Anti-Zionism and the Humanities: A response to Saree Makdisi

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Professors Cary Nelson, left and Russell Berman at a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, January 2014.

This lengthy essay by two leading US professors challenges the world of academic publishing. They identify the symptoms of a ‘widespread institutional corruption that extends far beyond the debates over the Middle East’: the move of disciplines and journals from textual interpretation and scholarship to politics and polemic; the fundamental breakdown in the peer review process in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, as publishers with a strong anti-Zionist bias submit manuscripts to highly sympathetic anti-Zionist readers who laud the manuscript’s ‘courage’ and recommend publication, creating an anti-Zionist echo chamber increasingly free from some traditional scholarly controls, including fact-checking; and, not least, the spread of the terminology of a body of theory ‘marshalled in the service of preexisting political convictions’ and taking on ‘the character of sacred incantation’, the mere ‘deployment of its vocabulary’ taken as ‘sufficiently proving the case being made’. Their particular focus is the work of Saree Makdisi, but their target is contemporary academic culture itself.


Much debate by proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in academic and public spheres is not genuine debate but rather the promotion of accusations and slogans directed against the state of Israel. Efforts at making a detailed, fact-based case are far less common, even full-length books are often largely polemical. When arguments masquerade as fact-based, the facts are often in error. Examples of the latter include the detailed reports that investigative teams of established BDS advocates issued in 2016, the first on behalf of the American Anthropological Association, the second as part of the BDS advocacy group within the Modern Language Association.[2] In one respect at least, the effort to marshal evidence, rather than resort only to polemics, these reports were welcome. But they both actually marshalled misleading or false statements in support of a preconceived polemical mission. As representative examples, respectively, of political interventions by major interpretive social science and humanities organisations, they were deeply problematic—agenda-driven polemics masquerading as objective scholarship.

Fundamental questions for scholars are at stake: What should be the standards of evidence for political propositions for disciplines in which those standards are poorly understood, rarely consensual, and even non-existent? What standards should guide the differences between citing factual evidence and citing opinion? Should there be an obligation to examine counter-evidence and opposing views? Humanities faculty, certainly, are not well educated in interpreting, evaluating, or countering political interventions, or in how to counter confirmation bias.

A case in point is Saree Makdisi’s December 2017 Critical Inquiry (CI) essay ‘Apartheid / Apartheid /  [       ],’ which is his most up-to-date and comprehensive statement on Israel and Zionism. We will focus on that essay but draw in arguments from Makdisi’s other publications from the last dozen years.[3] Makdisi’s three full-length essays in Critical Inquiry are part of the journal’s recent dedication to making anti-Zionism part of its mission and identity. When W.J.T. Mitchell, the editor of Critical Inquiry, wrote to Russell Berman inviting a response to Makdisi’s essay, an invitation that led to this more extensive analysis, he described it as ‘a serious, well documented scholarly essay,’ by which one can only conclude he meant ‘It has lots of footnotes.’ But whether either those footnotes or the essay itself, which is rife with undocumented assertion, actually proves anything is another matter. It is also clear that CI, like most humanities journals, apparently has no tradition of fact checking, since a substantial number of Makdisi’s claims cannot survive such a review. Makdisi himself criticises ‘the ability to cherry-pick what one wants to see and to steer well clear of inconvenient data’ (27). That principle should have led him to interrogate his own practices more rigorously; as we show below, while he often tells such a selective story, he is also often simply in error. Put bluntly, he gets facts wrong. As it happened, Mitchell restricted us to 5,000 words, a word limit we could not accept, feeling that we needed to provide a response about the same length as Makdisi’s own essay.[4]

CI willingly published a wide array of his flawed evidence. It seems obvious thatCI did so because its editor W. J. T. Mitchell agrees with Makdisi’s conclusions. Mitchell only publicly endorsed an academic boycott of Israel in 2016, but he has been a vehement public opponent of the Jewish state since 1999, when he published ‘Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness’ in Critical Inquiry.[5] Had Makdisi’s essay appeared in a less prestigious venue, it might reasonably have been ignored. But Critical Inquiry retains its reputation as the most prestigious vehicle of the professional age of theory that came to the fore in the 1970s. Whether it deserves to retain that reputation is another matter: it has become a vehicle for BDS advocacy and rationalisation, including making its blog a site where people could announce their resignation from the Modern Language Association in protest of the organisation’s vote to reject an academic boycott of Israel.

We are focusing on Makdisi here, but we not addressing those of his arguments that are widespread in the pro-BDS literature and that we have addressed in detail elsewhere. Those include the decisively disproven claim that the BDS movement targets only institutions, not individuals, and the long-running dispute over whether Jews or Arabs are the true indigenous people of the area. It should be clear to most observers that the Jewish people have both an ancient and a modern claim to the land, but we believe both peoples have valid historical and psychological investments in the Holy Land and that both should see their national ambitions fulfilled.[6] Several of Makdisi’s key arguments here, as we will note when appropriate, appear in much briefer form in his 2010 Critical Inquiry essay ‘The Architecture of Erasure.’[7]

We are replying at length to Makdisi in what follows not only to address those of his central arguments to which he gives a distinctive twist, namely the claim that Israel is an apartheid and racist state not only comparable to but worse in its practices than South Africa, but also because this reply may serve as a timely challenge to disciplines and journals that are increasingly moving from textual interpretation to politics. Whatever Critical Inquiry’s practices may be, there is also a fundamental breakdown in the peer review process in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. A publisher — the University of California Press and the University of Minnesota Press are telling examples — with a strong anti-Zionist bias submits a manuscript to a highly sympathetic reader who lauds the manuscript’s ‘courage’ and recommends publication. This is symptomatic of a widespread institutional corruption that extends far beyond the debates over the Middle East.

The other major pattern in humanities debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that they divide starkly into attacks on or defenses of Israel. Disinterested reviews of evidence are difficult to find in some disciplines. Makdisi’s essay unfortunately falls without reservation into the attack category. That leads to yet another fundamental question: what purpose do either polemical essays or polemical essays dressed up with footnotes actually serve? Makdisi seeks unreservedly to demonise Israel. The only way his absolute rejectionism could enhance the peace process is if it were to lead Jews to abandon their homeland or cede it to Arab rule. Since neither will happen, a delegitimisation project simply enhances the frozen or deteriorating status quo.

We should make clear that we are certainly not claiming disinterestedness ourselves. We both believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state whose founding principles rest on justice and equality for Jews, Arabs, and other peoples. But we also work hard to be factually correct, something that publication venues with area expertise facilitate with their own fact checking. In texts as dense with factual references as both our and Makdisi’s essays, errors creep in easily. Checking and rechecking and questioning all evidence that says what you want it to say is the only corrective strategy. Makdisi however claims to speak with the voice of unquestioning infallibility. How the consistent refusal of self-interrogation comports with a notional program of critical inquiry is a matter the journal’s editorial board might consider.


Makdisi’s polemical essay claims that Israel’s ‘apartheid regime’ is actually worse than South Africa’s. Like many humanities faculty members, Makdisi indulges more than once in flamboyant or hyperbolic maneuvers that in our view undermine his case, inhibit a serious debate about the character and quality of life west of the Jordan River, and distract us from considering practical strategies designed to advance political solutions offering justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. Along with his rhetorical flourishes, he offers seemingly empirical evidence of his claim: a point-by-point catalogue of major features of South African apartheid and their Israeli counterparts. He then attempts to go further to claim that Israel exceeds South African apartheid in its discriminatory and violent treatment of Palestinians. For example, he asserts that black South Africans were simply treated as inferior, whereas Palestinians are comprehensively dehumanised. Then he escalates the distinction as ‘the difference between exploitation and annihilation’ (320).[8] ‘Indeed,’ he writes, ‘there is nothing even remotely resembling a precedent for Israel’s 2008-2009 or 2014 assaults on Gaza in the entire history of apartheid in South Africa’ (319). But then black South Africans were not firing thousands of rockets into white neighborhoods in Cape Town or Johannesburg or digging under them to construct hidden tunnels to be used for commando raids and terrorist attacks directed at civilians. (Makdisi appears to be uninformed about the violence carried out by the South African Defense Forces during the Namibian War of Independence, a vital front during the battle against apartheid.)

Makdisi is not the first to accuse Israel of being as cruel as South Africa. That in itself should be a damning accusation. But no, he must show that Israel is worse. He just cannot resist demonising Israel in the strongest language he can find even if his facts are insufficient. As we intend to demonstrate in this response, nowhere within Israel proper is there is any form of discrimination comparable to that exercised by the repressive South African regime. Yet Makdisi is at pains to demonstrate that Israel within its pre-1967 borders is much the same place as the West Bank under a military occupation; no careful and knowledgeable observer of both places would come to the same conclusion.[9] In Israel, there is open debate, freedom of speech, and academic freedom, while neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which also have a presence there, will tolerate the same in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas’s repression of its own people is still more severe. Nonetheless, Makdisi is driven to minimise the violence of South African apartheid in order to make his argument work and intensify his attack on Israel.

Makdisi declares that ‘every major South African apartheid law has a direct equivalent in Israel and the occupied territories today’ (310). Space does not permit a comprehensive list of South African apartheid laws with no Israeli equivalent, but consider a few:

  1. The Population Registration Act, 1950, required that every South African be classified into one of a number of racial ‘population groups.’
  2. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, 1953 allowed public premises, vehicles and services to be segregated by race, even if equal facilities were not made available to all races.
  3. The Native Building Workers Act, 1951 legalised the training of blacks in skilled labor in the construction industry, but limited the places in which they were permitted to work. Sections 15 and 19 made it an offense for blacks to work in the employ of whites performing skilled labor in their homes.
  4. The Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act of 1953 effectively prohibited strike action by Africans.
  5. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956 prohibited the registration of any new ‘mixed’ race unions and imposed racially separate branches and all-white executive committees on existing ‘mixed’ unions. It prohibited strikes in ‘essential industries’ for both black and white workers and banned political affiliations for unions. Clause 77 legalised the reservation of skilled jobs to white workers, as the Bantu Building Workers Act of 1951 had done in the construction trade, ‘to ensure that they will not be exploited by the lower standard of living of any other race.’
  6. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 enforced racial segregation in education. But Bantu education was no only about segregation; it was about the low quality of education provided to black South Africans. Deprived of much math and science, they were being trained at best for blue-collar jobs.

Despite Makdisi’s claim, there are no equivalent laws in Israel. The other side of the coin — the competitive achievements of Israeli Arabs — would require an independent essay, but one might begin by noting that there are currently 18 Arab members of Knesset, representing 15 percent of Israel’s Parliament. The 13-member Joint Arab list party includes a number who exercise the right to voice anti-Zionist views. George Karra is an Israeli Arab Supreme Court justice who earlier served as head of the three-judge district court that convicted and sentenced former president Moshe Katsav. Until his retirement in August 2017, Salim Joubran was also an Israeli Arab Supreme Court justice; he served as chair of the electoral commission responsible for certifying the 2015 Knesset election results. Abdul Rachman Zuabi, Israel’s first Arab Supreme Court justice, served a nine-month term in 1999. Druze Yosef Mishlab was commander of Israel’s Home Front in the late 1990s and Hussein Faras was recently commander of the Border Police. Ghassan Alian is the Druze commander of the IDF’s Golani Brigade. In January 2018 the Israeli police promoted Arab commander Jamal Hachrush to the rank of assistant-chief, giving him the second highest rank in the agency. The list could go on. Where were the equivalent positions in public life for Blacks in apartheid South Africa?

