The Context of Boycotts

‘Liberal Delusion’ wrote this comment ‘below the line’ in an earlier thread. We thought it worth reproducing.

The BDS movement places the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the vast majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.

The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a magic talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.

In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.

If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

“Echoes of the Past into the Present”: Arguments in support of the ASA Boycott.

This is a guest post by Saul:

Reading through the arguments of those proposing and supporting the ASA’s boycott of Israel, one can only be struck by the correspondence of the structure of argumentation with those of what some today like to call ‘real’ antisemitism as well as racism and Islamophobia in general These correspondences appear in the following way.

First, they begin with a list of the litany of Israel’s crimes. Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable. However, in the context of boycott two points come to the fore. The first point turns on the widely debated question of ‘Why Israel’? As many have shown and many more acknowledged, none of the crimes committed by the Israeli state are either unique nor their most terrible expression. As many of those opposing the boycott have argued, this is no excuse not to bring them to light. Yet, many of these same people are uncomfortable with the fact that of all states who commit these and worse crimes, only Israel is singled out for boycott. The response to this concern is that it is being used to ‘deflect attention’ from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and constitutes the diversionary tactic of ‘whataboutery’.

As with so many other areas of the boycott discussions, the battleground of ‘whataboutery’ is neither new nor novel. It has been a component part of debates about Jews for a very, very long time. The lines of this debate have more or less remained the same. On the one hand, there are those that say that there is something ‘innate’ about Jews, Judaism and Jewishness and, more recently Israel, that sets it apart from the rest of the world and, as a consequence, deserves special or, if that word is now too emotive, unique treatment. More often than not, such allegations of uniqueness are presented as the reason or cause that, with the best will in the world, Jews or Israel should be denied the rights of those granted to non-Jews or states that are not ‘Jewish’. On the other hand, there are those that say that the differences that distinguish Jews from other religions and peoples and Israel from other states, are no reason, no excuse, to deny such rights, rights freely available to everyone else.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this contestation is Karl Marx’s polemic against Bruno Bauer around the question of Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s. As is well known, Bauer argued against Jewish emancipation. He argued that as long as Jews remained Jews they were to barred from being granted the same rights as those among whom they lived. There was, he declaimed, something unique, something special about Jews and Judaism that prevented them from the benefit of emancipation into the emerging nation-states of his time.

Bauer has posed the question of Jewish emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Jew who is to be emancipated and of the Christian state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Jewish religion, he analyzes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity, he elucidates the essence of the Christian state……..

Marx’s devastating response to this exclusive and reactionary focus on the alleged nature of Jews and Judaism and only Jews and Judaism is perhaps the most succinct and positive use of what is now excoriated as pure whataboutery,

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois [i.e., as a member of civil society, “bourgeois society” in German], “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen [‘citizen’ in French, i.e., the participant in political life] only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen [Staatsbürger], between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

As with Bauer’s antisemitism, one of the consequences of demanding sole focus on Jews and only Jews, and, correspondingly today, Israel and only Israel, is exclusion, from the state and, today, from the community of states. As in the past, the call for boycott opens up an abyss between, on the one side ‘Israel’ and on the other side, the rest of the world. In contemporary terms, by placing the call for boycott of the need for international solidarity as a means of resisting Israeli criminality, the radical antisemitic vision of the division between Jews and humanity is re-articulated in the divide between Israel/Jewish Israelis and the rest of the world. Like Jews of the past, Israel is now recast as the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’.

The second main structural element of arguments made in support of the ASA boycott and one visible particularly in Claire Potter’s account of her Damascan moment, is the old tale of Jewish privilege. Of all the states in the world who receive US funding and financial assistance, Israel, it is said, is the most ‘privileged’. Israel receives more than any country in US military aid. Israel receives more support in the UN and security council than any other of its allies, etc.. These facts are, of course, true. But they are presented not as a consequence of past and present political considerations (for example, that US funding and support for Israel began, originally from the prior recognition of Israel by the then Soviet Union (the first country to recognise the Sate of Israel in 1948), the divisions of the Cold War, the rise of Arab pan-nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamicism and anti-Americanism, the obsessive focus of Israel in some of the UN instiutions, and so on). Instead, they are presented as instances of a specifically Israeli privilege (often, but not always, an argument connected to the alleged omnipotence of the ‘Israel’ or ‘Jewish Lobby’). Needless to say, this idea of Jewish privilege by the state is not new in the annals of both the history of antisemitism or of racism in general. For example, it was common currency in the debates surrounding and following Jewish emancipation. It also forms a core component of contemporary Islamophobia; that somehow the British state ‘prvileges’ the concerns of British Muslims.

