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Germany’s lessons for BDS

The discussion of Israel in Germany has historically been filtered through the experience of the Holocaust, which perhaps makes Germans more sensitive to the rising anti-Semitism around them.

Protesters in Berlin hold a Palestinian flag and the initials of the anti-Israel BDS movement while then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Germany in August 2019. Credit: Israel Hayom.
Protesters in Berlin hold a Palestinian flag and the initials of the anti-Israel BDS movement while then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Germany in August 2019. Credit: Israel Hayom.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

Three incidents in three different countries during the last week graphically illustrated the ease with which anti-Zionism can serve as a vehicle for anti-Semitism.

In the Austrian city of Graz, the president of the Jewish community, Elie Rosen, was assaulted by a Syrian Islamist outside the synagogue. Fortunately, he escaped unscathed. The attack occurred after Rosen warned in the media of an atmosphere of “left-wing and anti-Israel anti-Semitism” in Graz—a comment he made after the words “Free Palestine” were found on the synagogue’s outer wall. The culprit responsible for that act of vandalism was the same man who returned to the synagogue a few days later to attack Rosen.

In Kenosha, Wis., the same “Free Palestine” slogan was painted on the driveway of the Beth Hillel Temple during a Black Lives Matter protest sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, another black man. Had the synagogue been sprayed with the letters “BLM,” as was the case with the Christ the King Church nearby, then this would have been interpreted as an act of protest, not anti-Semitism. But instead, an institution that serves the local Jewish community specifically was chosen as the target for a message urging the destruction of the Jewish state.

And in Strasbourg, France, a young Jewish graffiti artist working on a project for the local city council was accosted by two seething men who objected to the appearance of the word “Israel,” among a host of other cities and countries, on the T-shirt he was wearing. After haranguing and jostling the Jewish man, one of the pair grabbed one of the paint cans, wrote the words “Forbidden to Jews” on the ground and sauntered off, having utterly humiliated the victim. All this took place, incidentally, on rue Leon Blum—a street named after the French Socialist who became his country’s first Jewish Prime Minister.

Incidents and outrages such as these give the lie to the claim that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism can be neatly separated from each other, with the former understood as political solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian Arabs and the latter understood as hatred towards Jews qua Jews. In all three cases outlined above, it was the Jewish nature of Israel that provided the rationale for attacking Jews with Austrian, French and American citizenship. That identification marks the singular contribution of today’s anti-Zionists to the ongoing adaptation of classical anti-Semitism.

Which brings me to what is still the main aim of anti-Zionist activists—subjecting Israel to a regime of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a prelude to its dissolution as a sovereign entity. Over the two decades that the Jewish community has been countering this campaign, the suggestion that Jews deliberately conflate “criticism of Israel” with “anti-Semitism” has frequently been offered up by BDS advocates and their defenders in a bid to convince the uninitiated that their opposition to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is free of the taint of racism.

This back and forth has occurred in most Western countries where the BDS movement has gained a foothold. One of the more interesting varieties of this debate has emerged in Germany, where the contention that goods of Jewish origin are deserving of a boycott sounds especially discordant.

In a new monograph for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), Benjamin Weinthal—a journalist who has been based in Berlin for many years (and, full disclosure, a personal friend and colleague)—examines the period from 2012, when the first proposals for labeling produce from Israeli communities in the West Bank emerged, to 2019, when the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, passed a milestone resolution deeming the “arguments and methods” of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic.

Here is Weinthal’s explanation of that resolution’s significance. “The Bundestag resolution had few tangible effects, since it was not legally binding,” he writes. “Yet it challenged the BDS campaign’s portrayal of itself as an advocate for human rights and an opponent of prejudice. While the resolution made points similar to those offered by the campaign’s other critics, it endowed such arguments with the moral weight of Germany’s efforts to grapple with its own history of anti-Semitism.”

On the surface of that history is the slogan Kauft nicht bei Juden! (“Don’t buy from Jews!”), brandished by Nazi thugs in the 1930s as they blockaded Jewish-owned stores in Germany that were eventually consumed in flames during the pogrom of November 1938. As Weinthal’s paper makes clear, discussion of Israel in Germany has historically been filtered through the experience of the Holocaust, which perhaps makes Germans relatively more sensitive to the rising anti-Semitism around them now. He quotes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s agonized observation in 2019—“There is to this day not a single synagogue, not a single daycare center for Jewish children, not a single school for Jewish children that does not need to be guarded by German policemen”—noting that within this context, “opposition to BDS began to mount.”

Weinthal does not claim that the battle against BDS in Germany has been won, and he offers some policy proposals of his own in this regard. But he does make the critical argument that “the BDS campaign has gained little traction on the German left compared to other Western European countries. Indeed, Germany is a rare case in which the left is also home to pro-Israel voices that arose after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.”

Since the BDS movement elsewhere in Europe and in the United States regards the left as its primary constituency, Germany’s experience is worth further exploration in this regard. As Weinthal says, its “blunting of the BDS campaign, particularly amidst an alarming rise in global anti-Semitism, is a sign that the country has learned some difficult lessons from its past.” Those are lessons that need to be imparted to the rest of the world.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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