Conversation and Its Discontents


It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.

— Golda Meir in 1969, as quoted in Joseph A. Massad’s The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians

this event will not take place

— Comment left on the registration page for “Circuits of Influence” 


On Sunday, Feb. 23, I was at home writing an essay for what was my final seminar as a graduate student. Around mid-day curious messages began arriving in my inbox — the first informed me that, “Goebbels would have been proud of you and your methods.” I, along with my colleagues in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU, would later be accused of conjuring the “rise of the fourth Reich.”

What crime against humanity had we perpetrated, you may ask?

We organized an academic conference, held on March 1, that gathered scholars and activists to discuss the circuits of influence that tie together the United States, Israel, and Palestine, in the context of a boycott recently endorsed by our discipline’s primary organizing institution, the American Studies Association. A modern day Eichmann, I performed logistical tasks that facilitated … a day of measured and informed conversation on a complex topic.

Hannah Arendt famously indicted Eichmann for banally carrying out the Nazi policy of “not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people.” Increasingly, it seems, some of Israel’s most ardent supporters are uninterested in sharing the world, not only with Palestinians, but with anyone who dares to critique the policies through which the state of Israel attempts to negate them as a people.

There is a long history of categorical disavowals of Palestinian existence among Zionists, as cited in the first epigraph by Golda Meir. If, as it happens, Palestinians do exist, they must be rendered invisible. The force of this disavowal can be seen in the state of Israel’s infrastructures of apartheid—the wall, the checkpoints, the proliferation of settlements.

A similar logic is increasingly at play in the realm of conversation about Israel within the United States, as illustrated in the second cryptic epigraph, addressed to the Circuits of Influence conference via its registration page—“this event will not take place.”

For all the demands that our conference demonstrate “balance,” the tone resounding from the inboxes of conference organizers and, no doubt, a wide swath of NYU administrators amounts not to a call for reasoned debate, but for an immediate halt to any discussion that might fail to legitimate the state of Israel and its actions. Attempts to pressure NYU to cancel our conference, or to intimidate us into canceling it ourselves, are merely the latest example of what has become a favorite tactic of ardent supporters of the Israeli state: to silence talks and conferences organized to critically interrogate that state’s policies. Such backlash has been especially targeted at supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — it nearly halted a talk by Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti at Brooklyn College last year, and earlier this year resulted in Butler’s withdrawal from a lecture at the Jewish Museum on Franz Kafka.

Regardless of the efficacy of its eponymous tactics, the BDS movement has sparked a conversation within the United States about the state of Israel that the latter’s apologists find existentially threatening. Take, for example, Liel Leibovitz, the culture columnist for Tablet magazine who in February published a column titled “Why talk about Israel with people who want it to disappear?” In it, he defends efforts to cleanse the American Jewish public sphere of anti-Zionist sentiments through acts of institutional and personal disassociation, arguing that “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” ought not to be a question open to discussion. Leibovitz writes, “if you’re a Jewish student association, a museum, or any other Jewish institution, you’re right to tell the BDSers that they’re perfectly entitled to hold their rallies, write their op-eds, and convene their meetings, but not here, not with us.” A week later, however, Leibovitz extended his advocacy of silence beyond the Jewish public sphere, accusing my colleagues and me of turning our “classroom into a seminary designed to cultivate hatred for one particular nation state and fashion this animosity into ruinous political action” and strongly suggesting that NYU would be violating the principles of academic freedom and even its own faculty handbook if it did not shut us up.

While Lisa Duggan is correct to point out the “fundamental contradiction” of anti-BDS critiques of Circuits of Influence, which maintain that academic freedom requires a balance of viewpoints while arguing against the presence of pro-BDS speakers within an academic setting, a careful reading of Leibovitz demonstrates how this contradiction is merely a dual manifestation of a more fundamental Zionist decisionism, in which Zionism itself becomes the only legitimate political authority in questions pertaining to the state of Israel.

