columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

What Germans understand about BDS

The link between boycotts of Israel and anti-Semitism is, at least for now, seen more clearly in Germany. Why is it so hard for so many others?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 4, 2018. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 4, 2018. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
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.

Who ever thought Germans would have a better grasp of the need to stand up against anti-Semitism than the Scots?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 4, 2018. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

It’s been more than seven decades since the end of World War II, but the lessons of the Holocaust do seem to be better understood in Germany. With support for the BDS movement that targets Israel and incites anti-Semitism spreading across Europe, it turns out that German institutions and politicians are treating its supporters, including one prominent Scottish rap group, with the disdain they deserve.

Still, this stand is seen as more a case of the Germans being overly careful to atone for the crimes of the Nazi regime rather than the defense of an important principle. BDS supporters are also gaining sympathy by portraying those calling them out for hate as attempting to suppress free speech.

That’s the impression one gets from a New York Times article about the battle over BDS in Germany that has embroiled some major arts festivals. But while it’s easy to be sidetracked by discussions about Germany’s history or to be distracted by the claims of BDS proponents that they are being victimized by supporters of Israel, no one should be deceived into thinking this about anything but hate.

At the center of this controversy is the Scottish rap group Young Fathers, which has earned critical praise and awards for its performances. But despite its popularity, the group was dropped from the Ruhrtriennale, a widely respected arts extravaganza that also receives—as do many arts groups in that country—funding from the German government.

As the Times reports, the members of Young Fathers are open and vocal supporters of BDS efforts to isolate Israel. They even withdrew from a Berlin festival when they heard that some Israelis artists who were performing there had been helped by their country’s embassy. That caused others to follow their lead in refusing to perform alongside Israelis. The Ruhrtriennale rescinded its invitation, saying it “distances itself in all forms from the B.D.S. movement and wishes to have absolutely no connection with the campaign.”

That, in turn, triggered an angry reaction from other singers and groups who threatened to pull out of the festival. Faced with the anger of headliners like Laurie Anderson, the Ruhrtriennale backed down and invited Young Fathers back but, to the applause of many in the arts world, the group refused. The band’s manager said they planned to stay away from all events in Germany that get government subsidies because of the nation’s affection for Israel. The Germans were, he said, asking the rappers to “distance ourselves from our human-rights principles.”

The irony here is that while many Jews are still suspicious of Germans because of their history, contemporary Israel-haters view the country as hostile to their efforts. Specifically, the BDS movement sees the willingness of the German government to speak up against its efforts as merely an overreaction to the Holocaust. But the claim that BDS is merely reasonable criticism of Israel’s misdeeds, as opposed to anti-Semitism, is a lie.

BDS has nothing to do with “human rights.” To the contrary, it is not about “criticism” of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the presence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. It’s goal, as the groups that promote that cause in the United States like Students for Justice in Palestine make clear, is the eradication of Israel.

That’s why the Germans are right when they say it is anti-Semitic. While Germany’s government has been critical of some Israeli actions, it knows the difference between policy differences and attempts to destroy the one Jewish state in the world. If you wish to deny only one people on earth the right to a homeland and self-defense, then you are practicing discrimination. And if that bias is against Jews, then it’s defined as anti-Semitism.

Yet while discriminatory BDS campaigns against Israel are tolerated in much of Europe, as well as on some college campuses in the United States, the German government seems to be capable of discerning its purpose, while others are not.

BDS supporters claim that Germans still feel guilty about the Holocaust, and as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas put it, they are trying to make Arabs pay for their past misdeeds. But if Germans feel guilty about what their country did, it’s because their nation is one of the few places where Holocaust education is taken seriously. That’s why they understand that efforts to single out Jews for opprobrium are reminiscent of the German boycotts of Jewish businesses and professionals that gained steam in the 1930s.

We don’t have to draw the obvious parallels between those events and today to know that BDS is anti-Semitic. Everywhere where the movement pops up, acts of anti-Semitism soon follow.

It’s to Germany’s credit that the mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter, denounced rock star Roger Waters of Pink Floyd after a recent show in his city. Reiter noted that Waters—one of the most outspoken supporters of BDS—had engaged in anti-Semitic invective when he had not only used his performance to attack Israel, but also ranted about the power of the “Jewish lobby,” and made appalling and fallacious comparisons between the Jewish state and Nazi Germany. BDS supporters have every right to say what they like, but like racists or those who promote other kinds of prejudice, they have no right to complain when they are called out for being supporters of hate.

While many in the artistic community parrot the lie that BDS is about human rights, German leaders, even some from the far left, understand that the movement spreads lies and hatred. While it does little harm to Israel’s dynamic economy, it does stigmatize Jews and others who have the courage to speak up for Israel.

Unlike Germany, much of the rest of the world has forgotten history and is reviving old traditions of Jew-hatred by condoning BDS. It may seem odd that Germans are in the forefront of combating this trend, but it is a welcome development that decent people everywhere should applaud.

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

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