Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi, both well-known academics and high-profile supporters of the BDS movement campaigning for “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” against Israel, have issued a statement that was originally circulated under the dramatic title “Support Freedom of Expression! Oppose Intimidation!” They claim that there are “accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS.”
Since both Butler and Khalidi are prominent academics, they obviously have many opportunities to voice their views in prestigious venues and media outlets. However, both recently faced protests against scheduled appearances at Jewish institutions, and the events were eventually cancelled. Their call to “oppose intimidation” should therefore also be seen as part of the currently ongoing debate about the question if Jewish institutions should welcome speakers who advocate the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state, which is the openly acknowledged goal of BDS. As Omar Barghouti, who is widely regarded as the founder and most prominent leader of the BDS movement, declared already ten years ago: “Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.”
Before addressing the BDS vision of a world without Zionism in some more detail, it should be noted that BDS supporters themselves do not seem very open to giving a platform to their opponents. The most recent example is a secret anti-Israel conference at New York University (NYU) organized by Lisa Duggan, a signatory to Butler’s and Khalidi’s call for free speech.
This is only one of many examples that could be cited to make the case that BDS really stands for bigoted double standards. But while even advocates of bigotry and double standards may have a right to free speech, groups that are the target of hostile advocacy are obviously not violating the principle of free speech if they refuse to host their detractors, particularly when the hostile activists – as is the case with BDS – enjoy support from elites that have plenty of opportunities to reach a wide audience whenever they air their views.
As so often, something that ignites heated controversies when Israel and Jews are concerned becomes rather obvious when we consider how the issue would be seen in a different context: who would expect the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to host a prominent white supremacist like David Duke? And would anyone demand that a Jewish institution should host Duke in order to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of speech?
If this seems an unfair and inappropriate comparison, it is unfortunately not as far-fetched as one might wish. BDS proponents have to justify their campaigns by trying to show that Israel deserves to be boycotted, and they usually do so by claiming that the Jewish state should be compared to apartheid-era South Africa or even Nazi Germany. As I have documented in a Research Article recently published by the Louis D. Brandeis Center (LDB), the resulting demonization of Israel as utterly evil is not only promoted on sites catering to BDS activists, but also on some of the major sites popular among conspiracy theorists, Jew-haters, racists and neo-Nazis – including David Duke’s website.
Yet, BDS activists usually ignore evidence that their rhetoric promotes anti-Semitic discourse, and they are apparently also unconcerned about findings that indicate a link between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. Neither Butler nor Khalidi seem to have made any effort to take this evidence seriously or to distance themselves from the odious equation of Zionism and racism and the preposterous claim that Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism championed by prominent BDS leaders (see: “How anti-Israel activists define anti-Semitism,” pp.44-49 of the cited LDB Resarch Article (pdf)).
Another major problem that proponents of BDS tend to ignore is the fact that their goal of doing away with the world’s only Jewish state is cheered and shared in the Middle East by groups who justify their views with blood-thirsty religious texts and ideas that reflect a Nazi-like demonization of Jews.
But while Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, has dismissed contemporary anti-Semitism in the Middle East as merely a reaction to Israeli policies, he has also praised Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath which seeks to bolster BDS campaigns by making the case that Israel is the Nazi Germany of our time – and if Israel is the Nazi Germany of our time, the popular caricatures in the Arab media that depict Israel as Nazi-like can hardly be deemed anti-Semitic.
When prominent tenured academics like Butler and Khalidi worry about the “intimidation” of BDS advocates and proceed to call on their colleagues to oppose this alleged intimidation, it is arguably time to point out that students who oppose the BDS goal of doing away with the Jewish state and view the comparison of Israel and Nazi Germany as anti-Semitic have plenty of reason to feel much more intimidated. Highlighting a research paper on “Antisemitism in the Contemporary American University,” the eminent anti-Semitism expert Robert Wistrich noted three years ago that “it is a deeply troubling fact that anti-Semitism (often in the form of anti-Zionism and hatred of Israel) has become a significant part of intellectual and academic discourse.”
Despite the prevalent notion that racism and bigotry are somehow “primitive” resentments fed by ignorance and a lack of education, there is plenty of historical evidence that “an assault on Jewish life always needs justification by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given age,” as Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has argued. More recently, the same point has been made by Monika Schwarz-Friesel, the author of a widely praised new study based on some 14,000 hostile messages sent to the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Israeli embassy in Berlin. Schwarz-Friesel has also emphasized that “[t]hroughout history, anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred never began in the street, but with educated people – in the writings of the Church, in poems, in novels and fairy tales.” Her study indicates that not much has changed, since 60 percent of the hate mail came from “the social mainstream – professors, Ph.Ds, lawyers, priests, university and high-school students.” Based on her research, Schwarz-Friesel has concluded that it has become “impossible to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. Modern anti-Semites have turned ‘the Jewish problem’ into ‘the Israeli problem.’ They have redirected the ‘final solution’ from the Jews to the State of Israel, which they see as the embodiment of evil.”
Since BDS activists have liberally used their freedom of speech to demonstrate that they indeed see the world’s only Jewish state as the embodiment of evil, the call by Butler and Khalidi can hardly be seen as anything else than a transparent attempt to silence BDS critics.