This month on the n+1 podcast, Aaron Braun interviews regular contributor and Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins about his essay in Issue 24, “The Logic of the Beneficiary,” on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.
Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L, ESG, Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass
Malcolm Donaldson: Hi, and welcome to the n+1 podcast. On today’s episode Aaron Braun interviews regular contributor and Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins. Bruce spoke about his most recent piece, titled “The Logic of the Beneficiary,” on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. Here’s Bruce.
SEGMENT: Interview with Bruce Robbins
Bruce Robbins: So, I’m a supporter of BDS—Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—and I wanted to write a piece supporting BDS. I wanted to write it for n+1—I thought that n+1 was a good place for tormented writing. And maybe being tormented is actually not such a bad thing, given that some of what I feel is tormented. So what I finally wrote was a somewhat tormented piece that starts in favor of BDS and ends in favor of BDS but in the middle goes through a certain period of torment. And I think it was actually good for me, in a sense—I’m grateful to n+1. It was good for me to spend that time in a state of torment and uncertainty, working through some of the more complicated feelings I have, which seemed practically relevant in the sense that on one level, what I was looking for was to try to get at some of the deep and unarticulated sources of resistance among people who I think should know better and do know better. Why don’t people just come out for BDS when it really is consistent with their principles? What is it that’s holding them back? So my sources of torment seem to me a way of getting at some of those sources of resistance in other people—whom I respect a lot and kind of expect to be more on the same side as.
Aaron Braun: What was the closest thing you found to a resistance to BDS that didn’t seem to be completely based on some kind of ideological strategy?
BR: You know, in a way I wasn’t really interested in the bad motives for resistance. I was only interested in the good motives. And the most obvious one was the argument that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. That is, it seems to me a lot of people that I agree with about almost everything—some of them would hesitate to support BDS on the grounds that—“who are we to boycott anybody?” I mean, look at our history—look at the awful things we did for our nation, how could we possibly hold any other country to a higher standard than that? If there is any boycotting to be done, it should be boycotting of ourselves, which is the position that I associated Chomsky with based on an essay he had written in The Nation. Chomsky has clearly felt this—the idea of people in glass houses—on various occasions in a very intense way. That is, the business of Americans is to be critical of America. There was a certain working through, for me, of that argument.
Then the other thing—I’ll get to the point about moral consistency in general—but the other point was definitely part of my own torment and corresponded to something that I found in Todd Gitlin. Todd Gitlin responded to this essay in Tablet, and this was the one thing he liked about the essay. He otherwise thought I was a complete idiot, as people tend to think about people with whom they disagree on issues like this. But the idea is that the passage of time is morally significant, and that it is relevant to the question of the right of return—the third plank of the BDS platform. I do believe, and it was part of the argument of the essay, that the passage of time—alas, uncomfortable as it is to think of—the passage of time really is morally significant, and there is no way one can undo that. That as time goes by, the worst atrocity cannot be dealt with in the same way after ten years or a hundred years or a thousand years. We can all think of examples of things where time has changed our moral reaction. That’s a true thing about this situation, and it’s a true thing even if we know, if we speculate that the Israelis are very self-consciously and deliberately exploiting the passage of time so as to get away with murder, so to speak. So that was very important.
And then the third, as I say, is this question of moral consistency. I became interested in Ari Shavit because he seemed to be arguing that in the name of moral consistency, if one is the beneficiary of acts of atrocity in the very specific sense that one’s own life depends on these terrible things, then one is not in the position to repudiate them. That seemed to me very, very important in terms of really deep, unarticulated sources of emotional resistance that would work for people. So again, some of my torment was: okay, so, if that’s moral consistency, then I must be in favor of moral inconsistency, but that doesn’t sound like a very desirable position, and in various other moments in my life I’m not in favor of moral inconsistency! On the contrary, I’m calling out to people to be more morally consistent. So, you see the torment.
AB: One of the things I think was so interesting about this piece was that you could see two people—Noam Chomsky on the one hand, Ari Shavit on the other hand—going through these questions about moral consistency. Understanding that all suffering is not equal to a certain degree: it changes, it’s dependent on time and place, and this poses problems of consistency. They could have that same moment and clearly be reflective on that and just come to such radically different—or perhaps not radically, but very different—positions. And I’m wondering what makes that possible, where does the difference lie?
