Fiercely anti-Zionist students have become a fixture on American college campuses. They depend on professors for their doctrine, and the professors are spreading disinformation, as Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) between 2006 and 2012, shows in his valuable new book, Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State.
Nelson’s argument is simple: If you want to single out Israel as uniquely worthy of condemnation among the nations of the earth, you have to sign on to a series of lies. BDS’ chief campus influencers, including Judith Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi, and Jasbir Puar, traffic in hyperbolic calumnies about the Jewish state that are easy to refute—if, that is, one is interested in facts rather than blatant prejudice.
Yet Nelson shows that major academic presses sympathetic to BDS, like Duke University Press, have printed these false claims without bothering to engage in even the most basic fact-checking. After Nelson’s book, no one should be able to take the work of the BDS professors seriously, given their reliance on propagandistic lies.
We can start with Jasbir Puar, the Rutgers University professor whose book The Right to Maim (published by Duke) won an award from the National Women’s Studies Association, which officially endorses BDS. Puar has said in print that Israel mines organs from “Palestinian bodies” killed in violent conflict, and that this is “well-documented.” But she cites no documentary proof, because what she claims is impossible: Bodies killed by bullets during violent clashes are useless for organ transplants since they are instantly contaminated by bacteria. Only the scientifically illiterate could swallow Puar’s bizarre claim, which is of a piece with her equally counterfactual assertion that Israel is running a campaign to stunt Palestinians’ growth by denying them adequate nutrition. Nelson carefully demolishes this fabrication, for which Puar cites no evidence.
Nelson is very funny about Puar’s kooky obscurantism. She busily stirs her witches’ brew of bias, rumor, and postmodernist jargon, denouncing “the dark and destructive assemblage that swirls around the Jewish state, a biopolitical assemblage of control that instrumentalizes a spectrum of capacities and debilities.” But Nelson soberly adds that Puar’s high-profile work presents a deadly serious problem: A university press is presenting as evidence-based scholarship what is actually baseless slander, calculated to incite hate.
Even more lurid in his hatred than Puar is Steven Salaita, who absurdly states that any Arab entering Israel can expect a vaginal or anal search. Salaita is a self-confessed despiser of Israel who unleashed a storm of vulgar hate-filled tweets before and after the last Gaza War in 2014, and was then denied a campus appointment at the University of Illinois—a decision Nelson endorses, since Salaita in his books as well as his social media posts is a proud hatemonger who disdains the academic virtues of civil debate and free exchange of ideas. Like Nazis banning Jews from the professions, Salaita wants to ban Zionists from the left. Should a university hire someone like Salaita, Nelson asks, who would proudly promote discrimination on campus?
More banal than Puar and Salaita, but just as insidious, is Saree Makdisi, professor of English at UCLA and celebrated BDS advocate. Makdisi proclaims in his books that Israel has no Basic Law guaranteeing equality of citizenship and no Supreme Court decisions referencing equality. He is, of course, stating the opposite of the truth, as he must know. Israel’s Basic Law gives equal rights to all citizens and this principle has often been cited by the country’s Supreme Court.
Makdisi is just as careless about facts in his account of Bedouin villages which, he inaccurately claims, Israel has refused to recognize. Nelson traveled to one of the villages, Arab al-Na’im, which was recognized in 2000, as Makdisi might have learned from Wikipedia. Its Bedouin leader, Nimer al-Na’im, angrily said that Makdisi’s account was full of “lies,” and was astonished, as Nelson puts it, that “someone halfway around the world” was misrepresenting his home town. Nelson presents a moving account of how the village developed in tandem with a neighboring Jewish town, Eshchar. Makdisi refuses to acknowledge such instances of Jewish-Arab collaboration, instead telling a made-up tale of endless, motiveless Jewish hostility toward Arabs. He also derides the Palestinian Authority for engaging in a peace process with Israel, apparently preferring Hamas’ terror.
Nelson convincingly suggests that BDS recapitulates a choice familiar from centuries of Christian history and theology: “Jews can remain demons or else they can convert” to Israel hatred. Among the superstar converts is Judith Butler, the famously obscure theorist who is president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Butler like other BDS advocates paints herself as nonviolent and rejects the notion that she engages in hate speech. But instead of merely condemning Israeli policies, she voices, as Nelson remarks, an “existential rejection of Israel’s cultural institutions and its right to exist.” In this way she encourages hatred that licenses and promotes violence.
To hear Butler tell it, the Jewish state can be erased through nonviolent means, because when Israelis and Palestinians become Butlerians their nationalism will wither away and be replaced by—well, it’s hard to tell by what. At any rate, terrorism will disappear and with it nationhood itself. As she puts it in her clotted style, “There is we might say, a necessary and impossible attachment that makes a mockery of identity, an ambivalence that emerges from the decentering of the nationalist ethos and that forms the basis of a permanent ethical demand.” Nelson responds, “Good luck with that. Does she think millions of Arabs and Jews are mere clay she can mold to fit her fantastical ambitions for them?”
Butler, when she talks about Israel, seems to be running an outlandish thought experiment, not to be taken seriously as policy because it would lead to endless warfare. She pretends, Nelson says, that it would be “neutral or beneficial” to dissolve the State of Israel, but this is a “frankly lunatic” proposition.
Cary Nelson’s Israel is not the mythic realm of demons fantasized by BDS advocates but an actual place that contains signs of hope.
If Jewish statehood came to an end, as Butler and BDS insist it must, Israeli Jews would not flee, they would fight. The only way an anti-Zionist agenda could win would therefore be through massive bloodshed. BDS’ claim to nonviolence is therefore meaningless, since the goal it proposes would unleash a wave of massacres with both Jews and Palestinians as victims. Even seemingly more moderate goals, like restricting weapons sales to Israel, would have disastrous results. Without its Iron Dome system, largely financed by America, Israel would have to make full-fledged war against Hamas, causing vast suffering for the Palestinian people.
