Containing the link between BDS and anti-Semitism

The BDS (Boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, working to ostracize Israel from the international community, is indeed partly motivated by sheer anti-Semitism.

WOMEN HOLD pins that advocate a boycott against Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
WOMEN HOLD pins that advocate a boycott against Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From the FIFA saga to the recommendation of the UN Secretary-General’s envoy to include the IDF on a blacklist of countries accused of regularly causing harm to children, Israelis are becoming more aware of Israel’s (problematic) standing in the international arena. A serious issue often brushed off as anti-Semitism.
The BDS (Boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, working to ostracize Israel from the international community, is indeed partly motivated by sheer anti-Semitism. This is most apparent from the rhetoric relayed by BDS activists who target the Jewish state and too often draw blatant comparisons between Jews and Nazis. In this respect, elements of the BDS campaign are not only rooted in anti-Semitism, but play a significant role in generating anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, over-emphasizing the role that anti-Semitism plays in global BDS – be it blatant anti-Semitism or more “sophisticated” anti-Semitic anti-Zionism – is counterproductive. This is because such an approach substantially limits Israel’s ability to combat the phenomenon: anti-Semitism has existed for as long as the Jews have and the ultimate answer to anti-Semitism is the existence of the Jewish state – a place of refuge for Jews worldwide. A set of tools developed to deal with global anti-Semitism, however, is illequipped to combat BDS and rehabilitate Israel’s image in the international arena.
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In searching for additional elements which fuel BDS activity, two relatively simple factors should be singled out from many others that make up the larger, complex puzzle.
The first is the mere ability of a trans-national, well-funded, organized civil society movement, such as BDS, to taint Israel’s image in the international arena. Seen through this lens, the obsessive attention with Israel’s follies thrives on the motivation to pressure Israel into granting Palestinians self-determination. This course of action is modeled after the struggle of black South Africans to eliminate apartheid in the mid-1980s.
Similarly to what we see with Israel now, South Africa was not the only country during the 1980s to violate human rights.
The UN rationale for investing immense resources in the South African struggle – including the establishment of a Special Committee against Apartheid (comprised of 19 states) and the UN Center against Apartheid which serviced it – was that sensitizing the international community would pressure the government of South Africa to amend its racist policies. While Israel is by no means an apartheid state, BDS leaders are undoubtedly aware of her vulnerability to external, international pressure. They well realize that internationalizing the conflict can effectively transform limited Palestinian power into meaningful social power.
The second element which is downplayed when analyzing BDS through an anti-Semitic-tainted lens is the moral grounding that this campaign bases itself upon. Human rights discourse is currently the normative lingua franca, and it is locked in a zero-sum game with a security- based discourse. While the BDS narrative relates to human rights – Israel’s counter-narrative relates to security.
Also relevant to the moral grounding element is the BDS appeal to anti-colonialism, which has become an increasingly important value of the liberal Left. Israel’s obvious inability to live up to this value as long as it is entrenched in a conflict with the Palestinians has tarnished Israel’s moral grounding not only among fervent pro-Palestinians but also among those who perceive themselves as supporting the liberal Left at-large, including minority groups and LGBT supporters.
Thus, supporters of the BDS campaign – and its attractive moral grounding – are often unaware of the convoluted reality at the base of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In developing a toolbox to deal with the BDS movement, then, it would be wise to step back from the anti-Semitic paradigm and allocate it only relative weight in light of many other factors which nurture the phenomenon and which warrant a different set of tools. Also of note is that the dismissal of a certain part of Israel’s criticism as mere anti-Semitism contributes to a growing global frustration with Israel’s lack of ability to deal with relevant criticism – from which no country is immune.
Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky is Neubauer Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University.