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.