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In 1965, historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) published a now famous and oft cited book entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Hofstadter’s focus was on the prevalence of conspiratorial themes and theories from the Republic’s inception to the mid-1960s, and he had plenty of material to draw from. George Will, one of Hofstadter’s critics at the time, imagined that his ironic gaze was focused entirely on the conservative side of the political spectrum. But judging from Hofstadter’s masterful survey of American political discourse, conspiratorial thinking is deeply woven into the fabric of many populist movements on the Right and, to a lesser extent, on the Left.
To glimpse the power and pervasiveness of conspiratorial thinking in American politics today, one need look no further than the QAnon cult, which captured the imagination of millions of Americans, and which is truly frightening to behold. There is nothing to match it either in scale or severity on the Left today – not yet, anyway. Nevertheless, certain constituencies on the Left are now moving in a somewhat similar direction. For example, consider the so-called “Mapping Project” by the Boston chapter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Boston chapter of BDS released an interactive, online map of the greater Boston area. This map pinpoints the locations of all major Jewish institutions in the Boston area, including (but not limited to) the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts (which encompasses liberal congregations that are outspokenly opposed to Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians), the Jewish Community Relations Council, (which serves Holocaust survivors and Jewish war veterans,) the Jewish Arts collaborative, the Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston, and the local chapter of J Street, a left leaning liberal group that staunchly opposes AIPAC and Israel’s unwillingness to relinquish the occupied territories. It even includes Jewish Boston, a publication of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, because it helped promote “Taste of Israel 2022”, which featured Boston area restaurants serving and promoting ‘Israel’s diverse culinary landscape.” (Promoting Israeli cuisine? Oh my! How sinister!) Finally, it also lists the names and addresses of these groups’ leaders. Why? Presumably because, as the document states: “These entities exist in the physical world and can be disrupted in the physical world. We hope people will use our map to help figure out how to push back effectively.” Another chilling statement from this anonymous collective reads as follows.
We view U.S. police on all levels as white-supremacist, colonial institutions that have no role in our communities; we support non-cooperation, community self-defense, and resistance in all its forms (emphasis added).
Calling for “resistance in all its forms” is a deliberately sweeping statement that clearly does not preclude recourse to violence. Indeed, it hints broadly that this is a perfectly legitimate tool to achieve BDS objectives, despite the fact that the BDS movement presents itself as an organization based on principles of advocacy and non-violence. At the same time, however, this apparent call to arms resonates deeply with the pro-Palestine movement’s efforts to promote what it calls a “global intifada”, and implies (indirectly) that the law enforcement officers who seek to protect innocent men, women and children in the Jewish community from violent attacks or destruction of property are directly implicated in the oppression of Palestinians, making them fair game as well. Finally, in addition to the preceding, the online document lists the AFL-CIO, Apple, Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, the Boston Globe, the City of Boston, Democratic Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, the FBI, the Harpoon Brewery, Pfizer and Moderna as entities that are allegedly “systematically linked” to the Zionist project.
The thuggish subtext of this dog-whistle document is crudely fascistic, and raises the question whether terms like “disrupt” and “dismantle” here are merely code for another verb, “destroy”. Yet despite these ominous undertones, neither The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) nor the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) would comment immediately on the Boston “Mapping Project”.
Then on June 22, 2022, two weeks after the Mapping Project went public, the BNC finally repudiated it, informing all branches of the organization that if they wish to retain the BDS “brand” they must reject it as well, because their failure to do so would jeopardize the welfare of Arab communities in Israel/Palestine. Perhaps another motive for this declaration was that the Boston Mapping Project might rob the BDS movement of its legitimacy on the international stage by linking it to the ever rising threat of domestic terrorism, alienating Western allies like the Quakers, the Presbyterian Church and others. But while distancing itself from the Mapping Project, the BNC also delivered a blistering appraisal of the Mapping Project’s critics, including Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Marky, and Democratic congressmen Seth Moulton and Ayanna Pressley, the latter being the only member of “the squad” to condemn the Mapping Project for inciting violence against Jewish communities.
So let’s be frank, shall we? The length of time it took the BNC to issue this declaration strongly suggests that there were heated internal struggles and debates within the BDS movement before the BNC issued its statement. This inference is rendered all the more likely because the BNC’s efforts to distance itself from this online publication is now threatening to create a schism within the pro-Palestine movement. After all, the Canadian and South African chapters of BDS still heartily endorse the Boston Mapping project, as do 21 pro-Palestinian NGOs.
So on the face of it, perhaps, the schism now brewing in the BDS movement hinges primarily on tactics and strategy, including the adoption of violent or non-violent methods to resist oppression. And this (internal) debate is a certainly a step in the right direction. But the other, unspoken issue – the proverbial elephant in the room, which few have the courage to address – is the issue of antisemitism. For if truth be told, the Boston Mapping Project is not only anti-Zionist, it is also antisemitic. But what is antisemitism, exactly?
Let’s set aside the recent controversies concerning the differences between the IHRA’s “Working Definition” and The Jerusalem Declaration, and define anti-Semitism simply as an irrational fear or belief that by virtue of their faith or heredity, Jewish people pose an actual or potential threat to the safety, well-being or integrity of their non-Jewish neighbors. This inchoate fear (and the mistrust and hatred that flow from it) can vary in intensity considerably, depending on the person, their social and cultural environment and their period of history. Depending on circumstances, it can be mild, engendering casual disdain (or “microaggressions)”, or at more pronounced level, outright discrimination. And as history repeatedly attests, it can become so envenomed and entrenched that it leads to full-fledged genocidal campaigns.
