A few years ago, the British anti-Semitism scholar David Hirsh remarked that while Israel was the ostensible target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, first in the firing line were diaspora Jews. This shouldn’t be surprising if you consider it carefully—Jewish organizations are typically called on by the media to defend Israel, particularly during times of conflict, and many individual Jews have faced ostracism within their own professional communities for speaking in support of Israel and against the boycott.
So, when I learned the news that the highest appeals court in France had upheld fines imposed on anti-Israel activists for “inciting hate or discrimination” during a demonstration promoting the boycott, I was reminded immediately of David’s insight. For what the French court decision demonstrates—and too many people in the Jewish community, especially in Israel, still don’t properly understand this—is that BDS is essentially a domestic form of anti-Semitism that attacks local Jews through the demonizing of the Jewish state. The only way for Jews to remove this stain is through publicly dissociating themselves from, and loudly condemning, the State of Israel. Quarantining Israel in order to eliminate it may be the stated goal of BDS, but its immediate and often only impact is upon those Jews in the vicinity of the movement’s propaganda activities.
Here’s the story of what happened in France. In 2009 and 2010, mobs of BDS activists began descending on supermarkets and forcibly removing Israeli products—many of which were available, for obvious reasons, at the kosher counter for Jewish customers. Video footage of one of these many supermarket invasions shows the protesters thuggishly chanting in favor of the boycott as they surround customers and staff, sealing off aisles where Israeli products are on sale.
By any standards of decency, these protests were both physically threatening and bigoted in their expression; few people would want to be caught in the act of purchasing an Israeli avocado by this rabble. In the eastern city of Mulhouse, 12 activists were charged with incitement after they distributed leaflets urging “Long Live Palestine, Boycott Israel,” with another one warning customers that “buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.”
After a local court found in favor of the prosecution, imposing a collective fine of $14,500 plus court expenses, the activists took their case to appeal. It’s that appeal that has failed in recent days. In ruling against the activists, who had based their case on freedom of expression, the court cited “the French republic’s law on Freedom of the Press, which prescribes imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000 for parties that ‘provoke discrimination, hatred or violence toward a person or group of people on grounds of their origin, their belonging or their not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a certain religion.’”
BDS is on pretty shaky ground with most of those categories. Ultimately, that is why it is now legally regarded in France as a form of hate speech—and while we live in a country that guarantees all forms of speech, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing BDS as hate speech nonetheless.
That’s why it’s worth thinking about the recent history that led to the French decision. Ten years ago, when the campaign in British universities to boycott Israeli academics became an international news story, the BDS movement was on the verge of achieving something that previous incarnations of anti-Zionism had failed to—the insertion of its skewed, mendacious presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into mainstream, liberal discourse. For a while, particularly in left-leaning media outlets, this strategy seemed to be meeting with success; it even started to pick up support from fraying celebrities like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, gaggles of parliamentarians and columnists in Europe and America, and the odd prominent academic.
But here is where BDS has failed and continues to fail. It has had virtually no impact on Israel’s economy, which continues to flourish. Same goes for Israel’s academic sector, which continues to benefit itself and its partners through joint research programs and other international cooperation. Crucially, it hasn’t delivered a single, tangible benefit for the Palestinians. If ordinary Palestinians living in places like the Jelazoun or Shu’afat refugee camps in the West Bank are to have even a hope of acquiring the kinds of villas and mansions owned by the Palestinian elite around Ramallah, they certainly won’t get there through BDS.
As each of these failings has become more painfully apparent, the BDS movement’s rhetoric and tactics have become uglier. What the French court decision does, therefore, is offer unprecedented clarification of what constitutes acceptable speech, as distinct from hate speech, in the context of BDS.
Increasingly, it’s clear that a movement whose formal goal is solidarity with the Palestinians is not really focused on the Palestinians at all. Just as the Arab states turned on their own Jewish communities after failing to defeat Israel on the battlefield, the BDS movement compensates for its futile gesture politics by placing local Jewish communities in its sights. The elements involved in the act of boycotting Israel—picking a particular store at which to demonstrate, selecting products to place warning stickers on, waving symbols equating the Star of David with the swastika, repeatedly chanting insults against “Israel,” a word that originates in the Jewish Bible after all—all carry the prospect of confrontation with local Jews before anything else. Therefore, what the BDS movement would have us believe is solidarity with the Palestinians is, for the vast majority of Jews, a form of harassment.
Small wonder, then, that the French appeals court came to the decision that it did. And note well: that decision doesn’t mean the Palestinians can’t advocate for their cause in France, a country where their plight has always attracted sympathetic attention. Visceral criticism still can, and will, be directed at Israel’s policies. It’s when that criticism turns into incitement—a term that captures the essence of the BDS movement inside and outside France—that the law gets involved.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).