Episode 199: The Golden Age of Crybullyism

Citations Needed | March 20, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
71 min readMar 20, 2024
Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, left, and former MIT “Sony Corporation Career Development Professor” Neri Oxman. (Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images/JTA)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and if you are so inclined, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. All your help and support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded.

Adam: Yes, as always if you listen to the show and you like it and you haven’t yet, please, please, please subscribe to us on Patreon. It helps keep the episodes themselves free and the show sustainable.

Nima: “Ex-officer Amber Guyger testifies in wrong-apartment murder trial: ‘I was scared to death,’” a ABC News story reported in 2019. “Starbucks Files Complaints with Labor Board, Accuses Union Organizers of Bullying and Harassment,” reported Food & Wine Magazine in April 2022. “Labour MPs fear for safety as pro-Palestine protesters target offices,” The Guardian reported in November 2023.

Adam: Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of a phenomenon we’re referring to today as elite “crybullyism” in which people in power engage in political manipulation in order to portray themselves as victims. Routinely, we hear that armed American police fear for their safety around unarmed civilians or they sob on the stand at the trial. Lawmakers increasingly say they fear for their safety in the face of routine nonviolent sit-down protest and corporate executives are being unfairly treated by bullyish union organizers.

Nima: It’s a sleazy, manipulative tactic that not only flattens but flips power dynamics. By claiming to have been bullied or traumatized by those who oppose them. wealthy and influential figures suddenly transform themselves from victimizer into victim. Meanwhile, by the same perverse logic, they characterize their actual victims be the organizing workers or peace activists who merely seek to stand up for themselves or people killed by military and police violence as the victimizers.

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll explore the rise of ruling-class crybullyism, how elites increasingly traffic in the language of anti-bullying and therapy-speak to indemnify themselves from criticism, examine how cynical distortions of power relations recast the upholders of colonialism, labor abuses, and police violence as the oppressed and the people who dared to object as the oppressors all in an effort to silence dissent from the justifiably angry masses.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by two guests. The first will be Mari Cohen, associate editor at Jewish Currents.

[Begin clip]

Mari Cohen: In practice, the ADL is doing everything it can to back up Israel’s right to do what it wants with impunity. You know, for example, if the United States government were to try to condition aid to Israel or were to more harshly criticize Israel, the ADL is going to come out against that on all sorts of counts. And they’re also trying to classify basically most Palestinian political expression as antisemitic.

[End clip]

Nima: We’ll also be joined by Saree Makdisi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. A scholar of British Romanticism, imperial and urban culture, and colonial and postcolonial theory, Professor Makdisi’s writing has appeared in academic journals as well as many publications such as The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, N+1, and the London Review of Books. The author of six books himself, his latest is Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial, published in 2022 by University of California Press.

[Begin clip]

Saree Makdisi: We can talk about feelings all day. But as somebody who also has feelings, I’m not nearly as interested in my feelings as I am in the fate of the 11,000 children who’ve been killed in Gaza and their mothers and their fathers and their schools and the houses and so on. And so, I’d rather talk about what’s happening to actual people materially speaking because that’s far more urgent than what I’m feeling or anybody else is feeling on American campuses, given our position of relative privilege.

[End clip]

Adam: The term “crybullyism” is a fairly recent one. It’s been around for about a decade. It’s been written up in publications like The Spectator, Jerusalem Post, the LA Times even had a mention of it. The term has been used by both the left and the right to criticize a tactic of interpersonal or political manipulation. Broadly speaking, it describes the concept that someone engages in abuse, intimidation, or foul play, and then when they get called on it, they immediately recoil and feign that they themselves are the victims or they themselves are being bullied. What we’ll argue in this episode and what I argued in my piece that I wrote on this for The Nation on January 17th of this year in an article entitled “We Live in a Golden Age of Crybullyism,” what I argue there and what we’ll argue today is that it’s a tactic that is increasingly being used by those in power, those in charge of large corporations, those who are billionaires, and those who promote, for example, an ethnic cleansing and Gaza as we’ll detail, that they themselves are in fact, the ones subjected to bullying in an effort to subvert power dynamics — a topic we’ve talked about on the show a lot — and play the role of victim. It’s a tactic we’ll argue that we believe emanates from PR shops, it is a PR response tactic. It is a PR crisis response tactic that is increasingly being used by electeds, billionaires, union busters, and all sorts of people who themselves are major bully assholes.

Nima: Well, yeah, exactly right? If you have the power, and then there’s any sort of pushback, you instantly go to the fainting couch and cry that you are yourself being victimized. So, let’s get into some of these examples. Examples of this phenomenon really started to escalate after the 2014 Ferguson protests and the many demonstrations against police violence that followed over the ensuing months and then years. A narrative of police fearing for their safety and politicians worrying on their behalf, of course, began to surface as a way to counter and delegitimize protests against police violence and brutality and of course, to then seek even more sympathy for police themselves. In 2016, Politico magazine surveyed 71 US mayors about policing in their cities, finding that more than half of them said they were “very worried about the safety of their black citizens but nearly three quarters of mayors say they now fear for their officers’ lives as well.” Politico published an article on August 8th, 2016, summarizing its findings with this headline: “America’s Mayors: ‘We’re Afraid for Our Police.’”

Adam: Now, of course, US mayors on the whole are ideologically aligned with police departments. But Politico played an instrumental role in crafting this narrative as well that the people with the guns and the weapons and the military grade technology with virtual immunity to pretty much do whatever they want were in fact, the ones under siege and under threat. When crafting this narrative, they asked this question to the mayors in their poll. They wrote, “How worried are you for the safety of your police?” “How worried are you about the safety of people of color in your city when they encounter the police?” The framing of the first question introduces the notion that somehow the general public is endangering armed police who needless to say, have all the social and political powers as I mentioned whereas the general public, especially those who are poor and black and brown obviously have far less power and far less protection under the law. The reported number of police that are killed on the job as a result of felonious acts e.g. someone killed them, right, rather than getting in a car accident or slipping and falling. In 2015 per the FBI, it was 41 while police killed at least 1,152 people that year according to the Mapping Police Violence project. So, here we have police officers, 41 of whom died on the job in the entire country as opposed to 1,152 in the general public who were killed by police, and we’re given the implication that the police are the ones that are under siege. The idea is that this is part of a broader narrative that police protests were per se putting police in danger rather than trying to reform or defund the police, that they were in fact, menacing threats. And you’ll see this conflation of left-wing protests with violence or something as sort of vaguely menacing throughout this episode.

Nima: If you protest violence, you yourself are therefore being violent against the people who are being violent.

Adam: Because what they want is total submission and acquiescence and obsequiousness. And anything short of that is considered a danger to them. Again, very vibes-based way.

Nima: In subsequent years, police and vigilantes have taken advantage of this kind of doe-eyed vulnerable characterization, expressing fear and trauma in order to elicit sympathy. It’s been especially common when police officers themselves are defendants in high-profile murder trials. All of the following have cried to the media and then again on the stand while testifying about why they killed their victims. These include Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown in the back in Ferguson, Missouri; Amber Guyger the off-duty Dallas cop who walked into Botham Jean’s apartment and shot and killed him; Brett Hankison, the detective who was part of the raid on and murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and Kyle Rittenhouse who killed two people protesting the police killing of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This list, of course, is far from exhaustive, but it demonstrates a clear pattern. When cops or pro-cop vigilantes kill people, who is the victim ultimately? Who feared for their own lives? Not the people who are dead. No, but the people who killed them.

Adam: And this is a recurring pattern because they’re probably instructed to cry because that’s how you sort of solicit victim status, right? It’s to make yourself look like you were under tremendous amounts of pressure and you had no choice. This is implied in a lot of the split-second decision rhetoric we see around local police coverage of police shootings. The idea is that the person who did the killing is in fact himself, a victim of some horrible circumstances. It’s a propaganda term typically associated with Israel, which we can discuss a little later called “shooting and crying,” Gil Hochberg describes “shooting and crying” as a soldier being “sorry for things I had to do.” This “non apologetic apology” was a self-critique model advanced in Israel, and many political reflective works of literature and cinema as “a way of maintaining the nation’s self-image as youthful and innocent.” A similar dynamic plays out in the script when there’s a high-profile police shooting. They cry on the stand, they go to the media, talk about how they feared for their lives, how scared they were. Which again, is what you would do — if I was a PR agent with no soul and you handed me $500,000, that’s exactly what I would tell them to do.

Nima: [Laughs] That’s the coaching advice that you would give.

Adam: That’s exactly what I would tell them because you need to solicit sympathy in the media.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And so what happens is the media then covers that sympathetic and pity portrayal and because they’re not doing material analysis, there’s no sense of the actual power dynamics that are at play, both systemic and on an individual basis.

Nima: And they take the crocodile tears at face value.

Adam: They take the crocodile tears at face value, which in case you may not know, we, as the most cynical show on earth, do not.

Nima: [Laughs]

Adam: We think they’re largely contrived.

Nima: Now, corporate heads have also adopted this approach, particularly when confronted about forms of exploitation that they are routinely engaged in. This was certainly the case in early 2022 after BuzzFeed published the names of the previously synonymous founders of NFT company, Bored Ape Yacht Club. By this point, NFT had garnered plenty of criticism as to quote BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos, “a speculative bubble at best and a scam at worst,” and Board Ape’s refusal to identify its founders had, for a while at least, been a means of evading accountability. But after the names were released, Nicole Muniz, the CEO of the company behind Bored Ape was interviewed by D3 network. Let’s now listen to a clip from that interview. The first voice you’ll hear is that of the interviewer, the second that of Muniz.

[Begin clip]

Laurie Segall: Folks in the community when this happened, said, you have to be careful because there are safety issues. Can you explain why?

Nicole Muniz: People who have made a lot of money in crypto, and it’s attracted some nefarious characters. And it has put people in severe jeopardy. There are kidnappings. Just very, very bad stuff happens. And there is honestly a misconception that the founders of this company are crypto whales and releasing their identities and frankly, only giving us 30 minutes, is very, very dangerous for them and their families.

[End clip]

Nima: Yes, so clearly, she sounds very concerned, Adam. Needless to say, we should note, none of these people who were named in these reports have been kidnapped, let alone murdered. But this idea that naming people who are responsible for bullshit as a form of then doxxing and threat to their families is certainly a way to evade accountability.

