BDS and antisemitism

Page last updated 01 Nov 2015


JfJfP’s attitude towards BDS will be found in the Boycott, divestment, sanctions section, as part of the discussion of STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE. Here we are concerned solely with the increasingly-aired assertion that what underpins BDS is a relentless antisemitism, an argument we totally reject.

There are many reasons why people might be opposed to a particular boycott campaign, or to boycotts in general, e.g. a belief in the over-riding value of a free exchange of ideas; that politics should be kept out of culture or sport; that boycott campaigns punish the most radical critics of Israel rather than its ardent supporters; that they merely foster a siege mentality, thus making change less rather than more likely. We are not concerned here to make the case for BDS, but simply to deal with attempts to dismiss such campaigns on the grounds that they are antisemitic.

Here are some examples of this kind of accusation:

“[O]ne movement that’s definitely on the wrong side of the moral divide is the movement to boycott Israel, the so-called BDS… Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted.”

Benyamin Netanyahu, speech to Aipac, 4 Mar 2014

“The success of BDS is particularly impressive because it is a movement that uses the language of rights, but deals in practice with denying Israel’s right to exist.”

Ben-Dror Yemeni, right wing columnist on Yedioth Ahoronoth

“Those who label products today are liable to label people tomorrow”, he predicted ominously.

Poet Erez Biton, 2015 winner of the Israel Prize for literature, cited in Will the EU label settler goods?

On the growing BDS movement in the States: “One thing is for sure: We do have an anti-Semitic tsunami that’s coming at us.”

Haim Saban, one of the Democratic Party’s largest donors, Ha’aretz, 6 Jun 2015

These accusations could simply be dismissed as absurdly overstated, hysterical and unfounded. Far better, though, is to scrutinise the campaigns for evidence of antisemitism. When we do so the accusations seems to disappear into the ether  – see some examples (A: below).

A second answer to these accusations is found in the recent writings pointing to the growing support for BDS by, or addressed to, liberal Zionists, in order to save Israel from itself. Some examples are given (B: below).

And finally, we link to some articles making points relevant to the general discussion of BDS and antisemitism (C: below)

The most powerful emotional appeal is made is the allegation that BDS is calling for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. This isn’t really an argument about BDS at all but about any campaign for equal rights within Israel and, should the occupation continue, for equal rights for all who are de facto under Israel’s jurisdiction. This is an argument about whether there can be a Jewish and democratic state, whether Israel is (already or about to become) an apartheid state and much else besides. These arguments recur under many of the topics discussed in our KEY DEBATES section.


A:  Some campaigns. Are they really antisemitic?

Read the careful way in which objectors to various activities have phrased their criticisms and situated their concerns

(1) The Habima Theatre Company. This theatre company visited London to perform The Merchant of Venice in the Globe Theatre’s Globe to Globe festival, which was opposed by a group of actors, directors and writers. They wrote (letter to the Guardian, 29 Mar 2012):

We notice with dismay and regret that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London has invited Israel’s National Theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May. The general manager of Habima has declared the invitation “an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel”. But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory. Last year, two large Israeli settlements established “halls of culture” and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part.

Habima, however, accepted the invitation with alacrity, and promised the Israeli minister of culture that it would “deal with any problems hindering such performances”. By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.

The Globe says it wants to “include” the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that. “Inclusiveness” is a core value of arts policy in Britain, and we support it. But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company. We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.

and some subsequent published and unpublished letters on this theme by Ken Loach and others, JfJfP 19 Apr 2012.


(2) The Dump Veolia campaign

A legal briefing note prepared by Hickman & Rose, Solicitors states:

There is every reason for excluding Veolia from public contracts in the UK and no good legal reason not to do so.

The multinational company, Veolia operates as a single entity worldwide, providing transport, sewage treatment, landfill and waste collection services that benefit illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. These actions amount to “grave misconduct” in the conduct of business under any reasonable interpretation, given that they directly assist serious violations of international humanitarian law by Israel. Veolia should be excluded from public contracts on these grounds. There is no foundation for the argument that exclusion of Veolia is itself illegal and contrary to the Local Government Act 1988. Indeed Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude in a written parliamentary answer on 23rd May 2012 regarding illegal Israeli settlements was explicit that companies that have committed “an act of grave professional misconduct in the course of their business or profession” may be excluded from a tender exercise.

This legal statement may not be the sexiest of campaigning statements, but it is hard to accuse it of being antisemitic. (See the fuller justification of these arguments here.)


(3) Other campaigns.

For a full listing of UK campaigns on BDS, see the Boycott Israel Network website.


B:  Some liberal Zionist arguments for BDS

“BDS isn’t an all-or-nothing tactic. If liberal Zionists don’t want to boycott Israel, let them just boycott the settlements. If they want to support the economic boycott but not the cultural boycott, or the cultural boycott but not the academic boycott, that also helps. But if they don’t want to boycott anything, let them come up with a better idea for transforming the status quo, or just any idea that hasn’t already failed.”

Larry Derfner, +972, 19 May 2015

1. After Kerry, only BDS may save the two-state solution
Larry Derfner, +972, 19 May 2015

“If, instead of trying to persuade Israel to change, two-state supporters started holding it responsible for refusing to change, it could have a jarring psychological impact on the country and its leaders.”