BR: It seems to me that it’s not quite so diametrically opposed as one might think, in the sense that in both cases—at least if we associate Chomsky with the people in glass houses argument—there’s a constraint, a limitation, almost a little bit of paralysis that Chomsky feels is imposed on the American, at least to the extent that you have to do the work of criticizing America first. And there’s also a constraint, a much greater constraint on Shavit, who doesn’t really do much criticizing at all. I suppose David Remnick of the New Yorker did say that he was kind of a hero for being as honest about Israeli atrocities as he was, and I don’t know how much credit he deserves. I know that there’s an incredible Israeli novel, published already in 1949, which talked about atrocities committed by the pre-IDF, which has been taught in Israeli high schools. So maybe it’s not quite as new a thing—I’m told it’s been optional on the curriculum of Israeli high schools, but it’s been taught since the ’50s, right, so it’s not as if nobody had been admitting this stuff.
AB: And even Benny Morris was considered a revisionist historian. Here was this person airing our dirty laundry, shining a light, saying that no, the war of 1948 didn’t start because the Palestinians conspired with Egypt and Jordan to drive Jews into the sea, there was a plan to expel. And he’s now definitely aligned himself with the more right-wing elements in Israel. So again, being reflective about the element of history doesn’t necessarily lend itself to one political argument versus another.
BR: That’s right. It seems to me that, to the extent that this essay struck a nerve—or maybe I’m just flattering myself to think that the world is jumping up and down about this essay—I think there really is something in our historical moment that resonates with this idea: what do you do once you recognize that you don’t speak from a position of moral purity? If you realize that you are stuck forever, inescapably in a situation of moral impurity and then all decisions have to be made on that basis? I think there are a lot of young people, in particular, who would absolutely get that.
BR: Let me say something about proximity. That’s another thing that really grabbed me, though it’s something I’d been thinking about anyway because of this book, The Beneficiary, which I’m just in the process of finishing now. There’s a longstanding debate in the theory of humanitarianism about people’s obligations to those who are suffering far away. How much moral significance is there in proximity versus distance? I’ve been trying to think about this, and it turns out to be really, really interesting. There’s a historian of abolition called Thomas Haskell, who argued—and this must have been thirty years ago—that moral obligations are relative to the technology and the social infrastructure that connects the sufferer to the distant spectator, that that changes as the technology and the infrastructure change. This is a crazy idea in a way: that there’s no such thing as an absolute moral obligation to help the person far away, but it depends on how much you want to give up, how far away it is, what you mean by “far away,” what you mean by “proximate.” And of course what he was saying—and it’s become even truer, in the years since the 1980s, when he made this argument—is that a lot of things that seem further away now are in some real way more proximate. Therefore, our obligations to the faraway are also more pressing, and that seems right to me. So it’s certainly a very, very relevant consideration in the case of the people in glass houses argument as applied to Americans and BDS, because nothing could be more proximate to Israel than American policy. Without American money, none of this stuff could have been happening, and if you could shut off that money supply, it would change overnight.
So in that sense Chomsky is right—aim by all means at trying to restrict the almost infinite supply of funds to Israel. But then the question is how are you going to do that? Obviously by legislative means, it’s out of the question—there’s no way this is going to happen. And moral pressure at the international level, of the kind that BDS proposes and that’s clearly modeled on South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement, and the premise that Israel has reached its South African moment—when if we are not at it, we are very close to it, and most of the rest of the world is going to look at this and say, this is unacceptable.
AB: A lot of what I hear—and I think there’s a certain cynicism in this—is that faraway issues are kind of raised for us to fill our need to be politically engaged without having to confront the hard truths that we might otherwise be forced to if we were, say, working at home, which I think I’m used to hearing on the left.
BR: Oh absolutely. That argument goes at least as far back as Rousseau, where cosmopolitanism looks like evasiveness. You are paying attention to all the suffering and injustice elsewhere because you don’t want to face your privilege or what have you, up close. Obviously I don’t see it that way, and this is really kind of an answer to one of your other questions: it seems to me that when I think about the mobilization—either emotional or organizational—there’s a lot of willingness to mobilize on college campuses, exactly to the extent that people recognize that that which is most proximate to them at home in their everyday lives is connected to very faraway stuff. That’s why the anti-sweatshop movement was as powerful as it was, at least before 9/11, why the politics of food and the locavore movement—but also now, thinking about the labor rights of people that produce the food, which I think is the big new thing that is going to come in, in the wake of the environmental side of it. Okay, so what are the labor practices, what’s the legislation and so on around the people who are picking the apples on your organic farms? It’s been clear that no one has been forced to really think about that very hard. But there is a way in which thinking about what is closest to you is also a way of getting into the system, which leaves you very, very far.
