Crying Wolf: Anti-semitism, the Jewish Press in Britain, and Academic Boycotts

From the archive (legacy material)

Mona Baker

A summary of this response appeared as a letter in the London Review of Books:

In a recent article published in the London Review of Books, Judith Butler selectively refers to aspects of a disagreement we had on the Academics for Justice discussion list in December 2002 in order to level a dishonest charge against me that allows her to resolve her own personal anxieties over being a Jew who is highly critical of Israeli policies and at the same time “emotionally invested in Israel” and painfully aware that “No label [other than anti-semite] could be worse for a Jew, who knows that ethically and politically, the position with which it would be unbearable to identify is that of the anti-semite”.

The archives of the Academics for Justice discussion list (available to all list members) record a message from Judith Butler on 16 December 2002 complaining to the list about messages I sent earlier, including one in which I criticised the Jewish press in Britain. Butler threatened TWICE within this short emotional message to withdraw from the list: “I would be reluctant to unsubscribe from this list, given how important the information is that flows through it”, and again towards the end: “I would be sorry to unsubscribe from this list, but am warding off the temptation to do so”. Instead of addressing her concerns to me directly and rationally, Butler chose to issue an emotional appeal to list members to ‘reprimand’ me in some way and presumably plead with her to stay on the list. Nevertheless, I immediately apologised to her for inadvertently offending her and did my best to explain the reasons for my criticism of the Jewish press in Britain as well as my position on the boycott, which she had also attacked in her message. Butler’s message and my response as well as all relevant correspondence quoted below are available on my personal website (

In my response to Butler, I pointed out that “I specifically criticised the Jewish press/papers, which is a very different category from ‘Jews’ (and conflating the two is like conflating ‘American press’ with ‘Americans’, for instance)”. I then explained that the two main Jewish papers in Britain (that is, papers which call themselves Jewish and claim to represent the Jewish community in the UK) are The Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish Telegraph. I cited Ilan Pappe (an Israeli Jew) describing The Jewish Chronicle as follows in a message he sent to the Israeli Alif list and copied to me on 21 October 2002:

“The Jewish Chronicle’s smear tactics and campaigns are not only harmful for anyone supporting the Palestinians, they will act in the end of the day against the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole. This paper is their main organ and it represents the Jewish community in Britain as racist, fascist and ignorant. Most of the community members, to the best of my knowledge and I spent four years there, are fair minded liberal and pluralist people. But the association of the community’s leaders with Zionism had gradually eroded its more universal and humane aspects.”

I also cited Seymour Alexander (a British Jew), criticising The Jewish Telegraph in a letter he sent to the THES editor and copied to me on 11 November 2002 (I am not aware that the letter ever got published):

“The smear campaign being carried out by the Manchester Jewish Telegraph against Prof. Mona Baker (mentioned by Michael Cohen and Colwyn Williamson in “Umist should abandon boycott ‘witch-hunt’”, 8th November 2002) is in no way untypical of “Britain’s Only Regional, Jewish Newspaper”. More liberal-minded Jewish readers like myself will know only too well how its columnists and letters’ page editor go out of their way to pander to the most reactionary and prejudiced elements of our Community. As an example take last Friday’s issue which carried an outrageous letter from a certain A.P. Tobias (address withheld) calling for the bodies of dead Palestinian ‘terrorists’ to be buried wrapped in pig skins in order to ‘save Jewish lives’. Just imagine the uproar that would be generated by the Jewish media were a letter, advocating a similar treatment for Israeli terrorists, to be published in a Christian newspaper.”

Given that Jewish activists (Israeli and non-Israeli) have themselves openly criticised the Jewish press in Britain, and Butler is aware of this through our correspondence on the AFJ list, I think it is fair to assume that her characterisation of my actions relies on the same stereotype-based inferences that she denounces in her article. I wonder, for instance, whether she would be prepared to characterise Pappe and Alexander as ‘anti-semites’, or whether she would prefer the more ‘appropriate’ category of ‘self-hating Jews’! And similarly, how would she characterise someone like Lawrence Davidson, an American Jew who co-authored ‘In Defence of the Academic Boycott’ with me

In my response to Butler, I explained that “My position [on the academic boycott of Israel] is that I will only cooperate with members of Israeli academia officially … within the activist frame [I had invited Ilan Pappe to Manchester in September, where he lectured to a large audience]. Unofficially, I work closer now and have stronger friendships with [Israeli activists] than I’ve ever had before”. I further reassured her that I discuss the pros and cons of all aspects of the boycott regularly with Israeli and non-Israeli colleagues, and quoted a lengthy exchange between myself, Tanya Reinhart in Israel and Clare Brandabour in Turkey in which we debated our disagreements rationally and respectfully, something Judith Butler seems unable to do, since she never responded to my letter but went on to accuse me dishonestly (and I must say very disingeniously) six months later on the pages of LRB of being anti-semitic. Here, like Summers, she “uses the ‘anti-semitic charge to quell public criticism of Israel”, with one minor difference: Butler reserves this grossly abused label for those who express their criticism in a manner she does not agree with, like implementing the academic boycott or exposing the fact that the Jewish press in Britain is shamelessly and exclusively pro-Israel. She does not use it to intimidate those who call for divestment from Israel, a tactic which she seems to approve of – perhaps also she assumes that there is general agreement on this issue that will protect her from being labelled in the same way by others. Interestingly, Ilan Pappe argues the opposite in “The Case for Boycott” without the spurious labelling of other views as anti-semitic:

Within such a call [for putting external pressure on Israel], it makes no sense, for an activist like myself, to call on sanctions or pressure on business, factories, cultural festivals etc., while demanding immunity for my own peers and sphere of activity – the academia. This is dishonest… it makes more sense to try and affect the economic, political, cultural and academic elites on the way to a policy change. The socio-economic realities are such that if you affect the life of the wealthy and influential, you get results, not if you add misery to those who are already deprived and marginalized.

