[NOTE: In this piece, I address a number of arguments that make the claim that BDS is antisemitic. If readers want to suggest GOOD FAITH arguments that ought to be addressed here, please leave them in the comments. I will add to this piece as appropriate. – M]
Three letters that have the power to enflame the already volcanic debate over Israel’s occupation and Palestinian rights. They stand for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, economic tactics meant to be used to pressure large entities, such as states or multinational corporations, to change their policies. BDS has grown beyond that narrow definition, however.
For supporters of Palestinian rights, BDS is a movement, one which promotes these economic tactics and the goals the Palestinian BDS call set out more than fifteen years ago:
- Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
- Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
- Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
For supporters of Israeli policies, BDS is an attack on Israel, one which seeks the annihilation of the state, and, in the view of many, of the Jews living there, or at least their expulsion. In this view, BDS is an expression of violent, even genocidal antisemitism.
This image is being cited by more and more politicians these days, too many of them from the Democratic party. BDS has been explicitly labeled as antisemitic recently by such figures as newly-elected Senator Raphael Warnock, New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, and Joe Biden’s nominee for Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
In our upcoming book, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, Marc Lamont Hill and I do a deep dive into the development of BDS as a tactic and movement and deal with some of the arguments for and against it. Right now, though, there is a need to directly address this key question: Is BDS antisemitic?
It must be stressed that this question does not speak to whether BDS is a proper tactic to employ to get Israel to change its policies. That’s a separate debate, and whether or not BDS is a form of antisemitism is only one point in that debate. But it’s an important one. If the answer to that question is that BDS is antisemitic, then clearly it is not a legitimate movement or tactic.
Indeed, if it is antisemitic, then it violates one of the self-declared core principles of the BDS movement. The BDS movement unequivocally states. “BDS is an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
On the other hand, if BDS is not, as its critics claim, antisemitic, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do. One may have tactical differences or ethical objections on another basis. Those arguments can still be made, but it seems clear that it wouldn’t have the same potency as the accusation of antisemitism.
My conclusion need not be a mystery: BDS is not antisemitic. In fact, the movement itself stands against antisemitism. It does so, rightly, with the understanding that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are two different and distinct things. Indeed, while it is undeniable that much of the rhetoric around BDS is anti-Zionist or, at the very least, in severe tension, with even the most liberal forms of Zionism, and most of its leaders are proudly anti-Zionist, it is not impossible to support BDS and still consider oneself a Zionist of some sort. I know several people personally who fit that description, including some with vast expertise in the field of Israel-Palestine politics.
BDS is antisemitic because it is anti-Zionist, and anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism
This argument has gained a lot of traction recently due to the misuse of the definition of antisemitism that was developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA). More and more laws and regulations are being developed based on this definition despite the fact that many people who support it as a working definition have spoken out against its use in this manner. That includes the person who led the process of drafting the IHRA definition in the first place, Kenneth Stern.
On its face, equating anti-Zionism and antisemitism is absurd. One is the opposition to a political ideology, Zionism, and the policies that have been pursued in service of that ideology. The other is the hatred of a group of people for who they are as a religious, cultural, ethnic, or religious group. The two are clearly not the same.
Some argue that anti-Zionism is simply a “safer” way to express antisemitism. No doubt, some have put it to such use. But it’s not usually difficult to spot this maneuver, such as its widespread use in white supremacist conspiracy theories.
It’s also true that opposition to Zionism can lead to antisemitic conspiracy theories. But the solution to these problems is not to label a legitimate political stance antisemitic, but to confront the antisemitism and work to separate the two. Instead, we have all too often seen any overlap between anti-Zionism and antisemitism treated not as an opportunity for education, but rather seized upon in an opportunistic manner to defend Israel’s occupation and policies.
Again, anti-Zionism is a political position. It can be legitimately held, and legitimately debated. Antisemitism is a loathsome and historically genocidal bigotry that is indefensible and must be opposed by all, across the political spectrum.
Collapsing the two in order to deflect criticism of Israel is unconscionable, no matter how common the practice is. BDS, on the other hand, explicitly separates them.
BDS singles out Israel
Indeed, it does, and that is for a remarkably simple, and obvious reason: it is a Palestinian call and a Palestinian project. It is, therefore directed at Israel, since it would be senseless for a Palestinian call for civil, collective action to be aimed at a country that is not denying their rights.
The common refrain is to point out that BDS targets the “only Jewish state.” The implication is that BDS targets Israel not because of Palestinian dispossession, exile, occupation, and lack of rights, but because Israel is a Jewish state.
But there is no basis for that argument. It takes two facts—that Israel is the sole Jewish state and that Israel is the target of BDS—and decides arbitrarily that one causes the other. Occam’s Razor dictates that BDS targets Israel because Israel’s creation was the proximate cause of the naqba, the Palestinian calamity in 1948 that led to some 800,000 Palestinians fleeing their homes; because Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza created a quarter million more refugees, and led to an occupation that is much harsher and stiffer today than ever before; and because Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip has created a humanitarian catastrophe there while the ongoing occupation of the West Bank leaves millions without civil and human rights, in some cases for as much as the fifth consecutive generation.
