Thinking about BDS (2): The Rhetoric of the Race Card

Anti-Semitism is a real, sometimes insidious, and always vicious thing. I’ve argued now for more than a decade that it finds problematic (probably disproportionate) expression among Arabs and Muslims, and also among Israel’s more militant and dogmatic secular critics.* In the United States at least, things seem to have improved since I first started writing on the subject, but still, I see nothing to retract from the criticisms I’ve made over the years. Whatever the malfeasances of Israel’s defenders (and of Israel itself), Arabs, Muslims, and anti-Zionists have a fair bit of housecleaning to do as far as anti-Semitism is concerned. As one prominent Palestinian intellectual put it to me, it doesn’t help Palestinians for Europe to be re-infected by anti-Semitism, so that Jews once again feel the need to leave the Left Bank of the Seine for the West Bank of the Jordan.

The anti-BDS movement, however, has gone well beyond such claims. Their view is not merely that anti-Semitism is on the rise, that it is a bad thing, and that it finds problematic expression among Israel’s critics. That would just put anti-Semitism on par with anti-Arab racism or anti-Muslim bigotry, which is also real, insidious, and vicious, and finds problematic and disproportionate expression among militantly pro-Israeli Jews. On their view, BDS is an anti-Semitic movement as such, in “effect” if not in “intention.” To be associated with it is presumptively to be associated with anti-Semitism. To sympathize with it is to sympathize with anti-Semitism. To participate in it is to participate in anti-Semitism. To lead it just is “classic” anti-Semitism.

The ultimate goal here is to reverse the presumption of innocence that usually obtains when you deal with someone you don’t know very well: other things being equal, you assume that a stranger is morally innocent, even if their views are false, until (or unless) you discover clear evidence of culpability. What the anti-BDS movement wants is a state of affairs in which, without having to address the merits or demerits of BDS, it can play the race card against anyone associated with BDS. Doing so saves time, and purchases more bang for the buck: with a mere six syllables at your disposal, you obviate the need for argument, and wipe your opponents’ reputations permanently in the mud.

The arguments for views of this sort are scattered across the vehicles of the movement, and repeated ad nauseam, but in this post, I want to discuss not the arguments but the rhetoric of the anti-Semitism accusation as made by critics of BDS. (I’ll discuss the arguments in a later post.) There is a distinctive method and style to this rhetoric, and something to be learned from analyzing it.

As I’ve mentioned before, one version of this form of discourse is what might be called safe-space self-infantilization. It might with equal merit be called the appeal to post-non-traumatic-stress disorder, or self-dramatic-stress-disorder. The claim here is that hurt Jewish feelings, especially in college-age students, just entails the existence of real anti-Semitism, on the assumption that the effect could not possibly have arisen through any other cause. As a general principle: If people feel bad, their feeling bad underwrites whatever they believe about why they do. The same principle put in the first person singular: If you make me feel bad, and I come to believe that you’ve done so through racist intentions, then, if I can demonstrate that I feel really bad, you really are a racist. The worse I claim to feel, the more confirmation I have of any accusations I make of you.

What’s worth learning here is how a general discursive culture of sensitivity and caring can be exploited for sinister ends–and how difficult it can be to challenge its assumptions without being branded insensitive, uncaring, or worse. At a deeper epistemic level, what’s worth learning here is what happens when you erase the distinction between cognition and emotion so as to lose any sense of the difference between them. If there is no difference between cognition and emotion, or between appeals to cognition versus appeals to emotion, then there is no difference in principle between inferring your way to a conclusion and feeling your way to one. But in that case, it seems to me, there is no difference between persuading someone of  a conclusion via inference, and manipulating them into a conclusion via appeals to pity, guilt trips, ad hominem arguments, ad bacculum arguments, and the like.

What would such a caring, sensitive, but emotionally manipulative discourse look like? To get a sense of it, consider some passages from this May 9 report in The New York Times on BDS and the response to it by students who oppose BDS in defense of Israel.