Adam: Well, it’s similar to Elon Musk who said that when there was a guy tracking his private jet that that was a form of doxxing and bullying and providing “assassination coordinates.” So, anytime the rabble do the sort of lightest bit of satire or mockery, it is immediately turned around as a violent threat because again, that’s exactly what I would advise them to say. Now, Starbucks is taking this to the next level. Much of which we’re discussing was when the CEO was Howard Schultz who’s now no longer the CEO, but his tenure, both the first and second one really kind of mastered this mopey, anti-union, anti-labor therapy speak and crybullyism, to the point where one wants to bash their head against the window. So, they did this repeatedly, especially during the 2020, 2023, and now 2024 union efforts to unionize Starbucks and to get Starbucks to actually recognize the union and to have a contract. According to one April 2022 filing with the NLRB, Starbucks claimed that organizers exhibited behavior that was “reasonably expected to physically intimidate and bully partners and customers in retaliation for their withholding support for Workers United.” That same month, May Jensen, the Starbucks Vice President of Labor Relations, which is to say their resident union buster, accused union organizers of bullying and intimidation. Now, all this occurs while Starbucks is notoriously bullying workers who try to form unions. The National Labor Relations Board rulings have found that the company committed routine federal labor violations including worker intimidation, discriminatory rules, and unlawful discipline and termination of union organizers to undermine union efforts in over one eight-month period in 2023. Starbucks lost 16 of the 17 NLRB rulings accusing them of violating labor law. One October 2022 article quoted May Jensen “the resident labor union buster at Starbucks.” So, Starbucks commissioned an internal poll and found out that their workers loathe them and their executive friends. They had very, very unfavorable opinions about corporate executives. Shocking. And then May Jensen called an employee meeting, both in person and over Zoom in which she said, “I actually find it heartbreaking that our mission and our values are being questioned in the space of labor relations. I really, really want to instill to everyone that we have not lost our way. It’s just really, really hard right now.” She feels really bad about it.

Nima: Can we just, like, all hug it out?

Adam: Yeah. So obviously, this is just manipulative claptrap. You’re the person in charge. You get paid probably very high, six figures, if not more to undermine union efforts in the hundreds of Starbucks stores that have tried to unionize. Your job is to wake up every morning and lessen worker power, to make them more precarious. Again, you gotta remember, Starbucks also withheld health care and specifically trans-affirming health care to their many trans employees for those who tried to start unions, which NLRB also find them quite a bit of money for. So, this is a company that has created material harm to its workers, both with its anti union-activities, withholding benefits from employees who tried to unionize, which is a clear violation of people’s right to unionize. And then they turn around when a poll says of course, their employees hate them because they’re anti-labor dickheads and they say, you know, it really hurts us, we’re really hurt. And Howard Schultz had many of these Zoom meetings, some of which he actually cried in the Zoom meetings where he was talking about a hurt he was that people wanted to join a union. This, of course, is a somewhat shoddy manipulation tactic. Now, I think in the case of Howard Schultz, he kind of, I think, from what I understand, people who’ve worked with him anecdotally say that he genuinely like, has a Messiah Complex and believes his own bullshit. So, it’s possible these are the only ones in this episode that were not totally crocodile tears. I think he’s genuinely deluded into thinking he’s everyone’s father. And this is a typical thing one sees when a corporate megalomaniac is confronted with unionization. When they say that they view them as their family and that they’re the sort of patriarch, they really, really think that. And they think that they’re a benevolent dictator.

Nima: Which is why it’s such a betrayal.

Adam: It’s a betrayal, right?

Nima: It’s such a betrayal, it’s speaking against the family. So politicians, of course, do this as well, especially when confronted about their support of Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza. We keep hearing this in recent weeks, recent months, that being called out for supporting this ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing, that act of being called out is itself a threat, right? So a November 16th, 2023 Axios article reported that “Protests and threats over Israel-Hamas war rattle Congress.” The piece was wholly sympathetic to US policymakers, stating this:

Members who were in the building described being gripped by a fear and uncertainty some of them haven’t felt since Jan. 6. ‘They crossed the line where they were trapping ingress and egress…and trapping people,’ Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told Axios. ‘It was disturbing.’

Another lawmaker present framed it as part of a broader trend of unusually aggressive tactics from the pro-Palestinian side: “I have had death threats, been doxxed, protested.

Now, buried halfway down in this article was a quote from the organization, If Not Now, noting that the protests were all peaceful, and police had in fact been the instigators of any violence. But Axios quickly moved on to emphasize the vulnerability of US lawmakers stating that they were “experiencing a surge in threats and disturbing incidents.” Across the Atlantic, the Guardian effectively offered the British version of this same thing with a November 17th, 2023 article headlined “Labour MPs fear for safety as pro-Palestine protesters target offices.” Now, “target” here is a rather charged way to describe protesters demonstrating outside the MP’s offices after those ministers, including Keir Starmer, voted against a ceasefire. The Guardian noted that “Some are pressing Starmer’s office to help them put extra security in place and even help move constituency office if necessary.” The paper added that the office of the shadow Welsh secretary, Jo Stevens was “daubed with red paint by protesters who also attached posters saying she had ‘blood on your hands,’” adding that Stevens said the act was quote “designed to cause fear and harassment.”

Adam: Again, graffiti is a nonviolent protest tactic as old as protest. Saying you have blood on your hands and doing demonstrations invoking violence to show that people are funding and arming violence is not a threat of violence towards the people. It is referencing the violence that they’re supporting and leveling against the 14,000 dead children in Gaza.

Nima: It’s calling out what that person is supporting.

Adam: Right. And these are old tactics that are being presented as some new sinister escalation when they’re not. These are traditional nonviolent protest tactics, anti-war tactics.

Nima: Now, in an especially disingenuous move, this same Guardian article included a quote from Siobhan McDonagh, a chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, saying this: “When we are in an atmosphere where two MPs have died in recent years, then people do have reasonable concerns about their safety and the strength of our democratic system.” Now, it’s true that two MPs have been killed in recent years, but neither was killed by anyone affiliated with this cause. One, Jo Cox, was killed in 2016 by a white supremacist. The other, David Amess, was killed in 2021 by a reported Islamic State sympathizer. Those are very different than being confronted by protesters over your support for Israeli violence against Palestinians. And to evoke those tragic murders is certainly a cynical way to divert attention from what the protesters themselves are trying to call attention to.

Adam: Meanwhile, Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman has been basically doing two things in the media over the past four months. Number one: discussing his history of mental health problems, especially since his stroke, which is in and of itself, obviously good, perfectly fine, but at the same time, doing the most trollish pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, tweeting out Fox News articles, smearing Muslims, opposing the humanitarian pause back in November, which is to the far-right of the actual White House and as it turns out, the Israeli war minister cabinet or softly opposing, he said he was open to it, but said he thinks it would just give Hamas time to rearm. He has been extremely far to the right and very insensitive and glib about Palestinian lives, has supported wholeheartedly Israel’s killing of almost 30,000 people, over 14,000 children. Meanwhile, he goes on NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and MSNBC to discuss his mental health problems and to sort of center his own issues with depression, which again, in and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the context of his cheerleading of the destruction of Gaza, it comes off as a little bit disingenuous and a little bit jarring, especially when one considers the devastating state of mental health in Gaza that he has supported destroying.

Nima: Yeah, and to that point, Dr. Arafat Abu Mashayikh, head of the mental health department at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, told the LA Times in January 2024, “In every tent we inspect, we find children who compulsively suck their fingers, wet their beds, suffer from speech difficulties, lose their appetite, have nightmares, cannot sleep.” In the same article, the LA Times added that before the Israeli attacks on Gaza,

Gaza had a single in-patient psychiatric hospital, and it had only 40 beds. Bombardment knocked the facility out of commission early in the conflict, leaving families to care for relatives with severe mental health issues even as they move frantically from one locale to another trying to find safety.

Out of the six community mental health centers across Gaza that had distributed psychiatric medications, five were forced to close their doors within the war’s first weeks, health officials said. And telemedicine counseling appointments, a lifeline for those living in remote areas, quickly fell casualty to frequent communications blackouts.

Adam: So, the juxtaposition between the self-pitying, “I have struggles with mental health meanwhile, I’m cheering on the destruction of the entire medical system of an entire people” is simply too much hypocrisy for one to sort of ingest, I think. If one is going to play the role of clear-eyed, hardcore, pro-revenge realist who thinks we should kill presumably tens of thousands of Palestinian children and to completely cause untold trauma for hundreds of thousands of people who again, have watched their their mothers die, their fathers die, the roof caved in, being stuck under rubble, millions of people traumatized basically, they can’t also kind of play the role of sensitive human sort of in touch with his mental health guy as well. Like it sort of seems like you have to choose one of those, especially since you have no consideration for the devastating effects on mental health that killing thousands of people, tens of thousands of people and displacing millions of people would have. I mean, not a word about that. John Fetterman has not commented on the on the mental health consequences of his support of what the ICJ calls “plausible genocide” at all. And so, I think this juxtaposition in which one plays the role of kind of smug asshole bully who wants to bomb Gaza nonstop for as long as Netanyahu sees fit. and then meanwhile, virtually every other media appearance he has is him talking about his struggles with mental health. I think this sows cynicism in people, I think for probably justifiable reasons. We’d be remiss, of course, if we didn’t mention Bill Ackman who’s probably one of the most high-profile cry bullies of recent memory. Bill Ackman is a billionaire hedge fund manager who spent the better part of November and December trying to get multiple university heads fired and multiple obscure college kids basically barred from getting any kind of employment, especially members who signed a letter at Harvard Law School, getting them fired and preventing them from working at prestigious law firms. He has railed against so-called woke academia, has targeted pro-Palestinian voices, both big and small, mostly small. He’s a major behind the scenes player, withheld funding to kind of punish anyone who has any pro-Palestinian leanings whatsoever. And he was the central mover in the effort to get Harvard President Claudine Gay fired under the auspices of plagiarism, which they reverse engineered after they couldn’t get her fired for being too soft, I guess, on Palestinian protesters. So, after he helped manufacture a plagiarism scandal for Harvard President Claudine Gay, Business Insider reporters did what reporters should do, which is they held to powerful people to their own standard. And then they found out his wife Neri Oxman turns out was actually quite a serial plagiarist in her PhD, pretty dispositively so. Not really much room for debate, it’s pretty much copy and pasted from Wikipedia. And then Ackman went on a multi-day, I think, at this point, probably multi-week meltdown over this and made veiled references to his wife being suicidal. So, immediately this is someone who tried to get multiple people fired for months, right?

