Ghada Karmi deals the antisemitic card

Somebody advised me to read Ghada Karmi’s Married to Another Man if I wanted a good example of how anti-Zionists use Jewish conspiracy theories to delegitimise Israel. I will, pending a stronger stomach.

In her recent bitterlemons piece on the boycott, she identifies two “misconceptions” of anti-boycotters: that the boycott is against individuals and that the boycott is antisemitic. In addressing the first she fails to engage with any of the arguments, and to argue the second she twists the antisemitism charge into something other that what it is.

The argument that the boycott targets individuals:

In a malicious misrepresentation of this position, opponents claim that the boycott will end the free exchange of ideas with individual Israelis and encourage discrimination against them within British academia. By suppressing “free speech,” goes the argument, this would end any hope of change in Israel’s policies that academics could have brought about. This is an erroneous argument, and it has galvanized opposition to the boycott in Britain.

As a prospective target of boycott, Baruch Kimmerling said it best in his 2003 piece for Borderlands:

“My friend Elia Zureik suggested that the boycott should be only institutional but not personal. Very kindly and generously, he has offered to cooperate with me, (presuming I’m on his personal list of “good guys”) but to boycott my institution, the Hebrew University. Self-evidently it is his right to boycott every institution or person he want to, but he must realize that if his call to freeze funds to my institution is effective, the resulting constraints on research and conferences will also hurt “good guys” like me. Moreover, the very idea of making selections among members of the academy is a horrifying idea and I hereby pledge not to cooperate with any institution or person who will make such selections, even if I myself am ruled acceptable by them. Selections made on the basis of non-academic criteria endanger academic freedom.”

So we can expect individuals, even anti-establishment, anti-occupation individuals like Baruch was, to act pretty unpredictably when faced with boycott. Haricombe and Lancaster found this too, in their study of the academic boycott of South Africa.

Institutions don’t author research proposals. Institutions don’t submit abstracts for conferences. Institutions don’t collaborate on solutions for the world’s problems. Institutions don’t participate in international debates. All of these things are done by individuals. Any effectiveness of the boycott will involve harming institutions precisely by harming individuals. Not only that – any effectiveness of the boycott involves this harm to institutions and individuals being recognised by the Israeli government. Moreover any effectiveness of the boycott will involve the Israeli government acting on this recognition. Moreover it will involve the act of the Israeli government being to – depending on whether you are anti-Zionist or not – a) withdraw from the occupied territories and help set up a viable Palestinian state or b) dismantle Israel and make abject reparations for the outrageous project of Jewish self-determination.

This academic boycott the most shamelessly and improbably baroque measure to end the occupation imaginable.

Moving on to the second of her “misconceptions”:

The allegation is that the real reason for the boycott is hatred of Jews, a new outbreak of an old gentile affliction. Nothing is more designed to provoke and mislead than this charge, which, its authors know, antagonizes all Jews and many non-Jews … In fact of course, the imputation of anti-Semitism is a red herring, as so often when Israel is criticized, and its aim as always is to deflect criticism.

This is unfounded. Nobody serious has said that the real reason for the boycott was hatred of Jews. On the contrary, opponents of the boycott have made a vigorous argument that it is possible to commit racist acts in sincere good faith and have persisted in separating antisemitic acts and expressions on the one hand, and the characters of the people responsible for them on the other. Hatred of Jews may come into it, but there is no reliable litmus test for hatred of Jews in this battle of ideas. That said, Israel’s the target of so much selective censure and selective punishment that this boycott can reasonably be argued to constitute racist discrimination, and it is entirely appropriate to point out both this fact and the fact that applying a boycott will have a selectively damaging effect on Jewish academics and students in Israel and in the UK. To point this out is not a “diversionary tactic” – the Palestinians remain our concern – but in arguing that it is (and that it is “malicious”), Ghada is cynically dealing the anti-semitic card to close down a principled and legitimate argument against the boycott.

Lastly, people may argue that the reason the boycott hurts Jews is that the majority of the Palestinian’s aggressors are Jews. But we know why so many Jews came to gather in that part of the world (and the real reasons have nothing to do with Karmi’s conspiracy theories) and how Israel has been the target of neighbourly violence, non-cooperation and hostility since its inception. The asymmetry of the conflict and the trampled rights of Palestinians nothwithstanding, Palestinians and neighbouring states are an independent factor in this conflict. Israel is not a lone aggressor. So I’d recommend some decent human understanding for Israelis alongside the rightful holding to account for Israel’s atrocious and humiliating treatment of Palestinians. That the occupation must end is a given, but the means of exerting pressure for this can be, and in this case are, antisemitic. And anti-boycotters are obliged to argue this point, no matter what stain of malice, “hysteria” people like Ghada attempt to stain us with.

The last thing I want to deal with is the easiest – that rusty old prophylactic against charges of anti-semitism “But I’m Jewish myself – how can I do anything anti-semitic?”.

In the case of the British boycott committee, it is particularly inapt, since most of the members are Jewish.

This is irrelevant if we make a distinction between the act and the person who carries out that act. The behaviours and attitudes which constitute antisemitism aren’t dictated by ethnicity and Jews are not somehow immune from being antisemitic. Jews are not constitutionally incapable of being antisemitic. But astoundingly the BBC made the same point about David Milliband:

“David Miliband’s Jewish background will be noted particularly in the Middle East. Israel will welcome this – but equally it allows him the freedom to criticise Israel, as he has done, without being accused of anti-Semitism.”

Anti-Israel campaigners find Jews particularly useful to the cause, so it doesn’t surprise me that Ghada Karmi uses the Jews of the anti-boycott movement to shield it from charges of antisemitism.

That’s enough, back to my confounded paper.

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