Illustrated by Natalie Friedman
Gabriel Brahm, former UCSC professor and co-author of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, took the time to sit down with Leviathan. He talked BDS, campus climate, and “Israel fetishes”. He now serves on the faculty of Northern Michigan University.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why do you think the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement appeals to so many students and professors on college campuses today?
So-called “progressives” on college campuses need to have a figure that they imagine as pure and innocent. They need a symbol they can defend, identify with, and hold up in order to overthrow the system and bring about utopia in some way.
It gives them a crusade, and also it’s sexy, it’s third world, and it makes them crusaders for the third world oppressed by Capitalism. They get a thrill out of feeling that they are crusaders for global social justice. They have a kind of attraction to associating with the Palestinian cause and, believe it or not, violence. The far left gets off on that.
Does BDS seek to end Palestinian oppression and Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank?
BDS, according to the statements of its own leaders, is a movement to delegitimize and destroy Israel. Their own leaders state this. They clearly refuse to be satisfied with an end to the occupation of the West Bank. Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of BDS, is on record answering the question, “If Israel withdrew to the ’67 borders, would BDS be satisfied?” And he answered honestly, “No.”
It’s an obstacle to peace because it wants to sever ties between Israeli Jews and Arabs. It wants to impede dialogue which polarises them even further.
What is the “campus climate” like as far as attitudes toward Israel at Northern Michigan University where you currently teach?
The campus climate where I teach is really, I would say, contradictory. It’s characterized by three things: indifference, support, and hostility. The support for me is great. I’ve created a couple classes that are devoted to the study of Israeli literature and culture. My administration supports me in doing that.
And then there is occasional hostility from a few militantly anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic faculty as well as students. I had an incident a couple years ago around Thanksgiving when there was about to be a potential conflict on the border of Gaza, and a grad student who I didn’t know picked me out and said to me, “It looks like Israel is planning a genocide this holiday season.”
If you were to describe BDS in one word what would you say?
‘Hate’ is the one word, and it’s not my choice. I know that it’s the right word to describe BDS because Steven Salaita, one of the prominent leaders of the BDS movement, tweeted last summer, “Hate is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred term when talking about racism, colonialism, neo-liberalism, and Israel.”
I love how you use the words “fetishizing” and “magic” when referring to how a lot of people view Israel. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s an interesting phenomenon. Putting the moral and political dilemmas that are so painful and challenging to us aside for a moment, the weirdness of the fetishization of Israel is fascinating.
Jews have long been associated with modernity and liberalism, and that’s part of the anti-Semitism today. Today, what I call the “Israel fetish”, functions insofar as Israel becomes for BDS the symbol of all that is wrong in the world.
From a psychoanalytic tradition, a fetish is having a passionate attachment to something that you know cognitively can’t be true, but that you feel anyway. That’s a fetish.
Do you see pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups working together on a new movement any time soon? Why or why not?
I would hope so. That’s something we should all be asking to address in a positive way. I have been worried about the demonization of Israel and the attacks on Israel coming from BDS that are so unfair—but, you know, while I’m countering those attacks, I’m often reminded of how much there is to be concerned about from the Palestinian point of view. They have been living without self-determination and national autonomy now for such a long time.
Another thing that should be said is that BDS doesn’t benefit the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, opposes BDS because he doesn’t think it would help. This is coming from the leader of the Palestinians in the West Bank. We need to think of ways of working together for a two-state solution. That will be an end to the suffering of both peoples and the ongoing conflict.
We in Israel have critics of our society. Ouruniversitiesarefull of leftists and far leftists, and some of them even want to boycott their own universities. Others want to criticize the heck out of the society and blame it for all that’s wrong—like liberals at Berkeley who blame America.
Where is that going on in Palestinian society, and what would happen to you in Gaza if you tried that? They’d throw you off a building. They threw Fatah [Palestinian Authority] people off a building when they were fighting over power a few years ago.