Thursday, January 07, 2021

This is a guest post from Richard Landes, professor of history.

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Every once in a while articles have been published by legacy media outlets like AP and Time, and newer ones like Vox, introducing the BDS Movement (which advocates boycotting Israel) to a larger public. They often take the form of a backgrounder (“what you need to know”), and do little more than rephrase a press release from the organization itself, with a modicum of disagreement from “the other side” which is then downplayed. 

 The uninformed come away from these articles with the impression that BDS is a group of Palestinian civil-society, non-violent, human rights NGOs and allies, defending Palestinian rights, and using the moral protest of a boycott to oppose Israel’s suppression of those rights. It’s not trying to destroy Israel, but to hold it to universally recognized moral standards. Zionists who complain about BDS as antisemitic are trying to silence legitimate criticism, and anyway, not all Jews are Zionists: progressive Jews don’t object to BDS. Some even join.

Then follows a predictable backlash from Zionists, complaining that this isn’t journalism and BDS is not a civil society group. And then they refute the BDS talking points:  Palestinians didn’t start in 2005, it started in 2001 at the Durban hatefest as a weapon to destroy Israel; it’s a form of legal and informational warfare trying to destroy Israel; it behaves like a religious cult; it’s anti-intellectual; they’re not pro-Palestinian, they’re anti-Israel; they have extensive ties to openly terrorist groups; they’re anti-semitic; they use fake news and misinformation to mislead people; and wherever they’re active Jew-hatred increases.

On and on it goes, with both sides dredging up arguments that have been around for years. Both BDSers and Zionists seem to have inexhaustible energy, each accusing the other of elaborate schemes to dupe outsiders.

Why should you  care?

Here’s why.

This isn’t a fight happening in a far off land. This is here, today, in America and Europe. It has been brought to your homes. Whether you like it or not, when your children go to college, they will find BDS among the most militant and dominant groups on campus. When they take classes or go to talks, BDSers will exercise significant influence on what they can read, hear or discuss. when you look at the most radical voices in American politics today, you’ll find BDSers and a large following of social mediaites who wish to launch an American Intifada (uprising.) When you look at the most extensive re-writes of high school curricula, and you’ll find the BDSer narrative. So, whether you like it or not, you have skin in this game.

I admit, I am one of their targets: an American-raised Zionist who moved to Israel. Even though it is a simple matter to demolish the BDS arguments, I advise you to pay attention not so much either to what BDS says, or to its impact is on its alleged target – Israel – and more closely on the impact it has on your own societies.

BDS is using the language of human rights to abrogate human rights. It uses the language of democracy to promote an anti-democratic agenda. BDS is using modern liberal concepts to push a very illiberal stance. And what the BDSers are attempting to do to Israel is what they want to do with all free, democratic societies. 

BDS is not about justice. It is about wiping the most liberal, free society in the Middle East off the map. And to do so effectively, it needs to appeal to liberal, democratic societies with an argument that can and will be used against those cultures foolish enough to respond to their “moral appeal.

That’s why it matters that the BDS goal of boycotting Israeli Jews is a virtual clone of the Nazi boycott of German Jews. That’s why it matters that BDS claims that Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing is really a smokescreen for their own desire to ethnically cleanse all Jews from the Middle East – or to relegate them to the same legally inferior status they have had for 1400 years under Islam

Noura Erekat, a US lawyer of Palestinian heritage, claims: “If you say anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism then you’re basically condemning all Palestinians as anti-Semites because they decide to exist.” It is important to understand what she means. Is she saying that all the Palestinians want to do is exist, and the Zionists call even that basic human right, antisemitism?  Or is she saying that Palestinians define their existence in terms of not allowing Jews a state of their own? Not only do the answers matter, they have much larger significance for citizens of democracies the world over.

If Palestinian leaders define their existence as the elimination of the only Jewish state on the planet, the only one in the last two millennia, then they have no commitment to the kinds of Palestinian rights they demand Israel respect. Indeed, they offer the textbook case of a hypocritical strategy: demanding respect of Palestinian human rights from those whose rights they wish to deny. 

Every meaningful and progressive change in history had, at its core, the rejection of this deceptive, retaliatory, authoritarian strategy. If BDS, or the Palestinian cause, deserves condemnation, it’s not for “wanting to exist,” but for insisting in that their national existence demands the non-existence of the Jewish nation. And if that is the kind of false, zero-sum moral claims BDSers make, what other extremist groups will follow their example if they are seen to succeed?

If there’s one thing over two millennia of experience with Jew-hatred have taught us, is that people who succumb to its blandishments do not prosper: compare 16th century Spain and the later 20th century Arab world. Indeed, spreading hatred is a sure-fire recipe for social failure, and the more widespread the hatred, the more extensive the damage. Because what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews.
Once one shifts attention to what BDS actually does, one finds a strong and consistent legacy. Consider for example, academia, where the movement has had its most favorable and enduring reception. On campus, BDS wages a relentless campaign of slander and demonization, punctuated yearly by an orgy of misinformation and propaganda called “Israel Apartheid Week.” It de-platforms, sometimes violently, anyone who dares challenge their dogmas. They have managed, with these techniques, to politicize and polarize both campus and academic discussion, to make Western universities places of indoctrination rather than of learning. In the name of liberal values, they have created a deeply illiberal pedagogy.

Their lack of actual success against Israel is matched only by their success in their hostile occupation of Western academia, pressuring students, professors and administrators to either join or fall silent. As a result, our Middle East Studies departments, often heavily funded by Arab countries, offer problematic research, lopsided syllabi, propaganda-laden curricula for high schools and near-useless information and analysis about the Middle East and Islam

Wherever BDS succeeds, whether on campus or in high schools, the scene becomes profoundly hostile to Jews, both students and faculty. This is not inclusive excellence; it’s exclusive mediocrity. If it succeeds, it will not only produce more tendentious, repetitive, and misguided research, but drive out a major source of modern and post-modern intellectual thought. The revolution, hijacked by bloody-minded zealots, eats its own, starting with the vast majority of Jews who are guilty of the modern crime of being Zionist.

BDS is not confined to the campus. It is influential in “human rights” organizations. It is making inroads in the halls of Congress and world parliaments. When BDS is ascendant, it is intolerant of any other opinions – and of the people who hold those opinions.

These are deeply troubling developments. Those who worried about Trump’s proto-fascism should understand that he has had only a fraction of the will to dominate that we find in both BDS and its allies. Whenever leaders use the language of liberalism to trample liberal principles, you need to ask yourself whether your own beliefs put you on their enemies list. 




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