BDS and Defining Antisemitism

Mike Pompeo announced that he had directed the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to “identify organizations that engage in, or otherwise support” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He labelled BDS as a “cancer” and insisted that it was “a manifestation of anti-Semitism.” He went even further. Just being anti-Zionist made you antisemitic “[A]nti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

“When Pompeo talks about Zionism, he is not referring to Theodor Herzl or to the UN’s 1947 Palestine partition plan. He is not talking about what Zionism could have been or should have been. He is talking about Israel in 2020. He is referring to the political model of “Greater Israel”: perpetual Israeli rule over the occupied West Bank, continuous Jewish-Israeli colonisation, and limited or no political rights for Palestinians…With the demise of the Oslo peace process, the occupation has become a permanent feature in Israel’s political model. The contours of this model can be seen in Israel’s 2018 “Nation State Law”: national self-determination rights for Jews only, ongoing Jewish settlement, downgraded status for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and no citizenship for Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank. Opposing this model— according to Israeli government and now, to its allies—is tantamount to antisemitism. This is the latest, and most extreme version of the “New Antisemitism” philosophy: the idea that opposition to Israel is today the primary mode of antisemitism, because the Jewish State is the sovereign embodiment of the Jewish people, “the Jew among nations.” If Israeli rule over the West Bank is now integral to Israel’s political model, opposing it is, by definition, antisemitic. Israel’s ethno-national Jewish character has to be defended, even if it means discrimination, exclusion and oppression of Palestinians.”

Defenders of BDS argue that it is not:

  • Antisemitic
  • Anti-Zionist, except when Zionism advocates against a Palestinian state

For BDS supporters, the organization is an expression of freedom in defence of human rights. Therefore, the State Department’s attack on the BDS movement violates freedom of expression and endangers human rights protection. On 19 November 2020, the United States Department of State formally designated the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic and determined to identify and defund organizations supporting BDS.

“The IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition of antisemitism — and its examples — is on its way to being adopted and used across the globe to restrict free speech. From the State Department to English Premier League soccer teams, from universities to social media platforms, concerted campaigns to label criticism of Israeli policies and challenges to Zionism as antisemitism — and to impose formal/legal consequences — continue to gain momentum. In state legislatures and Congress in the United States, across Europe and in Latin America, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and its examples is being used to quash criticism of Israel, to delegitimize advocates for Palestinian rights, and to undermine civil society organizations — including human rights and humanitarian groups — for their work with or support for Palestinians. This politicization and weaponization of the fight against antisemitism has grave implications, not just for Israel-Palestine activism but for free speech and civil society writ large, as well as for the battle against real and rising antisemitism around the world.”

Do critics of BDS conflate criticisms of Israel with antisemitism?

Is BDS simply a form of non-violent advocacy and an example of free expression that must be protected or do its activities delegitimize Israel?

Should advocates of boycotts be allowed, even supported, in expressing their views freely without harassment, threats of prosecution or criminalization, or other measures that violate the right to freedom of expression?

Should the US administration desist from following the Israeli government’s policies with respect to BDS?

Does Israel use false and politically motivated accusations of antisemitism to harm peaceful activists, including human rights defenders, and shield from accountability those responsible for illegal actions that harm people in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in America?

Is the US hypocritical and deceitful in that Trump gave succor to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others who advocate violence and discrimination as well as a disregard for international law while opposing BDS?

Does the U.S. support for Israeli policies on BDS result in institutionalized discrimination and systematic human rights violations against millions of Palestinians?

Do such actions harm the Jewish people by equating Israel with Judaism?

Do such actions harm the Jewish people by equating criticism of Israeli government policies and practices in the arena of human and Palestinian rights to antisemitism?

Does such an anti-BDS policy undermine the work of NGOs across the world which advocate the protection of the rights of religious and other minorities?

The controversy over BDS has highlighted divisions within the Democratic Party between liberals and progressives, especially the designation of BDS as antisemitic. That designation follows the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition which has been adopted by the US State Department and many other political jurisdictions around the world. It has already affected the Senate campaign in Georgia as Republicans have attacked Reverend Raphael Warnock, one of the two Democratic Senate candidates, for comparing Israeli policies in the West Bank to apartheid.

In response, Warnock reiterated his support for Israel’s right to exist as well as for a two-state solution, affirmed his opposition to BDS and reaffirmed that BDS has “anti-Semitic underpinnings.” This is consistent with Biden’s campaign platform which condemned BDS but did not equate its position with antisemitism; there is a difference between an organization’s stance having antisemitic underpinnings and its current policies as being antisemitic. Neither Warnock nor Biden supported efforts to criminalize free speech and expression. Neither equates criticism of Israel per se with antisemitism.

Note that Biden’s and Warnock’s positions are inconsistent with the preferences of the majority of their own party members. In a January 2020 poll by Shibley Telhami, a Brookings fellow, 48% of Democrats, who knew at least “a little” about BDS, supported the movement; only 15% opposed it. These results were consistent with a 2019 Data for Progress poll in which 53% of Democratic voters characterized BDS as a legitimate tactic, 12% disagreed, and 35% were not sure. 