Makdisi underwrites his critique of Israel proper with the claim that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which commits the state to equality of all citizens without regard to religion, is merely ‘aspirational’ (323) rather than legally binding. Yet prominent Israeli jurists, among them former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak, believe the Declaration has constitutional status. In any case, calling the Declaration merely aspirational erases its considerable impact on Israeli law and culture. The Declaration’s commitment to equality has frequently been referred to in court decisions.[10] Makdisi imagines that ‘nowhere in Israel law is the right to equality protected’ (309), but an objective reading of Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) proves otherwise, as many rights are thereby guaranteed to all.[11] It includes the following provisions, among others, offered here in the official English-language version of the law with the numbers preserved from the original:

  1. Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free; these rights shall be upheld in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.
  2. There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such.
  3. There shall be no violation of the property of a person.
  4. All persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity.
  5. There shall be no deprivation or restriction of the liberty of a person by imprisonment, arrest, extradition or otherwise.
  6. (a) All persons are free to leave Israel. b) Every Israeli national has the right of entry into Israel from abroad.
  7. (a) All persons have the right to privacy and to intimacy. (b) There shall be no entry into the private premises of a person who has not consented thereto. (c) No search shall be conducted on the private premises of a person, nor in the body or personal effects. d) There shall be no violation of the confidentiality of conversation, or of the writings or records of a person.
  8. All governmental authorities are bound to respect the rights under this Basic Law.

Item no. 1 above is repeated in Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation. The ‘Basic Laws’ were sometimes enacted by special majorities. In any case, the prevailing view is that the Knesset can, as a constitutional body, pass ‘Basic Laws’ that have constitutional status and serve as the equivalent of a constitution in progress. Their constitutional status has been reinforced by the courts. The Basic Law we cite has specifically been used by the courts to uphold and enforce equality, including that between Arabs and Jews.[12] As Justice Aharon Barak commented in a 2012 lecture at Oxford University:

The court’s interpretive method has been to treat human dignity as a ‘framework right’ or a ‘mother-right’ from which derivative rights may be generated; the latter include the rights to equality, to free expression, to freedom of conscience and religion, to have a family and be a parent, to movement within Israel, to reputation, and to minimal core of dignified sustenance. All these derivative rights have been recognised as inseparable progeny of the mother-right to human dignity.[13]

Israel does not have a formal constitution guaranteeing a right to equality, but the Declaration’s ‘aspirations’ have been incorporated into Basic Laws with constitutional status.

Equality is a fundamental value in Israeli law. Generally that refers to equality of outcome, which means more than just equal treatment before the law. It includes social rights, rights to funding, etc. Indeed the Israeli Supreme Court has found that any inequality (including inequality of outcome, or what are sometimes called ‘positive rights’) that infringes human dignity is included in the right to human dignity. The principle of equality applies to all spheres of government activity. Notwithstanding, it is of special importance with regard to the duty of the government to treat the Jewish citizens of the state and non-Jewish citizens equally. This duty of equality for all the citizens of the State of Israel, whether Arab or Jewish, is one of the foundations that make the State of Israel a Jewish and democratic state.[14]

Of course part of what is at stake in such Court rulings is an effort to push Israeli society toward a degree of equality it has not always embodied. The realisation of equal funding for Arab towns, for example, has been slow and only very recently seen steps toward decisive reform. Some segments of Israeli society, including higher education, now show the results of a generation of material progress, of affirmative action to eliminate inequities. But threats to progress from conservative politicians, some of whom remain eager to discriminate, contribute to cultural divisiveness and material precarity. Israel meanwhile suffers from the same kind of increasingly unequal distribution of wealth that plagues the US, and Israel’s Arab citizens can suffer the consequences disproportionally. Ethnic equality cannot be taken for granted. It requires continual monitoring, advocacy, and political work.

Some relevant passages concerning equality from Israeli Supreme Court case law include the following section from HCJ 721/94 El-Al Israel Airlines v. Danielowitz [1994] IsrSC 48(5) 749; [1992-4] IsrLR 478, p. 8:[15]

‘it is the heart and soul of our whole constitutional regime’ (Justice Landau in HCJ 98/69 Bergman v. Finance Minister, at p. 698), and ‘it is part of the essence and character of the State of Israel’ (Vice-President Justice Elon in EA 2/88 Ben-Shalom v. Central Election Committee for the Twelfth Knesset, at p. 272). ‘…The rule that one may not discriminate against persons on the basis of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, country of origin, religion, beliefs or social status is a fundamental constitutional principle which is counted among our fundamental jurisprudential perspectives and constitutes an integral part of these’ (Justice Shamgar in HCJ 114/78, Motion 451, 510/78 Burkan v. Minister of Finance, at p. 806). Considerations of justice and fairness underlie the principle of equality. ‘The principle of equality… has long been recognised in our law as one of the principles of justice and fairness…’ (Justice Mazza in HCJ 453/94 Israel Women’s Network v. Government of Israel, at p. 521). Equality is a central element of the social contract upon which society is based (see HCJ 953/87 Poraz v. Mayor of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa; Labour Party in Tel-Aviv-Jaffa Municipality v. Tel-Aviv-Jaffa Municipal Council, at p. 332).

A good summary statement, which deals explicitly with discrimination and the Arab population, is in Barak’s decision in HCJ 11163/03 Supreme Monitoring Committee v. Prime Minister [2006]

(1) IsrLR 105, 120-122:

‘The principle of equality is one of the most basic principles of the State of Israel. The right to equality is one of the most important human rights. Indeed, it is well known that equality is one of the basic values of the state. It is the basis of social existence. It is one of the cornerstones of democracy’ (see HCJ 4112/99 Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel v. Tel-Aviv Municipality, at p. 415; HCJ 10026/01 Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel v. Prime Minister, at p. 39). It is one of the most fundamental principles for the interpretation and implementation of statutes (HCJ 240/98 Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel v. Minister of Religious Affairs , at p. 177). A violation of equality is ‘the worst thing of all’ (per Justice M. Cheshin in HCJ 7111/95 Local Government Centre v. Knesset, at p. 503). Discrimination is one of the worst evils that can befall a human being and human rights. It may lead to humiliation and a violation of human dignity (HCJ 4541/94 Miller v. Minister of Defence, at p. 132 {224-225}). This is certainly the case where the discrimination is on the basis of a person’s religion or race. Such a ‘generic’ discrimination ‘… inflicts a mortal blow on human dignity’ (per Justice M. Cheshin in HCJ 2671/98 Israel Women’s Network v. Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, at pp. 658-659…).[16]

The principle of equality is entrenched in Israel in a number of normative structures. First, it is a principle of case-law — the product of ‘Israeli common law’ — that has been recognised and developed by the courts in Israel. This principle reflects on the (objective) intention of every piece of legislation and acts as a criterion for its interpretation. ‘The fundamental principle, which constitutes a legislative goal for all the acts of the legislature, is the principle that everyone is equal before the law … legislation should therefore be presumed and interpreted as intending to achieve this purpose, not to undermine it.’ (HCJ 507/81 Abu Hatzira MK v. Attorney-General, at p. 585. See also HCJ 301/63 Streit v. Chief Rabbi, at p. 612). The case-law principle of equality reflects on the law’s ‘fundamental concepts’ (such as reasonableness, justice, equality and public policy) and constitutes a normative element in establishing the scope of their application (see HCJ 693/91 Efrat v. Director of Population Register at Interior Ministry). A discriminatory collective agreement may therefore be contrary to public policy and be disqualified as a result (see HCJ 104/87 Nevo v. National Labour Court and L.C.J. 3-25/33 Flight Attendants’ Committee v. Hazin). The case-law principle of equality is a normative basis for recognising the right of equality as a human right in Israel. It leads to the formulation of case-law rules based on it — such as the rule of spouses’ joint property ownership (see HCJ 1000/92 Bavli v. Great Rabbinical Court).

The principle of equality is also incorporated into a wide range of legislation, including legislation that creates equality in specific relationships. Thus, for instance, the Women’s Equal Rights Law, 1951, provides that ‘women and men shall be subject to the same law for every legal act…’ (s. 1). The Employment Service Law, 1959, prohibits discrimination by the Employment Service when referring a person for employment (s. 42). The Equal Remuneration for Female and Male Employees Law, 5724-1964, aims to ensure equality in employees’ salaries. Special legislation is intended to allow corrective preferential treatment for women (see section 18A of the Government Corporations Law, 1975).[17]

You might reasonably conclude that Makdisi simply does not know about either Israel’s Basic Laws or their history in court rulings. But in Makdisi’s Palestine Inside Out he represents himself as very well informed. On page 263, the book’s epigraph to its ‘Coda’ sums up what his readers are to accept as the result of his scrupulous investigation of Israeli law:


*Number of Israel’s Basic Laws that guarantee equality of citizenship: 0

*Number of Israeli High Court rulings upholding equality as a right: 0

Despite Makdisi’s assertive confidence, this is manifestly untrue. What Makdisi characterises as Israel’s version of apartheid is worse than South Africa, he nonetheless repeatedly asserts, not only because of its material practices but also because, unlike South Africa, Israel allegedly refuses to admit, acknowledge, and name its racism. Adapting a Derridean model that Derrrida himself would reject, Makdisi declares Israel’s purported apartheid to be under radical erasure. Israel is ‘a starkly racial state that at every possible turn resorts to linguistic tricks and verbal sleights of hand . . . to conceal its racial logic’ (313-14). Israel’s conduct, according to Makdisi, ‘is premised on avoidance, evasion, equivocation’ (328).

The result, according to Makdisi, is a deadly ‘necropolitics’ devoted to ‘the destruction and erasure of Palestinians’ (321), a ‘system of inscrutability and invisibility that allows Israelis and the supporters of Israel to go on practicing or endorsing a vulgar and violent form of racism without having to reckon with and acknowledge the fact that that is precisely what they are doing (321).[18]One might recall that South Africa’s violent practices included a readiness for agents of the state to murder black citizens in detention, which Makdisi casually overlooks.

That these accusations of linguistic camouflage can, without much difficulty, be turned on Makdisi’s own prose in unconscious self-projection is a point to which we will return. Here we suggest that Makdisi’s language invokes the classic anti-Semitic trope, that Jews are duplicitous, deceptive, calculating, conspiratorial, slippery, and untrustworthy. The consequence, he claims, is that Israeli discrimination ‘is positioned out of view; it is unavailable for interrogation, reconsideration, dismantling’ (328). This is an odd argument to make when both Israel’s practices and its rhetoric have been distinctly available for interrogation not only by Makdisi himself, repetitively, but also by thousands upon thousands of Israelis and critics of Israel in the academy, the international press, the UN, and in houses of government worldwide.

But Makdisi persists. In order to show that in Israel, as in the former South Africa, a minority population dominates and oppresses a majority he has to cast a wide net. ‘Israel,’ he writes, ‘disenfranchises the land’s Palestinian majority. There are today approximately 12.5 million Palestinians and six million Israeli Jews’ (317). The Jewish population figure represents those living in Israel and the West Bank. The Palestinian figure includes the four million living in Gaza and the West Bank, along not only with Arab citizens of Israel but also seven million Palestinians living in ‘exile’ throughout the world. These figures rely on the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) unique way of counting Palestinian refugees. For Palestinians, but not other refugee populations, UNRWA counts the children and grandchildren of refugees, insisting that refugee status is indefinitely passed down through the generations, even if people have acquired citizenship in other countries.

