The BDS movement that targets Israel with boycotts, divestments and sanctions likes to claim that it fights for freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians. Idealistic young people on campus will easily be attracted by this message, even though it is an all too fitting coincidence that the acronym BDS could also stand for bigoted double standards.
The most obvious problem with BDS is the singling out of the world’s only Jewish state. But BDS supporters have an easy – not so say glib – answer when they are confronted with the question why they don’t target China for the occupation of Tibet, or Pakistan for the occupation of Balochistan, or why they don’t agitate for an independent Kurdistan and the protection of the many oppressed minority groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. “One has to start somewhere” was the memorably candid and cynical justification given by the American Studies Association (ASA) president when the organization voted to boycott Israel in December 2013.
Reacting to the vote in an eloquent op-ed, Alan M. Dershowitz accused ASA of “complicity with the oldest and most enduring prejudice.” Dershowitz is by no means the only one to associate BDS with antisemitism. During a recent conference event in Israel, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks argued that “[in] the middle ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were hated because of their race. In the twenty first century, they are hated because of their nation state. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.”
Already more than ten years ago – when the BDS movement was still being organized – the eminent antisemitism expert Robert Wistrich concluded in an article published in fall 2004 that “Anti-Zionism has become the most dangerous and effective form of anti- Semitism in our time, through its systematic delegitimization, defamation, and demonization of Israel.”
Earlier in the same year, the Electronic Intifada had published a programmatic essay by Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, in which Barghouti denounced the two-state solution as an immoral ploy to save Zionism and hailed “what may be considered the final chapter of the Zionist project.” As Barghouti cheerfully declared:
“We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it, for Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.”
Killing Zionism and doing away with the world’s only Jewish state is indeed the goal of BDS, even though the movement usually tries hard to cloak this goal in the language of “pro-Palestinian” human rights activism. But since BDS proponents view Palestinian rights in the same terms as Barghouti, these “rights” inevitably require the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. Therefore, “pro-Palestinian” activism in general and BDS campaigns in particular are predicated on the demonization of Israel as a monstrous evil that must be eliminated: Israel is compared to or equated with whatever strikes activists as the most appalling evil – whether it’s Apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany or the savage terror group Islamic State. Thus, today’s anti-Israel activists translate the Nazi slogan “the Jews are our misfortune” into its 21st century version: “the Jewish state/Zionism is our misfortune.”
A chilling example that illustrates the hate-filled atmosphere normalized by anti-Israel activism on campus was provided during an event in October 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania, where Max Blumenthal was hosted by political scientist Ian Lustick to promote his just published book “Goliath.” Lustick – who had recently echoed some of Barghouti’s (and Blumenthal’s) ideas about the imminent end of Zionism in a lengthy New York Times op-ed – praised Blumenthal’s book, claiming it revealed that “Israel is not just a little bit fascist, Israel is a lot fascist.” Lustick then proceeded to argue that this was the “ultimate delegitimizer,” because after World War II, “nothing fascist can even be allowed to survive.” Having established that the Jewish state had no right to survive, Lustick referred to the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and asked Blumenthal to fancy himself in the role of God in order to decide if there were enough “good people” in today’s Sodom-like Israel to save it from destruction. Blumenthal explained in response that his first concern was relieving “the suffering of the indigenous people of Palestine” and that the only way to achieve this was by placing “external pressure” – like BDS campaigns – on Jewish Israelis to force them to choose between emigrating and agreeing to “become indigenized” by accepting Arab dominance in political, cultural and social terms.
This open call for the demise of the Jewish state and a “Juden raus”-policy for those Israeli Jews who would be unwilling to “become indigenized” after the hoped-for victory of the BDS movement remained unchallenged at the event, and even though it was reported by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, there were no consequences. In the early 21st century, it is apparently unremarkable to argue on an American campus that the world would be a better place if its only Jewish state was eliminated and its insufficiently “indigenized” Jewish citizens were expelled. And it seems equally unremarkable when “pro-Palestinian” student groups host an ardent BDS advocate like Ali Abunimah, who openly displays his sympathies for Hamas and promotes a truly Orwellian re-definition of antisemitism based on his vile and bizarre view that “Zionism is one of the worst forms of anti-Semitism in existence today” and that support for Zionism “is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in spirit.”
From these repulsive views it is only a small step to claims that Zionists cooperated with, and benefited from, the Nazi regime – the kind of material that can be found on neo-Nazi forums like Stormfront, but also in op-eds on Zionism and Israel by Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad. Like Barghouti, Abunimah and other prominent BDS advocates, Massad is of course an ardent opponent of a Palestinian state that would peacefully co-exist with Israel.
The relentless demonization of Israel creates an atmosphere where anything goes: a “pro-Palestinian” student group will promote antisemitic material – including a Nazi poster; a popular “pro-Palestinian” activist will argue that there are too many Jewish writers at The Nation (which is anything but friendly towards Israel) and that a website devoted to diminishing Nazi crimes is a reliable source for “completely factual” material on Zionism. And in the age-old fashion of Jew-haters, “pro-Palestinian” activists will eagerly blame Israel when Gaza is flooded by torrential rains because a website that promotes vile antisemitic conspiracy theories claims that Israel opened entirely imaginary dams.
There are many more examples like these, which illustrates that antisemitism is not a bug, but a feature of BDS: if your mission is to mobilize public opinion against the world’s only Jewish state in order to bring about its elimination, you will inevitably end up producing new versions of the Nazi slogan “The Jews are our misfortune.”
- Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history. Some of her recent work on antisemitism and anti-Israel activism can be found at The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.