UN report gives Israel free hand to smear BDS movement

Close up of man seated in front of microphone

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, thinks Israel should have carte blanche to smear human rights activists as anti-Semites. (UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

A new report by a United Nations expert gives Israel and its lobby carte blanche to smear the movement for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, issued the report ostensibly focused on anti-Semitism in late September.

It adopts a controversial definition of anti-Semitism which is being promoted by Israel and its lobby groups.

Human rights defenders have long warned that the so-called IHRA definition conflates criticism of Israel and its state ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other.

Shaheed’s report acknowledges that critics of the definition are concerned that “it can be applied in ways that could effectively restrict legitimate political expression,” including criticism of Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

He therefore advises that the definition be used “as a non-legal educational tool” to minimize such “chilling effects.”

Shaheed also warns government bodies that use the definition in a “regulatory context” to exercise “due diligence” to ensure that freedom of expression is protected.

He pushes back gently against efforts to outlaw BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

Without necessarily endorsing them, Shaheed gives space to Israel lobby claims that the goals of the BDS movement – freedom, equality and justice for Palestinians – are “fundamentally anti-Semitic.”

He ultimately concedes that “international law recognizes boycotts as constituting legitimate forms of political expression, and that nonviolent expressions of support for boycotts are, as a general matter, legitimate speech that should be protected.”

Violating his own warnings

But in his report, Shaheed ignores his own warnings, giving broad credence to Israel’s efforts to redefine advocacy for Palestinian equality as anti-Semitism.

For example, while discussing the BDS movement, he asserts that expression which “rejects the right of Israel to exist, or advocates discrimination against Jewish individuals because of their religion should be condemned.”

The BDS movement already explicitly condemns discrimination against Jews for being Jews, as it rejects all forms of racism.

But Shaheed lumping anti-Jewish bigotry together with the questioning of Israel’s political claim that it has a “right to exist” is part of his report’s broader agenda to muddy the waters.

This is clear where he attacks what he brands as “left-wing anti-Semitism.”

Shaheed claims that in some cases so-called left-wing anti-Semites have “conflated Zionism, the self-determination movement of the Jewish people, with racism; claimed Israel does not have a right to exist; and accused those expressing concern over anti-Semitism as acting in bad faith.”

Shaheed makes these assertions as if they are uncontroversial statements, but each contains a highly contested political claim frequently made by Israel and its lobby.

Shutting down debate

Firstly, as Columbia University scholar Joseph Massad has explained, the claim that Zionism is the self-determination movement of the Jewish people is a recent invention dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.

Massad notes that historically, Zionism always defined itself as a settler-colonial movement. It rebranded itself as a movement for “national liberation” and self-determination only in the post-colonial era.

Secondly, the notion that Israel as a state has an abstract “right to exist” flies in the face of basic precepts of democracy and international law. Israel has no more “right to exist” than, say, East Germany or the United Kingdom.

East Germany ceased to exist in 1990, with German reunification. No one argues that East Germany has some abstract right to resurrect itself whether the people of Germany want that or not.

Similarly, the United Kingdom has existed for centuries, but not even the leaders of the British state argue that it has an abstract right to continue to exist forever against the wishes of its constituent peoples.

That is why Scotland was able to hold a referendum on independence in 2014 and is likely to hold another one in the future.

It is also why the British state recognizes that the people of Northern Ireland, currently part of the UK, have a right to vote in a referendum to join a united Ireland.

This is because self-determination belongs to the legitimate residents of a territory: States do not have a “right to exist.”

Rather, a people legitimately living in a territory has a right to constitute the entity that rules it.

Colonial settlers who invade and occupy that territory, driving out or subjugating its legitimate residents, cannot legitimize their own presence simply by rebranding their invasion as “self-determination” for the settlers, as Israel is attempting to do.

A more specific Israeli claim is that Israel has a “right to exist as a Jewish state” – in effect that it has a right to maintain a Jewish demographic majority.

That majority was violently engineered by inherently illegitimate means: the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias in 1948.

As I explain in my 2014 book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Israel’s claim that it has a “right” to maintain a Jewish majority is an assertion that it has a perpetual right to enact inherently racist policies against the indigenous Palestinian people in order to control their numbers.

It is also self-evident that a basic Zionist policy, denying the right of return of Palestinian refugees, is indeed racist: Israel does not allow Palestinians and their descendants expelled from their homeland by Zionists to come home solely because they are not Jewish.

Assumed guilty

Thirdly, Shaheed’s assertion that questioning any accusation of anti-Semitism is itself evidence of anti-Semitism makes it impossible for activists to defend themselves.

In fact fabricated allegations of anti-Semitism have been at the heart of Israel’s effort to shut down the Palestine solidarity movement on US campuses.

