Is it Fair to Slur BDS Supporters as Anti-Semites?

On Sunday, 23 July 2017, Rabbi Alissa Wise travelled to Washington Dulles International Airport, where she was to board a flight to Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Wise was travelling to Israel as part of an interfaith delegation, which planned to meet with human rights activists in Israel and Palestine.

However, at the airport Rabbi Wise and four other Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders were pulled aside from the delegation and told the airline had received an order not to fly the group to Israel.

The reason? These five people are members of advocacy groups Jewish Voice for Peace (of which Rabbi Wise is Deputy Director), American Muslims for Palestine and
the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, all of which are outspoken in their endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Only months earlier, in March 2017, Israel approved a law that allows authorities to ban entry for non-citizens of Israel who support – or work for an organisation
that supports – BDS.

The refusal to allow Rabbi Wise and her colleagues entry into Israel was the first time this policy was put into effect. Since then Israel has released a list of twenty blacklisted organisations whose activists will be banned from entering Israel on account of their support for BDS. Jewish Voice for Peace is on the list. Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said:

“No country would allow visitors who arrive to harm the country to enter it and certainly not when their goal is to wipe out Israel as a Jewish country.”

It is a bitter irony that the first casualty of Israel’s ban on BDS activists should be a Rabbi. It is impossible to reconcile this violation of rights of free speech and freedom of association with Israel’s proclamation to be the only democracy in the Middle East. The vote of the Israeli parliament to legislate its own boycott signifies that the BDS movement is gaining sufficient traction to warrant a fierce response.

Inspired by the anti-apartheid boycott movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement is promoted as a non-violent form of resistance to protest the ongoing human rights abuses Israel commits against Palestinians. BDS appears to be gaining more support as the prospects of a negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to plummet. Amongst its high-profile supporters are musicians Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Israeli activists Boycott from Within. Most recently, New Zealand singer Lorde cancelled a concert tour of Israel after being lobbied by BDS supporters to do so.

Conversely, BDS attracts strident criticism – including that it is an anti-Semitic campaign because it unfairly singles out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. To this end, critics of BDS claim the movement employs, and is driven by, anti-Semitism, as it sets out to delegitimise or even destroy Israel. Recently, Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, wrote:

“the BDS movement is not motivated by disagreement with specific Israeli policies. BDS has no interest in peace. And no interest in improving the daily lives of Palestinians. Its real aim is the destruction of Israel.”

What we seek to do here is not to endorse BDS but rather to assess the claim that it is an anti-Semitic campaign. We argue that such claims serve to suppress criticism of Israel’s growing record of human rights violations.

The stated objectives of the BDS movement are:

  • to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation of Palestinian land (the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights) and dismantle the separation wall;
  • to end discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel by affording them equal rights; and
  • to recognise the Palestinian right of return.

The objective of “right of return” elicits the strongest criticism. Put simply, the right of return would confer the right to live in Israel on Palestinian refugees and their families. One of the criticisms of the Palestinian right of return is that it would destroy Israel’s Jewish majority (presently 75% of Israel’s population are Jewish) and potentially constitute the end of the Jewish state.

Debate over refugee rights isn’t happening in a vacuum. Over the last decade, a global refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions has been unleashed with large numbers of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Europe and other parts of the globe. The crisis is credited with creating a revival of aggressively nationalist politics, social unrest and political instability – most recently manifested by the formation of an anti-immigrant government in Italy. In Australia, we are witness to the strong hostility of significant parts of the community to a relatively modest number of asylum seekers seeking to get to our shores by boat.

In this context, it is not difficult to imagine the fear and resentment that some Israelis may harbour about the notion of a sudden influx of Palestinian refugees. The implications of such a proposal are immense, including that Israeli Jews could lose their majority status and influence in government. Underlying these notions are security concerns.

Opponents of BDS mobilise the right of return as proof that BDS is anti-Semitic, arguing that such an objective effectively results in the destruction of the only Jewish homeland. But to characterise the notion of right of return as an anti-Semitic aspiration is a relatively new phenomenon. As Ilan Pappe and Karma Nabulsi explain about UN Resolution 194:

“In 1949, the newly created state of Israel was admitted to the United Nations, the only member state that was admitted conditionally, its acceptance into that international body qualified by its agreement to abide by UN Resolution 194 which ensures that Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled during the fighting in 1948, and wishing to return, ‘should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date’.”

As a practical matter, we must also consider if all Palestinian refugees would want to live in Israel. Millions still live in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but others have established homes elsewhere. Similarly, all Jews have the right to return to Israel, yet millions opt not to. As Uri Avnery puts it:

“there is a vast difference between principle and implementation. The principle [of the right of return] cannot be denied. It belongs to the individual refugee. It is anchored in international law. It is sacred.”

