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May 14, 2014 12:09 am

Jews Against Themselves: The BDS Movement and Modern Apostasy

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avatar by Edward Alexander

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Photo: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

“The spiritual father of the fanatical incitement against the Jews was Abner of Burgos, a Jewish kabbalist and scholar who converted to Christianity in about 1321, upon experiencing a deep religious and spiritual crisis, and became known as Alfonso of Valladolid. His… despair of the Jewish question found expression in his polemics—some written in Hebrew, others in Spanish—which contain a complete doctrine of denunciation of the Jews and their laws and morals. Oral Law, he maintained, constituted a code of robbery, usury and deception. …Various sayings by the Talmudic sages … were interpreted by this apostate to mean that the Jews must be deprived of the easy livelihoods of usury and medicine, that they must be deprived of their autonomy and that they must be terrorized and subjected to harsh laws. Only then would they merit redemption.”

–H. H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People.

Prelude: at Vassar College

Starting in late February the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie has been the scene of some of the ugliest depredations yet organized by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign designed to expel Israel from the family of nations. The college founded in the nineteenth century by a brewer has become a witches’ brew of bullying and raw violence carried out by Students for Justice in Palestine and its collaborators. They described themselves as “staging an action [italics mine]” (on March 3) against the on-campus part of an International Studies class that was to include a trip to the Middle East to consider “water issues” in the region. Since the Jew and then the Israeli have been perpetually on trial it was considered necessary by Vassar to convene a special forum to consider the “ethics” of a course that would include setting foot in Israel. Although the trip’s itinerary confirmed that its (predictably tendentious) purpose was to convince students that Israel is unfairly depriving Palestinian Arabs of water, that slander was not sufficient to protect it (or its two garden-variety Jewish leftist instructors) from the wrath of BDSers, who consider Israel the devil’s own experiment station or, in the colorful lingo of Philip Weiss, a Jewish hater of Israel in attendance at the forum, “a blot on civilization.” Their violence (which included screaming, interruptions, and perhaps ululating) was the existential realization of a letter published on March 1 by a group of thirty-nine Vassar faculty members who condemned the Vassar administration for daring to criticize the recently passed resolution of the American Studies Association in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions.

The professors charged that critics of the ASA boycotters had had “a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and opinions.” It is now almost 65 years since Lionel Trilling remarked (in The Liberal Imagination) on the way in which modern liberals not only want the right to go their own way in all things, but to go their own way without any questions ever being asked of them. Those who carried out the “action” also had their special complaint. According to Weiss they were “people of color” (perhaps by analogy with “jeans of blue”), and therefore entitled to accuse their critics of “racism.” (They understand liberal-left quackery only too well: liberals think “the poor” are their equals in every sense … except that of being equal to them.) But the final word on that allegation of “chilled” discourse was left to the gloating Weiss: “The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence.”

Matthew Arnold, recalling (back in 1883) the happier moments of his second visit to America, expressed pleasure that “in colleges like Vassar College in the State of New York,” women (“the fair host of the Amazons”) were now studying Greek art and Greek literature. One wonders what he would say if he visited the same place now. I believe that what would most shock him would be not the bullying, the intimidation, the thuggery—to Oxford itself he had applied Byron’s aspersion: “There are our young barbarians all at play!”–but the flagrant violation of conscience in intellectual work, a violation like the following course description by Vassar’s Professor Joshua Schreier:

“History 214: The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict:

This course is NOT designed to present ‘an objective’ account of a ‘two-sided’ conflict. The fact that there are supposedly two sides does not obligate us to portray each as equally right and/or equally wrong. The goal, rather, is to understand why the conflict arose, and what sorts of power inequalities have made it continue. … Why and how did economic globalization, technological development, and European imperialism foster the creation of two different national identities in Palestine? Why and how and when did these two identities develop in such a way as to preclude members of certain religious or ethnic groups from belonging?”

