BDS and the Shady Campaign to Delegitimize Israel

February 13, 2015  

“Anti-Semitism is a result of Israeli policies.”

Anti-Semitism has existed for centuries, well before the rise of the modern State of Israel. Rather than Israel being the cause of anti-Semitism, it is more likely that dissatisfaction with Israeli behavior and the distorted media coverage of Israeli policies are reinforcing latent anti-Semitic views.

As writer Leon Wieseltier observed, “The notion that all Jews are responsible for whatever any Jews do is not a Zionist notion. It is an anti-Semitic notion.” Wieseltier adds that attacks on Jews in Europe have nothing whatsoever to do with Israel. To blame Jews for anti-Semitism is similar to saying blacks are responsible for racism.

“Israel is the only state in the world today, and the Jews the only people in the world today, that are the object of a standing set of threats from governmental, religious, and terrorist bodies seeking their destruction. And what is most disturbing is the silence, the indifference, and sometimes even the indulgence, in the face of such genocidal anti-Semitism.”

—Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler

“Supporters of Israel only criticize Arabs and never Israelis.”

Israel is not perfect. Even the most committed friends of Israel acknowledge that the government sometimes makes mistakes, and that it has not solved all the problems in its society. Supporters of Israel may not emphasize these faults, however, because there is no shortage of groups and individuals who are willing to do nothing but focus on Israel’s imperfections. The public usually has much less access to Israel’s side of the story of its conflict with the Arabs, or the positive aspects of its society; therefore, it is often important to put events in context.

Israelis themselves are their own harshest critics. If you want to read criticism of Israeli behavior, you do not need to seek out anti-Israel sources, you can pick up any Israeli newspaper and find no shortage of news and commentary critical of government policy. The rest of the world’s media provides constant attention to Israel, and the coverage is far more likely to be unfavorable than complimentary.

The openness of debate in Israel has led some to conclude that Americans should not feel constrained from expressing similar critical views. America is not Israel, however; Israelis have a common narrative and shared experiences. Americans, even American Jews, do not have the same level of knowledge or experience with regard to Israel, so critics should be aware that their criticism may be subject to misinterpretation by those who do not know the history or context of the topic under discussion.

Criticism is also not justified by Israeli encouragement, as Israelis do not understand the American context and they typically only bless critics who agree with them (leftist Israelis are happy to encourage American Jews to speak out against rightist governments but are furious with criticism of leftist governments and vice versa).

“Academic freedom means any criticism of Israel is permissible in a university.”

The one place in America where anti-Semitism is still tolerated is in the university, where “academic freedom” is often used as a cover to sanction anti-Israel teachings and forums that are anti-Semitic.

In an address on the subject of academic freedom, Columbia President Lee Bollinger quoted from a report that described a professor as someone whom “ ‘no fair-minded person’ would even suspect of speaking other than as ‘shaped or restricted by the judgment . . . ​of professional scholars.’ ” He also spoke about the need for faculty to “resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded, and silence the others.”

Many faculty, however, do not resist temptation; rather, they embrace their position as an ideological platform. Those who abuse their rights, and insist they can say what they want, hypocritically denounce others who exercise their right to criticize them. To suggest that a professor’s views are inappropriate, or their scholarship is faulty, is to risk being tarred with the charge of McCarthyism.

Legality is not the issue in evaluating the anti-Israel, sometimes anti-Semitic speeches and teachings of faculty and speakers on campus. No one questions that freedom of speech allows individuals to express their views. The issue is whether this type of speech should be given the cover of “academic” freedom, and granted legitimacy by the university through funding, publicity or use of facilities.

It is sometimes suggested critics seek to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. There is a clear distinction, however, between criticism of Israeli policy, which you can read in any Israeli newspaper, and anti-Semitism, in which the attacks against Israel challenge its right to exist, or single Israel out among all other nations for opprobrium.

A related question is whether the presentations are in any way academic or scholarly. Few people would claim that a conference in which anti-black, anti-gay, or anti-woman sentiments were expressed would be protected by academic freedom, and yet that is the shield used to permit attacks on the Jewish people.

While criticism of Israel is allowed, when it crosses the line into hate speech or anti-Semitism, it may create a hostile environment that violates the civil rights of Jews. The U.S. Department of Education issued policy guidance in October 2010 clarifying that Jews are protected from discrimination and harassment under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Office of Civil Rights specifies that school districts and institutions of higher education “may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department’s implementing regulations when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees.”

