Is BDS anti-Semitism?

boycott1For many Jews, no three letters seem to conjure up rage and fury as effectively as “BDS.” Still, I have a strong suspicion that we’ll be hearing them bandied about increasingly in the coming months.

Since the Gaza war, the movement for global Boycott/ Divestment/ Sanctions against Israel seems to have gained new momentum. Among its prominent new supporters is economic journalist/activist Naomi Klein, who made a passionate call for BDS at the peak of the crisis:

Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS cause, and talk of cease-fires is doing little to slow the momentum. Support is even emerging among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the assault roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel. It calls for “the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions” and draws a clear parallel with the anti-apartheid struggle. “The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves.… This international backing must stop.”

Yet even in the face of these clear calls, many of us still can’t go there. The reasons are complex, emotional and understandable. And they simply aren’t good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Surrendering them verges on active complicity.

Count longtime peace activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow is one of those who “still can’t go there.” The current issue of “In These Times” contains a fascinating debate between Klein and Waskow on the merits of BDS. For his part, Waskow opposes it primarily for tactical reasons:

(The) BDS approach is not the way to bring about the change that is absolutely necessary.  The most important, and probably the only effective, change that can be brought about is a serious change in the behavior of the U.S. government. That means we need to engage in serious organizing within the United States…Boycotts and divestment are not going to do it. I understand that they express a kind of personal purity—”not with my money you don’t”— but they won’t change U.S. policy, which is exactly what needs to be changed.

Klein and Waskow’s conversation is edifying as far as it goes, but to my mind it doesn’t address the main concern over BDS articulated by so many American Jews: namely that given all of the odious regimes throughout the world, the unique singling out of Israel for sanction is an expression of flat-out anti-Semitism. This point of view was well summed up by Thomas Friedman in the NY Times back in 2002, at a time when student movements were increasingly pressuring universities to divest from Israel:

How is it that Egypt imprisons the leading democracy advocate in the Arab world, after a phony trial, and not a single student group in America calls for divestiture from Egypt? (I’m not calling for it, but the silence is telling.) How is it that Syria occupies Lebanon for 25 years, chokes the life out of its democracy, and not a single student group calls for divestiture from Syria? How is it that Saudi Arabia denies its women the most basic human rights, and bans any other religion from being practiced publicly on its soil, and not a single student group calls for divestiture from Saudi Arabia?

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

For his part, Alan Dershowitz expressed a similar critique in response to recent reports (later retracted) that Hampshire College was divesting from six companies that profit from Israel’s occupation:

The divestment campaign applies to Israel and Israel alone. Hampshire will continue to deal with companies that supply Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Belarus and other brutal dictatorships around the world that routinely murder civilians, torture and imprison dissenters, deny educational opportunities to women, imprison gays and repress speech. Indeed many of those who support divestiture against Israel actively support these repressive regimes. This divestment campaign has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. It is motivated purely by hatred for the Jewish state.

Klein is absolutely right when she writes of BDS that “many of us can’t go there.” The reasons for this are complex and painful – and Friedman and Dershowitz do a compelling job of spelling out just how deeply painful and divisive they are. I must admit I have serious hesitation in taking on an issue that pushes so many of my own Jewish fear-buttons. (I’m not unmindful of the tragic historic spectres that boycotts against Jews and Jewish institutions conjure up for us.)  Still and all, I can’t help but wonder that by dismissing BDS as simple, abject hatred of Jews and Israel, we are misunderstanding the essential of the point of this movement. Even more fundamentally, I wonder if our rejection of BDS simply papers over our inability to face the more troubling aspects of the Jewish state.

I’ll start here: in a way, Dershowitz is correct when he writes that BDS has “nothing to do with human rights.” This particular movement did not in fact arise out of the international community’s concern over human rights in Israel/Palestine: it was founded in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian groups who sought to fight for self-determination through nonviolent direct action. It arose out of their frustration over Israel’s continued refusal to comply with international law on any number of critical issues – and the oppressive manner in which Israel has occupied and ruled over Palestinians.  In other words, it is absolutely true that BDS is not an international human rights campaign. It is, rather, a liberation campaign waged by the Palestinian people – one for which they are seeking international support.

Yes, there are many oppressive nations around the world – and if a call came from indigenous, grassroots movements in these nations calling for international support of BDS, I’d say we most of us would seriously consider lending them our support. To use a partial list of nations mentioned by Friedman-Dershowitz, if any constituencies of the oppressed in Egypt, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Libya, Zimbabwe or Belarus called for nonviolent global boycott/divestment/sanction campaigns to force change in their countries’ policies, yes, I think we might well agree that they would be worthy of our backing. However, the absence of such movements does not necessarily negate the justice of the Palestinians’ current campaign. And it doesn’t seem to me that support of their call automatically constitutes hatred of Israel or Jews.

