Anti-Semitism and BDS: Beyond misrepresentations
Peter Slezak ABC Religion and Ethics 15 Nov 2013
Jewish community leaders have declared their concern about the Government’s intention to modify racial discrimination laws on the grounds that this could encourage hate speech against Jews and other minorities. However, there can be no grounds for legal protection against being offended. The deeper issue is the kind of society we wish to have and, specifically, whether we uphold the principles of a liberal democracy concerning free speech and peaceful protest.
The litmus test of an enlightened and decent society is whether we permit expression for the views we detest. It takes no decency to defend the views we share. Even Stalin would uphold free speech for views he agreed with.
Jewish leaders have been particularly concerned about what they see as the racial vilification inherent in the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. However, the Israeli Government has created a caricature of itself and elicited unintended ridicule toward its supporters with its recent response to a BDS protest action. The Israeli Foreign Ministry declared as anti-Semitic yellow stickers with green and black text saying: “For justice in Palestine, boycott Israel.” In a Dublin supermarket, the yellow stickers were taped on products, like dates, that were from the Jordan Valley and, therefore, the occupied territory of the West Bank.
As reported in YNet News, Israeli government sources said that “the phenomenon is severe and it is not by chance that the BDS organization chose to express its protest with a yellow sticker – which is reminiscent of dark days of racism and incitement.” In other words, the stickers are said to be anti-Semitic because yellow was, after all, the colour of the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. If you failed to appreciate the source of offense, it just shows how deep is your latent racism. This breathtaking reductio ad absurdum is not merely funny. It is a symptom of a deep malaise of which there are other, less amusing, manifestations.
Jewish community leaders have said publicly that BDS is a gift to them as a weapon with which to beat critics of Israel. In this spirit, Philip Mendes denounces BDS as guilty of racial prejudice and “ethnic stereotyping of all Israeli Jews and Jewish supporters of Israel worldwide irrespective of their political views.” Indeed, Jewish leaders, echoed by our politicians, have explicitly compared BDS with the 1930s Nazi program of Kauft nicht bei Juden – “Don’t buy from Jews.” Peace activists are slandered with this obscene comparison, despite the fact that BDS is directed against many non-Jewish, non-Israeli companies such as Veolia, G4S and Caterpillar, all of whom are profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
On the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht just passed, it is appropriate to reflect on the lessons we are supposed to have learned from this outburst of organized anti-Semitism and its aftermath. On a recent visit to the Judisches Museum in Berlin, I noted that Germans explain in atonement “we are responsible for the crimes committed in our name.” This moral truism is widely neglected. For example, like other apologists for the crimes of Israel, Mendes focuses instead upon the psychology of “radical left” Jews who “vilify their own people.” While non-Jewish critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, Jewish critics regularly receive vile denunciations and even death threats from other Jews. Most common is the label “self-hating Jew” – a pseudo psychological diagnosis of a mental disorder for which the only criterion is criticism of Israel.
In Mendes’s subtle analysis, he explains that he prefers the term “self-denying” rather than “self-hating,” but he manages to neglect altogether the violations of international law and Palestinian human rights for which he shares direct responsibility. Of course, Mendes is quite right that the “self-denying” Jews who support BDS are a small, unrepresentative minority. He misses the obvious point that we speak not for other Jews, but to them – imploring them to recognize their common humanity with Palestinians and the violations of their human rights for which our community is directly responsible.
It is often suggested that BDS is somehow depriving Israelis of their rights and freedoms. This attempt to reverse the moral criticism is completely ill-conceived. BDS does not prevent anyone from doing anything, but rather asks people to exercise their discretion regarding where they invest their money and with whom they choose to collaborate. Thus, Professor Jake Lynch of Sydney University is a distinguished defender of human rights, justice and international law. In accordance with the growing movement for institutional boycott, Lynch chose not to collaborate with an Israeli academic from a university deeply complicit in the 46-year occupation of Palestine. As a result, he has been charged in Federal Court with racial discrimination against Jews.
Plainly, the issue is not racial discrimination. The legal action against Lynch is being pursued by an Israeli group Shurat HaDin, directed by the Israeli government and Mossad. This fits the definition of foreign influence in Australian political affairs according to the ASIO Act of 1979. Such “lawfare” is being pursued around the world to harass peace activists and to inhibit the growing, non-violent protest movement modelled on sanctions against South African apartheid.
The legal case on behalf of a foreign state serves only to bring into relief the logical absurdity and cynicism of the slur of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel. It is a cynical tactic to insist that Israel is a Jewish state acting on behalf of all Jews and also to complain that criticism of the state is anti-Semitic. In the wake of the Holocaust, exploiting a widespread sensitivity to this charge in order to stifle political criticism is deplorable. It is also counter-productive. Pleading victimhood has become somewhat difficult when Israel has the fourth most powerful military regime in the world, armed, funded and supported by the world’s only superpower.
BDS has been cynically misrepresented by apologists for Israel, despite the fact that it is a rights-based movement which is opposed to racism in all its forms – including, notably and explicitly, anti-Semitism. BDS is based on the call from Palestinian civil society to resort to peaceful protest and non-violent political means to press the Israeli government and to publicize the long list of serious violations of human rights and international law. After Palestinians had long been condemned for violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, the emergence of BDS should be welcomed.
Specifically, BDS is protesting violations of human rights and international law: 600,000 settlers on the West Bank are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The separation wall cuts off 10% of the West Bank and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. 60% of the West Bank in the Jordan Valley designated “Area C” is under full Israeli control, where Palestinians in villages – such as Susiya – are evicted from their tents, and their water cisterns and solar panels are destroyed. 28,000 homes of innocent people have been demolished since 1967.
Contrary to the repeated refrain, none of this can be explained on the grounds of security or the defence of Israel. The West Bank is criss-crossed by Israeli-only roads and hundreds of check points. Unarmed protesters are regularly shot in their own villages such as Bil’in, Nil’in and Nabi Saleh. And there is the tragedy of Gaza in which 1.5 million people suffer devastating collective punishment of an ongoing siege and the effects of large-scale military assault. Since their expulsion in 1948, Palestinian refugees are denied their “Right of Return” enshrined in international law, while Jews assert their own spurious “Law of Return” which entitles an Australian or American with no connection to the land to dispossess a Palestinian.
In predictable parodies that have appeared, Sesame Street‘s Big Bird and other seemingly innocent yellow things have been declared anti-Semitic. As in all political satire, these jokes reflect an important insight exposing the pernicious attempts to characterize critics of Israel as ipso facto anti-Semitic.
Even staunch Zionists who don’t agree with BDS should not tolerate such misrepresentation. In particular, Australian Jews should support Professor Lynch against transparently fraudulent legal charges. John Stuart Mill enunciated the principle in his classic essay On Liberty (1859) arguing we must protect freedom of expression, especially for the views that are deemed contrary to the moral, religious and patriotic sentiments of our time. It is in just such cases that censorship is most fatal for “these are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes, which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity.” Relevant to the lawsuit against Professor Lynch, Mill notes it is in such cases “that we find the instances memorable in history, when the arm of the law has been employed to root out the best men and the noblest doctrines.”
Once such efforts are exposed as little more than public-relations diversions, the Jewish community with all Australians may direct our efforts towards alleviating the vast injustice and suffering of Palestinians in a 46 year-old, brutal military occupation.
Peter Slezak is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Sydney.