This notion of Jewish/Israeli privilege connects with the third point; that one cannot say a bad word about Israel without being labelled an ‘antisemite’, See also Clare Short’s letter in support of Rev Stephen Sizer in the Jewish Chronicle, 20th December, 2013.

Other formulations in which this arguments is presented is the idea of the Shoah as a magic talisman warding off any and all negative comments about Israel. This theme is presented in its most crystalline form by Alex Lubin in this article in The Nation. He writes there that, ‘Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it always (!) to appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions’`1. Here, we can but note the sheer nastiness of the claim that Israel and those labeled its ‘supporters’ are guilty of cynically manipulating the most terrible event in the history of Jews and inverting it into nothing more than a ‘strategic advantage’. This belief in Jewish cynicism is again, an updated variant of the accusation leveled against Jews from the time of their emancipation onward that they exploited their past discrimination to wheedle those ‘privileges’ noted above from the State at the expense of all others. Even more relevant in the present context, however, is that this idea replicates almost exactly the antisemite Willhelm Marr’s claim in the late 19th century that ‘one cannot today criticise Jews [i.e. by which he meant his and others antisemitic assertions] without being called an antisemite’.2

The BDS movement constantly respond to accusations that its call to boycott Israel and only Israel taps in to antisemitic ways of thinking by claiming that, first, one must distinguish between ‘real’ antisemitism and ‘criticism of Israel’, and secondly, that they are free from the seductions offered by antisemitism in forwarding their own aims. As the structure of their arguments show (both in form and content) neither claim is sustainable.

1. The reference to the term ‘European Holocaust’ is interesting in the specific context of ASA. Not only does the term ‘European Holocaust’ imply denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’ or Shoah – as opposed to the concept if genocide – but chimes in with a rather nasty debate a little while ago when US academics claimed that the studying and recognition of the genocides and brutalities suffered by the First Nations in what was to become the United States were being hindered by the mal fide of scholars of the Holocaust. (See Dan Stone; ‘Histories of the Holocaust, OUP, (2010) p. 210

2. See on this point, Moishe Zimmerman’s ‘Wilhelm Marr: The Patriach of Antisemitism,OUP, (1986)

A reply to Claire Potter: in a fight to boycott Israelis, remain vigilant to the danger of antisemitism

David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Dear Claire,

Thank you for your reply to my email.  In this short correspondence we have already touched upon a number of key issues.  We have discussed the centrality of academic freedom, and how that is sometimes underwritten, but sometimes also threatened by academic institutions; we have touched on the need for a civility in our discussions which enables us to focus on what is said and done rather than on who is recognised as being positioned in the camp of the ‘horrible people’ or the good, radical people.  We have discussed how a boycott against academic institutions might impact against individuals and the danger of imposing a McCarthyite political test onto Israeli academics.  We have discussed the value of consensus building within the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movement, and the potential damage that focus on a boycott of only Israelis does to consensus, by creating a binary ‘for us or against us’ framework.

When people are first told about the proposal to boycott Israel they tend to ask: “Why do you only propose to boycott Israel?”  Your key answer to this relates not to Israel at all, but to your own American-ness.  You say that Israel is an important element in an oppressive US foreign policy.  If America is the key problem, why do you call upon scholars to boycott Israeli universities without first calling on scholars to boycott American universities?

You mention that there are movements against the Chinese occupation of Tibet on US campuses, and many other movements which are critical of human rights abuses around the world.  But there is a slippage here in your argument.  There is only one campaign to boycott universities.  We are not talking about the politics of who one chooses to criticise, we are talking about the politics of who one singles out for boycott.  This is a key distinction which is often obscured by the BDS movement.  Criticism is not the same as boycott and it is not the same as demonization.  You say that you are critical of the US government so why should you not be critical of the Israeli government?  Well sure, you should be.  But a public organisation like the ASA has to be consistent, it can’t just act on whim or personal taste.  If it discovers criteria which make a boycott of universities appropriate, then shouldn’t it boycott universities in all states which fit the criteria?

I want to turn to the issue of antisemitism. Underpinning all emancipatory projects is a committment to opposing racism and other forms of bigotry.  There is a universalism at the heart of our movements which begins with the premise that all human beings are in some profound sense of equal worth.  But we also know, in the 21st Century, that things can be more complicated; this universalism itself is not the last word and it has sometimes, ironcially, functioned as the framework and even the mechanism by which people have been kept out of the human community.