That conceptual exceptionalism applied to Palestinian refugees is compounded by another problem: UNRWA does not seem capable of doing a reliable census of Palestinian populations. UNRWA’s website claims that 449,957 refugees live under its protection in twelve Lebanese camps, but a December 2017 combined survey by Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics could only identify 174,535.[19] The Lebanese government claims the others ‘left,’ which is understandable given the deplorable treatment of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for nearly seventy years, but hardly explains UNRWA’s claim to fund the larger number.

Makdisi quotes the notoriously biased South African BDS hosted 2011 Russell Tribunal on Palestine, widely criticised in South Africa itself and hardly an objective source, to the effect that ‘Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people, wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid’ (318).[20] In other words, a Palestinian citizen of Britain, Europe, or the United States—whether a teacher, a secretary, a lawyer, or a doctor, born in the country in which they live and work—is nevertheless still to be considered a refugee and a victim of Israeli apartheid because he or she cannot exercise what is presumed to be a burning desire to return to an ancestral village that no longer exists and where the injured party never lived. He adds the remarkable complaint that Gaza’s residents, now governed by Hamas, ‘have no right to vote in Israeli elections’ (326). Apparently he imagines them to be citizens of Israel, which they are not.


Makdisi endorses the universal right of Palestinians worldwide to return to Israel within its pre-1967 borders and, as his book Palestine Inside Out makes clear in detail, is contemptuous of Arafat for showing flexibility on that issue in the 2000 Camp David negotiations. ‘Thanks in part to the leadership of Arafat,’ he remarks in ‘Intellectual Warfare’ and the Question of Palestine,’ ‘the Palestinians may yet go the way of the American Indian’ (78).[21] He takes the same approach in that essay to Arafat’s successor: ‘It was as though Abbas had learned nothing; as though he were proud, rather than ashamed, of the secret capitulations he had entered into at Oslo’ (79).[22] Not just Makdisi but the BDS movement as a whole insists on the principle of a universal right of return even though Palestinian negotiators for a generation have accepted the general terms of a three-part compromise: a full acknowledgement by Israel of its role in driving Palestinians from their homes in 1948; a limited right of return for those with family members living in Israel; and fair compensation for those families that lost property in the Nakba. That BDS surpasses the demands of the Palestinian leadership is symptomatic of the current state of American academic radicalism; from the safety of the campus it is more than happy to fan the fires of violence for the peoples of the region.

For Makdisi the real crime begins not with the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank or even with the Nakba itself. The fundamental violence done was with the establishment of the Jewish state. His essay therefore begins with a symptomatic narrative, the 1986 creation of a new town, Eshchar, in northern Israel, which Makdisi disingenuously identifies as a ‘settlement,’ a term ordinarily reserved for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Presumably he considers all Israel towns and cities to be settlements in occupied territory. Makdisi contrasts the recognition of Eshchar with four nearby towns that Israel purportedly refused to recognise, but — of the towns he names, Kamane was recognised in 1995, Hussiniyya was recognised in 1996, and Arab al-Nai’m was recognised in 2000, at which point they were eligible for and received the municipal services Makdisi seems to believe they still lack.[23] All three, along with three other Bedouin villages (Ras al-Ein, D’meide, and Wadi Salameh) are members of the Misgav Regional Council, which has a Bedouin Deputy Chair. These are all, as it happens, Bedouin villages, though Makdisi identifies them as Palestinian.[24] It is thus odd that Makdisi insists that the Israeli government ‘adamantly refuses to permit Palestinians to develop a single new town of their own’ (306), although seven recognised new Bedouin towns have been established in the Negev since 1968. They are: Rahat, Hura, Tel as-Sabi, Ara’ra, Lakiya, K’seife, and Shuqib Al-Salam.

The attitude Jewish area residents have displayed toward nearby Bedouin villages for a generation completely discredits the claim of ingrained and persistent racism that Makdisi promotes. Here is the relevant portion of the Wikipedia entry on Arab al-Nai’m:

The village was only recognised by the state in 2000, following lobbying by surrounding Jewish villages and Misgav Regional Council, and it was connected to municipal services after that time. Following the institution of a master plan for the village, the first permanent masonry-built houses were constructed in the village beginning in 2014. Formerly wood and metal temporary shacks, the village is currently undergoing a transformation with new houses and villas springing up, as well as new sewers and roads. In 2015 a new metaled road to the village was constructed from a new roundabout at the entrance to the adjacent community of Eshchar.[25]

Kamane had a more difficult route to recognition, as Israeli authorities in the 1960s declared the area a military training ground that would be unsafe for civilians. That policy was later changed, and Kamane got its recognition. The services then provided included the construction of ‘the Clore Multi-Purpose Community Center that offers daytime and after-school activities, a health clinic operated by the Clait Health Fund and a well-baby clinic.’[26]

Although, as we will show, we did considerable independent research to confirm it and thus did not rely on Wikipedia as a source, we felt it important to show that the basic information on the status of these villages was available there with any internet search. Did Makdisi not bother to type in their names? Or did he find these facts inconvenient or worse, repellent? As it happens, we have a mutual friend, a faculty member on this side of the ocean, who lived very near Eshchar (in Eshbal) for a time. She put us in touch with Eshchar’s former local council chairman, and he put us in touch with long-term Bedouin leader Nimer Na’im. They confirmed what we learned: Eshchar had supplied Arab al-Nai’im with access to water in 1993 and helped with other projects such as construction of a kindergarten, but the intensive work for recognition began five years later. Eshchar’s Jewish chairman Yisrael Ne’eman and Bedouin leader Nimer Nai’im walked together across the rocky hilltop their villages share — suitable for grazing but not agriculture — and in June 1998 agreed on a border. The terms were then discussed and approved by Eshchar as a whole. The Eshchar general assembly voted 40-2 to endorse the agreement, with the two dissenters feeling Arab al-Nai’m should have gotten more land than it asked for. The following month Ne’eman, another Eshchar resident, and religious politician Hanan Porat, whose daughter lived in Eshchar, went together to the Ministry of Interior and met with its director general to petition for Arab al-Nai’m to become a permanent village.

Nimer, we should note, was quite angry, calling Makdisi’s account ‘deceitful’ and replete with ‘lies’; he could not understand why someone halfway across the world would be involved in misrepresenting the character of two villages engaged in helping each other. He couldn’t understand why Makdisi did not even bother to contact anyone in the villages to consult with any of the parties involved. Why would someone in the US make up claims about Eshchar and Arab al-Nai’m? It was not easy to explain. Precisely this disregard for facts and for fact-checking starkly displays the methodological insufficiency of such politicised humanities scholarship today.

The two villages have instituted cross-community cooperation, planning, and future development. Since the Bedouin village has less land, their building permits allow construction to up to three stories to compensate vertically, whereas Eshchar is limited to two-story buildings. The two villages see themselves as having carried out a grassroots peace process, and as devoted to ‘good neighbor relations.’ They refuse to define their relationship as one of ‘co-existence’ because coexistence can too easily mean that ‘one party is the rider and the other the donkey.’ Each village keeps its own cultural identity; they agree to disagree when necessary. For Makdisi the story of the villages is one of long-running hatred and discrimination, while for us, it is one of rebirth and reconciliation, of empathy and social responsibility across ethnic lines, a story of hope.

Eshchar prides itself on its heterogeneous community of religious and non-religious Jews of multiple national origin. But Makdisi finds ‘this claim to extraordinary heterogeneity might seem suspiciously homogeneous’ (306).[27]After all, they are all Jews. In other words, they are not really different after all; Jews are all the same, as far as Makdisi is concerned.[28] That would be news to Israelis themselves, who have confronted the challenge of integrating the radically different cultural identities of immigrants from scores of different countries and cultures: Ethiopia, Germany, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

Makdisi implies that Jews and Arabs all live in separate and hence segregated communities. But throughout Israel there are both communities of choice and mixed communities of choice. In the Galilee there are dozens of Arab only towns and dozens of Jewish only kibbutzim, moshavim, and towns. Then there are mixed towns like Upper Nazareth and Haifa, the latter with 248,400 Jewish and 31,200 Arab residents as of 2016, which has been a mixed city for a century. Tel Aviv-Yafo has 397,000 Jewish and 19,000 Arab residents, and there are many other examples, including small towns like Maalot-Tarshiba, Karmiel, and the moshav Yaara.[29]

Because the 800 residents of Eshchar are all Jews, Eshchar in Makdisi’s eyes is ‘an attempt to maintain insular homogeneity against surrounding otherness’ (309). Makdisi is of course employing synecdoche. Eshchar, as he immediately makes clear, stands for Israel as a whole, ‘a colonial settlement implanted on land usurped from its ethnically cleansed indigenous owners’ (309). That the Jews began by purchasing land is irrelevant. That Israel was established with an international mandate from the League of Nations, recognising the historic Jewish connection with the land, and subsequently affirmed in the UN’s founding charter, is irrelevant. Moreover, like South Africa, Makdisi insists, this is a racist enterprise set in what Israelis, so Makdisi insinuates, allegedly take to be an Arab ‘desert of backward, violent, fundamentalist tyranny.


To claim that most Israelis think the surrounding Arab states are ‘backward’ is a slander, but the evidence that some regimes in the Middle East are violent or fundamentalist does not seem unwarranted. But is that recognition racist, as Makdisi suggests? We have known for decades that skin color, the primary social signifier of race, is a trivial genetic variable and that race, however powerful in its impact on peoples’ lives, is a social invention, not a biological reality. But the slogan that ‘Zionism is racism’ hovers over this essay, and Makdisi wants to ‘recognise this stark racism for what it is’ (309). To do so, however, he has to accept an expanded definition of race, emptying the term of any historically useful meaning. As he points out in his Note 18,

I am using the term race here and throughout this paper as expressed in the [UN’s] 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) . . . which adopts an understanding of race as encompassing what might otherwise be distinguished from now discredited understandings of race (in a narrowly biological sense) as national or ethnic origin. (310)

By this definition, the Danes, the Germans, and the Irish, among other nationalities, are each a race. Pan-Arab identification would also from that perspective be racial in character. From this perspective the Jews cease to be primarily a people, united by culture and ethnicity, and become instead a group bound together exclusively by racial solidarity. In ‘Israel,’ he writes, ‘the categories of race and nation are collapsed into one another . . . there is no such thing as an Israeli nation in a secular or nonracial sense’ (310-11). He goes on to say that Israel considers ‘all Jews everywhere . . . on the basis of their racial identity, to have “Jewish nationality”’ (311). This is a dangerous and arguably anti-Semitic argument. For Makdisi it is as if Israelis themselves have internalised the Third Reich’s view that Jews are a race, while it is in fact Makdisi who insists that all Jews are of the same stock. Indeed he projects his own racialism onto the Jews with a two-fold insinuation: they see themselves racially and reject others on the same grounds. In ‘The Architecture of Erasure’ he simply declares that Israel is based on ‘the designation of a racialised identity with preferential legal status (whites in South Africa, Jews in Israel and the occupied territories)’ (532). That unmarried converts to Judaism can and do become Israeli citizens he ignores. One can hardly convert to another race under any plausible definition of the term.