Ruth Wisse has pointed out the impossibility of finding a course description at any elite American college or university that operated from the opposed ideological premise to Schreier’s: namely, that “the Jewish people had a connection to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean that was greater and of longer duration than the nomadic peoples who came to be called Palestinians, and that the central place of Palestinians in world politics is due to an imbalance of power between the small Jewish state and the petroleum-drenched Arab states with which it must contend.”

When he wrote this description, which apparently raised no eyebrows in whatever Vassar administrators pass judgment on curriculum, Schreier was an untenured toiler in the college’s Jewish Studies Program; now he is its chairman—and also (a fact that may surprise some people) the chief campus spokesman for the academic boycott of Israel. Here is how Lucette Lagnado (a Vassar graduate) reported the revelation in the Wall Street Journal (February 24, 2014): “The head of the Jewish Studies Program… had also expressed support for the boycott movement. Prof. Schreier was quoted in the campus paper ruminating that while once ‘instinctively against’ the boycott, he had heard more ‘substantiated, detailed’ arguments in its behalf, and as a result ‘I am currently leaning in favor of it,’ he concluded delicately, as if choosing a favorite tea.”

Self-hatred– or self-love and apostasy?

In his formidable book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred (1986) Sander Gilman showed how apostasy in the form of conversion to Christianity was the solution to their personal predicament chosen by substantial numbers of disaffected European Jewish intellectuals . He concluded the book by suggesting that “one of the most recent forms of Jewish self-hatred is the virulent Jewish opposition to the existence of the State of Israel.” In the modern world, however, the contradiction between liberal pieties and the defense of Israel is rarely resolved by formal apostasy, and it is difficult to find any self-hatred in such Jewish Israel-haters as Professors Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Judith Butler, and Jacqueline Rose, who suffer rather from a self-love that would shame Shakespeare’s Malvolio. They do on occasion cling to the outer trappings of medieval apostasy. Marc Ellis, the wandering “liberation theologian” and former Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, famously spent one Yom Kippur publicly confessing the sins of (other) Jews against Palestinian Arabs in front of a Christian audience at the (Protestant) Union Theological Seminary. (He also praised the “courage” of Gillian Rose, sister of the aforementioned Jacqueline, for her deathbed conversion to Christianity via the Church of England.) Daniel Boyarin, the University of California, Berkeley professor (of Talmud) who has identified himself as a Jew “destined by fate, psychology, personal history, or whatever, to be drawn to Christianity,” warned that “My Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Daheishe, Beteen,” (i.e., places the Israeli army had entered to pursue people inclined to massacre Jews). Noam Chomsky favors St. Paul’s Cathedral, in (or in front of) which he has often held forth, in one instance introduced by another perfervid Jewish Israelophobe, the late Harold Pinter, who introduced Chomsky as “the leading critical voice against the criminal regime now running the United States.” (Lest that remark prove overly cryptic, the ever-helpful Chomsky had a few weeks earlier clarified: “Antisemitism is no longer a problem [in the U.S.], fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control.”

These, however, are but the dramaturgy, the trappings and suits of woe where “virulent Jewish opposition to the existence of the state of Israel” is concerned. We see it more frequently, and frighteningly, in the BDS movement, dedicated to turning the pariah people into the pariah nation by calling into question Israel’s “right to exist,” just as the Nazis had called into question, and very successfully too, the Jewish people’s “right to live.” The leaders of this movement are “disproportionately,” if not preponderantly, Jewish apostates of a new kind that may well frighten us.

Cynthia Ozick explains:

“The Nicholas Donins and Pablo Christianis of ages past ran to abandon their Jewish ties even as they subverted them. The Nicholas Donins and Pablo Christianis of our own time run to embrace their Jewish ties even as they besmirch them. So it is as self-declared Jews, as loyal and honorable Jews , as Jews in the line of the prophets, as Jews who speak out for the sake of the integrity of Jews and Judaism, that we nowadays hear arguments against the survival, or the necessity, or the legitimacy, of the State of Israel.”