Unfortunately, it is in the BNC’s short term interest to deny that there is anything even faintly antisemitic about the Boston Mapping Project. For if it took this bold step, the BNC would have to acknowledge the fact that antisemitism often lurks beneath the surface of what appears to be principled anti-Zionist rhetoric, obligating BDS followers to be more thoughtful and discriminating in their actions and utterances going forward; something most are strongly disinclined to do. Consider the popular Left wing slogan “I don’t hate Jews. I only hate Zionists!”, which many activists declare as proof of their moral courage or ethical integrity. As it happens, roughly 80 percent of world Jewry actually are Zionists. So in effect, if not in so many words, activists like these are actually saying: “I hate the majority of Jewish people alive today, but I am not an antisemite!” And indeed, many do hate the majority of Jews living today, because half of them live in Israel, and in many activist circles, Islamist organizations sworn to Israel’s destruction are either actively supported or passively accepted as legitimate, despite the fact that Islamists favor a theocratic form of governance that is incommensurable with democratic values and ideals.
Yet oddly enough, these same activists would never dream of saying “I don’t hate Muslims, I only hate Islamists!” Perish the thought! If they did, they know that they’d be accused of Islamophobia and promptly written off as agents of Western imperialism in many activist circles. Needless to say, I am not equating Zionism with Islamism here. After all, there are many strains of Zionist ideology (on the Left and the Right) that are resolutely secular and democratic in outlook, whereas all varieties of Islamism are emphatically and uniformly theocratic in tone, despite regional and theological differences among different Islamist groups. Nevertheless, on reflection, both Zionism and Islamism are political movements that arose in response to what were perceived as existential threats – genocidal antisemitism, in the case of Jews, and the humiliations and encroachments of Western colonialism, among Muslims. But it seldom occurs to Left wing activists to take an even handed approach and think critically about both of these movements. Instead, Zionists are always roundly condemned in most Left-wing circles, while Islamists are generally given a free pass, in accord with the old saying “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” And sadly, this blatant double standard is evident only to those who do not embrace it; a rare and vanishing breed on the Left nowadays.
Unfortunately, the reluctance of many Left wingers to come to grips with antisemitism in their own ranks has resulted in some troubling developments in the United States, where Jewish activists are increasingly excluded from progressive circles. As Karin Stögner, Professor of Sociology at the University of Passau, points out:
In the political practice of certain queer and feminist activists – the so-called Queer International – Israelis en masse are considered to be on the privileged side of global power relations, and so antisemitism is no longer perceived as a concrete danger.
There is a great deal of ingenuity in interpreting Israel as a depravity for doing what activists are actually advocating elsewhere: women’s and LGBTQ rights. For Israel, however, all is reversed, making possible the accusation of ‘pinkwashing’ and ‘homonationalism’ (Schulman 2012; Puar 2013). There has arisen resistance to the exclusion of Jews from queer and feminist initiatives such as the Women’s March on Washington, the Chicago Dyke March and Black Lives Matter. The journalist and LGBTIQ activist Gretchen Hammond lost her job at the The Windy City Times after she made public the antisemitism of the organisers. Feminists such as Emily Shire (2017) refuse to accept the argument of Linda Sarsour, the former organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, that Zionism and feminism would exclude and contradict each other . . . Likewise, former Jewish comrades of have been forced to withdraw or to launch their own feminist intersectional campaigns that are dedicated to educating the public about antisemitism . . .
Are Zionism and feminism incompatible? Many on the Left today think so. But consider the case of the celebrated American poet, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). She was a courageous young woman of Sephardi ancestry, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, often remembered as the author of “The New Colossus”, the poem which is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. She is less often remembered as the author of Songs of A Semite: The Dance of Death and Other Poems (1882) which was dedicated to George Eliot, author of Daniel Deronda. The term “Zionism” had barely been invented when she warned of the growing threat of genocidal antisemitism in Europe, and especially in Germany, calling for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Her intellectual progeny – American Jewish women with ties to Israel – played an extremely active role in the second wave of feminism here in the USA, which gave us Roe v Wade, whose loss the Left is bitterly lamenting now. But they and their intellectual progeny have now been effectively excluded from progressive circles, unless or until they align themselves with Judith Butler, and declare themselves to be anti-Zionist Jews, in which case they may be deemed Kosher and accepted into the fold. That being said, I hasten to add that many Jews, men and women, are still active and outspoken in defense of a woman’s right to choose, and for safe and legal abortions when circumstances warrant, many on the grounds of deep religious conviction. But how would their (ongoing) advocacy on behalf of women be construed by the BDS movement and their Islamist allies? To me, at least, it seems that as conspiratorial and antisemitic rhetoric become more mainstream on the Left, the political polarization gripping this country will worsen appreciably, and will likely result in murder and mayhem in the not too distant future. And this is not in anyone’s best interests. Perhaps it is time to reconsider?
Daniel Burston teaches psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and is the author of Anti-Semitism and Analytical Psychology: Jung, Politics and Culture (Routledge, 2021.)