“About BDS. A lot of people denounce the movement because it singles out Israel for punishment when so many other countries that do much worse things get off scot-free. In fact, the opposite is true;  […] Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Yemen, Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and lots of other countries are sanctioned and boycotted, and not by minor academic groups and trade unions as in Israel’s case, but by the United States, European Union, UN Security Council or all of them together. Israel, meanwhile, gets $3 billion dollars a year in arms, along with ‘unbreakable’ political support, as Obama likes to say, from the world’s greatest superpower. So yes, there is a double standard when it comes to Israel, and it tilts heavily in Israel’s favor.”


2. Liberal Zionists Should Support BDS
Jerry Haber, Daily Beast, 11 Feb 2013

An appeal for liberal Zionists to support the BDS movement and an attempt to deal with their reservations, particularly with regard to the right of return.


Who Is a Liberal Zionist?
Jerry Haber, The Magnes Zionist, 11 Mar 2013

“When I appealed to liberal Zionists to support the global BDS movement, I assumed that the movement called for ending Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli discrimination against non-Jewish citizens, primarily Palestinians, within Israel. I also thought that liberal Zionists accepted these goals (see Mira Sucharov here), and that the central disagreement between liberal Zionists and the global BDS movement was over the third goal, the right of return of Palestinians to Palestine in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194.
My assumptions appear to have been unwarranted….”


3. We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel.
Steven Levitsky & Glen Weyl, Washington Post, 23 Oct 2015

“For supporters of Israel like us, all viable forms of pressure are painful. The only tools that could plausibly shape Israeli strategic calculations are a withdrawal of U.S. aid and diplomatic support, and boycotts of and divestitures from the Israeli economy. Boycotting only goods produced in settlements would not have sufficient impact to induce Israelis to rethink the status quo.

It is thus, reluctantly but resolutely, that we are refusing to travel to Israel, boycotting products produced there and calling on our universities to divest and our elected representatives to withdraw aid to Israel…”


C: On the hysteria generated by BDS. Answering the critics.

1. Israel brands Palestinian-led boycott movement a ‘strategic threat’
Peter Beaumont, Guardian, 3 Jun 2015

“Using language the Israeli government usually reserves for the likes of Hamas or Iran’s nuclear programme, senior figures – including the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and a key backer in the US, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson – have turned on the movement, which is prominent on university campuses and among international trade unions.”


2. Netanyahu: Today’s BDS Enemies Are Like Those Who Accused Us of Drinking Blood of Little Children
Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 01 Jun 2015

Looks at some of Netanyahu’s recent remarks on BDS and the way it is being elevated into a strategic threat to Israel’s existence.


3. What’s wrong with this picture?
Robert Cohen, Writing from the Edge, Pantheos, 7 Jul 2015

“What we are seeing is a deliberate attempt to make a direct link between those that follow the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and those that perpetrated the Holocaust.” It’s not simply cranks: Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton are at it but, as Cohen shows, “The use of the Nazi era photographs and the rhetoric of Bibi and Hillary is poor deduction, sloppy history, and appalling ethics.”


4. Is BDS Anti-Semitic?
Elizabeth Reddin, Inside Higher Ed, 3 Nov 2014

A review of two recent books, for and against BDS: The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel,  and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.


5. Interview: The man behind the BDS movement
Rami Younis, +972, 14 Jun 2015

As the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement grows, its co-founder, Omar Barghouti, has become a target for Israeli demonisation. In this interview he and Rami Younis discuss BDS’s goals, its recent successes, and increasingly frequent accusations that the boycott movement constitutes antisemitism.


6. One of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 supports BDS
Stéphane Hessel, holocaust survivor, human rights activist, diplomat, Huffington Post, 15 Jun 2010

Hessel writes: “Israel’s illegal and immoral attack on the Freedom Flotilla humanitarian aid convoy, which left at least nine dead and dozens injured, has rightfully stunned the world. ..The absence of meaningful action from governments to hold Israel accountable to international law leaves open one path for citizens of conscience: to take this responsibility upon themselves, as done against apartheid South Africa…I believe that the BDS initiative is a moral strategy which has demonstrated its potential for success.”


7. Washington Post’ runs letters explaining why BDS is not anti-Semitic
Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 6 Jun 2015

In yet another sign of the crumbling pro-Israel orthodoxy in the United States, writes Weiss, the Washington Post has run two letters to the editor stating that boycotting Israel is not antisemitic. The articles respond to a piece in the Post citing Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s belief that BDS “is anti-Semitic at its core” and quoting Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister, calling BDS a tactic of “diplomatic terrorism” and an “existential threat” to Israel.


8. Of abductors and actors and censors
Adam Keller, Crazy Country blog, 20 Jun 2015

A moving reflection on two abductions and murders – those by the Irgun of two British soldiers in 1947, and by the PFLP in 1984 – and a play at the Al-Midan Theatre of Haifa in 2015.

Newly appointed Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, who had been the Chief Military Censor: “I’m all for cultural and artistic pluralism. The artists can have no better partner than me, as long as they lay off the occupation and politics.”


Contents of this section


a) Setting the scene: the hasbara (propaganda) war
b) Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid society?
BDS and antisemitism

c) Can you have a Jewish and democratic state?
d) What is Zionism today?

e) The nature of the nakba
f) One state or two?
g) Is Hamas to blame? / Is Gaza still occupied?
h) Right of return and law of return
i) The role of the JNF


© Copyright JFJFP 2024