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TTN Discussion on BDS & Anti-Zionism

By TTN Blog

This began when Kenneth S. Stern, currently director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and our colleague at The Third Narrative (TTN), informed us of his recent Times of Israel blog post, “Zionism is not racism – BDS isn’t always anti-Semitism,” criticizing Secretary of State Pompeo (pictured here) for his declaration that the boycott movement against Israel  is anti-Jewish by definition.   This selection provides the gist of Ken Stern’s central argument:

. . . [I]t disturbs me that some Jewish leaders, including those who understood the dangers of the UN’s [“Zionism = Racism”] equation decades ago, are applauding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent declaration that anti-Zionism is, by definition, anti-Semitism. Some anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic, especially expressions that employ classic anti-Semitic tropes or play into Jewish conspiracy tropes. And one can argue that since Jews are not going to give up their right to national self-expression without a fight, anti-Zionism is functionally anti-Semitic (and also anti-Palestinian, since its logical endpoint is perpetual conflict). And some have pointed to a correlation of anti-Zionist expressions with an increase in anti-Semitism, and thus the need to be cognizant of such expressions when measuring the likelihood of a rise in anti-Semitism. But that’s a far cry from saying that anti-Zionism is by definition anti-Semitism.

There are Jews who are anti-Zionist for theological reasons, such as Satmar Hassids. And there are Jews for whom the religious command about how to treat the stranger is front and center. Many of these Jews can’t square that injunction with the creation of a Jewish state in a land where Palestinians, who also crave national self-expression, are denied it. And there are Palestinians who view Zionism as responsible for their predicament. There’s enough fault on all sides for the current state of affairs, but to say that a Palestinian who bemoans what happened in 1948 when the state of Israel was declared does so because he hates Jews, or sees a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, misses the reality that there are competing national narratives in play, not uniform Jew-hatred.

I oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I believe it empowers extremists on both sides, and a particular aspect of it – the push to boycott Israeli academic institutions – is outrageous, and a danger to the academy, where ideas must be weighed on their merits, not dismissed because of a scholar’s nationality. And some of the leaders of BDS, and some who promote it, have employed anti-Semitism. But is BDS by definition anti-Semitic? Clearly not.  [For example. . .] Some advocate BDS in the hope that it will pressure Israel to act differently. I don’t agree with their approach, but it is not, by definition, anti-Semitic. . . .

The following was the response of Stan Nadel, a TTN colleague affiliated with the University of Portland’s Salzberg, Austria Center: 

Anti-Zionism and BDS aren’t ALWAYS Antisemitism–that’s true. But it is also true that any anti-Zionism that calls for the elimination of Israel regardless of the consequences for its Jewish population and/or which opposes “Zionism” in the same terms that Antisemites have used to malign Jews (bloodthirsty, caring only about Jews, part of an international conspiracy that dominates the world economy and most governments, & etc.) is Antisemitic. And the promoters of BDS who aim to eliminates Israel period and not just as a tactic to end the occupation of lands west of the Jordan (and remember that the founders and presumed spokespeople for BDS are clear that their aim is the former, not the later) are also inherently Antisemitic.  

And this (edited from an email) is from Ezra Temko, on the sociology faculty at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville:

While not all anti-Zionism is antisemitic, BDS is a form of anti-Zionism that is antisemitic — in its tropes, how it is employed, in its philosophy, in its outcomes (including its association with an increase in antisemitic incidents). BDS is not based in some broader philosophy about the nation-state or some religious philosophy. While put forward as a strategy for human rights, we continue to see people on the left push for BDS while opposing sanctions against other countries as inhumane because they harm civilians. 

Many people support BDS without intending to be antisemitic. The problem is multilayered:

1) Sometimes antisemitism is weaponized by people like Trump for political purposes, which is certainly a disservice; anti-Israel activists use this fact as a straw-person argument, shutting down criticism that they are furthering antisemitism by accusing critics of shielding Israel from legitimate criticism,  . . .  to deflect from legitimate criticisms of what they are saying and doing.

2) Like with people participating in any system of oppression, BDS’ers may have a defensive, angry, or otherwise dismissive individualistic response, because they see an unjust accusation against their own morality. But antisemitism is systemic, structural and institutionalized — like all forms of oppression.

3) People lump all antisemitism together like it’s the same thing. As a parallel, when women politicians are perceived as overly ambitious and held to different standards than men, this is sexism. However, it’s not the same as female infanticide, denying women the right to vote, regarding them as their husband’s property, or prohibiting women from going to school.  If you call out something as antisemitic, the accused may think you are equating them with being Nazis.

4) Many BDS advocates have distorted ideas about what Zionism is, and sometimes about who Jews are. This includes defining Zionism to mean a religious doctrine that seeks a “Greater Israel,” and defining Jews as solely a religious group.

Ralph Seliger, TTN’s web editor, indicated the following:

I watched the YouTube recording of Syracuse University Professor Miriam Elman’s Oct. 25th webinar,  “Left Antisemitism in the United States: How Jewish Groups Give Cover to the anti-Zionist Movement,” for Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.  My previous impression of Prof. Elman is that she’s quite rightwing, but she seemed entirely reasonable and nuanced in her presentation. (For example, she distinguished the anti-Zionist Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism in 1885, and its later incarnation in the American Council for Judaism — both attempting to help Jews be accepted as loyal Americans who practice a minority religion — from hostile and even eliminationist formulations of anti-Zionists in our time.)

Her presentation was more about the Jewish Voice for Peace than anything else, but very effective in exposing JVP’s extreme anti-Zionism as a cover for leftwing antisemitism.  If I were viewing it live, I would have asked how she views #If Not Now, which seems extreme in its tactics but also more Jewish-minded and less definitive in its view of Zionism than JVP.  

Previously, I participated in the webinar of a German scholar on Islamic antisemitism, which I found quite enlightening.  Matthias Kuentzel made the point that traditional Islamic antisemitism viewed Jews with contempt, as inferiors.  More recent incarnations of Jew-hatred in the Muslim world, beginning with Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood, having massively imbibed Nazi conspiratorial propaganda, demonize Jews and Zionists as evil schemers for world domination.    

I asked if contemporary Arab and Muslim antisemitism aren’t exacerbated by Israel’s harsh policies toward the Palestinians, but didn’t offer this view as “an excuse” for Muslim antisemitism, as the speaker dismissively implied.  I think that Israel’s (mis)behaviors — although not “genocidal” nor worse than in most other conflicts, as hardline anti-Zionists claim — complicate the issue.  

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