I remember it well from the Gulf War protests in college: You’re sitting and basking in that mosh-pit oneness of your first teach-in when a foreign guy in a sweater vest turns up at the podium and suddenly the whole thing takes an uncomfortable turn, as he goes on about the Zionist conspiracy and occasionally slips from saying “Israeli” to “Jew,” and everyone’s sort of uneasy and wondering if they should clap.
Well, this semester it seems the sweater-vest guys have won over the crowd. In respectable schools from coast to coast (various University of California branches, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and 40 other campuses), the Palestine Solidarity Movement has gotten thousands of students and faculty to sign petitions asking universities to divest from Israel. The ultimate aim is to turn Israel into the South Africa of the ‘80s, the universal campus pariah.
In response, the Hillel crowd has gone “Dershowitz” (that’s ballistic in Yiddish), one-upping the Palestinians by getting thousands more students and faculty to sign a counterpetition calling the divestment movement anti-Semitic, part of the toxic stew of Jew-baiting that’s been brewing since Sept. 11. Harvard President Lawrence Summers called the protests “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Is Summers right? The divestment movement drifted over from Europe pretty tainted, and not by Muslim radicals. There, some of its lefty proponents are still naked in their bigotry, foaming against the Shylocks of their imagination. Take one M.L. Sinnott, a scientist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology who helped organize academic and scientific boycotts of Israeli scholars. Stephen Greenblatt, as head of the Modern Languages Association, wrote to one of Sinnott’s colleagues objecting to their having fired two researchers merely because they were Israeli. And here is what Sinnott wrote back:
“From the ‘claptrap’ of your open letter,” he began, “one would imagine Israel to be an inoffensive Mediterranean Sweden rather than a voelkisch polity whose atrocities surpass those of Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.” He then progresses to Zionism as the mirror image of Nazism, Jenin as Kristallnacht, the “breathtaking power” of the Jewish lobby, and, of course, the media, “either controlled by Jews or browbeaten by them.”
Then, more depressingly, there’s José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobel Prize winner who this year traveled to Ramallah with the Euro-Mumia crowd and found it a “crime comparable to Auschwitz.” He then eloquently traced the state’s “pathologically exclusivist racism” to “Deuteronomy” to the story of David and Goliath—in short, to the Torah itself.
Israel has its share of human rights violations and even a massacre or two in its history (Jenin not among them, as it turns out). But Kristallnacht? Auschwitz? That such outlandish analogies would pop into both of their heads independently can only mean the template of Scary Omnipotent Jew is already there, buried. Apparently, it takes only a divestment movement, or else four beers and a warm pub, to give it life.
In a 1987 Dissent essay, Paul Berman runs through all the possible explanations for the anti-Zionism of the intellectual left. With every one of the charges against Israel—”white settler colony,” “weapons trader,” mistreats minorities—you can name many other countries that are infinitely worse. So some part of the inordinately critical focus on Israel must be due, he concludes, to a certain hostility to Jews. Berman boils down the phenomenon to the “Anti-Imperialism of Fools,” a takeoff on an August Bebel phrase particularly apt for this year’s divestment movement: The radical left, who in this case are spillovers from the World Bank protests, boil their target down to one easy, ugly enemy that is in reality a tiny, relatively insignificant Mediterranean country instead of focusing on world-class imperialists like China and Russia or for that matter world-class human rights abusers.
No doubt there are sincere individuals in the divestment movement, even in Europe: Palestinians raised on stories of robbed family homes, sympathetic Muslim brothers, earnest freshmen seeking a cause and not thinking too hard about it, people empathizing with Western Muslims targeted after Sept. 11 and looking to make it up to them. But with godfathers like Saramago, the well-meaning ones are in the position of anti-Stalinist leftists of the 1930s and ‘40s. They have to purge the noxious strain of bigotry, or it will come to define the whole movement.
Interestingly, Arab students often seem to be the ones resisting appeals to explicit anti-Semitism. At the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s big gathering last month at the University of Michigan, the divestment movement seemed to be wrestling for its soul, fighting over how much to mix the terms “Israeli” and “Jew,” to condemn Zionism or suicide bombings. On one side were the Berkeley radicals with their old lefty obsession with Jewish power. “The Jews, the Jews,” said one commentator on the Pacifica network last week. “You can never talk about the Jews, because the Jews won’t let you.” They were the ones who wanted to take the radical chic position on bombers and call Zionism “inherently racist.”
The Palestinians, meanwhile, were more diplomatic, trying to keep out any mention of Zionism or specific “tactics adopted by the Palestinian people” from the movement’s guiding principles. But in the end, they turned out to be no models of restraint. When conference participants offered a resolution saying that the divestment movement’s vision of “true peace” included “coexistence” with a “transformed and democratized” Israel and a renunciation of Palestinian claims on cities inside Israel, such as Haifa and Jaffa, none of the Palestinian leaders voted for it, according to a report in the school paper and the Jewish Forward.
There should be a way to design a movement objecting to Israel’s policies that is free of anti-Semitism. There even ought to be a legitimate way to object to Israel’s very existence on purely political grounds. But so far, it seems, no one has managed to do it.