I sometimes entertain the possibility that one or two of the anti-Israel activists I’ve argued with during the boycott campaign are mentally ill. I’m as careful with them as I know how to be. But one aspect of the online part of the campaign to boycott Israel is the tendency for pro-boycotters to actually call their opponents mentally ill – ‘deranged’, ‘hysterical’, ‘nutters’, ‘crazy, and ‘paranoid’. This charge of madness levelled against Jews is an old one. Although antisemitism is itself a particularly paranoid political form, people who raise the alarm about it are themselves often labelled mad or paranoid.
It’s got ridiculous now. Even people who style themselves champions of Jews are calling Jews paranoid and even anti-Jewish anti-Zionist Jews are smarting from the same accusation. Jews are called willfully paranoid by people who think that the lifeblood of Jewishness is its ‘victim narrative‘. Paranoid for worrying about antisemitism when there’s hardly any Jewish blood on US or British streets, paranoid for questioning the ideology of boycotts or the insinuations of U.S. international relations academics like Mearsheimer and Walt. Paranoid for continuing to see the relevance of Jewish self-determination in a Jewish state.
The charge of madness isn’t sincere, though. Let’s just for a moment entertain the unrealistic scenario that Jews are paranoid, or paranoid Jews are paranoid because they are Jewish. Paranoia is a mental illness – what’s a helpful response?
In its advice for friends and family of people suffering from paranoid thoughts, Mind says that as well as ‘communicating honestly’ we should be:
“Avoiding confrontation. To tell someone they are stupid or talking rubbish is disrespectful, dismissive and unhelpful. It damages self-esteem, gives the impression that you do not care about the person, and is liable to make things worse.”
The possibility that somebody is mentally ill should bring the out sensitivity and compassion of their interlocutors. If you really think somebody you are having a theoretical argument with is unhinged, it would be most counterproductive, and callous, to use that as part of your argument.
So boycotters if who say so don’t really think that anti-boycotters are insane, maybe they think they’re fake. There’s a lot of talk of bad faith, smokescreens, distractions, shroud-waving, red herrings, straw men. There’s the boycott motion from UCU which contains the loophole clause ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as antisemitism’, and the boycott motion from Sussex Student Union implying artful use of antisemitism as a distractor: ‘There is nothing anti-Semitic … in condemning and taking action against the unethical, illegal policies of the Israeli government’.
That Jews raise concerns about antisemitism in bad faith is something that anti-Israel activists want us to take for granted, but when they lose this argument (note the late, fraught, efforts of extreme anti-Zionist Tony Greenstein to irradicate antisemitism from the British anti-Zionist movement), it isn’t unusual for them to adopt as their strategy the – similarly, they believe? – insincere charge of madness.
So either boycott advocates don’t believe the charge they’re making and are cynically playing on prejudices about people who suffer from insanity, or, if they do believe it, they’re cruel bigots.
I don’t think they believe it – but why, if boycotters think anti-boycotters are fake, do they also call them mad?