Makdisi did not invent the fiction that Israelis see Jews as a separate race. He cites the work of ferociously anti-Zionist critic Shira Robinson in support of this his single most outrageous argument. He then uses the claim to support the comparison with South Africa. He argues that Israel fused the concepts of nation and race to create a racial identity for the Jewish state. There is no evidence of this or any other racial concept having shaped Israeli culture, so he goes on to refer to ‘the Israeli laws that assign to every citizen of the state a distinct racial identity on the basis of which various rights are also accessed (or denied)’ (310). This is basically a conspiratorial inflation of the Israeli census, which asks people to fill in their nationality and religion, which they do not have to do if they choose not to do so.[30] There are no ‘racial identities’ anywhere in Israeli law. Even the earlier Israeli categorisation according to communitarian or ethnic identities was a leftover from Ottoman Millet laws that categorised populations according to their respective religious and communitarian identities.

Makdisi amplifies this sequence of strategic misrepresentations by arguing, again following Robinson, that Israel privileges nationality over citizenship and turns citizenship into a secondary category.[31] This claim is also an unfounded invention. Citizenship in Israel means exactly what it means everywhere else; it does not have a lesser status than ‘nationality.’ Citizens of Israel, whether Jewish or non-Jewish have the same rights by virtue of being citizens. The Nationality Law’s distinction between Jews and non-Jews pertains to the process of naturalisation. It is a distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish applicants for immigration to Israel, which is only relevant to the process of and eligibility for naturalisation: Jewish non-citizens of Israel may become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. This provision was created in the early years of the State to ensure that Jews everywhere would have the safe haven denied them in the centuries that culminated in the Holocaust. Contrary to Makdisi, this is a source of pride, not guilt.

Makdisi and a number of other anti-Zionist writers insist that Israel’s Law of Return granting citizenship rights to Jews who wish to immigrate is discriminatory, whereas we see it as compensatory, a reasonable right granted out of historical and political necessity. There are some in Israel, to be sure, who would like the state to become officially discriminatory, but they face effective vocal opposition. As we will show briefly, other countries have ethnically based immigration preferences. There is also an effort among BDS advocates to prove that Israeli documentation of citizenship discriminates in still more elaborate ways. Here the distinctions become more complex, but we try to show clearly why that BDS project is mistaken.

As Alexander Jakobson and Amnon Rubinstein point out, ‘the Law of Return does not discriminate between different categories of citizens within the country. It does not make the citizenship of non-Jews in any way inferior. Rather it is directed outward, to the Jews of the world’ (125-26).[32] Jakobson and Rubinstein go on to detail the other countries that have immigration policies with preferences for their ethnic or cultural majority. ‘Privileged access to rights of residence and immigration for ethno-cultural kin groups exists in varying ways and through various legal mechanisms,’ in many European countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia (128). In various ways, these countries operate with preferential naturalisation laws based on ethnic heritage.

To reiterate, then, Makdisi’s claim is not true: In Israel ‘citizenship’ (ezrachut) is not placed on a lower rung than ‘nationality’ (leom); on the contrary, ezrachutconstitutes what is often referred to as ‘nationality’ in English; whereas leom is a national/religious/ethnic identity. The Jewish leom and the Arab leom are understood as two sub-groups within Israeli citizenship. From a legal point of view—and for all privileges including social security, healthcare, and at present even land allocations — the Israeli citizenship of Arabs is identical to that of Jews, and the Arab leom (national/religious/ethnic group) is equal from a semantic and legal perspective to the Jewish leom, and there is no reason to translate one as ‘nationality’ and the other as ‘citizenship.’ In complete contrast to what Makdisi maintains, all Israeli identity cards say ‘Israeli citizen’ (ezrachut), whereas the category of leom (ethnic nationality) which indeed was present for many years, was removed in the 1990s. It remains in the Population Register, along with such other demographic categories not listed on the identity card such as year of immigration, year of marriage, and the like. Even when the category of leom was on the card, it had a variety of ethnic options, including Druze, Circassian, and others, which makes it clear it was not a racial designation as Makdisi claims. If Israeli identity cards were indeed the carriers of racial identification that Makdisi claims, he would surely have included a photographic reproduction of a current example to prove his point. He did not because he cannot.

Given the large influx of Jews from Arab and other countries in the years following the founding of Israel, the Jewish population was diverse from the start. Israelis had little choice but to see the country as racially diverse, not unitary. The arrival of some 120,000 black Ethiopian Jews, now one percent of the population—whose escape from near certain death in intra-African conflict Israel enabled by supplying transport planes for the purpose — made Jewish racial diversity still more obvious. Descendants of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries now constitute over half of the population. Given the strongly secular and often anti-religious character of Zionism, Makdisi is also wrong to insist that Israel was unified through a fusion of nationality and religion. Religion did become more central to Israeli life after the Likud came to power in 1977, a result in part of the gradual political empowerment of Jews from Arab lands with traditional religious convictions. The rise of religion in Israel in recent decades then is precisely an indication of its increasingly Middle Eastern and decreasingly European character.

Another reason that Makdisi racialises Jewish identity is to decouple any parallel between Jewish and Palestinian diasporas. It was a parallel, notably, that Edward Said once imagined could facilitate mutual sympathy and dialogue: two comparable refugee fates that might lead to common ground. But though Makdisi views the Palestinian diaspora as a deliberate scattering of a people that have a right to be brought together and unified in one state, he denies the same right for Jews. No one at present, so far as we know, makes the argument that every supposed racial group, as opposed to a people, deserves its own nation state.[33]

Having identified a litany of Israeli practices that he denounces as anti-Arab, Makdisi then attributes all of this to a racism he imagines to be fundamental to the Jewish state. Moreover, having defined Israeli national identity as irredeemably racist, even though many Arab Israelis identify themselves as Israelis, he can then characterise every benefit the Jewish state gives to Jews—from the right to citizenship to benefits given to army veterans—as fundamentally racist.[34] For close to two decades after the Arab states attacked the new nation in 1948, Israelis did worry that certain areas of the internal Arab population, though not other non-Jews, might turn into a Fifth Column, so they remained under military surveillance.[35] But then in 1966 martial law was finally lifted, so that all Arab citizens of Israel could exercise their full citizenship rights, and a long (and continuing) process of ending discriminatory practices in education, employment, and housing began. Even Menachem Begin notably agitated for lifting martial law before then, though Ben-Gurion could not free himself of the memory of the 1948 war and support the change.[36] Israel’s twenty-year struggle to accept its Arab citizens remains a grim part of its history that overshadows contemporary debate to this day. Nonetheless, when Makdisi remarks that Israel’s claim to be both Jewish and democratic is self-evidently and irredeemably ‘oxymoronic’ (327), that is an insult rather than a product of reasoned analysis. Israel’s dual character as both Jewish and democratic offers challenges that Israelis thought about even before the country was founded and have worked on ever since.

In Makdisi’s worldview Israel’s Arab citizens have never seen themselves as Israelis.[37] Instead he supposes anachronistically that they always chose to call themselves Palestinians, and thus that Israel stripped ‘Palestinian citizens of their national identity’ from the outset (314). However, a specifically Palestinian national identity did not actually begin to cohere until the late 1960s, basically spurred by the 1967 war and Israel’s capture of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel can hardly have stripped them of an identity they did not yet claim. When Mahmoud Darwish read his signature poem ‘Identity Card’ to audiences in the mid-60s its repeated refrain line was the demand ‘Write it down / I am an Arab,’ not ‘I am a Palestinian.’ In the new millennium many Israeli Arabs have begun to insist on being called Palestinians, but others have not.[38] Neither group, however, shows any interest in living in a Muslim majority country. Nor would all, as Makdisi complains, regard Israeli Arabs as a ‘malicious term’ (313).

Since Makdisi cites only negative evidence, one would not know from his essay that there are a number of mixed communities in Israel proper and one famous one, Neve Shalom, where Jews and Arabs explicitly choose to live together. One would not know that, unlike neighboring countries, Israel’s civil laws recognise gay and interfaith marriages performed abroad.[39] One would not know that there are joint Arab/Jewish schools that are highly successful or that Israeli universities have succeeded in substantially increasing their percentage of Arab students. The percentage of Arab students in Israeli universities increased from 10.2 per cent in 2010 to 16.1 per cent in 2017, and in absolute numbers a 78 per cent increase in 7 years.[40] One would not know that the health professions enjoy Arab participation at near the percentage of Arabs in the population. One would not know that there are dozens of NGOs devoted to Arab/Jewish reconciliation and joint work.

More needs to be done, but considerable progress has been made. It is misleading and irresponsible simply to denounce Israel for its treatment of its Arab citizens. That does not mean that prejudice and mutual hatred do not exist among both Israelis and Palestinians — they do, though the offensive reference to ‘indigestible Arabness’ (313) is a product of Makdisi’s own rhetoric, not Israel’s — but the foundations of Israeli democracy are not racist. It is not racial animus that colors some Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward the Arabs in their midst so much as fear of and hostility toward their external enemies.

As that statement suggests, Makdisi’s repeated assertions of Israel’s allegedly pervasive, foundational anti-Arab racism also does explicit political work. Although he has been arguing this position for at least a decade, it is not until the end of this essay that he announces that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ‘is certainly not the creation of a Palestinian state, which is now a geographical impossibility given that the land for such a state has been entirely colonised by Jewish settlers’ (328).[41] This is an unacceptable misrepresentation of fact. First of all, unless they are hiding somewhere, there are no Jewish settlers in Gaza. Moreover, 75-80 per cent of Jews residing in West Bank live in settlement blocs right along the Green Line, the pre-1967 armistice border. The standard two-state model is that these settlement blocs, constituting only about six percent of West Bank territory, would be incorporated into Israel by way of land swaps. Half of the remaining settlers, some living in settlements deep in the West Bank, have already confirmed they would leave if a peace agreement compensated them for the loss of their homes. That number would certainly increase if Israel announced it was withdrawing the IDF from the territory surrounding their homes. Indeed, if isolated Jewish communities would neither be welcome nor safe in a Palestinian state, that tells us something about Palestinian attitudes toward Jews that Makdisi might want to contemplate.

In ‘“Intellectual Warfare” and the Question of Palestine’ Makdisi dismisses the two-state solution with a wave of his hand: ‘There is literally no more room for a second state.’ (80) That conclusion, however, misrepresents the proposals put forward in the peace process for a quarter of a century. He claims that ‘Israel keeps insisting that the scraps of disconnected territory held together entirely at its whim would be taken to constitute a Palestinian state’ (82), but no meaningful proposal for a Palestinian state has been restricted to the fragments of the West Bank established under Oslo as Areas A and B. Except for the settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line, Israel would be expected to vacate Area C, the West Bank land it presently controls. The other settlers would have to leave. Half have already agreed they would do so. A Palestinian state would have to be a non-militarised one, but it would not be the world’s only state relying on others for defense against large-scale invasion. In the same essay, Makdisi disparages this as a ‘putative Palestinian state’ and then declares ‘For Palestinians to accept this or any other ‘state’ is not a solution to their problem’ (82). There is a ‘need to address a much broader question of historical and political injustices’ (82). Only getting rid of the Jewish state will do.

The unspoken lesson of Makdisi’s unstinting anti-Zionism is that there is no ethical or moral warrant for opening negotiations with a supremely racist state like Israel, one, as he writes in yet another Critical Inquiry essay, ‘Said, Palestine and the Humanism of Liberation,’ ‘in which life is saturated with the discourses of racial, ethnic, and religious distinctions’ (449).[42] ‘Even the most fundamental and mundane aspects of human necessity (birth, death, housing, eating, working, farming, access to water, movement, health care, education—that is, the matters of who one is, where one can go, what one can do) are comprehensively determined by the ontological categories and narratives of European racism as they have been embodied, expressed, and institutionalised in Zionism’ (449). That the Palestinian Authority’s security services are willing to work closely with Israel may be one reason he refers to the ‘so-called Palestinian Authority’ (316).[43] Indeed his concluding rejection of the two-state solution is anticipated not only by his anti-Zionist convictions but also by his generalising references to ‘the land’ between the river and the sea. Makdisi does not say so, but the potential number of Palestinian citizens he cites makes it clear he envisions one state with a Palestinian Arab majority. Only the most willful idealist need wonder what ‘democratic’ rule would mean for the Jews under those conditions.

The logic behind and consequences of Makdisi’s politics are clarified by another essay in the same issue of Critical Inquiry in which ‘Apartheid / Apartheid / [       ],’ appears, Amal Jamal’s ‘1967 Bypassing 1948: A Critique of Critical Israeli Studies of Occupation.’ Jamal refers explicitly to ‘the equal right of Palestinians to determine the meaning of sovereignty in the entire land of Palestine’ (375), a position Israel will never concede. He adds: ‘The mere assumption of an autonomous Jewish national subject that can contemplate its moral dilemmas adheres to the Zionist narrative that imagines itself as a coherent historical subject with the ultimate right to speak for Palestine’ (376). ‘Even if unintended,’ he argues, ‘the mere theoretical distinction between the state and the OPTs [occupied territories] legitimises the state as Jewish and democratic’ (374). This helps explain why Makdisi nowhere urges negotiation over the status of the West Bank. That would legitimise the originary crime of the founding of a Jewish state. But readers should understand that the first victim of Makdisi’s campaign against Israel would be the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian political leadership: they are his immediate targets.

It is undeniable that the second-class political status of West Bank Palestinians is both unacceptable and unsustainable. Maintaining the status quo imposes intolerable constraints on many Palestinians. But Makdisi’s rhetoric — insisting that both Gaza and the Palestinian zones of the West Bank are nothing more than ‘holding pens for the land’s non-Jewish population’ (316) — overstates the case. No reasonable person visiting the vibrant city of Ramallah or the extraordinarily beautiful new Palestinian hilltop city of Rawabi would consider them mere holding pens, despite Makdisi’s evident blindness toward them. The two states for two peoples solution remains the only realistic answer to the genuine injustices that prevail.

But for over a decade Makdisi has insisted that the two-state solution is dead. In its place he invokes a wholly unspecified Palestinian majority democracy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in which Jews would miraculously find their rights and freedoms honored and protected. There are no details, no plan for how this utopia would be realised. Indeed, in ‘Said, Palestine, and the Humanism of Liberation’ Makdisi instead draws on and endorses a utopian strain in Said’s work that has no points of connection with reality. ‘The idea of Palestine,’ he writes, ‘is a struggle for the articulation of a new sense of what it is to be human’ (443). It would result in ‘a dissolution of the barriers between public and private’ (453). That will entail ‘building on an understanding of what it means to develop a human community with rather than against other human beings’ (452). Said allowed himself to imagine that Palestinians were ready for a peaceable kingdom in which all the religions of the area would live together in harmony. Perhaps what is most notable about this fantasy is that it has no significant constituency among either Israelis or Palestinians. But then they aren’t its audience. Its destination is those Western liberals and leftists who are vulnerable to such arguments. To give the fantasy further weight, Makdisi has to claim there is no dream of a Greater Palestine comparable to the Israeli right’s dream of a Greater Israel. Apparently he has a different take on the call for a Palestine ‘free from the river to the sea.’

The most viable route to peace between Israelis and Palestinians involves a balance of separation and cooperation, two states for two peoples who collaborate on security, employment, infrastructure, water rights, agricultural development, economic opportunity, and other areas. But for Makdisi the very concept of separation into two states is repellent: ‘separation is really domination’ (458) he announces in ‘Said, Palestine, and the Humanism of Liberation.’ Zionism’s logic has always been ‘to dominate and oppress precisely through the logic, the discourse, and the biopolitical practice of separation’(447). Somehow for Makdisi two states side-by-side still constitute apartheid. ‘Peace proposals based on the logic of demographic separation merely perpetuate the basis of the struggle rather than meaningfully addressing it.’ (458).

When the residents of Eshchar and Arab al-Nai’m negotiated their relationship in 1998, they did not combine the two communities into one town; each people wanted to preserve its own culture, traditions, and ability to shape their destiny. Of course this was all within Israel proper, but it nonetheless offers a glimpse of a way forward. What does Makdisi offer us instead? In what is arguably the single alarming passage in Palestine Inside Out, he endorses Henry Siegman’s suggestion that it may be necessary to consider ‘”the dispatching of an armed U.N. force to impose the rule of law”’ and ‘”bring about a change in course on Israel’s part”’ (279).[44] The proposal is alarming not only because of the violence that it projects but also because of the author’s absolute lack of any sense of real political possibilities.


In conclusion we return to Makdisi’s central comparison of Israel and South Africa and then spell out what we believe the essay reveals about the state of the humanities. Makdisi appears to believe that a single South African claim that Israel is worse than South Africa delivers the coup de grace to Zionism, but in truth these matters are debated in South Africa, and, though South Africa has a fiercely anti-Semitic BDS movement, a series of South African opinions can be cited on both sides of the argument. On the reliability of his sole source, journalist Mondli Makhanya, more in a moment. A judicious sorting of evidence would have revealed that alternative views are readily available. South African public views on Israel are considerably more complex than Makdisi suggests. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007, 28 per cent of South Africans sympathised more with Israel and 19 per cent with Palestine.[45]Even the governing class does not behave in a way that would corroborate the view of Israel as an apartheid pariah. South Africa continues to maintain full diplomatic relations with Israel (although the ANC has recently moved to downgrade them), suggesting that Israel is not seen as the turbo-charged apartheid state that Makdisi imagines. On the contrary, former South African ambassador to Israel, Fumanekile Gqiba, insisted on the difference between the anti-apartheid struggle and the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and took note of the heterogeneity of the Israeli Jewish population, in contrast to Makdisi. ‘[Some people say]…that Israel is the extension of the racist, white South Africa … that was my understanding before I came here. I regarded Jews as whites. Purely whites. But when I came here I discovered that, no, these guys are not purely whites. They are mixed. It’s some kind of a, shall we say, a melting pot. You’ve got people from all over the world. You’ve got Indian Jews, you’ve got African Jews, and you’ve got even Chinese Jews, right? I began to say to our comrades, “No, Israel is not a white country.”’[46] A remarkable indication of a black South African’s positive relationship to Israel is that Gqiba and his wife decided to name their daughter, born in Israel, ‘Israela.’[47]

But perhaps the most salient testimony to the South African rejection of the apartheid equation was Nelson Mandela’s willingness to accept an honorary doctorate from an Israeli university, the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in 1997. His speech on that occasion remains an inspiring testimony to a vision of negotiated peace and cooperation between the two peoples, precisely the outcome Makdisi denounces.[48] Mandela thanks the university for its contributions to South African development, which is, however, exactly the sort of collaboration with an Israeli university that BDS advocates want to prohibit. He gives explicit recognition to Jews as a people, and he uses three variations of the image of the desert blooming, the same trope that Makdisi derides (307). Makdisi ultimately asks us to believe that he, the scholar of romanticism, is a better judge of apartheid than was Nelson Mandela.

South African opponents of the Israel-apartheid equation abound. Former young Communist Tshediso Mangope, who used to support BDS, now insists adamantly on the distinction between Israel and apartheid South Africa: ‘First and foremost, my visit to the region confirmed for me that there is no meaningful comparison between the State of Israel and the former Apartheid regime in South Africa […]It appears that those who compare the State of Israel to apartheid South Africa do not understand the fundamentals of Apartheid nor have they experienced it.’[49]

Then where does the equation come from? Mesoia Lakota, who was imprisoned on Robben Island together with Mandela and then served as long-term Defense Minister, unpacks the genealogy of the rhetoric: ‘Strangely, when I was growing up under Apartheid, Israel was never cast as an apartheid state. The first time I ever heard this nonsense in South Africa was once we became free of Apartheid ourselves. I was at the 2001 UN Durban World Conference against Racism, where the “Durban Strategy” declaring Israel an Apartheid State was adopted. Yet, South Africans did not introduce this rhetoric at the conference, it came from representatives from the international NGO community and the Arab world.’[50] According to Lakota, the use of the apartheid comparison is not a matter of an authentic descriptor naming a common denominator shared by apartheid South Africa and Israel, and certainly not an expression of an authentically South African anti-apartheid thinking but, on the contrary, an instrumentalisation of the South African experience by others in order to denounce Israel, the facts be damned. It is an exploitation of the one experience in order to extract political capital from it in the other. The consequence is a de facto trivialisation of South African history in order to promote the extremist agenda of an activist fringe that has little resonance outside of academia and the opinion bubble of like-minded NGOs.

That rhetorical trivialisation of historical apartheid returns us to Makdisi’s prominent citation of Makhanya’s claim that Israel ‘is worse, worse, worse than everything we endured’ (320). If one takes the claim with the seriousness it deserves, logic compels one to conclude that, for Makhanya and Makdisi, apartheid in South Africa was better, better, better than life in Israel, and that Palestinians today would be better off if they could time travel back into South Africa as black Africans. That thought experiment exposes the absurdity of the claim, as well as its callousness, which deserves further interrogation. We should remember that Makdisi bases his apartheid argument on the single quotation from Makhanya, whom he presents as a veteran of the antiapartheid struggle (319-320). It is therefore appropriate to consider Makhanya’s political credentials. He is quoted in Robert Suresh Roberts’ biography of Thabo Mbeki as describing his activities on the momentous day Mandela was released from prison, when he participated in an attack on a rival African faction: ‘I had now acquired a litre of methylated spirits and concentrated on burning shacks, while other comrades finished off wounded Inkatha warriors. One man was literally chopped beyond recognition. His eyes were gouged out and his genitals cut off, while I looked on.’[51] Such is the moral authority of Makdisi’s informant. Roberts’ commentary itself proceeds to challenge the credibility of the ‘unrepentant brute’—the same Makhanya on whom Makdisi bases his apartheid case.[52] Particularly pertinent to Makhanya’s use of the apartheid comparison for Israel are however his own more recent efforts to ratchet down rhetorical invocations of apartheid within South African political discourse. He has been critical of radicals’ habit of pointing to the apartheid past as an explanation for South Africa’s present.[53] What better way to alleviate the burden of South Africa’s own history than to find a worse case elsewhere? The denunciation of Israel evidently provides a scapegoat mechanism to minimise the South African experience by pointing a finger elsewhere, as part of the normalisation of an emerging status quo. It is noteworthy that those in BDS circles who have circulated the apartheid comparison have never interrogated its political significance within South Africa.

