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Eric Alterman’s bias revealed as he warns against the ‘red menace’ of BDS

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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.

Joel Doerfler

Joel Doerfler is a long-time independent school teacher of history. He lives in New York.

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27 Responses

  1. Nancy Kricorian on February 9, 2013, 1:59 pm

    Thanks for this witty take-down. Low wattage and cognitive dissonance result in bizarre and paranoid arguments.

  2. pabelmont on February 9, 2013, 2:14 pm

    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.”

    This is not quite right. Although the prospect (in the eyes of many Israelis) of Israelis choosing (or, more likely, somehow being forced) to allow the return of the exiles from 1948 and their progeny into pre-1967 Israeli territory as citizens with the vote is anathema, it is a natural consequence of the provision of human rights (return to their country) to these Palestinians and the also quite important democratic rights (equal citizenship, hence the vote) to all Palestinians living inside Israel, both those who live there now and the returnees.

    This is not an Israel committing suicide at all. But it does lead to a different Israel than now exists, a democratic and truly multi-ethnic Israel.

    I suspect that what “liberal” Israelis (and their friends like Mr. Alterman) are truly pained by is having to ADMIT that the expulsions and exclusion of the Nakba was part-and-parcel of the Israel they admire and that such H/R crimes were not accidents and not unimportant but of the essence of the Israel they wish to preserve.

    If they would simply admit that, they would say, of BDS, “We resist! And we retain our commitment to our history, our national identity and our understanding of Jewish history.” Those who join the BDS band-wagon are merely those (I hope ultimately a large majority of people everywhere) who treasure democracy and human rights, who abhor tyranny and oppression, and who believe that Israel’s Jews should live in their neighborhood with their neighbors and not against them. People like Alterman are tortured, I imagine, by real commitments to two contradictory ideals — [1] democracy and human rights and [2] Jewish Israeli triumphalism, racism, oppression of Palestinians.

    I’m sorry he’s tortured, if he is, and sorrier if he is not — that is, if he accepts Jewish Israeli triumphalism, racism, oppression of Palestinians, but rejects democracy and human rights.

  3. Avi_G. on February 9, 2013, 2:19 pm

    That’s where wondering jew must have gotten the “Stalinist” reference which he posted in another thread. Classy.

    • Cliff on February 9, 2013, 2:31 pm

      Yep, he couldn’t think of such a lame descriptor himself apparently.

      He mentioned Alterman over at The Tablet as well (where he also called SJP and anti-Zionists in general, antisemitic).

  4. yourstruly on February 9, 2013, 2:26 pm

    “masquerading” as a believer in equal rights and of “deceptively arguing” for justice?

    “like those wretched stalinists?” –

    considering the senate foreign affairs committee’s showcase trial of chuck hagel?

    anti-bds activism?

    stalinist or not?

  5. joemowrey on February 9, 2013, 3:36 pm

    Alterman claims to want equality and justice for everyone in Palestine. But he also wants Israel to exist as a Jewish (in this case, Zionist) state. The two things are mutually exclusive. When the dominance and relative exclusivity of one ethno-religious group over all others is the foundation for the social and political policies of a nation, human rights and social justice will necessarily be secondary to this ethnocentric ideology. 

    For Israel to exist as a Jewish state, exclusionary policies have to be implemented in order to maintain a Jewish majority. That has always been the stated objective of every Zionist government since Israel’s inception. Zionism, by definition, is antithetical to true equal rights for anyone other than Jews.

    The inescapable conclusion is, if there is to be equality and justice in Palestine, Israel can no longer exist as a Jewish state. Israel is either a state based on equal rights for all it’s people, regardless of ethno-religious demographics, or it is a Jewish state. It can’t be both.

    So yes, I guess one could claim, as Alterman does, that since the goal of BDS is to achieve equality and justice for Palestinians, then indeed, the goal of BDS is the “destruction” of Israel as a Jewish state. Of course, his use of the word “destruction” is purposefully misleading and intended to inflame negative emotions in the reader.

    • tokyobk on February 10, 2013, 10:32 am

      A democratic Israel (whose name would be changed to Palestine with a non-Jewish majority) could remain a state where Jews (or any other minority) is safe and free in equality. That should be the goal of all people of good will.

