Who’s Playing the ‘Nazi Card’ in Anthropology?: Rhetorical Spectres of Anti-Semitism in the BDS Debate

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.


[i] and

[ii] “Targeting the Israeli Academy: Will Anthropologists Have the Courage to Just Say ‘No’? ” Huffington Post. March 24, 2016.



3 Responses to Who’s Playing the ‘Nazi Card’ in Anthropology?: Rhetorical Spectres of Anti-Semitism in the BDS Debate

  1. I could quibble here and there, but a reasoned essay about the inherently hateful BDS movement and its supporters among anthropologists.

    One thing that has struck me many times over the years is how often the anti-Israel activists pre-emotively accuse supporters of the only true democracy in the Middle East of playing the “anti-Semitism card.” Indeed, they make that pre-emptive accusation far, far more often than supporters of Israel accuse anyone of anti-Semitism.

  2. Rosen’s is not the only argument against academic boycott. See also:

    – “Anthropology Boycott: Supporting BDS, Voting Against AAA proposal” by Jason Antrosio (who blogs at LivingAnthropologically):

    – “Claiming the radical middle ground: critical of Israel, yet opposed to academic boycott” by Jennifer Hirsch, published at the Huffington Post:

    – “Anthropology at the Crossroads” by Paul Stoller (also at the Huffington Post):

    – “Outsized Outrage: American Anthropologists and the Gifts of BDS” by Marc Edelman at POLAR:

    – “When It’s Time to Vote, Don’t Boycott Academics – Cut the Purse-strings” published here at Somatosphere

  3. Considering the aggressive and mainstream character of the Movement, which is far broader than BDS alone, the recent support of BDS by AAA is nothing less than an attack on free thought. Zionist anthropologists around the world got the message: Don’t come to the USA. Don’t consider making career in anthropology at all, if you support Israel. 90% are against you.

    Support of Israel is not anything of a choice but of truth. BDS wants science to stop producing facts, it is deeply connected with post-modernist thought that it inflates further. It is against free thought, against truth. Most of the palestinian narratives are by fact fabricated, they are lopsided and they have one inherently anti-Semitic aim: To confuse perpetrator and victim until the jews are annihilated “out of self-defense”. Call it “One-State-Solution” or “Boycott” or “Palestine from the river to the sea”. They are well aware that Israel will vanish and that is their single aim.

    That BDS has gained overwhelming support among most “liberal” academic courses (e.g. gender studies), is not anything particular or scandalous, it is the current social fact and the sad future of social science.

    The supporters are not anonymous. They have names. They are educated. They know better. They know exactly what they do and why. They are plain anti-Semites. Smart, educated and fanatical anti-Semites. And they are the majority, not an embarrasing minority that could be monitored, educated, etc.

    It started long ago. Social science has never grasped the problem of anti-Semitism in its depth. In anthropology, there is no discourse on anti-Semitism. The discourse on racism in anthropology has rarely noted or touched the discourse of anti-Semitism. Leví-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski: Aside from footnotes on the situation of jews in Europe, none of the major anthropologists (maybe Lévy-Bruhl, maybe some others) seems to have felt the urge to revise anthropological thought at all, not even in the presence of national-socialism and its aftermath in the arab nations wars against Israel. That is another reason why today anti-Semitism is the remaining global ideology that explains capitalism to each and everyone with a single concretisation: Israel, the Jew among states. There should be a fact-check on Israel for any student of social science, but the opposite is the case: denial, downplaying, ignorance.

    Any position that does not start with the anti-Semitism in the Westbank and Gaza, the annihilatory anti-Semitism not only of Hamas but also Fatah and PFLP and IJ, which can be witnessed on the ground, in endless media-products, which has been recorded by studies in history, will not negotiate any “peace”-deal but nothing less than the existence of jews in Israel. And that is what we face in anthropology as a science: the entire institution of anthropology redefined its cause. No longer should there be a reduction of prejudice and resentment through furthering and differentiating social facts. Instead the entire academic institution of anthropology voted for a genocide of the jews in Israel.

    The most important issue is not proving that they are lying about Israel but in proving that they are lying about themselves.

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