“American universities should divest from companies that do business in Israel.”

The word “peace” does not appear in divestment petitions, which makes clear the intent is not to resolve the conflict but to delegitimize Israel. Petitioners blame Israel for the lack of peace and demand that it make unilateral concessions without requiring anything of the Palestinians, not even the cessation of terrorism. Divestment advocates also ignore Israel’s efforts to reach historic compromises with the Palestinians that would have created a Palestinian state. Even after Israel completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip, certain individuals and groups persisted in their campaign to undermine Israel and further demonstrated that they are interested in Israel’s destruction rather than any territorial compromise.

The divestment campaign against South Africa was specifically directed at companies that were using that country’s racist laws to their advantage. In Israel, no such racist laws exist; moreover, companies doing business there adhere to the same standards of equal working rights that are applied in the United States.

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers observed that the divestment efforts are anti-Semitic. “Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” said Summers. “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”

Peace in the Middle East will come only from direct negotiations between the parties, and only after the Arab states recognize Israel’s right to exist, and the Palestinians and other Arabs cease their support of terror. American universities cannot help through misguided divestment campaigns that unfairly single out Israel as the source of conflict in the region. Divestment proponents hope to tar Israel through an association with the old discrimantory policies of South Africa, an offensive comparison that ignores the fact that all Israeli citizens are equal under the law.

“Advocates for Israel try to silence critics by labeling them anti-Semitic.”

Criticizing Israel does not necessarily make someone anti-Semitic. The determining factor is the intent of the commentator. Legitimate critics accept Israel’s right to exist, whereas anti-Semites do not. Anti-Semites use double standards when they criticize Israel, for example, denying Israelis the right to pursue their legitimate claims while encouraging the Palestinians to do so Anti-Semites deny Israel the right to defend itself, and ignore Jewish victims, while blaming Israel for pursuing their murderers. Anti-Semites rarely, if ever, make positive statements about Israel. Anti-Semites describe Israelis using pejorative terms and hate-speech, suggesting, for example, that they are “racists” or “Nazis.”

Natan Sharansky has suggested a “3-D” test for differentiating legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. The first “D” is the test of whether Israel or its leaders are being demonized or their actions blown out of proportion. Equating Israel with Nazi Germany is one example of demonization. The second “D” is the test of double standards. An example is when Israel is singled out for condemnation at the United Nations for alleged human rights abuses while nations that violate human rights on a massive scale, such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, are not even mentioned. The third “D” is the test of delegitimization. Questioning Israel’s legitimacy, that is, its right to exist is always anti-Semitic.

No campaign exists to prevent people from expressing negative opinions about Israeli policy. In fact, the most vociferous critics of Israel are Israelis themselves who use their freedom of speech to express their concerns every day. A glance at any Israeli newspaper will reveal a surfeit of articles questioning particular government policies. Anti-Semites, however, do not share Israelis’ interest in improving the society; their goal is to delegitimize the state in the short-run, and destroy it in the long-run. There is nothing Israel could do to satisfy these critics.

“The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement originated with Palestinians seeking to promote peace and justice.”

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is a product of the NGO Forum held in parallel to the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The NGO Forum was marked by repeated expressions of naked anti-Semitism by non-governmental organization (NGO) activists and condemned as such by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson who chaired the Conference.

The Forum’s final declaration described Israel as a state that was guilty of “racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.” The declaration established an action plan—the “Durban Strategy”—promoting “a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel . . . the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel” (para. 424).

The BDS movement deliberately draws a false parallel to South Africa. According to BDS proponents, if South Africa was worthy of a boycott and sanctions campaigns that eventually led to the downfall of that despicable system, “Israel should be subject to the same kind of attack, leading to the same kind of result.”

“When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti–Semitism.”

— Martin Luther King

“The Palestinian people are vigorous supporters of the BDS movement.”

In 2005, anti-Israel activists issued the “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS against Israel” in an effort to create the false impression that BDS is endorsed by all Palestinians. In truth, despite the obvious tensions between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis, a great deal of dialogue and cooperation has been ongoing.

