Discussions about BDS and how to oppose it – David Hirsh

This is copied from discussions on facebook:

DH:  Is the US Anthropological Association aware that the Bataclan and the Eagles of Death Metal had both been targeted by the BDS movement? The US Anthropological Association currently constitutes the most influential part of the BDS movement.

XX:  The arguments you’ve been making for the last day or two make complete sense to me. What’s unfortunate is that the floodgates will eventually open if Israel continues to follow a policy of “manage the occupation”. First in academia, and perhaps next in arts and entertainment.

A two-pronged approach is needed. Fighting BDS is only one part. There also needs to be an alternative to BDS for supporters of the Jewish democracy and opponents of what’s happening over the green line. Luckily the European Commission has given us some idea about what this would look like…

DH:  1. I’m worried about the argument that if only the Jews in the Middle East behaved better, then antisemitism would subside. Antisemitism is a huge and malign mystification of the actual conflict in the Middle East, not a straightforward response to it.

DH:  2. I’m worried about the notion that it is in Israel’s power to end the occupation whenever it chooses. There has to be a political solution to the conflict and there is no reason to believe that the Palestinians are sufficiently committed or politically organised to hold up their end of a peace agreement. What happens if months after a peace agreement a Palestinian state fails – in the way that the Iraqi state failed – and then Israel ha ISIS ten miles from Tel Aviv? The idea that Israel is so powerful that it is only embroiled in the occupation because that is what it chooses – is wrong.

DH: 3. I’m worried about the argument that the good anthropologists only need to be offered a move coherent and less antisemitic way to be anti-Israel and then that would undercut the BDS movement. This relentless focus on Israel is ever more eccentric; the Middle east is falling apart, hundreds of thousands of people are being murdered. US anthropologists need to lift their eyes from the evil Zionists.

DH:  4. The conflict is not about the occupation. There is a huge Sunni/Shia war brewing up. There is a war between democratic forces and totalitarian forces in the Middle East. All minorities are in danger of eradication – the Jews have a particular duty to stand up for the minorities of the Middle East because they are the only ones with state power. Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, B’hai… other minorities which people haven’t even heard of are in serious danger.

DH:  I agree Israel should do better. I think Israel should do more to position itself as the the pro-peace party, the pro-democracy, pro-human rights party. I agree. But for most Israelis, doing a dance to please US anthropologists is not their top priority.

XX:  1) Anti-Semitism plays a role in BDS, but it’s not enough to explain the spread of the phenomenon. Surely the supermajority of members of the AAA are not anti-Semites. Denouncing supporters of BDS as anti-Semites has gotten us nowhere. It’s continuing to spread.

2) No, but it is in Israel’s power to begin relinquishing control over the lives of Palestinians. While Israel doesn’t actively choose to continue the occupation every day out of choice, it has unfortunately made a number of choices over a few decades that certainly makes the occupation look more like a preference than a need. The settlements being the most obvious example.

3) It’s not a “less anti-Semitic way to be anti-Israel.” It’s neither anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Didn’t you say that you declined to visit the Ariel University?

4) Again, a good argument, but where has it gotten us so far? It only has a chance at working if liberal and progressive supporters of Israel are also fighting for a liberal and progressive Israel. Supporting the rights of settlements to mislead European consumers on the origin of their products is supporting the illiberal and undemocratic extension of Israel, not the democratic Jewish state.

DH:  1. Antisemitism is the only way to understand the way BDS has taken over the AAA. There is no politically or morally relevant reason to single out Israel for punishment while embracing the academic institutions and the scholars of every other state as our colleagues. True, denouncing supporters of BDS as antisemites has gotten us nowhere. That is the twist isn’t it? You can’t understand the phenomenon without understanding it as antisemitism, yet you’re not allowed to call it antisemitism because of the Livingstone Formulation. Contemporary antisemitism has within it a mechanism to push those who criticize it outside of the community of the oppressed.

DH:  2. Yes, Israel should offer a state to the Palestinians every morning at a press conference. Yes, Israel should withdraw the settlers. But antisemitism is not a function of the bad behaviour of Jews.

DH:   3. the psychological driver behind the boycott of Israel is to punish the Jews. Offering people difficult, complex and time-consuming ways to actually help, would not answer that psychological drive. The boycott is a way of screaming at the Jews without having to do anything else, without having to sacrifice anything without having to understand anything. It is a “not in my name” politics. It is identity politics.

DH:  4. I, like many many Israelis support a liberal and progressive Israel. It doesn’t make any difference to the supporters of BDS because the indicator for being in the community of the good, rather than outside it, is antisemitism. Anybody who is concerned about antisemitism is bundled out of the room.

XX: 1) There is an explanation, no one likes to hear it, but here it is: Academia is particularly supportive of anti-colonial movements and sentiments, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Israel is, as far as I know, the last country supporting a massive colonial project (the settlements) in the face of strong opposition from native inhabitants.

2) I certainly never suggested it was. But I don’t think Israel is helping itself at all.

