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Zionism is not racism – BDS isn’t always anti-Semitism

US Sec of State Pompeo's declaration that the Israel boycott is anti-Jewish by definition is just the kind of false simplification we've seen before
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, near Merom Golan on the border with Syria, on November 19, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, near Merom Golan on the border with Syria, on November 19, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP)

In 1990, as the American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert, I organized a meeting at the US Mission to the UN, kicking off the successful effort to repeal its 1975 General Assembly Resolution equating Zionism with Racism. Cold War politics had led to this pernicious definition, and the collapse of communism provided the opportunity for its retraction. While it was on the books, anti-Semitism rose. For example, on some British campuses Jews were defined as Zionists, and Zionist as racists, and since racist organizations were not allowed, Jewish student groups were banned.

Some expressions of Zionism (like those of Jewish Defense League leader Meir Kahane) were clearly racist (and fascist). But to brand all Zionism by definition as racist was a deeply troubling political exercise, enshrining a black and white rule when reality was more complex. Many Zionists (like me) believe Jews have a right to national self-determination in their historic homeland, and to declare such a view as racist by definition was dangerous. I suspect Jewish leaders who remember those times recall the discrimination and hatred stoked by the equation of Zionism and racism in legalistic terms.

I see the same politicization of complex terms today, in the opposite direction. But it disturbs me that some Jewish leaders, including those who understood the dangers of the UN’s equation decades ago, are applauding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent declaration that anti-Zionism is, by definition, anti-Semitism. Some anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic, especially expressions that employ classic anti-Semitic tropes or play into Jewish conspiracy tropes. And one can argue that since Jews are not going to give up their right to national self-expression without a fight, anti-Zionism is functionally anti-Semitic (and also anti-Palestinian, since its logical endpoint is perpetual conflict). And some have pointed to a correlation of anti-Zionist expressions with an increase in anti-Semitism, and thus the need to be cognizant of such expressions when measuring the likelihood of a rise in anti-Semitism. But that’s a far cry from saying that anti-Zionism is by definition anti-Semitism.

There are Jews who are anti-Zionist for theological reasons, such as Satmar Hassids. And there are Jews for whom the religious command about how to treat the stranger is front and center. Many of these Jews can’t square that injunction with the creation of a Jewish state in a land where Palestinians, who also crave national self-expression, are denied it. And there are Palestinians who view Zionism as responsible for their predicament. There’s enough fault on all sides for the current state of affairs, but to say that a Palestinian who bemoans what happened in 1948 when the state of Israel was declared does so because he hates Jews, or sees a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, misses the reality that there are competing national narratives in play, not uniform Jew-hatred.

I oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I believe it empowers extremists on both sides, and a particular aspect of it – the push to boycott Israeli academic institutions – is outrageous, and a danger to the academy, where ideas must be weighed on their merits, not dismissed because of a scholar’s nationality. And some of the leaders of BDS, and some who promote it, have employed anti-Semitism. But is BDS by definition anti-Semitic? Clearly not. (I first heard about boycotts from an Israeli academic colleague, an expert on anti-Semitism, who refused to buy goods from Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.) When the Second Intifada started, people like me were telling Palestinians to find a non-violent way to make their case. BDS is non-violent. It is not the same as the old Arab boycott of Israel. Some advocate BDS in the hope that it will pressure Israel to act differently. I don’t agree with their approach, but it is not, by definition, anti-Semitic.

The field of Hate Studies teaches us that when people have their identity connected to an issue of perceived social justice or injustice, their instinct to see an “us” and a “them” is heightened. They crave black and white answers to complex questions, and try to disparage, dehumanize, or demonize people who are “them,” rather than step back and have the intellectual imagination to wonder if they’d look at the world differently if they happened to be born a “them.”

That craving for simplicity was reflected in the equation of Zionism with Racism; and it’s in play with Pompeo’s equation of anti-Zionism (and BDS) with anti-Semitism. Just a few weeks ago, the Trump administration floated the idea of branding groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch anti-Semitic, based on the same misguided thinking.

Strong democratic institutions, which protect free speech (including speech with which one fundamentally disagrees), are necessary preconditions for effective efforts against hatred, including anti-Semitism. By declaring BDS and anti-Zionism anti-Semitic, our democratic institutions are made weaker. We should all be scared when government declares certain speech as out of bounds.

About the Author
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and the author most recently of The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee's expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism."
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