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Ben Cohen
Speech to be delivered at the conference on Academic Freedom and the Politics of Boycotts,
January 25-6 2006, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel.
Recent discussion regarding the ideological basis for a boycott of Israel – whether in the
academic sphere or within the wider context of divestment and sanctions – has tended to
concentrate on the nexus between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and, therefore, on the
relationship between the political left, Israel and the Jews. Whilst one can discern an
historical and ideological distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the line
between the two has become increasingly blurred. In many cases, it has disappeared
altogether. To argue otherwise is to accept the dogma, widespread on the left and among
Islamists of a certain stripe, that Judaism is merely confessional, that any national
component to Jewish identity is without legitimacy, and that, consequently, opposition to
Zionism is one thing and hatred of Jews quite something else.
The attempt to strip Jewish national consciousness of its legitimacy, and to present it as
an artificial construct in the service of a grand colonial scheme, manifests in many ways.
I will focus, in this presentation, on two areas. The first is theoretical; I will examine the
assumptions about Jews held by those who are opposed to Zionism. The second is more
concrete; specifically, at the analogy which is drawn between Israel and the now defunct
apartheid regime in South Africa. This analogy provides the rationale for the boycott
movement. It enables those who support the boycott to portray the Jewish state as a
pariah without resorting to traditional anti-Semitic tropes and motifs.
Let me say at the outset that our focus on the contemporary left should not blind us to
more traditional forms of anti-Semitism. Particularly in eastern Europe and the former
Soviet Union, those forms persist. At the same time, it is unproblematic to label as antiSemitism the hostility towards Jews encountered among xenophobes, church or mosquebased fanatics, communist nostalgics and nationalist exclusivists. Matters are a little more
complicated when it comes to the hostility of those who portray themselves as
progressives. In part, this is because, from the liberal to the revolutionary wings of the
left, there has historically been little truck with the ugly themes which have marked the
history of anti-Semitism: deicide, racial pollution, blood libels and so forth. Indeed, the
only classic theme to have been seriously entertained by the left revolves around the
notion of shadowy Jewish power – economic, political or both. By and large though, the
modern left has resisted the charge of anti-Semitism by saying that its ire is focused upon
the Jewish state, not on Jews as such.
Such a formula is, to say the least, disingenuous. It brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s
description of an idealised type – the “democrat” – in his essay, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’.
Sartre observed: “The anti-Semite reproaches the Jew with being Jewish; the democrat
reproaches him with wilfully considering himself a Jew”. The democrat is a “feeble”
protector of Jews, argued Sartre, because while those Jews who remove themselves
utterly from Judaism acquire a nobility in the eyes of the democrat, those who situate
themselves in a Jewish context are needlessly creating problems: they are, in fact, a
danger, to themselves and to others. The democrat in Sartre’s essay warns us that “The
Jews will come back from exile with such insolence and hunger for vengeance that I am
afraid of a new outburst of anti-Semitism.” Sartre scripted these words for his democrat
in 1948; I have lost count of how many times I have read a version of them during the
last five years written by real people, self-declared democrats, who genuinely believe that
Jews are responsible for their own misfortune.
When it comes to anti-Semitism, what unites the right and the left, the classic and the
contemporary, is simply this: fear, even loathing, of the conscious, empowered,
autonomous Jew. On the left, this expresses itself primarily as opposition to the Jewish
national project. I will analyse that momentarily, by way of the apartheid analogy. But let
me begin with the assumptions.
In broad terms, there are two main phases in the evolution of leftist attitudes towards the
Jews. The first phase can be described as economic determinism, and take its cue from
Karl Marx. Marx’s most well-known comments about Jews and Judaism are spiced with
crude anti-Semitic language about Jews “huckstering” and “haggling”. These words can
be found in his 1843 response to Bruno Bauer, “On The Jewish Question”, a polemic
which explores the nature of political emancipation. But what is really significant is
Marx’s core thesis: Judaism is identified with an economy based upon monetary
exchange and private property. Outside of these parameters, Marx cannot conceive of a
space for Jewish existence. Hence his conclusion: “The social emancipation of the Jew is
the emancipation of society from Judaism.”
