The Israel Boycott, Anti-Judaism, and the Giant Shrug

What the American Studies Association's hatred of Israel is really about.

boycottThe academics of the 5,000-member American Studies Association (ASA) are boycotting Israeli universities and scholars.  The 30,000-member Modern Language Association may soon follow suit.  In their communiqué, they write that this decision "represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians."

Reading the material put forth by the ASA, one could be led to believe that the organization's leadership is motivated by a considered act of conscience, akin to those who have called for sanctions and boycotts for humanitarian reasons in the past.  This is wrong: the ASA's leaders, and the members who have supported this decision by more than a two-to-one ratio, are led by their egos, not their consciences.  What they've displayed is an extraordinary example of inflated self-importance, believing their journals and conferences in cultural studies to be far more vital than they actually are.  They are also exhibiting a classic failing of the egoist: denial of one's true motivations, often in contradiction with one's own claims to high-mindedness and objectivity.  Think of the man of means who gives ostentatiously to charity, while actually being motivated by tax-relief; or think of the hero of Camus’s novel The Fall, who helps a blind man across the street and then takes a bow for all to see.

What the members of the ASA deny, against reason, is that their moral crusade is informed by an irrational obsession with Israel and Israel alone, and that this obsession cannot be separated from the fact that Israel's raison d'être is Zionism — the nationalism of Jews.  In other words, they are ultimately denying that their indignation is fueled by their attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

But can't one criticize Israel without being an anti-Semite, you ask? Well yes, one surely can.  But not without distancing oneself from the entire world view of the ASA-crowd.  This campaign is aimed at Israel, not the Israeli inhabitants of the West Bank, and for a clear reason: the ideology behind the anti-Israel Left is not anything like the fruit of an organic humanitarianism.  Rather, there is a larger belief here: namely, that the existence of a nation-state that self-identifies with Judaism is inherently objectionable.

Even Apartheid South Africa, the regime with which Israel is so often and erroneously compared, was not delegitimized in this way.  No one was saying that South Africa shouldn't be a country, but people are saying (either directly or by implication) that Israel should not be one.  And in a certain way, the distinction is even more gratuitous: South Africa isn't a nation, it's just a bunch of lines on a map (just look at its name —  it would be like calling France "Northwest Europe"); Israel, on the other hand, is a nation as well as a state.

Invariably, the anti-Israel Left claims to support the right of Jews to live in Palestine, but wants a single state with an Arab-Muslim majority in control, animated by such niceties as democratic elections, freedom of religion, and the "right of return" for all Arabs whose ancestors formerly inhabited the land that is today's Israel.  They ignore two inconvenient facts: first, the Arab world has no history of democracy or religious freedom, meaning that a single-state solution would either produce a military dictatorship or an Islamic theocracy, not a liberal-democratic state; second, the Jewish population of the Middle East is now concentrated in Israel, when it was previously spread throughout the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, precisely because it was forced to flee all regional countries.  (In case you think that this was a mere diplomatic protest against the creation of Israel, note that anti-Jewish pogroms by Muslims, such as those in Baghdad in June of 1941 and in Tripoli in November of 1945, predate Israeli statehood.)

The desire to replace Israel with a single civic state, as the ASA exhibits with its boycott, necessarily entails support for either the subjugation of Middle Eastern Jews as second-class citizens (as they were under the Ottomans) or their extirpation from the region (as they were under autocratic Arab-nationalist regimes).  To believe otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the states and peoples who neighbour Israel.  Anything short of a secure Jewish state with a majority-Jewish population would create a plight for Middle-Eastern Jews that would make the present circumstances of Palestinian Arabs look paradisiacal.  ASA-types with any shred of knowledge and intellectual honesty must know this, which is precisely why their position is so suspicious.

* * *

I've long tried to understand the contemporary Left's obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and its tunnel-visioned view of the matter, which categorizes all Israeli actions as evil and all Arab ones as an admirable fight against oppression.  One should aim to find an explanation that does not rest on a fundamental hostility toward Jews; after all, the unfounded and premature attribution of bigotry to one's political opponents is normally the sign of a weak argument.

