To oppose and rightly boycott exclusive and stockaded Jewish settlements on Palestinian land is, to be quite frank, unimpressive. The clear illegality of the colonies makes any argument to the contrary irrelevant, not to mention wholly immoral, regardless of whatever arcane religious land deed one happens to personally believe in. After all, despite its ongoing actions of encouraging and facilitating, the Israeli government itself recognized this unequivocal contravention of international law back in 1967, a mere three months after aggressively (not defensively) conquering and occupying East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

However, campaigns to boycott Israel itself – whether economically, militarily, diplomatically, culturally – are a different story. The Jewish community worldwide, for example, has long had mixed reactions to calls for both international and domestic boycott.

In early 1933, less than two months after the Reichstag Fire, but more than half a decade before the German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, the terror of Kristallnacht, the invasion, occupation, and ghettoization of Poland and the extermination camps, and almost nine years before the Final Solution, American Jews were already mobilizing against racist Nazi programs. In response to the then-rising threat of anti-Semitism and the horror of discriminatory policies within Germany, New York City’s Jewish War Veterans, after considering the consequences for the persecuted German Jewry, became the first American organization to announce a trade boycott of the Third Reich and organize a massive protest parade, in which over 4,000 veterans marched on City Hall and were welcomed by Mayor John P. O’Brien.

Soon thereafter, a coalition of the American Jewish Congress, the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, and the Jewish Labor Committee sponsored simultaneous protest rallies in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland and numerous other locations, encouraging the boycott of German goods. The New York rally, held at Madison Square Garden, was broadcast worldwide and featured speeches delivered by American Jewish, Christian, and labor leaders, along with Senator Robert F. Wagner and former New York governor Al Smith, calling “for an immediate cessation of the brutal treatment being inflicted on German Jewry.” Four years later, another rally sponsored by the AJC and the Jewish Labor Committee was held at Madison Square Garden, at which union leader John L. Lewis, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Rabbi Stephen Wise all spoke in support of boycott.

Nevertheless, the boycott movement — both in the US and worldwide — was largely unsuccessful, in part due to governments’ unwillingness to cut economic ties with the heavily industrialized Germany, but also because the Jewish community itself was divided on the issue. Historian Lenni Brenner writes that “there were those in the Jewish community in America and Britain who specifically opposed the very notion of a boycott. The American Jewish Committee, the B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant) fraternal order and the Board of Deputies of British Jews refused to back the boycott. However, of all of the active Jewish opponents of the boycott idea, the most important was the World Zionist Organisation (WZO). It not only bought German wares; it sold them, and even sought out new customers for Hitler and his industrialist backers.”

The WZO, intent on pursuing policies which would promote the establishment of a Zionist state in what was then Mandatory Palestine, “saw Hitler’s victory in much the same way as its German affiliate, the ZVfD [Zionistische Vereinigung fuer Deutschland, or the Zionist Federation of Germany]: not primarily as a defeat for all Jewry, but as positive proof of the bankruptcy of assimilationism and liberalism,” Brenner tells us. These sentiments were expressed with staggering enthusiasm by the renowned German biographer Emil Ludwig during a visit to the United States. “Hitler will be forgotten in a few years, but he will have a beautiful monument in Palestine,” he said. “Thousands who seemed to be completely lost to Judaism were brought back to the fold by Hitler, and for that I am personally very grateful to him.” (Meyer Steinglass, “Emil Ludwig before the Judge,” American Jewish Times, April 1936)

Israel’s “Right to Exist”…But As What?

Recent evidence that the international BDS campaign is gaining traction includes the Olympia Food Co-opTIAA-CREF meetings, and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) in which over 175 Irish creative and performing artists have pledged not to accept invitations to perform in Israel. The boycott in Chile, divestment in Norway, and the recent cutting off of diplomatic relations by Mauritania, Qatar, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia are all proof that the movement is having an effect. Still, the boycott divide has resurfaced in the Jewish academic community, though the arguments employed are strikingly similar to those considered over 70 years ago.

In condemning the academic boycott of West Bank settlements by Israeli scholars, authors, and lecturers, Professor Yossi Ben Artzi, Haifa University’s outgoing rector and one of the founding members of the Israeli anti-occupation advocacy group Peace Now, stated his belief that “academics should not use an academic boycott as a tool to further ideological or political agendas,” the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported.

“I too believe that settlements are the source of all evil in Israel,” he stated, continuing, “Nevertheless, the use of a boycott is not only ineffective but bolsters the target of the boycott.” Ben Artzi also accused the Israeli academics of “throwing stones and shattering the basis for their existence.”

Ben Artzi is wrong. The settlements are not the root of the current Israeli dilemma, often cast by Israeli intellectuals as a supposedly stark choice “between two terrible options: Jewish-dominated apartheid or non-Jewish democracy.”

These scholars, exemplified recently by Gadi Taub, an assistant professor of communications and public policy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of “The Settlers,” argue that “the status quo cannot last” and that the settlements are not merely “obstacles to a final peace accord, which is how settlement critics have often framed the issue,” but, rather, that they are a “danger [that] will doom Zionism itself.”

In his August 29 OpEd in The New York Times, Taub argues that “the settlement problem should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, beginning with Israel’s. The religious settlement movement is not just secular Zionism’s ideological adversary, it is a danger to its very existence,” claiming that “the secular Zionist dream was fundamentally democratic.” Well, democratic for Jews, at least. Taub explains, “Its proponents, from Theodor Herzl to David Ben-Gurion, sought to apply the universal right of self-determination to the Jews, to set them free individually and collectively as a nation within a democratic state.”

Taub’s conceptions of both “freedom” and “democracy” here are seriously flawed. As Joseph Agassi, professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, notes, “[The Zionist] ideology deems anti-Semitism unavoidable and Israel the only place where a Jew can be safe. This view is essentially undemocratic: it denies a priori any value of the emancipation of Jews in the modern world…. As an Israeli patriot and a philosopher, I find it imperative to make Judaic anti-Zionism a part of the badly needed debate about Israel’s past, present and future.” The idea that the Jewish communities of the world could only achieve their right to self-determination, freedom, and political representation under the banner of fierce nationalism based on ethnicity and consolidated by the so-called “Arab threat,” is inherently paranoid, jingoistic, racist, xenophobic, and, ultimately, ethnocentric and supremacist in its inception. Secular Zionism, as described by Taub, therefore confirms the prescient late 19th century warning of Moritz Gudemann, chief rabbi of Vienna, who predicted that “the Zionists would ultimately create a Judaism of cannons and bayonets that would invert the roles of David and Goliath and would end in a perversion of Judaism, which never glorified war and never idolized warriors,” and who, quoting from an Austrian poet, concluded that the Zionist leadership was following a path that leads “from humanity through nationality to bestiality.”