BDS, Racism and the New McCarthyism

By Judea PearlMarch 16, 2014

BDS, Racism and the New McCarthyism

This is one of eight essays we published today on “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott.” Click here to read the others.


IMAGINE A FORUM on the spread of Islamophobia. The first thing that comes to mind is yes, we should measure the magnitude of this phenomena, understand the origins of its ideology, examine what drives its advocates, unearth who funds them, assess the dangers they pose to society, and so on.

Similar expectations came to mind when I was invited to participate in the Los Angeles Review of Books’s forum on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).

Now imagine my surprise upon discovering that this forum does not intend to investigate the inner workings of the BDS movement, but to be a “balanced debate” on the merits of its objective: an academic boycott of Israel. Moreover, some of the contributors to the forum are active leaders in the BDS phenomenon and longtime de-legitimizers of Israel.

My thought was: should I bestow academic credibility onto an ideology that accuses me of crimes as ridiculous as “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid,” and “colonialism” when I do research at my alma mater, the Technion, in Israel?

I further thought: why have the editors chosen to give a stage to advocates of a morally deformed movement that Noam Chomsky describes as a “hypocrisy ris[ing] to heaven,” and Norman Finkelstein characterizes as a “hypocritical, dishonest cult” led by “dishonest gurus”?

It would be like hosting a “balanced debate” between supporters and detractors of the MRC (Mexicans for Repossessing California), or the FES (Flat Earth Society), or, God forbid, the ARS (Americans for the Restoration of Slavery). Evidently, the editors of the Los Angeles Review of Books have deemed some of the BDS arguments to be semi-rational or even “debatable.”

Despite these misgivings, I accepted their invitation, hoping to prove them wrong on both counts.

The BDS arguments

The core of the BDS appeal seems compelling in its simplicity.

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for too long; it has caused much suffering and must come to an end.

  • Israel is guilty of prolonging the conflict, be it in action, inaction, or by merely continuing to exist.

  • Boycott is a nonviolent way of pressuring Israel to act the way we (BDS) think she should.

The facts behind the rhetoric

Everyone agrees that the Middle East conflict has inflicted unimaginable suffering on both Palestinians and Israelis; it must end through some sort of healing and compromise. However, note a fundamental difference in optics between the BDS spokesmen and their opponents. The former see one and only one type of suffering; the latters see suffering on both sides. (Readers should examine the writings in this collection of essays and note this glaring asymmetry.)

Some human beings are endowed with an amazing capacity to filter reality and see only that which fits their agenda. BDS advocates see the checkpoints, the separation wall, the night raids, and the home demolition in the West Bank. They do not see the innocent victims of terror. They do not see the innocent babies who owe their lives to the wall. They certainly do not see the anxiety of 7.9 million human beings living under the shadow of 150,000 deadly rockets, aimed at their civilian populations.

BDS followers possess infinite capacity to remember every horror of the 1948 war that led to the Palestinian refugee problem but zero capacity to remember another refugee problem. In the 1936-1940, the British Government succumbed to mass Palestinian riots and blockaded Jewish refugees from entering Palestine — thus sealing their fate in Auschwitz. Perhaps it is hard for BDS supporters to acknowledge these refugees because they are not with us to testify. What they should be able to acknowledge though, and rarely do, is the 1948 Arab attack on the newly created nation of Israel, which, by all historical accounts, was genocidal in intent and left deep scars on the Israeli psyche. Scars on both sides beg for healing; seeing some and not others is seeing none.

The one-way prism worn by BDS advocates is most glaring when it comes to the issue of “self-determination.” Some of their “intellectuals” preach for hours and hours on the moral right of Palestinians to self-determination. At the same time, they intentionally forget, wish away, or deny the moral right of their neighbors to that same self-determination. In the old days we used to label such intellectuals “racists” and shun them from the company of men of good will. Nowadays, the label “racist” is reserved primarily for Islamophobes and “white settlers” — real and imaginary; the distinct racist character of the BDS ideology is rarely condemned for what it is. It is time to do so. (I am using "racism" in the broad sense of the word to mean: “discrimination on the basis of a distinct and immutable characteristic of a group of people.” Discrimination against women and gays would, accordingly, be classified as “racist,” and so would Islamophobia and Zionophobia.) 