The best such explanation that I can come up with rests on the radical Left's predilection for anti-Americanism, which resembles far more a political position than a form of bigotry.  The problem, in their eyes, is not Israel per se but the fact that it is an ally of the Great Satan.  There is some empirical support for this: even figures such as Noam Chomsky were not hostile to Israel in its early existence.  The country was, as one recalls, founded primarily on the principles of democratic socialism and owed to Jewish Leftists for its establishment.  Chomsky even lived in Israel on a kibbutz for a time.  It was only when Israel aligned itself with the United States that it became complicit, in their view, with American imperialism, and hence dismissible on principle.  The Left's anti-Israelism could thus be chalked up to the decayed ideology of anti-colonialism, which has for decades been focuses squarely on American foreign policy.

The problem with this analysis is that it still does not account for the singular focus on Israel.  (It would also redoubt a further irony upon the ASA: if the U.S. is the real evil, then the academics should surely be boycotting themselves.)  America has many allies, many of them despicable in point of respect for human rights.  Yet there have been no calls for boycotts against Saudi Arabia or Pakistan from those who want to punish Israel.  There is another problem: the present iteration of the New Left, especially on campus and as represented by such organizations as the ASA, is only tangentially motivated by anti-colonialism in the way that it was during the Cold War.  Today's Left is descended from Marcusian cultural Bolshevism whose primary enemy is the social teachings of Christianity, which it views as oppressive and in need of complete repudiation.

What frustrates today's Leftists about Israel is that it stands athwart their narrative.  The Jewish citizens who comprise Israel's population are either themselves, or are recently descended from, people who have experienced oppression of an extraordinary magnitude, either in Europe, the former Soviet Union, or the Middle East.  Yet they have established their state and achieved considerable progress in terms of living standards and political circumstances through precisely the societal model of the West: free enterprise, representative democracy, respect for religion in public life, a responsible ethic of nationalism, and a duty-centric form of citizenship that encourages (and in the case of obligatory military service, mandates) that individuals put the nation before themselves.

According to the New Left, oppressed people are supposed to reject these things in favour of a Leviathan state that will neatly knock aside tradition and its demands for sacrifice in favour of unrestrained promotion of individual wants, allowing for an identity utopia that is free of all vestiges of the past.  Its beef with the Jews of the Middle East is that, despite their oppression, they don't do such things.  And in comparison with its neighbouring Arab states, which suffer under the tyrannies of inflated grievance and conspiracy theorism, Israel thrives as a result.

One would be tempted to stop here and say that the Left's problem with Middle Eastern Jews and their state is simply ideological, and hence not bigoted, were it not for a greater point: the praiseworthy and measurably-successful qualities of Israeli society outlined above are not incidental to the country; rather, they are intrinsic to its character as a Jewish state.  (One may object to this statement for the examples of free enterprise and representative government.  Indeed, Jews never governed themselves during the development of these ideas, so it is dubious to say that they are "intrinsic" thereto.  However, they were readily adopted as founding principles of the State of Israel, established as a Jewish state, suggesting that at the very least Israel's founders saw no contradiction between them and their religion.)  There is good reason for the term "Judeo-Christian": despite many religious and theological distinctions, Jews and Christians are both part of an overlapping cultural tradition.  And it is this tradition, and its demands upon the people who live under its influence, that the contemporary Left loathes and wishes to destroy.

So the anti-Israelism of the New Left is indeed a manifestation of animus toward Jews, but it is a result of opposition to what Middle Eastern Jews do and believe, rather than what they are.  One might say that it is anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish-culture instead of anti-Semitism; the latter, as we know, was a term invented to describe hatred of Jews as a "race" as opposed to practitioners of a religious creed.  The distinctions here are murky, of course, but I think that this shows how the fixation upon Israel can be anti-Jewish without involving accusations of specifically-racial bigotry.  The anti-Jewish sentiment of today's cultural Left is less emblematic of the anti-Semitism of the 20th-century than it is of the anti-Judaism from the twenty centuries before that.

But as exemplified by the pogroms of Christian Europe and Orthodox tsarist Russia, anti-Judaism is no joke, and its promoters of today are equally deserving of contempt.  They speak the language of oppression and emancipation, but the subjects to which they refer are hardly proper for these terms.  What they see in Israel is another iteration of the "ideology" to be replaced by egalitarianism, which in the Middle East could only be achieved by having Jews stop practising the very things that underwrite their survival, and constitute their being Jews.