      • annie on February 10, 2013, 3:28 pm

        jerusaelm (al-Quds) is a better name for one state.

    • lyn117 on February 10, 2013, 4:53 pm

      Alterman bolsters his argument that the goal of BDS is to destroy Israel by quoting Omar Barghouti as saying if Jews became a minority in Israel, they might vote to rename the country.

      Right, the destruction of Israel accomplished by renaming it. What fear this must engender among Israel’s supporters.

  6. Les on February 9, 2013, 4:07 pm

    Alterman should have read Haaretz before writing in haste.
    headline — The Brooklyn College BDS debacle highlights the perils of pro-Israeli overkill

    “Far more Americans know of the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement today than did a week ago. Many millions of people have been exposed for the first time to the idea that Israel should be boycotted, divested and sanctioned for its occupation of the territories. Many more Americans, one can safely assume, have formed a positive image of the BDS movement than those who have now turned…”

  7. Les on February 9, 2013, 4:21 pm

    Bennis’ reply to Alterman’s criticism of her.

    “It’s [Alterman’s defense of Israel is] also straight out of AIPAC–style talking points, resting on the longstanding Islamophobic assumptions about Hamas so popular in the West. And even for mainstream American media—which too often blithely accept government definitions of Hamas = Terrorists—it’s hopelessly out of date.”

  8. ritzl on February 9, 2013, 5:54 pm

    Didn’t Alterman admit, a few years ago, that he was a dual-loyalist and believed that the US should take a few “hits” if that’s what it took to keep Israel from taking those “hits?”

    Oh yeah, it was here:

    I guess taking a whack at freedom of speech is one of those “hits” he was talking about.

    These people are not liberals. Beside the obvious philosophical inconsistency, by advocating that Israel should be perpetually enabled to “throw matches” in a resource-rich region that is ready to ignite and explode, every “liberal” or “progressive” belief they might hold or support gets tied with an anchor and mercilessly drowned in the sea of anti-progressive paranoia and policy that their perpetual war generates. So even at a root, practical level, Alterman and his “fellow-travelers” are anti-progressive, no matter what they say to the contrary.

    I hope his “liberal” cred is diminished greatly by the article he wrote (and Mr. Doerfler’s refutation) on this event. This “I’m a liberal so I care about you, so what I am about to say about Israel is important, to you, and to making the world a better place” smokescreen/game/plea to be taken seriously is getting old. Time to call it what it is: the Liberal case for more war and dead people abroad, and fewer rights, worse jobs, and a shredded safety net at home.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  9. eGuard on February 9, 2013, 6:33 pm

    So we understand Alterman teaches at Brooklyn College: But when I taught my classes Wednesday, I could find no evidence of any controversy [about the coming BDS event] at all. […] When I inquired of my students in two separate classes if anyone had any thoughts or feelings they might wish to share, I got no takers. Everything was business-as-usual.

    Sure, Alterman must be the right teacher to start a mini-BDS discussion in his classrooms. But then, he already knows: The purpose of the BDS movement, plain and simple, is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. After this, it is not strange that noone in his classes wants to discuss the BDS topic. He clearly is ingnorant of the fact that it was exactly the McCarthyesque bullying (by his co-liberal co-Zionists) that had threatened the free speech out of his classroom.

    And Alterman better had raised his support(-but) for free speech BEFORE the showdown.

    • piotr on February 10, 2013, 12:37 am

      I like to put things together.

      1. ” The purpose of the BDS movement, plain and simple, is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.”

      2. Students did not exhibit ANY feelings.

      Conclusion: “Destruction of Israel? Whatever. Booooring!”

  10. on February 9, 2013, 7:56 pm

    the US congress will eventually outlaw BDS…

    ADL’s prize is no criticism of israel or jews ever…

    everyone else fend for yourselves

  11. Sin Nombre on February 9, 2013, 7:58 pm

    And just when are people going to cut through all the crap—such as actually debating the merits of Alterman on Alterman’s terms via considering whether BDS is really Stalinist—and get to the bleeding obvious nitty gritty of so much of what’s going on and observing that Alterman and guys like him are jewish supremacists, period?