Israel’s exclusive guilt of action and inaction

It is true that the occupation is an ugly predicament. However, anyone who sees Israel as the sole culprit for this unfortunate entanglement is guilty of blindness or dishonesty. Israel has been pilloried elsewhere in this forum, I am sure, so I am going to focus on the Arab contribution that prolongs this conflict.

Often overlooked by Israel’s detractors is that the Arab side has taken what should have been a diplomatic negotiation on borders and resources and turned it into an almost unresolvable security issue. How? By nurturing a culture in which coexistence means defeat, and end-of-conflict is a cardinal sin.

Assigning guilt to one side only, and rushing to issue an indictment, a verdict, and a sentence — as BDS has done — is dishonest, reckless, and probably racist. Most people of conscience understand that Israel derives no benefits from controlling another people’s lives. The current situation is imposed on Israel by neighbors who continue to announce that they wish her dead and that lifting the occupation would only embolden their wishes. BDS’s complaints about travel restrictions on students in the West Bank appear grotesque compared to the daily existential threats that Israel is enduring.

Putting aside the one-sided BDS prism, let us attend to their agenda.

The BDS agenda: from slander to elimination

Some people are of the opinion that supporters of the boycott are “decent people whose main motivation is to create the conditions for genuine intellectual exchange.” (David Myers, Jewish Journal, Dec. 18, 2013) This is indeed what one may be tempted to conclude from reading the texts of their resolutions and proclamations on campuses and in public — a glorious hymn to human rights, peace, brotherhood, and social justice. However, this is not the purpose for which these proclamations are being used.

The leaders of the BDS movement do not hide their real purpose: in every conversation with them they admit that their ultimate goal is not to end the occupation, and surely not to promote peace or coexistence, but to choreograph an arena whereby the “criminality” of Israel is debated and her character defamed. In other words, their goal is not to win a debate but to stage one, in which the words “boycott Israel” are repeated time and again to slowly penetrate listeners’ minds, thereby tarnishing Israel’s image with a stain of criminality. Net effect: bullying pro-coexistence voices into silence.

Genuine intellectual exchange, BDS style. 

This “forum,” for example, is a great achievement for BDS; it provides a public arena where the words “boycott Israel” are repeated hundreds of time, and, unless taken humorously, may achieve their subliminal goal on unsuspecting readers.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder and top ideologist of BDS, repeatedly has stated that ending the occupation is not the end of BDS. BDS will continue its struggle until Israel’s legitimacy is eroded and its sovereignty dissolved.

In a video dated September 29, 2013, he states: “Colonizers [read: Zionists] are not entitled to self-determination by any definition of self-determination.” It was not an isolated slip of the tongue. In his lecture at UCLA on January 15, 2014, Barghouti stated again that Jews in Israel are not entitled to any form of self-determination, on any piece of land, however slim. They are not a people, he proclaimed (with a straight face), and the UN principle of the right to self-determination does not apply to them.

Consider the implications of committing 6.2 million human beings to eternal statelessness, stripped of their protective sovereignty, in a neighborhood that is boiling with genocidal designs. In so doing, Barghouti has in effect defined BDS as a racist, if not genocidal, movement. His statements were not disavowed by any BDS activist that I know of, including those writing in this forum, and certainly not by my esteemed colleague Professor Robins Kelley, who introduced Barghouti at UCLA with reverence befitting a reincarnated Mandella.

Who is indigenous and who is a colonizer

When a student stood up at Barghouti’s UCLA lecture and said that he was a 10th generation Israeli and therefore indigenous, Barghouti scoffed: “You aren’t indigenous just because you say you are.” So, what does Barghouti accept as a qualification for indigeneity? Race! According to Barghouti, that young student could be indigenized at the end of a few generations, if his family intermarried with the Arab claimants of the land. (Eyewitness report by Roberta Seid, Jewish Journal, January 22, 2014).

This genetically defined conception of ownership is not uncommon in BDS circles; it is endemic to societies lacking a historical narrative on which to base claims. While modern norms of ethics no longer accept racial criteria as a basis for claims, BDS intellectuals are still playing the race card when it comes to Israel. The idea that indigeneity, as well as peoplehood and nationhood, is based on collective memory and continuity of historical narrative, not on genetic lineage, must be as foreign to BDS intellectuals as history itself.

It is not surprising, therefore, that misrepresenting Israel as a “white settlers colonialist society” has become a cornerstone of BDS ideology and propaganda. Readers are invited to count the number of times these labels are used in essays written by BDS supporters.

And, while counting, readers should ask themselves if they can recall:

  • One case of white settlers moving into a country they perceived to be the birthplace of their history.