Those factors are clearly the reason the Palestinians, in need of a non-violent, political method to put pressure on Israel, turned to BDS. It is not because Israel is a Jewish state, but because it is an ethnocratic state which has been dispossessing Palestinians and denying their basic rights for many decades.
The Nazis boycotted Jewish businesses. Boycotts of Jews are therefore inherently antisemitic
This is an unreasonable stance, one which says that not only Israel but Jews in general are immune to economic pressures. Somehow, though, when Avigdor Liberman called for a boycott of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, this was opposed by many, but not objected to as inherently off limits. Nor was it considered wrong when he called for a boycott of the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.
The Nazi boycott was a governmental boycott against a portion of Germany’s own citizenry, which would be outrageous even if it were not a precursor to much more horrific and murderous actions to come against Germany’s Jewish population.
BDS is a civil action, based on a call from Palestinian civil society. It is wholly separate from the Arab League boycott (which, like the Nazi boycott, has been a failure).
Boycotts and political movements for divestment and sanctions are critical tools for civil society to exert pressures when governments will not. Israel is a state like any other, Jewish or not, and it is perfectly reasonable to boycott it, or selected sectors of it, in order to bring about a change in policy. This is a tool that must never be compromised, and any state which aspires to be “a state like any other” must accept that opponents of its policies may use this tool.
Many BDS supporters are not Palestinian or even Arab. Why do they choose this cause rather than others?
First, the question implies that BDS supporters devote all their activism to this one cause. This is false, as I can attest from having worked with many Palestinian rights activists and leaders for two decades. There are some for whom this is their main, or even exclusive issue, as is the case with virtually any cause you’d care to name. But the majority have numerous causes to which they devote their activism, as is again the case with any issue.
Second, there are specific reasons why Palestine and Israel might have a particular attraction for many Americans as our government is deeply involved in this issue. The “unbreakable bond” and “special relationship” with Israel means that the United States has played an outsized role for decades in perpetuating this conflict with its myopic support for Israel.
It is also the case that popular, civil society pressure can play a much more significant role with Israel than it could with many other countries, precisely because of the deep economic and security partnerships and Israel’s reliance on the U.S. for protection in international fora.
But, again, the biggest reason those Americans who do support BDS do so is because Palestinians asked them to. In this regard, the comparison to South Africa is apt, since in both cases, economic measures are likely to have a severe impact on the oppressed people.
We could ask why people don’t have a BDS movement against Russia, but the Russian people suffering under Vladimir Putin have not asked us for one, and, in any case, the United States already sanctions Russia quite heavily. Nor have the Sudanese people, the Chinese, the Venezuelans, or other peoples called for a BDS movement. One might note, when the Tibetan people asked for international solidarity, many Americans responded to that as well.
BDS uniquely singles out Jews as the one people who do not have the right of national self-determination
This is not the case. BDS makes no statement about Jewish self-determination. Nor does it argue against Jews having a state of their own in the abstract. The BDS movement’s argument is about whether Jewish self-determination trumps the rights—national, civil, human rights—of the Palestinian people, who, by any reasonable measure, must be entitled to the same right to national self-determination.
The defense of Israel is argued as if the exercise of Jewish self-determination has taken place in a vacuum. We have long since dispensed with the fiction that inspired many to emigrate to Palestine in the early years of Zionism, that it was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
BDS speaks for the rights of Palestinians, not against those of Jews. By accusing BDS of denying the Jews their right of self-determination, defenders of Israeli policy manage to elide the question that actually bears on the reality on the ground: in creating a state, did and does Zionism have the right to place Jewish rights above the national, human, and civil rights of Palestinians?
One can understand why Israel and her supporters would be reluctant to frame their argument in this manner, even if they believed they could win it. It is an ugly argument to make, yet the view that Zionism/Israel did and does have this right is implicit in Israel’s day to day policies and in the idea that the ancient Jewish claim to the land takes precedence over that of the people who have been living on that land for centuries. This is what BDS is challenging. It’s fair to debate that challenge, but not to pre-empt it even being brought up for discussion by labeling it antisemitic.
BDS would make Jews a minority in their state, and we’ve seen what happens to minorities in the Arab world
This argument is made explicitly by the American Jewish Committee. “[A]nyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the Middle East knows that if the BDS movement’s dream ever came true, it would quickly turn into a nightmare for the Jewish population. In a majority Palestinian state–which given current societal trends would most likely be under an Islamist leadership such as Hamas–the fate of the Jews would be anything but peaceful. This is a region where minorities are either massacred, oppressed or driven out.”
The bald-faced racism of that analysis is shocking in the banal language used to present it. Its alarmism is expressed by supporters of Israel everywhere. It does represent a genuine feeling among most Israeli Jews and supporters of Israeli policy all around the world. But it still is no more than a statement that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular are uncivilized barbarians who will kill Jews the second they get the chance.
That this argument still finds wide acceptance, even among liberal observers of the conflict, shows how integral fear of the other—especially the dark-skinned other—is in this conflict.
