Shortly after presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and eventual rise to power emboldened a bigoted and anti-intellectual backlash at universities across the US, several colleagues and I who are engaged in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) tactics against the Israeli state established a national network to fight fascism on college campuses, called the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN).
Zionists attacked us soon after. They targeted us precisely because we were also active in BDS work. The conservative blog Legal Insurrection sounded the alarm:
Palumbo-Liu and [Bill] Mullen, the organizers of the campus Antifa [sic] network, are two of the most aggressive anti-Israel pro-BDS faculty members in the country. They each have long histories of demonizing Israel and supporting the academic boycott of Israel….
The teaming of the BDS and Antifa movements is the single most dangerous development I have witnessed in the many years I have been covering campus BDS. Antifa will give BDS even more muscle to intimidate and threaten those who oppose the BDS agenda.
Interestingly, this kind of attack on anti-fascist, pro-BDS work is not restricted to the US. A very similar take appeared in Canada as well, using exactly the same arguments.
The reason the legitimacy of anti-fascist and pro-Palestinian work is denied by the right and by supporters of Israeli state policies is that our alliance exposes a contradiction we see more and more of globally: the strange convergence of supporters of Israel with virulently anti-Semitic far-right individuals and organizations. These forces deny their own anti-Semitism to normalize fascism and gain political power. Israel is an accomplice in this, willing to accept such hypocritical denials.
Moreover, that Israel itself is sliding into fascism is a criticism we find not only coming from outside of Israel, but also from within the state. A year ago, in June 2017, opposition leader and Zionist Union Chairman Isaac Herzog warned that Israel is headed toward fascism, and that its fate as a democracy was at stake: “We are going through a process of fascistization of the Israeli politics,” he said while speaking at a cultural event in central Israel. The Jerusalem Post, a conservative Israeli publication, noted that, “The opposition leader explained that the current government was ‘threatening artists, Supreme Court judges and threatening and firing journalists.’ Herzog also noted that media outlets were being shut down and that ‘now the academics and the professors are also being threatened and are afraid to open their mouths.'”
Things have only deteriorated since then.
The recent US embassy’s move to Jerusalem is a breach of international law and remains intentionally inflammatory, blatantly violating the 1947 and 1948 UN resolutions that set up the Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem. The 1948 UN Resolution 194 resolves that, “In view of its association with three world religions, the Jerusalem area … should be accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine and should be placed under effective United Nations control.” In direct contradiction to these resolutions, Trump’s embassy move acknowledges Jerusalem exclusively as the capital of the state of Israel.
Thus, the BDS critique of Israel’s policies, and the US’s role in facilitating those policies, is taking place across university campuses at a crucial time. Israel is acting opportunistically and aggressively to take advantage of the Trump presidency and the political disarray in the United States so much so that it has happily ignored the rampant anti-Semitism of former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. Israel’s continuing actions under the Trump administration display the contradiction that BDS and anti-fascist organizing, when paired, continue to expose: that anti-Semitism is acceptable so long as the anti-Semite is pro-Zionist.
Marriage of Zionism and Far-Right in Europe
In Europe, we find the same contradiction is taking shape among the extreme right. The Washington Post reports:
In France, the Netherlands and Sweden, right-wing nationalists are counterprogramming decades of deeply ingrained anti-Semitism in their ranks. Critics say some hard-right parties in Hungary and Greece remain hotbeds of anti-Semitism. But as left-wing parties in Europe press for boycotts of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, many populist nationalists in Europe — at least in public — are pledging Israel their full support.
France’s proposition — that anti-Semitism is present only in the form of a “new anti-Semitism” emanating solely from Muslim and Arab societies there — is another attempt to deny the continuing presence of historical, non-Arab-based anti-Semitism.
This denial consolidates far-right and moderate politics and makes the far-right’s position more appealing to the general public. Primed by Islamophobia and anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment, it is all too easy to reduce complex social and political problems to a slogan, and target one group as being the source of many, if not all, social ills.
It’s why the marriage of anti-Semitism and right-wing ethno-nationalism is truly dangerous: The coalition of right-wing ethno-nationalisms across Europe has had (and will continue to have) profound effects on not only immigrants and people of color, but also on the broader social, political and cultural worlds of Europe. Simply put, ethno-nationalism is a threat to democracy and the rule of law.
In The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt wrote about the failure of the Minority Treaties of the 19th and early 20th centuries, in which the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, tried to get member states to guarantee the rights of minorities within their borders. But she argued that the right to equality under the law was soon trumped by inequality due to ethno-nationalism: “The transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation had been completed; the nation had conquered the state, national interest had priority over the law long before Hitler could pronounce ‘right is what is good for the German people.’ Here again the language of the mob was only the language of public opinion cleansed of hypocrisy and restraint.”
That is to say, the idea of a democratic state and all its peoples quickly becomes eclipsed by an ethno-nationalist project that elevates some over others. What Arendt calls “the mob,” here and elsewhere, is nothing less than a fascist mob whose vociferous exclamations of superiority have ruptured the decorum of public speech. What we find today, however, is the opposite: The far-right is happy to engage in hypocritical assertions that it has purged all its anti-Semitism, or at least, has restrained it.
The BDS and Anti-Fascist Solution
In contrast to this incongruous merging among right-wing forces, the solidarity between anti-fascist and pro-Palestinian organizing is founded on a critique of anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. Both anti-fascist and pro-Palestinian activism target state practices rather than a “people” (that is, Jews). As BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has said time and again, the movement’s object of critique is not a people, but an instrument of oppression.
A steadily growing criticism of Israeli state actions and the fact that Trump has made such a spectacle of his support for Israel has more and more people reconsidering their opposition to BDS. The ongoing killings of unarmed men, women and children in Gaza; the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear weapons deal; and the increased building of settlements are all adding to both Israel’s and Trump’s unpopularity, and therefore, a more sympathetic view toward BDS tactics. Americans are increasingly concerned about how far Trump will go in supporting Israel at the expense of US national interests and indeed, world interests. Many feel that withdrawal from the Iran deal unnecessarily puts Israel’s interests before the interests of the US.
Public sentiment in the US, especially among liberals and young people, is clearly shifting against Israeli state policies. Most recently, and most dramatically, Israel’s blacklist against human rights workers and organizations has hurt its public image immensely.
Israel’s planned deportation of Human Rights Watch (HRW) lawyer Omar Shakir is a case in point. His case follows that of the deportation of Katherine Franke, a Columbia University professor of law and member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Israel tried to falsely smear HRW as being pro-BDS. Having found no evidence of HRW’s or Shakir’s support of BDS, Israel came up with seven pages of evidence to use against Shakir from his past, including posters at Stanford University he put up in favor of divestment while he was an undergraduate student many years ago. At this point, Israel has temporarily halted the proceedings due to international condemnation.
The fears of those who “worry” about the merging of anti-fascist work with pro-Palestine work are indeed coming true, but not for the reasons they state. Left-wing activists engaged in both anti-fascist and pro-BDS work are not driven by anti-Semitism, but its opposite: They are driven by a shared value in fighting bigotry and ethno-nationalism.
In this sense, we are ardently committed to fighting the anti-Semitism that is found in the words and actions of white supremacists, and the words and actions of an ethno-nationalist government that claims it speak for all Jews to elevate its interests above that of the democracy it claims to espouse.