In February, I warned that if BDS wins, the Jews are next. I was wrong: BDS does not need to ‘win’ for Jews to suffer a nasty backlash: the demonisation of Israel is already having sinister effects. After the recent outburst of antisemitic incidents worldwide off the back of anti-Israel rage, it is clear that my original conclusion was understated.
I forecast three main dangers for Jews, all of which have been coming true before my eyes in recent weeks and months. I stressed this point to all members of the executive committee of the National Union of Students in the UK; on Monday, they went ahead and endorsed a boycott of Israel by 23-18. I hold the NUS fully responsible for any backlash against Jewish students from their treatment of a complex and multifaceted conflict with the intellectual depth of a children’s illustration. When the picture of Israel becomes caricatured, we cannot be surprised when Jews are treated as sidekicks of a cartoon villain.
Firstly, I warned that Jews risk becoming demonised for retaining ties to Israel – including the risk of violent attack. This week alone, a Belfast synagogue had its windows smashed; a sign reading ‘child murderers’ was stuck to the door of a Surrey synagogue; and ‘Free Gaza’ was spray-painted onto a synagogue in Brighton. The situation on the continent is worse. Synagogues have been firebombed in Paris, and Jewish businesses burnt to the ground in riots following anti-Israel demonstrations. “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!” has been chanted in Berlin. That’s not to mention hate speech against Jews in an Italian mosque. A cursory look at contemporary antisemitism shows just how much of it is infused and inextricably linked to the demonisation of Israel, a product of this deliberate campaign of incitement.
Secondly, I warned that Jews could be coerced into boycotting Israel too. Last week, British-Jewish student Richard Black wrote that he felt ‘like a stranger in his own country’ in a widely shared article. ‘If we Jews wish to continue to live happy lives in Britain,’ Richard wrote, ‘then it must come at the price of publicly dissociating ourselves from Israel’. The fear is that the psychological pressure of living in a society that perceives Israel as the latest incarnation of Apartheid South Africa will force makes to Jews to make the unconscionable choice of cutting off ties with half the Jewish world – including their extended families – in order to be considered good citizens. This is simply unacceptable.
This week, the (somewhat unhinged) anti-Israel activist Yvonne Ridley announced her plans to make Scotland a ‘Zionist-free zone’. It is unclear whether she plans to round up Scottish Zionists in the middle of the night and deport them to a transit camp in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, but her message is clear: Jews, denounce Israel or else we will do our utmost to cleanse these highlands of your poisonous presence.
Thirdly, I warned that Jews themselves could be boycotted, if attempts to coerce them to comply with the social norm of a boycott fail. No finer example exists than the shameful decision by the Tricycle Theatre in London to boycott the UK Jewish Film Festival over its partial sponsorship by the Israeli Embassy. The Tricycle effectively demanded that British Jews choose between renouncing their cultural connections to Israel, or else be ejected from national cultural life.
When Israel is characterised as uniquely and unspeakably evil, Jews become unable to express any sympathy without becoming social pariahs. Pressuring Jews to boycott Israel means pushing them to turn their backs on half of the Jewish world. Israel is the beating heart of modern Jewish culture: it resurrected the Hebrew language; it rebuilt centres of Jewish thought; and it breathed life into a civilisation ravaged and traumatised by the Nazi genocide. No attempt to force a wedge between Jews’ Diaspora identities and cultural affinities with greatest collective Jewish project ever attempted could end well.
Likewise in South Africa, where the Western Cape branch of the Congress of Trade Unions has given the Jewish community an ultimatum to drop its ‘Zionist agenda’ on pain of a boycott of its communal organisations. “If they are not part of the solution then they are part of the problem,” rang the chilling warning. As Jews are marginalised and threatened, they are more likely to reaffirm their faith in Zionism as the answer to their personal security — enter the vicious cycle, as Jews’ attempts to escape the problem of antisemitism see them increasingly labelled as “the problem” itself.
The bottom line is this: It is not possible to boycott Israel without also boycotting Jews, unless those Jews are willing to boycott Israel too. The delegitimisation campaign needs to get its head around that basic fact before claiming that it is not antisemitic. Perhaps there are some Jews so far embedded in the anti-Israeli movements that they want nothing to do with Israel anyway, but for the vast majority of us, severing ourselves from Israel means cutting the aorta leaving the pulsating heart of the modern Jewish world.
Marginalising Israel means telling Jews — not to mention Israeli expatriates — that their presence is wanted only to the extent that they are willing to disavow the cultural, literary, philosophical and commercial output of half of world Jewry. It means telling them that sharing their culture and identity in the public sphere is an illicit activity, and that they should be treated as social pariahs for doing so.
For a movement that claims to be so resolutely anti-imperialist, the irony does not escape me that the delegitimisation movement has perfected the game of divide-and-rule: ‘bad Jews’ escaped global antisemitism to form their own thriving society; ‘good Jews’ are those who remain supine minorities, willing to denounce their bolder kin.
I hate to say ‘I told you so’. But I did. And I wish I were wrong.
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