The Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is the most prominent effort today to single out and delegitimize the State of Israel. In recent months, BDS has lost some steam both because it ties itself to extreme and often anti-Semitic partners and also because some academic and church groups recognize that such political boycotts are anathema to scholarly discourse and peace-making.
The BDS today is nevertheless driven by the hatreds and obsessions which the post-Edward Said Middle Eastern studies community world promotes. At Columbia University, Brandeis, and many other elite universities, Zionism is considered original sin and students who support Israel as a Jewish state increasingly face ostracism. Whereas once African Americans and Jews found common cause and maintained a de facto alliance in Congress, progressive activists now cite the idea of intersectionality to demand blind loyalty to a collection of movements no matter how illiberal some causes like rejectionist Palestinian nationalism can be.
Because colleges and university classes too often de-emphasize fact in favor of political frameworks when tackling history, too many progressive activists imagine that when they support BDS and agitate against Israel, they are waging an anti-colonialist battle against the forces of imperialism. In effect, they see strength and power as sin, and cannot fathom that they have reversed David and Goliath; that Palestinian nationalists have prostituted themselves to become proxies of Iran, Turkey, and various Arab regimes. Israel, the United States, the CIA are by definition bad, whereas the Palestine Liberation Organization and like-minded or even more radical groups are good.
How ironic it is that so few BDS proponents recognize that they may very well be repeating if not cultivating the seeds planted by CIA Arabists half a century ago. From the Jewish Telegraph Agency on February 20, 1967:
Congressmen William Fitts Ryan and Benjamin Rosenthal, both New York Democrats, this weekend condemned the support of an anti-Israel organization by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The Congressmen cited authoritative reports to the effect that the CIA has financed the American Friends of the Middle East, (AFME) a pro-Arab, anti-Israel propaganda front. They called for an investigation by President Johnson.
Mr. Ryan and Mr. Rosenthal said, “the CIA undermines the Administration policy of friendship toward Israel by secretly funding the AFME.” They cited AFME’s attacks on Israel and propaganda issued by Elmo Hutchison, AFME’s former Middle East director. They pointed out that AFME helps finance and guides an organization it created, the Organization of Arab Students. The group spreads anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Jewish propaganda at over 100 American colleges and universities by Arab students. The Arab student activity is supported by the Arab League in Cairo, which sends out the propaganda lines to be followed. The CIA apparently financed the anti-Israel propaganda in an effort to woo young Arabs away from Communism.
It was a convoluted and largely unsuccessful scheme but one whose poison has been long-lasting. In America’s Great Game, reviewed here in COMMENTARY, California State University professor Hugh Wilford detailed further some of the problematic and hateful views at the heart of the AFME. “I am seriously concerned about the position of the Jews in the United States,” AFME Officer Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1951. “Everything on the surface seems to be going the Zionist way, but underneath… [people] are asking themselves the question: who is really running America?” Thompson may have crossed the line with a directness avoided by other AFME staff, but Wilford also chronicled the same debates surrounding the AFME which swirl around the BDS movement today, especially with regard to the degree to which anti-Semitism colored fierce anti-Zionism.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Has BDS directly evolved from the CIA’s work with AFME? Perhaps not, although the same themes replicate absent the Cold War context. In effect, while BDS activists might rail against the CIA’s activities throughout the years, they fail to recognize that they are replicating the work of some of its most dishonest and prejudiced employees.