3) I disagree. I think most of the soft support for BDS, which is the only kind of support we have any hope of pealing off, is being psychologically driven by the desire to be part of a contemporary anti-colonial struggle.

4) No one can convince the hardcore of BDS. But to stop its spread supporters of Israel can’t defend or water down everything Israel does. The response to the labeling proposal has been disheartening. A missed opportunity to support a clear distinction between democratic Israel and a deeply undemocratic aspect of its occupation of the West Bank.

DH:  Academia is not supportive of anti-colonial movements. It doesn’t support the Ukrainian fight against Russian colonialism; it doesn’t support the Tibetan fight against Chinese colonialism; it doesn’t support the Kurdish fight against Turkish colonialism; it doesn’t support the Moroccan fight against Spanish colonialism… etc etc etc etc. Academia supports anti-colonial movements when the “colonists” are Jews who are descended from the remnants of the undead of the Holocaust.

DH:  You say that being open about the antisemitic aspect of BDS is not effective. But our experience is that offering ways of doing genuine solidarity with Palestinians experiencing occupation isn’t effective either. That too, is written off as Zionist propaganda.

DH:  The boycott campaign does not make a distinction between the settlements and Israel, between Tel Aviv University and Ariel College. I wish it did. If it did, it would be a profoundly different movement from the one it is. When the BDS movement targets the West Bank, it is a dishonest tactical move. It believes Haifa and Jerusalem to be occupied territory too.

XX:  Indeed. I should have said Western colonialism, to which there is a record of academic opposition, and Israel is considered part of the West politically.

But that’s where you’re making a mistake! The boycott movement didn’t initiate the labeling proposal. Nor the cultural boycott of Ariel (which was started by leftist Israelis). There’s no “smart BDS” operating tactically alongside BDS. European leaders are Israel’s friends and allies. So are progressive Jews overseas and in Israel who try their best to isolate the settlements. It’s long past time a group dedicated to that cause was formed.

DH:  oh now you’re being silly XX. the European decision was a result of smart BDS lobbying. You know how politics works.

XX:  It’s a policy that was many years in the making, and BDS has only begun (unfortunately) to build respectability.

If you’re right, then there is no hope. I’d rather not believe this. The conclusion I’ve come to is that we have to convince centrist andliberal Israelis that the status quo is incompatible with Israel being a part of the liberal world. I’m not an alarmist who says Israel is on the verge of disappearing, but it is slipping into the revisionist bloc of states and away from the liberal one (*supproters* of Israel now say things like, “Why don’t you treat Russia and China the same way?”)

Perhaps then Bibi will finally lose.

DH:  It is true that I’m immensely angry about this AAA decisoin and yes, it is also true that I am arguably burnt out as an effective anti-BDS activist. We have been making all the smart arguments you advocate for ten years. And people should continue to make all the arguments: norms of academic freedom; solidarity not boycott; antisemitism; effectiveness. But I’m sick of it. People who make these smart arguments are responded to in straightforwardly antisemitic ways. They are accused of being agents of a foreign power, racists, imperialists, etc etc.

DH: It is also true that the only way to understand the power and the dynamics of the BDS movement is to understand its similarities to other antisemitic movements. If you refuse to understand this, you’ll lose your way.

DH:  But yes, make all the arguments. You’ll still lose. I suspect.

DH:  Bataclan. Eagles of Death Metal. targets of BDS.

DH:  I profoundly disagree with the strategy of trying ” to convince centrist and liberal Israelis that the status quo is incompatible with Israel being a part of the liberal world.” This is to support the boycott movement. It is to try to harness it as a force for peace. It is entirely the wrong strategy.  You cannot harness an antisemitic movement for progressive purposes.

XX:  I think we disagree about what the boycott movement is. I don’t think the European Commission is part of the boycott movement. Phillip Hammond, Laurent Fabius and John Kerry are not part of the boycott movement.

XX:  I have to get to bed as it’s almost morning here, but I’ll add one thing (and I hate to exploit my relative youth to make a point): It’s not just academics that are turning away from the possibility of a democratic Israel. Progressive secular Jews in my age group (18-24) are increasingly giving up on Israel. I feel like a right-winger these days when making arguments that would land me in Meretz in Israel. Without an active element in the equation, without a way for people who might be sympathetic to Israel to also actively oppose Israel in some areas, Israel will soon become a cause exclusive to the Right.

My suggestion is that liberal intellectuals, academics, businesspeople and celebrities who support Israel, but oppose the settlements, should sign an open letter supporting a boycott of the settlements and the recent labeling proposal. Send it to The Guardian or the New York or London Review of Books, or wherever else might be appropriate. But leaving no activist alternative to BDS is a huge mistake.

DH:  Goodnight XX. You need to start taking antisemitism seriously. Stop thinking like a person in a little bubble, an American liberal academic bubble or an Israeli North Tel Aviv bubble. Raise your eyes. Understand why US anthropologists can’t resist kicking the Jews. Think about the Jews as a minority in the Middle East. We have seen in the last 3 years precisely what kind of danger minorities in the Middle East face.