At the same time as white Europeans were conquoring, colonising and enslaving people of colour around the world, white Europeans were also focusing on Jews as an internal ‘other’ to European civilization.  Non-Europeans were constructed as less than human, strong, sexual and brutal, while Jews within Europe were constructed as conspiratorial, cunning, powerful, dangerous, unpatriotic and financially exploitative of the poor.  The Twentieth Century totalitarian movements, Nazism and Stalinism, did not put Jews at the centre of their worlds by accident.  These movements sought to rule the world and they constructed a cosmopolitan Jewish ‘other’ as being a global threat.

There was nothing inevitable about the victory of the totalitarians in the Twentieth Century, but victorious they were.  Universal and democratic movements were defeated all over Europe and those Jews who had put their faith in European civilization to protect them, found themselves swept up in the Shoah or running out of Europe for their lives.

Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, offers the following analogy for the birth of Israel:

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and consol the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds.

Antisemitism and its effects are central to Israel’s existence and to the way that we should understand its difficult history.  As well as being an oppressor of Palestinians, Israel is also the protector of Jews against those who would like to kill them.

Now it is clear that we do not live in a black/white binary world where racism is simply the global structure of the oppression of non-whites by whites.  There is a long history of solidarity between Jews and non-whites against racism, not least in America.  In the Middle East there is a history of entrenched Jewish islamophobia and Muslim antisemitism, which runs parallel to a history of movements and attempts to break the racism which divides Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, and to find a peaceful solution.  Our job, as outsiders who want to help, is to bolster, in whatever limited ways are available to us, a politics of peace and reconciliation, to help Jews who fight anti-Arab racism and to help Arabs who fight antisemitism, as well as helping Palestinians find their way to national independence.

Antisemitism is not a phenomenon exclusive to the right.  We on the left know our history, and we know that antisemitism has always been present within our own movements.  From Marx, who attacked the antisemitism of Bakunin, Bauer and Duhring, to the struggle against radical anti-Dreyfussards, to the antisemitism of Stalinism and to the antisemitic anti-Zionism of the old East Germany and Poland in the late 60s, antisemitism has been a constant challenge to us on the left.   Moishe Postone articulates the danger as follows:

As a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, it is particularly dangerous because it appears to be antihegemonic, the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination. It is as a fetishized, profoundly reactionary form of anti-capitalism that I would like to begin discussing the recent surge of modern antisemitism…

Something else we know is that the conflict between Israel, Palestine and the Arab states often gets articulated in the language of racism and antisemitism.  Israel’s civilian and military occupation of the West Bank brings with it a racism against those who are thus colonised, which seeps back into Israel itself and constitutes a threat to antiracist and pro-peace discourse in Israel.  And antisemitism is widespread amongst those states and movements which consider themselves to be enemies of Israel, from Hamas and Hezbollah, to the Iranian state, to public discourse in many places in the Middle East. Neither amongst Israelis nor amongst Arabs and Muslims, do these racist discourses go unopposed; but they constitute an important context for how we think about the conflict.

We are talking about a boycott movment against Israel.  We know that there is racist hatred against Israelis and Jews in the Middle East; we know that there is a long and profound history of antisemitism in Europe and also in America; we know that radical movements are far from immune to antisemitism.  Wouldn’t it be odd, Claire, if anger with Israel was never articulated in a language which mirrored previous entrenched hostilies to Jews?  Wouldn’t it be unexpected if a campaign to exclude Israelis did not impact upon Jews around the world who felt that they wanted to speak up for Israel’s right to exist?  Wouldn’t it be strange if some of the ideas from antisemitic Arab nationalist or islamist discourses, with whom the boycotters are in a political alliance, never seeped accross into the democratic spaces of the BDS movement?

When people insist that Israel is Nazi, or apartheid, or essentially racist, are we surprised when those Jews who are unwilling to identify themselves as ‘anti-Zionists’ get denounced as supporters of apartheid and as Nazis?  If a movement relates to the overwhelming majority of Jews as it would relate to apologists for racism, what is the likely result?

I don’t believe that there are any Jew-haters in the American Studies Association.  But we know better than to imagine that racism is only a matter of hatred.  We know that racism and antisemitism are also expressed through institutions, discourse, ways of thinking, norms, practices and unconscious assumptions.  We know that cleaning ourselves up of the racism in which we are immersed from birth in our societies is more than a matter of the will.  It is a matter of eternal vigilence and of communal, social action.  We know that we have to educate students and young radicals about how to recognise racism and antisemitism, even when it lurks within our own movements, our own work, ourselves, unacknowledged and unseen.