Nima: And in some cases, succeeded. I mean, it’s powerful enough to have succeeded.

Adam: Who succeeded, right. His wife who’s had many puff pieces, she’s a public figure, she’s an MIT professor, has had, you know, dozens of puff pieces written about her. She’s not like some obscure wallflower. He wrote in reference to the Business Insider coverage, “I have tragically seen too many suffer and commit suicide in similar circumstances to the one Neri has experienced. These media tactics have to stop as they can destroy people or worse well before they have a chance to defend themselves.” So, here’s someone who tried to get people fired. You know, getting fired can ruin your life, it ruins your reputation, right? Claudine Gay forever will be known as a plagiarist, right? Fair or not fair, that’s what you will be known for. This man just casually ruined or tried to ruin dozens of people’s lives. And the second his wife is called out for committing the same crime that he criticized Claudine Gay for, which is plagiarism in a PhD, he then turns around and makes her a smol bean. He refers to her repeatedly as an introvert, says she doesn’t like the attention. Of course, she wasn’t an introvert when she had multiple profiles written about her, puff pieces, or did a TED talk, right? This is not some obscure like sheepish housewife.

Former Harvard President Claudine Gay. (AP Photo / Steven Senne)

Nima: But then it’s a tragic situation where there is suffering involved, and you have to defend yourself. And quite possibly, your life may be in danger because suddenly you are in the spotlight, right? You are the one who’s being held to account for something. And so that is being turned around and made into you know, the new victim status. You know, Bill Ackman can victimize whoever he wants, he can attack whoever he wants, doesn’t give a shit about if they’re suffering or if they need to, you know, defend themselves. Right, exactly. The lie getting around the world before the truth gets his boots on. He doesn’t give a fuck about that, but once it’s his own wife, he’s like, oh, you know, think of the children.

Adam: She’s in the fetal position. She’s smol bean, she’s on the fainting couch. She’s a victim. And it’s like, no, you’re a billionaire. I’m sorry, you can’t do both. And that’s really the kind of point right? Like, if you want to be evil, and I wrote this in my piece in The Nation, like I said, you know, say what you will about the Dulleses and the Bushes and the architects of Pax Americana, right? They sort of loomed over large maps and smoked cigars and drank scotch in back rooms, but at least they didn’t whine to us, right? At least they didn’t want to be our friends or must be their therapist. It’s like, if you’re going to be evil and try to get people fired, right? If you’re going to be a billionaire hedge fund manager, then don’t also try to get me to feel sorry for you.

Nima: That’s right. Sykes and Picot were not the victims of colonialism, folks.

Adam: Yeah, like, if you’re gonna be a union buster, like be William Burns or the Pinkertons. Like go out and like, stab some Italian anarchist, you know, it’d be evil. Don’t get on a conference call, Zoom call and start sobbing about how your employees don’t — it’s not only manipulative and grating, and as we’ll talk about with our guest, it’s also quite effective. But more than anything, it’s just very undignified. It’s like, if you’re going to be a monocle-wearing, top hat, evil, rich person, just be evil. Don’t try to also be my friend, or have me be your therapist.

Nima: It’s unseemly. It’s embarrassing.

Adam: It’s undignified, and it’s unseemly. We used to have proper villains. And now, we just have these mopey jerkoffs, and I hate it.

Nima: Yeah, and part of this, Adam is also about really kind of weaponizing very real issues and then turning it into something that it’s not. I know that’s a very vague thing to say, but what I mean is, taking, let’s say, studies about antisemitism, very real antisemitism, anti-Jewish hate, this has been documented time and again, the work of people like rights advocate Eric Ward have shown that antisemitism really undergirds so much of white nationalism, white supremacy, and kind of how that really pervades so much of hate rhetoric, of hate speech, and actual real-world violence as well. Now, the idea that then documenting and addressing very real antisemitism is used again and again by primarily groups like and specifically the ADL, right, the Anti-Defamation League. Dedicated to fighting and eradicating antisemitism in our society, and at the same time, using that platform and that prestige that it has, the reputation its cultivated for nearly 100 years, to actually, in so much of what it does, advocate in favor of the policies of the Israeli government and serve as a pro-Zionist organization, not merely a domestically focused anti-hate group.

Adam: Yeah, I think on the subject of crybullyism, I don’t think any group in the United States of recent years has perfected this formula more than the ADL. By refocusing so much of the attention on these ginned-up campus controversies, and away from specifically what the sort of meat of the argument is, which is violence and dispossession of Palestinians, into this kind of abstract issue of basically any criticism of Israel, any substantive criticism rather than process criticism, is viewed as being per se racist and hate speech. And I think you really can’t have a conversation about the weaponization of crybullyism without talking about the ADL and its history. This is an organization that has disparaged Black Lives Matter, Movement for Black Lives, of course disparaged the Black Panthers and other Black liberation groups in the 1960s and ’70s. And this is, now their MO is to sort of disparage any kind of pro-Palestinian advocacy as being per se racist, which is really, I think, a mode of crybullyism worthy of discussion in its own right.

Nima: To dig into this a bit, from the perspective of how the Anti-Defamation League weaponizes anti-hate work to silence critics of genocide, we’ll now be joined by Mari Cohen, associate editor at Jewish Currents. Mari will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Mari Cohen, associate editor at Jewish currents. Mari, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Mari Cohen: Thank you for having me.

Adam: Yeah, thank you so much for coming on. And thank you for the work you’ve done in this space. It’s not the most glamorous work, but it is important. I want to sort of begin by discussing the sort of recent backlash to the ADL. It’s been brewing for I think, a couple years now, but I think in recent weeks, it’s gotten more acute. Now, I want to begin by what ADL’s stated mission is, how it’s broadly seen by the public, and how it’s increasingly being criticized by left-wing and even liberal Jewish organizations who view it as veering into overt, political, if not geopolitical advocacy. And its, I think, even from my perspective, somewhat bizarre embrace of Elon Musk and Jared Kushner in a more overt way, and how that’s kind of created an identity crisis among the organization itself, but also this important role that kind of does need to be filled, which is making sure people aren’t defaming Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere.

Mari Cohen

Mari Cohen: Absolutely. It’s definitely been a really interesting time in terms of these criticisms of the ADL that have been present on the left for a long time are now kind of being taken up more even by liberals, maybe people who would be considered more on the center-left. There’s actually a lot more backlash brewing from corners of the Jewish community and I think, the American public more broadly that might not have been as opposed to the ADL previously. So, there’s a lot happening there. And a lot of that, I think, comes from the actions of their current CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt who’s like a former Obama White House staffer who took this job, I think, in 2015. He has kind of a penchant for going rogue, it seems and just like, causing a lot of drama. So, it’s a very interesting time, I think, for this organization.

But just going back to the basics of the mission, the ADL was founded a little bit over 100 years ago. It was founded in response to the lynching of Leo Frank in the early 20th century. He was the manager accused of the murder of a young, white factory worker girl. And so, you know, it’s been holding this role for a long time. The stated mission is basically, as it says on the website, to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all. And so, basically, the goals are fighting antisemitism, but also really kind of acting as a civil rights organization more broadly. It says, to fight hate against other minority groups and people who are disenfranchised. So, that’s what they say they do. And they’re seen by the public as the main, the most credible organization fighting antisemitism or at least, they have been historically. And you know, if you look at the press, TV news, New York Times, in general, when there’s something happening related to antisemitism, the ADL is called in to give the expert quote on what this means and why it’s antisemitism. So, they’re basically kind of given that role of being the credible voice.

Nima: Yeah, they have a really, really strong brand actually. You know, I’m curious about how that brand butts up against the ADL’s role. And, you know, I would argue, not just under Jonathan Greenblatt’s leadership, but certainly under Abe Foxman as well before him, of being a really powerful arm of the Israel lobby and serving such a powerful role in the conflation of, say, antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Where do you see those lines getting blurred and how that allows the ADL to align itself with those that maybe don’t have the best interest of Jewish people or other minorities in mind?

Mari Cohen: So, that’s something that’s been going on for a long time, which is that the ADL has been an ardent advocate of the Israeli state, especially, I would say, probably intensified in the post-1967 period, but they’ve been opposed to anti-Zionist and Israel critics basically since the state’s founding. And this has often made them have a contentious relationship with, you know, Arab, Muslim, and Black activists and with leftist organizations. So, they’ve gotten a lot of critique on those grounds for a while. And basically, the way that they argue this is, there’s a couple of aspects of it. They basically say we’re not opposed to criticism of Israel, we’re opposed to anti-Zionism. And their argument on that, which is what a lot of mainstream Jewish groups argue, they basically say that it’s antisemitic because if you don’t believe that the state on that land and the region of Israel-Palestine, if you don’t believe that it should be a Jewish state, that it singles out Jews as the only people who don’t have the right to have self-determination or to have their own state. And so, they basically say that that’s a form of antisemitism.

They’ll also argue that you because the state already exists now as a Jewish state, they say that being anti-Zionist means that you want all the Jews or Israelis who already live there to die or that they have to leave or that you’re advocating some sort of genocide against them. So, those are the types of arguments they use to kind of get from anti-Zionism to antisemitism. And then the other thing too and Greenblatt specifically said this in a meeting with his staff in 2022 that we obtained audio from and wrote about in Jewish Currents, but he’s basically arguing that there’s a lot of antisemitism in the world and that talking about being anti-Zionist and talking about anti-Zionism, it just has the potential to fuel antisemitism and can rile people up. And so for that reason, it’s just like too dangerous to talk about it or to encourage it.

