Cary Nelson Makes the Progressive Case Against BDS
For academics who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Cary Nelson’s recently published book — Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, & the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State — is very bad news.
The book completely discredits BDS by demonstrating in devastating detail how much it corrupts academic standards and undermines the chances for peace. With its more than 400 pages of text, some 50 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography, the book not only reflects Nelson’s longstanding concern about the corrosive effects of BDS activism, but also his vast experience and erudition as a prolific scholar whose academic career spans almost five decades.
Nearly half of the book’s text is taken up by four chapters that analyze the supposedly scholarly work of several high-profile BDS supporters. Even if you are broadly familiar with the output of these academics, the chapters on the relevant writings of Judith Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi, and Jasbir Puar make for particularly depressing reading; it is quite shocking to encounter their intense hatred for the world’s only Jewish state in this concentrated form.
In lengthy passages that discuss the wealth of material that these celebrated BDS “scholars” ignore in order to present Israel as the despicable Jew among the nations, Nelson demonstrates authoritatively that the demonization of Israel in BDS “scholarship” reflects an obsessive hate and a total contempt for facts, which is cloaked in seemingly sophisticated academic jargon that makes these writings a torture to read.
Nelson’s chapter on Jasbir Puar is aptly titled “Obsessive Demonology as a Research Agenda.” Puar, who is a professor and Graduate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, is notorious for her breathtakingly vile fantasies about Israel.
In a book published by Duke University Press in 2017, she updated age-old antisemitic libels for the 21st century, and accuses Israel of pursuing deliberate policies to “enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies.” The fact that this preposterous screed won an award from the National Women’s Studies Association makes it hard to disagree with Seth Mandel’s conclusion that “academic antisemitism is not just tolerated, but encouraged and rewarded.”
But the award for Puar’s screed also illustrates the importance of Nelson’s painstaking efforts to highlight some of the material that clearly contradicts the bigoted “truths” that BDS “scholars” like to indulge in. If Israel Denial is not an enjoyable or easy read, it is largely due to the tedious work of fact-checking that the reviewers and editors at academic publications fail to do when they’re all too eager to accept yet another manuscript submitted by an ardent “anti-Zionist.”
Beyond exposing the spurious scholarship produced by BDS supporters, Nelson also devotes much space to showing how BDS activism poisons the campus climate, promotes discrimination and polarization, and undermines academic freedom.
What makes Nelson’s book particularly valuable is that BDS advocates will find it hard to use their routine dodge of claiming their critic is a rabid right-wing supporter of Israel.
From the outset, Nelson leaves no doubt that he is staunchly in favor of a negotiated two-state solution and peaceful co-existence between a democratic Jewish State of Israel and a hopefully also democratic Palestinian state. Yet Nelson is by no means a starry-eyed idealist. He has visited Israel and the West Bank repeatedly, and understands that peace may be a long way off.
But his decidedly left-wing political stance allows Nelson to demonstrate in considerable detail that despite all the lofty rhetoric about “justice” and “equality,” BDS activism does nothing to promote peaceful coexistence, and is instead “about two things only: demonizing and punishing Israel. It is no accident that the terms that give it a name — boycott, divestment, and sanctions — are all punitive.”
Moreover, as Nelson rightly emphasizes, BDS has never “done anything that actually helps Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank nor articulated proposals to do so.”
While Nelson acknowledges that “BDS leaders are explicit about wanting to eliminate the Jewish state,” he believes that “there are certainly well-meaning faculty members and students who sign on to the BDS agenda out of frustration with a stalled peace process. They want to do something to voice that frustration, and they feel that Israel, as the more powerful party, is the most responsible of the two. BDS often seems the only game in town. They see no alternative form of action.”
I have to admit that I’m rather reluctant to assume that people might be “well-meaning” if they support campaigns like BDS. But Cary Nelson may well be right to think that there are many BDS “fellow travelers” who are eager to delude themselves and imagine that support for BDS might somehow promote peace. For those who are truly “well-meaning,” Nelson outlines convincing alternatives for constructive engagement.
For all those who are not particularly well-meaning and prefer to support BDS, Israel Denial will hopefully make it much harder to pretend that the “scholarship” that presents Israel as the despicable Jew among the nations is worth more than the “research” of Nazi “scientists” who measured Jewish skulls to confirm their vicious theories about race. But perhaps you can’t be too picky if you want to confirm your theories about Zionism.
Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli freelance writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history.