Divestment, of course, hits the economic infrastructure of the targeted community, not so much the cultural elites.

I concluded my response to Butler by offering to withdraw from the list myself if other colleagues shared her interpretation of my position. Given my offer and Butler’s emotional outburst and repeated threat to unsubscribe, she must have been somewhat disappointed when that short-lived debate concluded with the following message on 16 December 2002 from one of the list members (to which, also, Butler did not respond):

Perhaps the academic boycott of Israeli university academics spearheaded by Mona Baker is mistaken or perhaps it is ahead of its time. In any case she has challenged organised lobbies in the political, media and academic realms, and more than most of us she is now under attack. … Judith Butler, I do not agree with your comments. Mona Baker has every right to criticise the Jewish press in the UK, that which consistently damages the prospects of human rights and international justice for Palestinians. As for your character references, they make a mockery of your own request “that personal email .. be kept off this important list”.

There are two more important points I wish to make with respect to Butler’s claims. The first is that her attempt to discredit me is particularly unfortunate because it also includes an attack on the extremely important and carefully moderated list of peace activists across the world that she “found” herself on. I do not recall any ‘slippages’ on this moderated list, nor can I imagine how Butler could find out whether or not people “withdrew from the group” “whenever this happened” since she is not one of the moderators and never was. Secondly, in suggesting that I labelled as “pressure” genuine opportunities for debate offered by Jewish newspapers in the UK Butler displays amazing naivety. To describe as an opportunity for debate or as legitimate criticism the intense and highly distorting smear campaign led mostly by the Jewish press in the UK against me for several months and resulting in an outrageous enquiry by my former employer that could have easily led to my dismissal is naïve beyond belief.

On the Specific Issue of Academic Boycotts

In her critique of Summers, Butler focuses on the divestment issue as a legitimate form of “vigorous challenge” to Israeli policies. Her attitude to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, and particularly my own interpretation of it, is clearly that it is not a legitimate form of challenge, and she goes as far as describing it as “the effect of anti-semitism itself”. In doing so, Butler reveals that she is unable to break away from the same restrictive framework that she criticises Summers for adopting. For if my position on the academic boycott is anti-semitic how would Butler explain the various forms that the boycott of South African academics took in the 1980s and early 90s? According to Lorraine J. Haricombe and F. W. Lancaster (Out in the Cold – Academic Boycotts and the Isolation of South Africa, Information Resources Press, 1995), this included, among other things, “refusal to publish South African manuscripts internationally”, “refusal by some publishers to provide access to information (e.g. books, computer software)”, and even “denial of South African participation at international conferences” (p. 30). How would Butler characterise academics who adopted these practices, whether or not she agrees with the boycott of South Africa or Israel? Were they anti-whites? Or anti-Africaans? Can we make up such categories and use them to pressure those we disagree with on any boycott that does not involve Israel?
It is not that the various forms of academic boycott against South Africa did not attract considerable criticism at the time, especially the banning of all South African scholars from the World Archaeological Congress in Southampton in 1986. Indeed, according to Haricombe and Lancaster (p. 40), “some members of the organizing committee resigned, and several hundred scholars withheld their individual participation”. But no one called the organisers ‘anti-white’ or anti-anything. No one assumed the position of victim that Butler so desperately holds on to even as she argues against it.

Academic boycotts have always been a controversial issue, and rightly so. They should not be adopted lightly, but only in extreme cases. However, what those who now attack the academic boycott of Israel in its various forms and describe it as outrageous and a threat to academic freedom fail to acknowledge is that these forms of boycott have been practised by governments as well as institutions and individuals for a long time, and these same outraged academics have failed to voice their objections in instances which do not involve the academic freedom of Israelis in particular. For example, the British government “refused to supply books and other information sources” to Argentina during the Falklands War (Haricombe and Lancaster, p. 16). Was this not a form of academic boycott that affects individuals as well as institutions? I do not recall any outraged intellectuals attacking the British government in the media at the time. Either intellectuals think it’s easier to attack an individual like myself than a powerful institution, or they are alarmingly ignorant about the various serious manifestations of academic boycotts that so outrage them. I suspect it is a bit of both.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with Butler on one thing: if the charge of anti-semitism continues to be used to defend Israel (and I would add those communities and institutions that support the Israeli colonial enterprise, whether they are Jewish, Christian or even Buddhist) then the power of that label will be seriously diluted. Perhaps that’s why I am not impressed by Butler’s charge and do not intend to lose any sleep over it!

Mona Baker is Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Manchester, UK and Editorial Director of St. Jerome Publishing.
No, it’s not anti-semitic
Judith Butler

Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent.