Adam: Yeah, that seems like somewhat of a strenuous syllogism. Because if I’m a Palestinian who’s just been kicked out of his home in the West Bank that my family has lived in for decades, hundreds of years. And then I say, I don’t believe that I don’t have a right here simply because I’m not Jewish, that is a form of hate speech according to the ADL’s definition, which strikes me as somewhat absurd, which is to say, sort of denying whatever Jewish sovereignty or Jewish supremacy for want of a better term, I know they would reject that term, but that’s effectively what it is. It’s sort of ethnic supremacy. Between the river and the sea or at least in the West Bank. We’ll sort of punt on Gaza, I suppose for the time being in terms of land claims. But that strikes me as a little absurd. Palestinians’ very existence is seen as being antisemitic in many ways. And indeed, many slogans to that effect are viewed by the ADL as being antisemitic. Because to be Palestinian, almost by definition, is to be anti-Zionist, which is to say, especially if one believes in the UN mandated right of return or at the very least, it is not a supremacist claim. It’s to say, yes, I think everyone between the river and the sea should live as equal people, that that itself is a sort of proto-genocidal claim. And obviously, that strikes me as a little asymmetrical because obviously, the inverse is never true. A Jewish Israeli saying from the river to the sea, we’ll have Israeli sovereignty is not seen as an as an anti-Palestinian form of racism, mostly because, I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the ADL believes either implicitly or at least through the transitive property, that Palestinians don’t really exist, and to the extent to which they have a state, it’s kind of a charity. It’s kind of like a sort of a gratuity they’ve been given.

Mari Cohen: I think, in practice, that is true. I mean, obviously, if you ask Greenblatt, that’s not what he’ll say. He’ll say, well, I’m pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, and of course, I think there should be a two-state solution. But I mean, in practice, the ADL is doing everything it can to back up Israel’s right to do what it wants with impunity. You know, for example, if the United States government were to try to condition aid to Israel or were to more harshly criticize Israel, the ADL is going to come out against that on all sorts of counts. And they’re also trying to classify basically most Palestinian political expression as antisemitic. And so, Greenblatt has been in interviews where he said, well, yeah, I understand why a Palestinian who, you know, was kicked out of their home might feel like they’re anti-Zionist. And so he’s come close to acknowledging it, but then in practice, if you look at what the organization does and what it says, they’re basically saying, there’s actually no way that Palestinians could have political expression, could have anti-Zionist expression in a way that they find acceptable.

Adam: Yeah, that millions of Palestinians just kind of woke up one day and were kind of mindlessly racist is, I think, the general formulation. And this is the way they frame it. They routinely do polls of the Arab world and of Palestine saying, look how antisemitic they are. And it’s like, well, yeah, I mean, so is Europe, and so is North America. So is everybody. I mean, does that mean that everything that motivates their anti-Zionism is inherently racist? And I think this is where it gets a little bit messy, and it makes people feel uncomfortable. And I want to talk about this, which is when one conflates the geopolitical outcomes of a particular nation with a form of racism, like for example, we’ve done half a dozen episodes in this show criticizing Saudi Arabia, but no one’s ever criticized us of being anti-Muslim. What they’ll say is well, it’s the only Jewish state, the assumption being that Palestinians are kind of interchangeable, I guess, with Syrians and Jordanians and Egyptians. As if Palestinians have some other state, right? That’s the interchangeable Arab narrative we’ve talked about. But I want to talk a bit about what the methodology is. They’ve been criticized for, when they do these antisemitism reports is a) especially of late, they’ve been doing a lot of campus antisemitism studies that are based on the perception of the respondents. They’ll simply say, I feel, you know, X, Y, and Z, and that becomes the kind of evidence they use. And then, b) of course, we touched on earlier, their history of conflating pro-Palestinian comments with antisemitism in a way that if you go through the actual data becomes difficult to kind of parse the difference.

Mari Cohen: Yeah, they’ve been doing that for a long time. But I do think it is important to note that they’ve really kind of even escalated the conflation since October 7th. It’s been interesting to track this. Historically, one of the big watershed moments, I guess, for all of this was in May 2022 when basically at the ADL’s annual summit, Greenblatt gave a speech. And he basically announced that the organization was going to go after anti-Zionists and, I guess, the anti-Zionist left with more fervor. He announced that the organization would be classifying Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Council on American Islamic Relations as extremist groups, and said that they would consider them to be the “photo inverse” — that’s the term he used — to be the “photo inverse” of the antisemitic far right. Previously, we know that the ADL had been doing this conflation for a long time. But still, during the Trump years, they really did focus a lot more on white supremacists, the far right, them being emboldened in Charlottesville, like they were at least coming out and saying, that’s where the real threat is even though they were still doing a lot of Israel advocacy stuff. And then in May 2022, they really are like, no, we’re gonna go after the anti-Zionists just as much.

And so, that was kind of like a stated policy shift and caused a lot of buzz and actually caused some dissent within the organization from employees as we learned and wrote about at Jewish Currents. But even then, when they were doing their annual antisemitism audits that they released, and there’s a lot of problems with those audits, and the scientific methodology is not very sound. And you know, part of it is because the ADL is also doing its own fundraising, and it’s making the case for itself as an organization. So, in recent years, every year, they’re like, this is the most antisemitism we’ve ever seen. But a lot of the methodology they use means that you can’t really make a one-to-one comparison with what they did the year before because there’s changes in the data gathering. So, that’s like a pet complaint of mine.

But anyway, so even in those audits, there was definitely some conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism happening. But even after they made that policy change in 2022, they weren’t tracking all anti-Zionists or anti-Israel protest incidents as antisemitism. They were basically like, we’re only going to track it if we can prove it negatively impacted a Jewish person or something like that, which was very strange. But like, basically, they were incorporating some campus incidents because they were like, it’s going to negatively impact the Jews on this campus. But in general, they weren’t really tracking anti-Israel protests very much at all. And basically, since October 7th, they’ve started doing that more. And so, they’ve had a map on their website of antisemitic incidents. And they include this whole section of basically anti-Israel rallies. And I guess, they’ve argued, they’re saying that they categorize them as rallies that have support for terror. But it’s really unclear what that means. I at one point looked in the data a little bit. You know, it’s not always clear which rallies they’re tracking and what rally that is, but it seems like a lot of general pro-Palestine actions are being tracked in that data. So, it’s basically since October 7th, they’ve really started including a lot of anti-Israel protest as examples of antisemitism.

Nima: One of the things I kinda want to talk about is the Trump-invented “Abraham Accords,” which is effectively the codifying of long-existing partnerships between Israel and US-allied, US-backed, US-funded Arab dictatorships in the region. And so, the Abraham Accords, which the ADL not only supports, but also says that it supports not just because it’s “peace accords” —

Adam: For countries that were never at war ever.

Abraham Accords signatories in September 2020. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Nima: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Adam: Or rather, haven’t ever been at war in 70 years. They just love the photo op of —

Nima: It’s peace. Who can be against peace?

Adam: Yeah, the fucking foreign minister for UAE is like the MSP or like the Arab popes. They were elected in a big election all the Arabs had.

Nima: [Laughing] But the Abraham Accords, according to the ADL, is also essential for the fight against antisemitism. And basically, what this says is by supporting the Abraham Accords, not only is this, you know, big win for peace, big win for Israel, but also, it does entrench Israeli apartheid and occupation of Palestine. You are supporting a status quo or potentially worse with more annexation, deeper occupation, full-scale ethnic cleansing. And all of this, you know, occurred and has been maintained prior to October 7th. Now, this kind of links to what you mentioned, Mari, earlier about the ADL’s own checkered past, right? Its pretty shameful history of not supporting certain civil rights movements even as it claims to be a civil rights organization or speaking out against, say, movements for liberation around the world. For example, its spying on South African anti-apartheid activists in the ’70s and ’80s. And the ADL accusing Nelson Mandela of all people for being “totalitarian” and “anti-American” all because at the time, apartheid South Africa was a key Israeli ally. So, can we just talk about the ADL’s now recent focus on whitewashing Trump policy, right, with the Abraham accords and other things and conflating these “peace accords” with, as it says, promoting tolerance and fighting antisemitism in the region? What do you think it’s actually doing as it supports certain policies over other policies?

Mari Cohen: I think the Abraham Accords thing is very relevant, especially right now because one of the big items of ADL news is that the ADL gave an award at its annual conference, it gave an award to Jared Kushner because of his role in helping negotiate the Abraham Accords. And this was actually something that kicked off a lot of dissent and complaints from people in the ADL orbit like me, but more liberals or center-left anti-Trump people who might have been on board until then, but they think it’s really terrible that the ADL gave this award to Kushner. But obviously, that shows that that’s a big priority for Jonathan Greenblatt’s ADL to pump up the Abraham Accords. That is very much in line with their general approach. And it leads to some weird stuff too. So, the annual antisemitism audit that they put out in 2023, they were covering antisemitism that had happened in 2022, they had like a section at the end of it, which was how to fight antisemitism, what you can do to help end it. And this is like a report that’s about antisemitism in the United States, and then, one of their calls to action was support the Abraham Accords, which I thought was kind of wild because it was like, where did that come from? But you know, their argument is, Oh, this is going to lead to more tolerance of Jews in the Middle East because these governments have normalized relationships with Israel. And that’s obviously not what we’ve seen, right? So, you think about the World Cup in Qatar and all of that stuff where there were all these displays of Palestine solidarity, and the Israelis were upset, and everybody was like, Oh no, wait actually. Even though there was the Abraham Accords and a lot of these nearby countries like Morocco normalized relationships with Israel. But I think the Moroccan soccer team still did, you know, some pro-Palestine solidarity displays. The people, we’re not going to forget, people who often have historically, traditionally been more in solidarity with Palestine aren’t just going to forget about it just because their governance decided that they’re going to make these agreements.

World Cup attendees hold a flag reading “Free Palestine” in Al Wakrah, Qatar, 2022.

Adam: Yeah, cause the whole thing is quite goofy. I mean, again, Saudi Arabia has an approval rating in Gaza of less than 6%. I’m pretty sure it’s actually marginally better than Israel —

Nima: Famous lover of Jews, the Saudi government.

Adam: The ADL would say, yeah, but anti-Zionism is a fringe position within the Jewish community, or non-Zionism even. Now, statistically, that is true, although it’s kind of eroding. A quarter of American Jews, for example, according to a recent poll, said that they thought that Israel is an apartheid state, and almost 40% of those under the age of 40 said that Israel is an apartheid state, which is a pretty surprising number, and not good for the long-term trajectory. And also, I’ve always found this argument to be fatuous, because a small percentage of Americans are going to oppose American imperialism or American violence, right? Like, yeah, people are shitheads, so what? I mean, you know, anti-colonial positions are always fringe, that’s kind of their very nature. But I want to talk about this idea that the ADL has this legitimacy crisis, that it speaks on behalf of all American Jewish people. And what it would look like to have a group that was maybe not as overtly about running pass block for Netanyahu but maybe was actually concerned with documenting and combating antisemitism as such, rather than as a kind of bludgeon to protect the left flank of Israel.