    That … what’s sauce for every other goose in the world cannot touch the jewish gander, which, alone in the world apparently, has the supreme right to “their commitment to their history, their national identity and their understanding of [their] history”?

    Even to the point, as Alterman has said before and as has been noted here, that us gentiles here damn well ought to go expending our blood and treasure for Israel’s interests.

    And so, again, when is this sort of jewish superiority gonna be called out? Just how explicit does it have to be? With anyone else it seems the slightest misuse of a word can damn near bring an instant indictment and even conviction on the charge of such biased feelings. E.g., saying “Jewish” lobby rather than “the Israel” lobby. And yet here you’ve got a guy as much as openly saying that gentile lives and fortunes ought be regarded as in the mere service to obviously superior jewish interests, and still, nobody says a word.

    When’s the discussion gonna turn to the real nub at the center of so much of this? Or are we gonna keep pretending that somehow, jews and jews alone are entitled to regard everyone else as inferior and can’t be even called on it much less be criticized for same?

    • American on February 10, 2013, 10:42 am

      ‘Even to the point, as Alterman has said before and as has been noted here, that us gentiles here damn well ought to go expending our blood and treasure for Israel’s interests. ”……Sin Nombre

      Alterman:……””I think that bin Laden and 9/11 were to some degree inspired by U.S. support of Israel. I think a great deal of the terrorist attacks and the sort of pool of potential terrorists who want to attack the United States are inspired by the United States support for Israel. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support Israel for that reason. I’m saying, Dammit if that’s the price we have to pay, then I’m willing to pay it.”

      It’s incredible isn’t it? Zionist really believe that Jews are a ‘special people or entity’ above all others and other people should be willing to die for them and any of their interest. So incredible it’s impossible for normal people to conceive of what spawns this kind narcissism.

      The ‘excuse’ zionist use for their narcissism is eternal Jewish victimization. But it reality it’s this:

      narcissistic personality disorder
      a psychiatric diagnosis characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and uniqueness, an abnormal need for attention and admiration, preoccupation with grandiose fantasies concerning the self and involving the exploitation of others and a lack of empathy.

      Narcissistic Personality Disorder > 5 of following criteria
      1. Requires excessive admiration
      2. Grandiose sense of self-importance; believes self to be superior
      3. Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance
      4. Believes that he/she is special and should have only the best
      5. Has sense of entitlement, ie deserves special favors or treatment
      6. Exploits interpersonal relations, ie takes advantage of others
      7. Lacks empathy and concern for others
      8. Is envious of others or believes them to be envious of him/her
      9. Displays arrogance

      I’d like to have some McCarthy hearings on Zionist and Zionism, ending in a ruling they all be either deported from the US or put in mental institutions where they can do no harm to others

  12. Donald on February 10, 2013, 12:19 am

    Alterman is worth reading sometimes (I once read an old book of his on the Washington pundit class which was pretty good), but he’s always been something of the pompous gatekeeper trying to protect self-styled decent lefties against the raging wild-eyed Stalinist hordes. Not that I don’t sometimes think there aren’t idiots on the far left who defend the indefensible, but Alterman doesn’t want to make distinctions between people to his left who make him uncomfortable and people to his left who really might take ugly positions. So he lumps them all together because it’s convenient for him to do so.

  13. piotr on February 10, 2013, 4:39 am

    Alterman belongs to a wider group of liberal Zionist who acknowledge oppression and crimes perpetrated by Israel (although they usually frown on boring enumerations of those) but reject any policy proposals that could put stop to them.

    Until they put some proposals of that nature on the table, I do not see any moral right to criticize BDS. Either the state of Israel can exists without continuing the oppression, and then there is nothing anti-Semitic in forcing it to do so, or it cannot, and then the benefits to humanity offered by that state are questionable. As it is, Israel is like Macbeth of Shakespeare: securely rules by the sword until something impossible happens, like the forest marching against his castle. Until then, everything is fine except for the stains…

    A peculiarity of Alterman is his railing against Stalinists that he uncovers in such places like Counterpunch and more recently, BDS. Since neither BDS nor Counterpunch runs a Gulag, one may wonder why this “Stalinism” bothers him so much. One reason that makes extremists bothersome is that in many instances only the extremists dare to expose the falsehood of hegemonic narratives of the establishment. The other reason that makes them loathsome is that they are blind to different crimes than liberals.

