Effort to blame BDS for anti-Semitism thwarted by facts

A woman makes a victory sign while holding a poster

A participant in the Palestine Marathon runs with a sign urging support for a boycott of Israel, to help Palestinians secure their rights, in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, 22 March 2019.

Anne Paq ActiveStills

The campaign by Israel and its lobby to smear their critics as anti-Semites goes back decades.

But in recent years, this tactic has intensified its breach of all bounds of decency and regard for the truth.

Among the more egregious examples have been the attempts to shift blame for the murders of Jews by neo-Nazis onto the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

For instance, after a white supremacist’s shooting rampage that killed one person at a synagogue in Poway, California, in April 2019, the Zionist Organization of America and other Israel advocates tried to implicate Students for Justice in Palestine and other campus critics of Israel – who had absolutely nothing to do with the attack and who had never attacked any Jewish institutions whatsoever.

The pattern has been clear: Some Israel lobby groups exploit the suffering of Jews at the hands of actual anti-Semites in order to discredit, smear and muzzle critics of Israel’s violent, racist practices against Palestinians.

These policies have included decades of military occupation, land theft and colonization, repeated massacres of Palestinian civilians and a deepening system of apartheid.

The habitual claim that the Palestine solidarity movement, particularly at universities, is a hotbed of anti-Semitism paved the way for the executive order issued by President Donald Trump last December.

That order heralded an intensification of federal government inquisitions and harassment against students and faculty who advocate for Palestinian rights or study Israel’s history.

But there is simply no evidence of rampant anti-Semitism on US campuses, particularly related to Palestine solidarity, according to a new report from the Anti-Defamation League.

This is a significant finding given that the ADL is one of the foremost Israel lobby groups, which partners with Israeli organizations to strategize about how to suppress support for Palestinian rights.

The finding is contained in the ADL’s annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents for 2019.

Violent attacks

There should be no downplaying the seriousness of many of the anti-Semitic incidents documented by the ADL.

But the surge has nothing to do with a Palestine solidarity movement that has consistently condemned any form of bigotry, including anti-Semitism.

It comes from the far right, particularly white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that target and inspire violence against Muslims, immigrants and others.

The ADL notes, for instance, that a manifesto published by the Poway shooter “shared many of the same themes and rhetoric of Islamophobia and extreme anti-Semitism” as the manifesto published by the perpetrator of the massacre of 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month earlier.

Overall, the ADL says there were 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. The vast majority involved harassment or vandalism.

Worryingly, there were 61 violent assaults, up from 39 in 2018. Three of the attacks, including the one in Poway, resulted in deaths. More than half of the assaults took place in New York City.

Known extremist groups were responsible for 270 of the 2019 incidents, according to the ADL. Most of these incidents involved distributing “extremist propaganda.”

“The biggest perpetrators were members of Daily Stormer Book Clubs (77 incidents) and the New Jersey European Heritage Association (76 incidents). The Loyal White Knights, a Klan group, were responsible for 18 anti-Semitic fliering incidents,” the ADL states.

Daily Stormer Book Clubs “are small crews of young white men who follow and support Andrew Anglin and his neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer.

Other incidents include a neo-Nazi group called The Base, which “orchestrated a multi-state vandalism ring dubbed ‘Operation Kristallnacht’ where synagogues in Michigan and Wisconsin were targeted with anti-Semitic graffiti including swastikas.”

This kind of poisonous anti-Jewish propaganda emanating from groups that hate anyone who they do not identify as white and Christian is a threat to everyone.

Last month, a report published by the European Jewish Congress also drew attention to the alarming number of attacks on Jews by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in 2019 and early 2020.

But in spite of the evidence it contains, that report attempted baselessly to shift blame onto peaceful activism for Palestinian human rights.

Little campus anti-Semitism

Incidents of anti-Jewish bigotry on campus appear – thankfully – to be rare in a country with more than 4,000 colleges and universities.

The ADL says that across the United States, there were 186 incidents of campus anti-Semitism in 2019, a decrease of 7 percent from 2018.

Just 38 of the 2019 incidents on campuses involved “references to Israel or Zionism.”

But it cannot be taken for granted that even these 38 amount to credible instances of anti-Jewish bigotry.

The ADL audit claims that it is “careful to not conflate general criticism of Israel or anti-Israel activism with anti-Semitism.”

But this is disingenuous. The ADL affirms it has “long supported” the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which Israel and its lobby have been pushing governments and institutions around the world to adopt.

That definition has generated strong pushback from human rights defenders and civil libertarians because it deliberately conflates criticism of Israel’s policies, including its state ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with bigotry against Jews, on the other.

Among the few examples of alleged campus anti-Semitism that the ADL audit cites, most involve criticism and analysis of Zionism.

