Antisemitism in America

Antisemitism in America


Howard Adelman

Has there been a significant increase in acts of antisemitism in America? If so, were they Type A, B or C? As a separate question, what has been the corresponding reaction to those incidents by the politicians in Washington, especially by Donald Trump? Whatever the pattern, what is its significance?

To recall, Type A antisemitism is divisible into subtypes. It stands for various forms of anti-Jewish antisemitic speeches and actions that took place before the nineteenth century, including the antisemitism of the Enlightenment itself that declared Judaism anti-reason. Enlightenment antisemitism was not based on Jewish dual loyalty charges, as in the antisemitism of Haman (Type A1). It was not based on Christian theological antisemitism (Type A2) that defined Jews as Christ-killers, condemned to be eternal sojourners with no loyalty to place or polity, purveyors of usury as partners of the devil and guilty of blood libel. In this version, Jews allegedly murdered Christian children to use the blood of innocents in grotesque rituals. Jews were not allowed to own land or to engage directly in commerce. Jews were “unnatural.”

Enlightenment antisemitism was a visceral hatred of Jews purportedly founded on the antisemitism of rationality (Type A3) as taught by Voltaire or Diderot. In an age of Enlightenment, in an age of tolerance, in an age where Jews could gain citizenship and theoretically pursue any profession, Voltaire condemned both Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, for spreading intolerance, for failing to follow the laws of reason, and for failing to derive the laws of man from the laws of nature.

Though Gotthold Lessing and Christian Wilhelm von Dohm advocated equal rights for Jews, Voltaire, in contrast to Montesquieu as well, in the name of reason, accused Judaism of being the root source of Christian anti-reason and of general intolerance. Jews were purveyors of superstition born of a slavish mentalité that could be traced back to being nurtured in the bosom of Egypt. Jews, in fact, were the most irrational of all backward peoples.

Like Martin Luther, Voltaire viewed Jews as “unnatural,” but not because they rejected Jesus and allegedly had him killed, but because the Jewish belief system in its very foundation was irrational. The ritual laws Jews followed had to be banned or, at the very least, exorcised from the public sphere. Jews were a vile people and Diderot said of them that they confused reason and revelation, gave preference to obscurity and based their beliefs on an irrational foundation that led to zealotry and fanaticism. The charges are very similar to those brought against Muslims in Europe in the present.

Type B antisemitism emerged in the nineteenth century and defined Jews as a race that itself was rooted in the virulent undercurrent of antisemitism pervasive in Christendom. Unlike the plague of theological antisemitism of the mediaeval world and the Inquisition, or the Enlightenment antisemitism described above, racial antisemitism insisted that the behaviour of Jews was written in their genes. Jews could not escape the charges through conversion to either the religion of Christianity or the religion of rationality, but was rooted in their biological make-up, itself traced to charges of unnaturalism among Jews made by both Martin Luther and Voltaire.

Following the end of WWII, a new form of antisemitism began to emerge. Instead of arguing that Jews were not worthy of full participation as members of a state for “rational” or theological reasons, it argued that Jews, among all peoples, were not entitled to exercise self-determination or to have a state of their own. When Zionists insisted on having one, the charges motivating Type B antisemitism were directed against the Jews. They were the racists. They were the ones that practiced apartheid. They were the ones guilty of discrimination. Currently, it is the fundamental driving force behind the BDS movement, though I hasten to add, most supporters of BDS seem to be fellow travellers rather than ardent believers in Type C antisemitism.

Hasia Diner, to whom I referred to in an earlier blog, is a Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History and a specialist in American Jewish history. In the special Moment issue on antisemitism, she railed against labelling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as antisemitic since it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the Israeli government and its policies. As she correctly argued, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a political and ethical stance that criticizes policies of the Israeli government and concludes that they are reprehensible. Further, these BDS supporters insist, again correctly, that economic boycotts are a legitimate way of expressing dissent. There is no question that some have tried to paint all or any criticism of Israel with the broad strokes of antisemitism or insisted that dissent is disloyal when Israel and Jews in North America are secure and strong enough to listen to and hear many voices about the policies and the status of democracy in Israel.

