On BDS, Orientalism, and Neoliberalism which lost its path

In Israel’s contemporary reality, there are very few people who are unfamiliar with the term BDS – Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions, the boycott movement against Israel. What we are talking about here is a movement which consists of a variety of organizations, including academic, human rights (including those who pretend to be so), business organizations and more. These organizations are set to excommunicate Israel financially as a result of alleged human rights violations conducted by the Jewish state in the territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), and unofficially, spur a demonization process that is framing Israel as an apartheid, colonialist, imperialistic entity.

People who acknowledge BDS worldwide know that the lion’s share of BDS activity goes through the pipes of many college campuses in many places in the world, but especially those in the US, as a result of the campus being seen a very comfortable and fertile ground for spreading the movement’s fraudulent and deceptive messages for the past 14 years. Among these pipes we find various anti-Israeli student movements such as SJP – Students for Justice in Palestine, a provocative and radical movement, which invests much of its efforts to convey anti-Israeli and occasionally anti-Semitic themes on the campuses they embed – “Israelis have stolen lands”, “Israel is a murderer”, “Israel is a vile occupier”. For a young student, naïve with a strong sense of justice there will be no honest doubt – the Zionist monstrous entity should and must be destroyed as soon as possible.

Most of the anti-Israel endeavors are aimed towards the student unions when a strong pressure is being applied on them to initiate official resolutions that condemn Israel’s behavior as a state and demand the campus’ elite to boycott any engagement with the Jewish state and its products. If we’ll look at the results on the ground, we will find that very few of the votes, often declarative, have any significant effect on university policy. And yet, the bigger and more crucial danger lies not on the boycott itself, but on the new perception of Israel among the students. Every time Israel will pop into the student’s mind it will be associated as being a vicious, occupying colonialist state. This fundamental reconstruction of the narrative and its success are courtesy of the BDS movements and this is difficult to deny. Who knows which community leaders, businessmen, governors, senate and congress members, and even future American presidents are now exposed to this narrative reconstruction and what kind of imminent danger exists on the already shaky US-Israeli relations that can be seen today as a result.

Much more can be said on the student activity against Israel, its motives and repercussions, but I will now like to shift the subject of discussion from the BDS movement itself and its branches to its external circles of support within the academy. I’m not talking of the swept students by the “justice magic” of BDS who are proactive against Israel with very slim if existing knowledge of the results of their actions. I’m talking, of course, about university staff, more often lecturers of social sciences and humanities who are providing support for such anti-Israel endeavors, whether directly or indirectly.

The most scathing example that comes to mind with such a stance lies in the confines of the ASA – the American Studies Association, which in December 2013 cast a vote and ultimately approved a boycott resolution of Israel. But it wasn’t merely a boycott of Israeli goods – but in this case the boycott of any Israeli academic institutions. You got it – a boycott of the Israeli academia of all things, which is known for its criticism of Israeli policies in the territories and in general. In a setting such as this, the organization has blocked the voice that holds similar ideas to those of the ASA, with its allegations in regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The ASA claimed to conduct this boycott as a response to the harming of academic freedom and yet, ironically, they conducted this crime by boycotting Israeli academics themselves.

After thoroughly examining this case I have come to the conclusion that something doesn’t add up. How can it be that this organization has decided to step on its toes and grind the values engraved on the very notions of academia and American society at large? Like many before me, I could’ve easily come to the conclusion that this phenomenon, as many others of its kind, is simply a result of anti-Semitism. After all, how could an organization consisting of thousands of scholars possibly boycott Israel so painfully, in a fashion that was not conducted on the Apartheid regime of South Africa itself? How could an organization such as this boycott Israel while absolutely ignoring consistent human rights violations and atrocities executed by rouge states such as North Korea or Iran?

I have now, since, found a lead on a possible explanation for an even larger-scale phenomena, more so than the negative approach towards Israel in American academia. In one recent short film, I watched an actor play a student supporter of ISIS, and walk into UC Berkley. He began to wave around an ISIS flag while shouting that “American imperialism must be stopped” whilst arguing that ISIS is actually a peace organization. The reactions were apathetic at worst and some even waved to him smiling in a sign of agreement. Another short film I’ve come across featured a student who succeeded in pulling off a fictitious pro-ISIS petition while using the same narrative, and in minutes the petition was filled with tens of student signatures.

What’s going on here? Can it be that these students are simply unaware of ISIS’ barbaric actions? Any person with a television or an online computer and who doesn’t live under a rock should be fully aware of this reality. And then another idea started sinking into my head: maybe it’s not because of ignorance. Maybe, just maybe, these students have been educated with an alternative theory that allows them to believe these actions are legitimate or that they can be justified under some circumstances. But where can they get such ideas? Maybe from their academia lectures?