  • One case of white settlers speaking a language common in the land before the language spoken by its contemporary residents.

  • One case of settlers whose holidays commemorated historical events in the land to which they moved — not in the lands from which they came.

  • One case of settlers who did not name towns like: New York, New Amsterdam, New Wales (Israeli towns are not named "New Warsaw,” “New Berlin,” “New Baghdad”), but after names those towns enjoyed in ancient times,

  • Or settlers who narrated their homecoming journey for 80 generations in poetry, prose, lore, and daily prayers.

Modern philosophers of political liberalism (like John Stewart Mill “On Liberty”), after rejecting race as a basis for settling claims, have identified “collective memory” and “historical continuity” as far more reasonable bases for defining boundaries between groups and nationalities. Today, these collective states of mind are the strongest forces that tie functional societies together; among them the pluralistic, tolerant, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial society of Israel. They cannot be replaced by the old glues of common blood, common color, or common place of residence.

Why pick on Israel?

Some of my colleagues find contradiction in BDS’s relentless attacks on tolerant Israel, while obvious violators of human rights, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Palestine, enjoy BDS silence, if not favors. The answer is clear to me. For BDS, human rights is merely a slogan to rally the uninformed around the banner of Israel bashing. What is somewhat unclear to me, however, are the intellectuals who have read a chapter or two in the history of the Middle East yet buy into this deception. I can only conclude that there must be some deeply ingrained animosity that turns such intellectuals against Israel. What is it?

I believe the answer lies in what Israel represents to BDS followers and to the world.

To most of the civilized world Israel represents the ideas of nation-building, historical continuity, and man’s victory over death. Marxist-leaning intellectuals (most BDS followers are), on the other hand, see Israel’s success as a failure of their ideology. It is a pillar of their belief that nationalism is an evil and anachronistic myth. The success of the Zionist experiment refutes this belief. It has unveiled the infinite energy that can be unleashed through that anachronistic and mythical idea called “peoplehood,” as it emerges from the unifying and creative force called “shared history.” It has demonstrated to the world how scattered tribes of beggars and peddlers can lift themselves from the margins of history and transform themselves into a world center of business, art, and science. Marxist intellectuals will never forgive Israel for proving their textbooks wrong.

The entire neural architecture of BDS intellectuals is wired around the hated image of white settlers that have long disappeared from the surface of the earth. Israel is hated because the “white settler” must be reinvented to fit the script, and Israel is the easiest candidate to choose and mis-paint for this script.

These intellectuals cannot stomach Israel’s narrative of “a nation rebuilding its historical homeland,” which has inspired so many communities to seize control over their destinies and strive for excellence. They cannot forgive Israel for giving new meaning to man’s existence, a meaning that transcends class struggle and racial strife, and, instead, unites societies and propels them to move forward and dare the impossible. It is no coincidence that despite the daily threats to her existence, Israel is one of the most optimistic nations on earth.

How the Palestinian narrative has been "suppressed" in American universities. 

The anti-academic issue

Some of my colleagues are surprised that BDS has chosen to cross the red line of academic freedom and called for a boycott of Israeli universities. BDS' campaigners claim that any university that does not officially denounce the occupation is guilty of a crime and should therefore be punished by boycott. (It is as if any American university that does not officially denounce the Tea Party, or abortion clinics, deserves a punishment.)

I am not a bit surprised, because, as we have seen before, it is not the veracity of the charges that matters but their music — in the grand opera of BDS’s slander machine it is not the libretto that matters but the stage and the megaphone. A racist movement that shows no respect for truth or other people’s identity can hardly be expected to respect the sanctity of academic freedom.

One academic organization that was lured by the siren song of BDS was the hapless ASA (American Studies Association), which passed a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This turns the whole notion of academic freedom on its head, and, naturally, it generated an immediate backlash: over 200 college and university presidents condemned the ASA for their resolution.

The backlash was in fact so profound that at UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the campus proxy of BDS, had to change tactics and attempted to distance themselves from the BDS movement when they tried to convince the student council to vote for a divestment resolution. They failed — because the tactic was transparently dishonest — and the resolution was defeated 7:5. The important lesson is that, from the students’ perspective, affiliation with BDS has finally turned into a liability. One can only hope that this perspective will become the norm on all US campuses. 