Criticism of Israel does not constitute antisemitism. But running such a campaign under the label of the BDS movement means associating with antisemites who would deny Jews the right to self-determination in their homeland, would deny Jews the right to have their own state. This a movement with a huge disproportionate focus on Israel, on its faults and, ultimately, its right to exist.  What makes it difficult to have a critical conversation about Israel under the BDS banner is not simply that one is immediately, and in most cases, falsely accused of antisemitism, but that one has chosen to forge one’s critique under a label rooted in the denial of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people.

There is another dimension to this anti-Zionist battle. Jewish students on campuses across the U.S. have been demonized and viciously, though almost always only verbally, attacked because they are supporters of Israel. Type C anti-Zionist antisemitism is particularly potent on some campuses while absent from most. Students who defend Israel, who have strong religious and cultural connections with Israel, are accused of being racists and are identified as supporting an illegitimate racist, and sometimes even Nazi apartheid regime. These deeply politicized attacks go well beyond simply debates and criticisms of Israeli government policies. It is not as if these parties attacking Israel also attack the human rights records of Iran, of Hezbollah or even of the Palestinian Authority. The attacks are both single-minded and go well beyond critique.

The absence of historic racist or Christian theological antisemitism does not mean an absence of antisemitism per se. Nor does the enormous success and achievements of Jews in North America. According to the Pew Foundation study on 9-13 January 2017, non-Jewish Americans feel “more warmly” toward Jews than toward any other religious group in our society, outside of their own. However, within the last few months, there has been a noticeable increase in antisemitic incidents with tombstones toppled in Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester. There have been well over 100 bombing threats against Jewish community centers. They have become almost a daily occurrence.

Is there any sense that these virulent strains of antisemitism are prevalent in the U.S.? Certainly, since the American election in November of 2016 and even before, there has been a significant increase in hate crimes in the U.S. targeting Jews and Jewish institutions. They have run the gamut from toppling tombstones in Jewish cemeteries to bomb threats mentioned above, largely against Jewish community centres rather than synagogues, forcing their evacuation. Part of the difficulty of analysis is a situation where many strains of antisemitism may be active at the same time.

In the U.S., there is currently a remarkable decrease of Christian theological antisemitism and even its almost total disappearance from public view. However, theological antisemitism has shifted to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. It is difficult to separate this current strain of theological antisemitism from anti-Zionist antisemitism since Louis Farrakhan has said, “I want to disabuse the Jews today of the false claim that you are the chosen of God — that Israel or Palestine belongs to you.” A critique of chosenness is equated with the Zionist claim of the right to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East. In the National Conference of The Nation of Islam held last month in Detroit, Farrakhan’s critique adopted some of the most prominent elements of racial antisemitism, such as the charge of seeking world domination. “You that think you have power to frighten and dominate the peoples of the world. I’m here to announce the end of your time.” After all, as Farrakhan has claimed many times, Jewish “bloodsuckers” already dominate both the U.S. government and its banking system.

The United States also has a small movement of racist antisemites, such as those in the resurrected KKK and White Power movements once led by David Duke. Much more significant are the Enlightenment antisemites often linked with the BDS movement and anti-Zionism. When do, usually Jewish Enlightenment academics, cross the line between a critique of the irrationality of the Jewish religion and/or a critique of Zionism to become guilty of antisemitism? Alan Dershowitz in a 2011 article in the New Republic (“Why are John Mearsheimer and Richard Falk Endorsing a Blatantly Anti-Semitic Book?” – 4 November), claimed that they clearly crossed the line when they endorsed a blatantly antisemitic book by that proud self-hating Jew (his own words), Gilad Atzmon, called The Wandering Who?

