Anti-Zionism and the Left: A Response to Jon Haber

Within the pro-Israel / pro-Jewish blogosphere Jon Haber’s DivestThis! blog does an outstanding job of covering and discussing the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) of the Jewish state. Recently there was much hoo-ha on DivestThis! around the question of whether the western BDS movement, and thus anti-Semitic anti-Zionism more generally, tends primarily to come out of the progressive-left. There were a number of highly strident voices maintaining that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is not of the left.  I maintain that not only is BDS, in the west, primarily a progressive cause, but that it is obviously a movement that is coming out of the western left.

Furthermore, I unequivocally state this as someone who comes out of the progressive-left.

In response to the controversy Haber published a piece entitled, “Israel Left and Right” in which he tells us why he tends “to avoid trying to force-fit the whole Arab-Israeli conflict into a Left-Right continuum.” In his piece Haber makes some excellent points and although he is not writing in response to my specific question, as an expert on the BDS movement he nonetheless makes claims that are pertinent to my assertion.

There are two questions that need to be asked in order to determine the truthfulness of the claim. 1) Do the promoters of BDS, i.e., those who represent anti-Semitic anti-Zionism in the west see themselves as on the progressive-left or on the conservative-right? And 2) Do they promote BDS within venues that are self-consciously progressive or conservative?

It should be clear that if a political movement claims to represent a political point of view and if, furthermore, it expresses itself from within venues that also claim to represent that same political point of view, then it is more than fair to assign that movement to that part of the political continuum. In other words, if the BDSers claim to be conservative Republicans and if they are published in, say, the Weekly Standard, then it is fair to claim BDS as part of the conservative political movement. If, on the other hand, BDSers claim to be of the progressive-left and if they are published in, say, the UK Guardian, then it is fair to claim BDS as part of the progressive-left.

As to the former question, Haber says that, “For the boycotters, claiming to represent not a rejected fringe movement but the heart and soul of all progressive politics, helps them to punch well above their limited political weight.” Thus Haber agrees with me that BDSers see themselves as representing progressive politics. They therefore represent a political sub-movement that sees itself as coming out of the left. Such a conclusion should not be the least bit controversial, because it is obvious on its face. The people who promote anti-Semitic anti-Zionism in the west today, via the movement for BDS, are self-consciously on the left.


The second question is whether or not progressive-left venues represent a home for the BDS movement? The answer to that question, sadly, is “yes.” Whether it is prominent political publications, such as Daily Kos or the Huffington Post or the UK Guardian, or whether it is elite universities, such as Harvard or Yale or the University of Pennsylvania, BDS (and thus anti-Semitic anti-Zionism) is promoted from within venues associated with the progressive-left.

We can therefore fairly conclude that, indeed, the anti-Semitic BDS movement, in the west, is a movement of the left.

Those who are uncomfortable with this fact due to their political loyalties will argue that while BDS may claim to be of the left, they do not represent progressive values, and / or they will claim that even if BDS does come out of the left, the left has largely rejected it.

I am in sympathy with both these arguments, but fail to see how they mitigate my claim that BDS is a movement on the left? My suggestion is not that anti-Semitic anti-Zionists represent progressive-left values, merely that they claim to do so. BDSers claim to support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanction of Israel because they believe that Israel is a racist, colonialist, imperialist, apartheid entity that is persecuting the “native” population. This is their claim and it is obviously a claim packed with progressive-left resonances and notions. It is obviously a claim of the left and not of the right. This could hardly be more clear.

Where those who wish to spare the progressive movement association with BDS / anti-Zionism are on firmer ground is when they insist that BDS is only a fringe movement. There is, in fact, considerable truth to this claim and no one knows it better than Haber. Anyone who reads DivestThis! knows that BDS suffers failure after failure in their efforts to get universities and co-ops and unions to divest from Israel and companies that do business with the Jewish state.

My claim, however, has never been that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism has a large following either within the progressive movement or within the Democratic party. My claim has always been that they operate out of the progressive movement, and within the grassroots / netroots of the Democratic party and, thus, have a seat within the larger coalition. If they were not an accepted part of the larger coalition on the left then they would not be operating out of progressive-left venues such as those referenced above.

I agree with Haber when he says, “Today’s progressives still have work to do creating a vocabulary that will allow them to similarly kick BDS and other practitioners of anti-Israel “disease politics” out of the tent without feeling guilty over a lack of ‘inclusiveness.’ We have been fortunate that genuine progressive institutions have almost universally rejected the blandishments of the boycotters. But there is some intellectual heavy lifting to be done to explain in ideological terms that are commonly accepted across the left-end of the political spectrum as to why BDS and liberalism have nothing in common and should have nothing to do with one another.”

Haber thus agrees with me that BDS / anti-Zionism is in “the tent.”  In this way Haber agrees that BDS / anti-Zionism sees itself as on the progressive-left and has a place within the broader constituency of the movement, the “tent.”

Any Jewish person, or friend of Israel, should find that totally unacceptable. It would be something akin to expecting black people to accept the Klan as part of the modern Democratic party. Just as black people have far too much self-respect to work with a political movement that accepts Klansmen as part of the larger coalition, so we must reject the progressive-left until such a time as it rids itself of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.

Just as, in Haber’s words, “political conservatives (at least in the US) have put a fair amount of intellectual energy (and took some risks) by pushing religious bigots masquerading as anti-Zionists (such as Pat Buchannan) out of their ‘mainstream,'” so progressives and Democrats must rid themselves of those who seek harm to the Jewish people.

Pretending to be an ostrich through denying the obvious is clearly not the answer and, thankfully, Haber, himself, does not have that problem.  He agrees that BDS thinks of itself as on the left and that it is in the progressive-left “tent.”

And that is nothing more, nor anything less, than my claim.  My dispute is not with Haber, but with those on the Jewish left who refuse to acknowledge the obvious.

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