BDS: Self-determination for me, but not for thee

Calls for boycotting Israel during a protest at the University of Amsterdam in May 2023. (courtesy, student at University of Amsterdam on WhatsApp, published with permission)

With September’s arrival, the imminent reopening of Dutch universities prompts us to reflect on the current state of Jewish students’ safety at their academic institutions. At these institutions, Dutch students and scholars are, next to the yearly “Israel Apartheid Week,” confronted with petitions and protests to boycott Israel, inspired and often initiated by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

After Palestinian activists discussed, on stage, how Israel should be “wiped off the map,” Jewish students expressed their feelings of unsafety, resulting in parliamentary inquiries. Responding to these inquiries, the Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66), merely classified the presence and actions of the BDS movement at Dutch universities under a “controversial opinion” for which “there should be room within an academic environment.” 

BDS describes itself as seeking “justice” and “self-determination” for Palestinians as “an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination.” The movement’s disproportionate fixation on Israel in its “inclusive” crusade against discrimination, however, raises questions about the motivations behind singling out the world’s only Jewish-majority state. 

The pattern of singling out Israel becomes evident in BDS’s ideology and actions, particularly in its one-sided and ahistorical approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, the BDS movement presents a narrative that almost exclusively blames Israel and the Jews, while simultaneously downplaying or ignoring the complex historical and geopolitical factors that have contributed to this enduring conflict. By omitting the role of Palestinian leaders in prolonging the conflict, BDS then deprives them of agency and diminishes Palestinian responsibility in seeking a resolution. 

In fact, the BDS movement systematically portrays Jews as Western white invaders, who, unlike the Palestinians, are not indigenous to the land and therefore exist and act as colonizers in the area. The right to self-determination includes recognizing a people’s historical and cultural ties to a land, yet BDS diminishes the Jewish people’s well-documented thousands-year-long connection, thus denying Jews the right to their own history and heritage. This, in turn, undermines the very basis of Jewish self-determination as a people. 

In the case of the Jews and Israel, BDS singles out Jews to question these ties to the land to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel, while not applying the same scrutiny to other nations’ claims. Consequently, this strategy suggests that BDS actively opposes the idea that Jews are entitled to the same rights to self-determination as other ethnic groups. 

Through these actions, the BDS movement hinders progress towards a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A just and lasting resolution, for instance, requires mutual recognition from both parties’ respective ties to the land. By omitting the Jewish connections, BDS disrupts this recognition process, thereby impeding the establishment of a foundation for negotiations and compromises. 

In addition, these actions obstructing a peace process are bolstered by the movement actively thwarting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Dialogue, in turn, is necessary for understanding the complexity of the conflict, which is then essential for finding a balanced and equitable solution. 

Academically, for example, adherents of the BDS movement want to boycott Israeli universities and prevent Israeli perspectives from being heard in the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Dutch universities. This strategy, ironically, actively undermines the academic freedom Minister Dijkgraaf so passionately seeks to preserve by avoiding any direct criticism or condemnation of BDS on Dutch university campuses. 

According to leading figures within the movement, hindering progress towards a peaceful solution through boycotts, divestments and sanctions is only a stepping stone towards their ultimate objective. In their own words, “the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel,” as they “oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.” 

The BDS movement thus aims for the dissolution of Israel, and in doing so, it does not pursue a resolution that grants self-determination to both Palestinians and Israelis. Instead, its objective is to secure self-determination exclusively for one people at the expense of the other.

In practice, the BDS movement’s demonization, dehumanization and stigmatization of Israelis and their supporters, results in Diaspora Jews being targeted and wrongly held accountable for Israel’s real or perceived actions. In the case of anti-Israel demonstrations at Dutch universities last May, a Jewish student was verbally harassed by masked protestors, who called her a “dirty Zionist” simply for wearing a Star of David necklace, all while calls for intifadas were chanted in the background. 

This effect of the movement’s rhetoric then re-emphasizes the need for Jewish self-determination in their ancestral homeland. Ensuring the safety of Jews through self-determination in Israel is, in turn, reinforced by the centuries of persecution and exile, occurrences that are known to anyone with a basic knowledge of Jewish history. Furthermore, the BDS movement’s harmful disregard and misuse of Jewish history also become apparent through other means: They openly employ Holocaust rhetoric, comparing Israelis to “Nazis” and Gaza to a “concentration camp.”

Accordingly, by instigating its followers to hold Jews in the Diaspora accountable for the actions of the Israeli government through its rhetoric, comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis, and aiming for the dissolution of the only Jewish state, and therefore of Jewish self-determination, the BDS movement and its adherents already promote three examples included in the world’s leading definition of antisemitism as developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. 

Thus, while individuals have the right to express their views and engage in political activism, it is essential to critically examine the impact and consequences of those actions. In the case of BDS, its tactics and strategies reveal an agenda that goes beyond the mere expression of opinion, but one that, in reality, seeks to strip away the rights of Jews to self-determination and paves the way for antisemitism. When assessing BDS’s influence within Dutch universities, as our Minister of Education has done, it must be grounded in the acknowledgement of these fundamental aspects of the movement. Rather than condoning BDS, I advocate for approaches that encourage dialogue and education and promote moving towards a truly peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

About the Author
Jonathan Feldmar is the Campus and Education Manager at StandWithUs Nederland, and specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, antisemitism and anti-Zionism, Israeli international relations, and terrorism governance. He has explored these topics for years, both within academia and outside of it, including through his BA in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Groningen, during his current MSc in Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University, and whilst attending conferences and seminars across Europe, North America, and Israel.
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