Tuesday, December 08, 2015


Mark Graber

Judaism occupies a special place in many religions and in the Western cultural conscious.  Jews killed Christ.  Jews must be treated differently because they are People of the Book.  The return of Jews to Israel is of special eschatological significance.  Persons have special obligations to convert the Jews. Both philo-semitism and anti-Semitism are rooted in this western tradition of regarding Jews as meriting distinctive treatment.  Other religious faiths, by comparison, have no special status in Judaism.

The academic infatuation with the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement is the latest manifestation of the historical tendency for non-Jews (and alienated Jews) to hold world views in which Jews have a special status.  The National Women’s Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association are the latest scholarly organizations to institute and call for a complete boycott of Israel and Israeli scholars.  Academics affiliated with the BDS have been known not to answer letters from Israeli children on subjects of mutual interest on the theory that all Israeli Jews ought to be treated as contemporary untouchables.  There is, of course, much to criticize about Israeli politics from a general perspective.  More reasons exist to criticize Israeli politics from the Jewish perspective championed by movements associated with the Jewish religious left, most notably the Hartman Institute.  The willingness of non-Jews to single out Israel as unique among the malefactors of the world, and even among the plausibly democratic malefactors of the world, nevertheless replays the historical special status of Jews, Judaism and Israel in Western thought that most BDS supporters would treat as a prime example of unconscious bias in almost any other circumstance.

The Middle East often resembles the world’s most difficult international law and international human rights class examination.  No shortage of victims exist.  These victims represent all nationalities, religions and ethnicities.  No national, religion, ethnicity or political movement has anything that resembles clean hands.  Any political solution or scholarly analysis inevitably privileges some contestable claims at the expense of others, satisfies some demands for justice at the expense of others, and puts some people rather than others in jeopardy of severe harm.  Were Israel a Buddhist state or a state committed to one version of Islam rather than another, no scholarly organization would consider standing as a discipline only with one party in the dispute. 

The BDS claim that Israel is an “apartheid state” drains “apartheid” of meaning (we can't call Jews "Nazis" so we call them "Boers").  The condition of non-Jews and even of Muslims in Israel does not approach the condition of native Africans in South Africa for most of the twentieth century or, for that matter, Jews throughout most of history.  One might insist that no state ought to have an established religion or provide special benefits to the faithful, but Israel is hardly unique in that endeavor.  The status of ethnic minorities in Israel resembles the status of ethnic minorities in most moderately decent democracies, which is to say clearly imperfect from the perspective of ideal theory.  Certainly, no basis exists for singling Israel out if one measures equality by examining the political rights, economic rights, education rights, or actual outcomes of ethnic minorities within a polity.

Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is more complex.  I suspect every progressive and every progressive Jew wishes Israel was far more scrupulous in ensuring that civilians are not harmed in military attacks on suspected terrorist groups.  On the other hand, one might also wish that the terrorist groups that enjoy considerable popular support in the Middle East and in Palestine had any scruples about attacking civilians.  Perhaps the leaders of the BDS movement in Palestine are sincere when they claim that they are entirely independent of any movement that intends to drive Israel into the sea, even if that means exterminating (the word consciously chosen) every Israeli man, woman and child, though how members of various academic associations can be sure of this is beyond me.  And no one can give any guarantees to Israel that a Palestinian state will not be a site for frequent terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.  Properly understood, the Palestinian problem is deeply problematic from almost any plausible theory and is recognized as such whenever a non-Jewish nation deals with terrorist threats.  Jews, Judaism and Israelis are, apparently, supposed to be better for reasons that appear largely sub-conscious.

In 1 Samuel 8:20, the original Israelis ask for a king so “that we also may be like all the nations.”  For better or, in my judgment, worse, Israel has become “like all the nations.”  The way in which Israel reacts to terrorist attacks seems no more exaggerated than the way in which Americans and the French have recently reacted, although my sense is fewer Israelis than Americans support Donald Trumpish responses.  This is cause for dismay among those of us who hoped a Jewish state would be more “a light unto other nations.”  We are entitled to demand Israel be special because, if Israelis are going to ask for our support as Jews, then we may insist that nation live up to the best Jewish standards.  An Israel that is like other nations cannot provide reasons for young Jews abroad to identify as Jews and be proud of their Jewish heritage.  But the non-Jewish world has no more right to impose higher Jewish standards on Israel than Jews have to call on the Pope to live up to what we believe are the best Catholic standards.  Perhaps faculty supporting BDS may need mandated cultural competence after all.

Older Posts
Newer Posts