According to Eric Alterman writing in Open Zion (“Brooklyn College and the BDS Debate,” February 7), the BDS movement and its “naive, idealistic” fellow-traveling dupes are the modern day equivalents of 20th century Stalinists. And the “predicament” now facing “liberals” (i.e., people like Alterman) is a replay of the putatively agonizing dilemma faced by liberals and democratic socialists during the “Bad Old Days” of the McCarthy era.
Who knew? Omar Barghouti is Gus Hall redivivus!
Of course, precisely what the BDS movement and the post-1945 CP share in common, is a tad obscure, which is probably why no one has exposed the uncanny linkages between these two apparently quite different political phenomena. But now comes Alterman to connect the dots. Supporters of the postwar CP, he avers, were instruments of the Soviet state and enablers of Stalinist tyranny, who dissembled their true identities, posed as simple “progressives” and manipulatively sought to inveigle or blackmail honest liberals and socialists into defending the CP’s right to pursue its devious and dishonest stratagems. Likewise, Alterman asserts, the promoters of BDS present themselves as principled lovers of social justice, look to ally themselves with honest souls favoring Israeli-Palestinian “peace” (including partisans of a two-state solution) and take full-advantage of the liberal commitment to academic freedom, in order more effectively to pursue a program which, in reality, is “of a piece” with that of Hamas, Hezbollah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Pretty sinister behavior, huh? Where is Sidney Hook now that we need him again?
It’s true that, whatever one makes of the motives, the honesty and – indeed – the historical accomplishments of the American Communist Party, the CP did, indeed, engage in a full-throttle defense of a brutal totalitarian system and many (though not all) of its supporters were less than forthcoming about their relationship to the party apparatus.
But how does any of this remotely resemble the posture or performance of BDS? Unless Alterman is suggesting that BDS is a “front” organization, covertly created and orchestrated by Gaza City or Tehran, it’s tough to see any illuminating congruence with the Communists. Members of BDS do not seek to conceal their support for the movement. Their goals are clearly, one might say tiresomely, reiterated: an end to the occupation of territories conquered in 1967; equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel; implementation of UN Resolution 194 on the right of return. While Alterman is perhaps understandably perplexed about the precise lineaments of the “academic and cultural boycott,” Judith Butler’s assertion that she has “no problem collaborating with Israeli scholars and artists as long as we do not participate in any Israeli institution or have Israeli state monies support our collaborative work” is neither an especially enigmatic utterance nor an especially sinister-sounding one.
So where is what Alterman calls the “intellectual masquerade in which the BDS engages?” Where is its “deceptive” argument on behalf of an “abhorrent cause?” According to Alterman it resides in BDS’ disingenuous refusal to take a position on the one-state or two-state solution even while it simultaneously promotes a “right of return” which he considers to be a call for Israel to “commit suicide” and for Israelis to “forfeit their commitment to their history, their national identity and their understanding of Jewish history.”
The trouble is that it doesn’t require Altermanesque laser-like acuity to comprehend that the return of all or many of the Palestinian refugees refused re-entry into Israel in 1948-49 would pose a “demographic threat” to the Jewishness of the state of Israel. People have been opposing BDS on these grounds since its very inception. But opposing such an outcome is one thing. Suggesting that BDS is dissembling its true purpose is something altogether different.
There are lots of grounds upon which to critique BDS. One might find fault with its tactics (isn’t the insistence on the “right of return” a turn-off for many potential supporters?). One might dispute its historical analysis. One might challenge its ethical balance sheet. One might dismiss it as hopelessly utopian. But it’s hard to see how it’s guilty of justifying, rationalizing or denying the contemporary equivalent of purges, gulags and totalitarian rule, or of blindly supporting (like the CP . . . and AIPAC et al) the foreign policies of a foreign state, or of concealing its true purposes. Indeed, from my vantage point, it’s hard to see how the abstract principles of justice and human rights promoted by BDS are objectionable at all: unless, of course, one believes that the existence of a “Jewish” state of Israel, resting on a Law of Return which privileges any goniff able to provide his or her “Jewish” bona fides over the rights of people displaced (oft-times forcibly) from their homes and villages, is sacrosanct and that the very questioning of such a political arrangement is “abhorrent.” Not impractical, or foolish, or difficult to imagine. But in principle “abhorrent.”
If that’s one’s position, one should say so, straight-up. Otherwise, one might be (rightfully) accused of “masquerading” as a believer in equal rights and of “deceptively arguing” for justice. Like those wretched Stalinists.