BDS campaigns are not Nazism reborn, but they are still anti-Jewish
Political anti-Semitism occurs when actions are taken to demonise Israelis (and their Jewish supporters elsewhere) in a way that potentially exposes them to the threat of national destruction by violence or other means
Philip Mendes, The Drum Australia, September 20, 2011
The current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli-owned businesses in Australia has provoked comparisons with the Nazi boycott of German Jews in the 1930s. Not surprisingly, these analogies are furiously rejected by BDS advocates.
For example, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon denied that there was any link between her defence of Palestinian human rights and anti-Semitism. Similarly, Moammar Mashni from Australians for Palestine contested any link between anti-Israel campaigns and anti-Semitism. And Antony Loewenstein argued that the BDS had nothing to with Jews, but was rather about targeting what he labelled "the unaccountable Zionist state". The common theme seems to be that allegations of anti-Semitism are raised disingenuously in an attempt to silence legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies.
However, all three commentators conveniently ignore the distinction between Nazi-style racist anti-Semitism, and political anti-Semitism linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The former is a racist prejudice that exists independently of any objective reality, and typically emanates from the far right of the political spectrum. It is not about what Jews actually say or do, but rather about what anti-Semites falsely and malevolently attribute to them. It includes claims that Jews control international finance, the media and governments, and is generally abhorred by mainstream opinion in Australia and other Western countries. Nobody is seriously arguing that racist anti-Semitism drives the BDS campaign in Australia.
In contrast, political anti-Semitism is linked to actual contemporary events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is mainly associated with Arabs and Palestinians and supporting groups on the far left of the spectrum. It derives its influence from the real harm that Israeli policies and actions have caused to Palestinians and other Arabs just as one might add that anti-Arab feelings amongst Jews and Israelis reflect the real harm that Palestinian actions have caused to them. Political anti-Semitism is not the same as criticisms of Israeli policies. Israel is rightly subject to the same critical analysis as any other country. However, political anti-Semitism occurs when actions are taken to demonise Israelis (and their Jewish supporters elsewhere) in a way that potentially exposes them to the threat of national destruction by violence or other means. The BDS is one of the key strategies by which this collective demonisation is advanced even if its supporters do not intend to be anti-Semitic.
Now I can already hear the BDS supporters protesting that I have unfairly leaped from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. So let me emphasise that a BDS campaign could in principle be non anti-Semitic. If the BDS campaigners accepted Israel’s existence in its pre-1967 borders and supported a two-state solution, their arguments concerning the protection of Palestinian human rights would deserve serious consideration. There is nothing prejudiced about questioning the legal and moral legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank; highlighting the impact of the Jewish security fence on the daily lives of the Palestinian population in the territories; attacking continuing discrimination against Palestinian Arabs living within Green Line Israel; or noting the extent to which the creation of the state of Israel contributed to the historical injustice that has befallen the indigenous Palestinians.
But a two-state solution that respects the national and human rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is not the aim of the BDS movement. The leading Palestinian BDS advocate Omar Barghouti, in his 2011 book BDS: The Global Struggle For Palestinian Rights, explicitly vilifies Palestinians and Israeli leftists who support two states. All the official statements that emanate from the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel emphasise two key aims: one being to reverse the events of 1948 (i.e. the foundation of the state of Israel) that lead to the Palestinian refugee tragedy, and secondly to demand the coerced return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to their former homes inside Green Line Israel. In short, they demand the elimination of the existing state of Israel, and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine in which Jews at best will be allowed to remain as a tolerated religious, but not national, minority.
The BDS objective of ending Israel translates into political anti-Semitism via two means. The first is that its call for the removal of an existing state is unique in international discourse. Many campaigns – mostly emanating from left-wing idealists – target human rights abuses and military invasions in other countries. There are ongoing protests against the Indonesian presence in West Papua, the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the Russian brutality in Chechnya, and the American et al presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But to the best of my knowledge, no campaigners call for the elimination of Indonesia or China or Russia or the USA from the ranks of legitimate nation states.
The singling out of Israel cannot be divorced from its Jewish nationality and identity. Israel is a Jewish homeland which was created by the United Nations in 1948 as an affirmative action state to provide a refuge for a historically oppressed people who had recently experienced the Holocaust. Today, about 6 million people (or 80 per cent of its population) remain Jewish in national and cultural identity. The remaining Israeli citizens – Arab or otherwise – are entitled to, and should be ensured, full equality. But they are not the target of the BDS. It is the Israeli Jews who will suffer the most terrible consequences should the BDS campaign be successful.
The second anti-Semitic manifestation of the BDS is its prejudiced impact on Jewish supporters of Israel elsewhere. The ongoing poisonous debate within the UK University and College Union (UCU) gives us a case example of the potential dire consequences for Australia. The UCU and its predecessor organisations have passed a number of motions favouring a boycott of Israel. But these motions have not been implemented in practice because the UCU ironically received legal advice that they contravened anti-discrimination legislation. However, they have contributed to creating a climate within the UCU which many regard as anti-Semitic, and not only anti-Zionist.
For example, the UCU rejected and denounced the widely-utilised and balanced European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) working definition of anti-Semitism on the grounds that criticism of Israel cannot possibly be anti-Semitic. This is patently absurd given that at least some anti-Zionist fundamentalists from both the far Left and the far Right (e.g. American neo-Nazi David Duke) use racist anti-Semitism in their arguments. It also denies the right of Jewish victims of racism to have some say in defining racism.
The UCU also invited an unrepentant anti-Semite, South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku, to address a union forum in favour of a BDS. Masuku had earlier threatened South African Jews who supported Israel with violence or expulsion, and his comments had been formally condemned as hate speech by the South African Human Rights Commission. It is hard to imagine that the UCU or any other pro-BDS organisation would have similarly invited a white South African who had incited hatred against Black and Muslim South Africans to be their guest.
In addition, UCU activists and officials have openly distributed racist material including conspiracy theories concerning alleged Jewish control of New Labour and international finance. These actions have provoked accusations of institutionalised anti-Semitism within the UCU, legal threats to sue the UCU on grounds of discrimination, and the mass resignations of Jewish members. One of the few remaining Jewish UCU members, Ronnie Fraser, told the May 2011 Union Congress that they "as a group of mainly white, non-Jewish trade unionists, do not have the right to tell me, a Jew, what feels like anti-Semitism and what does not".
The UK experience confirms that BDS campaigns can, and almost certainly will, lead to the promotion of political anti-Semitism. This is because they collectively target all Israeli Jews and all Jewish supporters of Israel’s existence – irrespective of their varied political views, class background and level of ethnic or religious identification – as the enemy.
Associate Professor Philip Mendes of Monash University is the co-editor of Jews And Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004.