Lawrence Summers, 17 September 2002

When the president of Harvard University declared that to criticise Israel at this time and to call on universities to divest from Israel are ‘actions that are anti-semitic in their effect, if not their intent’, he introduced a distinction between effective and intentional anti-semitism that is controversial at best. The counter-charge has been that in making his statement, Summers has struck a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not in intent. Although he insisted that he meant nothing censorious by his remarks, and that he is in favour of Israeli policy being ‘debated freely and civilly’, his words have had a chilling effect on political discourse.

Among those actions which he called ‘effectively anti-semitic’ were European boycotts of Israel, anti-globalisation rallies at which criticisms of Israel were voiced, and fund-raising efforts for organisations of ‘questionable political provenance’. Of local concern to him, however, was a divestment petition drafted by MIT and Harvard faculty members who oppose Israel’s current occupation and its treatment of Palestinians. Summers asked why Israel was being ‘singled out . . . among all nations’ for a divestment campaign, suggesting that the singling out was evidence of anti-semitic intentions. And though he claimed that aspects of Israel’s ‘foreign and defence’ policy ‘can be and should be vigorously challenged’, it was unclear how such challenges could or would take place without being construed as anti-Israel, and why these policy issues, which include occupation, ought not to be vigorously challenged through a divestment campaign. It would seem that calling for divestment is something other than a legitimately ‘vigorous challenge’, but we are not given any criteria by which to adjudicate between vigorous challenges that should be articulated, and those which carry the ‘effective’ force of anti-semitism.

Summers is right to voice concern about rising anti-semitism, and every progressive person ought to challenge anti-semitism vigorously wherever it occurs. It seems, though, that historically we have now reached a position in which Jews cannot legitimately be understood always and only as presumptive victims. Sometimes we surely are, but sometimes we surely are not. No political ethics can start from the assumption that Jews monopolise the position of victim. ‘Victim’ is a quickly transposable term: it can shift from minute to minute, from the Jew killed by suicide bombers on a bus to the Palestinian child killed by Israeli gunfire. The public sphere needs to be one in which both kinds of violence are challenged insistently and in the name of justice.

If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be ‘effectively anti-semitic’, we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-semitic enterprise. No label could be worse for a Jew, who knows that, ethically and politically, the position with which it would be unbearable to identify is that of the anti-semite. The ethical framework within which most progressive Jews operate takes the form of the following question: will we be silent (and thereby collaborate with illegitimately violent power), or will we make our voices heard (and be counted among those who did what they could to stop that violence), even if speaking poses a risk? The current Jewish critique of Israel is often portrayed as insensitive to Jewish suffering, past as well as present, yet its ethic is based on the experience of suffering, in order that suffering might stop.

Summers uses the ‘anti-semitic’ charge to quell public criticism of Israel, even as he explicitly distances himself from the overt operations of censorship. He writes, for instance, that ‘the only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.’ But how does one vigorously advocate the idea that the Israeli occupation is brutal and wrong, and Palestinian self-determination a necessary good, if the voicing of those views calls down the charge of anti-semitism?

To understand Summers’s claim, we have to be able to conceive of an effective anti-semitism, one that pertains to certain speech acts. Either it follows on certain utterances, or it structures them, even if that is not the conscious intention of those making them. His view assumes that such utterances will be taken by others as anti-semitic, or received within a given context as anti-semitic. So we have to ask what context Summers has in mind when he makes his claim; in what context is it the case that any criticism of Israel will be taken to be anti-semitic?

It may be that what Summers was effectively saying is that the only way a criticism of Israel can be heard is through a certain acoustic frame, such that the criticism, whether it is of the West Bank settlements, the closing of Birzeit and Bethlehem University, the demolition of homes in Ramallah or Jenin, or the killing of numerous children and civilians, can only be interpreted as showing hatred for Jews. We are asked to conjure a listener who attributes an intention to the speaker: so-and-so has made a public statement against the Israeli occupation, and this must mean that so-and-so hates Jews or is willing to fuel those who do.

The criticism is thus given a hidden meaning, one that is at odds with its explicit claim. The criticism of Israel is nothing more than a cloak for that hatred, or a cover for a call for discriminatory action against Jews. In other words, the only way to understand effective anti-semitism is to presuppose intentional anti-semitism; the effective anti-semitism of any criticism turns out to reside in the intention of the speaker as retrospectively attributed by the listener.

It may be that Summers has something else in mind; namely, that the criticism will be exploited by those who want to see not only the destruction of Israel but the degradation or devaluation of Jewish people in general. There is always that risk, but to claim that such criticism of Israel can be taken only as criticism of Jews is to attribute to that particular interpretation the power to monopolise the field of reception. The argument against letting criticism of Israel into the public sphere would be that it gives fodder to those with anti-semitic intentions, who will successfully co-opt the criticism. Here again, a statement can become effectively anti-semitic only if there is, somewhere, an intention to use it for anti-semitic purposes. Indeed, even if one believed that criticisms of Israel are by and large heard as anti-semitic (by Jews, anti-semites, or people who could be described as neither), it would become the responsibility of all of us to change the conditions of reception so that the public might begin to distinguish between criticism of Israel and a hatred of Jews.

