If the BDS movement achieves its goal of normalising a blanket boycott of Israel, its next target will be the Jews. That, if nothing else, is why Jews in the Diaspora must get a grip and battle the demonisation of Israel before it endangers their own wellbeing.
The odious BDS aims for the “euthanasia” of the Jewish state, in the words of founder Omar Barghouti. But it also directly threatens Jews worldwide who refuse to jump aboard the anti-Israel bandwagon: not just Zionists, but those who refuse to convert to anti-Zionism. Jews who believe they can afford to let a boycott of Israel become the norm, while still freely retaining personal ties to Israel, are embracing an illusion. It could soon be rudely shattered.
Norms do not develop at a steady, gradual pace: they build up, and if they don’t lose steam, eventually reach a tipping-point – and are universalised rather suddenly. At some point, social disapproval becomes strong enough to forge a new consensus: once a critical mass of people conforms to a certain behaviour or adopts certain attitudes, this outlook becomes not only normal but socially required. The flip-side is that non-conformity with the norm becomes taboo. The boycott, therefore, will hit suddenly if it becomes mainstream; it is already gaining serious traction in Western cultural establishments.
There are three distinct reasons why the boycott of Israel threatens all Jews directly if they refuse to throw in their lot with the boycotters.
First, Jews risk becoming demonised for retaining ties to Israel after cutting off ties becomes the norm.
The risk is of a domino effect of boycotts, as Western societies disconnect from Israel: and Jews, who refuse to disengage from Israel as their neighbours do, get crushed by the falling dominoes.
In other words, if Jews insist on retaining any ties to Israel in a post-boycott world, they risk turning themselves into the public enemies of justice and progress. They would be unable to travel to Israel on holiday, import kosher food, send their children on Israel tours, buy Israeli goods or host Israeli artists without being accused of propping up an evil regime. Once Israel is widely believed to be the Devil, its supporters are Satan’s Little Helpers.The choice facing Jews would be a stark one: abandon Israel, or sink with it.
This danger is particularly acute in the Jewish context, because it threatens to reignite the old canard about whether Jews have stronger loyalties to Israel than their own countries: Jews refusing to denounce Israel would be seen as standing with a pariah state against the international community and its values. In Europe, Muslims are on the back-foot to denounce every terrorist incident, because refusal to denounce is taken as complicit: Jews would likely face similar pressure to denounce Israel at every opportunity. For the Diaspora, sticking by Israel would mean pitching itself against the moral sensibilities of the world; I am not sure many could withstand the psychological pressure. And as more Jews cave to pressure to conform with the norms of their societies, the more those who refuse stand out as isolated extremists.
The normalisation of anti-Zionism, moreover, risks encouraging violent attacks against Jews – Zionist or otherwise. The contested distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism does not exist in the minds of the haters. Last year, a Neturei Karta rabbi was beaten up by Muslim youths on the streets of Amsterdam. His membership of an anti-Zionist cult did not save him, for no Jew can insulate himself from the hatred generated by modern-day blood libels against the Jewish state.
Letting it all blow over, and hoping to continue with life as normal, would simply not be an option if the boycott movement were to win.
Throughout history, no country has ever internalised anti-Zionist norms and yet remained hospitable towards Jews. The Arab world is an obvious, if extreme, example. The USSR is another: anti-Zionist propaganda was parasitic on, and thereby perpetuated, anti-Semitic stereotypes – no wonder so many Jews escaped when the Iron Curtain fell. In Poland, official anti-Zionism morphed into vicious anti-Semitism in 1968, prompting another mass exodus. In Venezuela, the darling of the radical left, anti-Semitism was previously “negligible“, but state-level anti-Zionism has produced a dramatic and disturbing outgrowth.
Openly anti-Zionist cultures are poisonous for Jews: no society has ever worked out how to demonise half the world’s Jewish population without demonising the other half too.
Secondly, Jews could be coerced into boycotting Israel too.
If you think this is alarmist scare-mongering, consider the reality at Sheffield, one of several British universities with an official student union policy of boycotting Israel: in 2004, students voted to join the BDS by a margin of 16 to 1. When the Model UN’s invitation to the Israeli deputy ambassador was deemed in violation of the rules, the student union began contemplating plans to force individual societies to comply with the boycott – including the Jewish Society.
Sheffield’s two-dozen Jews fought off the initiative by arguing that it was “impractical and unfair to force societies to think in a certain way”; but according to union development officer Sam Neagus, the likely “compromise” for the freedom not to boycott Israel is that societies will be “educated” on BDS policies. In 21st century Britain, Jews are being bullied, on pain of sanction, to cut off ties with half the Jewish world.
