Navigating a dangerous intersection

As the line opposing Israel and being antisemitic continues to blur, many say the BDS movement is just one manifestation of Jew-hatred at play.

AVITAL LEIBOVICH stands by as BDS activists protest her talk at Washington DC’s Newseum in 2016 (photo credit: AJC)
AVITAL LEIBOVICH stands by as BDS activists protest her talk at Washington DC’s Newseum in 2016
(photo credit: AJC)
‘One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist,” is a popular adage that describes the controversy surrounding terrorism.
Similarly, one person’s human rights group can be perceived to have nefarious effects and consequences.
That, at least, is the accusation leveled against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Its proponents claim it fights for the rights of Palestinians. But the reality tells a different story. Along with the Strategic Affairs Ministry, under Minister Gilad Erdan, which is dedicated to eradicating the BDS threat, there are several other organizations that are seeing the damaging residue of antisemitism left behind by the BDS movement.
‘Fighting antisemitism on the battle of ideas’
Dr. Charles Asher Small Founding director and president of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP)
The BDS war has a many fronts: diplomatic, economic and social media.
Combating BDS in the classroom, though, is equally important and Charles Asher Small of ISGAP is on the forefront of that battle.
“We’re fighting antisemitism on the battlefield of ideas,” he explains. “Not just on campus, but in the classroom.
We’re creating a space that will get faculty and students to address contemporary antisemitism. This is where the war needs to be waged.”
What is contemporary antisemitism? “Today’s antisemitism is an attack on Jewish peoplehood and blaming Israel for all the problems in the world,” Small argues.
It is in the academic sphere where traditional racist tropes of antisemitism are not tolerated, but more subversive elements where Israel is a target is.
As such, ISGAP is a hub for academics looking to research how antisemitism is magnified in a globalized world.
“As Elie Wiesel once said, ‘It starts with Jews, but it never ends with Jews,’” Small stated, saying that antisemitic tropes are often used to malign other minority groups around the world.
“If Israel is considered a racist and fascist state, and has been demonized by academics for two generations... if you’re a student on campus in a post-modern world and you support Israel, you’re the enemy,” he lamented.
With antisemitism on the rise on UK and US campuses and Jews ousted from a Gay Pride march in Chicago simply for waving a rainbow flag with a Jewish star, the repercussions of anti-Israel sentiment are being felt in progressive spheres.
BDS, then, becomes doubly effective in these areas where Israel and being Jewish are conflated.
Specifically, with the rise of Islamic extremism, antisemitic messages are being targeted not just at Jews, but at anyone considered an “other.”
“This anti-Western/anti-American worldview where ‘progressive’ people, are now demonizing the only colonial entity in the Middle East, which is Israel, and this is where BDS comes in,” he explains, saying that vision dovetails with the vision of political Islam, which has “a core ideology of using European antisemitism and Nazism to spread its message.”
“I’d argue the misrepresentation and demonization of Israel in mainstream academia is dangerous and there are long-term implications,” he said.
Therefore, at ISGAP, seminars are offered for high-level academics where antisemitism is studied in a strategic way.
Specifically, in addition to a myriad of research papers, there is a one-year fellowship and summer program at Oxford where professors from around the world cultivate a curriculum they are expected to present to their students when they go back to their home.
“I am optimistic that the Summer Institute will continue to make inroads into creating a ‘space’ within the uni- versity for the study of contemporary antisemitism as a new academic discipline.
In effect, we are beginning to break a taboo – break the silence,” Small wrote in the introductory pamphlet distributed to the scholars enrolled in the program that just wrapped up in July.
“We want to take back the conversation about Israel and antisemitism at universities,” he claimed.
‘A human rights battle that is not close to reality’
Lt. Col. (res.) Avital Leibovich, director of AJC Jerusalem
Two years ago, Avital Leibovich found herself in the unenviable position of being bombarded with harassing questions by BDS activists. The former IDF spokesperson was in Washington DC’s Newseum, to deliver a talk on Israel and its portrayal in the media. What started as a laid-back event quickly turned into pandemonium as activists stormed the stage bearing signs with anti-Israel phrases and shouting pro-Palestinian slogans, such as “Free, Free Palestine!” Leibovich attempted to answer their questions, but seeing no response was acceptable to the group, calmly retorted, “If you don’t like what I have to say, there’s a big red exit sign you can follow.”
The activists were escorted out by authorities.
That day was just one of the many examples of the American Jewish Committee combating BDS head-on. However, for the global advocacy organization, fighting BDS is usually done through diplomacy and public policy. A prime example of such was an AJC-backed initiative last June, where all 50 US governors signed a statement condemning BDS.
“The initiative targeted governors specifically because they are public figures and models for other people in the region,” Leibovich said. “The idea was to create a trend of public figures who oppose these hate crimes and the BDS phenomenon because we know it doesn’t just stop at the Jews; it trickles to other populations as well.”
While BDS doesn’t always translate into antisemitism, that line quickly becomes blurry, she argued.
AJC has seen firsthand how opposing Israel quickly becomes opposing Judaism.
This is especially true on college campuses, where anti-Israel sentiment runs rampant.
Specifically, it provided legal aid to UCLA student Lauren Rogers, who was a junior at the time, after Students for Justice for Palestine attempted to level a resolution against her for visiting Israel on an AJC Project Interchange program.
The UCLA judicial board eventually backed Rogers, but the incident demonstrates how BDS and antisemitism can be one and the same.
“The [activists] used BDS tactics against her because she’s a Jew,” Leibovich asserted.
BDS is able to succeed because many are misinformed about what it actually stands for, she says.
“People don’t have the right information.
They don’t read articles until the end. They are substantiating this movement as a democratic human rights movement without seeing its implications,” she said. “There’s a lot of missing information here. People are being swept away in this human rights battle that is not close to reality.”
When it comes to fighting BDS, there is a delicate balance in terms of how much publicity one should give to the troubling movement.
“We have to keep a very delicate balance between publicly discussing BDS and giving it more space than it would originally receive and doing things behind the scenes,” she cautioned.
Combating a ‘colossal failure’
Mitchell Bard, executive director, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE)
“Antisemitism is pretty straightforward in our view,” Bard says frankly.
“It’s Jew hatred. It manifests itself in a variety of ways. It’s not just traditional tropes. The BDS movement is inherently antisemitic because it goes against the Jewish right for self-determination.”
The AICE sees its role in this battle as the supplier of information. Its Jewish Virtual Library hosts 800,000 visitors a month from over 200 countries. This is all done with the hope that once a person is more informed they will be less likely to fall prey to antisemitic rhetoric.
In 2010, it launched its online StopBDS project, which provides tools for students looking to be proactive when it comes to combating the movement.
Israel’s PR problem is not one Bard predicts will come to an end any time soon.
“I’ve often argued with my colleagues that as long as there’s no peace process there will be a PR problem,” he lamented.
As for BDS, Bard believes there is no mistaking its antisemitic undertones.
“To me, its quite blatant that BDS is synonymous with antisemitism and we should call it out for what it is and not hesitate. Every minority gets to define what’s offensive to them, but Jews for some reason can’t determine what’s antisemitic,” he asserted.
While Bar dismisses the movement as catering to the fringes and being a “colossal failure,” he warns that the Jewish world should still take it seriously.
“Never let antisemitism go unanswered,” he said. “Even though its a tremendous failure and sucks tremendous resources from other activities, it does tend to reinforce some of the negative attitudes and images of Israel.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Strategic Affairs Ministry.