What I think Friedman-Dershowitz – and so many of us – fail to grasp is this: even as we recoil from nations that “choke the life out of their democracies” and “routinely murder civilians, torture and imprison dissenters, deny educational opportunities to women, imprison gays and repress speech,” the only way we can help truly address this kind of oppression is to support the ones who struggle for rights within these countries themselves – it is not for us Westerners to determine what is best for them. (And I particularly fear that when we frame this as a fight for “democracy,” as Friedman does,  this is really just a code for “imposing Western influence” – but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.)

The bottom line? While I believe there are undoubtedly those out there who will support BDS out of hatred pure and simple, I think it is just too easy to dismiss this movement as ipso facto anti-Semitism. Beyond the fears articulated by Friedman, Dershowitz and so many others like them, I think there’s an even deeper fear for many of us in the Jewish community: the prospect of facing the honest truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

For so many painful reasons, it is just so hard for us to see Israel as an oppressor – to admit that despite all of the vulnerability we feel as Jews, the power dynamic is dramatically, overwhelmingly weighted in Israel’s favor.  Though a movement like BDS might feel on a visceral level like just one more example of the world piling on the Jews and Israel, we need to be open to the possibility that it might more accurately be described as the product of a weaker, dispossessed, disempowered people doing what it must to resist oppression.

I have to say it feels like I’m going out on a serious limb by writing these words. I’m only raising these issues, as always, in the hope of starting a wider discussion in the Jewish community. Somehow, I feel that it is only by facing the stuff we prefer not to have to face that we might begin to find a way out of the this painful reality.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions…

24 thoughts on “Is BDS anti-Semitism?

  1. Many thanks to Rabbi Rosen for encouraging a wider discussion of BDS in the Jewish community, and for writing words so important to articulate: “the honest truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.”

  2. This is a very thoughtful post and I think it’s important to stop avoiding the elephants in the room when it comes to the complicated feelings many Jews have about Israel. I’m not completely sure I know how I think about this either and I look forward to more truly honest and reflective discussion in our community. I do know that I have supported boycotts and divestments in other situations around the world — most recently, I participated in a march to try to persuade my university to divest from companies that have holdings in Sudan. While I don’t equate the difficult situation in Palestine/Israel with the ethnic cleansing of Darfur in any way, I do believe deeply that the situation cries out for nonviolent leadership around the world. And I respect those who believe that boycotts or divestment are an important tool in that kit. It is clear that the current Palestinian situation is utterly untenable and I don’t imagine the rise of Avigdor Leiberman has left anyone feeling encouraged about the short-term intentions of the Israeli government, to say the least. Given that the current government has had the chutzpah to put a proven bigot in the major foreign leadership role, I can’t blame those who want to ante up the pressure. I do regret that there are many peace-loving Israelis who might suffer from divestment, but Israel’s long-term security is inextricably bound to the future of the Palestinians and something must give. Thank you for putting these questions out there.

  3. I’ve been anti-occupation for many years. I left Israel primary because of it.

    Intellectually I also understand the right of Palestinians to attack and kill Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. (That’s NOT the same as blowing up civilians inside Israel.) Ehud Barak, among other Israeli leaders, said that if he had been born a Palestinian he would have joined a terrorist group.

    But there is a difference between understanding, even sympathizing with, a legitimate tactic, and supporting it. I myself served in the Israeli army. I have friends and relatives in Israel with kids in the army. I don’t agree with there politics, but I can’t support an activity that gets their kids killed.

    I feel the same about BDS. How can I support destroying the livelihood of friends and relatives? Some of whom have bad politics and some of who have good politics. How could I ever explain to them what I was doing.

    Sometimes I feel like Israel is like a brother who has become a drug addict. I wouldn’t buy him drugs, but I can’t see having him arrested either. Or become homeless. You want to give him a kick in the ass, a major intervention, send him to detox; but you also want him to have bed to sleep in.

    Perhaps its an illogical reaction. Buts its to an impossible dilemma.

  4. “if any constituencies of the oppressed in Egypt, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Libya, Zimbabwe or Belarus called for nonviolent global boycott/divestment/sanction campaigns to force change in their countries’ policies, yes, I think we might well agree that they would be worthy of our backing.”

    Really dumb argument. Those countries would simply kill or imprison those asking for sanctions. They are not able to ask for sanctions and for that reason we ignore them?

