By Ari Soffer
Debate over whether the BDS Movement – which calls for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against the State of Israel – is anti-Semitic has raged since its inception roughly a decade ago.
As proof of its anti-Semitism, BDS’s opponents point to the fact that it singles out the Jewish state (actually, specifically Israeli Jews and Jewish institutions/companies in Israel, not Israeli Arabs), while ignoring massive human rights violations elsewhere in the region – even, as in Syria for example, when they are carried out against other Palestinians.
They further note the chilling similarities between the campaign to boycott (Jews in) the Jewish State, to previous anti-Semitic boycott campaigns in Europe (for example those carried out by Nazi Germany). And of course, there is the question of the many open anti-Semites who seem to gravitate towards the BDS and wider anti-Israel movement from all corners of the political spectrum.
BDS’s supporters largely counter this argument by pointing to the not-insignificant handful of Jews who play a role – sometimes a prominent one – in their campaign, as well as to the fact that, in their own words, they publicly reject racism of any kind. How can a campaign which includes Jews and rejects racism be an anti-Semitic one?
The latest saga over Matisyahu’s appearance at the Rototom Sunsplash festival should put this debate to rest once and for all. After the events of the past weeks it should be abundantly clear that not only is BDS thoroughly anti-Semitic, but it and the wider anti-Israel movement are in fact the very symbol of modern-day anti-Semitism.
It’s not about the “whataboutery”
It is not because BDS targeted Matisyahu on the spurious basis of caring about “human rights,” while ignoring the extreme homophobic artists who were to appear at the same festival. To be sure, that hypocrisy is a mark of shame for the festival organizers; even re-inviting Matisyahu doesn’t undo the fact that they treated him as “suspect” for being a pro-Israel Jew, while homophobes who encourage setting gay people on fire weren’t similarly hassled.
This is an important point: BDS isn’t anti-Semitic because it “doesn’t focus on other human rights abuses.” This argument, often made by pro-Israel groups, is an ineffective one. The fact is that BDS is one of countless single-issue campaigns around the world who focus on one specific issue/place/alleged injustice, while ignoring others. That’s just how single-issue campaigns work. In order to call out and fight anti-Semitism it is vital we properly identify it – and BDS’s singular focus is not the issue.
(The one exception is when BDS – a group which claims to care deeply about Palestinian rights – ignores or gives comparatively little attention to “Palestinian suffering” when Israel isn’t involved. For example in Syria, where Palestinians are being slaughtered and starved by the regime and ISIS alike; or in Lebanon and Jordan, where they are denied basic rights to things such as employment, citizenship and other basic freedoms. But even then, while this hypocrisy is an indicator that something stinks about the campaign, it is not itself proof of anti-Semitism.)
To understand how BDS embodies modern-day anti-Semitism in the West (the Arab/Muslim world is another kettle of fish), we must first consider the very nature of this peculiar subspecies of bigotry. Like a virus, anti-Semitism tends to morph and evolve by tapping into the prevailing fashions and discourses in society, to remain resistant to the kind of “progress” which inevitably ejects other forms of bigotry from the mainstream discourse.
So, when Christian fundamentalism was all the rage, Jews were “Christ-killers.” When theories of racial supremacy were considered mainstream, Jews were “polluting/subverting/working against the white race.” In the context of communism, Jews are part of the “bourgeois/elite/global bankers” – in contrast to in fascist regimes, where we work hand-in-hand with the communists.
It can be dizzying to follow such a confusing mix of often diametrically-opposed accusations – but such is the nature of anti-Semitism.
It, like other forms of bigotry, is irrational. Like other forms of bigotry, there will always be those who subscribe to it, and even commit heinous crimes in its name. But unlike other forms of bigotry, it is resistant to “progress”; its proponents will always find a way to not only justify it for themselves but, crucially, to keep it “acceptable” and “justified” even within the mainstream discourse.
To even recognize contemporary anti-Semitism then, it is crucial to first step outside of the previous paradigms within which it once operated but has since abandoned. Operating within such outdated paradigms – looking for evidence of race- or religious-based bigotry for example – actually empowers contemporary anti-Semites to promote their new version of hatred, by noting the genuine differences between them and their predecessors as proof that they are “not like them.” And yet, it’s a mistake we make over and over again.