Mari Cohen: Yeah, I mean, I think that this moment shows us that it probably would be helpful to have an alternative. I mean, you know, among scholars on the left and people who think about hate crimes and oppression in the state, you know, there’s different schools of thought around what it means to talk about hate crimes and to track hate crimes. And does just using this frame of hate frame it as this more individualized problem of passion rather than structural discrimination, structural hate? So, you know, there’s questions in that mode about what does it mean to have organizations that track “hate crimes?” So, there’s stuff to think about there. But I do think it would be useful to have a more credible organization that is not about running interference for Israel to talk about antisemitism. First of all, because I think that we need a way to talk about it that rejects this conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and it’s important to have credible voices, organizations doing that. Also, because there is a problem of antisemitism in the United States. You know, I think that today in the US, it’s probably not really institutionalized antisemitism. There’s not really barriers to accessing housing, jobs, other resources for Jews. And Jews have a good amount of access to protection by the state and everything. So like, it’s not institutionalized, but there still is this antisemitism that can flare up and cause violence and especially coming from a lot of these white supremacist and right-wing neo-Nazi type groups. And so, that is a real thing to think about. And also, you know, I think it’s something we see sometimes in the movement for Palestine, there are these more antisemitic grifters that can kind of worm their way in.

Adam: Yes, there are a lot of those.

Mari Cohen: Yes. And people who have been online in the last few months have probably seen this happen. So, I think it is helpful to have a group that’s educating about antisemitism so that we can make sure that those people are not just in the movement, saying that they care about justice for Palestine, but actually, they’re just using it as an excuse to hate Jews. And also because there is this long history of antisemitism in Western thought and history. And you know, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which like different structures of antisemitism and conspiracism could be like getting into our thinking and all of that. I think it’s important. So, I think it would be great for there to be a better alternative. It’s challenging because groups that take those kinds of perspectives often do not have as much access to funding, obviously aren’t necessarily going to be considered as credible by mainstream media. There are groups, right, some groups right now that tried to do some of that type of education, especially maybe sometimes more on like a local level. For example, Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) in New York has some kind of antisemitism curriculum, and they do some education on that. There’s a group called PARCEO that has an antisemitism curriculum from a left, justice-based lens. It’s antisemitismcurriculum.org. But you know, in terms of like a larger, more centralized group, I think it’s definitely something that we might see emerge just as the ADL continues to have this credibility crisis. I think that’s going to be a need. And I’m sort of curious if that is something that’s going to pop up.

Nima: Mari, I’m so glad that you brought that up. The idea that antisemitism is an undeniable foundation of white supremacy. But that, of course, winds up being used as a bludgeon against anti-Zionism, right, in that conflation. But, of course, the work that Jewish Currents is doing, the work that Jewish Voice for Peace is doing, the work of a lot of these other groups, of JFREJ, as you mentioned, is essential to showcase that there is an alternative way of thinking about this. It doesn’t have to be the ADL way or nothing. It’s been so great to talk to you about this, Mari Cohen, associate editor at Jewish Currents. And Mari, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Mari Cohen: Yeah, great to be with you. Thanks for having me.


Adam: Yeah, I think so much of this is about people wanting to play on terrain they’re comfortable with. And of course, if you’re talking about whether or not the president of Harvard plagiarized 15 years ago, it’s a very comfortable place to play in, regardless of the substance, right? Because so long as you’re having that conversation, you’re not having other conversations. And I think when you have this sort of firehose of bullshit, you’re constantly on the defensive, debating the substance of this, you know, citation, or this preposition that qualified this thing. And it’s like, well, obviously, this is not really that important. It’s maybe, you know, Section F, page 15. You know, it’s a story, right? It’s a story of the president of Harvard plagiarizing. But should it be the nonstop torrent of coverage for weeks on end?

Nima: Right. It’s because it’s actually about something else.

Adam: It’s very much about something else.

Nima: Right. And so I think, yeah, this idea also of who wields power in whatever narrative is being promoted is really essential to this, right? You know, as we were just talking about with our guest Mari Cohen, the idea that multiple things can be true at the same time. There can be very real antisemitism and also, antisemitism is not the same thing as anti-Zionism, and genocide can also be happening at the same time, right? There can be different power dynamics in our society operating simultaneously, and it really is important to try and dissect those.

And so to discuss this issue of power dynamics and how those play out in this concept of crybullyism, we are now going to be joined by Saree Makdisi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. A scholar of British Romanticism, imperial and urban culture, and colonial and postcolonial theory, Professor Makdisi’s writing has appeared in academic journals as well as many publications such as The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, N+1, and the London Review of Books. The author of six books, his latest is Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial, published in 2022 by University of California Press. Professor Makdisi will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Saree Makdisi. Professor Makdisi, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Saree Makdisi: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

Adam: So, I want to begin by talking about something we’ve been spending the better part of 30 minutes discussing, which is this idea of inverting the victim narrative and inverting power dynamics. You wrote in your essay, “A Context Dependent Decision” that the power dynamic conversion, that in this scenario, “We have entered, in a sense, an alternative reality, passing through the looking glass and into a realm where the chain that ties signifier to signified has been sundered. When the same lies and distortions are repeated again and again, they begin to take on a sense of reality…” So, I want to begin by discussing this dynamic, where the whole discourse kind of becomes, from our perspective, extremely meta. There’s a sort of controversy, there’s always smoke, but there’s never really any fire or at least, there’s like a little ember of fire but not any significant one where everything becomes about the controversy, then the reaction to the controversy, then the reaction to that reaction. And whether or not you’ve condemned this thing or this theoretical thing very often. So, very sort of hypotheticals. We saw this, obviously, most profoundly in all the sort of bizarre supposed campus antisemitism controversies around the Ivy League show trials in front of Republicans in Congress. But I wanted to talk about this looking glass dynamic, especially as this was going on at the same time, of course, the average person saw dozens of images of children being pulled out of rubble on their phones, I think making people feel slightly crazy. And I think, understandably, so. That there’s sort of two alternate realities going on that I want to sort of talk about: this inversion of victim and victim status by creating alternate realities like you discussed, which your essay goes into much more nuanced detail that I’m sort of conveying here. Can we begin by discussing that victim and victimizer inversion if you would?

Saree Makdisi

Saree Makdisi: Yeah. I mean, let’s go to those congressional hearings that you were just talking about, Adam. The hearings in which the line that kept coming up again and again and again, in the mouth of Elise Stefanik when she asked one of these university presidents after another, do you condemn the demand that there’d be a Jewish genocide on campuses in the US? And of course, the amazing thing is, nobody had said any such thing. Nobody had made this demand. Nobody has expressed that sentiment. That’s a line that was not uttered. But because she kept saying it, it’s one of these things where the more she said it, the more real it seemed to become. So, what’s interesting about it is that all of this sort of manufactured controversy around ant-semitism that’s being propelled by organizations like the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, part of the point of it is to delegitimize criticism of the Israeli state by conflating what’s more kind of dictionary definition of antisemitism, in other words, anti-Jewish racism or anti-Jewish prejudice with criticism of Zionism or criticism of Israeli policy. As far as the ADL is concerned, these are all equally forms of antisemitism.

Adam: Which they say. They say any kind of existential critique of Israel versus a kind of process critique, right. Just to clarify for our audience, that is their definition, not yours.

Saree Makdisi: It’s their definition. It’s exactly their definition. Right. So, part of the function of redefining the term is to delegitimize criticism of the Israeli state, especially in the context that we have right now, in the context of genocide, which is a very problematic thing. In other words, if you say, but what’s happening is genocide, they say, but that’s an antisemitic claim for you to say that, which it’s not just through the looking glass, like we’re through the looking glass, we’re deep into some tunnel, we’ve gone into outer space, we’re on mushrooms, we’re flying. We’ve completely detached from reality as we recognize it. Let’s not talk about 10 or 11 or 12,000 murdered children. Let’s talk about how people from a certain background claim to feel on campus. And of course, that background is also very much up for stakes because a lot of the people, a lot of the students in particular and a lot of the faculty, I have to say as well, that are coming in for criticism at the hands of the ADL are in fact Jewish students and Jewish faculty too. So, it’s not that they’re going after non-Jewish people, they’re equally happy going after Jewish people. Like for example, they don’t just go after, for example, SJP, Students for Justice in Palestine, they also go after JVP, Jewish Voice for Peace, which has a strong campus presence on many campuses across the country. And as far as the ADL is concerned, JVP is basically an antisemitic organization. It’s mad, it’s completely insane. It’s gone off the rails into strange forms of insanity and delusion.

Adam: Because apostasy is always the biggest sin, right? Because it undermines the narrative.

Saree Makdisi: Yeah, of course.

Nima: You know, part of this has to do with not only distraction, kind of misdirection, don’t look over there, look over here, but as we’ve been discussing, a lot of it is predicated — and you’ve noted this in your own writing — on a sort of solipsism, right? That is how a given party feels or how safe they perceive their surroundings to be, perceptions that are, of course, informed often by the very racism and chauvinism that they are claiming is kind of then directed at them. So, that kind of distraction shines a light on themselves because of how they feel and away from lived reality or, you know, ongoing genocide, ongoing slaughter, an absolutely horrific body count that just continues to skyrocket. So yes, there are two realities, but one is kind of meta and internal whereas the other is very much material and measurable. And seeing this gap kind of widen and how not only the kind of “media conversation” then focuses on the meta one, which we see all the time, but then let’s say take the media campaign back in December, what we’ve been calling Plagiarism-ghazi, dominated liberal discourse for weeks and weeks when Harvard President Claudine Gay and her various “scandals” were the top five featured stories on The New York Times homepage, eight days in a row plus another three days that month. And as this was happening, of course, thousands upon thousands of real human beings were being slaughtered in Gaza. And their deaths were presented, much lower down on the page if there at all and always in more anodyne terms. So, can you please talk about this reliance on solipsism and how these kinds of self-definitions of victimhood, often untethered to objective reality as we’ve been saying, are used to further this tactic of what we’ve been calling on this episode “crybullyism?”