I have written a paper on how the discipline of sociology can help us to recognise antisemitism even when it is hidden, even when it is unconscious, even when it is no indicator of hatred or of malice.

You mention antisemitism twice in your reply to me:

So while I would advocate for BDS activists to rethink their own organizing strategies, those making arguments against the boycott on the grounds of anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel are doing a half-baked job of standing up for academic freedom. …

So I resent the smokescreens, accompanied by veiled and not so veiled charges of anti-Semitism, that are intended to divert our eyes from ongoing human rights violations that require our urgent attention.

You say, and I agree, that it is dispicable if people play the antisemitism card in order to silence criticism of israel.

But there is more to be said about antisemitism.  Some women may cry rape, some black people may invoke slavery to explain their crimes, some Jews may play the antisemitism card to close down debate.  But we, as people who have a professional and a political duty to understand the realities of racism, violence against women and antisemitism, know that focus on the bad faith of the antiracist, is often to be recognised as a way of refusing to take concerns seriously about structures of oppression.

I have written on the struggles over defining antisemitism here; I have written on the allegation of Jewish bad faith here.

The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa is often invoked as the precedent for the BDS campaign against Israel.  But there are other precedents too.  Boycotts and ostracism, from civil society and from universities as well as boycotts of Jewish businesses, are old, frequent and profoundly lodged in many Jews’ collective memories.

In a campaign which singles out, for whatever reason, Israel,  for boycott, we need to remain vigilant about antisemitism.  It is not good enough to teach young people to recognise a Jewish claim of antisemtiism as an indicator of a Zionist conspiracy to close down free speech and to destroy academic freedom.  We need, still, to worry about the wolf, even if some badly brought up children keep on crying wolf.

Best Wishes,

David Hirsh

My original open letter to Claire Potter is here.

Claire’s response to me is here.

A collection of Engage’s arguments against the campaign to boycott Israeli universities are to be found here.

A set of debates from Engage with South Africans about the boycott movement in South Africa is to be found here.

A set of debates from Engage about antisemitism in the boycott movement are to be found here.

Open letter to Claire Potter from David Hirsh

UPDATE:  Claire Potter has responded here.

Dear Claire,

I am a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.  I read that you were an opponent of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions and I read that you decided, nevertheless, to support the BDS motion in the recent ASA debate.  I would like to respond to a few of the arguments which you were reported as having made to explain your apparent change of position.  It appears that you are fairly new to this debate.  We in the UK, have been engulfed by it for ten years now, specifically within our trade union, the University and College Union, and I would like to share with you some of what we have learned.

In a piece in The Nation, Michelle Goldberg adds a few paragraphs at the bottom which explain your thinking on the motion:

Update, December 7, 2013, 5:30pm: After I posted this piece, I learned that Claire Potter had changed her position on the ASA resolution and voted yes. Reached by phone, she explained how the shift in her thinking came out. When she first expressed qualms about the academic boycott, she says, “The response was overwhelming. There were massive numbers of people, including a lot of people I know, just writing these nasty things on my blog about what a horrible person I was.”

As the debate about BDS and academic freedom has moved forward, she looked for a way to engage in it constructively, but increasingly felt like she couldn’t do so from outside. “The problem, when you hold to a position so rigidly, you yourself become part of the polarization,” she says. “I all of the sudden became a cause célèbre for all kinds of other people, when that is really not what I intended at all. I would like to have a conversation about academic freedom within this strategy.”

 One of your key points is that you were horrified by the sudden polarization of the debate about the boycott motion.  You seem to be committed to the politics of consensus, academic freedom and engaged listening; it is how people involved in radical politics relate to each other, influence each other and decide what to do.  Within our movements, the labour movement, the feminist movement, radical politics, we debate respectfully; outside of it we campaign, we make arguments, we try to change the weather and are sometimes treated with a marked hostility and lack of respect.  So when you made clear your opposition to academic BDS, perhaps you were surprised and shocked to find yourself outside of the sphere of respect and consensus; you were treated as though you were outside of the universe of radical, counter-hegemonic and committed activism.  A natural first instinct would be to step back inside the tent where you belonged.  If good people, people you usually agree with, your friends and comrades, thought you had taken a position which is only held by ‘horrible people’, then perhaps you’d made a mistake.