However Makhanya’s statement, whatever it means in South Africa, has been appropriated by Makdisi who exploits it for his own purposes. As we have pointed out, Makdisi feels compelled to go beyond the (itself profoundly flawed) apartheid equation and instead insist on the difference, i.e., that Israel is worse. That second step can only mean that for Makdisi, apartheid South Africa was just not all that bad: things could have been worse. That logic leads Makdisi to his breathtaking characterisation of the Sharpeville Massacre as an exception, a brief interruption in what he thereby implies was a tolerable normalcy (319). Suddenly it turns out that his argument at its fullest—his claim that Israel is worse than apartheid—turns out to be its weakest, since it depends on minimising the value of that sign—the pejorative value of the term apartheid—from which he hopes to extract maximal political power. At the latest at this point, in this semiotic paradox, one might be tempted to invoke Derrida with whom Makdisi began, but we will choose to forego that pleasure. Instead we point out how, in his rhetoric of minimising the evil of South African apartheid in the name of his idiosyncratic understanding of Palestinian goals, Makdisi reproduces the pattern of Arab exploitation of Black African labor and suffering. In this essay the only case he makes for Palestine depends on his vampiric relationship to the victims of the South African past.

Makdisi claims that BDS, the call to boycott Israel because of its allegedly apartheid character, has become ‘mainstream.’ He is hallucinating: after a couple of decades of activism, especially in academic circles, there does not seem to be a single university department of renown that has signed on to the boycott, not even Makdisi’s own Department of English at UCLA. Nor has the BDS debate ever really gone beyond the humanities; it is certainly not mainstream in STEM fields, which arguably represent the mainstream of university life today. Both the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association have rejected BDS. Indeed MLA members ratified, by an overwhelming majority, a resolution explicitly stating that the MLA shall refrain from participating in the BDS boycott. Even in the reputedly radical MLA, fewer than 5 percent of the members voted against a 2017 resolution to reject a boycott of Israeli universities. The only victories BDS might claim to have chalked up are in small, marginal professional associations. Some of those results turn out to be dubious, since now we know, thanks to court documents, that the BDS success in, for example, the American Studies Association was due to intentional and unethical misrepresentation by its proponents in manipulated elections.[54]

Makdisi repeatedly gets the facts wrong or misrepresents them. His sources are consistently biased. His arguments are not proven. None of this however suggests that Israel is flawless or that one should ignore the conflict and its attendant suffering. Our point is rather that inequality and discrimination, which are hardly unique to Israel, will not be seriously or productively addressed by pretending that they are worse than, or even only equivalent to apartheid.Israel’s Arab citizens want equal opportunity, not self-congratulatory rhetoric. What Makdisi provides is simply bad analysis that does a disservice to all parties, including the Palestinians, who deserve plausible political prospects rather than polemical fantasies.

The rhetoric of exaggeration deserves a final comment. Makdisi’s essay provides an exemplary demonstration of the overwrought political language that commonly circulates in parts of the humanities today. His prose is symptomatic. It has an Orwellian character in the self-assurance of its misrepresentations, its anti-intellectual lack of nuance, and its overall chilling sense of infallibility. The apodictic denunciations echo the worst of old-style sectarian partisan political polemic, with the variation that class analysis is now absent, replaced by the nostrums of post-colonialism.

When the terminology of a body of theory is marshalled in the service of preexisting political convictions it can take on the character of sacred incantation. The deployment of its vocabulary for some readers itself sufficiently proves the case being made. That is a problem not just for Makdisi and apparently for Critical Inquiry but for the humanities and interpretive social sciences more broadly. Nothing requires more care in this context than accusations of racism, but such terms as ‘settler colonialism’ also carry extra-evidential weight.

Contemporary anti-Israel writing, like Makdisi’s, has no gray zones. There are no compromises, and there is no room for debate. It liquidates nuance. It simply directs one to choose sides in order to annihilate the other. This simplification of intellectual life puts an end to irony, to the subtlety of interpretation, and to substantive critical inquiry. In their place, a doctrinal cloud of political correctness emerges that is intended to provide a halo to the professor as prophet. The fundamental problem with this style is less that it is dangerous to Israel than that it is a threat to the credibility of the humanities in the contemporary university and in the public eye. It is time for the scholarly world to acknowledge that this theatrical radicalism has grown obsolete. Using a well-compensated professorship as bully pulpit for revolutionary yarns has lost its charm. To be sure, nearly every campus still has its cadre of self-promoters, who try to catch the limelight with their incessant blogs and rants. They are a sideshow that distracts from genuine intellectual life. The work of the humanities, made of serious scholarship, teaching and interpretation, take place elsewhere.


[1] Our thanks to Yuval Abrams, Mark Clarfield, Dan Diker, Donna Robinson Divine, Yael Halevi-Wise, Menachem Kellner, Paula Treichler, Alexander Yakobson, Ruvi Ziegler, and others for their advice and assistance in writing this essay. We also thank Alan Johnson’s suggestions made during Fathom’s editing and fact-checking process.

[2] For commentary on the anthropology debates, see the website of Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel & Palestine. For an analysis of the MLA texts, see Cary Nelson, ‘The BDS Disinformation Campaign in the Modern Language Association,’ Fathom (Winter 2016), available online at

[3] Makdisi’s full text is available through the electronic access to University of Chicago Press journals offered by many libraries. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from that essay. The bracketed blank space in Makdisi’s title is designed to suggest that Israel has not marked its apartheid with signage, thus making it invisible and unnameable. For a thoughtful overview of the arguments and issues see Alan Johnson, The Apartheid Smear (BICOM, 2014), available at…/02/BICOM_Apartheid-Smear_FINAL.pdf.

[4] We did send Critical Inquiry a draft of our full response, since revised here, but they declined to publish it.

[5] W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, Issue 2, 2000, pp. 193-223. Mitchell uses an eloquent meditation on landscape to justify a towering, sometimes biblical denunciation of the Jewish state. The essay decries the ‘territorial disputes, real estate claims, land and house seizures and demolitions, and all the other depredations that have been visited on Israel/Palestine in the name of political, racial, or religious purity’ (199). That sentiment unfortunately follows upon his claim that Jewish National Fund reforestation efforts in Israel echo the role ‘tree cults’ played in Europe, particularly in the forests revered ‘of romantic German nationalism. The sacred groves are the natural home both of idols and of a racially pure nation’ (196). He reminds us that the Nazis embraced such tropes and concludes: ‘In this light, the forestation of Palestine as a way of transforming it to the nation of Israel looks a bit less innocent.’ (196) Given that the connection Mitchell is making is both repellent and historically unwarranted, it is reasonable to suggest it crosses the line into anti-Semitism. The fact that he makes this connection by way of quotation does not relieve him of responsibility for doing so.

For religious Jews, he argues, drawing a biblical reference, the Holy Land has become ‘a magical object, an idol that demands human sacrifice’ (207). He uses a quotation from Voltaire to remind us of ‘the twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before a calf, together with the twenty-four thousand who were slain while ravishing Midiantish women’ (209). Israel is devoted to ‘an idolatry of place, a territorial mysticism enforced by bullets and bulldozers’ (223). Needless to say, a Palestinian obsession with the land carries no such implications. Such corruption is impossible for Palestinians, who are placed in a line of ‘dispossessed aborigines —the Paiute and Washoe Indians, the Zulu and the Xhosa, the Bushmen, the Palestinians’ (205).

He goes on to describe Israel as ‘an occupying, colonial power, a police state that seemed determined to violate every moral, legal, and political principle one might have hoped for from the first modern Jewish state’ (205). It is a ‘desert made to bloom by chosen people who bear the white man’s burden, the manifest destiny, a historic civilising mission, the Word of God to the soon-to-be expelled or annihilated aborigines’ (207). He predictably calls Israel an apartheid state and suggests the Jews cannot be trusted to conduct negotiations honourably. The only solution, he tells us, is a binational state that would ‘guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of ethnicity, race, or religion’ (221). Makdisi updates this to the one-state solution, but it is the same project of Jewish erasure.

One of the more troubling moments in Mitchell’s essay comes when he reports a trip he took to the ruins of the mountain top fortress of Masada in conjunction with attending a 1998 Birzeit University conference on ‘Landscape Perspectives on Palestine’. He tells us that his guide characterizes Masada as ‘ancient Israel’s determination to die rather than surrender to the Roman idolaters,’ (205) then adds that the story has new meaning for a nuclear armed Israel: ‘The next time fortress Israel is surrounded by enemies, our guide assured us, it will not commit suicide alone. It will take the whole world with it into the final conflagration.’ (206) There is a test a responsible scholar should apply to such an anecdote based on a remark from an ordinary citizen, not a member of the government, before using it: Is it representative of public opinion for some significant fraction of the population? Otherwise, using the anecdote is fundamentally irresponsible. Having never encountered his guide’s sentiment — and recognising that this threat is not part of the debate in Israel over the morality of nuclear weapons — one may reasonably conclude that Mitchell’s hostility trumped his judgment.

Makdisi notably does not show Mitchell the courtesy of citing his essay, perhaps because, even though they have identical views of Israel, they come from wholly different methodological universes. Makdisi’s problem is that he gathers false evidence in support of unwarranted and malicious conclusions. Mitchell really offers no relevant evidence. His pronouncements are basically vatic. The discourse community Mitchell comes closest to addressing is Christian anti-Zionism. Indeed he condemns ‘the American Christian fundamentalists who have now entered into an unholy alliance with Orthodox Jews on the meaning of the Holy Land’ (206).

[6] See Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, eds. The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, (New York and Detroit: MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights / Wayne State University Press), 2015.

[7] See Saree Makdisi, ‘The Architecture of Erasure,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 36, Issue 3 (Spring 2010), pp. 519-559.

[8] Makdisi ‘proves’ that Israel’s purported discrimination against Arabs is not about the exploitation of Arab labour by stating that ‘labour from the occupied territories is almost totally irrelevant to the Israeli economy’ (320), but some 100,000 Palestinians have permits to work in Israel, while another 50,000 enter without official permission. Without this labour force, many construction projects would come to a halt.

[9] In his 2007 essay ‘For a Secular Democratic State’ in The Nation, Makdisi makes clear the nature of the logic behind the claim that Israel within its pre-1967 borders and the West Bank are essentially the same: ‘Although some people claim there are fundamental differences between the disposition of the territories Israel captured in 1967 and the territories it captured during its creation in 1948 — or even that there are important moral and political differences between Israel pre- and post-1967 — such sentiments of entitlement, and the use of force that necessarily accompanies them, reveal the seamless continuity of the Zionist project in Palestine from 1948 to our own time’. In other words, Israel and the occupied West Bank are identical not because of the character of daily life there or the laws that govern the two places but rather because of the sentiments that prevail among the populations and the history of force, however different, that accompanied their history. Since that logic could, absurdly, underwrite an international series of comparisons and claimed similarities between nations, he adds that ‘the discriminatory practices in the occupied territories replicate, albeit in a harsher and more direct form, those inside Israel’. For that, he can offer no persuasive evidence. Being turned down for an apartment rental in Tel Aviv, however deplorable and discriminatory, is hardly comparable to facing a house demolition in Hebron. See,

[10] The key passage in the Declaration is, ‘The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture’.

