Is BDS Antisemitic?

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (acronym, BDS) is a Palestinian-led international campaign by the Palestinian BDS National Committee to promote boycotts and sanctions against Israel and encourage divesting from Israeli companies. There are Jewish activists supporting BDS so how can it be antisemitic? BDS claims to be supporting the rule of law of which Israel is in breach. Occupation of the West Bank is illegal; BDS targets occupation. Preventing the exercise of the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return is in breach of international law. Treating Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as second-class citizens is a form of apartheid banned by international law, specifically the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. BDS would make Israel the epitome for breaking international law.

There is also a domestic lawfare conflict in the U.S. opposing the First Amendment defence of freedom of speech against the Fourteenth Amendment banning discrimination from even hiding behind the defence of free expression. Hence, re the latter, the claim that BDS discriminates against the Jewish people by denying Jews, and Jews alone, a right to self-determination. In response, the Palestinian BDS national committee claims that they do “not tolerate any act or discourse which adopts or promotes…antisemitism.” BDS affirms “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights principles rejecting religious and national-origin discrimination.”

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) that promotes Israel Apartheid Week and supports BDS serves as the on-campus partner of BDS. Though less than 15% of American university students support an academic boycott of Israel, timing of votes on campuses, such as on the day before Passover – Tufts University, Pitzer College at Claremont – and other surprise efforts have resulted in a few victories – such as at the University of Michigan. Support for BDS and SJP has come from the prestigious Rockefeller Brothers Fund and even Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist anti-Israel organization.

For Judith Butler, the BDS platform is consistent with and derived from international human rights standards and, therefore, designating BDS as antisemitic means that those standards are antisemitic. The charge results from false “generalizations about all Jews,” presuming that “they all share the same political commitments.” But this is not the case. The charge results from shifting the meaning of antisemitism to denying Jews as a people the right to self determination. There is no collectivity in the world that claims that all its members support self-determination; some vocally oppose it. Nevertheless, the denial of that right to Jews, and specifically Jews alone, is characterized as antisemitism rather than simply discrimination against individual Jews. Omar Barghouti, BDS co-founder and spokesman, insists that Jews cannot have a state of their own – at least in Palestine. (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, 2011)

Critics claim that the advertised depiction of BDS is misleading for the goal of BDS is really to delegitimize Israel, in a double standard to deny Jews the right of national self-determination, and demonize Israel – the three D test for the new version of antisemitism. In doing so, BDS actively promotes antisemitism. After all, critics of BDS claim, the only people they object to having a right to self-determination are Jews. This is the core of the double standard critique. For Charles Krauthammer, “Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. To apply to the state of the Jews a double standard that you apply to none other, to judge one people in a way you judge no other, to single out that one people for condemnation and isolation—is to engage in a gross act of discrimination.” Then there is the comparison to the Nazis that go both ways – the boycott of Jewish businesses in one direction comparing Palestinian actions to Nazis and the comparison of Israeli military behaviour to that of the Nazis.

One response by Palestinians: we are not out to destroy Israel otherwise why would we insist in full equality between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. The program indirectly endorses the continuation of Israel as a state. That response is somewhat disingenuous. BDS calls Israel a colonial state and insists on the final liquidation of colonialism. BDS calls Israel an apartheid state and apartheid states must be ended. At the very least there appears to be a contradiction in its platform. Certainly, BDS claims that Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing, first of 720,000 Palestinians in 1948 from Israel itself and then, in particular, from Area C of the West Bank as defined by the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian population there has shrunk from 500,000 to an estimated 100,000 -150,000. There is no mention of Jewish ethnic cleansing of a total of 35,000 from East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1948.The Jews then were also called Palestinians. Only Israel, however, engaged in ethnic cleansing.

Further, there can be no negotiations with a colonial entity making the Oslo Accords themselves unlawful and of no bearing. Ending Israeli occupation applies to the whole land of Palestine not just the West Bank. The two-state solution is itself an unjust and illegal formula for peace between a colonizer and the colonized. The mighty hand of the oppressor must be removed in all of Palestine. It is incorrect to say that BDS only boycotts goods made in the settlements in the West Bank. (President Mahmoud Abbas from the Palestine Authority opposes BDS but supports the boycott of goods made in the settlements.) All Israeli goods and services are potentially targets of the boycott, but each BDS group is free to choose its targets on tactical grounds.  

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (my italics) of 2004 preceded and inspired the founding of BDS in 2005. Its greatest successes have been on university campuses. Of course, the roots of the alleged harassment go further back. Jaimie Kreitman, a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1980s  pursuing a master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic studies, reported being “persecuted” for her Masters thesis in an environment that was toxic for Jews as a result of antisemitic rhetoric and beliefs. 

More recently, since President Donald Trump signed his executive order banning antisemitism on campuses, Jewish students at Columbia complained of systematic discrimination from tenured professors and anti-Israeli groups, including Justice for Palestine (a BDS affiliate) and Columbia University Divest. Recently, law professor Katherine Franke, advisor to the pro-BDS Jewish organization, “Jewish Voice for Peace,” tweeted, “Palestinian resistance 2 Israeli policy isn’t Islamic terrorism’ – it’s anti-colonial resistance.” She was refused entry to Israel for supporting terrorism. So were two other supporters of BDS, U.S. congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Franke complained about academic discrimination and the president of the university, Lee Bollinger, declared, “I think it’s wrong for a country to deny entry to a person because of her political beliefs.” Those beliefs included the dissolution of Israel. (For a good summary of the debate, see David M. Halfinger, Michael Wines and Steven Erlanger, “Is BDS Anti-Semitic? A Closer Look at the Boycott Israel Campaign.)  

