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“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Signatory to a Boycott of Israel?” The BDS Movement and the Return of McCarthyism

State and private attempts to silence and isolate public supporters of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement are eerily reminiscent of McCarthyist tactics to silence, destroy and intimidate political opponents.

BDS Movement and Rabbi's For Palestine. (Photo: Mike Gifford / Flickr)

State and private attempts to silence and isolate public supporters of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement are eerily reminiscent of McCarthyist tactics to silence, destroy and intimidate political opponents.

Full disclosure: The author of this piece was an active member of Keep Free Speech in the Free State, a coalition of groups opposed to the Maryland anti-BDS bill, who testified against the bill during Maryland General Assembly hearings. The views expressed are his individual views.

Contemporary mainstream portrayals of McCarthyism tend to depict that phenomenon as being an overzealous reaction to perceived threats of espionage and the infiltration of the American government by the Cold War enemy. While such reactions are often portrayed as excessive, paranoid or part of a witch hunt, even critics still concede that this paranoia was rooted in legitimate national security concerns – even if their targets and tactics were illegitimate. Such an understanding of the McCarthyist era – which includes not just the demagoguery of the era’s namesake, but also compulsory testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Smith Act prosecutions, the blacklists, Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, and exclusion of certain individuals from trade unions – misses its fundamental purpose.(1) At heart, McCarthyism – much like the First Red Scare following World War I – was an attempt to repress dissent. It was not just would-be foreign spies that aroused the attention of McCarthyism. The labor and civil rights movements, those who questioned the United States’ continuously bellicose foreign policy and the general erosion of civil liberties, as well as journalists and publications, were deliberate targets of the era’s enforcers of political orthodoxy.

Today’s assault on defenders of Palestinian human rights, especially those involved with the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, holds many direct parallels with the original McCarthyist repression. Opponents of Palestinian human rights often seek to label their opponents as some sort of alien agent or enemy, calling them terrorist or terrorist sympathizers. However, the petty name calling of increasingly desperate defenders of Israeli apartheid is not the most troubling of these parallels.

Recent attacks on the BDS movement reveal a troubling goal of the movement’s opponents – such groups and individuals wish not to merely shut down public discussion of Israeli human rights abuses and civil society based opposition; they wish to punish any individual or organization even remotely associated with BDS by permanently barring their participation in public life and civil society. There are numerous examples to expose this true intent.

One example is Judith Butler’s cancelled lecture on Kafka at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Butler, a continental philosopher, is most famous for her works on gender theory. She is also an outspoken supporter of BDS. Butler is no stranger to attempts to have her lectures censored due to her views on BDS. There was an organized effort to have an event featuring her and Omar Barghouti cancelled at Brooklyn College. However, there was one crucial difference. The event at Brooklyn College was explicitly on BDS, whereas Butler’s speech at the Jewish Museum had nothing to do with BDS. While it is still a pernicious form of McCarthyist censorship to try to block BDS events, it is a different level of repression to attempt to block supporters of BDS to speak on any topic, ever.

A similar set of bans has been set in place by the Washington, DC-based Jewish Community Center (JCC). A recent Washington Post article details how the center has set in place a process of “vetting” the political views of speakers and artists after the JCC rescinded an invitation to the feminist punk band The Shondes, because the band’s singer, Louisa Solomon, supported BDS. Even though Solomon promised not to mention BDS from the stage and most of the band’s work is apolitical, she was still deemed to be a persona non grata. The process of “vetting” artists has taken on a familiar line of questioning. When Theater J, which is run by the JCC, was considering hosting a production of Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” the theater’s artistic director was required to ask Kushner, “On behalf of the Jewish people, are you now or have you ever been a signatory to a boycott of Israel?” Given that Kushner’s play revolves around an aging Communist Party member, it would appear that today’s McCarthy’s not only have no sense of decency, but no sense of irony, as well.