Here, then, we have the image of the Jew as a monetary agent, and just that. And here,
perhaps, is the root of the aloofness and disdain with which future generations of
revolutionaries regarded Jewish concerns. Remember the words of Rosa Luxemburg,
herself a Jew: “Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as
sorry for the wretched Indian victims in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa....I cannot find
a special corner in my heart for the ghetto.”
If one can describe the first phase in the relationship between the left and the Jews as
economic determinism, the second phase might be termed anti-imperialism. It coincides
with the escalation of the conflict between Jews and Arabs over Palestine/Eretz Israel. In
this phase, the distinctive economic role supposedly played by the Jews is subordinate to
their geopolitical role as a foreign body inserted into the heart of the Arab homeland.
More recently, this contention has evolved in two ways: Israel is either a pillar supporting
American imperial ambitions in the region or the ultimate power behind the actions of the
United States.
Of course, this was not and is not a view held uniformly on the left. From the 1930s until
the 1970s especially, European social democrats, mindful of the legacy of the Holocaust
and admiring of the Zionist enterprise, held Israel in high regard – one thinks of Richard
Crossman in Britain or Willy Brandt in Germany. Indeed, the notion of Israel as a local
and highly toxic manifestation of American imperialism originated in the Soviet Union.
And it did so within the framework of a state policy of anti-Semitism and an ideological
assault on Jewish history. One feature of this assault was the notorious accusation that the
Zionist movement collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination of six million Jews.
These Soviet libels emerged as articles of faith across much of what became known, in
the late 1960s, as the New Left. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to note the
irony of leftist revolutionaries, many of them identifying as Trotskyists, even more of
them reaffirming their opposition to Stalinism, parroting Soviet propaganda. Yet it
happened, and many of the terrible lies they told helped to the lay the ground for the
current assault on Israel, which embraces constituencies far wider than the extreme left.
A play which almost came to the London stage in the 1980s, entitled “Perdition”, a leftist
version of Holocaust denial, is one example. Newspaper articles which alleged that the
Zionists rounded up Palestinians and put them in concentration camps is another.
What these two phases have in common is the refusal to acknowledge the continuity of
Jewish identity, beyond a grudging recognition of the Jews as a religious community. For
orthodox Marxists, Judaism is practically synonymous with capitalism. For the New
Leftists and their successors, Judaism – and particularly Jewish national consciousness –
is an integral component of imperialism: and imperialism, let us not forget, is commonly
understood as political domination propelled by economic imperatives. In short, Jews are
always on the wrong side of the fence.
The movement to boycott Israel, therefore, can lean upon a long and active tradition of
anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism on the left. In recent years, the antiJewish traditions of Arab nationalism and Islamism have become another important
source. In this ideological universe, Zionism as a movement and Israel as a state assume a
global significance which results in rogue status for both.
These negative attitudes on the part of the left towards Jews have been with us for two
centuries. Understanding and recalling this history is critical if we are to oppose the claim
that anti-Zionism is not, and cannot ever be, anti-Semitism. I would accept that, in the
period prior to the creation of Israel, there was some reasonable and principled opposition
to the goal of a Jewish state which was voiced by those, many of them Jews, who
genuinely felt that a separate state was not in accord with Jewish interests. However,
since 1948, anti-Zionism has centred upon the idea that, out of nearly 200 states in the
international system, only Israel should be removed from the list. In other words, antiZionism is no longer about opposing the formation of an entity which does not yet exist;
it is about eliminating a state which does exist, with scant regard for the impact this
would have on Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. Of course, the left offers us glib
assurances that such an outcome is in the best interests of the Jews, but, as the Jewish
Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher famously pointed out, to accept those assurances would
require a “confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European
society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified.”
One of our main complaints against the boycott movement is that it singles out Israel.
Morally, we say, they are on very shaky ground. In that regard, some of us point to the
assertive human rights culture which has surfaced in international relations since the end
of the cold war. The philosophy which underlies this culture, while emerging – as Paul
Berman documents in his fascinating new book, “Power and the Idealists” – from a more
enlightened section of the left, nevertheless owes much more to Kant than Marx. It
champions an internationalism which aims not at creating a workers paradise, but at
safeguarding fundamental human and civil rights, building robust democratic institutions
and sustaining a tolerant, liberal political environment. It is a model of governance to be
borne in mind when we are confronted with human rights emergencies around the world,
whether it is Sudan’s genocide in Darfur, Mugabe’s so-called “slum clearance”
programme in Zimbabwe, the gulags of North Korea or the persecution of homosexuals
in Iran.