DH:  And it is hard. It is hard to understand that our friends and colleagues are influenced by antisemitic discourse. If we recognise this then we are faced squarely with our own scary and isolated position. How much nicer it would be if we could deal with antisemitism by being better people. Then it wouldn’t be so scary. If only there was a rational core to it that we could address rationally.

DH: And Bataclan. And Eagles of Death Metal.

XX:   That BDS is in large or in some part motivated by anti-Semitism is not in question. What my concern is whether its rise, particularly in academia, is a result of anti-Semitism or a result of BDS’s success at portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between Western colonialists and indigenous peoples. I think it is the latter, and by not acknowledging off the bat and in our own words that the settlements are indeed such a colonial project, we may ourselves be strengthening BDS. Tel Aviv University is already being treated the way Ariel College should be treated.

I strongly believe if there was an alternative—and I would not support this alternative simply to be part of an alternative to BDS, but because it’s right—BDS would soon be seen as unhelpful and extreme by liberal and moderate academics. You certainly won’t see such a lopsided vote if there were three options: no boycott, boycott Israel, or boycott the settlements.

See also:  

The Myth of Institutional Boycotts – David Hirsh

Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community – David Hirsh

Alan Johnson: The case against Boycott of Israel.  VIDEO. (2014)

Michael Yudkin’s argument against the academic boycott campaign.  click here.  (2007)

Stephen HawkingDavid Hirsh on the antisemitism which comes with the boycott campaign. Experiences from UCU  (2013)

Cure worse than the disease: academic boycott of Israel in the light of the academic boycott of South Africa – Mira Vogel (2007)

Mira Vogel on PACBI (2008)

Engage response to BRICUP [PDF] (2007)

Ben Gidley on the antisemitism which comes in the wake of the boycott campaign:  The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union (2011)

Robert Fine responds to Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of Israel in the South African Mail & Guardian  (2010)

Robert Fine in debate about boycotting Israel, “the apartheid state”. (2008)

Antisemitism, Boycotts and Freedom of Speech – Robert Fine (2007)

Hirsh, David. 2012. Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community. Engage, [Article]

Hirsh, David. 2011. No such thing as victimless boycott. Mail and Guardian, South Africa, p. 14. [Article]

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

Resignations from UCU over the issue of the academic boycott of Israel.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (2013)

Norman Finkelstein’s Attack on the BDS Movement

Boycott Israel? Desmond Tutu, David Newman, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Robert Fine, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, Farid Essack.  here.  (Oct 2010)

The University of Johannesburg Boycott, here.  (May 2011)

Eric Lee argues a boycott is no way to help the Palestinians here. (June 07)

Israeli Universities, Israel-Palestinian Peace and Real Solidarity – Paul Frosh, Hebrew University, Jerusalem Added by David Hirsh – 3 November 2006 (Nov 06)

A detailed critique of PACBI‘s (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) call for “BDS” – “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”. Here. (Sep 06, David Hirsh)

Hirsh’s speech and reports from his debate with Ilan Pappe, pro-boycott professor at Haifa University, on the issue of the boycott. At Birmingham AUT. Here.  (Nov 05)

Why I am against the boycott, by John Strawson – 18 May 2005

Another version of who we are. 


3 Responses to “Discussions about BDS and how to oppose it – David Hirsh”

  1. josephinebacon Says:

    “First in academia, and perhaps next in arts and entertainment.” This morning’s interview with the actor Mark Rylance on BBC News was proof of the Corbynisation of the acting profession. Almost the first words out of his mouth were an attack on Israel as being too “defensive” due to the murder of the six million (he did not use the word “Jews”) – of course Brussels is not on the defensive! – and then he referred to the British Muslim released from Guantanamo Bay as being an “innocent man”! Worst of all, the BBC presenters in the studio, Bill Turnbull and Louise Minchin, praised Rylance for being “a nice man” and “not sounding at all like an actor”.

  2. Avi in Jerusalem Says:

    I was appalled by this story of the US Anthropological Association approving an Israel boycott. One of the first associations that occurred me was this “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” Clermont-Tonnerre 1789 https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/284/ .

    The ideological heirs of the French revolution have learnt nothing from 200 years that have passed since then. How come these idiots are paid salaries to teach American kids a very important subject? Their minds are so closed, it is a surprise that they can function at all. Everything is water off a duck’s back; the rise of nationalism, colonialism (not just Western Colonialism), Communist, Fascism, the establishment and success of the nation State of Israel. Nothing seems to register.

    Perhaps someone should remind them of the values of the American Revolution and the letter written by General Washington to the Jewish community in Newport RI http://www.tourosynagogue.org/index.php/history-learning/tsf-intro-menu/slom-scholarship/86-washington-letter.

    I am neither American or French, in fact I moved from the UK to Israel 40 years ago. I am appalled by this situation, not only in how it may not affect Israel and Israelis, but who is teaching American students.

  3. Stephen Bellamy Says:

    ” I’m worried about the notion that it is in Israel’s power to end the occupation whenever it chooses”
    I got it. It’s an INVOLUNTARY occupation.

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