Summers made his statement as president of an institution which is a symbol of academic prestige in the United States, and although he claimed he was speaking not as president of the university but as a ‘member of our community’, his speech carried weight in the press precisely because he was exercising the authority of his office. If the president of Harvard is letting the public know that he will take any criticism of Israel to be effectively anti-semitic, then he is saying that public discourse itself ought to be so constrained that such statements are not uttered, and that those who utter them will be understood as engaging in anti-semitic speech, even hate speech.

Here, it is important to distinguish between anti-semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.
The point is not only that Summers’s distinction between effective and intentional anti-semitism cannot hold, but that the way it collapses in his formulation is precisely what produces the conditions under which certain public views are taken to be hate speech, in effect if not in intent. Summers didn’t say that anything that Israel does in the name of self-defence is legitimate and ought not to be questioned. I don’t know whether he approves of all Israeli policies, but let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that he doesn’t. And I don’t know whether he has views about, for instance, the destruction of homes and the killings of children in Jenin which attracted the attention of the United Nations last year but was not investigated as a human rights violation because Israel refused to open its borders to an investigative team. If he objects to those actions, and they are among the ‘foreign policy’ issues he believes ought to be ‘vigorously challenged’, he would be compelled, under his formulation, not to voice his disapproval, believing, as he does, that that would be construed, effectively, as anti-semitism. And if he thinks it possible to voice disapproval, he hasn’t shown us how to do it in such a way as to avert the allegation of anti-semitism.
Summers’s logic suggests that certain actions of the Israeli state must be allowed to go on unimpeded by public protest, for fear that any protest would be tantamount to anti-semitism, if not anti-semitism itself. Now, all forms of anti-semitism must be opposed, but we have here a set of serious confusions about the forms anti-semitism takes. Indeed, if the charge of anti-semitism is used to defend Israel at all costs, then its power when used against those who do discriminate against Jews – who do violence to synagogues in Europe, wave Nazi flags or support anti-semitic organisations – is radically diluted. Many critics of Israel now dismiss all claims of anti-semitism as ‘trumped up’, having been exposed to their use as a way of censoring political speech.

Summers doesn’t tell us why divestment campaigns or other forms of public protest are anti-semitic. According to him, some forms of anti-semitism are characterised as such retroactively, which means that nothing should be said or done that will then be taken to be anti-semitic by others. But what if those others are wrong? If we take one form of anti-semitism to be defined retroactively, what is left of the possibility of legitimate protest against a state, either by its own population or anyone else? If we say that every time the word ‘Israel’ is spoken, the speaker really means ‘Jews’, then we have foreclosed in advance the possibility that the speaker really means ‘Israel’. If, on the other hand, we distinguish between anti-semitism and forms of protest against the Israeli state (or right-wing settlers who sometimes act independently of the state), acknowledging that sometimes they do, disturbingly, work together, then we stand a chance of understanding that world Jewry does not see itself as one with Israel in its present form and practice, and that Jews in Israel do not necessarily see themselves as one with the state. In other words, the possibility of a substantive Jewish peace movement depends on our observing a productive and critical distance from the state of Israel (which can be coupled with a profound investment in its future course).

Summers’s view seems to imply that criticism of Israel is ‘anti-Israel’ in the sense that it is understood to challenge the right of Israel to exist. A criticism of Israel is not the same, however, as a challenge to Israel’s existence, even if there are conditions under which it would be possible to say that one leads to the other. A challenge to the right of Israel to exist can be construed as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people only if one believes that Israel alone keeps the Jewish people alive or that all Jews invest their sense of perpetuity in the state of Israel in its current or traditional forms. One could argue, however, that those polities which safeguard the right to criticise them stand a better chance of surviving than those that don’t. For a criticism of Israel to be taken as a challenge to the survival of the Jews, we would have to assume not only that ‘Israel’ cannot change in response to legitimate criticism, but that a more radically democratic Israel would be bad for Jews. This would be to suppose that criticism is not a Jewish value, which clearly flies in the face not only of long traditions of Talmudic disputation, but of all the religious and cultural sources that have been part of Jewish life for centuries.

What are we to make of Jews who disidentify with Israel or, at least, with the Israeli state? Or Jews who identify with Israel, but do not condone some of its practices? There is a wide range here: those who are silently ambivalent about the way Israel handles itself; those who only half articulate their doubts about the occupation; those who are strongly opposed to the occupation, but within a Zionist framework; those who would like to see Zionism rethought or, indeed, abandoned. Jews may hold any of these opinions, but voice them only to their family, or only to their friends; or voice them in public but then face an angry reception at home. Given this Jewish ambivalence, ought we not to be suspicious of any effort to equate Jews with Israel? The argument that all Jews have a heartfelt investment in the state of Israel is untrue. Some have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches or in certain Talmudic tales, religious rituals and liturgy, in memories of their grandmother, the taste of borscht or the sounds of the old Yiddish theatre. Others have an investment in historical and cultural archives from Eastern Europe or from the Holocaust, or in forms of labour activism, civil rights struggles and social justice that are thoroughly secular, and exist in relative independence from the question of Israel.

What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticises Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness, in the name of justice, precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not? I signed a petition framed in these terms, an ‘Open Letter from American Jews’, in which 3700 American Jews opposed the Israeli occupation, though in my view it was not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism, or for the reallocation of arable land, for rethinking the Jewish right of return or for the fair distribution of water and medicine to Palestinians, and it did not call for the reorganisation of the Israeli state on a more radically egalitarian basis. It was, nevertheless, an overt criticism of Israel.

