Deborah Lipstadt, you’re wrong to say Jewish BDS supporters are enabling antisemitism

Deborah Lipstadt, you’re wrong to say Jewish BDS supporters are enabling antisemitism April 6, 2019

Dear Professor Lipstadt,

Your new book ‘Antisemitism Here and Now’ has much to recommend it. You bring your considerable authority as a scholar of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial to today’s increasingly intolerant, divided and racist world. With nuance, you examine the global resurgence of antisemitism on the right and the left and within Islamist thinking. You examine ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ examples of Holocaust denial and the casual, unthinking antisemitism that enables the more dangerous varieties.

But when your turn your attention to Israel, and in particular to Jewish supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign for Palestinian rights, your thinking is trapped in a liberal Zionist outlook that abandons your academic rigour. I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s a failing that’s on show time and again from leading voices within the Jewish community and it’s the cause of much misunderstanding about antisemitism as well a devaluation of the word itself.

In the end, you leave complex issues around antisemitism under-examined and you downplay the misuse of antisemitism as a tool to vilify Palestinian solidarity.

I’m choosing to write a letter to you as that’s the format you’ve used to structure your book. But rather than an imaginary Jewish student and a made-up academic colleague, I’m a real Jew who supports BDS. While I want to respect your contribution to Jewish studies and your successful libel defence against the Holocaust denier David Irving in 2000, I find your accusation against Jews in solidarity with Palestinians far too simplistic and patronising.

You’re now touring to promote your new book, with a lecture in London in May. I hope you’ll take seriously the criticism I offer here.

The standard rhetoric

Rather than treat Zionism as an ideology and an historical phenomenon, you adopt the standard partisan political rhetoric used daily by Jewish and non-Jewish advocates for Israel.

“In actual fact, Zionism is the national liberation movement of Jews. To argue that only Jews, among all the peoples of the world, are not to be permitted to have a national home (or more precisely, to return to their national home) is to deny Jewish peoplehood. The negation of Jewish nationhood is a form of antisemitism, if not intent, then certainly in effect.” Page.178

This is not an academic definition of Zionism. It’s the ideological justification for the displacement of another people. You’ve used a narrow reading of Jewish history; an amalgam of religious and cultural myths; a misunderstanding of the meaning of Jewish peoplehood; and an incorrect assessment of ethnic nations in order to argue that anti-Zionism is an attack on Jews collectively.

Ethnic nation states

It doesn’t take much research to discover that many ethnic national groups do not have their own nation state despite having a distinct culture, heritage and language. Often they are communities with their own history of discrimination and oppression and with their own nationalist movements.

There are 76 million Tamils without a state of their own living in India and Sri Lanka; there are 35 million members of the Yaruba people in Western Africa; and 30 million Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Scots and the Welsh don’t have their own states either despite decades of active campaigning for national independence. And then, of course, there are the Palestinians themselves. In fact, it turns out that “among all the peoples of the world” most ethnic national groups do not live in states where they are the majority. So why present opposition to Zionism as a unique discrimination?

You argue that an intellectual opposition to Zionism was legitimate before the Jewish State was created but not now it is an established fact. But that closes down any debate about potential constitutional arrangements that would give all of Israel’s citizens equal status legally, institutionally and culturally.

As for “denying Jewish peoplehood”, since when was Jewish peoplehood dependent on even a homeland let alone a Jewish nation state? For the bulk of our history we have not been in possession of a homeland let alone a State. Much of what we consider to be essential elements of Jewish thought and practice evolved away from the Land of Israel. When I googled “Jewish Peoplehood” one of the top results was a video by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (hardly an anti-Zionist) in which he lists seven principles for maintaining Jewish Peoplehood. Israel isn’t one of them.

It’s true that there are some Palestinians and their supporters who see Zionism as nothing more than a European Settler Colonial project. I’ve always thought there was much more to the story of Zionism than that. But to present it as no more than “the national liberation movement of the Jews” is equally misleading. It lacks historical context and fails to acknowledge the reality that Zionism was not an entirely innocent endeavour. Zionism, as Professor Edward Said famously noted, had “victims”.