Sadly, these human rights emergencies are all too prevalent in too many places. Yet the
boycott movement ignores them. The boycott movement believes that there is one
offender, and only one. The boycott movement rallies for Palestine, either directly or
using the conflict in Iraq as a cover, but turns a blind eye to the Kurds and the Tibetans.
Indeed, one consequence of the cacophony emanating from the boycott movement is that
the vastly disproportionate attention paid to alleged Jewish offences means that other,
genuine cases of persecution and oppression, practiced by genuinely authoritarian
regimes, are pushed to the margins.
Why is it that the boycott movement seems so unmoved by the universalist culture of
human rights which I have briefly described? Why - to ask a question which all of us are
asking - single out Israel? As to the psychology at work here, I can only speculate. Maybe
there’s a strange kind of racism involved, which deems Palestinians to be more worthy
than Africans. I cannot say for sure.
My answer is, therefore, more structural in nature. In part, the left clings to the sort of
qualified Westphalianism favoured by the Soviet Union and the Non-Aligned Movement;
that one should refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of states so long as those
states are part of the anti-imperialist bloc. More importantly, much of the left, and
certainly the boycott movement, maintains that Israel is an apartheid state. It is a slander
found all over: in the Iranian press; on Arab satellite television channels; in the motions
submitted to the British Association of University Teachers; in the boycott resolution
recently passed by the representatives of the Sor Trondelag regional parliament in
Norway; and in the corridors of the United Nations, especially at the sessions of the
General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights and at the innumerable
conferences organised for NGOs and so-called experts by the Division for Palestinian
Rights. And the definition dictates the solution: because if a state practises apartheid, it
has no right to exist.
At the Anti-Defamation League, we have made a concerted effort to expose the lie
embodied in the apartheid analogy. And what we did was, first and foremost, to remind
the public of what apartheid in South Africa involved. It involved a complex of laws
governing citizenship, access, movement and land use which imposed a hellish
discrimination on the 90 per cent of the population who were not white. In apartheid
South Africa, the colour of one’s skin determined the most mundane and the most private
details of human life and social interaction.
In the same way that the boycott movement frequently abuses the history and meaning of
the word “Holocaust”, so it does with the word “apartheid”. This comparison is not the
result of any rigorous analysis on their part. It is about hijacking history to serve
propaganda. And it is about deliberately reserving the word “apartheid” for Israel in order
to underline its illegitimacy. There are plenty of other democracies where discrimination
is a fact of life: look, for example, at the treatment of the Roma in the new democracies
of eastern Europe. Yet the Czech Republic is not described as an apartheid state. Hungary
is not the target of a boycott.
The discriminatory mechanisms of apartheid are entirely absent in Israel. There is no
Group Areas Act establishing separate residential areas for different racial groups. There
is no Bantu Education Act to restrict the educational opportunities of the Arab minority.
There is no Suppression of Communism Act to curb free speech. There is no ban on
marriage or on intimate relations between members of different national, ethnic, religious
or racial groups. The thesis that Israel in any way resembles apartheid South Africa is a
fiction. But this fiction is necessary to preserve the true agenda of the boycott movement:
not the withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 lines, but, internally, the dissolution of its Jewish
nature and, externally, its removal from the international system of sovereign,
independent states. Of course, I do not suggest that every person who advocates a boycott
of Israel necessarily supports these goals; I do say that these are the goals of those who
have created the boycott movement and who set its agenda and priorities. And this goal is
consistent with the broad trajectory which I have described here, which sees in the
persistence of Jews and Judaism an abnormality and which seeks to eradicate the space –
territorial, spiritual, political – for a conscious, self-defining Jewish existence in Israel
and the diaspora.
Thank you.
Ben Cohen is the Director of European Affairs at the Anti-Defamation
League (ADL), based in New York.