It is uncomfortable to find yourself on the wrong side of a binary opposition between the radical campaign to ‘do something’ about Israeli human rights abuses on the one hand, and the angry, apparently conservative, often ‘Zionist’ opponents on the other.  You say you wanted to find a middle ground, you wanted to find consensus.  You had suddenly become a symbolic figure in other people’s polemics and you wanted to reclaim your own actual voice.  I suspect you wanted to remain on the radical, pro-Palestinian side, but also to think through the obvious problems which are associated with boycotting Israel.

Academic freedom is, for you, a key principle, and rightly so.  Boycotting Israeli universities seems to violate this principle.  But the boycott campaign assured you that they were also in favour of academic freedom.  First they say that academic freedom in Palestine is violated daily by the fact of occupation, and in this they’re right.  Second, they say that boycott does not violate academic freedom.  

As it happens, the guarantees offered by the boycott campaign relating to academic freedom are not coherent.

First, the claim that a boycott of institutions does not prevent any actual individuals from speaking or from being heard is not right.  Academic institutions themselves, in Israel as anywhere else, are fundamentally communities of scholars; they protect us, they make it possible for us to be academics, and they defend our academic freedom.  I don’t mean to idealise our institutions.  Many of us experience our own institutions also as dull bureaucratic and thought-deadening machines; both aspects are probably true.  Israeli universities are like British and American ones in these senses.  But, academic work is done by academics; we write papers, we give lectures, we organise conferences; a boycott of Israeli academia would inevitably become a boycott of our Israeli academic colleagues.  Some time ago Jon Pike wrote a piece explaining why the institutional boycott is a myth, please do read it.

Before coming to the strategy of ínstitutional boycott’, the BDS campaign toyed with a political test.  Israeli academics who were critical of their government, and of the positions held by some of their Israeli colleagues, would be exempted from the boycott.  Of course,in reality this could only be implemented in a McCarthyite way; please read Steve Cohen’s piece about how a demand to Israelis to demonstrate their political cleanliness would feel.  So the BDS campaign abandoned the idea of the political test.  But the institutional boycott is actually a political test in a new form.  Instead of asking Israeli scholars to pass a political test, the institutional test would ask them to disavow their own institutions and to speak only as individuals.  Some will be unwilling, for a number of reasons, others will be unable for contractual or other considerations.  The institutional boycott is the political test in a new form.

Your first instincts were right.  The campaign to exclude Israeli academics, and only Israeli academics, from the global academic community, could only become a violation of the norms of academic freedom.  There is no consensus here, there is no compromise; boycotting academics necessarily violates academic freedom.  Some in the BDS campaign admit this, but say that it is a necessary evil to have effective solidarity with the Palestinians.  But I think that academic freedom is a mode of solidarity, not something which should be sacrificed in favour of solidarity.

A couple of things convinced her that that was possible. First, the ASA National Council adapted the boycott resolution to make its commitment to academic freedom clearer. And then, rather than simply passing the resolution itself, it took the unusual step of putting it to a vote of the ASA membership, which struck her as an effort at compromise. “If there had been concessions on both sides and they had been able to come to a consensus around this vision, I felt like I should support them, because compromise is hard work.”

Debate is not always democratic.  For example, we would not welcome an open debate about whether the right place for a woman is in the kitchen.  In this case, debate itself would benefit the anti-woman bigots by allowing them to portray themselves as one legitimate side in a nuanced discussion.  It is my belief that a debate about whether to exclude Israelis, and only Israelis, from the global community of academics, artists and scientists is a debate which has similarities to this.  I think you voted for the resolution partly because you thought the debate itself was healthy, even if  in the end, you didn’t support the BDS position.  You may want consensus but I think the key problem here is that no consensus is possible on boycott, which is a stark and binary position.

There should be a consensus position of solidarity with Palestinians, particularly, from scholars, solidarity with Palestinian scholars. There is a consensus against the occupation, against anti-Arab racism and antisemitism, for the politics of peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.  Indeed, much of the important communication between Palestinians and Israelis has been conducted via academic engagement.  We should help facilitate communication, not exclusion; we should listen, not close down voices.  Consensus is possible, but the boycott campaign splits this consensus down the middle, constructing pro-boycotters as friends of Palestine and anti-boycotters as enemies of Palestine.

Essentially, she decided to give her colleagues the benefit of the doubt. “It has become clear to me that there is a shift in political concerns, that maybe I need to see how it works,” she says. “Everybody in BDS says this is not a restriction of academic freedom, that individuals will not be targeted. I’m going to take a leap of faith and say ok, lets see if this does in fact work out the way you say its going to work out.”

