The ancient Athenians used to ostracize anyone who was deemed to pose a political danger or was accused of a crime, and this custom was democratic and wise. Ostracism was democratic because the citizens were called upon to vote, and ostracism was wise because, by sending the troublemakers out of town, it kept the peace. Still, I have always loved the story that Plutarch tells about the illiterate fool who voted to ostracize Aristides the Just and, when asked why he would do such a thing, explained that he was sick and tired of hearing Aristides called “the Just.” Plutarch was ever attuned to the human eccentricities, and he wants us to notice that low rancors and the occasional impulse to damage society enter sometimes even into the most thoughtful of customs. And he draws or at least implies a moral. He knows that sooner or later we ourselves, his readers, will be solemnly requested to join in banning someone from civilized company. He wants us to pause and ask, “That famously stupid Athenian voter—that person couldn’t be me, could it?”

The modern version of Athenian ostracism is known as the boycott. The word itself, boycott, comes from 19th-century Ireland, where the Land League demanded that everyone shun a landlord’s agent of ill repute who happened to be named Captain Boycott. But the concept and even the word—boycotter in French, boicotear in Spanish, and so forth—long ago ascended into universal acceptance. People organize boycotts in order to level accusations and mobilize their supporters. The ostensible purpose is to exert an economic pressure. But a boycott’s larger purpose has always been to convey a sense of moral opprobrium, which, if enough people will only join in conveying it, may exert pressures of a deeper sort. To lose a few customers because someone has mounted a boycott against you and your business can be a misfortune. But to be shunned by people you respect, to be treated as a contemptible person, to discover that your equals and colleagues decline to enter into even the coolest and most professional of relations with you—this can be unbearable. And so, a popular and well-conducted boycott can end up wielding a mysterious power. Normally the effects take a while to become apparent. Boycotts are not supposed to go on forever, though. They are supposed to be practical. Either they work, or fail to work. They resemble labor strikes, in that respect. And yet, in the years since Captain Boycott, there is at least one example of a boycott that has failed to work, and, even so, has gone on forever, as if drawing on inexhaustible sources of rancor and rage.

This is the boycott against the State of Israel and its antecedent, the early Zionist settlements in Palestine, which has got to be, by now, the oldest continuous boycott in the history of the world—or, at minimum, the oldest boycott that has called itself a boycott. The anti-Israel boycott enjoys a further distinction. It appears to have been, over the generations, the world’s most popular boycott, even if, from time to time, its popularity has bobbed up and down, now revitalized, now half-forgotten, in one region or another—the most popular of boycotts, judged by how many hundreds of millions of people appear to be its supporters even now.

Still another distinction: The anti-Israel boycott has proved to be, ideologically speaking, the world’s most adaptable boycott—a boycott that, without the slightest embarrassment, changes its costume every few years in order to present itself as Muslim, Christian, supernaturalist, right-wing, left-wing, liberal, secular, and sometimes all of the above, multistriped, quite as if no single doctrine or philosophy or theology or geographical perspective, but only the lot of them ensemble, could possibly sum up the justifications for conducting the boycott, so various are Israel’s sins. The several extraordinary traits that attach to this most singular of boycotts raise a question, which I will put here. To wit, do the exceptional aspects of the anti-Israel boycott, its duration, popularity, and ideological chameleonism, derive from the boycott’s target—from an exceptionally evil or iniquitous quality that somehow inheres to Israel and its place in the world? Israel—does it deserve its fate? Or—the other possibility—do the peculiarities of the boycott reflect, instead, certain eccentricities of human nature that, if Plutarch were among us, might attract his bemused and disdainful attention?

The argument for boycotting Israel and the Zionists has gone through, by my calculation, three main phases or waves, with a fourth phase presently floating in our direction. The earliest of these phases, back in the 1920s and ‘30s, was simple, practical, and Palestinian—an Arab boycott of the Jews, intended to put up a fight against the tide of Jewish refugees that was beginning to rival and outrival the Palestinian Arabs for control of the land. This was a boycott that, if anyone had been in a mood to work out a compromise between the two populations, might have conferred a much-needed negotiators’ advantage on the Palestinian leaders. The spirit of the age did not smile on people who attempted negotiations, however, and the argument for a boycott entered its phase more or less simultaneously with the first.