Saree Makdisi: Yeah, I mean, it’s two things, namely. You put your finger on two things at once, which we should maybe disaggregate a little bit. The first thing is, of course, the question of how people on campuses across the country claim to be feeling, right? And, of course, the thing that needs to be said here is, you know, people have feelings, all kinds of people have all kinds of feelings. I don’t know. But the point is, in a situation where it’s not just people feeling in Gaza, people in Gaza are literally being subjected to, as the International Court of Justice has already alerted us to this, they’re being subjected to a very real process of genocide. So, if we’re going to weigh people’s feelings and sentiments as opposed to an actual material set of circumstances involving genocide, involving the extermination of thousands and thousands and thousands of people, I know which one we should pay more attention to right away. It’s not to diminish feelings. It’s that if you’re weighing mere feelings or claims about feelings as opposed to the actual extermination of an entire human group, I think it’s the latter that’s more important at least as far as I’m concerned. And the thing is also people don’t have a monopoly on feelings. Everybody has feelings. If you want to talk about feelings, I can tell you what it’s like to feel as a Palestinian on an American university campus. And I can speak, I’m not just speaking for myself, I’m speaking for colleagues who are Palestinian, I can’t really speak for them. But you know what I mean, I can summon their feelings because I’ve talked to them. Colleagues who are Palestinian, I could talk about students who are Palestinian, or students who are Arab American, or colleagues who are Arab American who feel incredibly isolated, incredibly alone, incredibly, you know, disregarded by the universities. We have to remember, we’re also talking about a context in which from the beginning of this crisis in Gaza, the beginning of October, most of the major American universities were very, very quick to issue statements condemning Hamas and condemning the harm brought to Israeli civilians early in October. And a few of them may have had sort of post-scripts about oh, yes, and by the way, a few Palestinians were also hurt. And alas, it’s too bad. But obviously, their primary concern was the Israeli civilians. But since then, since October, in other words, for the past four months when we’ve seen over 100,000 people killed, wounded, or disappeared under the rubble to an unknown fate. We’ve seen 80% of Gaza’s housing destroyed. We’ve seen every single university in Gaza destroyed. We’ve seen 250 schools destroyed in Gaza. We’ve seen 2 million people displaced from their homes in Gaza. We’ve seen mass use of phosphorus and heavy artillery and heavy bombs and so on and so forth. And not a word from these universities. So, if we want to talk about feelings, let’s weigh the feelings of a whole population of students and faculty and staff at American universities whose feelings are entirely disregarded, whose humanity does not even register enough for universities to say, oh, we also express our fear and our concern and our worries about this population, not just another population, right? So, we can talk about feelings all day. But as I said, as far as I’m concerned, as somebody who also has feelings, I’m not nearly as interested in my feelings as I am in the fate of the 11,000 children who have been killed in Gaza and their mothers and their fathers and their schools and their houses and so on. And so, I’d rather talk about what’s happening to actual people materially speaking because that’s far more urgent than what I’m feeling or anybody else is feeling on American campuses, given our position of relative privilege first of all. That’s one angle of this, Nima. The other angle has to do specifically with talking about the coverage and the New York Times coverage now. It kept saying, let’s go on talking about this artificially boosted and generated and sustained crisis of antisemitism. And then Claudine Gay, did she plagiarize? Did she not plagiarize? And then the wife of so and so plagiarizing. So, all these kinds of things instead of talking about the genocide taking place in Gaza. You’re right, that’s also part of what’s at stake here. But we have to remember that the New York Times, specifically the New York Times, I mean, there are other newspapers, too, that are playing a similar role but none quite like the New York Times of consistently obfuscating and covering up and engaging in all forms of denial at the level of sentence construction, at the level of constructing headlines, at the level of grammar and syntax, at the level of putting this story over that story to cover up, to lend support to the genocide in Gaza. I mean, you might almost say it’s stretching a little bit, but there’s a kind of almost complicity on the part of journalists who are so willing to turn a blind eye to the catastrophe that’s being inflicted on the people of Gaza by the Israeli state. That to cover for it, I would say it’s arguably or we should think about it as some kind of version of complicity, maybe not legally speaking, but something along those lines.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk a bit about the sort of use of solipsistic criteria. This is how the ADL kind of pumps up its numbers. If you look at their crisis of antisemitism on campus, it is perceptions. It’s based on how people feel. And they deliberately conflate, again, criticism of Israel with antisemitism by definition and routinely. And this is something that increasingly, a lot of left-wing Jewish organizations have criticized them for. Jewish Currents has run several pieces doing that where it’s like, you really got to stop doing that because it is diminishing antisemitism, which, as you know, is almost certainly up since October 7th. I think it’s probably a fair assumption that if you looked at their database of incidents for everyone, that’s some bullshit about someone on campus saying free Palestine being indexed as a hate crime. There are other hate crimes that actually do exist, right? The problem is that it’s sort of very difficult to kind of distinguish the difference. And this is I think, the very kind of sleazy waters that groups like the ADL play in, and they lost a lot of liberal legitimacy by embracing Elon Musk because Elon Musk did what John Hagee did 20 years ago, which is you can say the most antisemitic shit in the world as Elon Musk does so long as you sort of pledge your political fidelity to a state. In this case, that happens to be Israel and you kind of get an indulgence all your antisemitic sins have kind of been forgiven. Again, John Hagee said that, you know, the Holocaust was Jews’ fault, but as long as he showed up to the AIPAC conference and Christians for Israel, it didn’t really matter what he said, right? This, I think, has gotten more naked, more obvious, especially now that the ADL has called on the federal government to investigate Palestinian groups on campus, which is a huge escalation that a lot of liberals really kind of said, Okay, well, this is enough with these guys.

John Hagee speaking at a Christians United for Israel conference. (Michael Brochstein / SIPA via AP)

Saree Makdisi: Oh, by the way, not just investigate student groups on campus, but specifically investigate student groups on campus as part in terms of material support for terrorism.

Adam: Which can put you in prison for decades, right?

Saree Makdisi: Yeah, exactly. It’s not just sort of, you know, let’s suppress this version of free speech. It’s specifically, let’s get these people, these students, specifically students who are obviously, by definition and in a position of vulnerability, let’s have them prosecuted for the material support of terrorism. And it’s an outrageous thing that they’re doing. But yeah, the thing about antisemitism, I mean, it’s a couple of things. One is all of what the ADL is trying to do by conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism. And deliberately, it’s not just a mistake, it’s deliberately obscuring one with the other. So, it becomes impossible literally, it’s like, even if you want to find out how much of this is actual dictionary, old dictionary, meaning like some previous moment dictionary, how much of this is old antisemitism, like genuine antisemitism, and how much of it is this redefined version of antisemitism that the ADL is trying to pursue, it’s basically impossible to tell. And secondly, if there were real antisemitism in the old, what I would consider the proper definition of the term, if there was like an eruption of actual, old school antisemitism, you know, we might get to the point where it’s like Peter, calling wolf, you know, then people might disregard. They’d just say, oh, there goes the ADL again. And maybe there’s a time when we actually do need to rally our forces and respond to actual antisemitism. It’s incredibly dangerous, it’s incredibly irresponsible. And you know, I think you’re right that a lot of Jewish people in organizations are saying, you’re abusing this term, and you’re using a term that people need to be on the alert, like any other kinds of racism, it’s not special in that regard. All forms of racism need to be taken seriously. But you know, since they’re a Jewish organization, that should be their particular kind of concern, I would say. They’re making it difficult to track and they’re making it more and more and more likely that if there were actual antisemitism, people would just say, oh, there they go again, they’re talking about anti-Zionism. They’re using up all of the kinds of credibility that they might have developed over time, and they’re blowing it in an effort to protect the foreign state. That’s what this also comes down to.

Adam: Yeah, because in their minds, the so-called Jewish right to self determination is inexorably tied to antisemitism. So if you deny, again, this is the sort of IHRA definition that has been rejected for years, even the White House because it takes you to a very kind of messy, illogical place where you kind of bend yourself in pretzels where again, if you apply that sort of standard of racism to criticizing nation states, that would almost be virtually impossible for any other country. You sort of wouldn’t be able to function for obvious reasons, right?

Saree Makdisi: No, it would be. And just exactly on that point, Adam, for example, that claim that to criticize Israel or Israeli policy or Zionist ideology for that matter, if to criticize all those things is to be anti-Jewish, well, then, to criticize South African apartheid is to be anti-white, by that same logic. To criticize the policies of the Iranian state is to be anti-Shia. To criticize the Saudi state is to be anti-Sunni. And of course, one can distinguish principal criticisms of the Saudi, the Iranian, the American for that matter, the French, the South African or any state from racism directed towards a particular ethnicity or sub-population or religious grouping or whatever it is.

Adam: What I wanted to ask is that, in some ways, what the ADL does and has done historically is they kind of use the language of liberalism, especially kind of modern, maybe more squishy standpoint, epistemology, liberalism kind of against itself. Because they’ll say well, if it’s about perception, that’s what matters. But I don’t think anyone with rare exception would say that lived experience matters, but it has to be married to some kind of material reality, right? Like a bunch of Trumpers can say that the election was stolen, you know, in 2020. But that’s their lived experience or their perception. But we’re not going to indulge that per se because there’s a material reality that one’s “lived experience” has to be tethered to, right? And I think that the ADL has kind of exploited that vulnerability maybe in liberal discourse by focusing on perceptions. And again, what makes it frustrating, of course, is that this level of kind of self-definition is not afforded to Palestinian, much less Arab or Muslim students, it’s only sort of permitted for one side.

Saree Makdisi: Yes, exactly. And as I said, if we want to start policing feelings and protecting feelings, everybody has feelings. Everybody has feelings. So, if we’re given a choice between trying to go into people’s heads and figure out what are they actually feeling as opposed to what they say they’re feeling, we’re never going to end. But on the other hand, we can look at material circumstances as documented by UN agencies and you know, Amnesty International and so forth. We can see exactly what’s happening on the ground in material terms, in terms of the destruction of the biggest Palestinian city by far, has been leveled to the ground, you know, with everybody in it practically. And as I said, more than 100,000 people killed, injured, wounded, lost under the rubble. I mean, what’s happening is cataclysmic and now of course, on top of that, with the US and the UK and the other genocidal powers stopping their funding of UNRWA, however temporarily, that means stopping feeding people who’ve been already reduced to the edge of starvation. I mean, it’s incredible. To me, that’s much more important to talk about than what people claim to be the feelings here in this first world environment that we’re living in where, as I said, everybody has feelings. Nobody has a monopoly on feelings.

