William Kolbrener is professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University and the author of several books including Milton’s Warring Angels. Developing further his critique in Fathom of the ‘poisonous pedagogy’ he sees as cultivating Israel-hatred in higher education, he invites readers to see the BDS movement as cultivating, as well as the demonisation of the Jewish state, an anti-Western sensibility that seeks to undermine the institutions of liberal democracy and the convictions that uphold them. Kolbrener asks liberal centrists to wake up and defend a precious inheritance before it is lost.
The Republican Party of MAGA-Trumpers has put aside long-cherished and party-defining narratives emphasising freedom and American exceptionality. When Fox News host Bill O’Reilly referred to the Russian President Vladimir Putin as a ‘killer,’ Trump responded: ‘You think we’re so innocent? We also kill people.’ Trump now not only gives voice to the moral vacuity of the party he leads, but at the same time puts a presidential seal of approval on what some progressives have long thought – that the values of liberal democracy are just smoke-screens for government agendas no different from those of other, authoritarian political systems. Republicans – Lincoln’s Party – are jettisoning their defining history, while progressives are arguing that democracies and dictatorships are morally equivalent. While the former feign patriotism, the latter openly question the values of enlightenment and liberalism – dismissed with the all-encompassing and pejorative label of ‘neo-liberalism.’
In the long term, it is the passion of progressives that may be more dangerous for Jews, as well as for the rest of the world. In the current political environment, it’s not Tea Party Republicans, but Progressives who show the most powerful conviction. True, the Democratic Party is a Big Tent, and most Americans, especially Jews, do not support the BDS agenda that members of ‘the Squad’ advocate. But the ideas that inform BDS, and which have influenced parts of the Democratic Party, are part of an ideological status quo of Humanities Departments across the United States. Specifically, the creed of ‘intersectionality’ positions Zionism and Israel as beyond the postmodern pale: the embodiment of fundamentalist religion, ultra-nationalist politics and militarism, to be ‘smashed’.
The now former Women’s March leader and Farrakhan-apologist Linda Sarsour understands the strategic value of ‘anti-Zionism’. As an ideology it is able to exploit the reasonable concerns of well-intentioned liberals for gender equality and social justice to undermine support for Israel. And as Bari Weiss has written, the problem is not only that Humanities PhDs mock the primitiveness of Jews and Zionism, but that the wider culture, students and their parents, for example, is coming under their influence.
Like Satan in John Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost, in order to win BDS must merely create a moral equivalence between the heavenly and satanic angels. BDS does not need, continuing the metaphor, to bring centrist liberals to their Devil’s party. Just suggesting a moral equivalence between Israel and its adversaries, is enough to persuade life-long liberals to entertain the devil’s fictions: that, for example, the 17 year old girl who was killed last month after swimming with her brother and father ‘was a settler, after all’; that when one-third of Israel’s population sequester themselves in shelters, it’s somehow because they deserve it; that when PA Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas calls for the blood of Jews in Jerusalem in Arabic, rewarding terrorist families with life-long salaries while uttering platitudes about peace to the Western media, it’s the latter that he really means.
BDS does not need ‘converts’. It is enough to seed doubt and play on Western ambivalence towards its own democratic institutions to erode support for Israel. This is the long term strategy and we see it paying off all the time. For example, when the Icelandic band Hatari, self-described as an ‘anti-capitalist, BDS-inspired, techno-punk band’, played at the Israel-hosted Eurovision Song Contest and paraded banners for LGBT rights alongside a Palestinian flag, American and European observers – cognitive dissonance operating in overdrive – may not applaud their bravado. But when the fate of gays in Gaza City (or even in the more ‘liberal’ West Bank) gets mentioned, the comfort of their armchair indifference and cynicism gets the better of them. Rather than defend their values, they may say, lest they give succor to the hated Israel, ‘Well, I’m against oppression of every kind.’ Game, BDS.
In the 1970 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures delivered at Yale, the literary critic George Steiner offered a compelling explanation for the persistence of antisemitism: the Jews suffered for millennia as retribution for introducing the ‘Ideal’ into Western culture. For Steiner, it is finally Auschwitz that brings Europe’s suicidal tendencies to fruition: kill off the Jews, with the moral exceptionalism they represent, and kill off civilisation. The threat to Jews today, however, does not come from the West. To the contrary, Western ambivalence towards its cultural heritages is balanced by the privileged life, and the inertia that comes as the byproduct of the pleasures of commerce, leaving many anesthetised to the possibility of serious existential threat. This cultural inheritance is no longer Rembrandt and Raphael – Steiner’s lament – but Cadillac and Caviar. We lull ourselves with the consolation: for the moment, life is good: the people who still believe in something will not kill us today. Faced by Hamlet’s dilemma, many centrist liberals choose ‘to be,’ though repressing the knowledge that without commitment, Western Culture will not survive the far greater conviction of anti-democratic forces. Today, to update Hamlet, the ‘conscience that doth make cowards of us all’ is not the fear – not yet at least – of the ‘undiscovered country of death,’ but life without an iPhone. There is the inner – though often repressed knowledge – that our ambivalence about Western civilisation may herald its ending, but we are too distracted by the pleasures of our current privilege to take notice.
Those in the BDS Movement, and especially their radical Islamist allies, understand the ideological exhaustion of liberals. They cultivate the barely suppressed inkling among them that the institutions of democracy are irrevocably tainted by colonialism, racism, and sexism. BDS extremists understand that acknowledging Steiner’s cultural death drive is for the moment suppressed by the Netflix subscription. But abetted by BDS, Weiss’s PhD Humanists, once the greatest advocates of Western Culture, look at European and American history through an exclusively colonialist lens. That they are indeed a minority, and an even often mocked one, does not mitigate their influence. Kids come home from college advocating the anti-Zionist allegory of Israel as evil, and though their parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars for an education that undermines their life-long commitments, and though they may treat the advocacy of the allegory of Israel’s demonisation with some skepticism, they can, however, ‘see their point.’ The older generation is okay with this because ‘progress’ must be embraced – even when it threatens the democratic institutions that brought it into being. Moreover, the ethical life of the democratic centrist barely conceals a catastrophic nihilism; a desire for excitement, no matter how misguided its implicit utopianism. So parents go along with their woke kids, conceding: ‘I’m agnostic towards BDS – I like to keep an open mind towards those who want to destroy the Jewish State.’ Another victory for BDS.
There are those who claim that progressives are reinvigorating liberalism. But from the perspective of most Jews this new movement looks more like an exclusionary populism, casting the Jewish nation-state Israel as the point against which all intersectional values converge in opposition.
BDS is a war not only against Israel, but the institutions of liberal democracy, and the convictions that uphold them. Admitting the value of these institutions does not mean advocating Trump and Netanyahu’s hyper-nationalism but acknowledging the extent to which only democratic institutions remain to protect us from populist threats on the right and left. If American centrist liberals – especially Jews – do not wake up to the creeping dangers of BDS, understand its drive to instill not hatred towards Israel but indifference, and, further, revive their conviction in liberal democracy against populism in all its forms, it will not only be the fate of Israel that hangs in the balance.