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.
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: www.michaellesher.com