MacKinnon, a critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hardly a liberal interventionist, is guilty of this charge because she draws a parallel between terrorism and misogynist violence, seeing both rooted in a “masculine ideology.” This is revealing of a “pro-American narrative,” Finlayson argues, because, while women have done nothing to deserve the violence of a patriarchal society, the same can hardly be said of the terrorism directed at America and other Western imperialist states, responsible for the “destruction of entire Middle Eastern societies and their ways of life.”

In most academic circles, especially the ones inhabited by Catharine MacKinnon and Laura Finlayson, the accusation that one is acting as a useful idiot for George W. Bush is a scarlet letter, as depraved as liking child pornography or torturing animals. But the allegation that she is a handmaiden of American imperialism is not what prompted MacKinnon to write a letter to the editor. No, it was the fear that readers of the London Review of Books might mistake her for having even the slightest sympathy for the Jewish State which stirred the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at Michigan Law and James Barr Ames Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School to action. The accusation that she had “praised” the Israeli Defense Force for the record of its soldiers in not raping Palestinian women was an outrageous slander, as “no source, including the one Professor Finlayson kindly provided when asked, supports this false characterization of what was clearly an empirical observation of the contemporary occupying IDF [emphasis mine].” Not only is “saying I praised a fact I simply stated, raising it as a question seeking further information and analysis…a sloppy mistake as well as sloppy scholarship. It is also, in context, intentionally politically defamatory.”

Finlayson was baffled. Why else would someone mention the IDF’s supposedly spotless record of non-rape but to praise it? “Interventions taking the form of descriptive statements–whether true, false or questionable–can and frequently do constitute acts of praise or legitimation,” she writes in response to MacKinnon’s letter. “I leave it to readers to judge whether it is reasonable to interpret MacKinnon’s statement, delivered at an Israeli institution while a captive population was being bombed just a few kilometers away, as constituting such an act.”

Had MacKinnon wanted to convince readers that her comment about the IDF and rape was not intended as a mark of approval, she should have cited an infamous Master’s thesis written over a decade ago for, incidentally, Hebrew University, wherein the author decried the absence of rapes committed by Israeli soldiers as evidence of Jewish ethno-supremacy. Because Israeli soldiers, according to Professor Tal Nitsan, are trained not to see Arab women as fully human, raping them would risk diluting the Jewish gene pool. “The lack of military rape,” therefore, “merely strengthens the ethnic boundaries and clarifies the inter-ethnic differences” between Jews and Arabs. Israelis would be better people, in other words, if they raped Palestinians.

So, in a sense, both women are right. Finlayson reasonably assumed that MacKinnon meant to “praise” the IDF when the latter stated that its soldiers do not rape Palestinian women. Yet MacKinnon is also right that, in the “context” of the pages of the London Review of Books, the perception that one has anything remotely positive to say about Israel—including the reluctance of its soldiers to rape Palestinian women—is a form of defamation.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.