In 2008 the Histadrut (Israeli labor union) and the Palestine General Federation of Trades Unions (PGFTU) signed an agreement to base future relations on negotiation, dialogue and joint initiatives to advance “fraternity and co-existence.” Palestinian Arab Universities—despite being hotbeds of anti-Israel activity—maintained links with their Israeli counterparts. Artist, doctors and businesspeople were amongst those who formed bonds of mutual benefit, cooperation and even occasional friendship across the divide of conflict. The severing of these ties were not an objective that Israelis or Palestinian Arabs sought and the move to isolate the two sides did not spring from popular opinion on the Palestinian Arab side. Rather it was a strategy of a self-appointed vanguard that expressed itself through a network of NGOs who put pressure on other elements in Palestinian Arab society to fall in behind the “Durban strategy.”

“Campus delegitimization campaigns are successful.”

The campus divestment campaign was initiated in 2001 by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a student group at the University of California, Berkeley, in conjunction with the San Francisco chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A year later, following the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s first conference, which was held in Berkeley, the delegitimization movement began to spread to other universities, including the University of Michigan, Yale, Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Campus divestment failed miserably. A huge blow came in 2002, when Harvard University President and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said the divestment campaign was anti-Semitic. Soon after, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said he opposed divestment and considered the analogy to the old discrimantory policies of South Africa “both grotesque and offensive.”

A newspaper study counted only 17 boycott or divestment efforts at 14 campuses during 2006–2011 that were significant enough to generate a response. “In no instance,” the Forward concluded, “has BDS action led to a university in the U.S. or Canada divesting from any company or permanently ceasing the sale of any product.”

Another effort to push the Durban agenda has been for students to stage Israel “Apartheid Week” on campuses around the world. These events have typically been little more than hate fests in which students bring speakers and films to demonize Israel on campus. Though disturbing events, they have had virtually no impact on campus. Organizers have managed to stage these events on only about a dozen U.S. campuses in 2010–11 (out of roughly 4,000 colleges) and students report that they were marginal events. Meanwhile, pro-Israel students have staged Israel “Peace Week” and related positive programming on more than 80 campuses during the same period.

Even when they fail, BDS advocates often claim victory in the hope that the perception of winning will create momentum for their cause. Institutions that allow BDS initiatives to be launched on campus should be aware that BDS supporters may report success even when there is none, to the detriment of the university’s reputation.

Perhaps the more serious delegitimization efforts on campus escape public notice because they take place in classrooms where professors around the country, predominantly in Middle East studies departments, use their positions to advance political agendas that are often hostile toward Israel and selective in their exploration of Islam. 12 As Princeton’s Bernard Lewis observed, Middle East studies programs have been distorted by “a degree of thought control and limitations of freedom of expression without parallel in the Western world since the 18th century, and in some areas longer than that.” He added, “It seems to me it’s a very dangerous situation because it makes any kind of scholarly discussion of Islam, to say the least, dangerous. Islam and Islamic values now have a level of immunity from comment and criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism never had.”

Following a vote in 2007 by a British academic union to boycott Israeli universities (the decision was later rescinded), nearly 300 university presidents denounced the British boycott in a statement that said, “In seeking to Korantine Israeli universities and scholars, this vote threatens every university committed to fostering scholarly and cultural exchanges that lead to enlightenment, empathy, and a much-needed international marketplace of ideas.”

The delegitimization movement on campus has to date had no impact on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the mere discussion of BDS allows Israel’s detractors to propagate a negative image of Israel that many fear will take root while, simultaneously, shifting the tenor of debate from the merits of Israeli policies to its right to exist.

“Israeli academics have never boycotted Palestinian professors, even in the worst days of terror. To the contrary: if you’re organizing a conference in Israel, it’s almost obligatory to have a Palestinian professor on the podium. Free exchange is what academic freedom means, and Israeli universities have done an admirable job of upholding it in trying times. In contrast, the academic boycott against Israel is itself a gross violation of academic freedom, because it explicitly imposes a political litmus test on Israelis scholars. It’s radical-style McCarthyism. . . .”

—Professor Martin Krame

“The BDS Movement advocates peace.”

The BDS movement is based on coercion rather than democracy. Proponents imply that Israel is not open to persuasion and that the electorate is too stupid, immature or evil to know what is best for the society. Unable to convince the Israeli electorate of the merits of their views, BDS proponents demonize Israel and call for outsiders to punish the citizens of Israel until they capitulate.