  5. Rabbi Rosen talks about the most serious issues regarding divestment, although another important point to note is that this year’s BDS project (as opposed to ones that rose and fell between 2004-2006) is largely based on deception. Hampshire College, after all, DID NOT divest from Israel, yet those who are trying to build momentum for the BDS movement continue to claim that they did in order to try and “inspire” others to follow Hampshire’s “example.” This is a two-edged sword because while it may help create momentum, it also puts the decision makers at universities on notice that those pushing divestment on their campuses are selling snake oil, and are only too willing to exploit the university for their own political purposes.

    I’ve been tracking issues regarding this year’s BDS campaign at http://www.divestthis.com if anyone is interested.

  6. Thank you, Rabbi Rosen, for your clear and compelling discussion of BDS. I agree that it is really important to remember that this call for BDS has come from Palestinians as a call for direct, nonviolent action. Because Palestinians are so often framed in the Western media as “terrorists,” it is important to recognize this as an important non-violent strategic response to being occupied by another people. And supporting this movement is a powerful way to show our solidarity with Palestinians and support nonviolent change in I/P. Yasher Koach for speaking out on this.

  7. Yasher koach on being, appropriately for this season, a Nachshon on this issue within the Jewish community. A Jewish voice on this issue, speaking courageously, truthfully, and in solidarity, has been noticeably missing. I look forward to more!

  8. Thank you for speaking out so thoughtfully on this issue. Like the letter from the 500 Israelis in support of BDS, we need to find the most expedient and powerful way to mobilize large numbers of American Jews to speak out in equally thoughtful ways about the value in supporting BDS. Having spent years in the slow process of educating people (Jews and non-Jews) about the realities in Israel/Palestine, we need to figure out ways to help these individuals and groups turn their understanding into action. The BDS movement may be a good mechanism.

  9. It is misguided to object to BDS actions undertaken toward Israel on the grounds that other nations are not targeted. Syria is now targeted with the “Syria Accountability Act” passed by Congress. Iraq was heavily sanctioned under Saddam Hussein. Google this and read: “Since 1987, U.S. agencies have implemented numerous sanctions against Iran.” Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, others. See list at: http://www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/programs/.

    Perhaps most relevantly, the Palestinians have been sanctioned/embargoed systematically, most stringently since the elections that brought Hamas to power. Opponents of BDS gestures toward Israel have their argument upside down: the Palestinians have been ostracized for their acts of violence against civilians and their failures to meet diplomatic commitments while Israel has not.

  10. Ordinarily I’m to the left of you, Brant, but on this issue, I’m skeptical.

    Not one of the sanctions campaigns I can think of other than the one against South Africa has done any good, and many have done considerable harm (Iraq, Cuba, even Gaza itself). This suggests to me that the crucial variable in South Africa wasn’t the divestiture movement: it was the leadership of Mandela and (eventually) De Klerk. At the moment, I see no evidence of comparable leaders on either side. In their absence, I’m very skeptical about the good this campaign will do, and worried about the injury.

  11. Thanks very much for such a sincere, humble comment, showing deep conviction tempered by honest uncertainty, and given the current atmosphere, unquestionable courage.

    Economic boycotts are absolutely a legitimate, non-violent form of struggle. The key is to design them to be smart, targeted and serving to advance the audience’s knowledge and understanding of the issues.

  12. Brant,

    You say, “As always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions…”

    Why? So you can decide not to print them — as you have often done in the past? I think this needs to be addressed in your “disclaimer.” Your blog is not always a free exchange of ideas and opposing points of view.

    • Ann,

      You are right: my blog is not a completely free exchange of ideas. I don’t let through every comment that comes my way. For the record, however, I very rarely delete comments to this blog. I typically delete comments that are outright offensive or when I feel a specific commenter has made their point repeatedly and I make the decision to end the conversation on a particular issue. I’ve never refused a comment simply because it presents an opposing point of view.

      If you have a comment on this particular post, I welcome it and would be happy to publish it.

  13. Thank you for publishing this comment. If you read frustration in my last response, you read it correctly. I had decided to stop responding to your blog, but when I read this post, I was deeply saddened.

    Now… after several months of repeatedly writing against Israel, you now suggest to your JRC community that divestment/boycott of Israel may be warranted? I understand that you didn’t directly come out and say you would participate, but a couple of the responses above suggest I am not alone in this interpretation.

    I’m not going to sit here and defend every action Israel takes. But Israel is essential to Jewish existence. We need to stand by Israel. I know where I’m going to be on Sunday, May 3rd, Israel Solidarity Day. http://www.juf.org/walk

  14. Pingback: American Jewish groups must speak up over Gaza « Dr Nasir Khan

  15. Ann writes that:

    “I’m not going to sit here and defend every action Israel takes. But Israel is essential to Jewish existence. We need to stand by Israel.”