LOS ANGELES — The debates can stretch from dusk to dawn, punctuated by tearful speeches and forceful shouting matches, with accusations of racism, colonialism and anti-Semitism. At dozens of college campuses across the country, student government councils are embracing resolutions calling on their administrations to divest from companies that enable what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. …

As the debates spill from undergraduate council to dorm room, students and college officials are grappling with where to draw the line between opposition to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza — a position shared by many Jews — and hostility toward Jews. Opponents of divestment sometimes allude to the Holocaust.

“What bothers me is the shocking amnesia of people who look at the situation of American Jews right now and say, ‘You’re privileged, you don’t have a right to complain about discrimination,’ ” said Rachel Roberts, a freshman at Stanford who is on the board of the Jewish Student Association there. “To turn a blind eye to the sensitivities of someone’s cultural identity is to pretend that history didn’t happen.”

Actually, opponents of divestment don’t “sometimes” allude to the Holocaust. They allude to it a lot. Consider Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm’s Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel in this respect. The book’s index has twenty-five entries for “Holocaust (see also Shoah),” including four multi-page references. Naturally, there is an index entry for “Shoah (see also Holocaust),” as well. The index entry for “anti-Semitism” is four lines long, as is the coincidentally just-following entry for “anti-Zionism.” The rhetorical purpose of these allusions is clear: vaguely insinuate that BDS, being anti-Zionist, is “by definition” anti-Semitic (p. 77); then suggest that its version of anti-Semitism has something in common with the Nazi version, so that BDS either has something in common with Nazism or at least with Holocaust denial.

Here’s a logician’s summary of the fallacy involved (he’s making reference to an example from a different context, but the same principle applies):

This tactic is sometimes called “poisoning the well,” and it is obviously fallacious. The fact that someone might have a nonrational motive for supporting a position does not mean the position is false, and it certainly does not mean we can decide ahead of time that all his arguments for the position can be dismissed.

Well, none of this is obvious to the anti-BDS movement, which has come to rely on well-poisoning as a discursive way of life.

“Holocaust,” “Nazism,” and “anti-Semitism” are the nuclear weapons of moral discourse in the academy. Those with the power to deploy those terms and make them stick to other people’s reputations are the nuclear powers of the academic set. Unlike the actual nuclear powers of the military world, however, they’re not shy about pushing the button, and face little in the way of deterrence, so that every successful weapons launch encourages them to engage in another. The toxic consequence of their efforts–in many cases the intended consequence–is the empowerment of ignorant, opportunistic college students like Rachel Roberts who seem think that if you’re insensitive to someone’s presumed cultural identity you are denying history itself. The assumption seems to be that no aspect of history as it actually happened could conceivably involve an affront to anyone’s cultural identity.

Reading between the lines of Rachel Roberts’s assertion (“pretend that history never happened”), one hears the echoes of the most propagandistic features of contemporary Holocaust education: “never forget,” the Holocaust ed mantra asserts, without telling anyone what exactly to remember–except that the Holocaust was morally and metaphysically unique, and so too, presumably, was the solution to it in the form of the creation of the State of Israel. Predictably, the Rachel Roberts of the world infer that if they feel bad about whatever you’re saying about Israel, you’ve forgotten the Holocaust and are, by your words, letting (or making) it happen all over again.

It’s as though someone were to say:

Your defense of BDS makes me feel really bad. Really, really bad. In fact, I feel so bad right now that I kinda feel as though…you’re a Holocaust denier on par with David Irving. Only a Holocaust denier could make me feel this bad, so you must be one.

Well, if I were on the receiving end of that accusation, I would feel really bad, and I’d be tempted to respond in kind. Many do. But what seems obvious is that this “feeling-to-ascription” manuever is a desperate attempt to change the subject and shut down the conversation. The hypothetical person I’ve just quoted is not someone who wants to discuss BDS, the merits and demerits of Zionism, Israeli policy in Area C, or what practical measures to take to end the occupation. This is a person who realizes that the best bet for evasion is a conversation about the presumed dirty secrets of his or her interlocutor, secrets that can only be exposed–or manufactured–by enacting a pseudo-therapeutic drama in which the focus turns to the drama itself. As a matter of logic, an interlocutor who does that sort of thing cannot be reasoned with until he or she ceases and desists from doing it. There is no logical way to respond to an insinuation of racism based on someone’s feelings except to dismiss it and get back on topic.

