What Jews (and non-Jews) Need to Know About BDS

Image for post
Image for post
BDS activists assail Israel in the name of “progress” despite the gifts the Jewish state has given to the world.

For the past 20 years, a group of so-called “progressive” “peace” activists in the United States and Europe have demanded that churches, institutions of higher learning, and the cities in which they live boycott and divest from companies that do business with Israel and otherwise sanction the Jewish state.

The stated goal of this BDS campaign is to isolate Israel from the world economy and render it a pariah nation, thereby forcing it to sue for peace with Palestinian elites who have turned down numerous peace offers, rewarded terrorists for murdering Jews, and used antisemitic incitement as a unifying political agenda to legitimize their rule — without having to hold elections.

This BDS campaign has not achieved that many victories, but it has affected how progressives speak and think about the Jewish state. Instead of viewing Israel as the nation that sets the standard for human rights, freedom, and innovation in the Middle East, progressives regard and speak of Israel as a singular source of pain and suffering in the region. It has blinded them to the misdeeds of other bad actors in the region and in the rest of the world, with catastrophic results.

Activists and institutions (particularly liberal Protestant churches in the U.S.) remain largely silent about human rights abuses in Iran and mass killings of civilians Syria and massacres of Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa. For these activists, the fight for human rights begins and ends with Israel’s misdeeds, which they invent and exaggerate with an unnatural energy.

When Israel and diaspora Jews use the power available to them to protect their material interests, it incites hostile fantasies about Jews as malign force in world history. These consolatory fantasies help people explain away the failures and setbacks they and the communities they belong to have suffered in the face of a changing world.

The world is chaotic and tragic. Hating Israel gives people struggling with this reality a false sense of order and control, mastery even. The narrative they use to justify this hatred is precious to them. They will squander their principles, their integrity, and their very humanity to protect it.

Like the addicts they are, anti-Israel activists need raw material to consume. For traditional addicts, the raw material is something like cocaine, heroin or caffeine. But for anti-Israel activists, it is stories of Jews behaving badly, uncut by any context, mercy, rationality, or realism. For these addicts, Jews fall into two categories: those who are beleaguered, defenseless, and innocent versus those who are evil and powerful. These addicts tell themselves, their enablers, and their critics that they would have an easier time feeling sympathetic for Jews as a people if Israel weren’t so evil and powerful.

The existence of this narrative is more rooted in people’s need for it than in anything that Jews do. Addicts will get the stories of bad Jews they need no matter what — no matter how hard Israel works to minimize the impact of its actions on civilians in the Gaza Strip, no matter how hard diaspora Jews advocate for the rights of the oppressed in the societies in which they live. Progressives ignore these efforts or portray them as an attempt to distract from Israel’s sins (e.g. allegations of “pinkwashing”), while right-wing extremists portray these actions as acts of Jewish subversion. The right wing condemns Jews for doing things for which the left will deny them credit.

Enter BDS

The BDS campaign, which was founded in Iran — the primary source of lethal antisemitism and Holocaust denial in the world today — is the primary method of harvesting and broadcasting this addict’s narrative of Jews behaving badly. Consequently, BDS activists have helped erode the taboo against antisemitism that was established in the years after the Holocaust and, as a result, has significantly altered the ideological environment which Jews (and humanity in general) will confront for the foreseeable future.

Antisemites in France and Germany disoriented by changes ushered in by the 1848 revolution helped erode the benefits of Emancipation enjoyed by Jews in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the late 20th and early 21st century, anti-Zionists have used BDS activism to undermine the benefits of sovereignty enjoyed by Jews in Israel and the rights of Jews living outside of Israel, particularly in Europe and the United States.

BDS activists are not the only people responsible for this phenomenon, but BDS activism is a major factor in the degradation of Jewish wellbeing that has manifested on college campuses in North America and Europe.

BDS represents a threat to Jews who are coming of age in the early 21st century. Jews living today will be forced to deal with BDS and the anti-Zionism it foments for the rest of their lives.

Here are a few things Jews (and non-Jews) need to know about the BDS campaign. Hopefully this information will help them counter this malign political movement that threatens their dignity, their safety, the prospects of peace in the Middle East, and the health of democracies throughout the world.

The BDS movement and its supporters problematize Jewish self-defense (and survival).

BDS supporters regularly condemn the two main methods Israel has used to stymie efforts to terrorize and kill Jews in the Holy Land — the security barrier in the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip — without condemning the Palestinian acts of violence that necessitated the use of these methods.