Like Voltaire and Diderot, Atzmon is a strong critic of “Jewish-ness.” Atzmon, like the Nazi racial antisemites, tries to convey the message that Jews are out to control the world. Not some Jews. Not a Jewish elite, but the Jewish people. “American Jews do try to control the world by proxy.” The American media controlled by Jews failed to warn the rest of America in 2007 and 2008 about the impending economic disaster which Jews played such a leading role in bringing about. In thoughts going back to Haman, Jews were the enemy within.

Jews are accused to leading the trade in body parts, echoing the charges of barbarism leveled at Jews in the Middle Ages. But Atzmon’s critique, however much it overlaps with anti-Zionist expressions of antisemitism, however much it picks up themes from racist antisemitism, focuses on Jews as “an obscure, dangerous and unethical fellowship.” For Atzmon, “The history of [Jewish] persecution is a myth, and, if there was any persecution, the Jews brought in on themselves.” Jews are the goy-haters and purveyors of a racist ideology. The Jewish God is an evil deity.  Atzmon even reaches back to the antisemitism of Haman and insists, “The moral of the Book of Esther is that Jews ‘had better infiltrate the corridors of power.’”

The significant increase in antisemitic incidents has come about at the same time Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States. What type of antisemitism did these acts of vandalism represent? Is there a correlation with the ascension of Donald Trump? Is there a connection?

Tomorrow: Donald Trump and Antisemitism in America


With the help of Alex Zisman

An Introduction to Antisemitism

An Introduction to Antisemitism


Howard Adelman

Antisemitism or antisemitism? Years ago, Rabbi Gunther Plaut convinced me to spell this attitude and activity as an unhyphenated word in lower case letters because there was no doctrine of “Semitism” to which the modern hatred of Jews as a race (?), culture or ethnic group could be attached. Further, when the term was coined in 1879 to distinguish this hatred from anti-Jewish hatred, which referred to Jews as a religious group, Wilhelm Marr spelled the word without a hyphen. Another reason subsequently arose for writing the term as a single word. Semitic in linguistic studies referred to the Semitic group of languages, and antisemite would then be interpreted as prejudice against all who spoke any one of the languages in that group, including Arabs, which the term was not used to connote. Nor could the prejudice be against the Semitic race when there really was no such race and, in any case, Jews came from many racial strains.

Although modern antisemitism rose in conjunction with the new racism and antisemites defined Jews as a race, spelling the term anti-Semite buys into the possible validity of their claim, while antisemitism is a singular attitude and type of behaviour toward a specific people, Jews, whether religious or secular. Yet I sometimes spell the term anti-Semite, especially when it is not the central subject about which I am writing. The reason is simple. Antisemitic is accepted by Google spell check while antisemite is not. When I want to write the latter as one word, my automatic spell check program converts the word to anti-Semite. Using both words, antisemitic to refer to the attitude and anti-Semite to the people who hold that attitude, would be too bothersome. However, when writing about the subject, I choose to go against the general grain and spell the term “antisemitism” and call people who hold that attitude antisemites even though I must reverse the automatic correction in every instance that I type the word.

There are three very distinctive types of antisemitism: ancient anti-Judaism or theological antisemitism which I dub Type A; the classical version that arose in the nineteenth century and reached its apogee in the Holocaust, which I label antisemitism Type B; and antisemitism Type C which arose after WWII and has been its main expression in the last forty years. Type A antisemitism is rooted deep in history and it is the central theme of the Book of Esther which is read this week when Purim is celebrated. Type A antisemitism focuses on the Jews as chosen, on the Jews as the embodiment of the divine, with the Jews as trespassers and with the Jews as traitors, a fifth column in any polity.

One explanation for Type A antisemitism is jealousy. Jews historically claimed they were the chosen people by God. On Mt. Sinai, God commanded Moses to inform the Israelites that they would receive the Torah and, thereby, become to Him “a chosen people.” They may have been chosen to carry an extra burden of responsibility or to be a light unto the nations, but, as this explanation continues, others resented this claim for exceptionalism, even if it meant carrying an additional burden. In other words, in this explanation, the primary responsibility for antisemitism Type A must rest with Jews themselves and their beliefs.

