The following is the final installment in a three-part series. To read the earlier posts, please follow these links:
Part I | Part II

The “Jewish Question” Revisited

The “Jewish Question” was defined in turn of the century Europe as a question about the manner and degree to which Jewish difference was compatible with the ideals of European modernity (Librett 2014) as well as with political projects that took shape with and against its geopolitical contexts (Bauer 2000 [1843]; Marx 1978 [1844]; Peled 1992). What defined “Jewish difference” was part of this question. Questions about whether the Jew is defined by anti-Semitism; whether the Jew is a cultural, religious, ethnic, racial, or biological identity; and whether the Jew can assimilate were debated by Jews and non-Jews, within and outside the Zionist movement, within and outside Haskala, in fin de siècle European scientific and medical discourse (Boyarin 1997; Feiner 2011 [2002]; Gilman 1993; Idelson-Shein 2014). These questions overlapped with broader discussions about race, degeneration, sexuality, aesthetics, morality, and economy as well as about Enlightenment ideals of freedom, sovereignty, and equality. As Miriam Leonard writes, “Throughout the nineteenth century and across the whole of Europe, the issue of the treatment of the Jews was inextricably bound up, on the one hand, with the project of social and political reform, and, on the other, with the attempts to define the integrity of the nation-state” (2012:7). These attempts culminated in the expulsion and mass killing of Europe’s Jewish populations, then in the efforts of Europe and its allies to reassemble in the aftermath of World War II, and in the establishment of Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish liberal democracy.

By defining Israel both as Jewish and as a liberal democracy, Zionism retained a distinction between European Enlightenment’s concept of a universal human — with its attendant assumptions of secularism — and claims to Jewish singularity. Because Israel has attempted neither to assimilate the Jew into a universal human subject nor to expel it, an analysis of the figure of the Jew and its genealogies in relation to Israel can help us respond to questions about the ethical subject, inassimilable difference, and the concept of the political that emerged in the aftermath of WWII and in the wake of British and French colonialisms. These questions are not only also at the center of political struggles waged by Palestinians and those “in solidarity with” Palestinians; they also haunt contemporary political discussions in response to the arrival on Europe’s shores of political and economic refugees fleeing Africa and the Near East, and the news of the deaths of those who don’t survive the journey to get there.

Why are growing numbers of people willing to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy and overcrowded vessels to reach the shores of Europe, despite closed borders and the threat of deportation, police violence, and life in refugee camps or out on the street? At the time of this writing, more than 50,000 asylum seekers from North Africa have arrived in Italy alone in 2015, and the year is not yet over. Approximately 1,800 people are known to have died trying to cross in the same amount of time. The political problems that lead people to be willing to risk their lives to reach Europe and that lead to the often desperate conditions in which the same people find themselves if they do make it across the sea are not unrelated to the political problems that shape Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its European roots. But when we do not address the political questions that Israel poses, we make it difficult to address these connections.

Even if it might be possible to pressure “the world’s governments” to put more teeth behind the usually empty statements asking Israel to do minimal things such as freeze settlement building, what kind of reading of history produces the phrasing that demands of “the world’s governments” to “hold Israel accountable”? Is not Israel itself exactly that which the world’s governments — those of Europe and the United States foremost among them — need to be held accountable for? Which reading of history is suggested by a call to boycott the product of the so-called solution to “the Jewish problem” rather than targeting the narratives that established Israel as a solution to their own political problems (which included the Jewish Question, xenophobia, Cold War tensions, and colonial exit strategies in the aftermath of WWII)?

To make the point a bit more bluntly, how might it sound if the French were to call for a boycott of Algeria because of its human rights abuses since Algerian independence? Or if US anthropologists were to call for solidarity with the Belizean call to boycott Guatemala, or with the call to boycott the Dominican Republic because of its violence toward Haitians? Or if the British called for joining a boycott of India by separatist militants over India’s administration of and military violence in Kashmir? These are not the analogies that are usually made in relation to the call to boycott Israel, and the problems with such highly imperfect hypothetical analogies and the differences they erase, or in this case hopefully also highlight, should be obvious.

But the analogy that usually is made — that of the comparison between South Africa and Israel — is no less problematic. Seyla Benhabib has suggested that the small Zionist community in British Mandate Palestine would not have become a state “had it not been for two historical events: the Balfour declaration which showed the same blindnesses that all nationalist self-determination movements of the early twentieth century held towards the claims of others, and, more importantly, the Holocaust of European Jewry” (2013:158). Admittedly, it becomes very difficult to make such claims, let alone elaborate past the first sentence, because of the ways in which a discourse of Jewish victimhood in defense of Israel has dominated any attempt to address this history. But ignoring this history simply reinforces the clash of what Benhabib describes as “the clash of two rights, of two moral principles with equal claim upon our allegiance facing each other in struggle” (Ibid). What then goes unaddressed are the political and ethical challenges that return in new iterations, with new victims and new perpetrators.

