As campus efforts to support boycotts of Israel universities intensify this year — and everyone expects them to in the wake of events in Gaza, the most challenging and controversial question about the movement that sponsors the boycott agenda looms over all of us: Are there anti-Semitic dimensions to the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement?
BDS advocates have long countered the anti-Semitic label by protesting that critics of Israeli government policy do not deserve accusations that they are anti-Semitic. In fact BDS opponents themselves often reject the claim that every critic of Israel, or even every supporter of BDS, is anti-Semitic. Israelis themselves are relentless critics of the government in power, and many of the Jewish state’s strong supporters there and abroad condemn the occupation of the West Bank and urge curtailment of settlement construction or withdrawal from most existing settlements. BDS assertions that they are condemned simply because they are policy critics distract us from the more complex and troubling ways that the movement enhances anti-Semitic aims.
Ever since Lawrence Summers asserted that the divestment movement proposals were “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not in their intent,” we have had a model to use in examining the prejudicial implications of BDS in a more thoughtful way. That does not mean that every divestment proposal is anti-Semitic, but it does help us see why people who advocate the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state are promoting a goal that has anti-Semitic effects.
Arguments that Jews have no ancient connection to the land, that Israelites and Hebrews never existed — positions that some academic BDS advocates promote — also have an anti-Semitic component. The demand that the citizens of Israel give up their right to political self-determination and the unsupportable assertion that the Israeli government is an exceptionally egregious human rights violator are also consciously or unconsciously underwritten by the long-term history of anti-Semitism and the history of efforts to isolate and “other” the Jewish people.
I realize that people will dispute these conclusions, but they nonetheless offer examples of a more serious basis for debating the issue I am urging all of us to address. Doing so also requires that we confront the policies vigorously promoted by virtually all of the BDS movement’s major spokespeople, whether or not the movement officially endorses them. These include advocacy by Omar Barghouti and others of a one-state “solution” encompassing Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank in which Jews would become a minority. That demand is typically accompanied by the call for the Palestinian diaspora’s “right of return” to this new state, a plan that would further marginalize the Jewish population. Both positions are put forward in Barghouti’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, Judith Butler’s Parting Ways, and other books.
The confidence with which some BDS advocates assure us Jews could live peacefully and safely and have full religious freedom in an Arab-dominated state is so contradicted by regional history, culture, and politics that one has to consider the possibility that they really do not care about the fate of Israeli Jews. Naivety alone does not seem to account for so thorough a denial of reality. The real perils Jews could face in an Arab-dominated state undercut the rather pious claims about the movement’s dedication to nonviolence that are part of its founding principles. Once again, highly likely violent effects call into question the status of nonviolent intent. Equally worrisome are those BDS supporters who ally themselves with Hamas, despite the organization’s ferociously anti-Semitic and genocidal charter. One might well wonder why those in the West who would ordinarily oppose a group that vilifies gays — and has an appalling view of women — would overlook these facts because of Hamas’s stance toward Israeli Jews.
While the BDS movement undoubtedly gathers some conscious anti-Semites into its fold, the way in which it more broadly assigns the traditional pariah status of Jews to the Israeli state is equally troubling. Debates about BDS resolutions and petitions often invoke the standard tropes anti-Semitism has deployed, notably that BDS opponents are organized and funded by an international Jewish lobby, an accusation that surfaced during the Modern Language discussion of its 2014 resolution condemning Israeli visa policies. That both NGOs and foreign governments fund BDS activity is rarely mentioned.
Talking about such matters can also lead people to ask themselves whether their hostility to Israel is a vehicle for unconscious resentment toward Jews. Only individual self-reflection, not academic debate, can answer that question. Certainly when BDS advocates spread anti-Jewish stereotypes and myths they owe it to themselves to examine their hearts more rigorously. The fact that a number of Jewish academics support the BDS movement does not absolve anyone of the possibility they harbor an anti-Semitic bias, though the BDS movement likes to say it does.
Helen Fein’s 1987 definition (in The Persisting Question) of anti-Semitism as “a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs towards Jews as a collectivity” is a good place to begin in thinking about the role of anti-Semitism in BDS passion. Indeed it is not unreasonable to feel that such psychological motives underlie the exceptional level of hostility displayed in some BDS forums, among the most extreme being the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss websites. Moreover, there are statements that have anti-Semitic content and anti-Semitic effects — that can be adopted and used by willing anti-Semites — no matter what their original authors think they intended. Such inherent hostility does need to be examined in the academy.
That hostility is often focused on the most demonized term in the BDS lexicon: Zionism. The historical movement and the concept have had many definitions over the years, though in the current political climate simply believing that a Jewish state has a historically, internationally, and morally justified right to exist in Palestine is enough to win disapproval of your Zionist identity. It often doesn’t help if you want Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. You are still a blind Zionist ideologue.
Absolute opposition to Israel’s existence increases anti-Semitism’s cultural and political reach and impact. Indeed, if anti-Semitism is a fundamental condition of possibility for unqualified opposition to the Jewish state, then anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’s moral salvation, its perfect disguise, its route to legitimation.
There is a disturbing bait-and-switch element to BDS’s recruitment strategies. The movement recruits students with a call for justice for Palestinians — justice that a two-state solution could provide — then draws them into one-state advocacy, a goal with devastating consequences for Israeli Jews. It justifies its one-state advocacy by demonizing the State of Israel with hyperbolic and irrational accusations.
Meanwhile, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere puts the lie to the confidence that Jews do not need a homeland whose future and right to self-defense they control. Indeed it strengthens the opposite argument.
The same bait-and-switch effect attaches to the risk that recruiting anti-Zionists, while giving them collective support and making them more fervid, will turn them into anti-Semites. Beginning with the 2006 Journal of Conflict Resolution essay “Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe” by Edward Kaplan and Charles Small and continuing through to Alvin Rosenfeld’s 2013 collection Resurgent Antisemitism, research has suggested that the more extreme one’s position on Israel, the more likely one is to harbor classic anti-Semitic beliefs. And those who want to abolish the Jewish state show higher rates of belief in Jewish conspiracies and other anti-Semitic delusions. All these patterns intersect uncomfortably with the BDS movement.
There are two peoples in Palestine who deserve justice and deserve homelands. Demonizing one of them, as BDS does, will not promote peace and not lead to a Palestinian state. Rage and hatred may be personally gratifying to some, but they get in the way of a political solution. Indeed they can block the willingness to compromise that is fundamental to any negotiating process. This suggests that anti-Semitism has consequences that those unconsciously succumbing to its influence need to confront. For anti-Semitism tragically offers nothing tangible to the very Palestinians BDS claims to champion.
Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-editor, with Gabriel Noah Brahm, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, scheduled for October distribution by Wayne State University Press.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading