In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg argues that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, and that American Jews need not fear the recent influx of some vocal critics of Israel into the halls of congress.
Goldberg’s piece is more balanced and informed than most critiques of Israel; she acknowledges, for example, that the kind of binational state envisioned by some BDS advocates would be catastrophic. In this way BDS represents, at best, a kind of complaint without a realistic policy to replace the status quo, which is a problem with Leftist politics in general right now. We see something very similar in the mainstream Democratic response to immigration, which is to decry Trump’s enforcement of borders (and downplay how similar it is to that of Obama), without offering a genuine legislative solution. More constructive perspectives are being voiced by another brand of insurgent in the Democratic Party, led by Beto O’Rourke in my home state of Texas. O’Rourke is a constructive critic of Israel who fundamentally supports the Jewish State, and he has articulated a real and credible path for undocumented immigrants to become legal participants in American society. Though the issues seem very far apart on a map, they are politically very close.
It has long been true that the American left has pointed to the prevalence of racism, homophobia and misogyny as long as they can be located somewhere else—in Republicans, in Russia, or in Israel. Such displacement of fundamental social ills doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny. So although Goldberg is right that BDS should no longer be treated as a taboo topic, it is also not at all clear that her argument can prevail in an open discussion. If it is legitimate to discuss anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism as separate, as BDS supporters contend, it is also legitimate to discuss them as deeply intertwined, as I believe to be the case.
The fact that leaders of BDS, especially Tamika Mallory and Jeremy Corbyn, have either been silent about or supportive of attacks on Jews as well as terrorism in Israel is troubling, to say the least. But the logic that many on the Left are willing to voice, that harassment of Jewish students and children in Paris and California can be chalked up to an anger at Israel, is especially worthy of examination. On the one hand, these activists are the first to claim that there is no connection between Israel and Jews worldwide–that Israel is a colonial state, in their eyes, that tries to claim moral authority in relation to the Jewish Diaspora, a Diaspora that BDS sees as turning away from their more military kin. On the other hand, BDS excuses the violence against Jews, portraying it as an effect of Israel’s policies. This logic is tortuous, to put it mildly. According to that argument, anti-Semitism stopped completely in 1945, and then started suddenly in 1948. And although the denigration of Jews was pervasive in academic circles for centuries, sharing chortles with racism, homophobia and misogyny, it was summarily banished from civilized progressivism at precisely the moment when Israel was created.
It seems credible to posit that it never went away, and therefore it is worth debating whether BDS is a movement that functions to demonize Jews within Western communities—in other words, that it has nothing to do with Israel at all. As Rabbi Sacks has argued, it has always been easier to see oneself as hating “that” Jew, however the term is applied, than to see oneself as hating Jews in general. And though the Holocaust has been referenced by many lately, it is helpful to remember that the Inquisition was another way in which the hatred of Jews left its imprint on Europe. The Inquisition was driven by a sense of holy zeal, and in it, Jews were forced to take sides, either to adhere to what the Catholic Church saw as heresy (that is, to remain Jewish), or to convert. Jews who refused to convert were executed, but Converts (or in Spanish, Conversos) were never fully welcomed; they were viewed with suspicion and many ultimately reverted to Judaism, in part because the social acceptance they had been promised never arrived.
Modern Jews in America, particularly those on college campuses, often face a similar choice. Jewish organizations (not Israeli ones) have been targeted by BDS advocates consistently, and pressured to take sides. As in the Inquisition, “converted” Jews are valuable public relations tools for critics of Israel, because they seem to wash that criticism of the stain of Jew-hatred. I of course do not question the sincerity of Jews who are critics of Israel, but I think it is crucial to understand how organizations engage with divestment as a modern ritual of blame. The very fact that so much pressure is put on Jews to serve in this role undermines the credibility of Goldberg’s claim. BDS advocates thus end up proving the necessity of Israel for Jewry, and the inevitability of the bond between the two: by bending logic into pretzels and harassing Jews in the West, they confirm that the Zionists who founded Israel were fundamentally right in believing that a Jewish state was the only way to effectively confront anti-Semitic oppression—because it will probably never go away.
It is time that these debates take a more public forum, but American Jews may not occupy the role that many in BDS hope they would. Though sympathetic toward Palestinians and deeply committed to ethnic pluralism, they also recognize the absurdity of the claim that Jews are not indigenous to Israel, and they understand that the fabric of anti-Semitism is deeper than a stray verbal insult, and wider than the evil of Hitler. They may find, like the Conversos of Spain, that even if they stray from their history, they will ultimately come back, at least in part because there is nowhere else to go.About the Author Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America. Related Topics