The charge of racism has become a useful way to shoot down substantive debate. Donald Trump certainly has felt its sting, as did Brexit voters, both after raising legitimate questions about the economic impact of globalization only to find themselves bombarded with accusations of bigotry and hate.
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Israel is also often charged with racism, and with apartheid in recent years, on top of more traditional crimes of colonialism and imperialism. It’s no surprise that “Israeli apartheid” has become the clarion call of the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement -- it hits the racism button so hard.
How ironic then that pro-Israel groups are throwing back the racism charge at BDS itself. The argument is that regardless of whether BDS portrays itself as pro-Palestinian or as a champion of human rights, the very essence of the movement – promoting a boycott of Israel – is by nature anti-Semitic, because it singles out Israel for punishment.
Leftists charged with racism
The anti-Semitism charge is a serious business. No one wants to be openly associated with any kind of racism – certainly not the movement’s rank-and-file leftists.
But there is even a bigger problem. If BDS is really anti-Semitic or even anti-Israeli businesses and institutions would be in violation of anti-discrimination laws. And if that's the case, any business complying with BDS would be at risk of being sued.
The BDS-as-racism campaign is gaining momentum, at least in the U.S. Just last week the New York City Council passed a resolution condemning BDS for, among other things, its “unacceptable anti-Semitic rhetoric”. A dozen or so U.S. states have passed anti-BDS legislation, and a key U.S. trade bill approved by Congress last year includes anti-BDS provisions. All of this is only possible because the only good excuse for impinging on people’s rights to boycott products or services as they see fit is that it is motivated by racism.
But is the BDS movement anti-Semitic, or even anti-Israeli?
Not going by its official BDS website, where you won't find anything self-evidently anti-Semitic. The word “Jew” doesn’t appear, and a section is devoted to defending the movement against charges of anti-Semitism.
Its criticism of Israel is intense and uncomfortable to read, even if you know a lot of it is over the top, but the official movement steers carefully clear from stereotyping Israelis, and speaks only of the culpability of Israeli institutions for the Palestinian plight.
That’s the website, which no doubt is carefully vetted to make sure the movement stays on message. Grassroots BDS is another matter.
Magnet for haters
As Trump and Brexit campaigners know, once you start raising issues like immigration, you’re going to attract the haters.
You might legitimately think mass immigration is bad for the economy, but if you do, you’re going to find your allies are people who just don’t like foreigners.
BDS is in the same boat: People who are legitimately outraged by Israel’s behavior are going to find themselves at rallies shoulder to shoulder with people who don’t like Jews.
Anti-BDS activists argue that by singling out Israel, even the best-intentioned BDSers are ipso facto discriminating against Israelis. They correctly argue there are a lot of places in the world where human rights are being violated and/or are under occupation. Why pick on Israel, unless you don’t like Jews?
That is because BDS is a one-issue group, and its issue in Israel. To say that it should be mounting campaigns against Syria, Zimbabwe or Iran before it tackles Israel isn’t fair and realistic. That would be like accusing the 1970s-era struggle for Soviet Jewry of being anti-Russian because it ignored oppression in elsewhere in the world or saying the American Lyme Disease Foundation has no business raising money that should go to fighting cancer.
The anti-Semitism charge is tempting to many who find BDS’s virulent anti-Israel posture unsettling and unjust. Not a few activists in the movement have dubious motives and its anti-Israel campaign often strays into dark areas, as when the filmmaker Shimon Dotan was disinvited from a Syracuse University film festival apparently for no other reason than that he is Israeli. But the charge is unproven. There are quite enough exaggerations or outright falsehoods perpetuated by BDS. Fight them on that and leave the anti-Semitism alone.