Is BDS underpinned by an antisemitic position? If you take the original Arab League position against Zionism, it certainly was. In 1945, the Arab League agreed on a boycott of Jewish goods and services in Mandatory Palestine. The rationale – supporting the Jewish economy could lead to the anathema of an independent Jewish state. “Products of Palestinian Jews are to be considered undesirable in Arab countries. They should be prohibited and refused as long as their production in Palestine might lead to the realization of Zionist political aims.”

In 2001, the Arab League initiated the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban South Africa. After five days, Israel and the US withdrew, primarily because of the overt antisemitic nature of the conference in which, “Copies of the anti-Semitic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were sold on the grounds… fliers depicting Hitler with the question, ‘What if I had won?’ circulated as well. The answer, ‘There would be NO Israel and NO Palestinian bloodshed.’” The Conference was opposed to the aim of Zionism, creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Israel was henceforth to be referred to as a settler colonialist apartheid state.

In April 2002 in Britain, a petition circulated to boycott academic collaboration with Israeli institutions; academic stars such as Richard Dawkins, signed. This boycott of Israeli academic institutions was picked up in October 2003 in the West Bank and resulted in the formation of the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in April 2004. It did not seem to matter that a significant but still small percentage of faculty and much larger percentage of students in Israeli universities were Palestinians and the percentages have been growing.

The BDS boycott was organized in 2005 as a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality” with the intention of “effectively challenging international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism.” But if “apartheid” is defined as a “policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race,” Israel cannot be accurately characterized as an apartheid state. As of 2012, according to the Israeli Council for Higher Education, Palestinians constituted 11% of bachelor’s degree students, 7% of master’s students, and 3% of PhD students. However, in 2012, a mere 2.7% of the faculty were Palestinian. The percentage of Palestinians in administration was even lower.

The number of Arab students in Israeli universities from 2011 to 2018 grew by 78.5% according to 2018 research by Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE); Arab students accounted for 16.1% of undergraduate students in Israeli universities. In graduate programs, the percentage of Arab students almost doubled to 13%. In both teacher and medical training, the percentage of Palestinians in Israeli universities is equal to the percentage of Palestinians in the general population – 21%. Further, these percentages do not accurately represent the number of Israeli Palestinians studying in post-secondary universities and in colleges because there are currently significant numbers of Israeli Palestinians, 8,000, studying in West Bank universities – 66% of them in Jenin where they make up 55% of the student body.

In sum, BDS is a political movement that uses human rights to label Israel as a colonialist settler apartheid state, a position put forth by the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi that I reviewed in my previous long series of blogs. Does the BDS ostensible program emerge from its anti-Zionist underpinnings? On the surface, this does not seem to be the case. The BDS program pressures Israel to meet what it describes as Israel’s obligations under international law, a reference to the demand that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, and full equality for Palestinian Israelis, referred to as Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel – they are not called Israeli Palestinians or Palestinian Israelis. The program also advocates “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” 

Is the issue of withdrawal from the occupied or the disputed territories in the West Bank an anti-apartheid measure or simply a political position of BDS and others? Is the insistence of the Palestinian refugee right to return an anti-apartheid stance or a political one? When Israelis represent such a return as a demographic threat, is that not racist? At heart, it is more about the demographic war between the two groups for determining what goes on in the area. This has been the case since Jews, both Zionist and non-Zionist, began returning to what would become Israel.

The status of the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War is a matter of political dispute, not racism. So is the issue of refugee return. Interpreting the UN Resolution as defining return as a right contradicts its original wording. However, there is no doubt that, over the years, the resolution has come to mean a right, particularly for the Palestinians. At the same time, there has been no other case where refugees who fled or were forced to flee were supported in their return as a matter of right. On the other hand, the equality of Palestinian citizens in Israel is certainly a matter of rights, but some identifiers which unequivocally favour Jews – the flag, the national anthem, the holidays – are not matters of rights but of heritage in any state. However, in a number of other areas, Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as second class citizens.  

Is the platform of BDS antisemitic? Of the thirteen guidelines provided in the application of the IRHA definition, two would possibly seem to be generally applicable:

  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

With notable exceptions, by and large advocates of BDS do not justify harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion, do not make mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews, or identify a world Jewish conspiracy controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions. The Hamas and ISIS component of the BDS movement is small. The BDS advocates do NOT accuse all Jews of having responsibility for what Netanyahu does. They are not Holocaust deniers. Nor in reading them have I ever found one accusing the Jews in Western democracies of holding dual loyalties, though they come close when they charge Jewish legislators and government bureaucrats who are Jewish of favouring Israeli policies. But I do that. So do many Jewish advocacy agents, not as an accusation but as a depiction. BDS does not use symbols and images by and large associated with classical antisemitism in characterising the Zionists. Nor do they usually characterize pro-Israeli politicians or citizens of being like Nazis. Nor, finally, do they hold Jews as a collectivity to be responsible for what the State of Israel does.

Labelling Israel as an apartheid state, however, is not only a horrific misrepresentation; it is certainly applying a double standard of behaviour not demanded of any other state. In that sense, the BDS movement is antisemitic. Further, in characterizing the existence of a State of Israel as a racist endeavor and in denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, BDS is antisemitic. Thus, although the underpinnings of BDS may certainly be antisemitic and the philosophical aspect of its program may be as well, BDS would not seem to be otherwise an antisemitic movement.


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