“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)

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

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Is it possible to further illustrate Saul’s argument by imagining the following scenario (and would someone please tell Deborah Fink that it’s only satire, and perhaps Allan Siegel as well): let us revisit the former Yugoslavia, and imagine that either Croatia or Serbia (it doesn’t matter which) had actually occupied Bosnia, remembering that Croatia is predominantly Catholic and Serbia predominantly Orthodox and Bosnia has a large Muslim minority (some 40% according to this wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovina). Further, the activities of the occupying power could well be represented as, realistically, breaching the human rights of the Muslim segment of the Bosnian population. So, along comes this group of people who demand that the universities of Croatia or Serbia (as appropriate) should be boycotted because of the behaviour of the Croatian/Serbian authorities. Further, the academics and the academies of C/S are complicit in this behaviour, merely by remaining in their universities, not moving elsewhere, not publicly disassociating themselves from the activities of their government and by accepting government funding for their activities, thus making themselves an arm of the state. Lets call them the ASA or the STW Coalition or the UCU. Then others say, “hang on, what about the activities of Israel? They are as bad or even worse”. So, the leadership of the ASA or the STW Coalition or the UCU respond by saying maybe, even yes, but you have to start somewhere, and actually, anyway, given what happened to Croatians (or Serbians), they should know better than treat others as they were treated. Further, the Croatians (or Serbians) are always using the treatment meted out to them as a motive for claiming that such behaviour is being repeated by those who criticise them now. Doesn’t sound very likely does it? So why does it sound so likely when this is what happens to Israel and Israelis and only Israel and Israelis? Just a thought.

  2. David Sigeti Says:

    I think that the deep similarities between contemporary anti-Israel propaganda and traditional antisemitic arguments is a topic well-worth exploring and that this article makes a good start at that exploration. However, I have a big problem with the statement, “Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable.” What are these unnamed “crimes” and why does the author feel the need to agree with those who hate Israel that she is guilty of them? This kind of “preemptive cringe” is utterly out of place in an article opposing antisemitism.

  3. Jonathan Lowenstein Says:

    Perhaps the ASA should find ways to express their opinions that do not lay them open to counter claims of antiSemitism.
    Israel receives so much military aid because of the r & d benefits it brings to the US military. Many key US weapons are Israeli developments and Israeli military know-how more than repays US aid. For the US to develop comparable weapons systems would cost many many times as much. If the US “freed” Israel from its obligations to the US, Israeli know how could easily transform China or Russia into the worlds major arms dealers, thus delivering a fatal blow to US military ascendancy. In short, Israeli aid is cheap and profitable to the USA. As for support in the Security Council, you need to show statistics.
    People of prejudice will always find a “legitimate” reason for their prejudice. It doesn’t stop it being prejudice.

  4. Lynne T Says:

    Jeff Goldberg at Bloomberg Views hit the nail on the head or perhaps hoisted the head of the ASA with his own petard by pointing out that they “start with Israel” simply because they can (hell, it’s as politically fashionable as all hell, ain’t it), and never move on, because they do not intend to.

  5. Bill Says:

    I’m sad come back here to eat my hat, and to see that the ASA has done something this college-educated stupid and suicidal. I just have to repeat what Is said ages ago… Where WERE they when they were being brief on discrimination law that we all had to go through. The university (read the administration) as a whole is libel for EEOC law compliance within the campus and the standard can be low (at the preponderance of evidence level). Plus the non-federal (state-level) equivalent can be very generous even in conservative states with what can be a protected classification — ranging from political ideology to *any* characteristic not essential to do the job. Anti-descrimination law is clear on this and the push back is going through that conduit. Administrations are making it clear that they’ll give no quarter to the BDS movement out of principle and to indemnify themselves and their faculty (including the ASA) against lawsuits they cannot win Heck, in hiring, tenure and promotion or any other level of engagement we were given guidance not to even ask people if they have kids let alone their religion or national origin. Now these people are going to sit straight-faced and discrimination against national origin wrt one country and one country only? Plus the AAUP and AAU have long opposed this sort of thing and aren’t buying the “academic freedom to discriminate” argument and ASAers who want to discriminate against one group and one group only will have an very uncomfortable meeting in the Human Resources office. This also opens up a nasty can of worms. Academics doing any or planing any or “suspected of doing any” interaction with Israel now have a right through HR and their chain to insist that anyone with ASA membership disclose it so they can be removed from any evaluation process and those ASA members can’t scream “retaliation” or preemptive “retaliation” since they have already telegraphed their own intent to discriminate.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Totalit, have you read this? And, if so, what is your response to Bill?

      Bill, welcome back. Pity, as you say, it’s under these circumstances. But then, stupidity never has had a time limit on it.

  6. Elliott A Green Says:

    Since Richard has used the term “European Holocaust” which to be sure is widely used and believed, I suggest that we keep in mind that in fact the German Nazis were interested in wiping out the Jews worldwide, not just in Europe. This is what Hitler promised Haj Amin el-Husseini during their meeting in late November 1941. During the German occupation of Tunisia and Libya [about 6 months for Tunisia], a few 1000 Jews were sent to death camps in Europe, while 1000s of other local Jews were put in labor camps.
    Moreover, the abovementioned Husseini was the chief leader of the Palestinian Arabs in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. He spent the war years in the Nazi-fascist domain in Europe. The Arab nationalist movement was generally pro-Hitler. Major pogroms took place in Iraq, Libya, Egypt etc. in that period. So the Holocaust was hardly only “European.” Jews in Arab lands were affected too and certain leading Arabs collaborated in the Shoah, not only Husseini.

  7. Elliott A Green Says:

    I see that Saul, not Richard, wrote this comment. Sorry for the misidentification.
    One more correction. I think it’s obvious that Hitler wanted to wipe out the Jews worldwide. However, what he promised Haj Amin el-Husseini when they met on 28 November 1941 was, as summarized by Hitler’s secretary, “. . . . Germany’s objective would then [after the German armies crossed the Caucasus -EAG] be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of British power. In that hour the Mufti would be the most authoritative spokesman for the Arab world. It would then be his task to set off the Arab operations which he had secretly prepared. . .
    . . .
    The Grand Mufti replied that it was his view that everything would come to pass just as the Fuhrer had indicated. He was fully reassured and satisfied by the words which he had heard from the Chief of the German State. . . .
    The Grand Mufti thanked him. . . .”
    [translated text in Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, editors, The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict (seventh revised & updated edition; London & New York: Penguin Books 2008), pp 54-55.

  8. Saul Says:

    Please note that the term ‘European Holocaust’ is used, not by me, but by Alex Lubin. I comment on the problematic use of this phrase in a footnote.

  9. Elliott A Green Says:

    Oops. Now I have to say sorry to Saul. I guess I’m not reading closely enough late at night. But Saul, your footnote does not deal with what concerns me about this problematic term “European Holocaust.” I stress that the Shoah was not precisely European but also took place elsewhere, as in North Africa, even in Iraq during the Farhud. And not only Europeans or Americans were involved.

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