The analogy between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel through which the calls to boycott and descriptions of Israel as an apartheid state are made erases important historical and political differences between South African and Israeli contexts, and the relations to Europe that they differently share. These are not differences of degree or of hierarchies of wrong, of violence, of suffering, or of morality. Rather, they are differences of political and ideological systems that need to be addressed in order to respond more adequately to the violence these systems produce. During apartheid South Africa, it would have been impossible for a black person to prosecute a white South African for protesting in solidarity with black South Africans against apartheid. In Israel, although an exception, it is not impossible for a Palestinian lawyer to prosecute a Jewish Israeli for acts of solidarity with Palestinians against the occupation. It is not impossible for a Palestinian to rule as a judge in the Israeli Supreme Court. This is not to say that Israel is less racist or to place suffering in any kind of hierarchy, but to point out in a telegraphic manner that the political systems in question are different. To address the violence of these systems simply in terms of making a case for acting against suffering only demands the replacement of one discourse of victimhood (that of the Jews) with another discourse of victimhood (that of the Palestinians).

The fact that berating of and pressure on Israel to “fall in line” with “liberal democratic principles” almost always lacks any teeth to back up these pronouncements allows “world governments” to continue to position themselves as liberal democratic countries who are in a position of holding others accountable, while maintaining economic and other support for Israel to sustain their own political and economic interests. By reinforcing this discourse, the call to boycott Israeli academia makes learning and thinking critically about the political context of twentieth-century Europe and its relation to its internal and external others even more difficult than it apparently already has been.

The discourse of the call to boycott Israel is made in language loaded with exactly those concepts of the human, European modernity, and universalism that are the target of critique when they have been employed in ways that are blind to the politics of separating the “cultural” from the “political” and to the ways in which Eurocentric, Zionist, Orientalist, and colonial discourses sustain, but also challenge, the binaries of modern and primitive. This is explicitly evident in the language of the AAA petition statement and related discussions, and it is implicitly signaled by the history of which violent conflicts the AAA has discussed passing motions. It is also evident in many of the abstracts of the panels devoted to the subject of boycotting Israel.

People might respond to such a point with the claim that sometimes it is necessary to use blunt weapons such as boycotts to fight against the suffering caused by urgent political problems. But if the power of the boycott is exactly in the refusal to engage in intellectual work and with Israeli discourse, academic and otherwise, then is this not an acknowledgement of the significance of words, of exchange and engagement in speech, writing, and reading? And therefore, if the discourse of the boycott is the discourse of inclusion in European modernity and civility, based on human rights and the liberal citizen subject, is the threat to refuse to include Israelis in this group (and at least as significantly, to refuse to engage with the specificity and substance of the history and context of the political problems that the boycott purportedly targets) not the same threat Jews faced less than a century ago in Europe — the threat that bolstered Zionist convictions that it was necessary to establish a liberal democracy explicitly marked as Jewish because Jews could not be included as Jews within European liberal democracies? How could a repetition of that threat convince those who already distrust this discourse, some of whose parents and grandparents were killed by those who made good on this threat, that they should now trust the language of universal human rights and the ideal of the unmarked liberal citizen subject?

What makes Israeli politics interesting as well as often horrifically violent is precisely the ways in which it attempts at one and the same time to articulate itself not only in this language of liberalism’s inclusion of difference and universal human rights, but also in claims to Jewish singularity. For precisely this reason, Israel has something to teach us about the still-unaddressed question of the place of inassimilable difference within the frameworks of liberal democracy. Anthropology, perhaps more than most other disciplines, owing to its disciplinary method of participant-observation research, is well positioned to be attentive to such specificity of context, place, and time. So, indeed, is Israeli scholarship, including the recent articles in the South Atlantic Quarterly (SAQ) about the wider boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns written by pro-BDS Israeli scholars.

The difference between the analyses in the SAQ volume and the discourse of US-based debates about a boycott is striking. Ariella Azoulay (2015), for example, frames her argument in terms of “the right not to be perpetrators” and carefully critiques the modern state form, pointing out problems of responding to one nationalist movement with another. But my point here is that what goes under the name Israeli has something to teach us regardless of whether we agree with the accompanying politics. There is also a great deal to be learned from an engagement with scholarship about Israel, as well as from how modern Jewish thought, postcolonial studies, and feminist theory have addressed the political questions about Europe and “the West” that are at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian politics. The framework and discourse of the US calls to boycott Israel not only do not acknowledge this; they also reinforce an apparent amnesia of European and US political history.