To continue:

“There’s more poison in the rhetoric than we’ve ever felt before,” said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the executive director of Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has worked on college campuses for more than four decades. “There are so many students who now see Israel as part of the establishment they’re against. What’s alarming is this gets deeply embedded and there’s no longer room for real discussion.”

The word “felt” obviates the need to find a genuinely empirical way to test the generalization implicit in Seidler-Feller’s supposed observation. By contrast, it’s well-established that support for Israel practically defines the American foreign policy establishment today. How it’s poison to regard the Establishment as established is unclear to me.

Seidler-Feller’s claim is particularly bizarre coming from a person who has somehow managed to regard BDS as “deeply embedded.” The “embedding” metaphor is pretty unclear, but if it means anything at all, it has to mean that BDS is starting to become an establishment of some sort: to say that a view has become “deeply embedded” is to say that it’s become well-established in a given population. Put aside the empirical absurdity of the claim and suppose that it was true. If it was true, why would it leave no room for discussion? At any given time, it’s reasonable to expect that someone constitutes the Establishment. How does the sheer existence of an Establishment leave no room for real discussion? And why is it that when BDS regards the Israel lobby as the Establishment, that is anti-Semitic, but when critics of BDS regard BDS as subverting real discussion by “embedment,” no issue of bigotry arises at all, even by implication?

I may be pressing too hard on claims that were never supposed to make sense in the first place, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Seidler-Feller’s claims here are just a desperate defense of the status quo. If his views are part of the Establishment, it’s poison to oppose them, but if contrary views get “embedded” somewhere, well then, we’re all in discursive prison. I’m left wondering what Seidler-Feller thinks about the room for discussion that’s left to us after people throw around gratuitous insinuations of anti-Semitism in people one disagrees with, as he just has: in addition to the preceding claim about “poison,” Seidler-Feller has accused Omar Barghouti, the presumptive founder/leader of the BDS movement, of being a “classic anti-Semite.” Presumably, calling someone a “classic anti-Semite” gives us all the room for a “real discussion”–a discussion, at any rate, of who’s next on Seidler-Feller’s McCarthyite blacklist.

But let’s continue:

Sometimes, the specific aims of campus divestment campaigns can get lost in broader debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Barnard College, which is one-third Jewish, a group called Students for Justice in Palestine put up a banner last year saying, “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine,” showing a map of the area with no internal border demarcating Israel. The banner was taken down the next morning after Jewish students complained that it made them feel threatened.

What I find interesting about this passage is that the complaining students didn’t complain that the map implied a falsehood, or was inaccurate, but that it “made them feel threatened.”  The claim seems to be that display of the map itself constitutes a threat.

This approach to things parallels the views of those in France who claim, with the authority of law, that the sight of a full niqab worn in public constitutes a threat by those who are “forced” to see it, which is why it must be banned, at least in public. The claim here is literally this: if Aisha is wearing a full niqab, and you see her wearing it, she might as well have come up to you and threatened you; the sight of the niqab is a threat on par with what Anglo-Saxon common law regards as assault: creating the apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact with a person (itself a remarkably broad formulation).

Accept the reasoning for a moment. In that case, shouldn’t any defender of the Palestinians cower in fear–or even call the policeevery time defenders of Israel (or just ordinary folks) conflate the West Bank with Israel as, with “frightening” frequency, they do? How about a book that calls for the annexation by Israel of the West Bank? Should the display of such a book in, say, a bookstore window be regarded as a threat and legitimize a demand that it be taken down? What difference in traumatic intensity is there between displaying a map that treats Israel and Palestine as a single political entity, and displaying a book that prescribes treating Israel and Palestine as a single political entity? I don’t see any, but somehow, in the United States, the first is construed as an attack, while the second is construed as a polite topic for conversation.