Many of those who signed that petition will have felt what might reasonably be called heartache at taking a public stand against Israeli policy, at the thought that Israel, by subjecting 3.5 million Palestinians to military occupation, represents the Jews in a way that these petitioners find not only objectionable, but terrible to endure, as Jews; it is as Jews that they assert their disidentification with that policy, that they seek to widen the rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish people in order to produce an alternative vision of the future. The petitioners exercised a democratic right to voice criticism, and sought to get economic pressure put on Israel by the US and other countries, to implement rights for Palestinians otherwise deprived of basic conditions of self-determination, to end the occupation, to secure an independent Palestinian state or to re-establish the basis of the Israeli state without regard to religion so that Jewishness would constitute only one cultural and religious reality, and be protected by the same laws that protect the rights of others.
Identifying Israel with Jewry obscures the existence of the small but important post-Zionist movement in Israel, including the philosophers Adi Ophir and Anat Biletzki, the sociologist Uri Ram, the professor of theatre Avraham Oz and the poet Yitzhak Laor. Are we to say that Israelis who are critical of Israeli policy are self-hating Jews, or insensitive to the ways in which criticism may fan the flames of anti-semitism? What of the new Brit Tzedek organisation in the US, numbering close to 20,000 members at the last count, which seeks to offer a critical alternative to the American Israel Political Action Committee, opposing the current occupation and working for a two-state solution? What of Jewish Voices for Peace, Jews against the Occupation, Jews for Peace in the Middle East, the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Tikkun, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Women in Black or, indeed, Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the only village collectively governed by both Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel? What do we make of B’Tselem, the Israeli organisation that monitors human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, or Gush Shalom, an Israeli organisation opposing the occupation, or Yesh Gvul, which represents the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories? And what of Ta’ayush, a Jewish-Arab coalition against policies that lead to isolation, poor medical care, house arrest, the destruction of educational institutions, and lack of water and food for Palestinians?

It will not do to equate Jews with Zionists or Jewishness with Zionism. There were debates among Jews throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as to whether Zionism ought to become the basis of a state, whether the Jews had any right to lay claim to land inhabited by Palestinians for centuries, and as to the future for a Jewish political project based on a violent expropriation of land. There were those who sought to make Zionism compatible with peaceful co-existence with Arabs, and those who used it as an excuse for military aggression, and continue to do so. There were those who thought, and still think, that Zionism is not a legitimate basis for a democratic state in a situation where a diverse population must be assumed to practise different religions, and that no group ought to be excluded from any right accorded to citizens in general on the basis of their ethnic or religious views. And there are those who maintain that the violent appropriation of Palestinian land, and the dislocation of 700,000 Palestinians, was an unsuitable foundation on which to build a state. Yet Israel is now repeating its founding gesture in the containment and dehumanisation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, the wall now being built threatens to leave 95,000 Palestinians homeless. These are questions about Zionism that should and must be asked in a public domain, and universities are surely one place where we might expect critical reflections on Zionism to take place. Instead, we are being asked, by Summers and others, to treat any critical approach to Zionism as effective anti-semitism and, hence, to rule it out as a topic for legitimate disagreement.

Many important distinctions are elided by the mainstream press when it assumes that there are only two possible positions on the Middle East, the ‘pro-Israel’ and the ‘pro-Palestinian’. The assumption is that these are discrete views, internally homogeneous, non-overlapping, that if one is ‘pro-Israel’ then anything Israel does is all right, or if ‘pro-Palestinian’ then anything Palestinians do is all right. But few people’s political views occupy such extremes. One can, for instance, be in favour of Palestinian self-determination, but condemn suicide bombings, and find others who share both those views but differ on the form self-determination ought to take. One can be in favour of Israel’s right to exist, but still ask what is the most legitimate and democratic form that existence ought to take. If one questions the present form, is one anti-Israel? If one holds out for a truly democratic Israel-Palestine, is one anti-Israel? Or is one trying to find a better form for this polity, one that may well involve any number of possibilities: a revised version of Zionism, a post-Zionist Israel, a self-determining Palestine, or an amalgamation of Israel into a greater Israel-Palestine where all racially and religiously based qualifications on rights and entitlements would be eliminated?

