Stop the Nonsense: Nobody is proposing a boycott of ‘the Jews’

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On December 4, the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) unanimously approved a resolution to honor the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions. This decision has engendered intense debate.

The majority of those opposed to the resolution (and to academic boycott in general) have avoided engaging substantive questions, instead deploying hyperbole and hysteria, a distinctive rhetoric of victimhood anybody who has run afoul of Israel’s devotees will easily recognize.  Numerous scholars, ostensibly rational and apolitical, have reinvigorated the age-old cacophonies of colonial delirium.  The intrinsic affinities of the responsible, objective class of scholar have now been revealed.  Those affinities are uglier than even the most weathered among us expected.

A particular response to the resolution has gained traction and warrants rebuttal, the notion that boycott of Israeli universities targets “the Jews” or constitutes a stealth attack against “the Jews.”  In this framework, the term “Jews,” accompanied by its exotic article, “the,” sequesters Jewish people from the moral spaces of dissent and renders them exceptional historical actors in geopolitical conflict.  Yet the boycott in no way targets Jews.  It doesn’t set sights on individuals of any ethnic or religious community.  In fact, it doesn’t target individuals at all.

One of the great features of boycott is that it refuses to conflate Jewish cultural and religious practice with the state of Israel.  When Jewishness is conflated with the conduct of a nation-state, especially one as belligerent as Israel, cultural practice is at least tacitly implicated in state violence, reducing complex peoplehood to a brute synecdoche of military occupation.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg

Charges of anti-Semitism from the lobby’s petulant conscripts are unsurprising, but the petulance has also arrived from a more respectable sort.  On the ASA Facebook page, for instance, David Greenberg, a Rutgers professor and New Republic writer, proclaims, “For the ASA to claim it opposes anti-Semitism while simultaneously backing efforts to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The only unpleasant odor in evidence here is the musty rot of cliché.  Greenberg’s type of argument is customary in academe:  it relies on the commonplaces of settler colonial logic to forestall substantive challenges to the sites of authority upon which that logic survives.  It is a rhetorical flourish that requires neither evidence nor engagement with evidence.  In this case, it diverts attention from the matter of Israel’s occupation and what we might do to contest it.  Supporters of boycott are forced to explain that we aren’t anti-Semites, instead.

Diverting attention with hyperbole and animosity to avoid substantive discussion is the classic definition of trolling. (If the name is vaguely familiar, David Greenberg is the person who pilloried Howard Zinn for being too simplistic and tendentious.)

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks

A tweet I received from Jonathan Marks of Ursinus College employs the same diversionary tactic:  “If you want to keep BDS + anti-Semitism sharply separated Roger ‘Jewish lobby’ Waters ain’t your guy.”  The strategy is to root out any hint of anti-Semitism, even if the speaker has to invent it through a show of manifest paranoia.  Scholars are tasked with providing substance to points of view derived from available evidence; that these scholars deploy innuendo, assumption, and slander to raise an argument in defense of Israel speaks to the irrational loyalty fostered by the rituals of Zionism.

The idea that the ASA secretly desires the destruction of world Jewry is a byproduct of having no legitimate argument against boycott.  Defamation emerges where acumen fails.

Scholars like Marks and Greenberg exploit the notion of objective judgment to impugn the motives of their political opponents.  This has long been the custom of those who exalt objectivity; such exaltations implicitly condemn modes of inquiry and theorization that do not accommodate centers of institutional authority.  As with claims of anti-Semitism, diversion ensues.  We focus on the orthodoxies of cultural normativity rather than considering solutions to the hardship of those impoverished by orthodoxy.

Who is the operative?  Who is the dissembler?  Who is the manipulator?  Who is the troublemaker? Who is being dishonest?  Who is debasing the sanctity of scholarship?  Who is undermining academic freedom?  Those against boycott embody every negative quality of which they accuse their opponents.

Here we are, again, spending our time on them and their self-seeking angst instead of on the victims of the rotten system they support.  Their approach is unwittingly brilliant in its half-baked mendacity.  We have to work doubly hard to highlight the systemic oppression they support and celebrate.

Enough with the nonsense:  boycott of Israeli academic institutions isn’t about “the Jews.”  It’s about the racism Zionists visit on Palestinians in the name of the Jewish people, using the imprimatur of cultural autonomy to justify settler colonization.  Those who howl about being mean to “the Jews” in response to a carefully-considered boycott of a bellicose nation-state do little more than reproduce the perilous confinement of the ethnic ghetto.

About Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita is the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut.  His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.  

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