Panic over BDS reaches fever pitch

A protester holds a placard reading “I boycott Israel but not Jews” during a Palestine solidarity event in Berlin. 

Fabrizio Bensch Reuters

The Czech parliament’s decision to pass a resolution condemning the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as anti-Semitic last week is only the most recent example of how the panic over BDS has reached a fever pitch.

This latest round of attempts to stop public criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians began in Britain in May. Jeremy Hunt, at the time foreign secretary and running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, attacked supporters of BDS by declaring that “boycotting Israel – the world’s only Jewish state – is anti-Semitic.”

Far more unnerving, Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, passed a resolution that same month that condemned BDS as inherently anti-Semitic.

Several days later, Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism Felix Klein warned that “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere, all the time, in Germany,” in a statement made just days before the annual al-Quds march – a Palestine solidarity event – in Berlin.

In June, Peter Schäfer, head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was forced to step down for allowing the museum to share on Twitter an article from the newspaper Die Tageszeitung.

The article reported that a group of 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars had signed a letter to the Bundestag opposing the anti-BDS resolution on the grounds that it is historically and factually wrong to equate BDS with anti-Semitism.

When Der Spiegel investigated the Bundestag resolution in July and reported that it had been passed following intense lobbying by the pro-Israel groups ValuesInitiative and the Middle East Peace Forum, the magazine, too, was called out by German Jewish leaders for being anti-Semitic.

Palpable anxiety

In the United States, anxiety over BDS is just as palpable and extends to any perceived slight against the Jewish people.

By the start of the summer, 27 individual states had already adopted anti-BDS legislation or executive orders.

When New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June referred to the appalling detention centers in the southern US holding migrants seeking asylum as “concentration camps,” she was met with a storm of protest.

She was accused of denigrating the Holocaust and, by extension, the sensitivities of the Jewish people.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused her of “insulting victims of genocide,” while the Anti-Defamation League – another pro-Israel lobby group – chastised her for making comparisons to the Holocaust.

Uncharacteristically, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum went a step further and published a statement rejecting any comparisons between “the Holocaust and other events.”

In response, hundreds of scholars – many of whom have direct ties to the museum – wrote a letter protesting the statement. The scholars condemned the museum’s decision “to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, [as] fundamentally ahistorical.”

In late July, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed its own resolution condemning BDS in a 398-to-17 vote.

The vote was widely viewed as a rebuke to the statements questioning uncritical US support for Israel from Ocasio-Cortez, Palestinian American Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Somali American Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Ignoring the real threat

As a Jewish American, a historian of the Jewish people and the Holocaust and a signatory to the scholarly letters sent in both Germany and the US (as well as a similar letter to the Czech parliament), I have observed with alarm the ways in which the BDS movement is mischaracterized and demonized.

My concern is two-fold.

First, the attempt to paint BDS as anti-Semitic is primarily a ploy to deflect what are otherwise legitimate criticisms of Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians living under occupation.

Second – and no less distressing – is that the anxiety over BDS ignores the much more pernicious threat from white supremacists against Jews and other ethnic and religious minority groups in both Germany and the US.

In the worst days of the violence between Israel and Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, there was tremendous hand-wringing among liberals in the West who wanted to support the Palestinian cause but who could not abide the targeting of Israeli civilians in terrorist attacks. Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians – which were much higher in number – didn’t stir the same anguish, it is worth noting.

In particular, during the 1990s, the years between the first and second intifadas, one would often hear laments along the lines of “if only the Palestinians would embrace nonviolence, then we could support their cause.”

Suicide attacks, bus bombings and stone throwing gave these liberals enough of an excuse to overlook Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians, which included extrajudicial killing, occupation of Palestinian land, indefinite detention and regular military assaults on civilians.

Since the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel was made in 2005, the BDS movement has promoted the very strategy of nonviolent resistance to Israel once demanded by Western liberals.

It calls for Israel to be compelled to adhere to international law, not through violence, but through economic, social, cultural, political and scholarly disengagement and isolation.

In spite of this pacifist approach to bringing an end to Palestinian suffering, otherwise seemingly well-meaning liberals have continued to side with less well-meaning Israeli leaders and Zionist organizations who have depicted it as the most substantial existential threat to the Jewish state and a profound example of anti-Semitism.

Looming catastrophe?

Now it is common to hear reports that a “new anti-Semitism” typified by the BDS movement threatens to endanger Jews on a scale not seen since the World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

Studies from several major Jewish organizations have sounded the alarm that anti-Semitism is a “clear and present danger.”

And commentators regularly declare that yet another “war against the Jews” is upon us, this time from the political left.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran pieces this past summer declaring the danger of BDS.

Although these comments profess to alert us to a looming catastrophe, they are motivated less by any tangible threat than they are part of a persistent campaign to prevent discussions that are critical toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The truth is that the “old anti-Semitism” of the far right is much more of a threat and requires vigilance and persistent resistance, and a recognition that it is deeply intertwined with other manifestations of white supremacy.

In May, European Parliament elections saw victories for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and strong gains for the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany party.

In June, the German politician Walter Lübcke was assassinated for his pro-refugee stance.

In the United States, white supremacists inspired by Donald Trump’s racist invective and policies have targeted synagogues, Jewish community centers and cemeteries. Shootings at synagogues in Pennsylvania and California in the past year have left a dozen Jewish worshippers dead.

We must not allow the debates over BDS to distract us either from Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or from the actual threat facing Jews and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Europe and the United States.

Given Israel’s repeated claims to speak on behalf of Jews globally, it is of particular necessity for Jews around the world to hold it to international law, especially in terms of its treatment of those populations under its control.

For Israel’s supporters to insist that the Jewish state cannot be protested or boycotted, only permits the suffering of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation to continue unabated.

So does declaring that Jews – because we were once victims of one of humanity’s greatest genocidal crimes – are somehow incapable of being perpetrators of acts of violence against other peoples.

It reinforces, too, the anti-Semitic belief that Jews are a fundamentally distinct people for whom special rules must apply.

Moreover, attempts to broaden the definition of anti-Semitism to encompass forms of protest – like BDS – that are clearly not anti-Jewish can only make it more difficult to combat actual anti-Semitic hatred when it does appear.

Barry Trachtenberg is a history professor and director of the program in Jewish studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. His latest book is The United States and the Holocaust: Race, Refuge and Remembrance (Bloomsbury Press, 2018).

An earlier version of this article was published in the German-language Die Tageszeitung and the Czech-language A2larm.




The real danger of BDS, is simply the thought that Israel isn't admirable.


I wonder if the day will arrive when the WHOLE world is labelled as anti-semitic!


BDS is not anti-semitic, it's anti the state of Israel, and it's actions.


I fully support the BDS I check my grocery shopping and other items I buy to make sure they do not come from Israel if this makes me anti semite so be it.