This reminds me of an incident during my undergraduate days at Princeton. One day, someone invited Rabbi Meir Kahane to speak on campus, and Kahane made the case not just for the forcible transfer of the Arabs from Eretz Israel (which for him included the West Bank), but their mass slaughter if they didn’t accept second-class citizenship or leave voluntarily. (For a discussion of how Kahane came to be invited to Princeton, see Robert Friedman’s Zealots for Zion.)  That was regarded as a polite topic for conversation at Princeton in the late 1980s. Most of the audience laughed at Kahane’s jokes, applauded what he said, and was offended when Kahane was sharply taken to task in the Q&A. There were no cell phones in those days, but just try to imagine the absurdity of calling 911 from inside of McCosh Lecture Hall 50 and trying to assert to the police dispatcher that Kahane’s racist and anti-Arab diatribe was an act of assault under the criminal code requiring the immediate dispatch of police units, followed by his arrest, and his prosecution. What is more likely to happen–that the police would arrive and arrest him, or that they would arrive and arrest you for false report?

Anyway, let’s keep going.

At U.C.L.A. last month, hundreds of Jewish students waving Israeli flags and wearing shirts emblazoned with “We, the Zionists” gathered on the campus quad to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Some said that while they had never hidden that they were Jewish, they felt uncomfortable voicing their support for Israel and often chose to stay out of debates around other current political issues. When the student government considered a divestment resolution, Jewish student leaders encouraged their peers to stay away from the meeting, saying their presence would offer legitimacy to a process they deemed inherently wrong.

“When there were marches about Ferguson, I went, but I stayed on the sidelines,” said Natalie Charney, a U.C.L.A. senior and the president of the Hillel Student Board, who had been made uneasy by the chants of “From Ferguson to Palestine,” which she saw as totally unrelated. “I wanted to be there, but part of what they are hating is central to who I am and what I stand for.”

The “discomfort” voiced here seems to me indistinguishable from group think, as is the encouragement to stay away from the debate. The failure to see any connections between Ferguson and Palestine betrays a failure of integration and imagination: how difficult is it to see the similarity between the systematic and racialized abuse of force by law enforcement officers in one place, and the same thing happening in another?** Never mind that this criticism comes from people who habitually criticize BDS for “singling out” Israel. So if critics of Israel focus on Israel, that’s “singling Israel out.” But if they link criticism of Israel to other political causes, they’re muddying the waters by bringing up “totally unrelated” topics. As for “part of what they are hating is central to who I am and what I stand for,” the claim raises an obvious question for Ms. Charney: what part of what they are protesting is central to what you “stand for,” and whatever it is, why is it that you’re going out of your way not to stand up for it?


At U.C.L.A. this year, a Jewish student, Rachel Beyda, was questioned about her loyalties while she sought a position on the student Judicial Board. At Stanford, another Jewish student, Molly Horwitz, described a similar situation when she sought the endorsement of the Students of Color Coalition, which favors divestment, but disputed the claim that it had asked about her Jewish identity. Before declaring her candidacy, Ms. Horwitz felt compelled to remove pro-Israel references from her Facebook page before she ran for the student senate.

What happened in the Stanford case is (as the passage itself says) highly disputed, but if Israel really is what its defenders “stand for,” why the need to airbrush one’s support out of existence when one thinks that an election requires it?***  The deletion of one’s “stand” is not exactly a case of standing up for it.


“Jewish students and their parents are intensely apprehensive and insecure about this movement,” said Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California system. “I hear it all the time: Where can I send my kids that will be safe for them as Jews?”

I wonder if a former president of the University of California system can be counted on to know what an “equivocation” is. How “safe” is a university system in the hands of a man with mental processes of this caliber?

In general, this is the rhetorical space within which the supposed “arguments” against BDS operate in the United States. Those arguments would have no traction in a climate of opinion where rhetoric of this kind was regarded as unacceptable. They get traction in a climate of opinion in which well-poisoning and appeals to pity are generally taken for granted, up for grabs for those who best know how to exploit them.

It’s worth noting that while many of the people quoted in this article are students, not all of them are. They’re adults in positions of academic or quasi-academic authority. When people like that approach politics like this, they have to expect push-back–forceful push-back–from people on the other side. In particular, they have to be put on notice that fraudulent insinuations of anti-Semitism, like the ones discussed here, have to be treated as the fraud they are. In other words, if critics of BDS want to play the race card, they have to be put on notice that those of us on the receiving end intend to respond, not quite “in kind,” but in a manner that exposes the fraud, and puts responsibility for the discursive pollution involved on the people who created it. We have no obligation to sit back and accept their threats and attacks with equanimity–which is what they seem to expect of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and what they expect of the rest of us, as we survey the wreckage of a 48-year-old military occupation made with our support, in our name.

