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BDS is about justice, not antisemitism

In this still-timely May 9, 2014 analysis, reprinted from RS21, historian Barnaby Raine examines the myths Israel creates in order to perpetuate the occupation – including the myth that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

The children of Jubbet al-Dhib wake up early every morning to walk several kilometers along a rough dirt track to get to school. Their West Bank village lacks electricity despite several requests to be connected to the Israeli electric grid, which the Israeli authorities have rejected, so they rely on candles to study at night. Their diets suffer from a high proportion of preservatives since the village lacks refrigeration. Just 350 meters away is another village, Sde Bar. With a population of just 50, a third the size of Jubbet al-Dhib, it has a paved road and is connected to Jerusalem by a new highway that bypasses Jubbet al-Dhib and villages like it. Sde Bar has a high school, but children from Jubbet al-Dhib are ineligible to attend. From their homes at night, families in Jubbet al-Dhib can see the refrigerators and electric lights of their neighbors in Sde Bar. The difference between these two small villages, of course, is that Sde Bar is a Jewish settlement and the residents of Jubbet al-Dhib are Palestinian.

The story of these two neighboring villages offers a distillation of the realities of occupation. Israel has exercised ultimate jurisdiction over the West Bank since it invaded in 1967. Yet Palestinians have no right to vote for the Israeli government which controls their movements by requiring Israeli-issued passes to travel even short distances through the 500 roadblocks and checkpoints packed into the small area.

Jewish residents are not subject to these restrictions on movement. 73 percent of the West Bank’s water is piped to Israel, and only 17 percent is accessible to Palestinians, whose average water intake is four times lower than that of Israelis according to Amnesty International. Jewish settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law. Every one of their Palestinian neighbors, from the moment they are born, lives under military law and can be detained indefinitely without charge. It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of apartheid, the crime defined in international law as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another.”

Blaming the victim

Talking about the existence of apartheid (and restating it again and again) is crucial because the Israeli occupation is accompanied by a battle of characterizations.

It is a battle the Israeli government fights with relish; each time their military shoots a child or bombs a school, their spokespeople flood media outlets across the world to push their “angle.” The Israel Defence Forces even have a Facebook page, and recently offered Twitter users money to tweet positive stories about Israel. Whereas progressives the world over knew who was the oppressor and who was the victim in apartheid South Africa, in Israel considerable effort is expended muddying the waters.

The struggle of the Palestinian people has to overcome not only the material force of Israeli occupation but also an ideological offensive described by Edward Said as “blaming the victim”; a deliberate attempt to cloud the power dynamics at play by seeing Palestinian violence as the cause of the region’s problems. This is best characterized as a decontextualizing project, since it encourages the world to see Palestinian violence outside its context of occupation and dispossession.

Paradoxically, that violence is then used to perpetuate the occupation – the building of a Berlin-style wall imprisoning Palestinians in the West Bank, the pummeling of a condensed population in Gaza with advanced weaponry, and so on – which provoked the violence in the first place. Hamas would have no recruits were it not for the continuing suffering of the Palestinian people.

Israelis, as well as Palestinians, argue that their violence is reactive, but the oppressor/oppressed distinction is key to understanding the problems with what Israeli claim. The language of “war” and the mutual need for “self-defense” can obscure the lack of parity between Palestinians seeking equal dignity and an Israeli state seeking to maintain its supremacy.

The violence of the occupier is qualitatively different from the violence of the occupied. No mainstream supporter of the Palestinians calls for Israelis to be penned into an open-air prison and denied equal citizenship rights, yet this is precisely the reality established by Israel over the Palestinians in the West Bank. “Self-defense” for Israel in the Occupied Territories means defending an imbalanced status quo. The South African apartheid regime employed the same category in claiming that its abuses were necessary to defend itself from the specter of black violence, and activists pointed out then that “self-defense” was invalid where the status quo being defended had no legitimacy. The apartheid analogy is perhaps most useful in showing how the logics of Zionism and South African apartheid overlap, both of them governed by fear of the “demographic threat” posed by a racial Other.

Playing the victim

By contrast, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) makes three demands: the ending of the occupation, equal rights for Palestinians inside Israel, and right of return for Palestinian refugees (under the status quo, any Jew in the world is entitled to live in Israel, but Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 are barred from returning). It seeks to isolate Israel commercially and diplomatically in order to pressure the government to grant those concessions, in a strategy used by activists against South African apartheid and now applied to apartheid in the Occupied Territories with the backing of luminaries from the South African struggle like Desmond Tutu and the Jewish ANC leader Ronnie Kasrils. Emanating from the call of an impressive coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations, it matches its opposition to Israeli racism with a firm and explicit rejection of anti-Semitism, and its supporters include leading Jewish public intellectuals like Judith Butler and Naomi Klein as well as experts like Ilan Pappe and Anna Baltzer and organizations like Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

A black and white photo of students marching with a banner reading Harvard Out Now
An anti-apartheid demonstration at Harvard, 1978; Source: Harvard Crimson.

