A phantom Spring has come to New York, turning filth-crusted snowbanks into shimmering puddles, the seasonally disaffected into joggers. What better time then to pull down the shades and argue about Israel?
A couple days ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted the above video of Breitbart heir and all-around dickhead Ben Shapiro, venting righteous indignation at UCLA, for its consideration of a student-backed petition calling on the University to divest from companies that “contribute to violations of Palestinian rights and international law.”
In arguing against divestment, Shapiro does not engage with concerns about the occupation of the West Bank. He does not argue specifically why he sees divestment from companies affiliated with Israel as an ethically or strategically misguided action for those concerned about Palestinian justice.
He doesn’t need to defend occupation or propose alternative methods for redressing its harms, because he recognizes that BDS has nothing to do with Palestinian oppression. In his view, none of those students affiliated with the movement are motivated by a sincere empathic concern for the occupied, whose suffering merely provides them a convenient front through which to exercise their “age old hatred of the Jewish people.”
Shapiro is a butcher by trade, doling out red meat to reactionary white men, who need to be affirmed in their terror of black kids, or disgust at money grubbing sluts. And so refuting his argument on the Israel/Palestine debate might seem like a waste of time.
But I’m compelled to do so anyhow for a few reasons:
- I think the way his highly shareable burst of rhetoric bites off all substantive questions about the Occupation and BDS, through an appeal to anti-Semitism, is indicative of the way right-wing Zionists attempt to police discourse on Israel more broadly. And I think this reliance on the illogical equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism betrays the profound ethical questions that liberal Zionists must grapple with.
- Shapiro’s rant had wide enough resonance that my ostensibly liberal Facebook friend, who I don’t know especially well, but who seems to me a perfectly lovely individual, felt compelled to share it, as she felt it did an excellent job exposing the “hateful aims” of the BDS movement.
- It seems like a decent opportunity to formally express my thoughts on Israel, and solicit those of more well-informed friends.
Shapiro’s argument for why BDS is a movement of/by/for Jew haters has two main parts.
First, he employs the fundamentally flawed selectivity argument: He reasons that there is no explanation other than anti-Semitism, for why students would be attempting to boycott Israel and not Iran or Saudi Arabia, or any of the other undemocratic middle-eastern states with abhorrent records on human rights:
“To pretend this is about occupation, to pretend this is about peace, to pretend this is about anything but vile and despicable Jew hatred is a lie. There is only one reason we are discussing Israel and not discussing Saudi Arabia, there is only one reason we are discussing Israel and not discussing Iran, there is only one reason we are discussing Israel and not discussing Palestine…”
Shapiro’s argument seems pretty lacking in imagination. Is it not possible that some of the members of BDS are more concerned about Israel’s human rights record rather than Saudi Arabia’s because, I don’t know, they might be themselves Palestinian?
Is it not permissible to be more concerned by violations of international law that effect your own friends and family than those that do not? The logic here is that, regardless of personal investment, to condemn a party for a crime that other parties have committed more severely, is to betray an irrational hatred of said party. So that in condemning the anti-semitism of UCLA and not the Westborough Baptist Church, Shapiro is revealing his age-old anti-Bruinism.
Then there’s another group that may have an understandable preoccupation with Israel’s human rights record: Jews. And not just us secular humanist sodomites either.
It is not anti-Semitic self-hatred that makes me especially sensitive to the crimes of the Israeli state. Rather, it is the sense of profane betrayal that they induce.
The Holocaust thinned the ranks around my family’s Thanksgiving table. My grandmother’s father, mother, sister, and brother were all murdered when she was 10 years old.
That tragedy shadowed my childhood from an impossible distance, testifying to a precarity of human civilization and experience that everything else in a mid-90’s Connecticut suburb seemed to deny. But then, in moments, this unfathomable contradiction would become startlingly proximate, in my grandmother’s person, in the fever-pitch of my mother’s inherited anxiety.
In this way, The Holocaust was synonymous with death itself, a world-destroying fact which didn’t exist outside scattered moments of intuition. And as with death, there could be no durable life philosophy or system of meaning that didn’t confront it as a central problem.
I was raised to know Israelis as my brethren, Palestinians as terrorists, who would refuse any peace agreement that didn’t allow them to march all the Jews into unparting seas.
I was told the mainstream media was hatefully biased against the state of Israel, crowing over losses of Palestinian life without providing the context of their aggression.
I remember being 10 or 11, and seeing Bill O’Reilly devote his Talking Points Memo to the supremacy of Israeli culture and the obscenity of media bias against it, and running into my mother’s bedroom, to euphorically shout that someone was finally telling the truth on TV.