After examining trends within Western academia for the past few decades, it seems I finally got it.

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s been an ideological change taking place in the West since the 1970’s. You don’t have to be an academic to know how this narrative goes, for it has by now penetrated deep into Western culture’s collective thinking. We see it on television, in newspapers, in conferences, in high school and college class discussions, student organizations, professional associations and more.

In this narrative, the real bad guy is the West, specifically the United States. Along with Israel, they are out to impose their hegemony on the world, especially in Arab- and Muslim-majority regions. Being a colonial creation, Israel plays an vital role to reach this goal. Globalization is simply a continuation of that effort on the economic front. But the West is also employing an even more dangerous weapon that includes the task of contaminating, colonizing and even destroying non-Western cultures. This is called cultural imperialism. Resistance to Western hegemony, then, was the only resistance that deserved to be called revolutionary, and it represented truthful voices of the oppressed.

Western culture has always taken part in the good habit of looking at itself critically. One could argue that modernism was just that: a long and strict effort to subject the culture’s values and practices to debate. The best criticism of Western culture is made, not by its detractors, but by Western culture itself. And yet slowly but surely, people in the West, namely in the US, grew tired of invading rogue states. They grew tired of soldiers coming back in coffins. By the mid-70s a critical mass of people began to question this and asked if these are the values that represent them and if they want to be identified with them. The Western reason and its accomplishments now became the problem. Once culture was understood as an affirmation of universal values, yet it has now become identity politics.

No book, probably, has been more significant in popularizing this narrative than Edward Said’s Orientalism. From the start, the book’s sloppiness and weaknesses were very easy to find. Had the book appeared, say, in the 1940s, the book would have gone largely unnoticed. America was then a country where people had faith and confidence in its values. But, in 1978, American intellectual life had all but lost faith in America. Leftism, which was now redefining itself as the Cultural Left, saw in Said’s book a reflection of its own outlooks and stances, and Said’s thesis helped Leftism enlarge its criticism towards American policy. It wasn’t just America that was the problem; it was the whole Western experiment in civilization. Because of Israel’s cultural and strategic ties to the West, the Jewish state came under the same criticism.

Said described orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The book’s goal was “to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self”. Said even included the following provocative sentence: “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”. Said wrote the above in 1978— a time when the region he discusses the most, the Middle East, was full of totalitarianism of both the Islamist and the Arab nationalist kind. Said, however, never focused on this truth.

And that is, in fact, the Western world that we are now taking for granted. All the whilst we are witnesses to a failing model of multiculturalism in Europe alongside a weak American government, which, in the spirit of the times, accepted Said’s narrative as absolute as it firmly refuses to genuinely address the world’s problems. The West has redefined modernism and its respect to nationalism to the ways of radical neoliberalism – which blindly sees a cosmopolitan world despite present cultural differences. It redefined war as a legitimate means to save lives, to an illegitimate tactic under any circumstance. It redefined human freedom to the end of Western enslavement; Its own universally just culture to cultural relativism; The constructivism of the world to the reconstruction of it. Something very dangerous is happening right in front of our eyes – unaware, the ties of the neoliberal and the jihadist, whom also desire a cosmopolitan world in their own terms, are being strengthened. Each came from the opposite direction, and yet all of a sudden there is now overlap taking place.

Is such a setting, why is anyone surprised Israel is humiliated and excluded by both the international community and the US? Under such circumstances, it is completely unsurprising to find scholars arguing that Israel is a Western invention and tool, that it is the cause of all Middle Eastern problems, and that it must make concessions to the Palestinians as fast as it can, regardless of the security circumstances that the country is in, and regardless of the danger of reaching a deal at the wrong time. Israel, in the eyes of these scholars, is the sheer memory of Western imperialism, which they want to be erased. If the Western world will keep stepping towards Said’s theme, Israel’s future, alongside the West and its most fundamental values, will be put in harm’s way.


* Many parts of this article were either influenced or based on Salah A. Salih’s article, “Islamism, BDS and the West”, available on “The Case Against Academic Boycott of Israel” book, edited by Cary Nelson & Gabriel Noah Brahm. If you find this topic interesting, I truly recommend you to buy and read it.

About the Author
Or is an Israel Advocate, a third year undergraduate student of International Relations and Business Management at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a "Tafnit" project alumnus courtesy of Israel's Prime Minister's office - which trains future Israeli advocates, a "MENA Leaders for Change" program alumnus courtesy of the US Dept. Of State and the Peres Center For Peace - which aims to create intelligent debate and understanding regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict among students from various countries in the Middle East. He is also a page admin of "Bring Back Our Boys" and "Humans of MENA" on Facebook.
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