What is ironic is that in equating Zionism with Jewishness, Summers is adopting the very tactic favoured by anti-semites. At the time of his speech, I found myself on a listserv on which a number of individuals opposed to the current policies of the state of Israel, and sometimes to Zionism, started to engage in this same slippage, sometimes opposing what they called ‘Zionism’ and at other times what they called ‘Jewish’ interests. Whenever this occurred, there were objections, and several people withdrew from the group. Mona Baker, the academic in Manchester who dismissed two Israeli colleagues from the board of her academic journal in an effort to boycott Israeli institutions, argued that there was no way to distinguish between individuals and institutions. In dismissing these individuals, she claimed, she was treating them as emblematic of the Israeli state, since they were citizens of that country. But citizens are not the same as states: the very possibility of significant dissent depends on recognising the difference between them. Baker’s response to subsequent criticism was to submit e-mails to the ‘academicsforjustice’ listserv complaining about ‘Jewish’ newspapers and labelling as ‘pressure’ the opportunity that some of these newspapers offered to discuss the issue in print with the colleagues she had dismissed. She refused to do this and seemed now to be fighting against ‘Jews’, identified as a lobby that pressures people, a lobby that had put pressure on her. The criticism that I made of Summers’s view thus applies to Baker as well: it is one thing to oppose Israel in its current form and practices or, indeed, to have critical questions about Zionism itself, but it is quite another to oppose ‘Jews’ or assume that all ‘Jews’ have the same view, that they are all in favour of Israel, identified with Israel or represented by Israel. Oddly, and painfully, it has to be said that on this point Mona Baker and Lawrence Summers agree: Jews are the same as Israel. In the one instance, the premise works in the service of an argument against anti-semitism; in the second, it works as the effect of anti-semitism itself. One aspect of anti-semitism or, indeed, of any form of racism is that an entire people is falsely and summarily equated with a particular position, view or disposition. To say that all Jews hold a given view on Israel or are adequately represented by Israel or, conversely, that the acts of Israel, the state, adequately stand for the acts of all Jews, is to conflate Jews with Israel and, thereby, to commit an anti-semitic reduction of Jewishness.

In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.

What is needed is a public space in which such issues might be thoughtfully debated, and to prevent that space being defined by certain kinds of exclusion and censorship. If one can’t voice an objection to violence done by Israel without attracting a charge of anti-semitism, then that charge works to circumscribe the publicly acceptable domain of speech, and to immunise Israeli violence against criticism. One is threatened with the label ‘anti-semitic’ in the same way that one is threatened with being called a ‘traitor’ if one opposes the most recent US war. Such threats aim to define the limits of the public sphere by setting limits on the speakable.

The world of public discourse would then be one from which critical perspectives would be excluded, and the public would come to understand itself as one that does not speak out in the face of obvious and illegitimate violence.

Judith Butler’s book of essays, Precarious Life: Politics, Violence, Mourning, about culture and politics after 11 September, is due from Verso in the spring. She is Maxine Elliot Professor in Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
Address at morning prayers
Lawrence H. Summers

I speak with you today not as President of the University but as a concerned member of our community about something that I never thought I would become seriously worried about — the issue of anti-Semitism.

I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout. In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from my experience. My family all left Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust is for me a matter of history, not personal memory. To be sure, there were country clubs where I grew up that had few if any Jewish members, but not ones that included people I knew. My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government official — all involved little notice of my religion.

Indeed, I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration that the existence of an economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish passed without comment or notice — it was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish President.

Without thinking about it much, I attributed all of this to progress — to an ascendancy of enlightenment and tolerance. A view that prejudice is increasingly put aside. A view that while the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex, and contentious, the question of the right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community.

But today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable because there is disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and also because of some developments closer to home.

Consider some of the global events of the last year:

There have been synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews, or the painting of swastikas on Jewish memorials in every country in Europe. Observers in many countries have pointed to the worst outbreak of attacks against the Jews since the Second World War.
Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of elections for the nation’s highest office in France and Denmark. State-sponsored television stations in many nations of the world spew anti-Zionist propaganda.

The United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism — while failing to mention human rights abuses in China, Rwanda, or anyplace in the Arab world — spoke of Israel’s policies prior to recent struggles under the Barak government as constituting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The NGO declaration at the same conference was even more virulent.

I could go on. But I want to bring this closer to home. Of course academic communities should be and always will be places that allow any viewpoint to be expressed. And certainly there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged.

But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.

For example:

Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli researchers, though not for an end to support for researchers from any other nation.
Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature journal.

At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming increasingly common to also lash out at Israel. Indeed, at the anti-IMF rallies last spring, chants were heard equating Hitler and Sharon.

Events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance that in some cases were later found to support terrorism have been held by student organizations on this and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism.

And some here at Harvard and some at universities across the country have called for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the University has categorically rejected this suggestion.

We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.

I have always throughout my life been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass, in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler’s Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist if not slightly hysterical. But I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago.

I would like nothing more than to be wrong. It is my greatest hope and prayer that the idea of a rise of anti-Semitism proves to be a self-denying prophecy — a prediction that carries the seeds of its own falsification. But this depends on all of us.
Lawrence H. Summers
Harvard University

Address at morning prayers
Memorial Church
Cambridge, Massachusetts
17 September 2002
This is a letter written by Mona Baker to Judith Butler pertain her accusations of anti-Semitism and the like. NB: Judith Butler never replied.

Dear Judith and other colleagues on the Academics for Justice List,

First of all, let me apologise unreservedly for any offence I may have unintentionally caused you and (evidently) other colleagues. But let me also explain some of the background to my ‘vitriolic’ reactions and hopefully clear some of the misunderstanding over the ‘Jewish press’ issue that you mentioned, as well as my position on the boycott. I believe these are very important issues that everyone involved in campaigning on behalf of Palestinians, whatever their tactics, should attempt to understand in order to avoid fighting unnecessarily amongst ourselves. Understanding of course doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing. Disagreement is perfectly natural and legitimate, but attacking each other isn’t.

I’ve organised my response under three headings: the question of the Jewish Press, the issue of the academic boycott and my particular interpretation of it, and finally some explanation for my ‘personal’ failure to control my anger at times (for which I apologise anyway).