[11] The Official Knesset translation of Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty is here: For relevant commentary see Yitzchak Zamir and Moshe Sobel, ‘Equality Before the Law,’ Mishpat Umimshal, Vol. 5, Issue 165, (1999); and Sharon Weinthal, ‘The Inherent Authority of Judges in a Three-Track Democracy to Recognise Unenumerated Constitutional Rights: The Israeli Story of A Judicial Mission with No Ammunition’, in Gideon Sapir, Daphne Barak-Erez and Aharon Barak, eds. Israeli Constitutional Law in the Making (Oxford: Hart), 2013.

[12] In establishing itself with UN approval as the homeland for the Jewish people, Israel inevitably left open the possibility that some members of its Arab minority would feel a degree of alienation. The key issue for a democracy, however, is whether a minority is granted full and equal treatment under the law. Israeli Arabs may not identify with Israel’s anthem or flag, just as a Jewish citizen of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, or Switzerland may not fully identify with a national flag with a Christian cross, but they are citizens with full rights.

[13] Also see chapter 15, ‘Human dignity in Israeli constitutional law,’ in Aharon Barak, Human Dignity: The Constitutional Value and the Constitutional Right(NY: Cambridge University Press), 2015.

[14] In ‘The Architecture of Erasure’ Makdisi asks, ‘How can a state claim to have one identity when such a large proportion of the people over whom it rules have another identity?’ (526-7) But then Israel does not claim to be one thing only. As the homeland for the Jewish people, it is a home for Christians, Druze, Muslims, and others as well. The fundamental duality of this structure is built into the will to be Jewish and democratic.

[15] The indented paragraph is item number ten in the judgment section of the full case, which is available at

Some of the cases cited in this indented paragraph and the next one are available in English through Cardozo Law School’s Israel Supreme Court project. These are published as Israel Law Reports (IsrLR) (old ones were published in ‘Selected Judgments of the Supreme Court of Israel’[IsrSJ]):

HCJ 98/69 Bergman v. Finance Minister [1969] IsrSC 23(1) 693; IsrSJ 8 13 (

HCJ 114/78 Burkan v. Minister of Finance [1978] IsrSC 32(2) 800 (note: also spelled Burka’an) (

HCJ 453/94 Israel Women’s Network v. Government of Israel [1994] IsrSC 48(5) 501; [1992-4] IsrLR 150 (

HCJ 4112/99 Adalah Legal Center v. City of Tel Aviv [2002] IsrSC 56(5) 393, (

HCJ 4541/94 Miller v. Minister of Defence [1995] IsrSC 49(4) 94; [1995-6] IsrLR 178 (

Several others are available in Hebrew only:

EA 2/88 Ben Shalom v. Central Election Committee [1989] IsrSC 43(4) 221

HCJ 953/87 Poraz v. Mayor of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa [1988] IsrSC 42(2) 309

HCJ 10026/01 Adalah Legal Center v. Prime Minister [2003] IsrSC 57(3) 31

HCJ 240/98 Adalah Legal Center v. Minister of Religious Affairs [1998] IsrSC 52(5) 167

HCJ 7111/95 Local Government Center v. Knesset [1996] IsrSC 50(3) 485

HCJ 2671/98 Israel Women’s Network v. Minister of Labour and Social Affairs [1998] IsrSC 52(3) 630

[16] This paragraph is taken from section 13 of the judgment portion of the case. The full case is available at

[17] The gender equality rulings clearly have broader implications as well. The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (hereinafter the Basic Law) gave a constitutional, super-legislative status to the prohibition of discrimination against women. This status derives from both of the following: First, section 1 of the Basic Law (which also appears as section 1 of the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation) provides: ‘Basic human rights in Israel are founded on the recognition of the worth of man, the sanctity of his life and his being free, and they shall be respected in the spirit of the principles in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.’ This section provides, at least, that basic rights are to be upheld in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, including the equality of citizens irrespective of sex. Therefore, for example, there can be no discrimination of women with respect to their right to property (a right enshrined in section 3 of the Basic Law) or in respect of their freedom of occupation (a right enshrined in section 3 of the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation). Second, the prohibition of discrimination against women is included in the right to dignity enshrined in sections 2 and 4 of the Basic Law. Consider ((HCJ 4541/94 Miller v. Minister of Defense) (discussing female fighter pilots): ‘… in the absence of any contrary indication in the language or purpose of the law, the presumption is that the law should be construed in a way that is consistent with respect for the right to equality between the sexes and that it is intended to achieve it’ (see A. Barak, Judicial Interpretation, vol. 2, Statutory Interpretation, Nevo, 1993, pp. 435-436). This approach is even more compelling when we acknowledge that, since the enactment of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the normative status of the principle of equality — which had already been described as ‘the heart and soul of our constitutional regime…’ (Justice Landau in HCJ 98/69 Bergman v. Finance Minister, pp. 698) — has become elevated and has become ‘a principle with constitutional, super-legislative status’ (in the words of Justice Or in HCJ 5394/92 Hoppert v. ‘Yad VaShem’ Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Authority, pp. 363. See also: Barak, supra, pp. 565-566; HCJ 453/94 Israel Women’s Network v. Government of Israel, at pp. 525-526 {451-454}). (Mazza, J.)

[18] Makdisi also attributes ‘necropolitics’ to Israel in his ‘The Architecture of Erasure’ (533).

[19] See Amira Hass, ‘Lebanon Census Finds Number of Palestinian Refugees Only a Third of Official UN Data,’ Haaretz, 25 December 2017.

[20] The original Russell Tribunal was organised by Bertrand Russell and hosted by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967 to investigate the American intervention in Vietnam. Later Tribunals borrowed the name to take up other conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in meetings from 2009-14. The final meeting addressed Operation Protective Edge. Judge Richard Goldstone, himself highly critical of Israeli policy, writing in The New York Times in October 2011, said of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine that ‘it is not a “tribunal.” The “evidence” is going to be one-sided and the members of the “jury” are critics whose harsh views of Israel are well known. In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute’. South African journalist and human rights activist Benjamin Pogrund, who moved to Israel, described the Cape Town Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine as ‘it’s theatre: the actors know their parts and the result is known before they start. Israel is to be dragged into the mud’. For an example of South African criticism see Dan Krausz, ‘Tribunal more kangaroo court than court of law,’ The Star, 23 October 2012.

[21] Saree Makdisi, ‘Intellectual Warfare and the Question of Palestine,’ Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, Issue 3, (Spring 2006), pp. 78-82.

[22] See the following passage from ‘Intellectual Warfare and the Question of Palestine’: ‘For over a decade, a profoundly compromised leadership led the Palestinian people down a path whose almost every step was dictated by Israel. Palestinian leaders (the ones Israel chose not to assassinate) seemed able to do little more than repeat the lines assigned to them by an Israeli narrative of domination’ (79).

[23] See The fourth town, El Qubsi, appears to be an un-zoned village/encampment that is part of the Arab municipality of Nahf, next to the Jewish town of Lavon:,+Nahf,+Israel/@32.9413373,35.2824014,14z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x151c322bcabf3765:0xdb3c89c2d07f683c!8m2!3d32.941339!4d35.299911. Makdisi has a longer analysis of unrecognised villages in the ‘Inside Out’ chapter of his Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (NY: W. W. Norton,) 2018. In referencing the towns we have substituted the standard spelling for Makdisi’s versions.

[24] Makdisi’s discussion of Arab towns in the Galilee is based on a deliberate confounding of ordinary Arab localities with the many unrecognised settlements of Bedouin, which exist mainly in the South but also in the Galilee. These are fixed settlements of people who had formerly been nomadic, and the state on urban planning grounds refused to ‘normalise’ ad-hoc localities and sought to encourage their residents to move to already recognised urban or rural localities. It is possible that as part of the disputes with authorities over the rights of residents in such localities services were denied in the past. However, since the 1990s all such policies have been reversed, and such ‘unrecognised’ settlements receive health and educational services even when the localities are unrecognised. Unsurprisingly, however, the state authorities have been unwilling to in invest in infrastructure when the very location is in dispute. But In many cases, these settlements were eventually recognised. ‘The Palestinian Town of Umm el Hiran’ (307), which the article says was being demolished, is indeed a Bedouin settlement that in 2015 had 70 families in 35 buildings. Presenting it as a ‘town’ serves to muddy the waters. An important point is that most of the Arab Bedouins who had lived in this location and its surroundings in the 1980s willingly moved to the newly founded town of Hura.

Makdisi also makes much of the repeated (and widely publicised) state demolition of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib (or Araqeeb) in the Negev. He wants to depict this as a brutal confrontation between a bureaucratised state and a vulnerable native population, between oppression and justice and ultimately between good and evil. While it is not our intent to debate Israel’s land policy in the Negev, it is important, once again, to place this in the context of Israel’s long campaign to settle Bedouins in permanent locations, that being key to the provision of reliable social services, and to be aware that Al-Araqib has been the subject of extended court proceedings. The village has become a site of symbolic political activity for all parties, which partly explains the repeated rebuilding and demolition. Both sides appear to have dug in their heels. It has been suggested, one might add, that at least some of the Bedouins involved actually have permanent homes in other communities. Al-Araqib raises important vexed issues but it also a stage for political theatre. Among the vexed issues at stake are whether a traditional nomadic way of life remains viable in a small highly modernised country. The incongruities are partly visible in the mix of modern vehicles and camels at temporary villages. The nomadic Bedouin lifestyle notably remains more intact in the unsettled reaches of the Egyptian Sinai.

[25] See

[26] See

[27] Makdisi blames the local admission committee for what he takes to be ethnically and racially discriminatory policies (306). As he notes (his footnote 9), the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in the Ka’adan case that discrimination by an admissions committee is illegal. Ka’adan is still good law in Israel. Furthermore, Ka’adan was not the only such case. In fact, in 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against an exclusionary decision by an Admissions Committee (HCJ 8036/07 Zubeidat). Furthermore, neither the statute nor the case that Makdisi alludes to (but, doesn’t cite) ‘allow formal discrimination to flourish’. Quite the contrary. The statute in question explicitly states as follows (Article 6(c)): ‘The admissions committee will not refuse to accept a candidate for reasons of race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual orientation, country of origin, political-party opinion or affiliation.’

[28] Makdisi is burdened with Critical Inquiry’s long history of promoting Jacques Derrida’s work, which is anchored by Derrida’s radical and foundational deepening and complication of Saussure’s insight that language is a system of differences. Yet Derrida was clearly highly sympathetic to Israel. What Makdisi must therefore imply is that, with Israel, Derrida was incapable of recognising that what masquerades as difference is really Jewish sameness and identity.