Jewish support for BDS

You argue at length that supporting BDS leads inevitably to antisemitism because its aims, in particular allowing the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their homeland, means the end of Israel as a Jewish majority State.

If BDS were to succeed in restoring Palestinian legal rights it would indeed remove the privileges and advantages that the current Zionist State gives to its Jewish citizens and which it denies to Palestinians, and other non-Jews under its jurisdiction. But that’s quite different to antisemitism. It’s usually called democracy.

The assumption that only when and where Jews are a majority can they guarantee their security and self-determination is to ignore both Israel’s own history since 1948 and also the experience of Jews living successfully in liberal democracies around the world. Your assumption that a Palestinian majority could never protect its Jewish minority also strikes me as profoundly prejudicial.

You make particular criticism of Jewish supporters of BDS.

“Anti-Zionist Jews who are opposed to Israel’s existence believe that they are expressing universalistic Jewish “values” such as support for the downtrodden and for victims of injustice. It’s unfortunate that they have bought in to the anti-Israel narrative and are proud of the fact that they have the “courage” to counter what they feel is a deluded, omnipotent, organized Jewry. I feel sad and frustrated that these people have internalized these antisemitic motifs. They may not be personally antisemites, but they facilitate it. (Page 183)

There’s so much wrong with these sentences.

As a Jewish supporter of BDS, I am not opposed to Israel’s existence. I am in favour of a truly democratic state for all who call the Holy Land home.

I have not bought into “an anti-Israel narrative”, I have recognised a profound problem with Zionism while also understanding the historic experience of Jews in Europe which motivated the Zionist movement.

The “values” you say I am upholding don’t need to be surrounded by your doubting speech-marks. We’re coming up to Passover, with its universal message of freedom from oppression, freedom from unjust Pharaohs. Since when did Jewish values become “antisemitic motifs”?

To use your phrase, I too feel “sad and frustrated”. But my sadness and frustration is directed at the Jewish community which raised me and which is now immersed in denial about what has taken place in the name of Jewish liberation and security. As a community, we are outraged when we see antisemitism – and that’s an appropriate reaction. But when there are outrages committed against the Palestinian people (from IDF snipers along the Gaza fence, to water theft in the West Bank) our community leaders opt for defending the indefensible or staying silent.

For me, Israel is not the most-evil regime in the world. There are far worse. But what takes place there happens in my name and in the name of Judaism and the Jewish people. And that’s what makes it my priority.

The misuse of Antisemitism

While you spend pages arguing against BDS and other ‘progressive’ support for Palestinians, you pay far too little attention to how pro-Israel advocates misuse both antisemitism and the Holocaust.

I welcome this observation which comes very late in your book:

“Those of us who want to fight this scourge do ourselves no favor if we automatically brand ideas which we disagree “antisemitic”. Too often, some Jewish organizations and their leaders reflexively fall back on this position.” Page 206.

You go on to acknowledge that “Some of Israel’s defenders use rhetorical weapons” such as declaring supporters of BDS “no different from the Nazis of the 1920s and 1930s” but your criticism is limited to saying “These comparisons distort history and contemporary reality. They use charges of antisemitism as a cudgel and give validity to those who accuse Jews of citing the Holocaust “too much”.

What’s missing from your analysis is the impact such misuse has on pro-Palestinian solidarity.

There’s no doubt that antisemitic tropes have found their way into Palestinian discourse. It’s also true that some on the political left believe every enemy of Israel deserves to be their friend. Such behaviour is deeply detrimental to a cause that must be built on human rights, international law and the principles of democracy. But false accusations of antisemitism also create a climate in which any form of Palestinian solidarity (but especially BDS) is made illegitimate. An inversion takes place, similar to that you have studied in Holocaust denial, whereby the real victims are turned into perpetrators of hate and violence.

Enabling racism

Professor Lipstadt, your protection of Zionist ideology, even in its most liberal version, becomes, if not racism itself, then a soft enabler of racism. In the name of modern Jewish identity, you are upholding and defending an ideology that ultimately denies the rights and history of another people, not just in the Occupied Territories but within Israel itself. Your analysis of what can constitute antisemitism enables an anti-Palestinian outlook that desperately needs to be challenged.

Yours sincerely

Robert Cohen

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