The Jewish question is now old hat. In Germany, a new generation is tired of guilt about the Nazis and just wants to get on with the business of owning Europe. It’s pretty much the same everywhere else. The Holocaust deniers may never have attained respectability, but Holocaust fatigue ultimately does the same job. It’s understandable, too. As the last of the Holocaust’s direct victims and perpetrators die out, there are other things to worry about, from global warming to the Super Bowl odds.
And then there is Israel. Just when everyone wants to get off the Jewish page, pushy Israel keeps returning us to it. Better yet, it inverts the stereotype. Instead of Jews as victims, Israel offers them as persecutors. Palestinians are the new Jews, and Israelis have locked them into concentration camps called the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It’s terrible, of course, to treat anyone the way the Nazis treated the Jews, and if Israelis are really the new Nazis, then opposition to Israel is opposition to anti-Semitism, and consequently incumbent on all right-thinking people, quod erat demonstrandum.
Thus it is that the American Studies Association, which called for a boycott of contacts and exchange between American and Israeli scholars in a mail-ballot resolution passed Dec. 4, 2013, begins its statement by affirming its opposition “to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, discrimination, and xenophobia,” and its solidarity “with aggrieved peoples in the United States and the world.”
The word “Israel” does not appear in this opening paragraph; the only country mentioned is the U.S. We discover why this is so in the next one: “Whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine … ”, American scholars have a particular obligation to address this issue because their own country is deeply complicit in it, not to say the major obstacle to relieving Palestinian persecution. Were it not for America, the implicit argument proceeds, international pressure would long since have compelled Israel to cease and desist. There’s no mention here of the “Jewish lobby” that holds America in thrall to Israeli interests; any reference to that would be a red flag, but the coded language makes it clear enough. This statement decrying anti-Semitism is anti-Semitic through and through.
I do not, of course, mean to suggest that criticism of or opposition to Israeli policies toward Palestinians is anti-Semitic per se. Plenty of Israelis are critical of them, too, as the ASA resolution duly notes. The question is why, with no shortage of brutal, repressive and authoritarian states in the world and no end of minorities subject to adversities ranging from discrimination to ethnic cleansing, Israel alone should merit a demand for boycott and divestiture by the scholarly community. No one has provided an answer to this question because the suppositional case of Israel is distinctive for the obvious but unmentionable reason that it involves the world’s only Jewish state. What Israel does about the West Bank and Gaza is wrong by definition because Israel itself is illegitimate. It is an occupier because it is, fundamentally, a usurper.
Anti-Semitism has never been a simple phenomenon, and it isn’t in this instance either. Supporters of Israel like to point out that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is for this very reason, however, that it attracts antipathy. Modern democracy is secular and pluralistic, and the idea of a state that proclaims its essential character in terms of religion is antithetical to the liberal tradition. If Israel is a democracy, it can’t be a Jewish state. If it is a Jewish state, it can’t be a democracy.
Secular Israelis are sensitive to this question, and it represents an unresolved tension within Israeli society. Opponents of Israel, however, take a leap forward from this. Israel’s presumed goal is the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza to create a Greater Israel, or, short of that, the permanent subjugation of the Palestinian territories as an economic fiefdom. If you listen to the more rabid religious extremists in Israel, you can find color for this view. It nonetheless flies in the face of the record. Israel no sooner occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War than it offered to evacuate them in return for Arab diplomatic recognition. During the period of the Oslo Accords, 99 percent of the Palestinian population was transferred from direct Israeli control to the Palestinian Authority. In 2005, Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. In the last previous round of peace negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu froze all West Bank settlements while awaiting Palestinian proposals. They never came.
To be sure, these actions were all self-interested; nations do not act other than in their interest. But they also indicate a substantive desire by successive Israeli governments to resolve the Palestinian issue peacefully over several decades. Had there been a like reciprocity on the other side, a settlement might have been reached a good while ago.
Boycott supporters ignore these facts in favor of a black-and-white narrative of Israeli oppressors and Palestinian oppressed. The Palestinians, preyed upon by the self-proclaimed Jewish state, are innocent of all responsibility for their condition. This is the classic canard of anti-Semitism, of evil systematically crushing virtue. We’ve encountered many versions of it before; the demonization of Israel is only the latest example. That it comes garbed in the rhetoric of politically correct anti-colonialism only makes it the more insidious.
Capsule: The academic boycott of Israel voted for last month by the American Studies Association is the latest example of an anti-Semitism cloaked in the garb of political correctness. That its sponsors deny any such intention only makes it the more obvious.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.