It is not just private organizations enforcing this new McCarthyism; many state legislatures have tried to enter the game, as well. After the American Studies Association, the Asian American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association all endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, several state legislatures, including New York and Maryland, considered bills to punish these associations. The New York bill would have originally denied funding for an entire year for any school that used state funding for a membership in or travel to the conference of any organization that supports the academic boycott of Israel (it was later amended to only deduct the cost of the membership or the travel in question from the school’s budget). The travel funding ban is particularly telling as none of the money would go to the organization with the “wrong” views – just to pay for a professor’s train or plane ticket.

The Maryland bill was even more stringently anti-free speech and went even further in scope. Under the Maryland bill, a school that received state funding could not use any money, including tuition, institutional or grant money, to pay for a membership in or travel to the conference of an organization that directly or indirectly boycotts a country that has signed a “declaration of cooperation” with the state of Maryland. While it could be argued that the New York bill was about keeping state funding from going to the offending organization, Maryland legislators made it clear their attempt was to make it as difficult as possible for any faculty member to freely associate with a professional organization that has taken a political position deemed incorrect by the state.

The bill’s original sponsor and Maryland’s own Joseph McCarthy, State Delegate Benjamin Kramer, frequently used inflammatory accusations to try to tarnish the reputation of the American Studies Association (ASA). Not only did he incorrectly state that the ASA has solely chosen to boycott the world’s one Jewish state – implying anti-Semitic intent behind the boycott – Kramer went even further by comparing BDS to the deplorable actions of the Nazis. On Maryland’s House floor, he stated, “the Nazi party came into power in Germany and they promptly began to isolate Jewish academics, leading to prohibitions against Jews serving as professors,” later adding, “Having taken a page from the history books, Israel’s enemies are once again starting with the academics and professors, the targets of their boycott.”(2) During both legislative sessions and in the media, he also frequently made analogies between the ASA and the Ku Klux Klan, and between academic conferences and cross burnings.

The Maryland bill died in committee, but Kramer was able to get some watered down language condemning BDS and the ASA placed in the Maryland budget. The New York bill is stalled for the moment, but could come back before the session is over.

These actions are directly reminiscent of the blacklists and subversive organization lists of the McCarthyist era. The blacklist did not just ban certain political parties or ideologies; it also prohibited individuals associated with prohibited political causes from maintaining any kind of professional or public life. Members of groups deemed to be “subversive” by the attorney general were denied subsidized public housing, benefits under the GI Bill, and passports. Private hotels even used the list to bar organizations from renting rooms.

The point of such moves in both the McCarthyist era and now is not just to stop individuals from talking about communism or BDS, but also to stop individuals from talking about Kafka if they’ve already transgressed the norms of politically accepted dialogue. It is not just to stop state funds from “directly or indirectly” supporting BDS, but also to make sure that no professor of any political persuasion can speak about any topic at a meeting of a professional association that has taken the incorrect political position.

Much of the repression of the McCarthyist era stemmed not just from the persecution of some by the state or their blacklisting by private industry, but by the chilling effect those actions placed on the general discourse in the United States. Today’s repression will have a similar affect. Many churches, school governments and other civil society groups have debated and even passed BDS resolutions. It is impossible to believe that the possibility of state action, like that witnessed in the anti-ASA bills, will not cast a shadow over future debates. Artists and other individuals who know that public support for BDS means their plays will not be shown at certain theaters, their band will not be allowed to perform at certain venues or they will not be allowed to speak on issues not pertaining to BDS will think twice before taking such stances.

It is important to recognize the latest move by opponents of Palestinian human rights as what it is, a torn out page from the old playbook of the McCarthyist era meant to silence, destroy and intimidate political opponents.

1. The term McCarthyism is today used to refer to the general set of repressive practices during the Second Red Scare, which both began before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s arrival on the anti-communist scene and continued after his political star had dimmed significantly. Much of the activity commonly thought of as “McCarthyist” in the popular imagination, such as the Hollywood blacklist or the House Un-American Activities Committee, did not actually involve the Wisconsin senator. Thanks to his bombastic antics, he has the great honor of having the era’s general gamut of politically repressive practices named after him.

2. Delegate Benjamin Kramer’s full remarks to the Maryland House of Delegates can be heard at the 27:40 mark at

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