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State Department campaign could be groundbreaking


The Trump administration is reportedly planning a major “diplomatic campaign,” using “all available legal and policy tools” to combat the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. According to a  story in Algemeiner, a leading Jewish newspaper, the anti-BDS campaign will be run out of the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. This new initiative could become not just a gesture of support for the State of Israel, but a groundbreaking advance in international relations and human rights.

This highly promising anti-BDS campaign could strengthen bonds that have otherwise frayed in recent years, provided that it is conducted in concert with America’s European allies. Several of these allies already understand that combating BDS is a human rights project, not merely an expression of political support for Israel. For example, last year, the German Bundestag became the first European parliament to pass a resolution designating BDS as anti-Semitic. The resolution explained that BDS tactics “inevitably arouse associations with the Nazi slogan ‘Kauft nicht bei Juden!’” (“Don’t buy from Jews!”)

Several months later, France followed Berlin’s precedent, passing a bill that denounced anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.  This February, the Austrian parliament unanimously passed an anti-BDS resolution, similarly condemning the campaign as anti-Semitic. These countries will be natural partners in a concerted anti-BDS endeavor. 

Ideally, this alliance will prevail upon multi-lateral institutions, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to place their resources behind this effort. This could build upon Germany’s prior success leading OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to establish a major “Words into Action” project to combat global anti-Semitism. 

The new anti-BDS initiative might also have the subsidiary impact of further isolating Russia within multi-national organizations. This would play out if Putin resists the anti-BDS initiative as he has resisted European efforts to establish the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Within the OSCE, this has left Russia alone in opposition to a measure that is unanimously supported among America’s European allies.

This prospect may seem fanciful to those who have watched OSCE’s leadership wane on this issue. Indeed, incoming OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde, who serves as Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, has refused to acknowledge the relationship between BDS and anti-Semitism. No matter. The OSCE can provide significant value regardless. Indeed it can be made to acknowledge, at least, that BDS advances delegitimization efforts that are inimical to peace. That might please Linde’s boss, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who has embraced the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, including its examples relative to Israel, and pledged to be a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism. 

The administration must pursue a “whole-of-government” approach, as State Department representatives have reportedly pledged. At a minimum, this must include involvement of the Commerce Department’s Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance. That office enforces federal anti-boycott law, specifically the Export Administration Act. In recent years, Commerce’s enforcement record has been spotty at best. In fairness, the Export Administration Act is badly outdated. Congress should play a role in updating this legislation, perhaps by passing of the long-pending Israel Anti-Boycott Act

Other agencies should also play a role. This includes domestic departments, which should demonstrate the kinds of measures that the State will urge other countries to undertake. For example, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which I headed until August, has promised to issue regulations implementing the Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism. This executive order directed OCR and other agencies to consider the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism under appropriate circumstances. Education should honor this promise. The United States must be as clear as its allies in condemning BDS as anti-Semitic. This should be done through regulations and guidance, not just diplomacy and politics.

Finally, the United States must speak from American values when pursuing its fight against BDS. For example, other countries do not have a First Amendment, although they may pursue analogous principles of free speech. The United States should condemn anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bigotry, within a context in which commitment to free speech remains explicit and clear. 

It bodes well that this initiative has been housed within the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The Special Envoy, Elan Carr, is exceptionally able and energetic. To succeed, however, Carr must receive support from other departments, as well as from Congress. If this cooperation is received, this initiative could have historic implications.

Kenneth L. Marcus served as assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights (2018-2020) and chairs The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

Tags Anti-Zionism Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Foreign relations of Israel Israeli–Palestinian conflict Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Politics Racism

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