On December 1st, the Ontario Legislative Assembly passed a motion by MPP Gila Martow rejecting campaigns that target Israelis for differential treatment, including boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).
On the one hand, this motion may seem to state the obvious: that Ontario welcomes Israeli businesses, academics, and cultural figures with open arms. Given that the Premier’s May trade mission to Israel netted $180M in bilateral agreements, it’s clear that partnering with Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, benefits Ontarians.
On the other hand, the Legislature’s formal rejection of BDS, combined with a similar federal resolution passed on Parliament Hill last February, may prove a watershed moment for the province’s Jewish community. This certainly seems to be the sense among Ontario Jewry, who responded by the thousands to a call to action from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – launched in partnership with Hillels and Jewish Federations across the province – urging community members to email their MPP.
That both the federal and provincial motions passed with cross-party support reflects a growing consensus that BDS is inherently discriminatory. Indeed, the provincial motion puts BDS in the company of other movements that encourage “hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance.”
The resolution further endorsed the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Antisemitism, a 2010 initiative developed by experts and parliamentarians from more than 50 countries. The Ottawa Protocol was historic in confirming the link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, noting that “singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium – let alone denying its right to exist or seeking its destruction – is discriminatory and hateful.”
These elements in Ms. Martow’s motion speak to the real threat posed by BDS.
Without drawing a direct historical comparison, it would be foolish to ignore the history of anti-Jewish boycotts when considering how best to counter BDS against the Jewish state today. In writing on the Nazi boycott of German Jewish businesses in 1933, historians Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt offer a key insight.
“The boycott was not an economic success,” they wrote in Flight from the Reich. “Many Germans found it inconvenient or financially foolish. Nevertheless, it proved a psychological victory…the Nazis forced a national debate about [the Jews’] right to be a part of German society. ‘Suddenly everyone felt justified, and indeed required, to have an opinion about the Jews, and to state it publicly,’” a non-Jewish, anti-Nazi journalist who fled Germany later recalled.
Some BDS activists no doubt harbour ambitions of financially crippling Israel, despite objective evidence that BDS has utterly failed to stem the Start-up Nation’s economic growth. For example, trade between Israel and the EU, a key target for BDS activism, has nearly doubled since the international call for BDS in 2005. I suspect, for most BDS activists, boycotts are not designed to achieve economic goals, but rather to cloud Israel in a permanent haze of controversy.
While the stated target may be Israel, the impact of BDS is primarily felt by diaspora Jewish communities. A connection to Israel is a core part of Jewish communal identity, regardless of one’s politics or religious observance. This strong sense of community has complemented longstanding Jewish engagement in Canadian civil society. Those who seek to import BDS to university campuses, unions, or political parties do so to the exclusion of many Jewish members of these institutions.
It is ludicrous to expect that, to remain active in these circles, Jews must rationalize or ignore a policy of prejudice targeting nearly half of the global Jewish population who happen to live in Israel. Such expectations, subtly implied by BDS activists who trot out a handful of anti-Zionist Jews as cover for legitimacy, would be no less outrageous if directed against any other minority community.
The Ontario Legislature’s rejection of BDS as a form of discrimination – and not just a fringe political cause – may yet prove a watershed. The Jewish community has long understood that the goals, tactics, and rhetoric of BDS are irrevocably tainted by antisemitism. We must never be hesitant to say so. We must also recognize that we have many allies, in the Ontario Legislature and elsewhere, who recognize in BDS shades of the darkest moments in Jewish history.