First there were the book-burnings, then came the boycott of Jewish businesses, after that, with mounting violence, Kristallnacht; the stage for the Holocaust was set. That was in Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, even the vilest and most despicable actions of various people, governments or institutions taken today could or should be compared to the deeds of the Nazis.
But it would be equally erroneous to disregard some of the similarities between the traits and motives of the Nazi criminals – and those of the people who call today for a boycott of the State of Israel and its cultural and academic institutions.
When someone like the demagogue rock-artist Roger Waters asks musicians to cut their ties with Israeli artists and audiences, or English ruffians interrupt the performance of the Israel Philharmonic, one cannot help being reminded of the way Jewish musicians were treated in Nazi Germany and Austria, not to mention the proscription of Jewish composers like Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schönberg.
That many of the instigators of the anti-Israel boycotts are themselves academics and self-described intellectuals, some of them self-hating Jews and even Israelis, only proves the point that Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, made in a recent article in The Financial Times, i.e. that “academic boycotts are all about the boycotters” who, like all “public intellectuals” (he referred to the American Studies Association (ASA ), which decided to boycott Israeli universities and academic institutions) “are at heart more public than intellectual.”
One remembers that one of the first and most notorious book-burning events in Nazi Germany was overseen by none other than Germany’s leading philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Actually, book-burnings are not too different from academic boycotts, the aim of both being to stifle truth and freedom of expression and to delegitimize artists, authors and institutions, not because of what they do, but because of who or what they are.
134 members of the US House of Representatives of both parties rightly termed the ASA ’s boycott decision “bigoted, an affront to academic freedom” as well as calling it an “ignorant smear campaign to isolate Israel.”
Not all boycott initiatives come under the same heading: there are those who genuinely believe, rightly or wrongly, that Israel’s actions in the West Bank, and particularly the settlements, are illegitimate and should, therefore, be opposed by all means – while others may be driven by a predetermined, often prejudiced, view of what the ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be. But in most cases the Palestinian issue is not intrinsically tied at all to the calls for boycotting Israel, consciously or subconsciously the real purpose being the delegitimization of the very existence of Israel.
In many cases, perhaps most, there is more than a residue of anti-Semitism - some of it overt, some of it covert, atavistically ingrained in the cultural and religious traditions of Western societies. In Western Europe traditional anti-Semitism often colludes these days with the Arab brand of Jew-hatred - and the recent joint leftist and Arab anti-Jewish demonstration in one of the main thoroughfares of Paris shows how far things have gone in this respect.
The US is mostly a different story and most major American universities have forcefully and disdainfully rejected boycott calls. It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when American anti-Semitism was rife and anti-Jewish Numerous Clausus were a common practice on many American campuses. A poll conducted in the late 1930s showed that 72 percent of Americans opposed allowing Jewish refugees to enter the country. Especially threatening to America’s Jewish citizens at the time was the isolationist “America First Committee,” some of whose prominent members were Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, who made no secret of their racist prejudices and pro-Nazi sympathies, accusing the Jews of pushing America into an unneeded war against Nazi-Germany, while blaming the country’s problems in general on those they considered threats to “true” Americanism, particularly Jews. There actually were physical acts of violence and terror against Jews in New York and several other US cities.
A great deal has fortunately changed since then, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust became known.
But not everything has changed. There are the accusations of “double loyalty,” often fueled by the anti-Israel statements of left-wing intellectuals of the Mearsheimer and Walt breed. Though couched in terms of anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism, in more cases than one it is outright anti-Semitism. So there was, for instance, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the best-selling The Color Purple, (a book preaching tolerance!) Alice Walker, calling for a general boycott of all things connected with Israel.
In the past the US State Department led the fight against the Arab boycott against Israel and especially the much more harmful secondary and tertiary boycotts which in effect blocked business dealings with Israel by American and other international corporations which were loath to lose their profitable Arab business.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken out several times against anti-Israel boycott initiatives. Secretary Kerry’s predecessors in the administrations of both presidents Bush, as well as that of president Clinton, had forcefully and successfully opposed anti-Israel boycotts of any kind, even making the practice of it a criminal offense.
One hopes that in the present situation the State Department and the US administration as a whole will come out more forcefully against any attempt at or condoning of anti-Israel boycotts; making America’s position clear also to its Europeans allies, including Germany, which because of its boycott history bears special responsibility in this respect.
Roger Cohen, in a recent article explained why the BDS movement under the pretext of ending the occupation and securing “full equality” for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, at the same time also calling for the “right of return,” actually aims at the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Actually, one of the principal ringleaders of BDS, Omar Barghouti – a graduate, by the way, of Tel Aviv University! – has made it clear that the destruction of the Jewish state is his ultimate goal. There is no avoiding the conclusion, therefore, that all those propagating or even just tolerating BDS must be presumed guilty of having the same goal.
The author is a former ambassador to the United States.