The BDS issue has infused the 2020 nomination process and 2020 elections in the U.S. In Missouri’s 1st district race, the longtime Democratic incumbent, William Lacy Clay, is running for his 11th term in congress. Cori Bush, a nurse and community activist, is his primary challenger. In her foreign policy statement, she declared that, “This is why nonviolent actions like the BDS movement are so important – and why the effort to mischaracterize and demonize the BDS movement by its opponents is so urgent.”

If small groups of Jews support BDS on grounds of rights and freedom of expression in opposition to Israel as a colonial state, how can BDS be antisemitic? By moving the goal posts. Opposition to Jews prior to the nineteenth century was based on religion. Opposition to Jews in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was based on Jews as a race. Opposition to Jews as a people denied rights to self-determination now defines most antisemitic incidents.

Yet the University of Michigan professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student because the student was applying to attend a graduate school in Israel insisted it was not antisemitic. The professor claimed to refuse to write the letter for human rights reasons and that he was not antisemitic. Yet the university sanctioned him, for, “withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views.” He was criticized for violating the student’s rights and aspirations violating their academic freedom and betraying the university’s mission. He was not chastised for being antisemitic.

This definition of antisemitism as now encompassing anyone who denies the right of self-determination to Jews and only Jews is supported by a wide array of governments who directly target BDS for doing so: Ontario in 2016 in Bill 202, Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act, that dubbed BDS a “movement that promotes hate, prejudice and racism as did Britain which banned boycotts of Israeli goods by public authorities.” “The international boycott, divestment and sanctions (“BDS”) movement is one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel globally and is increasingly promoted on university campuses in Ontario. The BDS movement violates the principle of academic freedom and promotes a climate of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel speech leading to intimidation and violence on campuses. The BDS movement’s agenda is inherently antithetical to and deeply damaging to peace in the Middle East.”

These gestures were followed by those of; the Czech Republic and Denmark in 2017; the German Bundestag in 2019 directly called BDS antisemitic; Austria in February 2020. In America, 29 states starting with Illinois in 2014 and Tennessee in 2016 have banned BDS activities as illegal. On the other hand, Ireland, South Africa, Navarre state in Spain, Leicester City and Swansea in the UK, and Dublin all endorsed BDS. The European Court of Justice also found the supporters of BDS not to be antisemitic since the judgments made were expressions of “political solidarity with oppressed groups overseas” similar to the boycotts of South Africa in its heyday as an apartheid state.

But is BDS antisemitic? You may find its methods abhorrent and its goal of destroying Israel as a state repugnant, but in what sense can the supporters of BDS be said to be antisemitic? Deborah Lipstadt, the famous Holocaust historian who had her run-ins with Holocaust denier David Irving, said, “I do not think that any kid who supports B.D.S. is ipso facto an anti-Semite. I think that’s wrong. It’s a mistake. And it’s not helpful.” She adopts that position because she takes a traditional position on the meaning of antisemitism and does not extend that meaning to refer to the denial of the right of the Jewish people alone to self-determination. Those deniers denigrate Israel to characterize the country as illegitimate and a racist, fascist, totalitarian and apartheid state.

The new antisemitism attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel as the product of self-determination of that people by lobbying for economic boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Supporters of BDS are widely known to have harassed Jewish students who are supporters of Israel. The point is not primarily to hurt Israel economically, academically and culturally – that consequence has been akin to a pinprick – but to brand Israel as a colonizing and apartheid state unworthy of belonging to the community of nations. In defence, Israel uses the current revulsion against antisemitism to brand BDS. (See Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Ant-Defamation League, ADL, 2 June 2013 “An Open Letter on Academic Freedom and University Responsibility.) The result has been a war of negative branding to which protectors of the purity of the traditional definition of antisemitism take offence.

However, there are also consequences on the ground. “Israel has extended the detention of a prominent Palestinian activist for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. An Israeli military court near Jenin granted a request by Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, to keep Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian National BDS Committee, in detention for a further 15 days. BDS is viewed by Israel as a security threat.

There are also black humour moments. B’nai Brith charged a small restaurant in Toronto, Foodbenders, with antisemitism for posting a sign in its window, “ZionismNotWelcome”. Supporters of BDS charged back demanding that B’nai Brith’s charitable status be revoked for taking a political position and misusing the term “antisemitism. There is an irony in an ardently anti-Israel group arguing to protect the purity of the term, “antisemitic”.

The shift in the meaning of antisemitism has created a dilemma for organizations such as the National Israel Fund (NIF)  and J Street in the U.S. NIF declares that it will not fund organizations that “deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel” or fund BDS activities against Israel (excluding promoters of boycotts that discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements).” However, an examination of funds allocated indicates in practice it does fund a number of such organizations, justifying such funding as only supporting the organization’s work on behalf of human rights.

The fight is not simply economic or political, is not primarily about rights to free speech versus discrimination. It is about negative branding between supporters of Israel as a state and those who oppose the existence of Israel.

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