Now I mention this both because I think it’s important to us as citizens, but also because it’s the premise of this book on the beneficiary that I’ve been working on. Standard-issue humanitarianism would say that we have to do something about the sufferings of people far away because of our common humanity. That’s it. They’re human, we’re human. We have responsibility on that basis. Now, that has proved to be a relatively weak motive, as we all know. What I’m curious about—and it may turn out to be even weaker, who the hell knows—is when people realize that the clothes they’re wearing and the food they’re eating is the result of labor, injustice, and suffering in distant places. That puts an entirely different moral obligation on people. You are benefiting from this—this is not just common humanity. On the contrary, that is a tight causal relationship. As that comes home to people, how do they respond? I’m a literary person, so I’m not organizing on this basis myself, but I’m at least organizing an archive of people who have been thinking about this, and it was partly working on the literary side of that issue that led me into the use of the term “beneficiary” and kind of sticking it onto the BDS stuff in this essay.
AB: The whole time I was a member of SJP and part of these conversations, the one battleground that I got really familiar with was this question of anti-Zionism versus anti-Semitism. I think it’s a really powerful battleground for a lot of people, so in a lot of ways I’m tired of the argument, but I also understand that it’s an important argument. And I’m wondering about your thoughts on that—and if that relates to the points in your piece about the effect that time and history have on our understanding of suffering.
BR: I’m not sure if I’m going to get at exactly what you’re looking for, but I can make a connection. I think—and not everybody would agree with me—but my general position is that you can be as critical of Israel’s policies as you want and you should not be accused, for that reason, of anti-Semitism. It seems grotesque, or really just a cynical ploy on the part of Israel’s defenders, to shout “anti-Semitism” all the time when there is no anti-Semitism there—it’s just calling on Israel to respect its own universal principles. That’s just not anti-Semitism. I think time has had an effect on anti-Semitism in a way that not everybody would want to accept.
I say this as someone whose father was a Rabinowitz, and I’m a Robbins. When my father got back from flying missions in World War II, he decided with his big brother to change Rabinowitz into Robbins, and that was a very practical response to anti-Semitism, which they perceived even in the world of textiles, which they were both going into, which was a pretty Jewish industry. As an intolerant adolescent, I said “Dad, how could you have done this? I’m gonna change my name back!” but I think anti-Semitism was a significant enough factor so that he wasn’t crazy to change his name. When I was growing up, I think that was no longer the case. In other words, the passage of time in the United States had had a real impact on anti-Semitism, which permits me to say that a lot of the shouting, of the complaint of anti-Semitism, is really phantasmatic. People are not talking about something they have experienced—they’re talking about a phantasm that exists in the world, but probably not very much in their world. I work in the academy—we are overrepresented in the academy, all over the damn place. Once upon a time that wasn’t true. Lionel Trilling was the first Jew allowed into the department where I teach, at Columbia. So it clearly was real at a certain point, but just as clearly it’s not real now.
I think this is a distinction that has to be made: I’ve encountered real anti-Semitism, mainly in other countries, and I think I can tell the difference. Of course there’s anti-Semitism all over the place in the same way that human beings are casually racist about other groups pretty much everywhere. I also think that what has contributed most to the rise of anti-Semitism, to the extent that it has risen, have been Israel’s policies since 1948. So, if there’s real anti-Semitism out there—and there is—that’s where to look for it, and not in some primeval, atavistic feeling that they have always wanted us dead, they will always want us dead, you know, in their eyes we are always drinking the blood of Christian children or whatever.
I’ve had some bad reaction to the term “anti-Zionist.” I was recently told by an Israeli, in Israel, that it’s a really bad idea to use the term because people in Israel simply think that if you use the term, you’re saying that they should all be thrown into the sea, that they should be made to leave. And of course, I don’t even know anybody who would mean that by it. But on the other hand, why turn off a lot of potential allies in Israel if you don’t have to? The thing that I liked so much about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument for reparations is its insistence on the present. When you talk about redlining, for example, you’re talking about the way in which the racism of the past didn’t stay past, but has persisted in objectively measurable ways into the present. If you visit Indian reservations in this country, you will see the same kind of thing. This is a past that is absolutely present. To suburban New York Jews like me, the Holocaust is a subjective reality, there is no question, but it is not a present reality in the same way as the genocide of the Native Americans or slavery are present realities for those people. And I think that is a distinction that absolutely has to be respected.
AB: It’s one thing to say that time is a variable that we need to consider when we think about suffering, but it also doesn’t treat everyone equally.
BR: Exactly. You can turn that off now—I hope you get the last word because that’s a good last word.
MD: Thank you to our guest Bruce Robbins, and as always, Dayna Tortorici. You can read the whole of Bruce’s piece in Issue 24, accessible online at nplusonemag.com. Keep an eye out for Bruce’s forthcoming book The Beneficiary. The podcast was produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen. Until next time, thanks for listening.