But the claim goes further. In Jewish theology, Jews are the embodiment of the soul of God, the Shechinah, the feminine part of God that dwells on earth in the bodies of Jewish men and women and in the spirit of the people as a whole. This claim goes further than being chosen, for it suggests that Jews were chosen to embody God, to be the embodiment of God. Jews are the manifestation of God’s presence on earth. If you think chosenness was a grandiose claim, what do you make of embodiment of the divine?

The other two explanations for Type A antisemitism is that Jews are trespassers. In their own words, they are always sojourners. No land is naturally their land, even Israel. All lands belong to the indigenous people who lived there. But Abraham left his native land in Mesopotamia and came to a new land already occupied, but one promised by God to the Israelites. It could have been a positive sum game, but many if not most of the other tribes they encountered resisted this depiction of the Jewish mission. Further, if the sojourner is a stranger, if the sojourner is the Other, then when things go wrong, instead of embracing the stranger and treating him or her with respect and dignity, turn on them as scapegoats and insist they are illegal aliens and need to be expelled. Such a demand is enhanced when the goal is greater power as well as an opportunity to seize the property (or jobs) of the killed or expelled Jews.

This antisemitism goes back well before the refusal of Jews under Alexander the Great to accept and integrate Greek religious standards and norms, back at least to the Babylonian era when, according to the Book of Esther, leading Jews refused to bow down to the demand for unquestioning and total obedience to the king. Such action was treachery and worthy of being put to death, not because treachery had been charged and proven, but because the person was a Jew. A Jew was inherently treacherous. A Jew was inherently an alien in a nationalistic land because he or she had not become complete and total members of the polity.

Type B antisemitism arose with the Enlightenment, arose with the belief in the cosmopolitan assimilation of all into the religion of reason. In the pseudo-science of the time, there is an acceptance of Jewish chosenness, but Jews are chosen as prime targets for persecution and eventual destruction. Jews do not embody a divine spirit but an evil one which they inherit with their mother’s milk. Out of that alleged Jewish malevolence, Jews are engaged in a global conspiracy to a) control the economy of the world; b) instigate wars; c) exercise control over governments; d) control all media; or focus on e) alleged despicable patterns of Jewish personal behaviour. Jews are trespassers on the soul of the nation. This type of antisemitism is rooted in views of economics, military affairs, politics, sociology and psychology. Jews are an internal threat, a Fifth Column, that can eat away and destroy the national spirit.

In antisemitism Type C, Israel becomes the surrogate for Jews. Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism if, for only the simplest of reasons, that would make every single Jewish Israeli an antisemite. Antisemitism Type C is a grossly disproportionate focus on Israel as a target for criticism to provide grounds for the elimination of Israel as a state. For Zionism was an ideology chosen by a small percentage of Jews, but expanded to become a central tenet of belief for virtually all religious Jews and for the vast majority of secular Jews to unite the various strains of Jewry. The central goal of Zionism was “return,” return to once again become rooted in an ancient homeland promised to Jews by God. Therefore, by definition, Zionists were sojourners displacing the nationalism of the local population and eventually displacing a large portion of that population as well.

In A, B and C types, it is necessary to distinguish between expressions of antisemitism, between policies and actions versus antisemitic attitudes. In Type B antisemitism, many people are antisemitic. Only a very small proportion B-type antisemites express their antisemitism through violence, threats of violence or vandalism. As many as 10% of Americans and perhaps, a higher proportion of Canadians, may carry the B-type antisemitic virus. In the Anti-Defamation League 2014 poll, countries with populations of over 50% who hold B-type antisemitic attitudes include Turkey (71%) and Greece (67%), two otherwise erstwhile enemies. In Iran, following decades of anti-Israeli propaganda, antisemitic attitudes are, surprisingly, found in only 60% of the population. In Eastern Europe, the figures for Romania, Hungary and Poland are, respectively, 47%, 40% and 37%, and the latter has a large and very vibrant philosemitic movement as well. In the Ukraine, in spite of, or perhaps, in part because of the prominent role Jews played in its most recent revolution, the figure is 32%.