The second phase was more than regional. It was international, and it rested on supernaturalist doctrines about the Jews and their cosmic menace to the world. The 1920s and ‘30s were an era of anti-Jewish boycotts in several parts of the world, sometimes secular, sometimes Catholic, and in all of those places the analytic tendency underlying the boycotts ascribed to the Jews a sinister and not-quite human plan to dominate the world, as described in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or sundry other documents with similar themes, unto The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, which was Henry Ford’s American contribution to the literature. And the same supernaturalist interpretation of Jewish power and evil, except with an Islamic twist, took root among the Palestinian leaders, or at least the most influential of them, which proved to be a hugely unfortunate development for Jews and Palestinians alike. The anti-Jewish boycott in the Middle East, when it spread outward from Palestine to the wider Arab world—Cairo, 1936, the Muslim Brotherhood in command, riots in the streets—rested all too firmly on the supernaturalist argument, with its peculiar and fateful fusion of European conspiracy theory and Islamic tradition.

In the years after the Second World War, an anti-imperialist aspect within the boycott’s justification began to loom a little more prominently. In this next phase of the argument, the old Nazi idea, which regarded Zionism as a plot against the Europeans, was turned upside down, and Zionism was accused, instead, of being a European plot, directed against everyone else for the purpose of maintaining the system of European imperialism. Third World solidarity, together with the need to protect Islam from the diabolical Jewish conspiracy, became the boycott’s fundamental appeal, now under the administration of the Arab League. The anti-imperialist side of the new argument proved to be fairly convincing, too, here and there around the world, perhaps with a little help from the oil exporters. Only, in sketching these phases of the argument, I do not mean to ascribe too much simplicity or logic to the arguments or to the progress that led from one phase to the next. Certain of the supernaturalist arguments against Zionism and the Jews collapsed when the Nazis collapsed. Postwar Vatican reforms put an end to certain others. Some of the force in the anti-imperialist argument against Israel drained away when the Soviet Union drained away. The boycott itself, in its commercial aspects, went into decline.

And yet, as if to demonstrate that not every new step in the world of ideas is a forward step, the supernaturalist argument for a boycott of Israel underwent a revival, late-20th century. The Islamist revolution in Iran brought this about, and the revival grew stronger yet with the success of the Muslim Brotherhood, under the name of Hamas, among a portion of the Palestinians. It is daunting to consider that a document as barbarous as the Hamas charter, from 1988, could figure significantly in the political and cultural developments of our own moment—the Hamas charter, with its intermingled citations to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Islamic scripture and its call to murder the Jews. And yet, Hamas and its ideas do play a role in world affairs, and they play a role even in the politics of European book fairs and book prizes, and maybe they play more of a role in our own high-minded American debates than we like to imagine.

And just now has come the newest or fourth phase of the pro-boycott argument, which, if you are a professor, has been filling your own mail slot at the office for the past few seasons. This is the argument that begins by likening Zionism to the old Afrikaner ultra-right in apartheid South Africa, and goes on to appeal to the liberal principles of human rights and the legacy of the anti-apartheid boycott of 30 or 40 years ago. And the newest of phases gives rise to still another question. This newest argument for the old boycott, as promoted by all kinds of bookish people and artists in the liberal countries and at the universities—can this newest argument be reliably distinguished from the older arguments? From a practical standpoint, can someone participate in the proposed new boycott without participating willy-nilly in the supernaturalist boycott, as well? Or does some fundamental accord underlie all of these arguments for boycotting Israel, which makes it impossible to disentangle the latest of arguments from its predecessors?

