Call them micro events that ask new questions about old concepts and strive to become the prevailing frame of reference. Or call these events a current that struggles to bring about a tipping point, that moment in society when a vibrant world view crosses a threshold and spreads.
This notion of the ascendance of new paradigms and decline of old ones in public debate as in scientific research was first broached by the Jewish-American philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, whose iconic work, The Structures of Scientific Revolutions (1962) — a landmark in the study of science as a social activity — was influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term ‘paradigm shift’, which has since its inception become increasingly trendy.
All of which brings us to the impact of the loosely-connected, grassroots-driven movements spearheaded by countless American Jews disillusioned by Israeli leaders’ degradation of Palestinians. These mostly young Americas are not satisfied to just verbalise their adversarial positions — and then sit on their laurels. They are doing something about it.
Consider these three cases in point.
Barnard College, the oldest (1889) and most distinguished liberal arts women’s college in the United States, with the highest percentage of Jewish students (33 per cent) of any other secular academic institution in America, chose to vote on a referendum on whether or not to call on the administration to divest its endowments, funds and stocks in companies such as Caterpillar, Boeing and Hewitt Packard that do business with Israel. “Companies like Caterpillar, which make heavy machinery that are used in the US for general construction, is used in the West Bank for extrajudicial home demolition”, Caroline Oliver, of Students for Justice in Palestine, told CBS News New York. Sixty four per cent of the 2,500-strong student body voted to divest. The following day, an opinion piece in the Forward, one of the best-known Jewish-American publications in the US, had the scathing title, “Barnard’s BDS [Boycott, Divest and Sanction] vote is what happens when you don’t let us question Israel”.
In Durham, North Carolina, the City Council voted 6-0 to prohibit its police department from engaging in international exchanges with “military training”. The vote resulted from a petition by a coalition of groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), seeking a ban on any partnership the city’s police department might enter with Israel’s police force, on the grounds that Israeli tactics promote racial bias and militarisation. “I hope this spreads, because all of us who care about fighting racism, and all of us who care about trying to have democracy maintained — we need to not have a militarised police force,” Durham resident Deborah Rosenstein, of JVP, told the council. “The Israeli forces and the Israeli police have a long history of violence against Palestinians”.
And in Los Angeles, the 36-year-old, Oscar-winning, Israeli-born Hollywood superstar, Natalie Portman, pulled out of the upcoming June award sponsored by the prestigious Genesis Prize Foundation in Israel, saying through a representative that “recent events [on the Gaza-Israel border] are extremely distressing” and thus she did not “feel comfortable” participating in any public event in Israel.
The response of reactionary Jews to this posture by progressive Jews — a response that effectively defines the split between those who see a Jew’s role as primarily falling in behind the tribe, right or wrong, and those who see Israel in the larger context of international relations and moral considerations — was to give these dastardly renegades the tag “self-hater” or, worse, “kapo”. As for Gentiles who did not blindly embrace the now-tired theme of Israel as the little Jewish David squaring off against the giant Arab Goliath, well, they’re vile anti-Semites.
And so it goes.
These are but three micro events that have taken place in the US over the last three weeks alone — representative of an untold number of others like those that may have passed largely unnoticed but are quietly exerting an outsized influence over the whole landscape of public discourse, thereby accelerating the advent of a ‘paradigm shift’.
Let’s face it: The future, as Kuhn suggested, is not shaped by society’s broader forces, but by quiet changes within small but engaged pockets among the population. And in the minds of these folks, whose activism is becoming increasingly more impactful as time goes on, what underlies successful change is a bedrock belief that change is possible. That’s the spirit.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.