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BDS, Human Rights and Jewish Morality

As of July 2017, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli racism and apartheid is 12 years old. This means that over the last dozen years, a worldwide grassroots movement has grown up – a movement of civil society – that has organized active opposition to Zionist racism and Israeli oppression. While the vast majority of governments have either ignored or assisted Israel’s violations of international law and the basic principles of human rights, millions of “civilians” have refused to follow their leaders on this issue.

The BDS movement is now far ranging. It presses for divestment from companies that support or do business with Israel, particularly those that operate in the Occupied Territories. It urges the boycott of all Israeli products, from foodstuffs to cosmetics. It protests the appearance of Israeli cultural organizations outside of Israel. It urges the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that lend support to the state (an effort that, in 2015, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin called a “strategic threat of the first order”). And, it discourages tourist and artist visits to Israel, particularly by well-known celebrities. For more information about specific BDS achievements over the last 12 years, go to website of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

In all these efforts the movement has proved increasingly successful. Some surveys have suggested that as many as one-third of Americans and eighty percent of Canadianssupport BDS. The movement is also strong in Western Europe and growing in Australia and Latin America. Thus, no one should sell this ongoing campaign short. Certainly, the Israeli government does not. Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy devotes a lot of time and money to “push back” against the BDS movement. Israel’s attempt to counter this growing popularity is grounded on a simplistic, libelous campaign that seeks to identify the BDS movement as a new form of anti-Semitism.

At least among the general population, there are two things that make this a very hard sell: (1) a lot of BDS supporters are Jewish, underlining the fact that the Zionist state and Judaism are not the same thing, and (2) the State of Israel continues to reinforce the BDS characterization of it as a racist state by public acts of discrimination against Palestinians.

As more people come to support BDS, fewer people support Israel.  A survey released in mid June 2017 by an organization known as The Brand Israel Group, “a coalition of volunteer advertising and marketing specialists” who consult for pro-Israel organizations, indicated that “approval of Israel among American college students dropped 27% between the group’s 2010 and 2016 surveys” while “Israel’s approval among all Americans dropped 14 points.” Brand Israel’s conclusion: “the future of America no longer believe that Israel shares their values.” This is the case not because of any big increase in anti-Semitism, but due to ever-growing evidence of Israeli racism.

Unfortunately, Israel’s inability to keep a favorable public image does not necessarily mean its near-term defeat. Here in the U.S. there are two reasons for this: (1) as obnoxious as Israeli behavior is, and also as obscenely massive the U.S. aid package that helps to sustain that behavior, neither the behavior nor the aid package is yet a prime voting issue for most American citizens, and (2) due to the resulting lack of political pressure from the voters, American Zionists still have a clear field to use money and other forms of patronage to pressure both the U.S. Congress and the political parties to ignore the blatant racism and continue to strongly support the Zionist state.

That support can extend to becoming Israel’s ally in the effort to defame and then try to destroy BDS. The argument that BDS is a modern form of anti-Semitism has become the backbone of an effort to make it illegal. As noted above, the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic. It is anti-Zionist, which in fact makes it anti-racist. There is plenty of evidence that the Zionists do indeed practice racism in Israel and its Occupied Territories, and therefore, in truth, the Zionist charge against BDS creates a paradox. It requires you to accept that a supporter of BDS can simultaneously be anti-Semitic and anti-racist. Alas, in the absence of voter pressure, this absurdity does not matter to most U.S. politicians. Nor does the fact that outlawing BDS constitutes an obvious violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

On a wider field, two things are simultaneously at stake: the future viability of human rights and the moral status of the Jewish people. First, consider the threat to human rights as an international principle. The Zionists seem to believe that what weakens the viability of human rights is that one country – Israel –  is being “picked on” for misbehaving, while other countries, allegedly doing the same things or worse, are not similarly censured. Despite the fact that there happens to be good reasons for “picking on Israel,” this Zionist complaint is an exaggeration used to deflect legitimate criticism. It also misses the point.

The threat to human rights does not come from individuals overly blaming one country for what others also do. It comes from people – in the form of governments, lobbyists, and a sadly misled element of the Jewish community – actually championing Israel (or any other racist country for that matter) while it pursues overtly discriminatory policies based on, in this case, religion. This precedent, persisting over decades, must end up deadening the ability of governments, as well as the United Nations, to take human rights seriously and develop mechanisms for their promotion and protection.

The same situation that threatens the integrity of human rights standards threatens the moral character of the Jewish people. In a recent article entitled “Israel’s Irrational Rationality,” David Shulman, professor emeritus at Hebrew University, confesses that it is Israeli government policy to maintain “a steady level of state terror directed against a large civilian population [Palestinians] … . All of it stains the character of the state and has, in my experience, horrific effects on the minds and hearts of young soldiers who have to carry out the orders they are given.” However, Shulman knows it does not stop there. He observes that what we have here is an “ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole.”

Yet who constitutes “the country as a whole”? The ideology of Zionism demands an identification of Israel with the Jewish people – all of whom are virtual Israeli citizens whether they want to be or not. This means that the Zionists insist that the Jewish people as a whole be identified with Israel’s practices and policies – including the disregard for human rights and implementation of “ongoing state terror.”

Despite this Zionist contention that Israel and the Jews are equivalent, we know that this cannot be literally true. Israel’s sins cannot be the sins of the Jewish people as a whole. At the beginning of this essay I indicated that increasing number of Jews are actively supporting Palestinian rights and thus opposing both Israel’s undermining of the principle of human rights and its erosive effect on the moral status of the Jewish people.

However, the logic of the situation does make one thing literally true, and that is that the Zionist ideology, as it has evolved in practice, is a dangerous enemy of Jewish morality. As long as Zionism stands against human rights while at the same time insisting that Israel stands in for the Jews, it must be the enemy. Ignorance of this logic is also an enemy. Therefore, it is time to heed the call of Rebecca Vilkomerson, head of Jewish Voice for Peace: “Seventy years into the ongoing dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, fifty years into Israel’s military occupation, and ten years into the siege of Gaza, we think it is time for American Jewish communities [and those in the rest of the world as well] to have some really uncomfortable conversations.”

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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