The assurance that individuals will not be targeted is an odd one, given that you yourself explained quite straightforwardly how you were personally targeted for appearing to be on the wrong side of this discussion.

Our experience is that individuals do get targeted.  Israelis get targeted.  But also people who oppose the boycott campaign here, in Britain, or here in America, get targeted.  One of the key impacts of this ‘debate’ is the damage it does here, in our own movements and universities.

My colleagues and I have been involved in opposing the boycott campaign for a while now.  Here is a web page with links to lots of the things which we have written on the boycott campaign.

Best wishes

David Hirsh

UPDATE:  Claire Potter has responded here.

On socialist, sociological and Jewish communal denial – David Hirsh

People who aspire to lead within the Jewish community have a special responsibility to defend that community and to develop a keen nose for antisemitism, which may constitute a threat to that community.

Sociologists have a particular responsibility to approach the subject of antisemitism seriously, applying the methodological tools and the intellectual judgment and knowledge which their discipline and tradition offers.  The foundations themselves of sociology lie partly in the project to replace conspiracy theory with structural analysis.  Sociology has developed sophisticated ways of thinking about race and racism: structural, discursive, institutional and to varying degrees, unconscious.

People who consider themselves to be on the left live in a movement and a tradition which is far from immune to antisemitism and conspiracy theory and they have a specific responsibility to know their history, to understand their present and to educate their youth.  Moishe Postone explains the temptation of antisemitism as follows:

As a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, it is particularly dangerous because it appears to be antihegemonic, the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination. It is as a fetishized, profoundly reactionary form of anti-capitalism that I would like to begin discussing the recent surge of modern antisemitism…

Moishe Postone, History and Helplessness

Too often, instead of taking the kind of analytical care with antisemitism which is required, people who usually begin with the external world, find themselves beginning, and sometimes ending too, with introspection.  They look within their own heads and find themselves innocent of antisemitism, which they think of only as conscious Jew-hatred.  Normally, they are well aware that external and objective social phenomena must be treated as such, but in the case of antisemitism, all that they know is jettisoned in favour of a kind of moralistic certainty of their own cleanliness.  They adopt a kind of angry, self-confident rage against anybody who dares to look, in a scientific and methodological way, at actual effects and actual outcomes and actual discourses, rather than satisfying themselves with subjective feeling.  The heat of the rage and the fear of rational discussion is proportional to the proximity of the critic to antisemitic ways of thinking or to the fear its presence may engender within them; the heat and rage disables our ability to employ the usual methods of our discipline and of our movement.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim expresses his preference for analysing external and objective social facts to satisfying himself with a study only of subjective intention, in the following way:

“Intent is too intimate a thing to be more than approximately interpreted by another.  It even escapes self-observation.  How often we mistake the true reasons for our acts!  We constantly explain acts due to petty feelings or blind routine by generous passions or lofty considerations….  Besides, in general, an act cannot be defined by the end sought by the actor, for an identical system of behaviour may be adjustable to too many different ends without altering its nature.”

Durkheim, On Suicide

I have written about how sociological method can help us to understand antisemitism as a complex and external phenomenon, and one which can be difficult to pin down, here:

 Hirsh, David. 2013. Hostility to Israel and Antisemitism: Toward a Sociological Approach.  Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 5, pp. 1401-1422. [Article]

Yet sometimes, today’s leaders and intellectuals reject this method in favour of moral outrage, bluster and thinly veiled threats against anybody who suggests that there may be antisemitic ways of thinking or outcomes lying unseen and unacknowledged within what appears as mere criticism of Israel.  It is thoroughly discomforting  for Jews to believe that there is antisemitism in the wider community, for Sociologists to believe that there is antisemitism within their own discipline and for socialists to believe that there is antisemitism within their own movement.  For obvious reasons there is a huge temptation to go into denial about our own national, political and disciplinary families and to rely on feeling rather than analysis.

