When demonstrators in Antwerp chant “Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas” and when Jewish children are shot and killed in Toulouse in front of a Jewish school, most of the world recognizes these acts as anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, it is the more subtle, nuanced manifestations of racism and anti-Semitism that often get overlooked. Natan Sharansky wrote in a 2004 essay, “Seeing Anti-Semitism in 3D,” that:
…whereas classical anti-Semitism was seen as being aimed at the Jewish religion or the Jewish people, the new anti-Semitism is ostensibly directed against the Jewish State. Since this anti-Semitism can hide behind the veneer of the legitimate criticism of Israel, it is much more difficult to expose.
A group of Harvard students recently launched a campaign protesting a local and international Hillel policy that bans partnerships with student groups that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” In an open letter to the Hillel community, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), lamented the fact that it was unable to hold an event at the Harvard Hillel co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, a group that wholly endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. The PJA, upset by this decision, launched a campaign demanding “Hillel have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts.”
The PJA leaves room for one exception. In my conversation with the group’s leaders last week they acknowledge that while Hillel should foster “open discussion, critical thinking and debate… this, of course, does not mean that Hillel needs to provide space for the expression of racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise hateful views.” The PJA understands that while a student group can engage in a dialogue with any person or group it chooses – even if this speaker or group espouses hateful views – a University, a University Department or a campus organization like Hillel cannot be compelled and has the right to refuse to underwrite, sponsor or endorse any speaker or event.
Is BDS any different than other hate groups that seek to deny rights to groups of people based on ethnicity, race, religion or sexuality? Would anyone argue that the Harvard African and African American studies department be required to sponsor a member of the Ku Klux Klan to speak on campus?
BDS advocates for a “global campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction the State of Israel until it complies with its obligation under international and human rights law.” BDS leaders claim – and many followers believe – that the movement promotes “freedom, equal rights,…and world peace,” with a focus on “the basic rights of the Palestinian people.” Given these statements, you would expect BDS to call for sanctions against Syria, where nearly 1000 Palestinians have been killed in the past year, or to boycott Gaza, where under the authority of Hamas, political and religious freedom is curtailed and women’s rights are severely limited. Yet BDS has remained silent on these issues. Instead, the movement focuses on Israel, the one nation in the Middle East that affords full rights to women and minorities.
So what are the obligations that BDS would require Israel to meet under international law? According to the BDS website, Israel must “respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to [Israel].” But not only does the “Right of Return” have no basis in law or appear in any UN resolutions, President Barack Obama also pointed out in 2008 that “the Right of Return…would extinguish Israel as a Jewish State.” Omar Barghouti, a key leader of BDS, understands this: “If the [Palestinian] refugees were to return, you would not have a two state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine,” he told students at Yale University earlier this month at an event sponsored by Yale Students for Justice in Palestine.
By promoting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, BDS knowingly advocates, however inconspicuously, for the annihilation of Israel as a Jewish state. Denying the Jewish people a state, while endorsing the creation of a new ethnic nation state such as Palestine, is anti-Semitic. As Abe Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League wrote on February 8th in an open letter in The New York Times: “we are talking here about hate, not mere criticism. The BDS movement at its very core is anti-Semitic.”
Many BDS supporters and sympathizers, including students at Harvard, may not understand the movement’s true goals. But once you realize that BDS promotes hate, not peace, you also realize that engaging with BDS is antithetical to creating an environment where meaningful, peaceful and constructive dialogue can take place.
Anti-Semitism can only be defeated if it is exposed. Harvard Hillel, under the international Hillel umbrella, is correct to establish clear moral guidelines that prohibit partnerships with or sponsorship of groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that deny the right of Israel to exist. “Evil cannot be defeated if it cannot be recognized,” wrote Sharansky in 2004, “and the only way to recognize evil is to draw clear moral lines.”