The Jews of BDS

Despite its precedents in the Nazis’ kauf nicht bei Juden campaign begun in 1933 and the expulsion of Jews from German universities by “Hitler’s Professors,” and the Arab economic boycott of Israel now over 66 years old, the BDS movement may fairly be called, despite local variations, “Jews Against Themselves.” It was begun in England in April 2002 by the Jewish academic Steven Rose and his wife. Espousal of the boycott of Israel, especially its academic institutions, soon became the identifying mark of “progressive” English Jews, so much so that Howard Jacobson devoted a whole satirical novel (The Finkler Question, 2010) to “the Jews of shame,” people who were ashamed of Israel’s very existence, though not of their own illiteracy, cowardice, and treachery.

Sixty years earlier it was a widespread joke that “when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.” But in The Finkler Question characters are far more likely to believe, as one named Kugel explicitly states: “I am a Jew because I am a non-Zionist.” Another character, almost certainly based on the actor Stephen Fry, is described as follows: “To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life. Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television program in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he’d had. … Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.”

Another Anglo-Jewish tribune of the BDS movement, and not merely a fictional one, is the very ashamed Jacqueline Rose, the psychoanalytically inclined professor of English, who laid Zionism on her couch long ago—and found it incurable. In the nosology of social diseases she merits a special place. She has long been so consumed by shame that she insists only the erasure of Israel can cure her affliction: “Appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name,” she has repeatedly expressed the wish to live “in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame” and looks forward to curing her shame-sickness by destroying its cause: Israel.

In America the most flagrant, blatant, and obscene Jewish defamer of Israel has been a Boanerges of global reach through a megaphone of Brobdingnagian proportions. Richard Falk recently completed a six-year term as a United Nations “rappporteur” (literally “talebearer” ) for human rights in the “Palestinian territories”—this after forty years as professor of international studies at Princeton University. He had also acquired fame outside of academia as a regular in the New York Review of Books (the Women’s Wear Daily of anti-Israel Jews), and once again in 1989 when, in a Commentary dispute (with me) over Edward Said’s claim that the UN charter entitled the PLO to murder “collaborators ,” he praised Said as “this courageous and compassionate person who [sic] many of us value.” From his UN post, Falk has relentlessly described Israel as Satan’s lair, called for “a legitimacy war against Israel,” blamed the Boston Marathon bombings on “Tel Aviv,” and then–in the summer of 2011– having exhausted his own store of verbal eloquence on the topic, posted on his “blog” site a cartoon of a dog wearing a yarmulke urinating on a blindfolded female figure of Justice. If any single figure ever embodied the image of the UN as the center of the world’s evil, it is Richard Falk. But—it is almost needless to add—this did not stop him from placing himself in the line of Jewish Biblical prophets working for “social justice” by leading the international assault on Israel for countless human rights violations.

Second only to Falk as the public face of the BDS movement to blacken Israel’s reputation and caricature Zionism is Judith Butler, a professor of philosophy with a mind so coarse that it sees in the establishment of Israel not one of the few redeeming events in a century of blood and shame, not one of the noblest examples of a commitment to life by a martyred people, not an expression of the yearning for human dignity symbolized by the Exodus from slavery that has characterized Jewish civilization for millennia, but an emotional quirk, a stupid prejudice, no more worthy of respect or preservation than a taste for high cholesterol foods. “Some Jews have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches,” she sneers. So what?

Butler is a latter-day descendant of what has been called the California School of Jewish Studies, to which she arrived after establishing herself as a theoretician of “Queer Theory” as well as a member of that cadre of philosophy and literature teachers who hate both for being at once the instruments and results of class and gender oppression. Like the aforementioned Boyarin, who sought to make the “feminized Jewish man” into a universal model, she belongs to the Queer Nation, and believes that sexual identity is arbitrarily constructed independently of biology. Not for her the old wisecrack about how “language has gender, people have sex.” But what has remained most constant in her movement from philosophy to anti-Zionist politics is the stupefying opacity of her prose, as epitomized in the following (award-winning) sentence.