Some students believe that pressure must be applied to stimulate the parties to make concessions that will make a peace agreement possible. While this is a debatable tactic, students genuinely interested in peace recognize that any pressure would have to be directed at both parties. BDS proponents, however, are interested only in pressuring Israel and hold the Palestinians blameless for the conflict. Many injustices have resulted from the ongoing failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but seeking to present Palestinian grievances out of context and without consideration of parallel Israeli concerns is neither constructive nor fair. The advancement of Palestinian rights should not negate the legitimate rights of Israelis.

Unlike peace advocates fighting to hasten a two-state solution to the conflict, BDS proponents make partisan political demands that are clearly aimed at a different outcome.

“Our position is based upon the belief that it is through cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than through boycotts or discrimination, that our common goals can be achieved. Bridging political gulfs—rather than widening them further apart—between nations and individuals thus becomes an educational duty as well as a functional necessity, requiring exchange and dialogue rather than confrontation and antagonism. Our disaffection with, and condemnation of acts of academic boycotts and discrimination against scholars and institutions, is predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights, and equality between nations and among individuals.”

— Joint Hebrew University/Al-Quds University Statement

Israel does not need to be coerced to seek peace. The effort to reach a compromise between Jews and Arabs began nearly a century ago. Israel has repeatedly offered a variety of compromises that would have allowed the Palestinians to establish a state. They have already seen the size of the home they were promised reduced to a fraction of its original size. Still, Israelis express a willingness to do more if it will bring peace.

By contrast, the BDS Movement rejects the peace process. Its leaders routinely dismiss peace efforts ranging from the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords to the Oslo Process to President Barack Obama’s peace initiatives. BDS advocates refuse to contemplate the negative effects their efforts will have on the peace process. With their zero-sum approach to everything Israeli, they make no attempt to address issues of reconciliation and coexistence. Moreover, they do not acknowledge any Palestinian responsibility or accountability.

BDS is modeled on the campaign against South Africa, which was not designed to promote peace, but to dismantle the state. Thus, BDS leaders abhor cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps the best example of their hypocrisy is BDS co-founder, Omar Barghouti, who advocates a boycott against Israeli universities even as he enjoys the benefits of participating in a Ph.D. program at Tel Aviv University.

The Arab League boycott, which has been in force since 1945, before the creation of the state, did nothing to help the Palestinians achieve independence nor did it prevent Israel from becoming one of the world’s economic success stories. The BDS campaign will be similarly ineffective.

Since BDS activities are indiscriminate, they harm those Israelis who are most actively campaigning for peace and strengthen those who are more skeptical of peace initiatives. BDS reinforces the views of the cynics who do not believe that any compromise will satisfy the Palestinians, and undermines the peace activists who believe the Palestinians would trade peace for land. Rather than encourage compromise, efforts to isolate Israel only make its citizens feel more vulnerable and raise the already high level of risk associated with evacuating additional territory.

“If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals. . . . If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.”

— Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh
on academic boycotts of Israel

“The BDS movement advocates for a two-state solution.”

Under the false premise of being “apolitical,” BDS advocates claim they are not advocating any one solution. In reality, this is purposeful ambiguity, as their three demands clearly spell out a “one-state” outcome, which has no basis in international law and which is code for the destruction of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. While disavowing any interest in a formula for concluding an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, their preconditions make it impossible to see an outcome whereby an independent state of Palestine would coexist beside a secure Jewish state. Meanwhile, BDS proponents use this ambiguity to try to recruit well-meaning people unaware of the movement’s true agenda, BDS is, therefore, a recipe for disaster, not coexistence. Creating “one state” with the “right of return” would mean that there would be no Israel and no self-determination for the Jewish people. This is not a basis for peace but a formula for perpetual conflict.

“Good riddance! The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is finally dead. But someone has to issue an official death certificate before the rotting corpse is given a proper burial and we can all move on and explore the more just, moral and therefore enduring alternative for peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Mandate Palestine: the one-state solution.”

— Omar Barghouti, Founder,
Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

“BDS activists promote unity on college campuses.”

The BDS campaign does not advance the cause of Middle East peace, but does create unwanted and unnecessary turmoil on campus. At a time when real campus dialogue is needed more than ever, BDS is more of a barrier than a catalyst to such discussions.

