The truth about the BDS movement

We need to set the record straight: Criticism of Israel is not de facto anti-Semitism. In fact, any true supporter of Israel should be critical, seeking its further development as a beacon of light and morality for the rest of the world. 

Regarding anti-Semitism, however, I have often felt that onetime Soviet dissident and now Israeli politician, human rights activist and author Natan Sharansky outlined the nuance best using his “3D” litmus test. If criticism of Israel falls into one of three categories, then it is indeed anti-Semitic:

  • Demonization.If Israeli actions are exaggerated, attempting to depict Israel as the embodiment of all that is evil.
  • Double Standards.If Israel is criticized for an action or policy that would otherwise be considered justified or permissible if committed by another government or country—responding to rockets falling on civilian populations or to terrorist activities, for example.
  • Delegitimization.An implicit or explicit denial of Israel's right to exist or the right of the Jewish people to live securely in their ancestral homeland.

 This litmus test should be applied to all discourse surrounding Israel.

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Most recently, Reps. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTlaib says Trump 'scared' of 'Squad' Trump to return to North Carolina to stump for special election candidate Former GOP Rep. Jason Lewis says he'll challenge Tina Smith in Minnesota MORE (D-Minn.), John LewisJohn LewisCummings invites Trump to visit Baltimore House Democrat knocks Trump's Cummings tweet: 'This guy is a terrible, terrible human being' George Wallace's daughter: 'I saw Daddy a lot' during 2016 election MORE (D-Ga.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTlaib says Trump 'scared' of 'Squad' Michigan city declines to renew contract with ICE to hold detainees Former GOP Rep. Jason Lewis says he'll challenge Tina Smith in Minnesota MORE (D-Mich.) introduced H.Res.496 in the U.S. House of Representatives, concerning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. Rep. Omar told Al-Monitor last week that, “We are introducing a resolution … to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our First Amendment rights in regard to boycotting … . And it is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”

As a rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in Rep. Omar’s district, I feel morally compelled to clarify the mission of BDS and the origin of the movement itself—why it is so incredibly dangerous and anti-Semitic.

BDS’s origins date to pre-state Israel. In 1945, the Arab League sought to prevent further Jewish development of British-controlled Mandatory Palestine by boycotting against “Zionist products." In order to organize this new effort, a central boycott office was established. This date and history contain an important nuance—specifically because this takes place before the founding of the Israeli state. BDS has nothing to do with any displacing of indigenous peoples, in either 1948 or 1967.

One of the goals of the BDS movement is “Ending [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.” The subtext on the BDS website explains that the wall “forces Palestinians into ghettos.” And although the BDS movement website seeks to implicitly clarify that the “Arab lands” to which it refers in its goal to “end [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” are “the West Bank including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights,” in truth, BDS’s history suggests otherwise. 

Further, Omar Barghouti, the founder and leader of the BDS Movement, professes: “I am completely and categorically against binationalism because it assumes that there are two nations with equal moral claims to the land."

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In this way, BDS, at its core, is not about Palestinian rights or an effort toward peace, at least not beneath the surface. It does not seek and will not effect a two-state solution. And it spins a narrative that Israel is an apartheid state imposing settler-colonialism.

Further review of the work that BDS espouses reveals that BDS targets Israel’s right to exist; BDS singles out the Jewish state; BDS aims to cut off Israel from the rest of the world; and BDS prioritizes blaming Israel over uplifting Palestinians. All of these notions fit in Sharansky’s rubric. BDS supporters may not believe themselves to be anti-Semitic—and, in truth, some of them may not be. But make no mistake, the BDS movement is indeed anti-Semitic.

Should private American citizens have the right to boycott? Absolutely. But the question, when applied to the BDS campaign, is not the right one.

Moreover, to implicitly compare the boycotting of Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East, to efforts to boycott other nations throughout history for evil and egregious actions (Imperial Japan in 1937-38, Nazi Germany in the 1930s, South Africa in the 1980s) is Sharansky’s rubric in a nutshell. Because not all boycotts are created equal, and that’s the important message to broadcast in the conversation about BDS.

Even so, there is one last point to make regarding BDS and how, even on the surface, it is not a movement we should defend. 

H.Res. 496 makes reference to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. In that ruling, the Supreme Court protected the rights of African American citizens in Mississippi who engaged in a commercial boycott against white business owners directly discriminating against African American citizens. The people boycotting in that case were the wronged parties, and the businesses boycotted were the ones doing the harm. This is what is known as a primary boycott seeking to remedy the boycotters’ constitutional rights.

At best, BDS is a secondary boycott—that is, a boycott not directly between the wronged party and the discriminating party. Longshoremen v. Allied International, Inc., was a Supreme Court case that explored workers refusing to unload Soviet cargo, to protest the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. However, in that setting, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since neither the workers nor the ship’s owners (nor even the general American consumer who was being punished by the boycott) were party to the foreign dispute, the First Amendment did not protect the workers.

Where does that leave us?

There are many challenges in Israel, not the least of which is the plight of the Palestinians. This is a real challenge that needs to be addressed with urgency, coupled with the very priority of Israel’s security. Our energy should be more focused on what we can do to move toward peace, what we can we do to lift up the Palestinians in a sustainable way, and not isolate Israel in an anti-Semitic way.

BDS is not about the “pursuit of civil and human rights.” It’s not about the First Amendment. It is an attempt to demonize, delegitimize and apply a double standard to Israel—all three of Sharansky’s indicators. And we, as members of the Jewish and broader communities, should be willing to partner wholly with anyone truly committed to such an end, and not merely using it as cover for implicit anti-Semitic gains.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.