When I first started college after a gap year spent in Israel on kibbutz, I was surprised by the animus expressed for Israel by its critics. A naïve Labor Zionist, I thought that the problem was the occupation, not the existence of the country itself. That was a long time ago, thirty years ago, roughly half the country’s age today. While respectful of the arguments made against it, I nonetheless remain curious and still astonished not by criticism of the country, and not even by hostility, but by the depth of hostility, outrage, and hate that Israel continues to arouse. But since we are asked to consider the validity of discourse simply as discourse, to weigh a statement dispassionately, no matter how aberrant, then there is no reason not to play, carefully and critically, the anti-Semitism card.
I come to this as I try to make sense of the recent proposal by the American Studies Association to impose a blanket academic boycott on all Israeli universities and colleges, and by the larger BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement represented by this proposal. Like all forms of BDS, the justification of the proposal is based on principles of human rights, universal justice, and solidarity with Palestinian civil society. These principles are genuine, easy to identify and just. But the intense anger, the righteous anger and the sometime rage surrounding Israel suggests something else, that BDS operates affectively on “hatred” of Israel, not Jews, not usually, not necessarily, but Israel.
Hatred is a fighting word, so I would like to be cautious. By hatred I do not mean to say that this specific form of hatred is irrational or unreasoning. There are, after all, many good reasons to “hate” Israel, and all the more so if you are Palestinian, or are drawn to the justice and right of its cause and its claim. Logically, there is indeed no option but to hate Israel if all one sees in it is a form of apartheid settler-colonialism based on ethnic-racial cleansing, separation, and dispossession. If Israel has no broader right to exist, no broader right on its side, if its crimes are universally notorious and its victims uniquely innocent, and if those crimes are what Israel “is” and always “was” and “will be” then surely one must abjure Israel, simply.
Arguments are made to the effect that things are not so simple, that BDS is a big-tent movement composed of different streams, that BDS is not pro- or anti-Israel or pro-Palestine, that some supporters of BDS are themselves Israeli, that many are Jewish, and that one can support BDS while still supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nevertheless the dominant strand of the movement and its leadership remain radically anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, and they have the right to be so. Unlike the recent and more targeted EU boycott of West Bank settlements, which I support, BDS tends not to draw a distinction between the occupation of the West Bank and the existence of the State of Israel, between 1967 and 1948. People in support of the boycott may be opposed to the occupation, not to Israel, but the particular boycott under consideration at the ASA is proposed to apply to all Israeli universities and colleges, on either side of the Green Line, which makes the boycott universal, not targeted.
Again, I want to be cautious. By hatred I mean something very specific, more object-oriented than subject-oriented, more rational than emotional. I do not mean by the term what any one person necessarily “feels” or is conscious of “feeling.” I mean instead what might be theorized as a more ambient out-of-body and palpable through-the-body phenomenon. Not a possession that one owns, affect is a field and a pulse that surrounds and passes through human subjects. A contagion, it is profoundly shared. I would also like to think that, not irrational, an affect is deeply intentional, forming around and marking out an object. Potentially if not always actually rational in structure, affect combines with perspective, perception, and analytical-critical judgment. That’s how I hear it, and that’s what I mean when I say that BDS hates Israel. The judgment that stamps the particular affect surrounding Israel and BDS is a juridical one marked by a definite finality regarding the right and wrong of the conflict.
By hatred I also do not mean to ascribe a guiltless condition to its object. The anger and anathema that Israel draws upon itself is no doubt a self-inflicted wound, first because, by definition, no country or sovereign power is ever innocent, much less moral, and second, because the current leadership of the country seems to do everything to isolate itself regionally and globally, to dig itself deeper into the occupation of a people with equally legitimate claims to land and restitution, to turn itself gradually and inexorably into a pariah-apartheid state, and to make itself repulsive to groups much larger than the small nation most forcefully impacted by the emergence of the Zionist movement in the middle of the twentieth century.
As for the anti-Semitism card. The words here are difficult and obnoxious relating as they do to negative affects and politically treacherous feelings that most of us would wisely prefer to disavow. Like any affect, righteous anger and hatred are slippery things not tied down to any single object, entity, or direct referent. While I reject the claim that BDS is necessarily aligned with or as anti-Semitism, it is easy to see how the righteous anger and hatred of Israel has a more virtual aspect that can slip into actual Jew-hating i.e. first hating Zionists, namely the Jewish people who live in the country and the people who support it, and then hating Jews and Judaism more generally.
This is only complicated by what I suspect is the cultural taboo surrounding hatred in the Christian and post-Christian west, which is particularly fraught when it comes to Jews. But the taboo is a more general one. It has nothing to do with Jews, Judaism, and Israel. It is rather the case that, in America, we love Nelson Mandela, the Dali Lama, and Jesus. The religion of love and shared ideals of peace and justice that surround us makes it almost impossible to own honestly anger and hatred when and as it passes through us.