Butler has an essentialist definition of Jews, one that comes out of her head rather than lived reality. For her, to be truly Jewish is to be ferociously anti-Israel, though anti-Zionists are currently a tiny minority among world Jewry.
The Butlerian Jew is at home with diasporic (non-)identity, exile, and otherness. One might respond that such a strategy was hardly a choice and didn’t always work out so well during the 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness and political powerlessness prior to 1948. Today, Israeli Jews make up nearly half of world Jewry. They are in no way diasporic, but deeply attached to their homeland. Butler’s solution, acting as the extremist rabbi of the academic left, is to anathematize and erase their Jewishness.
Butler says that BDS boycotts only institutions, not individuals, a well-worn talking point for a movement that habitually cloaks its eliminationist aims. But again, this simply isn’t true. Organizations that abide by BDS like the American Studies Association discriminate against Israeli academics by preventing them from using university funds to appear at conferences. Israelis have been kicked off the editorial boards of academic journals simply because they are Israeli. Students have been denied letters of recommendation to study in Israel. All of these measures hurt individuals.
Those who have never been subject to prejudice because of their national origin, ethnicity, or race might find it hard to identify with the pain someone feels on being rejected for a job because she comes from a despised nation. Perhaps they should perform a simple ethical thought experiment: putting themselves in place of the hated Israeli.
BDS has three “nonnegotiable” demands: that all descendants of Palestinian refugees be given Israeli citizenship, that the separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories be taken down, and that Israeli Arab citizens be given equal rights with Israeli Jews. This last demand is simply misleading, since Israeli Palestinians already have equal rights.
As for the first two demands, no Israeli government, even a far-left one, would ever contemplate accepting them, as removing the separation barrier would lead to a wave of terror attacks, new wars, and an exponentially higher death toll—especially on the Palestinian side. Giving all Palestinians Israeli citizenship would lead to the death of the Jewish state. But of course, the end of Israel as a Jewish state is precisely BDS’ goal, and it doesn’t matter how many Arabs and Jews are killed in order to achieve it.
BDS proponents habitually call Israel an apartheid state. But Israel has no segregation or passbooks like the kind that blighted apartheid South Africa. There were no blacks serving in apartheid South Africa’s parliament or seated on its Supreme Court. The historian Russell Berman points out that Nelson Mandela happily accepted an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in 1997, and in his acceptance speech thanked Israel for its contributions to South Africa (through the collaborative programs that BDS wants to ban). Since then, affirmative action keeps boosting the number of Israeli Palestinians in Israel’s universities and, especially, medical schools. The University of Haifa is 40% Arab, twice the percentage of Arabs in the Israeli population.
BDS activists, who imply they know more about apartheid than Mandela, ignore his praise of Israel, just as they diligently attempt to rewrite Martin Luther King Jr. By turning Israel into apartheid South Africa, they demonstrate their ignorance of what apartheid was actually like—while casually denying and erasing the brutal violence and unceasing hatred to which Jewish Israelis have been subjected by neighboring Arab countries since before the founding of their state. Racism exists in Israel just as it does in the United States, but Israel has taken large and visible steps to counteract it.
To counteract BDS it’s not enough merely to condemn the movement’s lies, Nelson writes. In a series of chapters interspersed throughout Israel Denial, Nelson shows his commitment to the imperfect yet inspiring reality of Israel, giving his own ideas about increasing peace between Israelis and Palestinians through a series of trust-building Israeli concessions like ceding parts of the West Bank’s Area C to the Palestinian Authority. The point is to create a two-state dynamic even without a peace deal. He describes his own practice of “teaching for empathy” by presenting Jewish and Palestinian poets together. Nelson’s Israel is not the mythic realm of demons fantasized by BDS advocates but an actual place that contains signs of hope.
Yet professors and students like Nelson are often denied chances to share their experiences. Instead they are silenced by BDS, which seeks to advance their agenda not through reasoned debate but by a full-frontal assault on free speech. BDS adherents have in the last few years tried to shut down 90 mostly Israeli speakers, some of whom were bona fide leftists. Tactically, the BDS movement uses violence and extreme pressure to forcefully prevent reasoned discussion about Israel on campus, and make university faculty, administrators, and students afraid.
It is in the context of the BDS movement’s campaign of continuous pressure and often violent intimidation against those who hold more nuanced, fact-based views that the apparatus of academic BDS publications and conferences should properly be understood. The jargon of po-mo theory, words like “apartheid,” and baldfaced lies about organ harvesting and biological warfare are intended to intimidate while serving as a fig leaf for the eliminationist fantasies they are intended to justify. Even when the facts are wrong, the fact that books are published and conferences are held allows nervous administrators to pretend that the BDS movement is somehow observing normal rules of academic discourse, rather than violating them.
Yet perhaps because of these social pressure tactics, BDS gets a free ride in much of the mainstream media. Their violent heckling of speakers, their traffic in disinformation, and their opposition to dialogue and open debate are nowhere mentioned, for example, in a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Nathan Thrall. When BDS looks in the mirror, what it sees is the noble faces of crusaders against injustice—but that’s because the mirror is cracked, too.
These days, American universities give awards to student BDS organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, which dutifully parrot the hateful nonsense spewed by their professors, in a grotesque parody of what a humanistic education should look like. Instead, the academy ought to follow the German Bundestag, which declared on May 17 that “the pattern of argument and the methods of BDS are anti-Semitic,” and, the Bundestag added, clearly reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Jewish boycotts. It’s time that these words became as commonly accepted in America as they are in Germany.
Read more from Tablet magazine’s deep archive of stories on campus anti-Semitism.
David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.