RECENT DISCUSSION REGARDING the ideological basis for a boycott of Israel, whether in academia or in response to the campaign for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) forcefully promoted by a network of Palestinian and international NGOs, has concentrated upon two interrelated issues: first, the thematic overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; and secondly, the emergence of the left as the principal driver of anti-Zionist discourse in Western democracies.
This focus should not convey the impression that contemporary anti-Semitism is reducible only to anti-Zionism, nor that malign notions about the Jewish people are the sole preserve of the left. Anti-Semitism in its classic form - that is, hatred of Jews largely unrelated to the existence or actions of the Jewish state and rooted in national-religious prejudice-persists in many countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Political currents outside the left, most obviously on the extreme right, as well as among the various strains of Islamism, remain ideologically wedded to classic anti-Semitism and incorporate anti-Zionism on that basis.
It is equally true that the extremes of left and right identify increasingly with the portrait of Jewish power as global, transcendental, and unaccountable; that they use the terms "Jew" and "Zionist" interchangeably; and that they admiringly regard Islamism as the primary source of opposition to American and "Zionist" ambitions in the Middle East and, by extension, the world. However, such mirroring cannot explain and should not obscure the distinctive character of much of the current left discourse on Israel. Indeed, to classify this discourse as simply an instance of extremism is to ignore that its most disturbing aspect-the insistence that Jewish state be quarantined as a necessary step toward its eventual elimination-has penetrated the mainstream of political debate and exchange.
What needs to be interrogated, therefore, is the set of ideas that underlie the boycott movement as well as their appeal, both actual and potential. What unifies these ideas is a grand strategy of delegitimization that highlights elements of theory and ideology, history and comparative politics. In opposing the existence of a Jewish state, the boycott movement remains faithful to the long-held opposition of many left-wing ideologues toward Jews asserting themselves as an identifiable, autonomous collective. In advocating the economic, cultural, and political isolation of Israel, the boycott movement borrows from multiple historical legacies, notably the state policy of anti-Semitism, formally presented as anti-Zionism, practiced in the Soviet Union, as well as the Arab League's three-tier economic boycott of Israel (namely, the boycott of Israeli companies, of companies that engage in business with Israel, and of companies that engage in business with companies engaged in business with Israel). Finally, in demonizing Israel by comparing it with the former apartheid regime in South Africa-a grave deceit that is a core concern of this paper-the boycott movement seeks to force Israel to abandon, internally, its Jewish character and, externally, its sovereignty.
The Left's Opposition to Jewish Self-Determination
It is this entrenched opposition to Jewish self-determination-in an age, no less, when progressives celebrate the identity politics of marginal, disempowered groups-that has led to the charge of anti-Semitism being leveled at much of the left. This is commonly and angrily refuted with the counterclaim that opposition to a state is radically different from hatred of an entire people. But what such a response ignores is the moral flimsiness of a position in which only Israel, out of nearly two hundred states in the international system, is selected for dissolution, and the disregard for the impact such a catastrophe would have upon Jews both inside and outside the Jewish state.
As I have argued elsewhere,1 this position mirrors the disdain with which Jewish concerns have historically been regarded by a large section of the left. This was as true of the period before the emergence of political Zionism as it was after. In its pre-Zionist phase, left-wing anti-Semitism had a decidedly economic thrust. For example, Karl Marx's best-known comments about Jews and Judaism were spiced with crude anti-Semitic language about "huckstering" and "haggling." This characterization of Judaism as a metaphor for capitalism can be found in his 1843 response to Bruno Bauer, "On the Jewish Question." Although Marx actually challenges Bauer's opposition to Jewish emancipation, the overriding thrust of his thesis is that Judaism is identified with an economy based upon monetary exchange and private property. Outside of these parameters, Marx cannot conceive of a space for Jewish existence. Hence his conclusion, "The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism."2
To the extent that all group identities are constructed around narratives of history or religion or culture, they can be characterized as synthetic or even artificial. Yet for much of the left in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the objectionable nature of Jewish identity, in contrast to the identities of other groups, stemmed from its artificiality, which was understood as being economic in origin. Agents of a monetary economy could not constitute a community, much less a nationality: hence the equation of Jewish emancipation with Jewish disappearance, as intimated by Marx. These views partly explain the contempt that marked the exchanges of so many revolutionaries on the perennial "Jewish question." Rosa Luxemburg, herself a Jew, put it baldly in one of her private letters: "Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victims in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa.... I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto."3
What is supremely ironic is that the contemporary revivers of this negationist approach-those who insist that Zionism represents a surrender to anti-Semitism, who go on to claim that anti-Semitism is simply a rhetorical trick to muzzle criticism of the State of Israel, who grudgingly concede that Jewish identity may have, after all, a valid religious component, but stringently reject anything beyond that-present their approach as the key to making Jewish communities secure. From a Jewish perspective, such a position is transparently dishonest. Isaac Deutscher, the Jewish Marxist historian, cogently summarized why in a 1954 interview in which he explained that his original opposition to Zionism "was based on a confidence in the European labor movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilization, which that society and civilization have not justified."4