I was also instructed in the humanitarian universalist understanding of the Holocaust, in Never Again to anyone, in the toxic evil of all prejudice. A northern school system’s emphasis on American slavery in both history and literature classes, reinforced the notion that genocidal discrimination was not a strictly Hebraic phenomenon.
And I was taught to fear most the banality of hatred, the complacency of all those good Germans.
Then I came of age in Bush’s America, came into a political awareness capable of identifying propaganda in mainstream narratives, and found voices on the left that made sense of our leaders’ duplicitous contempt for democracy, their apparent indifference to the human consequences of their ideological commitments.
What a thing then to discover that all these people who were right about Iraq, were also terrorist-loving anti-Semites.
To recognize the reality of Israeli occupation and apartheid was to see embodied in the loving bond of my Jewish family and community the very evil they were supposed to exist in defiance of. It was to recognize in attenuated form, the willful blindness of the good German in my own mother.
All of which is to say, that the selective concern with Israel among some Jews involved in social justice does not require an appeal to the learned self-loathing of an out-group. Rather, that selective concern is the product of a competing understanding of how to affirm the Holocaust memory through ethical living.
As Ella Illouz wrote in Haaretz in February:
“If Israel is indeed singled out among the many nations that have a bad record in human rights, it is because of the personal sense of shame and embarrassment that a large number of Jews in the Western world feel toward a state that, by its policies and ethos, does not represent them anymore.”
Illouz asserts that the divide in the Jewish community on Israel is fundamentally a moral one. In glib summary:
One side believes the Holocaust teaches that the world will always regard us first and foremost as Jews, and we must therefore hold our Jewishness as our primary identity. As a uniquely victimized group in world history, we are entitled to the protection of a state by and for our ethnic/religious group, and are entitled to the acts of violence all states must necessarily undertake to secure their sovereignty.
The other side believes the Holocaust teaches that the idea of a chosen people is a deadly lie. We are all first and foremost human, no matter the unique and beautiful culture accidents of history and geography have gifted us. As the arbitrary survivors of a uniquely victimized group, we are obligated to oppose the victimization of any group on the basis of their religious or ethnic identity.
Shapiro preempts the airing of this moral debate, by enforcing the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. His final argument for why the claims of BDS must be met with the same tolerance and intellectual curiosity as those of the Hitler youth, is that none of those pushing for BDS are willing to recognize a Jewish state qua Jewish state.
Here his argument has a modicum of legitimacy. UCLA’s BDS does call for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, which would effectively be the end of Israel as a specifically Jewish state.
But again, what’s missing here is a warrant for the claim that wishing to prioritize the rights of the ethnically cleansed, over the maintenance of a Jewish state, can only be the product of anti-Semitism.
It is a historical fact, affirmed even in the writings of avowedly Zionist historians like Benny Morris, that up to 700,000 Palestinian families were forced from their homes in 1948 by the Israeli military. Their expulsion was necessary to make possible the demographic majority a democratic Zionist state required to exist.
When this truth is recognized, it seems to me it is not supporters of the right to return who must contend with charges of callousness based on ethnic animosity, but rather those who oppose that right.
To my liberal Zionist friends I ask: Is there any ethical case that can be made for denying refugees the right of return, that does not privilege Jewish life above Palestinian?
To me, the best case for the Jewish state is a negative one: That this ethnocracy maintained by violence is an unfortunate necessity, because a secular state inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians as equal citizens would produce perpetual civil war akin to the sectarian conflicts in other parts of the region.
To my one-state supporting friends I ask: What is the best argument against this being true?
It does strike me that, to an extent, principles are a privilege. When my father’s family fled the indignities of the shtetl, my mother’s the anti-Semitism of Soviet Poland, they could have easily opted or Tel Aviv instead of Manhattan.
Whatever secular humanist commitments I profess, there is no question that my actions affirm a preference for the well-being of myself and those I love over that of unknown others.
Because of our shared history of oppression, because if not for recent quirks of history, I’d have been born among them, do I owe Israeli Jews the ethics-obliterating love of family?
Or must I remember that if you follow the blood-line further back, you’ll find as arbitrary a fork in history, where but for the grace of god or entropy, I’d now be a malnourished child of Gaza?
I am certain there is nothing hateful about answering the latter. And that there is nothing anti-Semitic about pursuing non-violent action to force Israeli compliance with international law.
And I am certain that the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is rhetoric fit for a Fascist, who invites us to look away from any question that might threaten the lie that sustains his violence and our identity.