By way of illustration, there is a common position I’ve heard expressed by many opponents of BDS, that “whereas the movement itself isn’t anti-Semitic per-sa, there are certainly some/many anti-Semites involved in it.” What these people are actually saying, without realizing it, is that there are people within the BDS and wider anti-Israel movement who subscribe to some of the old, discredited versions of anti-Semitism, even if the movement itself – recognizing their toxicity – sometimes attempts to move away from them. In that sense they are right; you need not look far within any anti-Israel group to find a motley assortment of far-right holocaust deniers, Islamist fanatics, Christian replacement-theologist and neo-Marxists, spewing various “less-acceptable” anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and ideas.
But, again, while the fact that such individuals are drawn to the anti-Israel movement may be an indication of its anti-Semitic nature, it is not the smoking gun as long as such groups openly and publicly disavow such ideas (however incongruous such disavowals sound).
Anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism
BDS and other anti-Israel groups in the west do not, as a movement, believe that all Jews should be killed or converted (though many individuals within the movement may hold such beliefs, and while the movement itself does openly support other genocidal groups such as Hamas). That is not the specific form of anti-Semitism to which they subscribe. They are, however, very open about the version of anti-Semitism they do subscribe to, though they typically deny it is such: anti-Zionism.
While it comes in many hues, Zionism in its most basic sense is simply the belief in the Jewish people’s right to freedom and political independence in their ancient, historic, ancestral homeland, Eretz Israel. Anti-Zionism or being “anti-Israel”, then, is the belief that – whereas every other nation has that right – we Jews do not, or should at the very least be held to a different standard once we attain it, scrutinized and hounded mercilessly, with our every flaw (whether real or imagined) placed under a microscope.
Deeper still, this belief is based on the perverse notion of the Jew as a “noble victim.” That is why so many anti-Israel types stress that they condemn the holocaust (very gracious of them, of course), or go out of their way to say that they feel great sympathy for the experience of the Jews who went through it. In most cases they genuinely do – because holocaust victims are precisely the kind of tragically beautiful, “pure,” persecuted Jew they can live with. Jewish weakness is “attractive” to contemporary anti-Semites, whereas any manifestation of Jewish strength whatsoever is automatically deemed a “provocation.”
In this sense contemporary anti-Semitism is more comparable to the anti-Black racism of apartheid, Jim Crow, and most graphically slavery, than to, say, Nazi anti-Semitism.
Many or even most slave owners, for example, did not “hate” Black people to the extent that they wished to see them all dead. Many of them may have even professed affection for “their” Black slaves, and treated them well. But this did not make them non-racists, because they still subscribed to a fundamentally racist belief system: that Blacks were racially inferior to Whites, and that therefore their status within society should reflect that (either as slaves or at least as second-class citizens). Blacks who agitated for change were seen as troublemakers, or worse – because they “had no right” to be free.
In the contemporary discourse, anti-Semites view Jews in the same way.
Whereas other nations are free, even encouraged and supported, to struggle for their national rights, Jews are actively discouraged and maligned for doing so. Whereas in any other context, an indigenous people seeking to both physically liberate its ancestral homeland while reclaiming place-names changed by conquering imperialist powers – no matter how long after it was taken from them and colonized – would garner sympathy, Jews who do so are ridiculed and condemned, accused of “harping on about ancient history.”
Astonishingly enough, we Jews are simultaneously accused of oppressing the “ancient” Palestinian nation – whose supposedly “ancient” history is inexplicably more relevant and less absurd to evoke than our own – via our modern nation-state. This bare-faced logical inconsistency serves as a graphic illustration of the slipperiness of anti-Semitism, and its ability to change its stripes even within a contemporary context – sometimes even the same breath.
That is why boycotting Matisyahu was entirely in-line with BDS’s positions. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t Israeli, the point is he is a Jewish “troublemaker,” because – while never making political statements on stage – he is clearly pro-Israel, and not ashamed of it.