The boycott movement has already created a toxic atmosphere on campuses. Sheffield student Miriam Schechter says she feels “uncomfortable saying to anyone” that she has family in Israel. Having relatives in Israel, much less visiting them, has already become taboo in some sectors of British society. Neagus feels he is “mistrusted” for his views, and anti-Israel rhetoric is scaring Jews away: “if I were looking around the University now, during Israel Apartheid Week, it would distress me and prevent me from applying”. Outright anti-Semitism on campus is rare: but anti-Zionism is growing, and Jews feel increasingly intimidated against expressing themselves freely.
This all looks drearily familiar. After the UN’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution, several university student unions banned their Jewish societies. If you think Western institutions would not dare to take punitive measures against Jews for refusing to denounce Israel, think again: it would only be a replay of the 1980s, but worse.
The third danger is that Jews themselves could be boycotted.
Consider the concentric structure of the original Arab League boycott: first blacklist Israel, then countries that do business with Israel, then companies that do business with companies that do business with Israel. Now consider the present analogue. The BDS not only lobbies for a boycott of Israel, but of firms that deal with Israel too: Veolia and G4S have come under particular pressure.
If the BDS popularises the primary boycott, it will doubtlessly use this as a launchpad to expand the secondary boycott, of entities that trade with Israel. But the more companies boycott Israel directly, the more that the only resistance remaining will be in Jewish institutions.
Boycotters currently slap yellow stickers on Israeli produce in supermarkets: are they not likely to do the same in kosher groceries, once these are the only shops where Israeli food is stocked? Pro-Palestinian activists heckle Israeli artists during performances at high-profile venues: would they refrain from heckling them inside Jewish cultural centres, once these are the only places where Israelis may perform? If there were no demonstrations outside synagogues or Jewish schools against connection to Israel, this would only be out of tact, but this is hardly a trait for which the anti-Israel camp is famous.
If you believe this scenario is unlikely, ask yourself what BDS HQ will do if it achieves its immediate objective of a widespread boycott of Israel. It is surely more likely to build on its successes, in order to pile the pressure, than be satisfied with them: it will go after those who refuse to fall in line, and it is obvious who those dissenters will be.
The fact that the targeted institutions are Jewish, the boycotters would argue, is coincidental: Zionism is the enemy. But of course, the connection between Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel is no coincidence; and Jews cannot reasonably be expected to comply with an economic, cultural or academic boycott of the Jewish state.
So what will happen if the general public believes that boycotting Israel is the duty of every good citizen, but Jews then refuse to boycott Israel? The conclusion hardly needs spelling out.
None of this is to suggest that the mass-proliferation of the boycott is likely. This nightmare scenario is by no means inevitable, but neither is it unforeseeable. Some believe that the tipping-point has already been reached. It is certainly closer than we think. As the recent Channel 2 documentary demonstrated, the boycott has caused more Israeli firms to lose contracts than has made the news: it has spread more than people realise, and the pressure is growing beneath the surface.
At any rate, if the boycott were to escalate suddenly, this is what the day after would look like. Jews must fight to ensure that the prospect of a general boycott remains farfetched and alarmist: the BDS will sustain momentum unless met with resistance. Basic physics.
So what can be done to stop the boycott in its tracks?
The first thing is not to panic.
The second is to put up a fight, noisily objecting to every anti-Israel smear, such as the lie about apartheid. It is vitally important to frustrate the anti-Israel camp’s attempt to monopolise public discourse. That’s what the #rethink2014 campaign is about: it might not change anyone’s mind this “Israel Apartheid Week”, but it denies the anti-Israel camp the benefits of an uncontested voice. It is all very well to sigh that there are two sides to every story, but the less that this other side is heard in public debate, the more likely that the general public will conclude that there is only one side of consequence.
Kenneth Stern, of the American Jewish Committee, argues that the BDS is “the vehicle through which the questioning of Israel’s basic right to exist is… a ‘legitimate’ issue to be raised without embarrassment“. The challenge is deny the boycott movement the ability to delegitimise Israel without shame. Over 100 American universities have publicly rejected the boycott, thanks to the extensive efforts of the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Community and the indefatigable ADL, among others. It’s not enough to hold the boycott back: it needs to be rolled back too.
When made aware of the nefarious agenda of the boycott movement, ordinary, decent people are more likely to boycott the BDS than to boycott Israel. But they must be made aware. At Oxford, we blew the BDS out of the water by a margin of seven to one by mobilising to win. Jonathan Hunter, campus director for StandWithUs UK, says future such successes require Jewish students to shake off their apathy and get involved: “they don’t come to university to deal with politics, and if they don’t think it’s relevant to their day-to-day lives, they don’t see why they should fight.” That anti-Israel activism is relevant to Jews’ day-to-day lives, however, can no longer be denied.
Jews cannot hope to keep the boycott at an arm’s length forever: it is already chewing up to the elbow. It needs to be defanged, before it seriously threatens the wellbeing of the Jewish people.