Countries like Italy, Spain and Latvia, where fascists and ex-Nazis played such a prominent part in their respective histories, the figure is almost 30%. In Argentina, for similar reasons, it is 24% with similar percentages for Central American countries with histories of right-wing dictatorships. And in the current Putin authoritarian Russia with its long and glorious history of both antisemitism and extraordinary Jewish achievements, the figure, even following the great Jewish exodus, is 23%. In Western Europe, one may be surprised to find Belgium with a figure of 21%, but not so surprised that it is 17% in France and 16% in Germany while only 12% in the UK and 11% in the Netherlands.

However, there is a huge difference between the percentage of a population that carries the virus and the number in whom that attitude expresses itself in vandalism and violence. In America, that expression manifests itself in only .01% of the population, 1 for every 3,500 who carries such an attitude. But the current situation suggests that it takes very little to shift the condition for many more to become activists. When exacerbated by international events or by a permissive political leadership, especially a leadership that expresses distrust of the Other, the opportunities and incentives to exhibit itself increases even more.

Further, there are six times as many Americans with antisemitic attitudes than there are Jews in America. In the world, there are an estimated one billion plus individuals who carry the anti-Semitic Type B virus, and in countries with a much less pronounced official government and societal antipathy to antisemitism Type B, the percentage of those who express their antisemitism may be much higher than in America. But even if the low American percentage is used, even if the widespread strain of Type C anti-Semitic virus in the Arab world who are also infected with the Type B virus is ignored, there are at the very least 300,000 activist Type B antisemites worldwide and, in reality, many more.

Nevertheless, there is a difference when antisemitism manifests itself in words and images and when it manifests itself in arson, bullet holes and beatings. However, while the latter gets the most attention and the former does when it is manifested in threats of violence, the most virulent strain of antisemitism is the C strain that is seen in a political activity, such as the BDS campaign, particularly the BDS campaign on campus that is rife with members who deny that they have the B strain. And most do not. However, many of them have the C strain, particularly among the founders and leaders, because their ultimate goal is not to force Israel to give up the West Bank, but to characterize Israel as an apartheid illegitimate state that should be eliminated from the map.

The most often asked question concerning antisemitism is not what it is but why it is. Since Purim is approaching, and since Haman as depicted in the Book of Esther was clearly an antisemite millennia before the term was invented, any explanation would have to transcend the particularities of a geographical region or a specific historical period. Jews have not been well liked by significant portions of populations. It is the persistence of antisemitism, it is its seeming immunity to education and prosperity, enlightenment and exposure, that makes antisemitism so puzzling.

After we examine antisemitism is specific regions, we will return to this question and see if we can come up with some answer to explain the existence and persistence of antisemitism.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Stephen Hawking and the Boycott.16.05.13

Stephen Hawking and the Boycott                                                                         16.05.13




Howard Adelman


Today I want to write about Stephen Hawking, not because I can identify my tiny correctable handicap with his enormous uncorrectable one, but because it is a simpler issue to get back to writing my blog. I myself have boycotted conferences – but only a very few. The last one was at my own university, York, where I had agreed to give a paper at a conference on considering a one state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian problem. I was going to present a paper on why a two state solution was the only reasonable solution and why one state solutions were really opportunities for complete victory by either one side or the other, even when one state solutions were advocated by utopians instead of greater Israel zealots or Palestinian anti-Zionist advocates. I cancelled my participation when the program indicated that the conference would not strictly be an academic conference but would provide a platform for ideological zealots, this time from the anti-zionist side, a development that ran contrary to the promise I was given when I agreed to participate. It was a personal and individual boycott of a particular conference and I never suggested that anyone join me or that others boycott or that YorkUniversity conferences in general be boycotted. I have no objection in principle to academics boycotting a conference.

