Anti-Semitic in Intent if Not in Effect: Boycotts Won’t Work and That’s Why They’re Dangerous

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There’s an old joke, which I’m sure most if not all are familiar with. So you don’t have to laugh when I retell it in a few minutes, after I sketch my argument’s three main points. But I have to warn you, recent events have supplied a new punch line (several in fact). Whether these are funny or not, I don’t know—but they serve to help illustrate the essence of the following three things concerning what brings us here today.

1)     First, let’s remember that informed observers do not really expect the marginal BDS campaign, as offensive as it is, to have much serious effect on Israel in terms of government policy, economy or anything else.[1] One exception is that it might, who knows, harden a little bit the attitude of some “average Israelis” who get tired of feeling hated by strangers around the world who know little of their circumstances. In this sense, the boycott movement could potentially succeed at creating another small obstacle to peace, what Roger Waters might call “another brick in the wall”—although I doubt it. Israelis want peace with security, as polls show. They probably don’t listen more closely to what American professors say than our students do—with some exceptions, when it comes to political correctness which people on campus are sensitive to and which I’ll get to in a moment. Moreover, this discussion we have been having lately is, as I’m told by friends in Israel, of less interest in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than New York and Chicago. The BDSers in any case are not the ally of those of us in either the Midwest or the Middle East who wish for a two-state solution and want to see the conversation keep going in that direction—not backwards.

2)     Second, the so-called “binational” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that BDS purports to believe in, looking back to a pre-1948 vision that failed to catch-on then and is more absurd now, not only is impractical but a sick fantasy bearing the traces of an unwholesome libidinal investment (I have to use terms like that or it’s not the MLA, or the almost MLA “alternative panel”). Such calls for an end to Jewish national autonomy are in fact properly categorized—like it or not—as anti-Semitic, both by recognized definitions widely in use as well as in their nature as demands that would ask us to calmly imagine putting Jewish life at risk on a mass scale.[2] The vast majority of Israeli citizens of course do not want it, and have every right to assume that, were it somehow to be imposed, then the lives of six million Jews (a nice number) would be in grave danger. Moreover, calling such notions “anti-Zionist” while refusing the label “anti-Semitic” changes nothing—choosing one established UN-member nation-state to propose dismantling is an immoral act in itself. And really (sorry to be paranoid but it’s in my genes), how did you happen to choose the Jewish one? If we’re entering the age of alternatives to nationalism as Tony Judt said ten years ago already now, then could we please go in alphabetical order? For otherwise, the stigma that properly attaches anti-Semitism should apply as well to anti-Zionism. For example, I applauded the overthrow of Qaddafi, not an end to Libya. I often disagree with the Turkish, Chinese, and Russian governments (to name a few), but it never occurs to me to call for an end to Turkey, China or Russia per se. I am not a proud “anti-Russist” who at the same time is sensitive about being branded as racist against Slavs merely because I happen want to alter the borders and character of Russia in such a way as to remove it from the map. There is no such word as anti-Japanism (that I know of). Etc. No one, in short, has a right to dissolve a people’s established national sovereignty because they deem it “illegitimate,” in spite or because of the fact that few countries on earth were born out of a reasonable dialogue behind a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” (did I mention this was the MLA?, it’s now the “alternative” APSA too).

3)     Third, my concluding thought is that the real harm threatened by BDS is to the quality of moral and intellectual life of America’s college campuses, where they appear themselves to believe they are likely to have their greatest impact on naïve undergraduates anxious to conform to what is perceived to be the latest trend in “social justice” or political correctness. It is no coincidence, in other words, that the view of the world that BDS offers is getting its Warholian “fifteen minutes of fame” just when we’re also experiencing what many have termed a “crisis in the humanities,” due to budget cutting and a new emphasis on college education as a kind of glorified job-training. The rise of BDS in this country, in other words, as an exotic import with its roots planted in the fertilized soil of Ethnic Studies and postcolonial theory, is part of a well-documented decline in standards of literacy and critical thinking.[3] Furthermore, both of these theoretical outlooks, disciplines or sub-disciplines, have been deeply implicated in the growing phenomenon of “campus anti-Semitism,” as Tammi Rossman-Benjamin has shown in detail in Alvin Rosenfeld’s edited volume of 2013, Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives.”[4]

Okay, so: One Cossack complains bitterly to another, “It is these damn Jews and bicyclists! They are the source of all the misfortune in the world! If we could just do something about these outrageous Jews and bicyclists, we’d finally be able to live fully and enjoy ourselves thoroughly as we were born to do by nature and are meant to do, according to the order of things.” To which the other Cossack replies skeptically, “Why the bicyclists?” In response to which the first answers back with a question of his own, “Why the Jews?” The American Studies Association then takes a vote on the matter and its president declares that, “One has to start someplace.” Soon after this colloquy of Cossacks and college teachers, the respondent on a panel at the Modern Language Association explains that the question to be discussed “is not whether Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it.” At which point Ilan Pappe, the Israeli professor and celebrity supporter of “BDS from within” appears and announces, as he is reported to have done before a confused audience of Stanford students who had invited him, “You should boycott me.” To which SPME (Scholars for Peace in the Middle East) president Richard Cravatts replied, in an Op-Ed for The Times of Israel, “Fine with me but what about Omar Barghouti, who got his degree from Tel Aviv University?” (I’m paraphrasing Richard.) Finally, sensing what he has started and realizing that it’s not going to stop any time soon, the first Cossack throws up his hands in frustration and silences the room saying, “But what about the bicyclists?” (Okay, so I seem to have silenced the room too.)

