The View From London

When BDS And Anti-Semitism Meet

Hannah Weisfeld on the failure of London's BDS crowd to distance itself from anti-Semitism.

Bertrand Langlois / AFP / Getty Images

UPDATED: Many in the Jewish community believe that anyone who so much as dares to breathe the words sanctions, boycott, and Israel in one sentence is a delegitimiser of Israel—and a delegitimiser equals an anti-Semite. This is particularly true in the UK, which is seen by many as the "global hub" of delegitimisation of Israel. I do not subscribe to this worldview. As I’ve argued elsewhere, people are entitled to employ a non-violent political tool to achieve their ends. We may not support the tool, or agree with the ends they are trying to achieve, but the notion that it is inherently anti-Semitic does not stand up to scrutiny.

Global citizens have a right to express their political opinions about the rest of the world. There are many people who are active members of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement not because they wish to bring about the end of the Jewish state, but because they see what they believe to be an injustice and wish to do something to change the status quo. BDS is an easy campaign to jump on board with, not least because it requires you to do absolutely nothing. The fact that it appears to have the exact opposite impact of what those who promote it are trying to achieve is the topic of a different article.

When we brand all organized criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, we shut down the space in public discourse for a more constructive debate on Israel. When we tell people they must be "for" everything and if not they are "against," we are forcing people to take sides—and the reality is, at this particularly moment in history, it is likely that many people, put in that position, will not choose Israel's side. We have a responsibility to create a space within public discourse that says you can support the state of Israel without having to support each and every one of the current government's policies. If the Jewish community could be brave and take the lead in promoting a more nuanced public debate on Israel, we would be "winning" rather than "losing" Israel supporters.

However, when anti-Semitism laces the discourse of critics of Israel and the BDS movement, we have every right to call it out and ask those who are active members of the BDS movement to do the same. Last week, the @londonbds twitter account tweeted a link to an article on the Press TV website that called for sanctions against Israel. It was not so much the sanctions against Israel that presented the problem. It was the reference to "real historians like David Irving," and the aspersions that the author cast on the Shoah by referring to the "holocaust" and "survivors" in inverted commas, as it they are questionable historical facts.

As much as the Jewish community needs to steer away from labelling all those who criticize Israel as anti-Semitic, surely it is the responsibility of the BDS movement to distance its criticism of Israel from the comments in this article? Apart from anything else, surely those who are genuinely concerned about the reality for Palestinians would understand that invoking anti-Semitic imagery as a means of forcing a change in Israel's behavior would do the exact opposite, and would want to call it out as counterproductive to their aims? Yet, as far as I’m aware, the BDS crowd has not condemned this. [See update below.]

Understandably, Jews and the Jewish state do not take anti-Semitism lightly. And when individuals or organizations express anti-Semitism, the reaction is to batten down the hatches and circle the wagons, which doesn’t exactly lead to taking criticism on board and changing policy as a result.

When no distance is put between promoting something so overtly anti-Semitic and a movement that claims to be fighting on behalf of the Palestinian people, then it is hardly a surprise that the motivations of organizations, and by association, the individuals involved, start to be questioned—even by those of us who do not dismiss association with the BDS movement as beyond the pale.

UPDATE: After publication of this article, the author and editors learned that the PSC did in fact issue a statement about the tweet on December 7, which can be read here. We regret the omission.