I specifically criticised the Jewish press/papers, which is a very different category from ‘Jews’ (and conflating the two is like conflating ‘American press’ with ‘Americans’, for instance). The two main Jewish papers in the UK are the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Telegraph. Of the Jewish Chronicle, Ilan Pappe, the well-known Israeli scholar, recently had this to say:

From: Ilan Pappe
Sent: 21 October 2002 18:29
To: SA Blackwell
Cc: mona.baker@
Subject: Fwd: Re: ALEF: Fw: Witch-hunt launched by the Jewish Chronicle at Birmingham Univ.
A message from Ilan Pappe to members of the Israeli Academia on the Alef list:
Please join me in supporting Sue Blackwell. The Jewish Chronicle’s smear tactics and campaigns are not only harmful for anyone supporting the Palestinians, they will act in the end of the day against the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole. This paper is their main organ and it represents the Jewish community in Britain as racist, fascist and ignorant. Most of the community members, to best of my knowledge and I spent four years there, are fair minded liberal and pluralist people. But the association of the community’s leaders with Zionism had gradually eroded its more universal and humane aspects.
Ilan Pappe

And of the Jewish Telegraph, another Jewish colleague from Jews for Justice for Palestinians had this to say:

From: accessol
Sent: 11 November 2002
Subject: Letter for Publication
To the Editor of the THES

Dear Sir
The smear campaign being carried out by the Manchester Jewish Telegraph against Prof. Mona Baker (mentioned by Michael Cohen and Colwyn Williamson in “Umist should abandon boycott ‘witch-hunt’ “, 8th November 2002) is in no way untypical of “Britain’s Only Regional, Jewish Newspaper”. More liberal-minded Jewish readers like myself will know only too well how its columnists and letters’ page editor go out of their way to pander to the most reactionary and predjudiced elements of our Community.

As an example take last Friday’s issue which carried an outrageous letter from a certain A.P. Tobias (address withheld) calling for the bodies of dead Palestinian ‘terrorists’ to be buried wrapped in pig skins in order to ‘save Jewish lives’. Just imagine the uproar that would be generated by the Jewish media were a letter, advocating a similar treatment for Israeli terrorists, to be published in a Christian newspaper.

Sincerely yours
Seymour Alexander

So, there is no reason why you or anyone else should experience unease because I am openly criticising the Jewish press in the UK (and the fact that I’m Egyptian doesn’t have to make you unduly suspicious of my motives and intentions, in my humble opinion).

I should also draw your attention to the following letter which appeared in today’s Guardian, just to prove that serious reservations about the stance of Jewish groups (including the Jewish Press) are being voiced by Jews as well as non-Jews like myself. (see letters).

As organisers of the speaking tour of two Israeli military refuseniks, we would like to respond to the concerns at the apparent rise in anti-Israeli meetings on UK campuses. Our meetings were well supported not only by the left, but also by many student and some Jewish groups. In Leicester and Nottingham, where we tried to work with local Union of Jewish Students groups, we were cold-shouldered on the grounds that such meetings would send out the wrong kind of message. In London and Leeds, UJS members suggested the tour was promoting anti-Semitism and should be stopped – some chutzpah, complaining about a virtually non-existent boycott, while seeking to silence any critics of Israeli policies through cries of anti-Semitism. Individual UJS members did contribute to several of the 30 meetings. We look forward to a time when the UJS feels able to participate more openly in such debates.

Irene Bruegel
Jews for Justice for Palestinians
Tirza Waisel
Just Peace UK


Arguments for and against the academic boycott have been circulating for some time. Those who argue against it are not necessarily zionist or pro-Israel, and similarly those who believe in the boycott as a tactic are not necessarily anti-Jewish or racist. I hope you can accept that much.

If you believe in the boycott, as I do, you then have to engage in the question of what it means to boycott Israeli academia and how this might be put into practice. I am attaching an article by Hilary Rose which explains some of the dilemmas. And I’d like to give you an example of the kind of debate that some of us have amongst ourselves (Jews, Israelis, Arabs, non-Arabs – makes no difference). And we are capable of having this kind of debate without attempting to discredit each other (which is what I hope Academics for Justice will opt to do).

The following is a discussion between myself, Clare Barbandabour in Turkey and Tanya Reinhart in Israel.

From: tanya reinhart
Sent: 23 November 2002
To: mona.baker@<>; Clare Brandabur
Cc: Rachel Giora

Dear Clare,

Since Mona threw the glove at me, here is my reaction:

First as a background, I personally support at the present stage all forms of institutional academic boycott, but not a comprehensive individual boycott of Israeli scholars. However, as I explained to Mona, my reasons are mainly tactical, and in any case, I don’t think that as a member of the boycotted community, I have the right to be too opinionated on that.
Assuming that we do go for individual boycott, your message reveals a danger we should beware of. You said (apropos the question of inviting Laor): “. Do you think we should boycott HIM? Or isn’t there some way to make a distinction between pro-Zionist Israelis and institutions and those which [oppose] the government? I am troubled by this and would welcome your response. Best, Clare”

If there is an individual boycott, it should be absolute. No Israeli scholar should be invited for any academic events in their academic field, including Rachel, Ilan, Itsick and myself. It is very dangerous to start judging who is oppositional enough, or who is pro-zionist. And what if s/he is a pro-Zionist who nevertheless actively opposes the occupation? Screening people this way opens the way to many instances of thought police.