But “self-infantilization” is just one variation on a theme that has dozens of variations and dozens of exponents. There are–trust me–many, many more. So unfortunately, this post is just the first of what will have to be a sustained effort at criticism. Stay tuned.

*My writing on this subject is scattered all over the Internet and in somewhat obscure places. When I get back to the States, I’ll try to consolidate it all on this site for easy reference. Meanwhile, I’ve endorsed this book, and some of my comments on the subject are mentioned within it.

**In referring to “Ferguson,” I’m referring (as my links suggest) to the Justice Department’s exposure of systematically discriminatory practices engaged in by law enforcement and other agencies in the area, not to the details of the encounter between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

***A sincere question for experts in the ethics of voting: is it consistent with “the ethics of voting” to edit your Facebook page in the described way simply in order to win an election? Doesn’t doing so represent a defect of character that precludes voting for a candidate, even if it doesn’t have clear policy implications for the future?

Postscript, June 21, 2015: One doesn’t have to wait long for reality to provide confirmatory postscripts to a post like this. From an article in The New York Times, “Two Israeli Men Are Attacked, and One Killed, Near Settlement in the West Bank“:

Israeli leaders condemned the attack. “We will not accept a situation in which a young hiker has his life taken from him in the land of Israel because he is Jewish,” President Reuven Rivlin said in comments on his Facebook page. “The murderous attack that occurred today is another step in the quiet and serious escalation in acts of terrorism we have witnessed in recent months.”

So Dolev–between Bir Zeit and Ramallah, miles from the Israeli border–is in “the land of Israel”? How did that happen? In other words, how does a shooting allow the President of Israel to bypass final status negotiations and decide the fate of the West Bank?

But this is how the settlers, their supporters–and in certain moods, Israelis as such–habitually speak. If we should feel “threatened” by the advocacy of one-state solutions, then the shooter in this case had the right idea: he shot the people from whom he “felt” a threat. It’s not as though the presence of the settlers is like a map he can ask to have taken down by some care-bear administrator.


Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, of the hawkish Jewish Home party, accused Palestinian society of promoting “murder and terror.”

“At a time when the world is busy boycotting Jews, the Palestinians are busy killing them,” he said in a statement.

You wonder why there is anti-Semitism among Palestinians? If a boycott of Israel (whatever its merits or demerits) is axiomatically equated with a boycott of Jews by the country’s “education minister,” unsophisticated people will naturally infer that the policies of the State of Israel, the Jewish State “in the land of Israel,” are themselves the policies of “the Jews.” If the victims of those policies hate the policies–because, often enough, they’re enforced at the point of a gun that’s pointed at the victims’ faces–there’s the lurking danger of hating the people who put the policies in place. If the architects and supporters of those policies insist on describing the policies as the policies of “the Jews,” they can’t really complain when the victims of those policies end up hating “the Jews.” They’re practically inviting that response.

I don’t dispute that the victims are mistaken, that they’re indulging in misinference, and that that misinference is in many cases culpable. Nor do I dispute  that Palestinians who equate the occupation with “the doings of the Jews” are enacting a logic that leads ultimately to war, death, and misery. What I insist on is this: If people like Bennett had any sincere interest in reducing anti-Semitism, they would stop cynically identifying “Israel” with “the Jews.” But it’s obvious that they have no such interest. What they have instead is a perceived interest in demagoguery, in the percolation of ethnic hatred, and in the imposition of the mailed fist as a response to the hatreds they themselves have stoked. They are morally complicitous in the phenomenon they claim to condemn. We need a discourse about Israel and Palestine in the United States that holds them accountable for it, not one that throws accusations of “anti-Semitism” around whenever the mood strikes.

One thought on “Thinking about BDS (2): The Rhetoric of the Race Card

  1. Pingback: Thinking about BDS (3): Borne on the Fourth of July | Policy of Truth

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