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

This from the winner of the Theodor Adorno Prize, chaired professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, occupant of the Hannah Arendt chair in the European Graduate School in Switzerland, recipient of numerous honorary degrees. Among the many awards lavished upon Butler this is surely the most deserved. The sentence appeared in the journal Diacritics in 1997 and won the annual Bad Writing Contest conducted by the journal Philosophy and Literature.

Prior to autumn 2003 Butler was someone who defined her “Jewishness” in opposition to the State of Israel. She was mainly a signer of petitions harshly critical of the state. She did express misgiving about signing one petition (for halting American aid to Israel) because it “was not nearly strong enough… it did not call for the end of Zionism.” Upon looking more deeply into the matter, she discovered that there had been “debates among Jews throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as to whether Zionism ought to become the basis of a state.” From this she swiftly concluded that demanding an end to Zionism in 2003, calling for politicide, was no different from taking a debater’s position against it fifty years before the state came into existence—and over a century before tens of thousands of Jews had died beating back repeated attempts “to turn the Mediterranean red with Jewish blood.”

The annus mirabilis of what has become Butler’s life struggle against Zion began in September 2002 when Lawrence Summers , then president of Harvard, delivered a speech deploring the upsurge of antisemitism in many parts of the globe: he included synagogue bombings, physical assaults on Jews, desecration of Jewish holy places, and (this with special emphasis) denial of the right of “the Jewish state to exist.” But his most immediate concern was that “at Harvard and… universities across the country” faculty-initiated petitions were calling “for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.” (Summers’s speech stands to this day as a rare exception to the timidity of university administrators in facing up to the true nature of BDS activities; and it may have contributed to his being forced out of Harvard’s presidency in February of 2006, ostensibly because he had alluded to, without condemning, the view that women have less natural aptitude for science than men.)

Butler had herself signed the same petition in Berkeley, where it circulated in February 2001. She therefore found Summers’ remarks not only wrong but personally “hurtful” since they implicated Butler herself in the newly resurgent campus antisemitism as well as the violence it quickly fomented. (She could hardly have failed to notice that the Berkeley BDS petition provided the impetus for anti-Israel mob violence at her own campus on April 24, 2001, a few weeks after it had been circulated, and for more explicitly anti-Jewish mobs at nearby San Francisco State University in May of the following year. She therefore decided to write a reply to Summers in the London Review of Books, whose main political impulse is the unwillingness to share the globe with a Jewish majority state. Her essay, entitled “No, It Isn’t Anti-Semitic,” published August 21, 2003 is a key document of the BDS movement and as central to “antisemitism denial” as the work of Robert Faurisson is to Holocaust denial. It operates, moreover, at the same intellectual level as the Frenchman’s work.

Summers, knowing how ubiquitous in anti-Israel discourse is the straw man called “the defender of Israel who decries any criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitism,” had gone out of his way to separate himself from this (entirely conjectural) figure, but to no avail.

Butler has continued, with steam-engine regularity, to insist that it is “untrue, absurd and painful for anyone to argue that those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel is [sic] antisemitic or, if Jewish, self-hating.” She further accused Summers of striking a blow against academic freedom because his words were having “a chilling effect on academic discourse.” (Do Butler’s words sound familiar? That is because she had performed—”performativity” is her academic hobbyhorse—at Vassar not long before the aforementioned thirty-nine professors complained that criticisms of the American Studies Association had nearly frozen their vocal chords.) No evidence is (or indeed could be) adduced for Butler’s allegation. Of one thing we can be sure: the chill did not take hold at Harvard itself, which would very soon (in November) play host to Oxford’s Tom Paulin, who had urged (in yet another “criticism of Israeli policy”) that Jews living in Judea/Samaria “should be shot dead,” or at Columbia, where Paulin continued merrily through autumn semester as a visiting professor, or at the New York Review of Books , which in October 2003 would publish Tony Judt’s call for an end to the state of Israel, or in the London Review of Books itself, which in January 2003 published another 133 lines of Paulin doggerel called “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card,” a versified regurgitation of Butler’s “No, It’s Not anti-Semitic.” If Summers’ Harvard speech had a chilling effect on antisemitic clarion calls, including incitement to murder, one would not wish to know what the fully heated versions sound like.