It might therefore seem puzzling that a movement dedicated to opposing structural racism and achieving equality has been compared to the Nazis by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinians, he implies, oppose Israel not because it occupies their land and demolishes their homes, but because its population is Jewish.

Alleging that all who criticize Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism is a powerful mechanism for painting Israel as the victim, exploiting the memory of a horrifically tragic history. By causing non-Jews to fear that their concern for human rights is somehow offensive, the allegation is designed to shut down debate and prevent criticism of Israel. It is therefore vital that the charge is answered.

The first form often taken by the anti-Semitism allegation is to query the “singling out” of Israel. Lots of countries behave awfully, goes the argument, but people obsess over Israel because they hate Jews. That argument is factually flawed from the start; the vast majority of BDS activists are engaged in a whole range of political activity, much of which does not concern Palestine. Those Palestinians whose campaigning is dominated by Palestinian questions are no different from Kurds who feel obliged to fight for Kurdish rights, or African-Americans who threw themselves into the Civil Rights movement in the United States at the expense of other more distant struggles.

A similar thought process applies to Jewish campaigners who feel a grave responsibility to disavow Israel’s claim to speak in their name and to make clear to the world that being Jewish is not equate-able with supporting state violence and discrimination. Moreover, there is a division of labor among people campaigning for a better world – some devote the majority of their time to environmental activism, others build campaigns against war, others focus on injustices in different regions of the world. “Singling out” is not necessarily a crime, and certainly does not necessarily imply a hidden racist agenda.

The other reason to single out Israel is that Israel is, in important senses, unique. First, like apartheid South Africa and unlike most repressive regimes, Israel writes suffering into its legal code along ethno-national lines; wealth and poverty exist side by side everywhere, but in the Occupied Territories people’s rights are determined by whether they are Jewish or not. Most people have a special intuitive disgust for the deliberate promulgation of poverty in a wealthy nation by policy-makers consciously aiming to deprive a certain segment of the population of equal rights.

Secondly, though Israel is by no means unique for the scale of its brutality – few would dispute that North Koreans have it worse than Palestinians – it is rare in being so enthusiastically supported by our governments in the West. Much Israeli killing would be impossible were it not for the cash and guns with which Israel is furnished by the American government. Britain also plays its part. The fact that we as taxpayers fund the occupation gives us a strong imperative for making clear our opposition to it. Third, unlike other shady friends of the West, Israel is sufficiently deeply embedded in the Western consumer economy that citizen boycotts can have a real effect; Top Shop and H&M closing down their stores would have more of an impact in Tel Aviv than in Riyadh, and going without Israeli tangerines is a more practical proposition than managing without Saudi oil.

The anti-Semitism charge relies on a worrying conflation between Jews and Israel. Even if it were true that Israel is the representative of all Jews, opposing the policies of its government would not imply a hatred of Jews any more than those who criticize American foreign policy despise all Americans. Some Americans may of course defend their government’s policies, they may even be angered and upset by their government”s critics, but they are not entitled to claim that criticizing the war in Iraq amounts to a racist attempt to discriminate against Americans. The same is true of Israeli policy. Israel’s advocates should have the intellectual honesty to admit that Palestinians would be no more or less upset about their treatment by the Israeli state if Israel’s population were made up entirely of gentiles. That is also the case for the global solidarity movement with the Palestinians, made up mostly of left-wingers committed to opposing oppression regardless of the religion of its perpetrators.

The sad irony is that the effect of Netanyahu”s insistence that Israel is synonymous with Jews can only be to increase anti-Semitic feeling. Opposition to Israeli policies is widespread, and when Zionists tell people that Israel speaks for all Jews and anti-Zionism is no different from anti-Semitism they are at one with Islamists and fringe neo-Nazis who see the conflict in crudely racial terms as a battle between Palestinians and world Jewry.

Those of us who affirm our Jewishness, while remaining steadfast in our support for the Palestinian people refuse the conflation and demonstrate that anger at Israeli crimes should never spill into anti-Semitism, since Israel”s racism is no more the product of its Jewishness than South Africa’s racism was the inevitable consequence of whiteness.

a protester holds a sign reading Jews Against Zionism
Image credit: Jewish Voice for Peace.

The conflation between Jews and Israel is especially disingenuous because its basic assertion – that Israel is the representative body for all Jews – is so misleading. Zionism was never anything other than one political current in Jewish communities rich with variety and debate, and until the Second World War it was a less significant current in most European Jewish communities than socialism, whose advocates passionately opposed the nationalism of the Zionist claim that Jews should leave Europe and build their own state.