One way of protecting this state of denial and of avoiding an engagement with the evidence of antisemitism is what I have called the Livingstone Formulation.  It is a phenomenon by which people who raise the issue of antisemitism may be confronted by quick, angry and morally superior denial.  It is recognisable by the tendency to allege the bad faith, rather than an error of judgment, of the person who raises the issue of antisemitism.  The accusation is that Jews allege antisemitism, knowing that it isn’t really there, in a secret plan to try to silence criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.  Jews are accused of the despicable tactic of playing the antisemitism card and so of knowingly crying wolf.  This counter-accusation of bad faith saves everybody from the daunting prospect of making difficult judgments about our own environments and of having to engage with the concrete questions which are raised.  If one denies, denounces and accuses the accuser, one can avoid actually thinking through the specific examples which require consideration.    I have written about the Livingstone Formulation  and its different forms and usages here:

Hirsh, David. 2010. Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about antisemitism The Livingstone Formulation, ‘playing the antisemitism card’ and contesting the boundaries of antiracist discourse. Transversal, 1, pp. 47-77. ISSN 1 607-629X [Article].

Yet the angry and blanket denial about the antisemitism which is close to us ratchets up to ever higher levels.  The effect is to drive the people who raise the issue of antisemitism outside of what are recognised as the boundaries of legitimate, polite or intellectual discourse.  A person is likely to be denounced in highly personalized terms as a bully, as a Zionist, as an apologist for Israeli racism, an agent of a foreign power, and it is declared that he should no longer be allowed to be part of the discussion.

Yet the ad hominem bluster hides a fear of serious intellectual engagement.  As Hegel puts it in the famous Preface to his Philosophy of Right:

If a content is to be discussed philosophically, it will bear only scientific and objective treatment; in the same way, the author will regard any criticism expressed in a form other than that of scientific discussion of the matter itself merely a subjective postscript and random assertion, and will treat it with indifference.

Hegel, Philosophy of Right

I have contributed to discussions about defining antisemitism here:

Hirsh, David. 2012. Defining antisemitism down: The EUMC working definition and its disavowal by the university & college union. Fathom, 1(1), pp. 30-39. [Article]

I have contributed to discussions about the relationship between antisemitism and hostility to Israel here:

Hirsh, David. 2007. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper. Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) Occasional Papers, New Haven, CT.

The debates between me, Norman Geras and Martin Shaw on the antisemitism in the boycott movement are here:

The debates regarding the Israel boycott movement in South Africa are online here:

David Hirsh and Chip Berlet discuss antisemitism and conspiracy theory here:

David Hirsh

Roger Waters keeps digging

In the past Roger Waters has reacted with indignation to accusations of antisemitism.

Waters has spoken against Israeli policies and accused the ADL of painting critics as anti-Semitic.

“It’s a screen that they hide behind. I don’t think they should be taken seriously on that. You can attack Israeli policy without being anti-Jewish,” he said.

“It’s like saying if you criticise the US policy you are being anti-Christian. I’m critical of the Israeli policy of occupying Palestinian land and their policy of building settlements, which is entirely illegal under international law, and also of ghettoising the people whose land they are building on.

It is indeed perfectly possible to attack Israeli policy without being anti-Jewish.  However in a recent interview with Counterpunch Waters, as well as offering a rather selective and tendentious analysis of the current situation in Israel, deploys arguments and parallels which go well beyond just being ‘critical of Israeli policy’.

I would not have played for the Vichy government in occupied France in the Second World War, I would not have played in Berlin either during this time. Many people did, back in the day. There were many people that pretended that the oppression of the Jews was not going on. From 1933 until 1946. So this is not a new scenario. Except that this time it’s the Palestinian People being murdered. It’s the duty of every thinking human being to ask: “What can I do?”.

Although the comparisons between Israel and Apartheid South Africa have rightly been criticised, there are certainly some similarities between the two boycott campaigns.  But rather than using what one might have thought the most intuitive parallel for a BDS advocate, Waters feels compelled to turn to Nazi Germany in order to make a grotesque parallel between the situation of the Palestinians today and the Holocaust.

Later Waters explains why he thinks more people in the music industry don’t share his wish to boycott Israel:

This has been a very hard sell particularly where I live in the United States of America. The Jewish lobby is extraordinary powerful here and particularly in the industry that I work in, the music industry and in rock’n roll as they say. I promise you, naming no names, I’ve spoken to people who are terrified that if they stand shoulder to shoulder with me they are going to get fucked.

This doesn’t really require further comment – but here is a reminder that failing to heed the pressure to boycott can also seem like a difficult, even dangerous, step for artists and musicians.

The Elephant in the Context – Eve Garrard

This is a slightly updated version of the piece by Eve Garrard that appeared earlier on Harry’s Place.