Stephen Hawking’s position is different in most of these respects except that he too originally agreed not only to participate but to be the headline speaker in a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, the fifth annual president’s conference, Facing Tomorrow 2013. The Human Factor in Shaping Tomorrow., 18-20 June. This year’s theme asked “whether the quality of leadership – in all realms of human activity – can make a difference. What is the desired dynamic in relationships between people and leaders in the face of powerful processes of change?” This year’s conference was also intended to honour Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday.

The conference was not a political conference. Hawking had not agreed to participate under certain conditions and those conditions were breached. He was persuaded to withdraw after enormous pressure was put upon him to withdraw as an endorsement of the BDS Campaign, the campaign to boycott Israel, divest from investing in Israel and participate in sanctions against Israel. He initially personally made no public announcement, but when the initial explanation offered cited his poor health – and his health is indeed poor — his office issued a statement of correction indicating that the withdrawal was an expression of sympathy for the Palestinian cause as a protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, with Hawking’s approval, described his withdrawal as “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there”.


Hawking has visited Israel at least three or four times before. In 2006, in a series of lectures sponsored by the British Embassy he gave lectures at Israeli and Palestinian universities. However, in 2009, he clearly and vociferously expressed his disapproval of Israel’s “disproportionate” response to the rocket attacks from Gaza and compared Israel to South Africa under the apartheid regime. In light of this, why was Hawking invited to headline the conference?

The criticism has actually not been of the withdrawal per se, nor even particularly of the reasons for the withdrawal – namely as an expression of sympathy for the treatment of Palestinians by Israel – but because the statement eventually made clear that the withdrawal was an expression of support for the BDS movement. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was begun on 9 July 2005 by 171 Palestinian NGOs who had formed The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel the year before and was a follow-up of the notorious NGO Forum, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001. That conference harked back to the theme of Zionism is racism and promoted the equation of Israel with apartheid South Africa. It called for “mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel”.

The goal of the campaign was not recognition of Palestine as a state alongside Israel. The goal was the use of non-violent means to promote three goals:

1. Ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian [note, not Arab-Israeli citizens] of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of return of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.


With respect to item 3, note first that this is neither what Resolution 194 said nor what it meant when it was passed, though that is what it has come to be popularly interpreted as meaning following numerous UN General Assembly Resolutions over the years. (See the chapter on Palestinian refugee return in Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.) Secondly, with regard to the second point above, the basic laws of Israel – equivalent to constitutional principles – include the Right to Human Dignity and Liberty and “Declares basic human rights in Israel are based on the recognition of the value of man, the sanctity of his life and the fact that he is free” and “Defines human freedom as the right to leave and enter the country, privacy (including speech, writings, and notes), intimacy, and protection from unlawful searches of one’s person or property” including protection against infringements by means of emergency regulations. Subsequent basic laws on employment guaranteed every Israel national or resident’s “right to engage in any occupation, profession or trade”. Any violation of this right shall be “by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required.” The problem in Israel is not recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian or Arab-Israelis but full implementation of those rights. Third, with respect to the first point, the call for the end of the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” is part of the rhetoric that Jewish Zionists are colonizers and occupants of Arab lands inIsrael and not just in the West Bank. The BDS campaign has as its most visible face in Canada “Israel Apartheid Week” that was initiated in Toronto in 2005 while Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East focuses on promoting strategic boycotting of Canadian and Multinational corporations operating in Canada as well as academic boycotts. 


The general spectrum of this campaign includes Jewish and Israeli anti-Zionist advocates, such as those who belong to the legal human rights organization, Adalah, who urge that Israel should be like Canada, a “democratic, bilingual and multicultural state” and not a Jewish state and, as such, oppose the “right of return” to Israel of Jews but advocate recognizing the right of return of Palestinian refugees. They inherently oppose UN Resolution 181 that initially recognized the partition of the land of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Essentially, all of these advocacy groups deny Zionism as a legitimate national independence movement of the Jewish people while endorsing Palestinian national self-determination. Hawking’s agreement to support the BDS campaign has to be understood in this context.

