How Not to Have a Political Debate about BDS

[this essay originally appeared on Savage Minds]

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions presents this essay by Lisa Rofel and Daniel Segal on the debasement of the political debate about the boycott by its most vehement opponents.

Voting on the boycott resolution is open until May 31. #Anthroboycott’s voting instructions are here. Every vote counts!


J’Accuse: How Not to Have a Political Debate about BDS

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is poised to cast a historic vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The AAA would be the largest academic association to do so.  At the November AAA meeting, those in attendance voted overwhelmingly in favor of boycott: 1040 to 136.  This month, the resolution is out to the full membership for a vote.

Seeking to stop the boycott, opponents have resorted to extreme and, at times, intensely personal attacks. Of most concern, some have sunk to playing “the Nazi card.” In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Richard Shweder, a professor at the University of Chicago, alleged the resolution was akin to “the Nuremberg laws, when citizenship rights for Jews were degraded.” Douglas Feldman, a professor at the College at Brockport, sent an email accusing boycott supporters —on the basis of no evidence beyond their support for the boycott—of adhering to a “right-wing Nazi fascist ideology.” At an AAA panel last year, Michael Herzfeld, a Harvard professor, claimed that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is equivalent to both the Nazi and authoritarian Communist programs in Weimer Germany.

Such comparisons of the boycott to Nazism are frauds against history. The Nazis at no point used non-violent forms of resistance; it was, rather, Gandhi and King who did so and both promoted boycotts. Desmond Tutu and Cesar Chavez also come to mind.

The vicious accusation of Nazism reveals a certain duplicity: these critics have insisted they share concern about the Israeli state’s oppression of Palestinians. Yet, it only makes sense to liken resistance to the Israeli occupation to attacks on Europe’s Jewish civilian population if one thinks the Israeli state is innocent of oppressing others.

Opponents of the boycott have descended to making accusations of Nazism to suppress advocacy of non-violent means to pressure Israel to end its occupation, recognize the full human and civil rights of its non-Jewish citizens, and honor the Palestinian right of return.

These Nazi accusations remind us there are two different lessons Jews have drawn from Nazi genocide.  Both lessons begin “never again,” but one ends “to the Jews,” while the other ends “to any human being.” Some people—liberal Zionists, let us call them—try to embrace both lessons, as if one can say “not to anyone, but especially not to us Jews.” That is how one can read Amos Oz’s deeply-felt A Tale of Love and Darkness—as an earnest effort to reconcile them. But that effort has turned out to be a failure. Jews today face a choice between these two lessons of the Holocaust: one lesson embraces ethnic chauvinism; the other, a robust commitment to our fellow human beings, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Those of us who are Jewish who have heeded the call from over 170 Palestinian civil society groups to honor the boycott do so precisely because we believe that Judaism represents a quest for social justice for all.  We are sickened by the human rights abuses against Palestinians committed in the name of Jewish identity. We are sickened to see how Israeli Jewish citizens are taught by their government to diminish Palestinians’ humanity.  Many of us who support this boycott are the children of Holocaust survivors or grew up in Jewish communities with neighbors whose arms retained a serial number from the Nazi camps. Historically, there have been many Jewish critics of Zionism, including scholars, Orthodox and Mizrahi Jews. Are we going to write them out of Jewish history?

The recent invocation of Nazism is a refusal to address the horrific actions of the Israeli state that have drawn so many academics to join this campaign: think, for example, about the Israeli state’s bombing campaigns (the latest in 2014 killed over 2,000 Palestinians) that includes, as targets, Palestinian schools (over 300 damaged in military campaigns since 2008).

Why, then, boycott Israeli universities?  Here is one reason why: not a single Israeli university has protested this ongoing destruction of Palestinian education by the Israeli government. To the contrary, as institutions, every Israeli university supported the 2014 bombing campaign in myriad ways.

Deploying the Nazism comparison exhibits an unscholarly approach to history. The boycott campaign should be debated on its merits and not through smear tactics and distortions.  Shweder, for example, claims the boycott will create an embargo on the free flow of scholarly information to Israel. There are explicit statements in the Anthropology boycott resolution and its appendix to ensure that Israeli scholars have access to anthropological journals.

Conversely, Shweder makes no mention of the ongoing suppression by the Israeli government of scholarly access for Palestinian scholars. Shweder says two American academic associations have supported the boycott.  In fact, seven associations have done so. Shweder claims the debate about boycott silences those opposed to it. If ever there were an attempt to silence debate, the scurrilous Nazism accusation is it. In Shweder’s portrayal of the vote at the Anthropology meetings, he neglects to mention that this was, by most accounts, the largest presence at an Anthropology business meeting in its entire history. He neglects to mention the number of actual Palestinian anthropologists who spoke in favor of the boycott, or that nearly every anthropologist with research expertise in Palestine supports the boycott.

The boycott campaign has gained traction because with the support of the U.S. (Israel receives the largest amount of U.S. military aid of any country), the Israeli government has been able to expand illegal settlements and undercut all other avenues for the end of its occupation. In the face of the failure of the U.S. to take leadership, in the face of Israel’s bankrupting of “dialogue,” grassroots organizing among ordinary citizens has arisen. This is the most hopeful action in decades that could truly end the Israeli occupation. The Israeli government is worried about boycott. That is a basis for hope of the best kind: realistic hope.

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