But what can and should be done in this framework, is that you invite scholars you trust politically to political events, aiming at raising consciousness against Israeli policies. This is I believe the event Mona invited Ilan for. In the case of Ilan, the distinction is difficult, since he is in political sciences, but in all other cases I mentioned, there is a clear distinction. The upshot re Itscik Laor (who is a good friend of mine, and we were together in Manara square in Ramallah at the event of twenty years ago that you describe) is that his academic field is literature, so you cannot invite him to a literary academic conference, but it is perfectly right to invite him to a political workshop, where he will discuss his stands on the Middle East situation – which I understand is what you did anyway. Of course, he can use that event to also read radical poems of his and others.

Making such clear distinctions is among the reasons why individual boycott is difficult in tactical terms, and should be taken with great care and thoughts. (E.g. among the technical problems: As academics we can get budget to organize and invite people to academic conferences or workshops. Getting them for a political framework is much harder, and may be targeted by the university with a reasonable degree of justice. The ideal situation should be that it should be a political and not an academic body that contributes the money for inviting such scholars to political events.) But it is not impossible to apply all such considerations and stick to them.


Nov. 23, 02 Mona Baker wrote:

Dear Clare,

Please accept my apologies for not responding to this earlier, and for not being able to respond in any detail now (you will appreciate, I hope, the pressure I’m under at the moment). I am copying your message to two of my Israeli friends, who might be able to respond more intelligently than I can at the moment.

I invited Ilan Pappe to Manchester recently, and he gave a superb talk to a lecture theatre full of people. My position is that I will only cooperate with members of Israeli academia officially (where I am actually in control of setting terms) within the activist frame.

Unofficially, I work closer now and have stronger friendships with people like Rachel and Tanya than I’ve ever had before, or imagined having with an Israeli. People like them have done a tremendous service to enabling genuine dialogue among various participants in the conflict, and I think they might agree that the ‘official’ boycott must be seen to have no unjustified exceptions if it is ever going to work.


From: Clare Brandabur
Sent: 04 November 2002
To: mona.baker@<>

Dear Mona,

I find this correspondence very interesting. However, I have mixed feelings. Personally I don’t recognize Israel and feel that the UN should have delayed recognizing Israel until and unless the refugees were allowed to return–which was actually the condition set for recognition. We all know this condition was never met–yet Israel was recognized.
However, like the boycott of South Africa, this should not be applied univocally. I sat beside an Israeli professor from Tel Aviv University at a conference last week in Austin Texas, and while I found her complete failure to address the issue of the Palestinians and the Occupation at all quite distasteful–I treated her politely so she could not construe my remarks about the genocide against the Palestinians as anti-Semitism which often happens. I remember when musical groups went to South Africa to record with the Black Mombaza group–and were criticized for breaking the boycott. It reminds me of the story about the Irish villagers who were showing hospitality to American pilots whose plane had been damaged by German gunners over Berlin during the Second World War, and one of the Irish neighbors looked askance. He said, ‘Sure and b’God, and I thought we were supposed to be neutral!’ to which one of the others replied, ‘Of coarse we’re neutral! But who are we neutral AGAINST!’

I have invited Israeli poet and activist Yitzhak Laor (whom I saw get teargassed, beaten up and arrested in the Manara at Ramallah twenty years ago, protesting the closure of MY university) to submit a proposal for conference at Bogzçi University in June– and I trust him to speak out against the Occupation. Do you think we should boycott HIM? Or isn’t there some way to make a distinction between pro-Zionist Israelis and institutions and those which support the government? I am troubled by this and would welcome your response.

Best, Clare


Finally, whether or not you agree with the boycott or my interpretation of it, I hope you can accept that my position is not ‘criminal’. And yet, I have been subjected an amazingly intensive and racist campaign by politicians, the media, my university, the pro-Israel lobby generally (hate mail, death threats, intimidation campaign to stop colleagues working with me on any projects, etc. etc.). This has been going on relentlessly since May, and shows no signs of slowing down. In the context, and given that an awful lot that comes my way is highly racist and vicious (largely because I happen to be Egyptian), I do at times lose my cool and hit back, sometimes perhaps inexcusably offending other colleagues I don’t mean to offend.

This is not an attempt to justify the tone of some of my less temperate emails, but just to remind you and myself that I am, alas, just human. We all make mistakes. I hope you will also accept my criticism when I say that it was somewhat unthoughtful of you to send the message you sent around the list, for two reasons. The first is that by sending this message to the list and referring to me rather than addressing me, you have in effect portrayed me as an outsider without giving me or other people the chance to debate the objection you raise. And secondly, given the extremely unfair and misleading media campaign that continues to be waged against me, you run the risk of providing more material for a public attack on me (Judith Butler, the well-known scholar, denounces Mona Baker and accuses her of being anti-Jewish!). Even the Academics for Justice list is not immune to eavesdropping. I sincerely hope this is not what you intended to do, that it was just an oversight on your part.

And finally, I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to leave such an important list on my behalf.
That wouldn’t be fair on you or the others, and I will be more than happy to stop contributing to the list or even leave it altogether if you would prefer me to do so.

Best wishes,
Mona Baker