A few supporters of BDS have even gone so far as to undermine American support for the Iron Dome, which has protected millions of Israelis from rocket attacks without imposing any costs on the Palestinians — aside from making it harder to drive Israelis out of their bedrooms and into their basements and stairwells during night-time rocket attacks. This demonstrates that for these activists, the problem is not Palestinian suffering, but Jewish safety.

While focusing their attention on Israeli security measures, BDS supporters very rarely condemn the Palestinian acts of violence against Israel that make these measures necessary. With their silence about these acts of terror, BDS activists normalize anti-Jewish hostility in the Middle East. BDS activism produces bystanders to the threat of antisemitic incitement and violence throughout the world.

Proponents of BDS support Palestinian nationalism without any regard for the threat it presents to Jewish safety and welfare.

The Palestinian national cause is not merely committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but the elimination of the Jewish state. It is a revanchist movement that seeks to deprive the Jews of their right to self-determination even as it claims the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. The revanchist nature of the Palestinian cause is made explicit in the movement’s national anthem, which includes references to a vendetta held by the Palestinians. A vendetta is a desire for revenge over a past grievance, it is not a desire to improve circumstances in the future. Pursuing a vendetta is antithetical to the notion of progress.

Proponents of BDS support Palestinian nationalism without real concern for the rights and welfare of the Palestinians themselves.

In addition to denying Jews the right to self-determination, the Palestinian national movement, as it is currently led, has no respect for the rights of the Palestinians it was ostensibly formed to liberate.

Neither the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank nor Hamas respects the rights of the people whose lives they control. Dissidents who reveal themselves on social media are imprisoned. Hamas regularly diverts aid sent into Gaza to help rank-and-file Palestinians into its coffers to attack Israel or enrich its leaders, without eliciting one word of criticism from allegedly pro-Palestinian activists in the West. PA officials use foreign aid to reward terrorists and line their pockets. Activists who declare themselves to be “pro-Palestinian” cannot legitimately ignore these problems, but they do. Such activists who proclaim themselves “pro-Palestinian” are really just anti-Israel.

The BDS movement has proven effective at translating ugly tropes about the Jews into language and narrative that is acceptable to progressives.

Historically, progressives in the West have regarded antisemitism as an illegitimate political ideology, particularly when it came from right wingers with whom they were in conflict. But by promoting the view that the Palestinian victims are innocent victims of Jewish power in the Holy Land, BDS activists have created a pathway through which antisemitic tropes are transformed into reasonable talking points and transmitted into mainstream political discussions. For example, anti-Israel activists in the West have long promoted the notion that American Jews control American foreign policy as if American support for Israel is not a widely held opinion in the United States. By portraying Jews as controlling American foreign policy, BDS activists have given new credence to the notion of the all-powerful and malign Jew undermining the welfare of the states in which they live. This disguises a troublesome reality — attacks on Jews are part and parcel of attacks on civil society in general.

The negligible economic impact of BDS on Israel is secondary to its impact on the ideological and psychological environment in which Jews live their lives. The BDS campaign is part of a larger campaign of psychological warfare intended to undermine young Jews’ confidence in the legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish people in general.

As the AMCHA Initiative has demonstrated, faculty-supported BDS campaigns in the United States have a negative effect on attitudes toward Jews on colleges and universities throughout the country. Jews are more likely to be harassed and insulted on campuses where BDS activism is prevalent than where the campaign has yet to take hold. This is not a coincidence or unintended consequence of the BDS campaign, but one of its central goals. By demonizing Israel and portraying Jewish sovereignty as a malign force, BDS activists work to convince young Jews to distance themselves from the Jewish state, its supporters, and their fellow Jews.

Institutions that hinder Jewish survival with their support for BDS are themselves struggling to survive.

BDS is both a cause and a symptom of decline on the part of the institutions that embrace its agenda. This is particularly evident in liberal Protestant churches that have enlisted in the movement. These churches have been suffering a catastrophic decline in numbers for more than half a century and have used anti-Israel activism to differentiate themselves from pro-Israel Evangelicals.

Instead of confronting and working to reverse this decline, these churches have worked to hinder the ability of the Jewish people to defend themselves and survive in an increasingly dangerous world.

As they hinder Israelis’ ability to pursue and achieve their material interests, these churches fail to take the steps necessary to ensure their own survival. In sum, churches that are at the forefront of the BDS movement fail to evangelize. BDS activism becomes an all-encompassing agenda that diverts time, energy, and money away from the original founding purposes of what are meant to be faith-based communal institutions.

In sum, BDS activism is not only harmful to Israelis and Palestinians, but damaging to diaspora Jews, the institutions that embrace the movement, and the function of democracy itself.

Written by

Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis. His opinions are his own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store