The battle against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement has already been lost. At least the current round has. It was lost the minute it was introduced to college campuses around the United States by those seeking to subject Israel to a show trial. It was lost not because of any tangible damage done to Israel or her economy. This round was lost because it was aimed at shifting perceptions and redefining the conversation.
The good news is that this battle is only one round in a much larger war. In previous battles, Israel has not only survived, but has even thrived under the pressure of Arab boycotts.During the Arab riots of 1929, Jews experienced the difficulties of life during a boycott. Future archeologist and Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces Yigael Yadin, only 12 years old at the time, asked “will we always be so dependent on those same Arabs, who at each and every disturbance withhold vegetables from us, and who will start to make fun of us for not being able to survive on our own vegetables, and for our dependence on them? Couldn’t we fill the market with vegetables ourselves?” In 1929, the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Israel) internalized this dilema and took large steps towards self reliance. It was this mentality that also led to the beginnings of the paramilitary organizations that would prove so useful in the future.
The Arab boycott would again have a boomerang effect during the Arab riots that started in April of 1936, lasting through 1939. As Daniel Gordis described it, “the Arab community staged strikes in the hopes of harming the Yishuv’s economy, but the strikes had precisely the opposite effect – the Arabs unwillingly boosted Jewish business, Jewish shops and factories filled the vacuum, and the Yishuv’s Jewish economy expanded.” The closing of the Jaffa Port to the Jewish community led to the development of the port in Tel Aviv, resulting in massive losses to the Arab community. The economic hardships that they intended to force upon the Yishuv backfired, ruining their own businesses. The boycott once again helped push the Jewish community to self-reliance and led to the improvement of roads and transport, creating more jobs and investment.
The boycott as a weapon in the hands of the Arabs has never failed to strengthen Israel’s position. The massive amount of time and effort that is being put into fighting the current iteration of BDS shows that most are missing the bigger picture. While we debate the success of BDS based on the visuals, we ignore the underlying problem. The BDS movement has managed to put “Zionism” and “anti-semitism” on trial in an attempt to redefine these terms. Our fight must focus on reaffirming the definition of Zionism as a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in our ancestral homeland. Allowing Israel’s enemies to define Zionism in their own terms as a racist ideology based on dominating the Palestinian people, or whatever other definition suits their purpose at the moment, must end if we are to expose BDS for what it is. Most Israel advocates continue the debate as if both sides are using the same definitions, confused as to how their narrative is so misconstrued. To get a better understanding of how this works and how we need to combat it, we should take a look at the leaders of the Women’s March.
In January of 2017, Linda Sarsour became a household name after the Women’s March in Washington. Many in the crowd were dumbfounded as Sarsour wrapped up her speech shouting to the audience about her Palestinian grandmother. Jews in attendance were getting their first taste of intersectionality’s anti-Israel slant. The march was no longer purely a united front in the fight for women’s rights, but something much more complex. As marches around the country began to exclude Zionists more openly, one could have and should have taken a deeper look into Sarsour’s history to see what her agenda was.
The most famous of Linda’s tweets was written on March 8, 2011 when she said “Brigitte Gabriel = Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s asking 4 an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away — they don’t deserve to be women.” This was only the tip of the iceberg for someone who was being championed as a feminist, but it should have set off further digging. In a video posted to YouTube from a community event on January 13th, 2015, Sarsour speaks to an audience for over twenty minutes, attributing American police brutality to Israel. Along with casually stating that Benjamin Netanyahu murders journalists in a factual manner that screams of conspiracy with zero proof, she at one point says “We can not be a community that says “let’s just look at the NYPD and let’s reform the NYPD because it’s much deeper than the NYPD, right? This is a philosophy and ideology that the US government has taken and it’s been taking it from Israel.”
The overall lesson from watching Sarsour speak to communities is that this is not someone who is interested in building bridges. The culture of mistrust and outright hatred she hopes to instill creates an “us” versus “them” mentality, destroying the opportunity for teaching and understanding. Anger blinds the audience, and there is no counter available to let them know that the accusations which she freely throws around are simply false. Watching such videos, it is easy to imagine how those who seek comfort in other marginalized groups would come away from such a panel discussion with a newfound hatred for Zionism. Even when a person knows next to nothing about Israel, they associate her with the Jewish people and after hearing only these negative viewpoints, they naturally link what they have been told to the Jewish people. There is no separation between the two.
The average person gets their opinions from their thought leaders, and we must keep this in mind. We must separate the thought leaders who willingly push these ideas that encourage anti-Semitism, and those who merely follow because of misconceptions that were pushed on them. Many are not exposed to another viewpoint to help them make more educated judgements. Our focus needs to be on helping to provide that other viewpoint before more lies are spread.