    But this is where a grave mistake in logic takes place. If you believe that “Israel is essential” that is not an argument again criticizing or even boycotting Israeli products (personally, I lean towards agreeing with Prof. Stephen Shalom that the tactic is a reasonable one to suggest and debate but that personally think it would be counter-productive in the US at least, where more focused boycotts of e.g. the Caterpillar company which provides the bulldozers, might make more sense)

    But it is not a reason to defend, or even keep silent, about the abuses and yes, even crimes committed by the state of Israel…not only that, Ann’s words about “Israel is essential” are an argument FOR being critical of the wrong and immoral things the state of Israel does.

    In other words, you ARE “standing by Israel” — in the sense of standing by the most enlightened parts of its founding philosophy, and also in the sense of making it more likely that Israel will survive — by criticizing the immoral actions…in fact NOt criticizing and not speaking out against these policies, will only cause Israel to be destroyed, either externally or internally, as we have already seen it turn towards what must be called “fascism, light” with Lieberman…Why don’t liberals understand this? I don’t know if Ann is a liberal but I am speaking about the liberals who understand the folly of the idea that “if you love America, then don’t criticize the invasion of Iraq, don’t criticize this, don’t criticize that, we must STAND BY the united states” and (most) liberals largely understand that makes no sense, in fact, if you really do love and care about the United States, that is not only no reason not to criticize wrong policies, it is a reason why you MUST criticize these things, in order to defend the United States and its principles and our future, by strongly rejecting wrong policies like the Invasion of Iraq…many liberals understand this yet the very same ones miss this central key point in the case of Israel. Maybe because I was born in Israel and spent the former part of my childhood there before moving to the Us….but it’s a key point we must make over and over again…

    When progressive and liberals say, we support Israel’s right to exist but to defend human rights we have to oppose the pro-Israel side, I stand up and I say: No! YOU are the pro-Israel side. THe right-wingers and militarists who call themselves “pro-Israel” are the ones whose policies are very strongly anti-Israel, strongly destructive of Israel’s future …on top of supporting policies that are oppressive and brutal towards Palestinians this “pro-Israel” crowd is hurting every israel citizen (even the ones who were brainwashed by their govt and think they support the brutality against Gaza etc) Just like those who call themselves “pro-America” in promoting right-wing policies here, are not only not pro-america, they are leading to policies that are very ANTI-America. This point must be made over and over again with everyone you talk to since it is basic 1+1=2 common sense that, due to years and years of ideology and mis-used language, people are blind to, so they need to hear it like Helen Keller needed to feel those symbols tapped into her palm over and over again until it Sunk In at last.

    to the Rabbi and everyone else; Check out gush-shalom’s website..

    The way to be more strongly work to turn around decades of brutal policies turning Israel into Washington’s military base abroad, destroying the fabric of Isael, and oppressing Palestinians (and giving Arab dictators something to point to, to distract their own populations, if the oppressing of Palestinians ended this would be much harder, and Arab citizens would have more power to get rid of their own dictators…assuming we also end US support for those dictators like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, etc, etc)..all that Plus also fight against the phony and bogus “criticizing Israel equals anti-semitism” charges, by joining forces, hand in hand: progressive American Jews with Israeli peace groups like Gush Shalom. Check them out. Peace
    H

  16. Pingback: More thoughts on BDS « No thanks, I’ll speak for myself

  17. One of the problems, I perceive with trying to change Israeli policy is that it is not clear what SPECIFICALLY Israel is being called upon to do? If the comparison with South Africa were valid, they would presumably be required simply to extend citizenship and voting rights to the Arabs in the occupied territories, and also to extend Israeli law to those territories, but without any implication for the descendents (in whole or in part) of the absent former residents of those territories. I doubt if that is what the BDS campaigners want and in this sense the “apartheid” analogy is simply a convenient catchphrase to make their cause look morally strong

    OTOH if they are calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories, then the question arises: in favour of whom? And also what safeguards there will be to ensure no repetition of the Arab aggression that necessitated the Israeli acquisition of those territories in the first place? Also, if the territories become an independent Palestinian state, where do BDS stand on the right of Jews to live there as minority citizens? After all, there is an enfranchised Arab minority in the State of Israel? And would that Palestinian state have Hebrew as one of its official languages – just as Arabic is an official language of Israel?

    Finally there is the intractable issue of the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to Israel. There may be a modicum of justice to this cause. But it has no practicality, even with the best will in the world on both sides.

  18. Just ran across this post tonight, as I’m searching the internet far and wide for people saying sane things about the new anti-boycott law just passed by the Knesset. Amazing how real and relevant this post still feels, more than two years after it was written.

  19. Pingback: Why I support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement « Free Yet in Chains

  20. Pingback: Why I support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement | Old Dog

  21. Pingback: Why I support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement | ehrens.org

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