Two recent articles by BDS leaders in anthropology have accused boycott opponents of debasing the debate in anthropology, either by playing the “Nazi card” or by introducing the “whiff” or “stench” of anti-Semitism into the arena. The first, Lisa Rofel and Daniel Segal’s piece, “J’Accuse: How Not to Have a Political Debate about BDS,” was recently published in Savage Minds. The second, Nadia Abu El-Haj’s “Disciplinary Peace Above All Else?” was published in Somatosphere.[i]
The first words of the Segal and Rofel piece – “J’Accuse” – strike an odd note. These historic words dominated the open letter by the French writer Emile Zola protesting the trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, one of the most infamous anti-Semitic episodes in French history. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who was a journalist in Paris at the time, said that it was the Dreyfus trial that made him a Zionist. Clearly, this has not happened to Rofel and Segal. Indeed, the most important part of their piece is its clear revelation of the true aims of the boycott movement in anthropology: the negation of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and the end of the State of Israel as a Jewish State. Nevertheless, perhaps unwittingly, by invoking the Dreyfus affair Rofel and Segal make plain the difficulty of untangling Zionism and anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.
Rofel and Segal assert that we should not write out of history the “many Jewish critics of Zionism including scholars, Orthodox and Mizrahi Jews.” It is true that there have been Jewish critics of Zionism in history, including communists, socialists, Jewish Bundists, and early leaders of Reform Judaism. It is no surprise to anyone that there is a diversity of opinion in the Jewish world. In the past, the anti-Zionist Jews had a particularly important symbolic value for the Left, and the political tropes that Rofel and Segal draw upon long preceded the establishment of the State of Israel. For the Left, Jews were a force for good — so long as Jewish life and identity was devoted to so-called “progressive” causes. Otherwise, Jews were an obstacle. There is almost no middle ground. Rofel and Segal continue to use this “good Jew/bad Jew” dichotomy, telling us that Jews have only two choices: “ethnic chauvinism” (Jewish self-determination and Israel) or “commitment to our fellow human beings, Jews and non-Jews alike.” This is made crystal clear in their dismissal of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s attempts to grapple with the difficulties of Jewish nationalism, their unqualified endorsement of the Palestinian right of return, and their declaration that Israel is a failure. The Jewish right to self-determination as a people has no place in this world.
It is in this context that Rofel and Segal accuse some anthropologists of “playing the Nazi card.” Comparisons to Nazism always create controversy. The philosopher Leo Strauss coined the term Reductio ad Hitlerum for arguments that invoke guilt by association with Nazism. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to untangle Jewish history and the creation of the State of Israel from anti-Semitism and Nazism. After the Holocaust, thousands of Jewish survivors flooded Israel, which today is still home to the great majority of Holocaust survivors in the world. How surprising is it that when boycott advocates proclaim a logical difference between anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism, it falls on deaf ears? The emergence of Zionism and the State of Israel is not the product of logic or the parsing of language, but is the product of history, and history has taught a very different lesson. Anthropologists like Richard Shweder have not “played the Nazi card” by explaining that the boycott of Israelis and Israeli Institutions has deep and troubling resonances in the Jewish and Israeli world.[ii] After all, one of Hitler’s first anti-Semitic acts after he came to power was the national boycott of Jewish businesses. Are Israelis and Jews supposed to write this out of history? Explaining, as Shweder does, the way many Israeli and American Jews understand something is not “playing the Nazi card,” but rather keeping faith with the basic tenets of anthropological explanation since the days of Malinowski.
All their current noise about the “Nazi Card” should not be surprising, for from the very beginning of the academic boycott campaign in anthropology, its leaders have sought to draw our attention away from the social and political context of the boycott. They have asked one simple thing of us: stop thinking like anthropologists. They ask us to pretend that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is not the same as a boycott of the individuals who live and work within these institutions. They ask us to pretend that we can understand the boycott resolution without regard to the actions and behaviors of the worldwide social and political BDS movement and the voices of its leaders. They ask us to pretend that the AAA can join a movement which calls for an end of Israel as a Jewish State without having to address the issue of anti-Semitism. They say: Look at what we tell you – not what you actually see. In short, they ask us to disregard our entire professional training and the teaching that we do every day of our lives in order to vote for their boycott. Abu-El Haj is certainly entitled to her position, for as she makes clear, in her view the question of Palestine trumps the importance of anthropology or indeed of anything else. But should this really be the official position of the entire profession?
None of this critique of the boycott movement is intended to sidestep the issue of Palestinian rights or of the corrosive tragedy of the occupation. There are two main groups in anthropology that oppose the boycott. The first group, Against the Boycott, focuses almost entirely upon the impact of a boycott upon academic freedom, and has taken no particular position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second group is Anthropologists for Dialogue on Israel and Palestine (ADIP). The leaders and members of ADIP are Israeli and American anthropologists who oppose the occupation and who seek full equality of Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli citizens of Israel within the State of Israel. They are also supporters of the two-state solution: a State of Israel and a State of Palestine.
Rofel and Segal and Abu El-Haj make it abundantly clear that this is not what they have in mind. Their articles starkly demonstrate why opposition to the occupation from a progressive Israeli perspective cannot be reconciled with opposition to the occupation from the BDS perspective. The first seeks compromise and dialogue in the conflict between two peoples where compromise is a rare commodity; the second makes the realization of Palestinian rights contingent upon the end of the Jewish State. Rofel and Segal and Abu El-Haj have done us a great service. We can now really see what BDS stands for, and what anthropologists are voting for or against in their decision about an academic boycott.
David M. Rosen is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
[ii] “Targeting the Israeli Academy: Will Anthropologists Have the Courage to Just Say ‘No’? ” Huffington Post. March 24, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-a-shweder/targeting-the-israeli-aca_b_9540974.html