  14. W.Jones on February 10, 2013, 6:42 am

    Alterman is trying to compliment BDS and the CP. Most CP members were unaware of the actual situation in the USSR under Stalin in the 1940’s, considering the bad things to be anti-labor propaganda of the kind they were too familiar with. Consequently, most CP members were in fact devoted to democracy and left the CP in the mid-1950’s when it was exposed in Khrushchev’s “Secret speech.” Nonetheless, in the CP made a positive impact in advancing labor rights and civil rights, apart from its stance in foreign policy, and even that had the positive effect of lowering Cold War tensions.

    Alterman’s point must be that BDS supporters are devoted to Democracy and civil rights of people in the Holy Land, and that if BDS would turn out to hurt democracy, then BDS supporters would change their approach. Nonetheless, BDS is making a positive impact on the worldwide movement to integrate society in the Holy Land and has the positive effect of bringing attention to this important issue.

    Finally, in bringing up the McCarthy era, he must be suggesting that there is a sort of anti-civil rights McCarthyism being waged against BDS activists like that waged against Communists in the 1940’s. His point is that in the two cases liberal capitalists and liberal Zionists, respectively, were faced with the dilemma of whether to sympathize with the communists or to participate in the McCarthyist repression.

  15. clenchner on February 10, 2013, 11:42 am

    Alterman was a bit over the top. But coming from the choir at Mondoweiss, isn’t that a bit of the pot calling the kettle black?

    Where this post does a real service is recognizing that there is room for a fruitful debate over some of the thornier BDS related issues. Not the kind of debate where politically correct folks rally to defend the right line (yeah, that’s a well known part of “Stalinism”) but to create that wider space of democratic contestation where people might not agree all the time, but they see themselves as broadly in the same camp.

    That kind of Stalinist behavior is promoted by some liberals, who endorse the exclusion of JVP or BDS or whatnot, even if they also ident,ify the Israeli state as the primary guilty party at this stage of the conflict. And it is promoted by folks here, who are eager to draw those sharp, razor tipped lines designed to keep on the outside not only Zionists of all stripes, but even non, post, or anti-Zionists insufficiently doctrinaire. (cf the bile hurled at Chomsky, Finklestein, and even Sand.)

    The urgent and necessary cause of protecting Palestinians needs everyone who can contribute – even including some opponents of BDS.

    My circle of trust would include anyone who has ever participated in solidarity work in places like Bilin, AND those of similar opinions. That’s what a successful large tent looks like. The commentariat over here would likely happily reduce those numbers. Can you imagine the sneering condescension of Mooser or Avi to a hapless Meretz supporter on the way back from inhaling teargas on a Friday?

    Alterman could have done a better job with his thesis if he had used the comment section at EI and here to make his point. It often feels like the peanut gallery at a Moscow show trial.

    • Donald on February 10, 2013, 1:52 pm

      I could quibble a bit, but I mostly agree with you here. We need a broader tent.

    • MRW on February 10, 2013, 2:31 pm


      What makes you think your ‘circle of trust’ is anything anyone here would trust in?

    • tree on February 10, 2013, 7:57 pm

      My circle of trust would include anyone who has ever participated in solidarity work in places like Bilin, AND those of similar opinions.

      Are you saying that Alterman has done any of these things? Because if you are then you are way off base.

      Newclench, if you really are looking for a “bigger tent” it might help your cause if you wouldn’t use nearly every comment you make here to lambast other posters as Stalinists, or the like. My impression from your continuing comments is that you would like nothing better than to “reduce the numbers” in the “big tent” as long as those excluded are those you disagree with.

      • clenchner on February 11, 2013, 7:48 am

        tree, I think the passionate fringe of toxic, bile spewing solidarity activists play a dual role that is rarely addressed. The guard the flame, but they also keep others away.
        Complaining about my complaining here brings to mind the old joke, where one person shouts angrily “I am not being defensive! Stop picking on me!”
        That said, it’s much better to address the sin as opposed to the sinner. Good point.

  16. Les on February 10, 2013, 12:40 pm

    Saturday Night Live’s coverage of the Hagel hearings, though unaired, is too good to miss

    [hulu id=455138]

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