Nima: Yeah, I want to kind of stay on this idea of vibes getting so much attention and kind of connect it to something you said earlier, which is really about The New York Times or about mass media in general glomming onto certain things and kind of dig into one aspect of this, which is, you know, as you’ve noted, many of the ways that these kinds of controversies, let’s say, cries about antisemitism get further hyped up comes from reporters and commentators kind of playing to the public’s ignorance over not just the facts of what we’re seeing, but then doing this really xenophobic, like, Arabic words are scary, right? Like, if anyone says intifada or anyone says anything about martyrdom or you know, uses a spooky phrase, like “from the river to the sea,” this is the cause for like cue and cry, this is the pearl clutching time, go to the fainting couch. And the same thing kind of happens with Palestinian history as well. Palestinians are often presented as people who just kind of appeared out of thin air, you know, at any given point that suits a narrative, you know, whether they appeared in the 60s or they appeared in, you know, 1982 or all of a sudden in 2007, Gaza, you know, emerged from the earth fully formed, you know, just people living in an open air prison who are mindlessly bigoted and angry for no particular reason. So, can we talk about how both history and then language are continuously and consistently distorted, kept from any kind of context, often in order to trigger this kind of lizard brain of Western media consumers, you know, get people kind of freaked out because there’s certain words being used. And so therefore, you get to make these connections between someone saying intifada, and someone obviously calling for genocide, right? And yet another way of then dismissing the reality that is laid out before us and instead getting us to focus on something that might make a few white people a little uneasy somewhere.

Saree Makdisi: Yeah, I mean, very selective group of white people, that’s a self-selected group. Also, their obsession with the word “intifada” is truly remarkable. It’s a word that came into the English language in the 1980s from the Arabic obviously to refer to an overturning and a disburdening, a removal of an oppressive presence or weight, basically. An unshackling, you could also say. In the instance in which that word entered into the world, it specifically had to do in that case, in the 1980s, with the non-violent Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation in the late 1980s. Actually beginning in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, incidentally. And then there it was minding its own business. That’s the word for all of these years. And then suddenly this fall, we’re told, oh, this word means it’s a call for Jewish extermination, extermination of Jewish peoples. It’s like, wait, where did you get that from? You’re going to tell us that you know Arabic and you’re telling us what this word means? Or in other words, we come back here, this is almost like a theoretical argument about where meaning comes from. Because the insistence on the part of organizations like the ADL or the AJC, a similar kind of organization, is that they get to determine the meaning of the words that I’m using. I don’t get to determine the meaning of my words, they get to determine the meaning of the words. You remember the incident going back actually to Alice in Wonderland where Humpty Dumpty sitting there and then Humpty Dumpty says, when I use a word, it means exactly what I mean it to mean, neither more nor less. It’s like I get to determine the meaning of the words that I’m using. But this is sort of like a flipside Humpty Dumpty. This is where Humpty Dumpty is saying, oh, the words you’re using, I get to determine the meaning of the words you’re using. That’s not how language works. I mean, there are rules about how language functions. There’s a history to language, there’s studies of language, there’s a way of thinking about language in a rational, historical, cultural rooted sort of sense. And what we’re seeing again, as some of the other stuff we’ve been talking about so far, is this will to say, no, we’re going to suspend all of the rules, and we now uniquely are going to abrogate ourselves the right to unilaterally determine the meanings of the words you’re using so that we can impute to you these malicious motivations that even if you say you don’t have them, we’re gonna say no, but yes, you do. Again, this is the extraordinary thing, and now we can maybe segue to the river to the sea. Netanyahu used that phrase the other week, he said it. It’s not new, it’s not unique to him, it’s not even his invention. That phrase was first used in a systematic sense in the 1977 Likud Party Charter, the one of 1977, which said, between the river and the sea, there will be only Jewish sovereignty, which is exactly what Netanyahu said. In other words, in all of what we call historical Palestine, there will only be Jewish sovereignty, non-Jews are not welcomed. There is no room here for a non-Jewish form of sovereignty. There’s also no room by the way, if there’s a uniquely Jewish form of sovereignty, what that means is, it cannot be a democratic space which includes non-Jews. And that’s also what he’s talking about. He’s talking there about and that’s what the Likud Party means too, they’re talking about a monopoly on sovereignty, which is, of course, exclusivist and racist and a form of apartheid or an expression of apartheid. And all these people who were screaming and shouting about intifada and about the river to the sea. When Palestinians use those expressions to mean a democratic state or an uprising against oppression, suddenly they fall silent when an actual apartheid state or the actual leader of an apartheid state is using the term to talk about and to celebrate apartheid. It’s extraordinary. Suddenly, it’s no problem. We have no issue. There’s no worries, it’s all fine. Nothing to say about it.

Adam: Or there’ll be some sort of selective condemnation, but it’s very compartmentalized to just Likud Party and rather than existential to the actual — any time anyone in the Israeli government says something overtly genocidal, they’re always treated like they’re just bumbling interns with no power. That’s the sort of sleight of hand that’s constantly going on. So, like all these people say, well, we need to displace Gazans, we need to push them into the Sinai. And then for weeks, people say, Oh, that’s, you know, that Minister of Intelligence. They’re really not that powerful. And then the Washington Post reported that Netanyahu said that they were lobbying both Sisi and France, the UK, and the US to push hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into the Sinai desert. And then you know, people come along, say, Oh, it’s just them blowing off steam. It’s like, he’s the Prime Minister. Does anyone have power? The whole country’s full of nothing but junior vice presidents.

A Likud Party billboard, featuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AFP)

Saree Makdisi: Just on that specific point. The most powerful part, one of the most powerful parts of the South African presentation at the ICJ was when they went through all of the very clear incitements of genocide on the part of Israeli leaders from the Prime Minister, the president, all the way down to common foot soldiers. And they documented how common foot soldiers in Gaza understand themselves exactly to be embarked using exactly the same phrases, the genocidal phrases that their leaders who have been using and obviously had instructed them, that’s how they’re supposed to think about this operation. But again, it’s like, let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about how people feel here on American campuses, allegedly about words that they claim to have a monopoly on the interpretation of.

Adam: Well yeah, because if one accepts the logic, I mean, again, I don’t doubt that many, many people do genuinely feel like words like “intifada” or “from the river to the sea” are anti-Jewish because again, if you accept this kind of ideology that one’s identity is tethered to a nation state or kind of territorial claim. I mean, again, if you ask the ADL, if you sort of pin them down, they’ll all sort of say that a Palestinian who has been evicted from their home in the West Bank and forced into a refugee camp even today, that if they claim that their home ought not had been taken by a Zionist settler, that that itself is a form of antisemitism. That’s the sort of logic of denying Israel’s “right to exist.” Of course, there’s always implied words right after it: right to exist as a Jewish state, which is to say, exclusively, at the exclusion of non-Jewish people. And so, if you sort of accept that logic, that kind of would make sense they would view words like “intifada” as violence because any kind of violent resistance that makes any sort of claim to right of return or any kind of even equal citizenship within the country, necessarily becomes genocidal by definition.

Nima: Well, right, the existence of Palestinians living and breathing is therefore a threat.

Adam: The existence of Palestinians is per se racist, right? Like, a Palestinian existing is racist by definition. The only way they can not be racist is to say I’m officially Jordanian.

Saree Makdisi: No, or simply to cease to exist, which is, of course, that’s what genocide is, right? I mean, the point is that that’s ultimately what’s in the Zionist dispensation on the ground in Palestine, the Zionist dispensation has it that Palestinians are a problem insofar as they continue to exist. And that’s obviously what’s happening in Gaza now is an attempt to de-exist them, hence, genocide, right? To take away the possibility of their existence and the basis for their life as a human community, right? That’s part of what’s going on.

Nima: Yeah, I think as we’ve been discussing these sort of layers of like meta commentary, it just becomes all the more clear that training the microphone in your own direction or the camera on yourself is such a obvious but also a very effective tactic of then making sure that no one is paying attention to what is on the other side of the camera, right? Like, if you can get it to just keep focusing on you, then let’s talk about me like this makes me feel uncomfortable. This makes me feel like I’m under a threat. This is making me sad. This is making me, you know? And so therefore, let’s not actually talk about what is going on.

Saree Makdisi: Genocide.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. I think that we’ve seen this. I mean, you’ve been writing about this for decades, and we’ve been seeing this for decades. And I think that there is something even more stark about that right now because it is so clear. I mean, it’s always been clear. But it is so clear what is happening in Gaza and the intention behind it is so like there’s no more veneer, which makes, I think, this insistence on well, let’s talk about how these students in uptown Manhattan feel, right? [Chuckles] It’s becoming even more stark.

Saree Makdisi: It’s not even these students because this is the thing also, again about the ADL, you know, this insistence that when they talk about Jewish students feel this, that, or the other, there are lots and lots and lots of Jewish students who are in SJP or JVP or other similar organizations. So, this idea that they have a monopoly also on representing Jewishness. The other day, we had a commemoration here at UCLA like a vigil for the suffering in Gaza. I spoke and other colleagues spoke and some students spoke. One of the most moving speakers was a Jewish student, I think in JVP, if I remember right, but certainly a Jewish student who said that her Judaism compels her to take a stand on behalf of Palestine. And I’m sure you’ve seen the extraordinary statements produced by Jewish students at Brown University, really, really powerful, incredibly powerful, incredibly moving and gripping, just brilliantly written, incredibly ethically strong and politically razor sharp in their political intellect too. And saying, our Jewishness is what forces us to take the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden and the racialized victim in this case. So, this idea that ADL can claim that it has a unique monopoly on the interpretation of words, it has a unique monopoly on the interpretation of slogans, it has a unique monopoly of what it means to be Jewish, what Jewishness stands for, and so forth, it’s all completely outrageous. If I were Jewish, there’d be steam coming out of my ears because of this appropriation of my identity, my culture, my beliefs, my values, my religion as well in the name of a country that’s not only an apartheid state, but it’s now embarked on this genocidal project.