If I agreed that Jewish national self-determination was illegitimate but virtually all other forms of national self-determination were legitimate, then I probably would also consider joining a boycott of state-sponsored events that implicitly if not explicitly endorsed the principle of Jewish national self-determination. So I do not think that Hawking’s joining such a boycott is “morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible”. It may be morally objectionable and intellectually hypocritical and utterly stupid in my mind, but even stupid positions can be intellectually defended. Further, although Hawking’s position can be associated with the BDS campaign, it is not at all clear that he supports an academic boycott of Israel.

Nor do I find the criticism valid that Hawking, or others, who target Israel but ignore the myriad of other states who are abusers of human rights, are hypocrites with double standards. They are part of a campaign to delegitimize the right of Israel to exist or of Zionism as a movement of national self-determination. Members of the BDS and its related movements can readily admit – though they rarely do – that rights in Israel are upheld better than in most states of the world and, certainly far more than rights in China or Iran, Turkey or Egypt. That is not the real point. The real issue is of collective rights. Do Jews have a right to national self-determination in their ancient homeland? If you deny that they do while insisting that Palestinians have such rights, then focusing on Israel exclusively makes perfect sense quite aside from one’s right to be selective in one’s political efforts. What other national movement of self-determination is seen as inherently illegitimate? Kurdish national self-determination or Tibetan national self-determination or Chechen national self-determination may be seen as imprudent or impractical or unrealizable but not as illegitimate.

So I do not think the advocates of a boycott against Israel are guilty of a double standard. They have a single standard that denies that Jews are a legitimate national identity with any rights of national self-determination. Perhaps they also believe this is also true of Inuit people but I have never read or heard of any pronouncements of denial of such rights for any other people.

Nor do I think that academia should be immune from boycotts simply because academia is ostensibly dedicated to dialogue and discourse. As I indicated in my opening, I am for and participate in boycotts when I believe supposed academic occasions are betrayals of academic purposes. Further, I am somewhat hypocritical in this regard. I have attended academic conferences at al Quds University and Bir Zeit University in which ideological ranters participated but where the majority of papers were proper academic presentations but would not agree to do so in the context of my own university, not only because promises were made to me that this would not be the case, but because I have a higher standard for universities that thrive in a free western environment as distinct from universities which struggle hard to uphold academic standards in a political hotbed.

I do know if Stephen Hawking is aware that his decision to withdraw from the Jerusalem conference can be read as an implicit endorsement of anti-Zionism and antipathy to the principle of the national self-determination of the Jewish people. One would think he is not opposed to Zionism for he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on a previous occasion. If he is not opposed to Zionism per se or Israel as a Jewish state, then he may simply be ignorant of the larger political context of the BDS movement. Further, criticisms of government policies at a particular time, whether of the American-led invasion of Iraq or of Russia’s treatment of Chechnya or of China’s treatment of Tibet, are not best exercised are not best pursued by boycotts of academic or intellectual conferences having nothing to do with such situations.

There is an even more serious problem with Hawking participating in the boycott that has little to do with political naiveté and ignorance and a great deal to do with reinforcing a so-called “shtetl” mentality in Israel, namely, the belief by a great number of Jews and Israelis, that no matter how hard they try, whatever the failures, the goyim will never grant Jews the same rights as others. Why be vigilant in protecting everyone’s rights when other so-called universalists are so negative about Jewish rights? Hawking’s position, without any chance of really being effective in the real world of politics, will affect those who are intransigent on both sides in reinforcing their positions and making the possibility of peace even more remote. Instead of reinforcing listening, instead of enhancing dissident voices, such stands shut down listening and reinforce ideology.