Although Butler’s assault on Summers is a loose, baggy monster, what it leaves out is more blatant than what it includes. Like all BDS manifestoes, it omits history altogether, distorts evidence, and omits context. Did it never occur to Butler that the divestment campaign is one prong of the endless Arab campaign to strangle the Jewish state? The “occupation” which Butler and fellow BDSers constantly bemoan did not cause Arab hatred and violence; it was Arab hatred and aggression that led to occupation. For nineteen years, from 1948-67, the Arabs were entirely in control of the disputed territories, theirs to do with whatever they pleased; and somehow it never occurred to them to establish a state there, or indeed to use those territories as anything except staging grounds for attacks on Israel. (Are there still people outside of the State Department who believe the Arabs are as interested in having a state as in pulling down that of their neighbor?)

The Harvard/MIT divestment petition that Butler championed against Summers was promoted at MIT by Chomsky, who would be rendered nearly speechless without calling Israelis Nazis. Butler was herself one of the “first signatories” of a July 28, 2003 petition that uses the Israeli-Nazi equation (beloved of denigrators of Zionism going back to British official circles in Cairo in 1941): it says Israeli use of concrete, barbed wire and electronic fortifications has made “Israeli citizens themselves into a people of camp wardens.” So it would seem that, for Butler and her loyal followers in the BDS movement, “Language plays an important role in shaping and attuning our… understanding of social and political realities”– except when it happens to be the antisemitic language that demonizes Israel as being black as Gehenna and the Pit of Hell.


In his History of the Jews in Christian Spain Yitzhak Baer tells us that Abner of Burgos, the apostate cited at the beginning of this essay, not only devised a plan for terrorizing and destroying the Jews which “the enemies of Israel were to carry out in its entirety in the year 1391.” “The aging fanatical apostate who wrote these diatribes,” Baer adds,” launched his holy war himself, not only in words but also in deed.” But our new apostates need not work so hard: they can rest content with being accessories to, rather than perpetrators of, murder. The machinery for destruction of the state of Israel is already in place. It exists not only in Iran, whose leaders explicitly call for wiping Israel off the map with nuclear weapons that they are now almost certain to obtain. The neighbors of this tiny country would be delighted to see it reduced to sandy wastes, as would countless citizens of the Dark Continent (Europe, that is) who cannot forgive the Jews for the Holocaust. If many Iranians and Europeans still deny there was a Holocaust, that is because, as the courageous German scholar Matthias Kuntzel has observed: “Every denial of the Holocaust contains an appeal to repeat it.” The BDSers may be obtuse, craven, morally bankrupt; but they would also have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to recognize the link between their efforts and the murderous intentions of those who regret the Holocaust only because—for a time—it gave antisemitism a bad name.

There is yet one more calamity that has been brought closer by the reckless Jewish promoters of BDS, a calamity that one might have expected at least the Jewish Studies professors among them to think about for just a moment. “In only one respect,” wrote Hillel Halkin in 2007, “are things [now] worse. In the 1930’s the Jews were a people that had lost a first temple and a second one; yet as frightful as their next set of losses was to be, they did not have a third temple to risk. Today, they do. And in Jewish history, three strikes and you’re out.”

Edward Alexander is co-author, with Paul Bogdanor, of The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders (Transaction Publishers).

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