By Jerry Haber
June 9, 2015
The Magnes Zionist
Many people have different positions on the wisdom, and even the legitimacy, of tactics involving boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) directed against alleged human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine. But all should condemn recent attempts in some quarters to brand these tactics as "anti-Semitic". BDS is neither motivated by anti-Semitism, nor it is it, in effect, anti-Semitic. The "anti-Semitism" charge against BDS is false, intellectually lazy, and morally repugnant.
The "Anti-Semitism" Charge against BDS is False. Anti-Semitism has been defined as "a prejudice against, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic, religious, or racial group". Anti-Semitism is commonly considered a form of racism, in its broadest sense. By contrast, the BDS movement is a movement initiated by Palestinian civil society and its supporters to promote and defend the human, civil, and political rights of the Palestinian people living in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian diaspora, most notably the rights of liberty, equality, and self-determination. The movement comprises people of different creeds and nationalities, including Israelis and Jews, and explicitly condemns all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. The BDS movement is in its essence a human rights movement, grounding its call on international human rights law, conventions, and decisions. It not only explicitly opposes anti-Semitism; it is diametrically opposed to it.
The "Anti-Semitism" Charge against BDS is Intellectually Lazy. One of the arguments for BDS's alleged anti-Semitism is that in singling out Israel for moral opprobrium, the movement reveals its true motivation, which is hatred of the Jewish state, ergo Jews. This is the tired argument of all those who wish to deflect attention away from their own human rights violations. Similar arguments were made by South Africa in response to calls for divestment during the apartheid era; by the Soviet Union, in response to calls for sanctions during the struggle for Soviet Jewish rights; by some southern US states, in response to calls for integration during the civil rights movement. To expect of Palestinians and their supporters that they will devote more of their energies to human rights abuses that little concern them is morally unreasonable. It is also hypocritical, in so far as those who criticize the BDS movement usually devote more of their own energies to supporting Israel than to fighting human rights violations elsewhere in the world. By their example they undermine their own argument.
Another argument is that the global BDS movement, in so far as it deals not only with Palestinian human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, but also calls for full equality for Israeli's Palestinian citizens and recognition of the Palestinian right of return, wishes to delegitimize and destroy the State of Israel. And since the State of Israel understands itself as the expression of Jewish self-determination, the BDS movement is, in effect, if not by design, opposed to Jewish self-determination, ergo anti-Semitic. Yet this argument rest on a string of questionable assumptions. It concedes, unnecessarily, that the State of Israel can only survive if it foundationally discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens, or defies international recognition of the refugees' right of return. It confuses criticism of Israel on these points with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, all of which are distinct positions.
As for the "delegitimization" charge: Israel is a member of the United Nations and recognized by many countries. Its political legitimacy is no more nor less than that of the United States, Germany, Russia, North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. But its moral legitimacy, like that of all states, rests on its adherence to human rights standards expected of all states.
The final argument is that the BDS movement, while itself not anti-Semitic, has attracted supporters who are either motivated by anti-Semitism, or who use anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes. But even conceding this point, similar things are true of the pro-Israel movement, which has attracted supporters who are Islamophobes, anti-Palestinianist, Nakba deniers, and advocates of Jewish spiritual and metaphysical superiority. Bigotry is, unfortunately, a common vice, and its manifestations are to be condemned. But just as opponents of BDS are not necessarily, or even mostly, anti-Palestinian bigots, so the proponents of BDS are not necessarily, or even mostly, anti-Israeli bigots, much less anti-Semitic.
The "Anti-Semitism" Charge against BDS is Morally Repugnant. Anti-Semitism, like racism, is one our era's "mortal sins". To accuse a movement of anti-Semitism is not only to criticize or delegitimize it; it is to tar it as immoral. The BDS movement has been embraced, in part or in whole, by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people and its leadership. To label as "anti-Semitic" Palestinians and their supporters who are fighting for their rights using tried and true non-violent tactics is morally repugnant and itself represents a sort of bigotry. Moreover, in supporting the charge with insufficient evidence and sloppy arguments, one not only fails to establish one's point; one trivializes and cheapens genuine anti-Semitism.
In short, the "anti-Semitism" charge against BDS is not only offensive to Palestinians; it is offensive to all those who reject anti-Semitism.
It should have no place in the ongoing, legitimate debate over BDS.
[Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of Charles H. Manekin, an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US.]