[29] See for detailed census data about the ethnic makeup of Israeli towns and cities. Makdisi regularly supports his claims by misstating the facts. He tells us that ‘Palestinian citizens of the state are barred from living on state land held by national institutions such as the Jewish National Fund’ (314), but that has not been so since the applicable law was overturned in 2005. See ‘AG Mazuz Rules JNF Land Can Now Be Sold to Arabs,’ Haaretz, 27 January 2005, available at JNF land almost always goes to starting Jewish (or Jewish-majority) communities, but there is no prohibition against Palestinians living there. Note that the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the right for Israeli Arabs to live in communities ‘built solely for Jews’ as is their right as citizens:

[30] The law allows people to declare that they do not belong to the religion or nationality to which they are registered: ‘… a person has the right not to belong to any religion or nationality, and when he makes a declaration to that effect – and the court is convinced that this declaration is true and sincere – the declaratory judgment must be made, on the basis of which the registration in the registry will be changed’ (CA 448/72 Shik v. Attorney General [1973] IsrSC 27(2)) (as cited here In other words, the courts have ruled that if a person does not consider himself, e.g. Jewish, he or she may make a declaration to that effect, and the registry will register the person’s (religion or nationality or both) status as ‘none’. It is not the registry’s business to determine whether the person ‘really is’ or is not Jewish (or Christian, etc.). The history of the population registry predates the State of Israel. The need for a registry for vital information (D.O.B, marriage) is obvious.

[31] Makdisi makes the same argument very briefly in ‘The Architecture of Erasure’ (523).

[32] Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish nation-state and human rights (NY: Routledge), 2009.

[33] Perhaps it is worth noting that the Palestinian Constitution has Islam as the official religion (Article 6) and Sharia as the primary source of legislation (Article 7). Even the religious freedom (‘shall be respected’) granted extends only to ‘monotheistic religions (such respect, of course, itself is just an Islamic principle)’. This is striking when the rhetoric is that it is Israel that is the exclusionary and discriminatory entity and that ‘Palestinian’ identity is inclusive, see

[34] Makdisi also writes: ‘Indeed, Jews who are not citizens actually have more rights in some domains, particularly with regard to land, than native Palestinians. In no other country on earth do racially privileged noncitizens enjoy greater rights than those who actually live in the

territory controlled by the state.’ This is either confused or wilfully in error. Only when a Jew exercises the right of return and achieves citizenship does he or she have rights to the land and only the same as any other Israeli, including Arab Israelis.

[35] For a concise overview of the status of Arab Israelis in the years after the founding of the Jewish state, see Donna Robinson Divine, ‘Citizenship and Democracy in Israel,’ in S. Ilan Troen and Rachel Fish, eds. Essential Israel: Essays For The 21st Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 2017, pp. 201-31.

[36] For analysis of Ben-Gurion’s attitude toward Israel’s Arab minority see Anita Shapira, Israel: A History (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press), 2012, pp. 196-97; and Anita Shapira, Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2014, pp. 180-81.

[37] An Israel Democracy Institute Nov. 2017 survey reports that Arabs in Israel identify themselves as the following: Arab 39 per cent, by religion 34 per cent, Palestinian 14 per cent and as Israeli 10 per cent. As of Sept. 2017, 60 per cent of Arabs in Israel had a positive view of the state and 37 per cent negative. That said, 47 per cent felt they were not treated equally so there is clearly room for improvement. Other recent surveys of Arab self-definition (from The Jerusalem Post Sept. 27, 2017) are as follows: Israeli Arab 28 per cent, Israeli 11 per cent, Arab citizen in Israel 13 per cent, Muslim 2 per cent, Palestinian Arab 15 per cent and Israeli Palestinian 20 per cent.

[38] The Israeli government has been reluctant to categorise its Arab citizens as Palestinians whether or not they want that designation. In an international environment in which a Palestinian right of return, moreover, continues to be widely debated, that is a change the government is unlikely to make, since it obscures the distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Makdisi also claims that the term ‘Israeli Arabs’ is ‘never used to refer to the Arab Jews who make up a considerable proportion of Israel’s Jewish population (who really are Israeli Arabs according to him) because he supposes in their case Israel wants to erase their Arab identity and absorb them as Jews’ (313).

[39] Since Ottoman times, marriage, just like burial, has been regulated not by the state but by the different religious authorities — the clergy for Christians, the Qadis for Muslims, and the Rabbinate for Jews. Israelis preferring non-religious unions often marry during visits abroad. The state honours their marriage certificates. This religious tradition is increasingly controversial in Israel, but it remains to be seen whether it will change. For a discussion of the issues see ‘Civil Marriage in Israel,’ at

Makdisi tells us that ‘unlike Orthodox Judaism, both Christianity and Islam permit their adherents to marry outside their faith communities’ (316), but according to all four schools of Sunni law and Shia law, interfaith marriages are condoned only between a Muslim male and a non-Muslim female from the People of the Book (that is, Christians and Jews) and not vice versa, see In Christianity it depends on sect; in Catholicism a dispensation is needed to marry someone outside the sect; it is forbidden by some Protestant sects to intermarry; and in the Orthodox Church, which represents the majority of Israeli Christians, it is forbidden to marry someone who has not been baptised in the Church. Intermarriage is thus forbidden in the Orthodox Church, see

[40] See Dov Lieber, ‘Number of Arab students in Israeli universities grows 78% in 7 years,’ The Times of Israel, 25 January 2018, for coverage of the relevant report by Israel’s Council for Higher Education.

Separate school systems for Jews and Arabs date to the Mandate period before the founding of Israel. Although there are now mixed schools that are also bilingual, the separate systems survive not only because instruction there is in the students’ native tongue — Arabic for Arabs and Druze, Hebrew for Jews — but also because the schools help preserve students’ cultural and religious identities. There are Muslim Arab schools that emphasise study of the Koran, just as there are Druze schools that teach the Druse faith. Makdisi’s insistence that these diverse institutions are there to enforce discrimination is an unwarranted insult to the teachers who devote their professional lives to the preservation of their cultural inheritances.

Makdisi’s confusion about education in Israel is compounded by his flawed account of rigidly separate elementary and secondary systems for Arab and Jewish students. In fact, no one forces an Arab Israeli to attend an Arab-speaking school. Local demographics determine which schools are nearby. In cities with large mixed populations there are public schools with both Arab and Jewish students. A number of schools are bilingual, among them the six run by the Center for Jewish-Arab Education through its Hand in Hand program. Those schools are in Haifa, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Tel Aviv-Haifa, and Wadi Ara. Thousands of students are enrolled, and the programme hopes to expand. If an Arab Israeli lives in a predominantly Hebrew-speaking neighbourhood, he or she would go to a Hebrew-speaking school unless the parents choose otherwise. That said, there are underfunded Arab Israeli schools that require more resources. Indeed the Israeli Ministry of Justice has ruled against any such unequal funding practices. Israeli universities have done their part by instituting Arab Israeli student recruitment and retention programmes, not an obvious boycott-worthy offense. But it would be a mistake to assume every Arab school is inferior. The high school that won first place in a 2015 competition was an Arab high school from the Galilee area in the north. In terms of raw numbers, Ministry of Education data shows that the number of Arab students attending kindergarten increased 33 per cent from 2004-5 to 2016, and the number attending high school increased by 59 per cent in the same time period.

For a concise summary of the current status of Arab schooling from an independent research institute see Nachum Blass’s ‘The Academic Achievement of Arab Israeli Pupils’ from the Taub Institute. Makdisi claims that Israel invests more than three times as much per capita educating Jewish as opposed to non-Jewish children (315). There is a gap, but it is not of anything like that severity. In 2015, NIS 20,000 was allocated per primary school student in the Hebrew education stream, while NIS 16,000 was allocated per student in the Arab education stream. Enrolment rates in Arab primary and middle schools rose from 63 per cent in 1990 to 93 per cent in 1990. Once again there is a gap: enrolment in the Hebrew education stream was 97 per cent in 2015. That 4 per cent difference hardly justifies the condemnation Makdisi deploys.

Makdisi’s assertion that it is immensely more difficult for Arabs to get into Israeli universities (325) is simply false. Israeli colleges and universities have made a concerted and successful effort to recruit and retain Arab students. The enrolment of Arab students in Israeli colleges and universities has doubled over a decade, from 5.2 per cent of the student population in 2004-5 to 10.5 per cent in 2014-15. For more detail see the Central Bureau of Statistics report. Also see The Council for Higher Education’s ‘The Higher Education System in Israel’. Both the education sector and the government are committed to doing still better, see Stuart Winer, ‘Israel okays $4 billion upgrade plan for Arab communities,’ The Times of Israel, 30 December 2015, Rather than simply impose central planning on Arab communities, the government has instead tasked Arab mayors with producing proposals with how the money should be spent.

The problem with disparities in primary and secondary school funding in Israel partly mirrors the same long-standing problem in the US: reliance on local funding. Some education funding in Israel is national, but disparities in the local portion are dramatic. There is a comprehensive, up-to-date April 2016 report on Israel’s school system from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that makes the point: ‘Schools in the Arab education stream tend to be underfunded, as they are often located in less affluent areas. According to national data, more affluent local governments can provide up to 10-20 times higher funding per student for schools than less affluent local governments’. There is a general report from the Ministry of Education from 2013 that makes it clear that the ministry sees closing the resulting performance gaps as part of its mission. For some historical background see ‘The State of Public Preschool Education in Israel,’ a 2012 report from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

[41] For earlier Makdisi statements jettisoning the two-state solution see ‘For a Secular Democratic State,’ cited earlier, ‘Forget the two-state solution’,, and ‘End of the two-state solution,’ The Guardian, 28 July 2008.

[42] Saree Makdisi, ‘Said, Palestine, and the Humanism of Liberation,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, Issue 2, Winter 2005, pp. 443-461.

[43] Makdisi concludes his 2008 essay ‘Starving Gaza,’ (originally printed in The Nation) reprinted by The Electronic Intifada, by declaring that the Palestinian Authority exists ‘to serve Israel’s interests, not those of the Palestinians’, see He opens his essay ‘Last Straw for the Palestinian ‘Authority’?’ by referencing the ‘so-called President, Mahmoud Abbas,’ Huffington Post, 2009,

[44] The source of the passage is Henry Siegman, ‘The Middle East Peace Process Scam,’ London Review of Books, 16 August 2002.

[45] Pew Global Attitudes Project: Spring 2007 Survey, available at Pew Global Attitudes Project: Spring 2007 Survey – Survey of 47 Publics FINAL 2007 COMPARATIVE TOPLINE” .

[46] Fumanekile Gqiba, ‘An Interview with Major General Gqiba, The Harvard Law Record, 22 September 2007,

[47] Greer Fay Cashman, ‘Grapevine: Credentials that count,’ The Jerusalem Post, 2 December 2008,

[48] Nelson Mandela, ‘Speech by President Nelson Mandela on being award an honorary doctorate by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev,’ SAHO, 19 September 1997,

[49] Tshediso Mangope, ‘I’m a South African Activist Who Used to Fight Against Israel — Until I Went There,’ The Tower, December 2016,

[50] Dan Diker, ed., South Africans Refute the Israel Apartheid Libel, (Jerusalem; Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs), 2018.

[51] Robert Suresh Roberts, Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki (Johannesburg: STE Publishers) 2007, pp. 257-258.

[52] Ibid., pp. 294.

[53] Cf. Mondli Makhanya, ‘Furiously Defending their Right to Blame Apartheid,’ The Sunday Times, 21 April 2013; and ‘The Liberation Myth is Busted,’ The Zimbabwean, 27 November 2017.

[54] Public Interest lawsuit reveals plot by BDS activists to take over academic associations, The Louis Brandeis Center, 9 Novermber 2017,

Anti-Zionism and the Humanities: A response to Saree Makdisi

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