Eve Garrard

Eve Garrard

We all know about the importance of context in understanding and judging the actions of others.  If the person who stole a loaf of bread was starving, and trying to feed her starving child, we judge the theft differently from the way we judge an equivalent theft carried out by some opportunistically looting hooligans.  So what would you think of someone who told you about the horrifying details of a wife’s premeditated murder of her husband, but completely omitted to mention the fact that he’d been abusing her terribly, physically and mentally, for 20 years?  What would you think of someone who told you of the appalling punishment of ‘necklacing’ carried out by some members of the ANC in the 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa, without ever mentioning the brutalising facts of apartheid in that country at that time?  What would you think of someone who described black American criminality without ever so much as mentioning racism or slavery? You might, at the very least, raise an eyebrow and murmur the word ‘context’.  Even though each of these cases involves wrongful, sometimes horribly wrongful, actions, you might think that the context is important in judging those who carried out the actions.  (And of course context is just as important in judging rightful action too). You might also think that the people who so ignored the context in these cases had rather poor and blinkered moral and political judgment.  And if you wanted to explain this lack of judgement, these blinkers, you might in some cases make reference to the persistence of longstanding prejudices against women or Africans or American people of colour.

So even in cases of absolutely wrongful action, such as necklacing, we can see that context is important for understanding what’s going on.  Now consider this article in openDemocracy, about ‘the Israel Lobby’.  The article walks us through the development of Zionist sympathies among British Jews and others in the UK.  It comments that in 1939 Zionism gained control of central representative bodies of the Jewish community, and claims:

 “[a]s a result of this ‘Zionisation’, the Jewish State was woven into the fabric of communal life in Britain.  One of its many political legacies is the fact that today one of the constitutional purposes of the Board of Deputies of British Jews is ‘to advance Israel’s security, welfare and standing’”. 

The writers go on to say:

“Though some felt the Zionist Federation was obsolete following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, it soon found a new niche in public relations, political lobbying, cultural diplomacy and the promotion of aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel).  The Board of Deputies undertook some similar activities and from the mid-1970s, both were assisted by Britain’s first pro-Israel PR outfit, the British-Israel Public Affairs Committee (BIPAC).” 

And that’s all.  That is, we are given an account of the development of British Zionism in which we are moved from the late 1930s to the middle of the 1970s, with no mention whatever of certain key events that might be thought to have had a bearing on support for Jewish self-determination.  The tragedy of the European Jews, and the ethnic cleansing of the longstanding Middle Eastern Jewish communities in the later 1940s and early 1950s, with the concomitant production of large numbers of Jewish refugees, might never have happened, for all this article tells us.  No attacks on Jews in Israel or elsewhere are referred to, or any racist words or actions against them; indeed there is only one specific mention of violence:  “Israel’s violence and racism”, and only one mention of human rights violations: “[the lobby’s]effectiveness in concealing, excusing or justifying Israeli human rights abuses.”  No other prejudice or danger or violence is ever mentioned as a possible contribution to support for Jewish self-determination.

Leave aside the deployment of some very familiar figures in this article – the sinister ‘transnational’ powers; the influence of Jewish multi-millionaires; the (alleged) mendacity of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism (according to the article, the Community Security Trust exists only ‘ostensibly’ to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitic violence); the alleged “intimidating and silencing of those who speak out” against Israel (this must be one of the loudest silences in history, as can be seen from the constant discussion of these issues, both in the UK and in the USA, by the Press, by parts of the Universities, and on the Net ).  Focus only on the omission of any reference to actual and threatened genocides of Jews, and actual and threatened ethnic cleansing of Jews on a very large scale. What might we think of the judgment of writers who so notably ignore the context of the phenomenon which they are describing?  Even those who share the authors’ overt hostility to Israel might think that in order to understand the rise of Zionism in Britain we should pay at least a little attention to the horrific fate which swallowed up so many Jews during that period, and to the long shadow which that fate inevitably threw over later events.  Of course in the view of many people, including myself, support for Jewish self-determination isn’t wrong at all, on the contrary it’s fully justified; and part of that justification resides in exactly those features of the context which the openDemocracy article so studiously, so blatantly, ignores.

In the light of such glaring omissions, such remarkable silences about matters so obviously relevant to their subject, there’s something rather touching about the lack of self-knowledge which the authors show in the title they’ve chosen for their article: ‘The UK’s pro-Israel lobby in context.’  But there’s also something rather sinister about it, too: the only contextual features which are visible to these authors are ones which can be fitted comfortably into some very longstanding and hostile stereotypes about Jews.

Eve Garrard

This is a slightly updated version of the piece by Eve Garrard that appeared earlier on Harry’s Place.

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