* * *

The most worrying element of this episode, however, is the giant shrug with which the ASA boycott has been met.  The wider public knows that it could do as well without Israel as it currently does with it, and it could certainly do without its attachments to the Jewish State.  That's far from anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism, for such a position does not intimate a desire for an end to Israel, but one understands why many Americans are growing ambivalent.  For all the talk about triumphalist Islamic totalitarianism and its focus on the United States, it is fairly clear that, in strictly realist terms, America's relationship with Israel constitutes a liability.  Yes, the Left's search for "root causes" and "grievances" is disingenuous, but one doesn't have to be of that faction to see that America could well throw its Jewish friends in the Middle East to the wolves, and perhaps save itself from the wrath of a jihadist or two.

Thankfully, many people stop short of following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion.  There is a strong case, on the grounds of morality and inter-cultural affinity, for America to support Israel nevertheless.  At present, the ambivalence is stronger in the realm of domestic affairs than it is in the realm of foreign policy, where the imperative of American defense of Israel remains strongly supported.  It is disappointing that in the former category, however, there is not more solidarity, as would be demonstrated by a significant public outrage against the ASA decision — the kind that would make these academics fear for their very careers.

Radicals will be radicals, and no protest will change that, I can hear you saying.  Well, this is true but only to a point.  If the mainstream of the population were to display only a fraction of the latter's passion, the whole business would be over.  Radicals will be radicals, but only if their self-interest allows for it, especially in the academy.  If a few of these professors were to be refused tenure on the expressed ground of their anti-Jewish activities, and if the demands of donors and alumni associations could shut down a few of these cultural studies programs, the tone would change very quickly.

(Before protesting on the ground of academic freedom, remember that what these people are doing is not remotely describable as academic inquiry.  This is activism emerging from the most sordid varieties of group think and political correctness, dressed up unconvincingly as an endeavour of collective professional action.)

Furthermore, the anti-Israel Left is gaining ideological ground, mostly in the wake of the mainstream's  ambivalence.  Yes, some college presidents have spoken about their opposition to the boycott, and some colleges have withdrawn from the ASA.  Some have even scrupled to admonish the malice against Israel that is evidenced by the singular focus of the boycott.  But the key is to look at the narrow range of arguments that are permitted on the anti-boycott side.

For example, all of the articles of protest that I've read thus far have made the academic freedom of Israeli scholars the central argument.  Now, academic freedom is a serious thing, especially for those who engage in real scholarship, and one is right to point out that it has eroded significantly in recent decades.  But to say that the problem here is one of academic freedom is a major understatement.  The real problem here is the unwarranted singling out of a country and its citizens (and especially its intellectuals) for intimidation and punishment, on the ground that the country identifies itself as — and has a majority population that is — Jewish, to the end of facilitating the political circumstances that would actualize said country's destruction.

Secondly, all of the protests articles that I've seen more or less acknowledge that the ASA is right in its official reasoning for the boycott: namely, that Israeli control of parts of the West Bank is inherently wrong and must end immediately.  The people who take such a view but oppose the boycott are of course entitled to their opinion, but there is questionable wisdom in framing the anti-boycott argument in this way.  Saying that the ASA is right on the occupation but wrong on the method of ending it, even if its insight were true, undermines the case against the ASA.

The occupation is not, as the Left believes, maintained due to sheer anti-Arab malice by Israeli Jews; it is maintained because the political leadership in Israel believes it to be necessary for the country's security.  When the leadership believes that this is no longer the case, it will disengage as it did with Gaza in 2005.  People within and without of Israel can debate the West Bank policy, at least as long as they are allowed to do so.  But the spirit of the ASA boycott militates against the very idea of an argument. So far as the anti-Israel Left is concerned, there is no point in including anyone who disagrees  — better to just assume that the other side is evil and rob it of any opportunity to make its case.  This is especially true for Israeli academics who defend the present policy; under a boycott, the effort to exclude their contribution would be greater still.

The problem with the ASA's boycott is not its means, but rather its ends.  On this point there is no room for an even-handed middle ground.  Those who depart from the anti-Israel world view must voice their dissent now; if they don’t, the boycotts will keep rolling in.

Jackson Doughart is an editor and columnist for the Prince Arthur Herald, a Canadian online newspaper.  His freelance work has appeared in the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and C2C Journal.  Please visit

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