For those who may counter that, surely, only the most extreme, foaming-at-the-mouth, fringe anti-Semites within the BDS movement could possibly subscribe to such an openly anti-Semitic viewpoint, I would like to share a tweet I received from someone you may recognize:
— Jim Clancy (@ClancyReports) August 19, 2015
Say what you will about Jim Clancy, but the man certainly does not consider himself an anti-Semite. Yet here he is – a former senior broadcaster for one of the most “mainstream” media outlets you could imagine – apparently suggesting that the fact that a Jew would dare support Israel, even in a very general way, makes him fair game for boycotts and attacks.
Of course, this is just one tweet. But it is an accurate reflection of the many messages which circulated in defense of BDS’s decision to target Matisyahu, and Rototom’s subsequent cancellation, when the story first broke: “It’s not because he’s a Jew – it’s because he’s a Zionist!”
When you deconstruct the terminologies, though, the fundamental bigotry of such a statement becomes obvious: “Of course it is unacceptable to boycott a Jewish artist just for being a Jewish individual. But the problem with Matisyahu is that he identifies with and supports the manifestation of his people’s national rights, and that of course makes him fair game.”
In other words: Jews, Israeli or not, should know their place.
That there are Jews who subscribe to anti-Zionist ideas is proof of nothing. In fact, it mirrors precisely the reaction of heavily-assimilated Jews on the one hand, and haredi anti-Zionists on the other, during the last major wave of European anti-Semitism.
Nazi Jew-hatred, many assimilated German Jews insisted, was reserved for the “Ostjuden” – those primitive, religious, uncultured Jews of Eastern Europe. Even if Nazi anti-Semitism also targeted them, it was only because some Europeans didn’t know to distinguish between “good” assimilated Jews and “bad” primitive ones.
According to the haredi/religious anti-Zionists, anti-Semitism was a divine punishment for “Zionism,” which they (falsely) saw both as an inherently secular idea, as well as a “provocation against the nations” – this servile latter argument being derived from a peculiar interpretation of Talmudic scriptures as discouraging Jewish independence until the arrival of the Messiah. As such, God would surely protect them, while the Zionist “sinners” would perish.
How wrong they were. And how wrong their ideological progeny are today – from the assimilated Jewish far-left to Neturei Karta – in believing they have won love, acceptance and protection by eschewing their national rights. In fact, they have merely accepted their status as second-class human beings.
Defiance as the solution
If the targeting of Matisyahu pulled the mask off of BDS, revealing the face of modern anti-Semitism, his response has offered an important lesson in how to fight back.
He did not surrender to their demands and debase himself before the baying mobs, in the vain hope they would be placated; but just as importantly, he did not make any excuses for his support for Israel. He did not even relate to the thoroughly baseless, offensive accusations about the State of Israel – even though of course he disagreed with them – for to do so would be to grant them a legitimacy they do not deserve. He isn’t a supporter of bigotry (unlike others who appeared at the same event), but of the Jewish people’s legitimate rights, so why should he need to defend himself against baseless accusations?
Instead, his response was one of contempt – contempt towards the accusations and accusers, and contempt towards the outrageous ultimatum he was issued with; the kind of contempt which comes only with self-confidence and security in the justness of one’s cause.
The BDS movement, and other anti-Israel movements like it, does not seek to rob Jews of their lives or their religion, but of their dignity – whether by surrendering or by stammering excuses. This is the face of modern anti-Semitism.
The very fact that often, in a discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the bar for not being a total bigot (for now) is by “recognizing Israel’s right to exist” – a statement that would sound utterly bizarre, even offensive, if said about any other country – is an indication of how this prejudice, while not universally accepted, has infiltrated and infected the mainstream discourse, and continues to do so.
The response, therefore, must be one of contempt for our aggressors, and pride in the knowledge of the justness of our cause.
To fight for what we know is right, with no excuses, and no fear.
Kind of like this:
About the Author:
Ari Soffer is the Managing Editor of Arutz Sheva/Israel National News. He was born in London, UK, and prior to his Aliyah to Israel in 2013 was active in a variety of pro-Israel and anti-extremism organizations.
Today, Ari lives in the ancient Jewish town of Shiloh in Samaria, Israel.