Is Israel’s anti-BDS campaign fueling anti-Semitism?

Israeli soldier carrying gun stands in front of queue of women and children at checkpoint

Equating criticism of Israel’s violations of international law with anti-Semitism is absurd.

Shadi Hatem APA images

Not long ago, a Jewish former neighbor of mine wrote to me to ask whether, as a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, I support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

I replied that I’ve supported boycotts of companies that promote Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land for years now; otherwise, I explained, I would be complicit in a serious offense against humanity and international law.

I also referred him to the Jewish Voice for Peace website for more information about the tactics endorsed by a wide range of organizations in the hope that economic pressure, added to political action, will hasten the occupation’s end.

A simple answer to a simple question? Well, not to my old neighbor, who wrote back to assure me that, whatever I may say, my real objective is the “destruction of the Jewish state.”

He assured me that as long as I criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, I was an enemy, unworthy of further discussion.

Though saddened by this broadside – no less by its dogmatism than by its invective – I can’t really say I was surprised.

Israel’s anti-BDS campaign is now in full overdrive, and for anyone who takes it seriously, as my former neighbor evidently does, the predictable first casualty of its propaganda is truth. The first beneficiary, I fear, may be anti-Semitism.


For the record, though it means repeating the obvious: Jewish Voice for Peace does not seek the destruction of Israel, which would in any case be a preposterous objective given Israel’s unchallenged military might.

As for me, while supporting human rights for Palestinians, I bear no animus against Israel’s Jews; in fact, both of my children have spent years as students in that country.

And my former neighbor knows all this.

Still, it isn’t hard to figure out where he’s getting his misinformation. After all, we’re both Orthodox Jews, and Jewish communal publications are very much part of the problem.

The Orthodox weekly Mishpacha devoted the cover story of its 15 June issue to what it called “the global hate movement” – that is, the movement for Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, warned in May that BDS is “the 21st-century incarnation of an old disease: anti-Semitism.”


Other Israeli officials are singing the same tune.

Gilad Erdan, who as public security minister is in charge of Israel’s anti-BDS efforts, has implicitly compared the BDS movement to the Nazis. Erdan, speaking of BDS campaigns for Palestinian human rights and equal rights for all, claimed their tactics and “propaganda” would “make history’s greatest anti-Semites proud.”

Erdan also repeated the canard that BDS seeks to “destroy Israel” with tactics including campaigns to “intimidate artists planning to perform in Israel” – though he promptly insisted that the campaign has no effect at all: “[BDS] has not and will not influence the decisions of any Israeli government, right or left,” he noted.

The Israeli government may not yet be influenced, but artists clearly are rethinking scheduled appearances.

Liberals weigh in

Even liberal Jewish communal publications are playing along.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, writing in Tikkun, has argued that any campaign that supports Palestinian rights is anti-Semitic if, “regardless of the oppression of peoples across the world by numberless nations, Israel is singled out for special condemnation.”

To my way of thinking, this is as dishonest as anything cooked up by Israel’s propagandists: posing as a critique of a double standard, the argument actually insists on a double standard in Israel’s favor.

Who ever imagined that a campaign aimed at, say, political repression in Turkey was evidence of anti-Turkish bigotry because it doesn’t address repression in Saudi Arabia? How many of Israel’s apologists objected to the sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 on the grounds that Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait was not unique?

It seems only Israel is supposed to be immune from criticism – however legitimate – that doesn’t come yoked with reminders about each of the “numberless nations” whose records leave something to be desired.

Proponents of this idea don’t tell us how campaigners for Palestinian rights are supposed to meet that condition; and even if they could, the condition itself would be indefensibly discriminatory.

Living a lie

Equating support for Palestinian human rights with anti-Semitism is actually worse than absurd. It threatens to promote the very anti-Semitism it claims to deplore.

Think about it: if people are asked to believe that “history’s greatest anti-Semites” would be “proud” of a movement that promotes the human rights of non-Jews, couldn’t they start to wonder whether anti-Semitism really means nothing uglier than exposing the discriminatory policies of a so-called Jewish state?

After all, it’s in the nature of every equation to work both ways. If we suggest that opposing Israel’s criminal policies is the modern equivalent of Nazism, don’t we invite actual admirers of Nazism to present themselves to a confused public as defenders of human rights?

Questions like that are bound to turn a lot of stomachs, as indeed they should. Anything that threatens to sanitize the genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jews that broke out less than 80 years ago should be greeted with horror.

How ironic, then, that the apologists claiming to defend Israel from a “new anti-Semitism” are the very ones whose anti-BDS arguments bracket the Final Solution with respectable civil rights work.

Israel’s defenders have sometimes complained that comparing Israel’s actions to those of Nazi Germany impermissibly waters down the Holocaust. Maybe they had a point. Too bad their scruples evaporate when throwing around similar comparisons to demonize Palestinians, or their international supporters.

Israel’s anti-BDS tactics aren’t aimed at fighting anti-Semitism.

Deliberately or not, what they are actually doing is making anti-Semitism look respectable – a mere matter of applying fair standards to conflicts between Jews and non-Jews. That’s a shocking posture for anyone – let alone Jews – to take.