The history of minorities in the Middle East is considerably more complex than this reading would have it (especially when compared to the history of various marginalized groups in Europe and the United States), and the AJC argument does not reflect the fact that the Middle East has been, for decades, dominated by dictators backed by Western powers who have used tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions, including antisemitism, to help maintain control. Nor does it account for Israel’s own contributions to the “massacre, oppression, and driving out” of minorities.
It is a blatantly racist argument that cannot be viewed as legitimate, much less as a credible reason to privilege the rights of Jews to a discriminatory state over the basic rights of Palestinians.
BDS cannot be reconciled with the continued existence of a Jewish state
The BDS call includes a demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. True, the wording is fuzzy and could, conceivably, accommodate an agreement which limits return in some ways, but it is fair to say that most Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian see the right of return as a Palestinian prerogative, and if the majority of Palestinian refugees decide that their preference is to return to their ancestral homeland, that is their right.
The BDS movement does not take sides on the precise contours of a political settlement, although it would not be unfair to say that it is likely that a strong majority of BDS supporters favor a single democratic, or a binational state structure. And as a basic principle, it certainly does reject state structures which explicitly or implicitly favor one group over another.
But if one accepts the principle that Palestinian rights and Israeli Jewish rights are equal, and if one also accepts that both have a claim to a national existence in the land called Israel, Palestine, and other names in antiquity, then the question is backward. We should not be asking how or if Palestinian rights can accommodate a Jewish state, but how the real world Jewish state, as it exists right now, can be altered to accommodate equal rights between Palestinians and Jews.
If we begin with two competing claims and two competing sets of rights, we cannot continue by deciding that one group’s rights must be ensured even if those of the other must therefore be sacrificed. That is clearly incompatible with any reasonable definition of universal, equal rights.
Therefore, the proper way to proceed is find ways amenable to both Israeli Jews and Palestinians to allow each people their rights and to reconcile those areas where those rights clash in a manner that treats the rights of all parties equally. That is an outcome that BDS is demanding.
On the Israeli side, many are suspicious that this is not the true intention of BDS. It’s likely that nothing will prove otherwise to them short of actually implementing a solution that recognizes the rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews. But Israel does have the advantage of being a state with access to the most powerful corridors of the Western world and the international system. They are capable of ensuring that their rights are not superseded.
But the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians means that Israel can, and has, framed the argument in terms of their own security needs taking precedence over all else. This has led to a framework whereby Israel’s needs must be fully addressed first, and then, perhaps Palestinian needs can be addressed within the boundaries established by Israel setting the terms.
Understandably, this is a position that Israelis—especially if they are fearful of what will happen if they are not setting those boundaries, and no longer have the power tilted heavily in their favor—do not wish to relinquish. Therefore pressure must be exerted by international actors to incentivize change. Governments and international structures have proven reluctant or ineffective in playing that role, so civil society has acted.
Supporters of BDS have spread antisemitic conspiracy theories and acted in hostile ways against Jews as Jews, even outside the context of Israel
Of course, there are people in the BDS movement who are antisemitic. But by equating BDS itself with antisemitism, the actual presence of Judeophobes is obscured in favor of tarring everyone who supports Palestinian rights and justice with the antisemite label.
From the earliest days of Zionism, far right Christians and ultra-nationalists have supported the movement not out of love for the Jews but out of the basest, most historically murderous antisemitism. Does this make Zionism antisemitic? Of course not, and it would be offensive to suggest that it does.
The same is true of supporters of Palestinian rights and BDS. There are some antisemites among them, and we have seen significant actions taken by leaders of the BDS movement to isolate and ostracize them. But they are not typical of BDS activists unless we first define BDS as antisemitism. The circular nature of that argument needs no illustration.
Does this mean that supporting BDS is the only just course?
Not necessarily. It means that BDS is not antisemitic and that it is a legitimate vehicle through which Palestinians can support their claims. But one can certainly argue that the BDS tactic is too harsh to be used in this case. Or one can make the argument that economic action should be targeted more specifically. An argument can also be made against the elements of the BDS call, especially if one disagrees with their premises.
What I have established here is that BDS can be opposed if that is what one feels appropriate, and it can be debated. What is out of bounds is the disingenuous attempt to disqualify it not on its merits, but on a spurious characterization of BDS as antisemitic.
BDS has often been used as a proxy for the movement for Palestinian rights in general. To the extent that this happens, it is even more imperative that we do not allow false accusations of antisemitism to pre-empt the reasonable debate over BDS or to deprive Palestinians and their supporters of a key, non-violent, political tool to press their case.
Oppose BDS by debating its proponents. Oppose it by supporting more business and trade deals with Israel. If you believe BDS proponents have their facts wrong, challenge them. These are all legitimate forms of debate. Indeed, they are far more powerful counters to a movement like BDS, assuming you have legitimate arguments to make. The fact that BDS opponents choose to hurl accusations, invective, and even abuse at BDS supporters suggests that they don’t have the arguments to make.
Photo: “Massive DC Rally And March For Gaza 35” by Stephen D. Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0