Inote that, among the proponents of the anti-Israel boycott in its latest version, everyone seems to be obsessed with this question—with the need, from the boycotters’ perspective, to distinguish their own call for a boycott from the still-vigorous arguments of the long-ago past. And everyone appears to have settled on a method for drawing the distinction. The method consists of proposing a partial boycott, instead of a total boycott. A nuanced boycott, instead of a blunt boycott. Only, the proponents have not been able to figure out how to define the nuance. No two boycott committees or leaders have been able to agree on this point. Some people advocate boycotting Israeli products manufactured in West Bank settlements, but not products manufactured behind the 1967 borders—a geographical nuance, which at least is easy to describe. Among the proponents of a strictly academic boycott, some people want to boycott the Israeli academic institutions, but not the individual academics who comprise the institutions—a puzzling nuance.

At one of the American academic conferences, held by the Modern Language Association, the boycott proponents decided to give up on boycotting altogether in favor of voting for a protest on the tiny question of Israel’s travel visas and how they apply to academics. Some boycotters insist that, in favoring an academic boycott of Israel, they do not wish to restrict academic freedom per se, only the freedom of academics to associate with their Israeli colleagues. Some people favor boycotting Israeli academics who fail to make political statements that are deemed to be suitable, but do not wish to boycott Israeli academics who speak suitably—a dictatorial nuance. An argument has been advanced for boycotting Israeli university presidents, except for those who agree not to invoke their university affiliations—a ridiculous nuance, and yet in conformity to the “Guidelines” of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. The Presbyterian Church (to cite a nonacademic instance) has voted to divest from certain corporations that do business with Israel, but stipulates that, in divesting, the church has not joined the larger movement to divest—a semantic nuance. And so on.

It is to laugh. Plutarch smiles. And yet, you can see what the people who draw these distinctions are hoping to do. They are trying to convince themselves or the world that, in coming up with their own contemporary and academic variations on the old anti-Israel boycott, they have found a way to pursue a campaign that is modern and progressive, and not a campaign that is disgraceful and retrograde. A good boycott, and not a bad one. Their search for the perfect nuance is commendable, though I have the feeling they will never get it right. In any case, as I run my eye down the list of proposed nuances and distinctions, it strikes me that even the people who are keenest on reviving the anti-Israel boycott appear to recognize that something about their own project is not quite what it should be and requires a bit of fine tuning. To which I respond by observing that, if even the people who favor the boycott feel a little uncomfortable about it, what do you suppose is the judgment of their opponents, who stand in adamant opposition?

Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm have supplied an answer to that question. They have gathered together more than 20 essays, including this one, by various people in a book called The Case Against the Academic Boycott of Israel (Wayne State University Press). Not all of those people agree with one another, but all of them condemn the boycott and sometimes are pretty scathing about it. Certain of those contributors offer marvelously subtle and sophisticated dissections of specifically academic themes, notably the crucial discussion of academic freedom. One of their arguments, though, which crops up in different versions among the essays, takes us outside the university gates, and, in doing so, makes its way to the heart of the controversy. This is the argument about holding Israel to a double standard—though I have discovered that anyone who even broaches the question of Israel and double standards is likely to ignite a ferocious debate, which you may have noticed, too.

A Boycotter: Double standards? Excuse me, this is the phony issue that is always raised when someone wishes to denounce a social wrong. I want to protest against Israel’s unjust treatment of the Palestinians, and you reply by pointing to North Korea.

A Gentle Critic of the Boycott: But what is phony about observing that Israel is scarcely the worst place on earth?

Boycotter: It is because you can always point to someplace worse. “What about Congo? What about Tibet?” This should not prevent us from addressing injustice when we see it.

Gentle Critic: But the double standards that single out Israel are not anything routine or ordinary. Anti-Zionism is a madness. The worst crimes that have ever been committed against Arabs in the modern world, judged by any statistic you choose, have been committed by fanatics of the anti-Zionist cause: the Baath Party, the Islamists. Surely you see this. Look at Syria!

Boycotter: There you go again. If someone wishes to denounce violence in Syria, I applaud. Still, I have taken as my own concern the oppression of Palestinians by Israel.