Such false accusations are also used to smear the UK Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, as institutionally anti-Semitic.

It is understandable that Israel’s propagandists would not want their lies and smears exposed.

But it would appear that Shaheed also believes that those falsely accused of anti-Semitism should be automatically deemed guilty and never given a chance to defend themselves.

He therefore grants Israel and its lobby a free hand to defame and libel anyone they like.

With sloppy, bad faith and dishonest claims, Shaheed’s report tries to put basic questions of free speech and Palestinian rights out of bounds by claiming that even discussing them is anti-Semitic.

The reason for that is clear: Zionist claims do not stand up to well-reasoned and fact-based scrutiny. Israel’s best strategy is therefore to shut down all discussion.

In August, Shaheed came under strong criticism from human rights defenders for his close relationship to Israel lobby groups and for ignoring Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and religious freedom.

Following the publication of his report, it is clear those criticisms were well justified.




A very well written and logical point by point rebuttal of the UN report on anti semitism which must be rejected by everyone who values free speech and the right to peacefully BDS Israel in support of the Palestinian people.


I would only add that Israel wants to claim land additional to 'Israel Proper' and to maintain a Jewish majority overall. In other words, if we accept that Jewish self-determination, we are also accepting that the existing non-Jewish population is either transferred out or that we accept that their right to remain on the land is conditional upon their having no political rights.

But there is no collective Jewish right to self-determination by way maintaining a Jewish majority in a sovereign State on land that is the ancestral home of others.

The analysis in the article is spot on and these arguments should be made. Saying that, I also think that all of these reports and definitions trying to show that supporters of Palestinian human rights are anti-Semitic will fail. Even if we are unable to fully articulate a good reasoned response to the accusations of anti-Semitism or Jewish collective rights (and that is often the case) and get lost or flummoxed in the endless debate, we still have a visceral response to injustice and cruelty that kicks in and does not pay much heed to the intricacies of UN Reports or to lengthy explanations of how anti-Zionism is just the latest expression of anti-Semitism which is appears is an incurable virus infecting the gentile over the ages. We just know its rubbish.

We instinctively know that 'States' do not have 'rights'. We know that we are trying to codify and humanise the legitimate relations between 'States' especially where there is conflict, but only people have rights. We know that we can talk about the 'collective rights' of a set of people but also know that these rights can never be absolute or override the legitimate collective rights of others. Even if we can not always fully articulate these things.

This UN Report will not be read by many but will be used as 'impeccable' proof of anti-Semitism by those wanting to discredit the Palestinian struggle. It will fail to resonate with ordinary people.


The German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as 'a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.' The Israeli state claims its right to exist and to use violence and has done so successfully. But that does not make its use of that power legitimate. No one questioned the right of South Africa to exist but the world spurned Apartheid. Western countries did dispute the right of the Soviet Bloc to exist and questioned its 'socialist' policies and celebrated its demise as the people held in its grip withdrew their support and questioned its legitimacy. We should be discussing whether Israeli policies and justifications for the state's use of violence are legitimate in the light of international human rights and humanitarian law. Israel exists and it is armed to the teeth and exercises a capacity for violence unequalled in the Middle East. Does it pass the test of legitimacy in doing so? Surely not. South Africa and Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany and Pol Pot's Cambodia had to change. States do not have a right to exist in ways that deny the human rights of those they oppress. The human rights of Jewish people in Israel must be respected but that will require change in the policies their government supports. One day, sufficient Israelis will come to understand that their well being and security cannot be bought at the price of depriving others of theirs. Ands the sooner Americans realise this the better.


Excellent piece. But a conceptual difficulty remains.
Ali Abunimah writes that "self-determination belongs to the legitimate residents of a territory." But a slight majority of Palestinians are not NOW residents of the territory of historic Palestine. Israel has made sure that the are now non-residents; they or their ancestors were residents, but not now, so this formulation could be taken as excluding them. The term "legitimate residents" has this bit of ambiguity.
The article correctly says that "a people legitimately living in a territory has a right to constitute the entity that rules it." But this, also, can be misinterpreted to mean that the focus is only on those actually now living in the territory in question. Some liberal Zionists are advocating this today - but it excludes that majority of Palestinians who are in forced exile.
I hope I'm not making a mountain out of a molehill. I am just saying that because most Palestinians - who have the RIGHT TO RESIDE in historic Palestine - have been made into non-residents, extreme care is needed to include them in the group with the "right to constitute" the state.
Whether the present (resident) settler-colonialists have a "right" to co-determine the political entity, or whether they should be included only on the humanitarian grounds that they were involuntarily born in Palestine, is a separate question.