Dreams Deferred

A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel

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Cary Nelson
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , July
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The content and structure of this interesting and sometimes thought-provoking book are difficult to summarize. It is composed of dozens of short entries, the longest being nine pages and many being only two or three pages or even less. About one-third of the book is composed of entries dealing with boycotts. A majority of these deal with the current BDS movement, while the focus of others is either general, historical, or devoted to cases other than Israel, such as South Africa. The remaining entries deal with either Israeli politics and society, Palestinian politics and society, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taken together, the entries in these latter categories cover myriad topics and are to some extent comprehensive with respect to breadth, if not depth.

Interestingly, and certainly unconventionally, all the entries are arranged in alphabetical order. The purpose, as Nelson explains in the introduction, is that all of the entries are designed to stand alone and thus satisfy the need for easy access to basic information (7). Accordingly, readers can quickly find, to give just a few examples, the five pages on BDS and organized labor, the four pages on Jewish history before Zionism, the three pages on the Palestinian Authority, and the two pages each on Hezbollah and Israel’s Iron Dome.

Many of the entries are written by Cary Nelson, a professor of English and Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Some entries are coauthored. The remaining entries, of which there are many, are either original writings by one of the twenty-five individuals who contributed to the volume or previously published accounts that have been reprinted or adapted. The contributors are for the most part university faculty members. Some are well-known; others less so. Most, though not all, have some connection with Israel or Israeli or Jewish studies.

The entries are informative. As would be expected given the complexity of topics covered in only a few pages, the contested nature of many facts and interpretations, and the pro-Israel/anti-BDS posture of almost all of the contributors, not everyone will find the accounts entirely accurate and persuasive. Nevertheless, the entries are serious and well done, and the collection of contributors incorporates a diversity of opinion on issues relating to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. Thus, the volume succeeds in its goal of providing a concise guide, or perhaps introduction, to a large number of topics related to BDS and Israel. The extensive list of sources at the end of the book provides ample guidance for those seeking fuller accounts or differing perspectives.

The book will be particularly useful to those seeking to understand the BDS movement and decide what they think about it. I suspect that many who support Israel but oppose its occupation of the West Bank would like to see the country pressured into changing its policies, and they are thus trying to determine whether the BDS movement can play this role. On the whole, the book’s contributions collectively make the case that BDS is not the way to go, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the book has been highly praised by some prominent supporters of Israel. At the same time, many of the entries related to BDS are informative and balanced. In this connection, I particularly appreciated accounts of the debates about whether or not to endorse BDS that took place within several American academic associations.

The entries dealing with Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cover topics with which readers are more likely to be familiar and about which they may already have settled views. But by providing definitions and short introductions to numerous topics, the book does work well as a guide, particularly for those whose knowledge about Israel and the Palestinians may be limited. Further, the information and insight provided by some of the entries are original, insightful, and/or balanced, and thus merit attention from experienced as well as novice readers. To mention just two examples, the ideas advanced in Nelson’s four and a half page essay on coordinated unilateral withdrawal by Israel are provocative, in a good way; and in the four and a half page essay on the Nakba, also by Nelson, I appreciated the perspective reflected in the following concluding paragraph: “The Nakba is at the core of the Palestinian historical and political narrative. Recognition of its centrality to Palestinian identity is a prerequisite for the sense of mutual empathy that must undergird the peace process” (230).

In sum, the volume is a useful source of introductory and sometimes more than introductory information on a wide range of topics. Many of the entries also offer insight and argumentation with which readers can engage. Accordingly, Dreams Deferred is a convenient general guide to the multi-faceted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as a valuable aid to understanding the contentious debates surrounding the BDS movement on American campuses and elsewhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Tessler is the Samuel J. Eldersveld Professor in the Department of Political Scienc at the University of Michigan.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cary Nelson, jubilee professor of liberal arts and sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author or editor of 30 books. His op-eds have appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.


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