Zionist Jews can handle criticism of Israeli policy, just as they are open to hearing criticism of American policy. Demonization, double standards, and delegitimization are a different story. Those who label Israel as a Nazi state, a state like old South Africa, or a colonial state are clearly trying to use these hurtful analogies to demonize Israel. These are not criticisms that are aimed at improving the lives of Israelis or Palestinians, but are rather attempts to convince people to ostracize, punish, and impugn the Jewish state. Likewise, questioning the Jewish connection to Israel or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland are attacks on the identities of all Jews.

After many of the past campus divestment debates, Jewish students have left the room crying. They feel incredibly hurt when their peers become part of a movement that seeks to delegitimize their own identity. The ideas may be abstract, but the emotional alienation that many Jewish students feel from BDS is real.

Honest discussion about Israeli and Palestinian narratives is needed on college campuses. Divestment advocates seek to circumvent a real debate by promoting the Palestinian narrative and delegitimizing Israel’s story. BDS proponents preempt dialogue by adopting an inherently anti-Israel position as their starting point. Instead of asking questions such as: “How did things get this way?” or “What should we do?” BDS supporters adopt the premise that Israel is guilty of misbehavior and therefore must be punished without taking into account historical context, alternative views, or Israel’s side of the story.

If a BDS initiative is adopted, there is no incentive to hold any real discussion. The campus has already declared Israel guilty and alienated many Jewish and all pro-Israel students who are now falsely tarred as supporters of discrimination, colonialism, and racism.

“Selective boycotts advance prospects for Palestinian-Israeli peace.”

A group of Israeli artists, academics and authors have called upon actors to avoid performing in a theater in the town of Ariel, which is located in the West Bank, as a form of protest against Israeli settlement policy. While the Israelis boycotting Ariel are primarily Zionists who believe strongly in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and oppose the BDS agenda and creation of a binational state that replaces Israel, their tactics are identical to those used outside of Israel. The Ariel boycott, and similar targeted boycotts, do nothing to advance the cause of peace but do punish innocent Jews uninvolved in the political conflict and give unintentional legitimacy to the boycott-ers seeking to delegitimize Israel. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President of the Reform Judaism movement, and a frequent critic of Israeli policy, observed:

The most important reason to oppose the boycott, however, is simply that it is impossible to distinguish between different types of boycotts. There is a growing global BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement; its intention is to isolate and delegitimize the State of Israel. It is already a threat, and with time, could become a mortal threat to Israel’s existence. Those who claim that they only support the boycott of Ariel but oppose the BDS movement are making distinctions that will not be clear to anyone but themselves. If an internal boycott in Israel is the way that Israelis deal with the question of settlement expansion, what is the basis for objecting when countries and groups hostile to Israel call for a boycott of Israel’s academic institutions?

The distinction between Israeli businesses and communities in the territories and the rest of their compatriots cannot be applied in practice. Any steps to isolate and exclude Israelis in settlements also impacts Israelis on both sides of the Green Line. Because the economies are interdependent, efforts to punish or damage the settlements also injure the broader economy and all Israelis. Both sweeping and targeted boycott campaigns are a form of collective-punishment that is fundamentally unfair.

Boycotts and other punitive measures aimed solely at Israel do not address the real sources of the current political impasse, such as the Palestinian failure to reassure the Israeli public of the peacefulness of their intentions. Punishing Israelis for the “occupation” may even help entrench maximalist Palestinian claims, rather than encourage the moderation needed to reach a fair political accommodation.

The BDS movement is essentially a means of coercion. If it were meant to encourage peace, the measures would be directed against the Palestinians to pressure them to end terrorism and recognize the state of Israel. Peace and a two-state solution are not the intent, however, of most BDS advocates. They want to raise questions about the legitimacy of the State of Israel, to generate international pressure to force Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands and to avoid the necessity of negotiations to arrive at a mutually agreed upon division of the land that will guarantee the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis.

While someone supporting a limited or selective boycott may think they are not engaging in an act of delegitimization, BDS proponents use and abuse any kind of BDS activity to claim support and momentum for their own, full-blown anti-Israel version of the strategy. No matter how good the intention may be, associating with BDS strengthens the delegitimizers who seek Israel’s demise.

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  1. By heyjules, February 13, 2015

    People just want something or someone to hate.

  2. By IsraeliGirl143, February 16, 2015

    I don’t understand how people can hate other people for no reason. If they want to believe in something different than you, why do you care. People who hate are literally uneducated people with nothing else to do in their lives than to judge others.


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