Biden officials pledge to fight BDS

President Joe Biden, left, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in the Oval Office, 31 January. Yellen has pledged to work against the Palestinian-led BDS movement.


The Biden administration “embraces and champions” the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, a State Department official said on Monday.

Kara McDonald, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, praised the definition “with its real-world examples” as “an invaluable tool” to “call hate by its proper name and take effective action,” according to the JTA news agency.

McDonald is serving temporarily as the Biden administration’s point person on the issue until it names a special envoy on anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition has been promoted by Israel and its lobby groups.

It has been strongly opposed by civil libertarians and Palestinian and Jewish organizations which see it as a pretext to smear and censor supporters of Palestinian rights.

Its use as a tool of censorship has even been criticized by the definition’s original author.

This is because some of the definition’s accompanying examples equate legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies and actions with anti-Jewish bigotry.

Vitriolic opposition to BDS

For example, deeming Israel a “racist endeavor,” as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem did when it characterized Israel as a “regime of Jewish supremacy” that practices “apartheid,” would qualify as anti-Semitism under the definition.

Another of the IHRA’s examples of anti-Semitism includes applying “double standards” toward Israel “by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Under this example, any campaign utilizing the tactics of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) to advocate for Palestinian rights could be deemed anti-Semitic unless campaigners simultaneously devoted equal attention and vigor to addressing human rights abuses in other countries.

McDonald’s statement is another worrying indicator that the Biden administration will be hostile to speech and action supportive of Palestinian rights. Several Biden administration nominees have also expressed truculent and even vitriolic opposition to BDS in their Senate confirmation hearings.

At his 19 January hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he and President Biden “resolutely opposed” BDS.

Echoing the IHRA example, Blinken claimed that the Palestinian-led BDS movement “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel and creates a double standard that we do not apply to other countries.”

Based on this absurd standard, Palestinians themselves cannot advocate for their own rights in their own homeland without being accused of anti-Semitism, unless they simultaneously wage campaigns about other countries.

However, Blinken also stated: “We fully respect and will always respect the First Amendment rights of Americans to say what they believe and think. But BDS itself is something we oppose.”

In her 27 January confirmation hearing, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to the United Nations, issued a full-throated denunciation of BDS.

“I find the actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel unacceptable,” Thomas-Greenfield stated. “It verges on anti-Semitism, and it is important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the United Nations. I intend to work very strongly against that.”

Blinken’s and Thomas-Greenfield’s drawing of parallels between BDS and the IHRA’s examples of anti-Semitism are disturbing.

Alarm bells

But perhaps the most troubling position toward BDS was spelled out by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a written response to questions posed by senators in advance of her confirmation hearing.

Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, noted correctly that for “more than 40 years, the Treasury Department has played a key role in fighting international efforts to boycott Israel.”

He then asked Yellen, “If confirmed, are you committed to fighting efforts to boycott, divest or sanction our ally Israel?”

Yellen responded that Biden has “led efforts to oppose the delegitimization of Israel, whether in international organizations or by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States.”

“I support President Biden’s approach,” she added, affirming that she would “work as Treasury Secretary to oppose BDS activities directed at Israel.”

Yellen’s well-considered written response was not off-the-cuff and should set off alarm bells.

The Treasury Department issues guidelines that inform the work of the Commerce Department’s Office of Antiboycott Compliance (OAC), which slaps fines on US companies participating in the Arab League boycott of Israel.

The law which led to the creation of the OAC – the Export Administration Act of 1979 – was passed decades before the advent of the Palestinian civil society-led BDS movement in 2005.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, attempted to amend the law through the 2017 Israel Anti-Boycott Act to impose fines and a prison sentence of up to 20 years against individuals who support or further an international organization’s call to boycott a company complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses.

The bill was defeated through a combined outcry and lobbying campaign from Palestine solidarity activists and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yellen’s pledge to “oppose BDS activities directed at Israel“ goes well beyond her duty to issue guidelines to enforce current prohibitions against compliance with the Arab League boycott.

Instead, it raises the specter of her support for future legislation to crack down on civil society initiatives to boycott companies and institutions complicit in violations of Palestinian rights.

Yellen’s response not only potentially contradicts Blinken’s testimony, but also the 2020 platform of the Democratic Party, which opposes BDS efforts at the UN “while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.”

These developments suggest that Biden’s rhetorical opposition to BDS, and the struggle for Palestinian rights more broadly, will be similar to the Trump and Obama administrations’ opposition to the movement – with the important caveat of recognizing the constitutionality of boycotting for Palestinian rights.

In its first two weeks, the Biden administration has commendably issued a flurry of executive orders on immigration reform, climate change and racial justice and has suspended weapons sales to human rights abusing regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

However, it has struck a woefully discordant tune to these otherwise positive steps by equating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and going out of its way to denounce, and potentially act against, people engaged in civil society action to support Palestinian rights.




Let Israel show us another country that is militarily occupying another land and its population and then BDS will launch a campaign against it as well. Israel is the ONLY occupier-colonialist-state in the 21st century. Hence, there is no "double-standard" here.


Yes. Palestine isn't alone here. You could add West Papua, Chagos islands (Diego Garcia), Kurdistan, Xinjiang formerly Chinese Turkestan & home of the Uyghur people & others as well.

However two or more wrongs are always just that - wrongs & that other military occupations exist is no justification for Israel's Occupation.


Ever heard of EOKA-B and their systematic cleansing policy of Turks in Cyprus following the coup d'état in Greece which brought the army to power who backed and armed them?
And literally, everybody turning a blind eye to the events was the only reason why Turkey *had to* intervene as a guarantor state (along with UK and Greece) for the island by the London Treaty?