The Alternative Information Center’s 2009 report, titled “Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories,” presents important documentation of the relations between Israeli academic institutions and the Israeli military. It also, however, presents an example of how the call to boycott partakes in the universalizing discourse of European colonialism. For example, the report states:

The prestige of Israel’s universities is one of the main elements that allow Israelis to consider themselves a part of the western world. Israelis are very much dependent on these connections, not only economically but culturally as well. White South Africans are descendants of British and Dutch colonialists and therefore even when boycotted could still easily consider themselves connected to Europe. Israelis, however, cannot take for granted being a part of the western world and its culture. An academic boycott of Israel represents a threat that could damage one of the most important cultural connections between Israel and the western world. (Alternative Information Center 2009:28)

Here the way in which the tactic of the boycott is based on excluding those who do not “behave” from the presumed privilege of cultural and political belonging to Europe and “the Western world” is made explicit. The discourse of the boycott thus appears oblivious to the fact that Zionism and Israel were political projects based on the fear of exactly this possibility, and to the many different iterations of anti-colonial and postcolonial critique of the presumptions of a universalizing “Western world.” In this regard, questions about the justification of a demand to boycott Israel made by employees of institutions no less complicit in, but perhaps better at concealing, their own serious human rights violations gain significance.

The boycott petition’s statement suggests that it is not only as “a community of scholars who study problems of power, oppression, and cultural hegemony,” but also as a community of specifically American (American Anthropological Association) scholars that “we have a moral responsibility to…” The Kafkaesque absurdity of the situation is perhaps made more apparent if you consider whether you would join a boycott by Israeli academic associations of US institutions because of the latter’s complicity in slavery and its continuing aftermath, illegal experiments on African Americans and Guatemalans, funding of dirty wars in Latin America, ongoing institutional racism, and the almost total absence of Native Americans in their halls.

Politics is as present, powerful, and significant in the United States, in the halls of the university and conference hotel forums, as it is in the halls of Israeli universities, Palestinian universities, and the occupied and destroyed olive groves of Palestinian villages. As US-based anthropologists, we need to hold ourselves accountable to our politics in relation to where and on what we stand, to the histories through which contemporary political problems of refugees and state violence have emerged, and to each other’s work — and should be wary of the alibi of solidarity with “the oppressed” through which our own positions as noble, investigating subjects can be reasserted through an appropriation and political assimilation of the Other.

Given the direct and explicit relevance of the so-called Jewish question not only for Israel but also for anthropology and for understandings of the human, as well as the resonance of questions about Jewish difference with postcolonial theory and feminist theory about gender and sexuality, it is surprising that there has been almost no engagement with the work of scholars such as Veena Das (2014; Das & Kleinman 2000; Das et al. 2014), Arthur Kleinman, Didier Fassin (2008, 2012), and others who have engaged deeply with the ethics of anthropology and questions of difference, both within anthropology and with the discipline’s interdisciplinary interlocutors. In this vein, it is also surprising that the boycott debates do not more seriously engage with Jewish studies or modern Jewish thought, Israel studies, feminist theory, postcolonial studies, and political theory that has been informed by continental philosophy and the politics of twentieth-century Europe.

Directly addressing questions about the definition of the human and the concept of the political that emerged from the post-WWII context and in the wake of European colonialisms, and which are all but ignored in anthropologists’ calls to boycott Israel, is long overdue. Addressing these questions could bring the insights of other fields that have engaged questions about politics and ethics in relation to difference and the universalizing claims of European modernity, such as postcolonial studies and feminist theory, as well as psychoanalysis and modern Jewish thought, to bear on the urgent political problems of our time, and recast them in planetary, rather than human terms. This could lead to forms of solidarity and politics that move beyond repetitions of the same frameworks based on the modern liberal state and the moralizing discourses that do little more than present a limited set of options in which you can choose your own villain, or choose between petitions.


Alternative Information Center. 2009. The Economy of the Occupation: The Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories, ed. Uri Yacobi Keller and Shir Hever. Socioeconomic Bulletin 23. Jerusalem/Beit Sahour: Latin Patriarchate Printing Press.

Azoulay, Ariella. 2015. “’We,’ Palestinians and Jewish Israelis: The Right Not to Be a Perpetrator.” South Atlantic Quarterly 114(3):687-693.

Bauer, Bruno. 2000 [1843]. The Jewish Problem. San Diego, CA: Contrarian Press.

Benhabib, Seyla. 2013. “Ethics without Normativity and Politics without Historicity: On Judith Butler’s Parting Ways, Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.” Constellations 20(1):150-163.

Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Das, Veena. 2014. Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty. New York: Fordham University Press.

Das, Veena and Arthur Kleinman. 2000. “The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Poisonous Knowledge, and Subjectivity.” In Violence and Subjectivity, ed. Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, pp. 205-255. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Das, Veena, Michael D. Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, and Bhrigupati Singh. 2014. The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Cultural Anthropology 23(3):531-558.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Oakland: University of California Press.

Feiner, Shmuel. 2011 [2002]. The Jewish Enlightenment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gilman, Sander L. 1993. Freud, Race, and Gender. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Idelson-Shein, Iris. 2014. Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race During the Long Eighteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Librett, Jeffrey S. 2014. Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew. New York: Fordham Press.

Leonard, Miriam. 2012. Socrates and the Jews: Hellenism and Hebraism from Moses Mendelssohn to Sigmund Freud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. 2012 [1844]. On the Jewish Question. Chicago: Aristeus Books.

Peled, Yoav. 1992. “From Theology to Sociology: Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx on the Question of Jewish Emancipation.” History of Political Thought (13)3: 463-485.