Gentle Critic: But don’t you see that, by joining so many millions of people all over the world in dwelling on this one issue, you have enrolled in a worldwide pathology? Ninety years of boycotts against Israel and Zionists and Jews—you don’t see a problem there? Or never mind the boycott. Look at the United Nations General Assembly resolutions against Israel. At the ghastly United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which proved to be so obsessed with Israel it needed to be replaced with a Human Rights Council, whose obsessions turn out to be just as severe. Haven’t you glanced at the resolutions of one political convention after another around the world during these last many decades, aimed overwhelmingly against a single country. Is the pattern really invisible to you? A maniacal harping on Israel.

Boycotter: Maybe those harpings have a point. Anyway, I do not have to accept responsibility for every disagreeable UN resolution that has ever been passed.

Gentle Critic: And your own comrades in promoting the boycott? Haven’t you noticed that some of your comrades are a bit crazed on Zionist themes? Faintly medieval, if I may put it that way.

Boycotter: Your every remark is designed to deflect the valuable human-rights protest I wish to make. When you aren’t pointing at Syria, you are pointing at the Middle Ages. You are the one who declines to look oppression in the face.

(A more ferocious critic of the boycott breaks into the discussion.)

Ferocious Critic: You speak about human rights, but your professed concern is a fake. The point about Syria is not a trivial point. One of the peculiar consequences of the anti-Zionist mania is to render invisible the vastest sufferings of the Arab people. Nor is anything in your campaign designed realistically to help the Palestinians. You even halfway recognize the oddity of your position, which is why you try so hard to distinguish your own proposed anti-Israel boycott from boycotts of the past. But your proposed boycott is merely a continuation of the old and the obscurantist. You are encouraging the world to remain mesmerized by a fear of terrible and supernatural forces plotting against Islam or the Arab world or whatever. And why are you doing this?

Boycotter: Yes, why?

Ferocious Critic: The Gentle Critic accused you just now of subjecting Israel to an unfair double standard—a forgiving standard for other countries, an exacting standard for Israel. I accuse you of no such paltry thing. I think you have launched your boycott against Israel because, somewhere in your thinking, you do believe that Israel is the world’s most sinister and dangerous country. Israel’s most extreme enemies are crazily fixated on their hatred, as if Israel were a cancer that needed to be rooted out—a characteristic phrase. And you, too, seem to be fixated. You have fallen into the ghastliest intellectual trap of the last hundred years. You and Henry Ford! Somehow you have concluded, along with Ford, that Jews, or at least the Jews of the Middle East, are, in Ford’s phrase, “the world’s foremost problem.” That is why your boycott participates in the world’s foremost boycott. There is no other logic to what you are doing. At minimum, you have been stampeded by the many millions of people who do accept the supernaturalist logic. Your own contribution consists of trying to put a sane face on an old insanity.

Boycotter: This is no longer an argument. This is name-calling. The purpose of your intervention, Brutal Critic, is to shut me up. To silence me. And, by the way, I have noticed that anytime the proponents of a boycott against Israel open their mouths, the Zionist heavies go into action to stifle the debate. It is not just the Palestinians who are oppressed. It is the rest of us!

Ferocious Critic: I do not wish to stifle debate. I wish to open it up. In my opinion, the debate over boycotting Israel would be advanced if you and everyone else would agree to say, at last, what you really mean. Just now I myself have said what I really mean. Why don’t you do likewise? Maybe you have already begun, with your theory that Zionists are trying to shut you up. If only you would lay out your true opinions in full, the sight of them might shock you into rethinking your position …

But I bring my transcription to a halt. I do not share the Ferocious Critic’s optimism about people being shocked by the spectacle of their own arguments. I suspect that, on the contrary, a boycott that has managed to remain in place in different shapes for something like 90 years by now is not going to dribble to a halt anytime soon, and certainly not because the boycotters have suddenly recognized their own folly.

Paul Berman is the author of The Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House, 2010), Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003), and other books. He is a columnist for Tablet.