A different Jewish tradition

As the Auschwitz survivor and BDS supporter Hajo Meyer has written, “Like most German Jews, I was raised in a secular and humanist tradition that was more antagonistic than sympathetic towards the Zionist enterprise.” Bundists, Bolsheviks and Jewish leftists of all stripes instead mobilized the Jewish experience of oppression to construct a politics of universal emancipation, which sought to create a world free from national and ethnic discrimination.

The case of Marek Edelman is instructive; one of the central leaders of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, he survived the War and infuriated Zionists by refusing all entreaties to move to Israel. He was a socialist, he said, and he did not believe that the memory of the Holocaust should be used to justify uprooting another people.

Neither his Jewishness nor his unquestionable opposition to anti-Semitism led him to believe that the solution to racism should be sought in national separatism, just as gay and black activists have fought homophobia and white supremacy without demanding separate black or gay nations. Others who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine, like Albert Einstein and the philosophers Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt, sounded firm warnings about Zionism”s racist policies towards the Palestinians; all three had fled the Holocaust and said ethnically based nationalism in any form made them profoundly uneasy.

As Primo Levi, articulate chronicler of Auschwitz, remarked after Israeli-backed militias slaughtered Palestinians in 1982, “Everybody is somebody’s Jew.”

Those who claim that criticisms of Israel attack all Jews wipe Jews like these out of history. Like any other representative democracy, Israel may claim to speak for the Israelis who form its electorate, but its claim to speak for Jews in London, Paris, and New York is tenuous to say the least.

A sensible strategy

Why, then, is the BDS call gaining such traction? The first and most obvious explanation is the simple pull of principle; people disgusted by the violence endemic to the occupation wish to act on their feelings by refusing to fund companies and institutions that profit from the occupation or help to reinforce it. They thus choose to boycott everything from Caterpillar, the manufacturer of Israeli tanks that demolish Palestinian homes, to Israeli universities that pioneer military research, offer scholarships to soldiers returning from the Occupied Territories and regulate Palestinian access to education.

Beyond that ethical imperative, BDS is driven by shrewd geopolitical calculations. For decades, Palestinians and their supporters across the world have placed their hopes in top-table negotiations. Those have borne little fruit given Israel is unwilling to freely give up its position of supremacy and American backing means Israel has thus far come under relatively little pressure to make serious concessions. No Israeli government has ever been willing to grant the three fundamental demands for equality sought by BDS and seen as a basic minimum by the vast majority of Palestinians, and their voting records demonstrate that fewer than ten percent of members of the Israeli parliament would willingly countenance such concessions.

rows of colorful tents and chairs under a banner reading Viva Palestina
Student Palestine solidarity encampment at Cal State LA. Photo: Dana Cloud.

Those demands, it is worth stressing, do not seek to replace Jewish domination with Palestinian domination. They call for replacing domination with equality; a viable Palestinian state, equal citizenship rights for all, and an end to the ban on Palestinians returning to the homes they were forced to flee. Achieving those demands requires placing sufficient pressure on Israeli policy-makers to force a realization that they face a choice between agreeing a just peace or facing the tough consequences economically. As it becomes increasingly clear that Israelis” standard of living is under threat from their inability to sell their goods abroad and the reluctance of firms under pressure from BDS campaigners to invest in Israel, the political calculus within Israel will shift. Similar pressure was necessary to force the equally intransigent South African whites to concede the equality most had opposed for decades.

Support from the unions

As in the South African case, it is true that boycotts are a crude tool. Some of those who would be deprived if boycotts meant Israeli factories in the West Bank could not find a global market for their products and had to close, would be Palestinian workers and Israelis opposed to the occupation. Unanimously declaring their support for BDS, Palestinian trade unions have rightly stressed that their members suffer above all because of the occupation, and the short-term pain caused by boycotts is a sacrifice worth making in order to heal that far greater wound.

A crowd of marchers with UAW strike signs
UAW 4811 strikers. Photo: UAW 4811.

It is testament to the harshness of the occupation that not a single Palestinian trade union takes a different view. The “Boycott!” movement of Israeli citizens supporting BDS points out that Israelis also suffer from the “extreme militarization” of a state whose dedication to maintaining the occupation diverts government spending and attention away from social problems. BDS may cause hardship, but trading with Israel has served to keep it afloat and has thus enabled the continuation of the occupation.

The mass Palestinian call for BDS in 2005 represented not only a welcome turn to non-violent but strident opposition to Israeli occupation, but also a declaration by 171 organizations representing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that it has become necessary now to force Israeli politicians to rethink. For the children of Jubbet al-Dhib, deprived of everything from electricity to access to good education, this is all long overdue.

Featured image credit: Joe Catron; modified by Tempest.

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Barnaby Raine View All

Barnaby Raine is currently on the faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an editor at Salvage Journal, and a PhD candidate at Columbia University. This article is an early contribution written when he was an undergraduate student in 2014.