Our politics and theirs
We live at a time when the positive creative movements for a better world are largely defeated and have been replaced, for the moment, by movements for resistance and opposition.Pathological narcissism
Supporting the boycott of Israel offers the opportunity to appear radical without having to do anything. ... The boycott doesn’t help change the situation in Palestine or in Israel but it does address the personal needs of boycotters to avoid feelings of complicity.
In a recent tweet, Noga used the term "pathological narcissism" to describe anti-Israel campaigners, which I think aptly sums up what David is talking about here. Western anti-Israel politics is almost always about us, the West, and not about Israel/Palestine. David again:
For some Europeans and Americans, Israel is ‘us’ but not quite ‘us’. People think of it as “white” or “western”, they point to the support it receives from the US and Europe; yet it can be disavowed, our own “western” failings can be put onto its shoulders...What David is criticising here is what we might call the "camp thinking" of the BDS movement, and of the wider "anti-imperialist" left of which it is part - reminiscent of the Cold War division of the world into two rival blocs, with many socialists sucked into a "second campist" position of support for the terrible Stalinist tyrannies because they were "against" the capitalist camp.
The boycotters are good at framing the boycott issue as defining who is good and who is bad. Supporters of the boycott are constructed as “pro Palestine” and opponents of the boycott as “pro Israel” – then to many people it is obvious which side one must be on, to stand with the oppressed nation not the oppressor nation, against (US) imperialism not for (US) imperialism. The conflict on our campuses seems to be between wavers of the Israeli flag and wavers of the Palestinian flag. We refuse to pick up one or the other flag and to hope for its victory; better to embrace a politics of reconciliation....
The term "camp thinking" (taken up by Paul Gilroy in his book Between Camps, an attack on “the lore of blood and bodies, and fantasies of absolute cultural identity”) was used by the 1960s German leftists Negt and Kluge. They spoke about the 1920s, as Communism shifted from a revolutionary ideology into a militarised defence of the Soviet state. They wrote:
Within this camp mentality, difference of political position, the smallest deviations from the general line, and indeed, criticism become insupportable because the autonomy is unstable and in actual fact under constant threat. What the Stalinist party organization does with individual communists who transgress or call into question these clear... demarcations (this as a rule entails avowals of loyalty to decrees and programs) corresponds to the attempt of the ruling power within the socialist camp to pledge the various parties working under specific conditions in other countries to its line of foreign and defense policy.I think today's "anti-imperialist" left has reproduced this camp mentality. The boycott gesture is the membership test of the camp, the leap of faith one is expected to make; anti-Zionism is the cultural code by which members recognise each other.
The second campism of the narcissistic Western left is above all a failure of, a retreat from, real solidarity. David again:
We need to have a conversation about what solidarity is... .Solidarity begins there not here. It doesn’t answer our needs first, it relates to others first. We are interested in peace in the Middle East, not in our own political cleanliness and not in using events far away rhetorically against our own enemies at home.... Solidarity is always also a responsibility to engage and to think for ourselves. Solidarity changes ‘us’ as it changes ‘them’, it is never a slavish or a one way responsibility to ‘answer a call’ or obey those who claim to speak in the name of the oppressed....Solidarity is about relating to the reality of diversity within Israel and Palestine, not treating each as a single monolith wrapped in a flag....Non-Jewish Jews
As well as this critique of the failure of solidarity, David also makes three important points about antisemitism. First, there is the issue of the "as a Jews", whose own narcissistic politics licenses the gentile BDS movement:
Much of the energy for the boycott campaign comes from anti-Zionist Jews. They are no different from many Jews in so much as, for understandable reasons, they are especially concerned about Jewish issues and about Israel – its crimes or its victimhood, real or imagined.Some anti-Zionist Jews today express their Jewishness primarily through their hatred of Israel, just as some other assimilated Jews feel their Jewishness primarily through an attachment to antisemitism.* These are interesting dynamics of Jewishness. But they have been allowed to drive the agenda of whole swathes of the mainstream left, who surely have better things to focus their energy on.
Sometimes small groups of anti-Zionist Jews are successful in exporting their own particular concern about Israeli human rights abuses into non-Jewish civil society organizations like trade unions or academic associations. This then creates an anomalous situation with respect to consistency.
The politics of vengeance
Second, there is the way that the Western anti-Israel left, both its "as a Jew" strain and its gentile majority, vicariously identifies with the damaged identities of Palestinians, arguably another form of narcissistic politics, which opens it up to damaged identity's antisemitic hate:
If you were brought up in a refugee camp under the occupation of a Jewish army, it might be understandable, though by no means inevitable, if you internalized a hostility to Jews; If you were brought up under the threat of suicide bombs, and missiles with hostile Arab neighbours, it might be understandable, though by no means inevitable, if you were to internalize a hostility to Arabs. But we, in our comfortable academic lives do not have such reasons or excuses to embrace a politics of violence, exclusion or racism.Locating antisemitism
Third, he makes a point which I have tried to make a few times on this blog: that antisemitism, like all racisms, should not be seen as a thoughtcrime, is not about intent, is not a feature of "antisemites" - but rather should be seen as a social fact, in its effects, as words or stories or images:
antisemitism, like other racisms, does not always appear as open and conscious hatred. Often it appears as ways of thinking; often it appears as unintended effects; often it appears in rhetoric which mirrors older antisemitisms. Antisemitism is an objective social phenomenon, not simply a malicious motivation inside people’s heads. There can be antisemitism and racism which is not caused by hatred and which is not a result of an intention to discriminate.
David Hirsh:What do the intellectuals who try to organise a boycott of Israel have in common with Dieudonné and Anelka with their Quenelle? and So how does it work, the quenelle?; Contentious Centrist: How to Promote Conversation And Preserve Academic Freedom by Boycotting Israeli Academic; Kenan Malik: Dieudonné: the Clown of the Anti Age; Jeff Weintraub: Defend academic freedom from boycotts and blacklists; Rob Marchant: Politics 2.0; Clay Claibourne: Echoes of America First in the anti-war movement.
Previous: Cosmopolitan reflections versus (inter)nationalism; Who should decide who makes a good Jew?; The manichean left; The politics of solidarity, beyond left and right; Good and bad ideas.
*This sentence edited 27 Jan. See comments below for why.