I am sorry but whenever Turks are being killed anywhere, the only judgment criteria for the Western society is "who is Christian and who is not?"


"There is no intrinsic connection between Judaism and democracy. There always was an orthodox, fundamentalist current in Judaism, characterized by racial prejudice toward non-Jews in general and Arabs in particular." Flapan, Birth of Israel (p240). Would Flapan be dismissed as an anti-Semite by those who uphold the IHRA definition? He is not saying Judaic theocrats or followers of Herzl have harboured a current of racism, but Judaism itself. In Beyond Chutzpah, Finkelstein writes: "..the Nazi holocaust has been fashioned into an ideological weapon to immunize Israel from legitimate criticism." Is that anti-Semitic? The world has lost its mind when it can no longer distinguish between irrational hatred on the basis of unhinged prejudice, and legitimate criticism of a political regime. That the Israeli regime is racist is supported by prima facie evidence: Chaim Weizmann, thought of as a liberal Zionist, remarked: "There is a qualitative difference between a Jew and an Arab." Change the terms: "There is a qualitative difference between a white person and black person."Is that racism? Many Jews are not racists. Many are not followers of Herzl or Judaic theocrats. It is not an expression of hatred towards Jews to point out that the policies of the Israeli State have been racist towards the Palestinians since 1948. Prior to that, the ideology of the followers of Herzl was self-evidently anti-Arab. Little can be expected from Biden's regime because of its cowardice and intellectual confusion over Israel/Palestine. As ever, we must be self-reliant. We need a grassroots movement of hundreds of millions, across the globe ,which will bring irresistible pressure. Don't look to leaders, they are compromised. To take the position that people have the right to speak but not to organise, that BDS amounts to prejudice against Jews rather than opposition to an unjust political regime is dishonest. We must continue to tell the truth to the entire world.


We shouldn't be surprised at all by the Biden administration's opposition to BDS. Biden's 40 year history in government reflects that. We will have to fight this opposition in court using the first amendment.


What would really weaken the BDS movement, more decisively than anything else, would be if Israel put a freeze on all further settlement development, and put a peace offer on the table- one that was generous enough, that if it was nevertheless rejected, it would then become undeniably clear to the whole world that Israel truly desires peace, but the Palestinians are just hopelessly unreasonable (and consequently, public support for BDS would plumment).

And should the Palestinians actually accept the peace deal, well, then there'd be peace (and BDS would become moot...) :)


As I’m sure you well know, Israel is quite unlike South Africa in that it was the combined churches of S.A who led the Kairos movement - including the nonviolent BDS campaign - that ended apartheid there. In Palestine it is again the churches that initiated the Kairos Palestine movee Er ment that now has global support, including from
many Jews who uphold the values they were raised on. Meanwhile the current Israeli regime moves further and further away from
those values, and the IDF - funded in large measure by the $4 billion annual funds from the deluded USA Congress - uses that money not only to oppress Palestinians but also to turn around and sell its weapons of war to the USA and some 120 other countries worldwide - as well as selling its ‘well-tested’ (on Palestinians - see the film “The Lab” for evidence - and produced by Israelis!) training techniques such as the chokehold/knee on neck used to kill George Floyd and others ‘of color.’ Let us know when the Israeli state renounces such methods and weapons - and openly admits its nuclear Arsenal.


A generous peace offer from Israel, it won’t happen. In my opinion, international pressure on Israel is the only way forward, but that won’t happen either until America stops its support for this racist, apartheid endeavour. It’s a stronger BDS that is needed not a weaker one.


BDS proved to be among the most effective NON-VIOLENT ways to end South African apartheid; now that several Israaeli human rights groups (including B'Tselem and others) have finally come out publically to name what Palestinians already experience 24/7: the current Israeli state regime is an apartheid regime both via its policies and practices. Of course the Netanyahau regime denies and rejects these claims, but as Israeli leader Avrum Burg stated recently (in demanding that the state remove his name from being 'Jewish'): the 'Israel National Law' that says that Israel is 'a Jewish state' is the exact opposite of the Jewish values of equity and justice for 'the other' -- including the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but are excluded from the 'National Law' as well as all the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (aka 'Judea and Samaria' to the 500,000+ illegal Settlers now living there.) Again, BDS does not aim at ending 'Israel' as a state, but rather seeks non-violently to create a new reality where Jews and Palestinians are equal before the law in every aspect, including in the courts when various cases (for instance where people dispute property lines, etc.) are brought to trial before judges who act without prejudice. The best solution has been proposed by both Israelis (e.g. Jeff Halper, Avrum Burg, B'Tselem etc.) and Palestinian Arabs (e.g. Yusef Munayir, Michael Zoughbi, Jonathan Kuttab and many more): a BI-NATIONAL ONE DEMOCRATIC STATE where Jews and Palestinians are equal in every sense of the word. No more 'supremacy' or 'superiority', but true equality.


The double-standard argument is preposterous. Apartheid is a crime as are numerous other aspects of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Might we imagine a murder defendant arguing that he cannot be prosecuted lawfully until all murderers are identified and prosecuted? No. The argument would be laughed out of court. The double standard argument should fare no better in the court of public opinion. The question is whether Israel has committed crimes, not whether other governments have also done so.

Josh Ruebner

Josh Ruebner's picture

Josh Ruebner is adjunct professor at Georgetown University, managing director of American Muslims for Palestine and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace. The views expressed here are solely those of the writer and are not on behalf of any organization.