For instance, the ADL says that a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles “equated Zionism and white supremacy, claiming that racism and the white supremacist ideology is ‘central to Zionism.’”

The ADL also labels as anti-Semitic a column by a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, which stated that “two specific instances of white supremacy have situated themselves on our campus as ‘marginalized voices’: the Blue Lives Matter movement (and policing generally) and Zionism.”

The audit also includes a Students for Justice in Palestine publication at Vassar College, which stated that “we recognize the racism inherent in Zionism.”

In another instance of alleged campus anti-Semitism, the ADL says students at Cal State Fullerton twice “erected an ‘apartheid wall’ that included a panel with a message reading, ‘Zionism=racism.’”

The ADL’s racism

The ADL may be offended by these statements, but that does not make them anti-Jewish.

Zionism is racism because it is the belief that Jews from anywhere in the world have a right to settle in historic Palestine and maintain a Jewish-majority state there that trumps any rights of the indigenous Palestinian people.

This claimed superiority is enshrined in Israeli constitutional law.

Virtually all people who identify as Zionists, including liberal Zionists, oppose Palestinian refugees returning to the homes from which they were expelled by Zionists, solely and exclusively because they are not Jews.

There is a consensus among Zionists that Palestinians constitute a “demographic threat” to Israel.

The ADL is part of this racist consensus, arguing that Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to come home because an “influx of millions of Palestinians into Israel would pose a threat to its national security and upset the country’s demographic makeup.”

This is indeed no different from the racism of white supremacists – including Donald Trump – who fulminate about “invasions” by non-white people to the United States or Europe.

Any language that treats an entire group of people as a “threat” merely because they exist and are of the incorrect ethnicity or religion is inherently racist.

But such racism is fully in keeping with the ADL’s own history of alignment with white supremacists and other bigots: The group notoriously spied on US anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s on behalf of South Africa’s racist rulers.

And after 9/11, the ADL welcomed support for Israel from Islamophobic and anti-Semitic evangelical mega-pastor John Hagee.

In Israel, of course, Zionism is not just a belief, it is a system of racial discrimination and apartheid enforced against Palestinians with bulldozers, bullets and bombs.

Aligned with white supremacists

The embarrassing truth is that Israel and its lobby groups, among them the ADL, have been quite comfortable with white supremacists and anti-Semites, including the ones currently in the White House, as long as they support Israel.

In addition to Donald Trump, Israel’s closest friends on the world stage include Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who has praised Miklos Horthy, the wartime leader who helped the German government murder half a million Hungarian Jews.

That’s also why Yair Netanyahu, the son of the Israeli prime minister and an anti-Palestinian activist in his own right, has become the poster child for Alternative for Germany, the racist party that is a magnet for Nazis.

Yair Netanyahu recently tweeted his yearning that the “evil globalist” European Union would collapse and “Europe will return to be free, democratic and Christian.”

A prominent Alternative for Germany politician then created a poster quoting the younger Netanyahu approvingly.

Espousing the inherently anti-Semitic and Islamophobic goal of ridding “Christian” Europe of Jews and Muslims does not threaten Israel, and suits the Euro-American far right very well.

Advocating for full Palestinian rights and equality, however, is considered by Israel to be the true threat.

That is why, regardless of the facts, those who criticize Israel’s denial of those rights and oppose any form of racism will continue to be smeared as racists.

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Zionism is racism because at its core is the belief in messianic entitlement. Zionists employ four grounds for their right to Palestine. The first is that god gave the land to Abraham 3,800 year ago. Thus, only the descendants of Abraham have a right to it. Leave aside that the Bible gives no one legal title to anything, that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of Abraham, that god is a matter of belief not of evidence and the land was physically very different 3,800 years ago than in the late 19th century when the first "settlers" began to arrive and what you're left with is an assumption of entitlement. Some Zionists go to zany lengths, trying to use DNA for example to prove Abraham was their forbear. No one can prove they are descended from anyone alive nearly 4,000 years ago. You might even have no single nucleotide polymorphisms from your great-great-grandmother. What is really stunning about the attributions of anti-Semitism is that the Jews are alienating people who have always been opposed to it, who have been on the streets facing down neo-Nazis, and who will do again whenever necessary. Those of us with a record of campaigning against the far-right will come to the aid of Jews if they are targeted. We will do so even if we are called anti-Semites because we criticise Israel for it treatment of the Palestinians. We will do so because we act out of principle and those principles apply to the unjust treatment of the Palestinians just as much as to the unjust treatment of Jews. We anti-racists are the friends of Jews when the far-right comes for them. By attacking our arguments they are weakening our case, which is opening up a flank for the far-right. Surely they can grasp that. They will find their bedfellows perfidious and then expect us to stand with them. We will, but we will also stand with the Palestinians and with all people subject to racism.

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Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.