Another prominent criticism of BDS is that it singles out the world’s only Jewish state when human rights abuses are endemic in many other nations. What about Russia, or China? It is true that at any one time there are many other egregious human rights violations occurring the world over. Nation states routinely protest against criticisms of their human rights violations including by questioning the motives of the critics. For instance, the Chinese government points to the human rights failings of nation states who criticise it.

Putting aside that Russia and China had international sanctions imposed on them, this argument is unsustainable. There is no league table of human rights violations by nation states; no reliable method to rank moral failings. What moves individuals, organisations or nation states to take action to protest abuses at any given time is complex and multi-faceted; undoubtedly emotion plays its part. Responding to criticism of Israel’s policies by saying, “But what about …?” not only implicitly acknowledges guilt, but it deflects the argument without addressing the problem.

BDS attracts support for a multitude of reasons. Israel is a nation state created in the most unusual of circumstances, with the involvement of the United Nations. Many other nations feel a sense of responsibility for the failure of the peace process and an obligation to act. Israel is staunchly supported by the United States, a country that has long identified itself as the most powerful democracy in the world. The desire to act to try and change the status quo is also a response to the enormous power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel is a sophisticated international power. In stark contrast, the conditions of Palestinians living under the Occupation are dire – a fact conceded by many Israelis – and something BDS seeks to address.

It isn’t hard to imagine the cynical manipulation of BDS by those that don’t share its commitment to non-violent advocacy. Critics of BDS have pointed to concerning links between fundraising bodies that support BDS and Palestinian groups that support violence and terrorism. Hamas, for example, has expressed support for BDS. Clearly there are individuals and organisations who support BDS that are anti-Semitic and that have engaged in violence against Israel. Yet, overwhelmingly, BDS is supported by those who typically support social justice and human rights including Rabbi Wise, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jewish Voice for Peace. Social justice and human rights activists are ordinarily committed to challenging racism and bigotry, not fomenting it.

Many Jews support BDS, some loudly, others tacitly – perhaps because they worry about being labelled self-hating Jews. Jews turn to BDS because they want to uphold human rights, see an end to the mistreatment of Palestinians and a resolution to the conflict with Israel. For them, a just resolution to the conflict is a precondition to a secure Israel.

The tarring of those who support BDS with the slur of “anti-Semitism” must also be seen through the prism of adversarial political and public relations strategy. Such ad hominem attacks on individuals who protest Israeli government actions can be very effective. Recently, Jewish American actress, Natalie Portman declined to attend an awards ceremony in Israel in the wake of the deaths of unarmed Palestinian protestors in Gaza. Explaining her decision, she wrote:

“I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.”

Despite Portman distancing herself from BDS, Likud Minister Yuval Steinitz responded that “Natalie Portman’s actions border on anti-Semitism” and “played into the hands of the haters of Israel and those who aspire to destroy the State of Israel.”

Like other disingenuous insinuations of anti-Semitism, Steinitz’s attack served to shift the discourse from an examination of Israeli government’s role in the death of Palestinian protestors to the personal motives of Portman. The effect is to engulf the critic in an intimidating and unpleasant controversy. For Jews, being labelled this way poses the risk of ostracism from family and friends. Many Jews and non-Jews alike are deterred from criticising Israeli policies and actions, for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. As a strategy designed to suppress and if possible, silence criticism, it works.

Boycotts, including those championed by nation states, involve collective action designed to place pressure on a target to change its conduct. Indeed, many tie BDS with another historic boycott of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany in 1933. Conversely, European Jews championed a boycott of German goods after the Nazis came to power. Interestingly, boycotts are popular in Israel, where people campaign about the cost of chocolate pudding and cottage cheese or oppose businesses that open on the Sabbath. Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman even called to boycott Arabs – thus targeting individuals simply based on their ethnicity, a charge levelled at BDS supporters. Israel has retaliated against BDS with its own boycott, legislating the right to ban those who support BDS from entering the country.

Labelling anyone who supports BDS or opposes Israel’s conduct as anti-Semitic, while effective as a deterrent, also undermines efforts to combat the scourge of genuine anti-Semitism. In doing so, it does a disservice to Jews the world over. Banning those, like Rabbi Wise, for their political opinion is a betrayal of fundamental civil liberties and democratic norms. Moreover, it goes against Jewish culture which encourages and celebrates difference of opinion and vigorous debate. We should all be able to debate and contest Israel’s policies without being slandered as anti-Semites.

This article, co-authored with Na’ama Carlin originally appeared on www.abc.net.au.