Nima: Well, because Zionism and its kind of adherence to this idea that there’s this Jewish monolith is inherently antisemitic as an ideology and yet, weaponizes as antisemitism to deflect any kind of criticism whatsoever about its own ideology.

Saree Makdisi: Yes, in fact, by the way, in the early history of Zionism, this is the other thing, Zionism is a European construct that emerged from Europe. It has to do with Europe. It was imposed on the Middle East, it’s not from the Middle East, it didn’t involve anybody in the Middle East. It’s entirely a European concoction at the peak of European imperialism, that’s where Zionism comes from. But in its moment, still of formation. And in particular, in the context of early 20th century Britain and the moment in which the British government was beginning to move towards or had just issued what was called the Balfour Declaration in which the British government pledged its support for the creation, not of a Jewish state, mind you, but of a national home, what they called, it’s a very ambiguous term, a national home for the Jewish people. That could mean all kinds of things. But anyway —

Nima: It also says in Palestine.

Saree Makdisi: The creation in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing could be done to prejudice the rights of the existing non-Jewish population, who, of course, at the time were 93% of the population. But leave that aside, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet at the time called Edwin Montagu said, but how does that make me feel as somebody who regards himself as a Jewish Briton, somebody who’s British and Jewish, you know, because I think that my country is Britain, and you’re telling me that my country is this other place over there. And you’re basically telling European Jews, you don’t belong here, you belong over there. And he’s saying, this undermines everything that we as the Jewish community in that case in Britain, but in other European countries as well, what we’ve been working on for all this time is to be able to become, to be fully recognized, to be right-carrying citizens of Britain or Germany or France or whatever the country is in question. And what you guys are saying is no, we don’t belong here. And he said, this is a complete outrage. Not only are we gonna go to somebody else’s country and uproot it as Montagu presciently pointed out, but you’re also going to make Jewish Britons and Frenchmen and Germans and so forth feel alienated from their own countries, you’re also going to give ammunition to European anti-semites who are then going to jump on this and say, look, uh, huh, they don’t belong here. After all, they should be going over there. I mean, it’s a perfect storm.

Adam: Again, this reminds me so much of the sort of bully gotcha questions like, Do you recognize Israel’s right to exist with the implicit ‘as an explicitly Jewish state,’ or as you write, this sort of inherently contradictory, Jewish and democratic, where it’s like, well, wait a second. One thing it reminds me of is that like, this idea that like people can’t be wrong, I mean, again, if a white person says like, the term “black power” scares me, I view it as being racist. You know, I think in some liberal left circles, people be like, well, that’s ridiculous, you know, so you don’t get to really decide that. Whereas I think in this case, it’s like if I could say, well, you know, someone’s saying “free Palestine” because again, they’ve argued “free Palestine” is antisemitic. So it’s like, you can’t have any kind of slogan at all that has any kind of liberatory purchase.

Saree Makdisi: And another version of that, which you just mentioned in passing, which is important is this thing about oh, so you oppose the Jewish people’s right to self determination. It’s like no, I have nothing to say about the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, they’re perfectly entitled to it. That’s not the issue. The issue is the right to self-determination on somebody else’s land, at somebody else’s expense. That’s when it becomes a problem, you know. Had Palestine been the land without a people for people without land as they claimed it was, the Zionists, that is, in Europe in the 19th century, maybe this wouldn’t be an issue, but it wasn’t a land without a people. There were people there. So, the problem isn’t the idea of Jewish self-determination, it’s Jewish self determination at somebody else’s expense in somebody else’s land. That’s the issue. And so they’re always trying to turn it into these abstract things rather than the material circumstances to which we must attend because we don’t live in abstractions. We live in material reality. And it’s like, we can’t ignore material reality in the pursuit of these floating ideas, like something out of Swift, you know, the Gulliver’s Travels, Iike everything is upside down, they live in the clouds and so forth. And it’s just, that’s kind of where these organizations like the ADL want to take us is to this Never Neverland, all these imaginary creations. We’ve talked about Alice in Wonderland, we’ve talked about Gulliver’s Travels, Never Neverland. I mean, it’s not just an alternate reality, it’s an alternate universe where suddenly Newtonian physics no longer works, the laws of motion no longer apply. Gravity doesn’t mean what it used to mean, I get to choose selectively whether gravity does or doesn’t work. I mean, it’s a world of madness in almost every sense of the term.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think you’ve kind of hit the idea that as long as we live in this kind of fantasy space where reality is meaningless, then we can just mythologize ourselves into complacency, right? And what we’re seeing right now is that complacency and that willingness to refuse to engage with reality is what is allowing this genocide to continue. I mean, and just as an extension of, you know, the past century of colonization, the past century of ethnic cleansing, we’re just seeing its kind of inevitable, I don’t want to say, conclusion because, you know, it absolutely will not be despite Netanyahu’s wishes. But I think there’s this trajectory that relies on this mythology, that relies on this fantasy, and we’re seeing it aided and abetted by media, and by, you know, political commentators and politicians.

Saree Makdisi: Certain media, which also explains the generational gap that we’re now seeing, you know, nowhere more clearly than in the US because younger people, college-age people don’t read the bloody New York Times, they get their information from more reliable and more reputable sources than the New York Times and CNN and NPR or BBC. Nobody looks at that stuff. I mean, older people may look at those kinds of outlets, younger people don’t, which is why they’re better informed than people who are still drinking the Kool Aid of The New York Times. I spend half of my time, like literally almost half my day, glued to Arabic Jazeera and you know, various other Arabic channels. There is a whole other reality that takes place in Arabic language media of all kinds, you know, that’s not censored, not subject to interdiction, not subject to censorship. There are talk shows that are spectacular in the range of opinions that they provide, in the diversity, in the tenacity, and the force of the arguments that you see unfolding and the scope of the analysis based on deep, deep information of what’s actually going on on the ground. And then you come to the Never Never Land of The New York Times and CNN, it’s a whole other world, you know. And I’m not sure how much inter-communicability there is between these two different universes. They really do belong to different universes in a sense. But the good news is that younger Americans in general, they don’t look at that stuff. Organizations like The New York Times, that’s not what they’re reading. That’s not what they’re getting their information, which is why they’re better informed.

Nima: Jake Tapper is not their go-to. Well, which is why those alternate sources, I think, are deemed so dangerous now.

Saree Makdisi: Yes, exactly.

Nima: This has been amazing. Before we let you go, one last question, which is you write prolifically, you are the author of many books, do you have something going on that our listeners can look out for either something short form or maybe there’s, you know, what’s your next book? What can people look out from you in the in the coming days?

Saree Makdisi: I’m working on two book projects. One is about Palestine that’s still kind of embryonic, and it’s still being formed. Another book on modern and postmodern London. The pieces that I wrote for the online edition of N+1 in the fall are going to come out in the print version of N+1 with a new framing piece that I’m writing that I’m excited about. And also this past fall, my brothers and I started a new podcast called Makdisi Street, named after a street in Beirut. And they’re both academics like me. So, one is at Berkeley, one is at the American University of Beirut, and we talk among ourselves. We’ve also interviewed a range of people from Richard Falk to Ghassan Abu Sittah to Francesca Albanese, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Palestine and many others as well. And so I’d encourage people to give it a listen.

Nima: Well, wonderful, we will all look out for that. We’ve been speaking with Saree Makdisi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. A scholar of British Romanticism, imperial and urban culture, and colonial and postcolonial theory, Professor Makdisi’s writing has appeared in academic journals as well as many publications such as The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, N+1, and the London Review of Books. The author of six books, his latest is Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial, published in 2022 by University of California Press.

Saree Makdisi: My pleasure, I’d be very happy to join you again. Thank you.

Adam: The issue of crybullyism has become more acute of late. It’s worth mentioning that especially in Britain, this idea that anti-war or pro-ceasefire protests in Gaza have somehow become “intimidating,” again, no one has been killed or hurt, but it’s sort of a vibe, right? These are headlines all from February from Financial Times, “Backing for wider police powers to protect MPs amid fears of political violence.” This is from Politico in Europe “British MPs fear for their safety as Gaza tensions flare. After chaotic scenes in a House of Commons vote on Gaza, serious questions are being asked about lawmakers’ safety.” Again, no one got hurt. This is also from February 23rd, this is from The National: “Impose protest exclusion zone outside UK Parliament, says Prime Minister’s adviser.” So, there’s this idea that because people don’t like genocide that’s unfolding, and they’re angry about it, and they’re protesting their leaders. The goal is not to actually end the genocide causing the anger which is righteous and justified, right, because the moral content of the anger matters. It’s not like they’re mad about stealing the 2020 election or the FBI putting tinfoil hat. There’s a basis for it, I think, a very obvious one and a very morally justified one. Rather than fixing that and simply not funding and backing the genocide as the British government does, the solution, of course, is to play the victim, is to act like the angry mobs are out to get them. You see constant and media references.

Nima: That it’s all torches and pitchforks.

Adam: Well, they equate them with right-wingers and Nazis. You know, that way, you sort of flatten the politics of it all. We’re just these dutiful, low paid public servants just punching the clock and trying to do our jobs.

Nima: We should not have to live in fear. And there are all these people outside and yelling. And now, we need to have a police escort to our waiting Uber.

Adam: Completely inverting the power dynamics. And I think the inversion of those power dynamics are going to become more acute as the gap between what people need and what they want versus what elites are giving them whether it be on issues of climate change, whether issues of mass migration caused by climate change, whether it be the sort of utter brutality of what we see in Gaza and sort of mini versions of Gaza happening at various places, that this gap between what the masses want and demand and what politicians are going to give them gets wider. I think we’ll see more and more people hide behind this, this kind of PR sculpted image of those in power, just being twee and victims of the bullies.

Nima: Well, right exactly. It’s like why are they being so loud out there? All I’m doing is you know, supporting genocide. It’s a problem here.

Adam: You’re helping send 2,000-pound bombs to go blow up residential buildings in Gaza.

Nima: [Scoffs] Yeah, exactly. Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. All your help and support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic-level supporters on Patreon.

I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.

This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.