My own position on academic boycotts is summarized in an open letter I wrote to John Sexton, President of NYU:

To: John Sexton, Ph.D J. D.
President, New York University
Re. An Open Letter regarding NYU and ASA, via email, January 20, 2014.

Dear President Sexton,

I am writing to you as an alumnus of NYU-affiliated school who is deeply concerned with the recent boycott resolution by the American Studies Association (ASA) and its adverse impact on the reputation of NYU.

I received my PhD in 1965 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which last month became part of NYU. In November 2013, I was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award from NYU-Poly, an honor that made my association with NYU stronger and full of pride. I was disappointed therefore to learn that the leadership of the ASA, which pushed through a resolution that threatens the very fabric of academic life, is so intimately connected with NYU, both academically and administratively.

Four ASA National Council members (25%) are affiliated with NYU and vocally campaigned for the resolution. In particular, the ASA President Elect, Lisa Duggan, is NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis. This means that in the next couple of years, NYU will become the semi-official host to most activities of this organization, and will be perceived as the academic lighthouse from which this group will be broadcasting its irresponsible, anti-coexistence and anti-academic ideology.

I represent a group of professors who are particularly affected by the ASA boycott resolution. As part of my recent appointment to Visiting Professor at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, I am engaged in joint scientific projects with the Technion and its research staff. I also collaborate with Israeli universities on journalistic projects, named after my late son, Daniel Pearl, which aim at bringing Israeli and Palestinian journalists together.

I think you can appreciate how demoralizing the ASA action has been for me, as well as for other professors in my position. It is not that we view the ASA action as a danger to the continuation of our research projects — scientific collaboration has endured many hecklers in the past, much louder than the ASA drummers, and the latters are clearly more interested in defamation than in an actual boycott. What we do consider dangerous is the very attempt to contaminate our scientific explorations with a charge of criminality, and to bring that “criminality” for a so-called “debate” in the public square, on our own campuses. We view this attempt as a new form of McCarthyism that is aimed at intimidating and silencing opposing voices, and thus threatens academic freedom and the fundamental principles of academic institutions.

When a group of self-appointed vigilantes empowers itself with a moral authority to incriminate the academic activities of their colleagues, we are seeing the end of academia and the end of the sacred academic principles that have been painstakingly developed over centuries.

It is for this reason that I was personally disappointed with your letter which, while expressing opposition to boycotts in general and the ASA resolution in particular, failed to identify the ASA action as an imminent threat to NYU’s reputation. Your letter did not state whether the ASA will be able to continue using NYU facilities and services as its de-facto national headquarter, and what action you plan to take to restrain its leaders from re-staining the name of NYU with similar actions in the future.

In the name of many NYU alumni who wish to remain proud of their Alma Mater, I strongly urge you to remove NYU’s name from the ASA “institutional member” list (as other universities have done), and to voice a strong and unequivocal condemnation of the pro-boycott activities of the ASA leadership.

Judea Pearl

This letter to President Sexton was intended to close a gap between what university administrators say about the boycott and what they have done about it thus far. If the boycott stands contrary to basic academic principles, then, surely, boycott advocates are undermining those principles and should be exposed.

Of course, no one expects university administrators to discipline professors who violate academic principles; academic freedom survives by leaving its principles vulnerable to abuse. What one nevertheless expects campus leaders to do is to define the norms of a desirable campus environment, and to identify activities that do not contribute to such an environment. I hope that activities that undermine academic principles are classified in this category.

The future of Israel/Palestine

For those who are curious about my own thoughts on the prospects of peace in the Middle East, they can be summed up in one sentence:

“Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”

When Palestinian leadership gathers the courage to utter the magical words “equally indigenous,” peace will become unstoppable, not even by BDS.


Note: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Columbia professor Joseph Massad scolded a blue-eyed Jewish student for tracing her ancestry to biblical times. This allegation was confused with one made against Massad’s colleague George Saliba, and we sincerely regret the error.


Acknowledgment: This article benefited substantially from discussions with David Brandes.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which is committed to the promotion of East-West understanding, tolerance, and humanity. Pearl specializes in artificial intelligence, human reasoning, and philosophy of science. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and winner of the Benjamin Franklin medal for 2008, and the ACM Turing Award for 2011.

LARB Contributor

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (, which is committed to the promotion of East-West understanding, tolerance, and humanity. Pearl specializes in artificial intelligence, human reasoning, and philosophy of science. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and winner of the Benjamin Franklin medal for 2008, and the ACM Turing Award for 2011.


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