For too long, most people missed Linda Sarsour’s lesser-known attempts at conflating Israel with America’s social issues, even though the evidence was not exactly a secret. Nearly two years after Sarsour began to mainstream the use of intersectionality to slander Israel, the Women’s March leaders faced a backlash when Alyssa Milano brought mainstream awareness to co-president Tamika Mallory’s association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Mallory had called Farrakhan the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) and refused to denounce him for his blatant anti-semitism. For the first time, the Women’s March leaders were being called out by one of their own for attending an event where Farrakhan said that the Jewish people are “responsible for all the filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out turning men into women and women into men.”
Farrakhan, who has a long history of remarks referring to the “wicked Jews” made himself clear when he said “I’m not an anti-Semite, I’m an anti-termite.” Refusing to condemn this man, Mallory inadvertently drew attention to the deceptive nature of BDS supporters, who perversely hide under the cover of intersectionality while supporting others who vocalize the hate they can not say outright. She generically condemned anti-Semitism while refusing to condemn its most obvious manifestation. Hatred spreads not only when its packaging is obvious to all – swastikas and white hoods. It also spreads from more subtle packaging, which makes it all the harder to combat. The failure to condemn this behavior outright, coupled with tying Israel in with America’s social ills, has led to many accusations that the Women’s March is anti-Semitism masked in activism.
With this understanding of the nature of the Women’s March leaders and their goal of decoupling the Jewish people from the Jewish State, it is easy to understand why the average American from a minority community could get the wrong idea of Zionism. This is only exacerbated when media figures like Marc Lamont Hill get caught using phrases that are not properly understood. Lamont Hill faced backlash recently when he called for “Palestine to be free from the river to the sea”. Israel-advocates are well aware that this phrase is used by the full spectrum of Israel’s opponents as a barely coded call for Israel’s destruction. Lamont Hill claimed that he did not mean it in that way, but his intent is irrelevant. Words are powerful, and once spoken, they have a path of their own. Lamont Hill himself may not believe he is anti-Semitic, but those words emboldened many people who are, and we need to focus on explaining to people why those words are so damaging.
We as Jews cannot simply expect the entire world to understand the 3,000 year history of the Jewish people, but they should be expected to understand the power of words. This minimum requirement is apparently too high for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). This week she found herself reprimanded by the heads of the Democratic party for her tweets using anti-Semitic tropes in what has become a pattern for her. Recently, she was under fire for saying that “Israel has hypnotized the world” in a 2012 tweet. Everyone deserves a second chance and an opportunity to apologize, but during her campaign for office she was quoted as saying that she did not support BDS, only to change that stance once she was elected. Already under scrutiny for her dishonesty, Omar doubled down by suggesting that members of Congress support Israel because of AIPAC money.
Ilhan Omar’s flirtation with anti-Semitic tropes exemplifies the issue that the Jewish community is facing. As Israel’s enemies push the BDS movement, they use classic dog whistles while simultaneously feigning ignorance. Whether it is Sarsour and Mallory claiming their “love and solidarity” with the Jewish people while encouraging discord among our community or Lamont Hill and Omar claiming that their words are being misconstrued, it is becoming commonplace for Jews to have to repeatedly and publicly vocalize their disgust. When we respond with anger, we lose the battle. We claim anti-Semitism they say. To shield themselves, they quickly point to the loud but vocal minority of Jews who make excuses for them. It seems that as long as there are a handful of Jews available for a blank check of forgiveness, anti-Semitism can be brushed under the rug. Given this “get out of jail free” card, people like Sarsour and Omar can continue to use inciteful language. What is worrisome is not merely the individual remarks, but the pattern that encourages people to see what they can get away with, and discourages others from seeking an understanding of how these remarks are hurtful. Anti-Semitism does not have to be blatantly obvious. It can also be low key and without immediate results, festering until it becomes normalized.
The war is far from over and our failures of yesterday can be rectified in time for the battles of tomorrow. Of course this all hinges on our ability to admit our shortcomings, shift focus, and recognize that the game has changed. Ahad Ha’am once said, “survival cannot be made dependent on any condition, because the condition might not be fulfilled. The Jews as a people feel that they have the will and the strength to survive whatever may happen without any ifs or ands.” No boycott can make a dent in that mentality. Rather than bemoan the BDS movement, we need to acknowledge that the real threat comes from the promotion of lies and the reluctance of our community to speak out against the hatred that exists for our community, no matter what form it may take. We have already reached a saturation point for anti-Semitic dog whistles. We cannot continue to allow untruths to go unchallenged or be scared to call anti-Semitism out for what it is.