Can pro-BDS anti-Semites redefine anti-Semitism?

Four lies spread by groups that support anti-Semitic incitement and BDS efforts to eradicate Israel need to be debunked.

A demonstration in Seattle by the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace. Credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.
A demonstration in Seattle by the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace. Credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

At first glance, it sounds reasonable. There is nothing wrong with seeking to differentiate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. After all, Israelis criticize Israel’s democratically elected government every day. Like any other nation, its leaders are fallible and its policies can be opposed, even if you cherish the Jewish state.

But the attempt by Jewish Voice for Peace and 35 other far-left groups to essentially redefine anti-Semitism in order to sanitize the BDS movement falls flat. What they are doing is the moral equivalent of giving criminals the power to rewrite the law so as to render their convictions null and void. The declaration signed by these organizations organized by JVP is rooted in four lies. These lies involve the nature of BDS and anti-Zionism, the claim that Israel as an apartheid state, and that anti-BDS laws repress free speech.

A demonstration in Seattle by the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace. Credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

The statement claims that Jews are under siege from a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world but notes only the activities of white supremacists and racists on the far-right, while ignoring the actions of left-wing Jew-haters. It goes on then to claim that efforts by supporters of Israel to brand the BDS as anti-Semitic is not only unjust, but a diversion from what they think is the real fight against anti-Semitism.

It’s true that right-wing anti-Semitism still exists. But the notion that these forces are the only or even the principal threat to the Jews—or that the Trump administration and the Israeli government are aiding and abetting anti-Semitism, or are examples of authoritarian regimes—is false.

The most potent and prevalent form of anti-Semitism today is the one that JVP supports: the BDS movement, and the way that anti-Zionism is used as a thin veil for hate and violence against Jews.

While there is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel, BDS isn’t a critique of Israeli policy. The point of BDS is to eradicate the Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. JVP’s hostility to a Jewish state is made clear by its support for the Palestinian “right of return,” which is not only incompatible with Israel’s current existence but also with any concept of peace.

That’s important because it explains JVP’s second lie: the notion that anti-Zionism isn’t a form of anti-Semitism.

The assertion that one can like Jews while opposing Israel’s existence is mere sophistry. There are many countries that are avowedly an expression of some ethnic or religious identity. Israel is the planet’s only Jewish state. If you claim that the Jews are the only people on earth not entitled to live in their own homeland in sovereignty and security, then you are practicing a form of discrimination against them. And the term of art for that form of bias is anti-Semitism.

Nor is this purely an intellectual argument since we know that wherever the BDS movement raises its head, acts of anti-Semitic intimidation and bias soon follow. JVP has itself promoted a blood libel against pro-Israel Jews being somehow responsible for police shootings of African-Americans.

It’s also important to understand that the most likely source of anti-Semitic violence these days stems from immigrants to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, who have brought Jew-hatred with them. It isn’t white nationalists who have made it dangerous to walk the streets of major Western European cities while wearing some token of Jewish identity. That threat stems primarily from Islamists, who use anti-Zionist incitement to justify their vicious activity.

JVP and other anti-Israel groups also try to justify their hate by seeking to delegitimize Israel. That’s the essence of their third big lie: the slander of Israel being an apartheid state.

Israel is not perfect, and in the course of 70 years of unceasing siege and war, it has made its share of mistakes. But it remains a democracy where its Arab citizens—even those who openly identify with its enemies—have full rights, including voting and representation in the Knesset, and the right to office that Arabs are denied elsewhere in the region’s uniformly authoritarian majority Muslim states.

Nor can the anomalous situation in the West Bank justify the apartheid slur since Israel’s continued presence there is the result of the Palestinians’ continued refusal to accept peace and a two-state solution. As long as the Palestinian goal remains Israel’s elimination, the situation in territories will remain on hold. That is their choice, not Israel’s.

The last big lie in the JVP statement concerns efforts to pass legislation banning BDS boycotts. Supporters of BDS say these laws abridge their right to free speech, but that’s simply not true. Anti-BDS legislation doesn’t prevent anyone from bashing Israel or even for calling for its destruction. What these laws do is to reinforce the legal prohibition against discriminatory commercial conduct against Jews. Just as U.S. law prohibited the old Arab boycott against Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, so, too, does it rightly treat BDS boycotts as a form of illegal discrimination.

Those who perform the role of cheerleaders for a movement that aims at denying Jewish rights and destroying Israel cannot hide behind a false humanitarian banner or even sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Nor is the fact that some of those who advocate for this cause are themselves Jewish mitigate their culpability. In theory as well as in practice, anti-Zionism and its expression in the form of the BDS movement is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, and aids and abets acts of violence against Jews.

Jewish Voice for Peace isn’t the only group associated with anti-Semitism that is seeking to redefine it so as to get themselves off the hook. The same thing is happening in Britain, where a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn not only flirts with hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism, but also has had the chutzpah to try and promote a definition of the term that will make them look less appalling.

But it won’t work. Anti-Semites don’t have the right to alter the definition of the term just to make their actions seem less repulsive. BDS supporters need to own their Jew-hatred and stop pretending that their vile efforts are anything but an anti-Semitic campaign that all decent people should reject.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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