We might better understand this Zionist decisionism, in the U.S. context, by isolating its two constituent (and false) conflations:

  1. The conflation of Jewish sovereignty in Israel with Jewish existence in Israel (and the U.S.), and
  2. The conflation of conversation with debate.

Read in light of the first conflation, Leibovitz’s concern with disappearance is more understandable, if no less alarmist. His desire to purge the American Jewish public sphere of BDS supporters reflects a desire to resolve the imaginary contradiction embodied in the figure of the anti-Zionist Jew — removing dissent from within the American Jewish community allows for an easier conflation of Zionism and Jewish identity itself, the former serving as the legitimating criteria for the latter. Once Zionism, or as Leibovitz puts it the “cherished—even sacred—value” of Jewish sovereignty in Israel is defined as consubstantial with American Jewish identity, the act of questioning a decision made by the state of Israel becomes an act of apparent self-negation. Tautologically, then, Zionism becomes the only standard of judgment for considering the decisions made by the state of Israel, seeing as anti-Zionist critiques of Israeli actions are thought to categorically threaten the very authority of the Israeli state to decide. This logic is extended outside the Jewish public sphere by way of the second conflation — the imperative that every conversation be considered as a debate, that every exchange of ideas must serve as a means to an end rather than as an end in and of itself.

As one of its organizers, I can attest that Circuits of Influence, like most academic conferences, was not designed with some ulterior end in mind. Its purpose was not to “indoctrinate”—I would venture to say none in attendance were without some prior knowledge and opinion of the subject matter being discussed. Nor was its purpose to stage a debate, with the aim of resolving the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Its purpose was to enable conversation among scholars and activists who share similar interests in critiquing the actions of the U.S. and Israeli states with regard to the Palestinian people and the strategies with which political activists have sought to oppose those actions.

Conversations took place. Ideas were exchanged. No decisions were made. No material conditions changed. And, yet, our critics allege that harm was done — that holding a conversation about the actions of the Israeli state, without at least one voice affirming the “sacred” legitimacy of that action, is somehow a violation of the very principle of academic freedom, under whose auspices our conference was held. Such demands are nothing more than an effort to place academic freedom itself under the constraints of Zionist decisionism, to ensure that no conversation takes place that does not in some way affirm the exceptionality of the state of Israel.

What does it say about a state, especially a state endowed (by the United States) with all the tools of military supremacy, when mere conversation is thought to render it vulnerable? I have no answer, but I am beginning to understand why critics like Leibovitz are declaring debate “futile,” and why JNS columnist Ben Cohen felt the need to remind his readers, “we have the power to harass, frustrate and crush the BDS movement wherever it appears. Let us do so without mercy.” Decisionist politics are premised on a rigid and existential distinction between friend and enemy. Inter-ideological conversation carries with it the possibility of blurring that distinction, opening up the potential for new political alliances and beginnings. It is not only democracy that threatens the state of Israel; the act of conversation itself threatens to undermine its decisionist logic. This is why you see the BDS movement and other critics of the state of Israel calling for more conversation, not less.

Take, to conclude, the recent work of the Israeli-Palestinian collective Anarchists Against the Wall, two members of which are currently in the final weeks of a six-month tour of the United States. From small-town churches to college campuses across the country, they have engaged hundreds in conversation about the material conditions in the occupied territories, and about the consequences of uncritical U.S. support for the state of Israel. The Israeli state’s apologists can disassociate, harass, and frustrate BDS proponents all they wish, but the result is only and always more conversation.

You can render conversation invisible, under the radar, but you cannot make it disappear.


A.J. Bauer is a doctoral candidate in American Studies in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU.

The author would like to acknowledge Stephen Miller for this essay’s title (see Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 1-2) and to thank Anarchists Against the Wall member Maya Wind for help in recognizing the first conflation, of Jewish sovereignty with Jewish existence.


(Photo credit: Mondoweiss/@ReclaimLanguage)

A. J. Bauer