In its current desperate mode, Israel’s propagandists are evidently prepared not only to falsify the BDS campaign but to pretty up the all too real evil of anti-Semitism. And all of us who recognize the poisonous effects of bigotry must pray that they fail.

I’m tempted to write this to my former neighbor, but I feel pretty sure he won’t consider anything I say. The publications he trusts – Israeli, Orthodox, Jewish “mainstream” – have assured him that Jews are at one pole of the world, while all Palestinian rights activism converges at the other.

The existence of a group like Jewish Voice for Peace, let alone my membership in it, upends his reality. If he were willing to face the facts we cite – and they are facts – he might have to admit that he has been living a lie.

And that may be too much to ask of him.

For me, that’s the quiet tragedy of Israel’s anti-BDS hysteria. Its immediate target is anti-occupation activism. But its ultimate accomplishment, if it succeeds, will be a future in which the price of being Jewish is acquiescing in international crime – and the word “anti-Semitism” will have been given undeserved and dangerous respectability.

Our options couldn’t be more clearly defined. Now it’s up to us to choose the right path.

Michael Lesher, a writer and lawyer, is the author of Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland). He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Website:




Despite a frantic attempt at suppression, information about Israel's oppression of the Palestinians is getting out. The important role of most American Jewish organizations,, in supporting anything Israel does to the Palestinians, is causing resentment against AIPAC-type organizations, and to some extent resentment against Jews in general.

So there is a connection between Israel's racism and anti-Semitism. But it is not that anti-Semitism is causing opposition to Israel. It's Israel's oppression of the Palestinians that *to some extent* is probably causing resentment of Jews in general.

Somewhere Noam Chomsky remarks that Israel's actions will cause anti-Semitism. Chomsky makes this gloomy prediction as if to say, of course this going to happen.

The only countervailing force is to include Jews from the beginning in the campaign for Palestinian rights. EI should be applauded. I hope that in the future more American Jews manage to free their minds from Israeli propaganda.


By now it ought to be clear to everyone that anti-Semitism is the one indispensable justification for Zionism. They are yoked together in myriad ways. Zionism itself is a byproduct of Europe's persecution of the Jews. For years young Israelis have been taken on guided tours of Auschwitz in order to shape their view not only of the past of but the present-day world. Anti-Semitism as a trans-historical phenomenon, forever lurking in any misgivings, any criticism of the Jewish state, has become an article of faith fundamental to the very existence Israel. Without anti-Semitism- or more to the point, the power to ascribe that poisonous view to opponents of Israel's institutional racism- this vital unifying threat will steadily dissolve. And all that's left will be a naked, repulsive garrison state full of bellowing settlers and casino moguls.


So very well written and understood . It is especially important since this was written by a Jewish person who understands what is at stake .


There are a lot of ways that Israel is promoting anti-Semitism. I feel sorry for both Arabs and Jews. If Netanyahu tells the world he has a monopoly on defining the one true Jew, and then commits a bunch of war crimes he hasn't done his fellow Jews any favor.
I read some depressing neocon who said he supported Hillary's war against Libya because he was a Jew. I pity the people of Libya who died. I also pity all of the Jews who will have to live with a reputation inflicted on them by a guy like that. How smart is it to abuse the tragedy of the Holocaust to cover up extermination campaigns against Palestinians?
Here's hoping Neturei Karta and JVP can compete with Nutty Yahoo on telling the world what a Jew is.
Treating criticism of Israel like a hate crime is close to telling Americans that we no longer have the right to discuss how the government spends it's money. This won't go over well.


You say that you hope that Karta and JVP can compete with Netanyahu on telling the world 'what a Jew is'. Perhaps 'the world' will have better things to do than to think it must collectively come to a decision an what a Jew is; you seem to imply that a Jew is something different or alien from others and somehow needs to be defined.

As offensive as it is for Netanyahu to assume the mantle of speaking on behalf of all Jews rather than on behalf of Israelis (and that only whilst he is PM), he is not taken seriously. I am somewhat taken back that you seem to assume that 'the world' is just full of people with nothing better to do than to bother about what a Jew is and is empy-headed enough to think that they would gain this knowledge by way of either Netanyahu and his ilk or JVP as if they are opposing dictionaries.

How about we just accept that people who self-identify as Jews are just as wise, foolish, good, depraved etc as all the other peoples of the world. And just as difficult to define given our increasing multi-layered sense of identity. Israel is just the latest example of the perils of ethno-nationalism which just happens to be Jewish. Presumably it will go the way of other ethno-nationalistic endeavours - eventually. That is, the people survive but the State fractures unless it can reform.


Recently a Commission I serve on was asked to look at a law that has been on our books from the South African Apartheid days. The law states that we as a City should divest in Any country that is involved in the suppression of people. Just looking into this and for considering that our City council look into brought about the dismissal of one of our Commissioners and people coming out of the woodwork with threats and insults. The pols on the City Council begged that we drop it and not make them make a public choice in an election year. For years we have quietly worked to do what the people of our city ask of us. We wanted to decide what we do with our own money. It was our mistake to think we had that right.

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