There is unfortunately, in other words (to be a bit pedantic in explaining a joke), plenty of suffering to go around, including, sadly, lots of rights being violated in many parts of the world today—some by the Jewish State of Israel, others by the Islamic Republic of Iran, some by the Arab Republic of Egypt, and others by the United States of America—to name only a few of the guilty parties. In fact, there is even more than one government on earth justifiably accused of trampling the rights of the longsuffering Palestinian people (whose as yet unfulfilled right to self-determination, to emphasize, I of course fully endorse), including not least of all the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza, the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon, and the Syrian Arab Republic—where more casualties have occurred in just a few years of horrendous and ongoing conflict than all of the relatively civilized fighting between Arab and Jew in the course of a century.

Given all that and so much more than there is time to survey, it seems to me that one might reasonably ask, to add one last final punch line to my updated comic parable, “Why BDS? Why single them out for disapproval? What’s wrong with a Civil Society movement taking steps to address at least some of what’s wrong in the world, by any means necessary?” But then again, my distinguished colleagues have already ably answered that question, in terms of the means BDS would employ—academic boycotts of the only robust democracy in the Middle East—and so I will finish now by returning briefly to the stated ends BDS pursues which I began by alluding to.

Let me remind you as I must so that it’s clear, or inform anyone who doesn’t already know, that BDS is not a principled campaign for a Palestinian state and a Jewish state side-by-side. But rather, BDS openly seeks the destruction of the Jewish state—insisting, both in its founding documents and elsewhere, on not just an end to the occupation of the West Bank, with the area cleansed of course of all Jewish inhabitants, as with Sinai and Gaza so that a future Palestine is Judenrein. But rather BDS seeks an end to the so-called “greater occupation” of “all Arab lands” stretching “from the river to the sea” and a “right of return” for all the victims and descendants of victims of the terrible Nakba.[5] Moreover, BDS supporters at rallies and protests have frequently been known to shout things like “Israel does not exist,” “shoot the Jews,” “kill the Jews” and “throw the Jew down the well.” Well, okay, that last one was from the Sacha Baron Cohen film of 2006, Borat, which parodied anti-Semitism. But this is the point, actually. These other things were in fact chanted, for example, at a Daniel Zamir concert in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2010.[6] I mean it’s jazz music (and very good jazz too, I highly recommend it and John Zorn as well). Similar things are heard on our own college campuses whenever it’s time once again for “Israel Apartheid Week.” In other words, one cannot overlook the fact that this kind of stuff is going on all the time and not only is BDS a significant part of it, but it is a significant part of what BDS actually accomplishes. I oppose BDS and the sorts of measures it promotes because of the genocidal ends it openly seeks; the dumbing down of political discourse it implicitly fosters; and not just the illiberal means it explicitly proposes to implement (although that too).

And this is why I say that (with apologies to Larry Summers) the BDS movement is anti-Semitic in intent if not in effect—inverting Summers’ well-worn locution to emphasize the rotten trade in impotent rage that the movement actually traffics in (what I called before its “unwholesome libidinal economy”). As the prominent Israeli philosopher, Elhanan Yakira perceptively says, in a passage from an important book of 2010, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, with which I hasten to conclude:

In fact, the campaign [for divestment] is little more than [but I would add, and underline, also no less than] an expression of ressentiment, serving the amour propre of the signatories more than the interests of the Palestinians, of peace, or of morality. In concrete terms, it is unlikely to have any significant effect. Ostensibly, such campaigns are a form of direct action, meant to pressure governments to change their policies. But it is clear that this will not work in Israel’s case. Not only is Israel too powerful—economically and otherwise—to be affected by such measures, but it has already shown its capacity to resist them…. In short [proposed academic and cultural] boycotts will [not] bring […] desirable change, and using these kinds of measures will not turn Israel into a binational state or even remove so much as a single small settlement from the West Bank. In other words, it is not from a sense of [victimization], fear, or paranoia that [our] criticism of […] criticism is done…. [Rather] it is necessary to say a few words [about the nature of] the act itself [of rallying for such boycotts].[7]

So that is all basically I’ve tried to do as a member of this distinguished panel—just say something about the obscene and criminal nature of the primarily symbolic act of calling for boycotts and similar measures against Israeli Jewish academics eighty years after this was first tried in Europe.

[1] I want to thank Elhanan Yakira for conversations about what follows over a period of years, extending up to the present. Some examples—and I hope some of the spirit—are originally his.

[2] People can argue about definitions but here’s one that many have endorsed, See also the Amcha Initiative’s latest information on this,

[3] See for example: Benjamin Ginzberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters (New York: Oxford UP, 2011); Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Forhdham UP, 2008); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, 2009).

[4] Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, “Identity Politics, the Pursuit of Social Justice, and the Rise of Campus Antisemitism: A Case Study,” in Alvin Rosenfeld (ed.), Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013), 482-520.

[5] Audrea Lim (ed.), The Case for Sanctions Against Israel (New York: Verso, 2012).

[7] Elhanan Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010), 315-316.

Anti-Semitic in Intent if Not in Effect: Boycotts Won’t Work and That’s Why They’re Dangerous

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Gabriel Noah Brahm

Gabriel Noah Brahm is Senior Research Fellow at University of Haifa’s Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism. In 2016 he founded Michigan’s Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom (named an "Oasis of Excellence" by ACTA), at Northern Michigan University, where he also teaches English and world literature. His forthcoming book is Israel in Theory: The Jewish State and the Cultural Left. Follow him on Twitter @Brahmski.

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