Forward Thinking

BDS Is Not Anti-Semitism

By Emily L. Hauser

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Pro-Palestinians activists demonstrate in 2010 in Paris, France. / Getty Images

No. It’s not.

The Prime Minister of Israel and the Grand Poobah of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Marching Band can say it as much and as loudly as they want. But the BDS movement is not, as Grand Poobah Malcolm Hoenlein put it yesterday, the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.” And despite what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, when “people on the soil of Europe [talk] about the boycott of Jews,” they are not “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”

No. Stop it.

Though I boycott the settlements, I don’t personally support BDS, for reasons that Bernard Avishai once expressed perfectly in The Nation, and I do not doubt that some members of that movement are unrepentant anti-Semites — just as some members of the Greater Israel movement are unrepentant racists and Islamophobes. Yesh ve’yesh, as we say in Hebrew. There are all kinds.

But there is simply nothing inherent to a call to boycott/divest from/sanction the modern nation state of Israel that is — inherently — an expression of (and here I quote the dictionary) “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”

Holding a different political opinion than that held by a group of people who happen to be Jewish is not by definition an expression of Jew-hatred. Were that the case, the stark political opposition of Christian Zionists to Israel’s peace movement would make them, by definition, anti-Semites. Were that the case, it would make Newt Gingrich — a man who not long ago maintained that the Palestinians are an “invented” people, thus putting him at odds with any Israeli government that has ever negotiated with that people — an anti-Semite. Indeed, were that the case, it could even mean that all Jews anywhere are secret anti-Semites, because let’s face it, we’re a people that likes to argue with each other, am I right?

And yes, I do know that’s not what they meant. I know that these men (and the many people who support them) meant that opposing a Jewish government’s policies in any lands that have ever been Jewish is anti-Semitic — but that’s not true either. Because if that were true, that would mean that anyone who has ever opposed the Israeli occupation and settlement project is an anti-Semite.

Oh wait. Do you think that’s what they meant?

American Jews like Hoenlein and Israeli politicians like Netanyahu want to scare you, me, and the whole world off from even considering the possibility that the Israeli government is as human as any other and thus as worthy of examination as any other, because they want the occupation and settlement project to continue.

They are in fact served by BDS, because not unlike Hoenlein and Netanyahu, et al, the BDS movement blurs the lines between the democratic state of Israel that exists legally and legitimately within its recognized international borders and the military dictatorship that is the occupation; Hoenlein and Netanyahu (et al) are further served by BDS because every single day that we Jews get all wound up about BDS is another day in which the Israeli government can deepen its hold on Palestinian land.

But not only is this fundamentally dishonest, it is fundamentally a betrayal of those who actually suffered and died at the hands of “classical anti-Semites” on “the soil of Europe.” The actual bodies of actual Jews tumbled naked into mass unmarked graves after being riddled with bullets; the actual bodies of actual Jews were burned alive in their homes and holy places; the actual bodies of actual Jews were raped and tortured and gassed and lost forever to their families and our people. When we liken that history to political actions taken in protest of Israel’s occupation policies, we’re making a mockery of those lives.

The real issue with BDS, for folks like the Prime Minister and the Grand Poobah, is that it’s having an impact around the world, and frankly making Israel look bad. But as with so many things that make us look bad, the problem is not BDS, the problem is the thing that BDS is trying to address. The problem is the occupation. If Netanyahu, Hoenlein and all those crying wolf right now really want to see BDS go away, there’s one surefire way to do it: End the occupation.


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