A conversation with Jon Haber of Divest This!

If you take a gander at the Israel Thrives blogroll, south and to the right, you will see that it is short.  Haber’s Divest This! blog, however, is one of those included.  The reason for this is because he does a consistent and excellent job analyzing the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS).

Haber has recently published a series of posts discussing Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel.  I have not read this book, yet, but Wistrich is widely considered among the world’s foremost and current experts on the history of anti-Semitism.  If the reviews that I have read are correct, Wistrich apparently does a very good job of laying out the unfortunate historical relationship of the progressive-left to the Jewish people.

The first of Jon’s five part series is here:

From Ambivalence to Betrayal – 1

We are starting to have what is proving to be a very interesting conversation in the comments of his final piece of the series.

Below is my most recent comment and I hope that you guys will check out Jon’s work and, perhaps, contribute to the discussion. – Mike


Jon, I agree that as Christians and conservatives struggled with their own histories of anti-Semitism, so progressives need to, as well.

And, if progressives decide to make any such effort, I certainly think that we should support them. The problem is that there is precious little evidence to suggest that progressives are, in fact, countering anti-Semitism. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a progressive movement that not only accepts anti-Semitic anti-Zionism within its larger coalition, but that is promoting humanitarian racism, as well.

Leaving that aside for the moment, it seems to me that one of our primary differences is in our perceptions of the relationship between the left and BDS. You argue that BDS has co-opted the language of the left, i.e., the language of social justice and human rights, but that BDS does not really represent such values. While I agree with you that BDS represents a corruption of the alleged values of the progressive left, I would argue that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is, in fact, a welcome part of that movement and the real problem, therefore, is the progressive-left betrayal of their Jewish friends and allies.

Progressive-left anti-Zionism uses the language of social justice and human rights because it comes out of the progressive movement. The larger progressive movement thinks so, as well, which explains why it provides all sorts of venues for anti-Semitic anti-Zionists to get across their message. Whether we’re talking about progressive-left blogs and newspapers, or the progressive-left NGOs, or Yale University, Harvard University, or the University of Pennsylvania, it is out of the left that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is coming and from within the left that they do their work. BDS may fail in its individual efforts to influence various universities and co-ops, but the larger anti-Zionist movement, from which BDS derives, is very much welcome on the left and has a tremendous influence in how progressives view the conflict.

In truth, they set the very terms of the debate.

This is not to suggest that there is no anti-Zionist presence on the right, but merely that its incarnation on the left is the primary obstacle. Everyone knows that David Duke is a racist, but how many would say the same thing about Alice Walker?

Thus the task here is not merely rescuing progressive-left language from “the haters,” but reforming the left as a whole so that it no longer provides support for those haters. The problem is not merely that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism doesn’t represent progressive-left values, but that the progressive-left no longer represents its own values, if it ever did. And I say this as someone who comes out of that political tradition.

You write:

just as Christians and Conservatives have had to struggle with their own histories of anti-Semitism in the ranks, Progressives need to do the same and should be supported in their efforts, even by those who do not agree with them on a whole host of other issues.

How about those of us who do, in fact, agree with them on a whole host of other issues, yet disagree with them in terms of their understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict because that understanding is hobbled by the ideological and discursive restraints policed by the left, itself?

Progressive-left diaspora Jewry can never wrest the terms of the discussion from anti-Semitic anti-Zionists so long as they insist on discussing the conflict within the very terms set by the anti-Zionists, themselves. Furthermore, unless they wish to be drummed out of the left, so to speak, they are compelled to use that language because it is considered politically unacceptable, even racist, not to do so within progressive-left venues. (For example, just try referring to the “West Bank” as Judea and Samaria among progressives and see how they respond.)

So long as progressive-left Zionists are reluctant to place the conflict within the context of the long history of Jewish dhimmitude under Arab-Muslim imperial rule, or cannot bring themselves to discuss progressive-left sympathies for the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East, or refuse to discuss the fact that Palestinian nationalism, and the Muslim Brotherhood, owes an ideological debt to Nazi Germany, then they have no chance of doing what you and I agree that they need to do. However, if they honestly do wish to rescue the terms of the conversation from the anti-Zionists, they might start by recognizing that the conflict is not merely between Palestinian “Davids” and Israeli “Goliaths,” but between the larger Arab-Muslim world and the Jews of the Middle East. It’s not an “Israel-Palestine” conflict, but an Arab-Israel conflict or, more accurately, the long Arab-Muslim war against the Jews in the Middle East.

Until progressive diaspora Jewry makes the necessary conceptual switch they can never wrest the language back from the haters, precisely because they are using the language developed by the haters, themselves.


Mike Lumish is the proprietor of the pro-Israel blog, Israel Thrives.

About the Author
Mike Lumish is a PhD in American history from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at PSU, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco. He regularly publishes on the Arab-Israel conflict at the Times of Israel and at his own blog, Israel Thrives ( He has in recent years given conference papers on American cultural and intellectual history at The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences in Dublin, Ireland, as well as at the Western Historical Association in Phoenix, Arizona and the American Cultural Association in New Orleans, Louisiana. Lumish is also the founding editor of the scholarly on-line discussion forum H-1960s. He can be contacted at