Blank: Boycotts of Israel are not Anti-semitic

Conflating hatred of Jews with legitimate criticism of Israel hurts the movement against anti-Semitism.

Lew Blank

Anti-Semitism is on the rise. 

A report from Tel Aviv University found a 13 percent spike in anti-Semitic attacks worldwide last year, including a surge in the U.S. fueled by the devastating Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last October, which killed 11. 

With many in Jewish communities at the University of Minnesota and across the U.S. living in a state of fear, our efforts should be fully focused on combating anti-Semitic hate and violence. That’s why it’s unfortunate that some groups have conflated hatred and violence against Jews with perfectly legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel, inaccurately labeling both as anti-Semitism.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is a political campaign advocating for governments and businesses to place economic pressure on the state of Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian Territories — an occupation that the United Nations determined in 2016 to be in violation of international law. Although the BDS movement is explicitly non-violent and is supported by a variety of Jewish organizations, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, it has been regularly misrepresented as anti-Semitic by critics.

This May, for instance, the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center distributed hateful flyers on campus at the University of Minnesota claiming that BDS represented “a direct parallel to the rhetoric and methods employed by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.” The flyers were condemned by the University.

Nationwide, supporters of BDS have faced repeated censorship by state governments. In 2017,  Texas passed a bill prohibiting all state agencies from hiring BDS supporters, leading directly to the firing of Bahia Amawi, an elementary school speech pathologist who refused to sign an oath that she would not boycott Israel. 

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, 27 states have enacted laws that prohibit boycotts against Israel, justifying their actions by claiming that boycotts against Israel are anti-Semitic. These laws violate the First Amendment’s right to free speech, which protects the right to boycott, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

While the BDS movement has faced hate on college campuses and has been censored nationwide, the allegation that the campaign is anti-Semitic is unfounded.

Many argue that the strong focus of BDS supporters on pressuring the state of Israel, and not other wrongdoing countries, is proof in itself that the movement is anti-Semitic. In fairness, it indeed seems odd at first glance that a small country the size of New Jersey would get so much attention — especially since that country is the world’s only Jewish state.

But there’s a simple reason for all the focus on Israel: the nation is the number one recipient of U.S. foreign military financing, according to a 2018 report from the Congressional Research Service. In fact, the Trump Administration’s pledge to give Israel $38 billion in military aid over the next 10 years means Israel will receive 61 percent of America’s financing of foreign militaries worldwide.

It’s the U.S. support of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories — not the fact that Israel is a Jewish-majority country — that causes so many Americans to support the BDS movement. In the same way, when activists call on the U.S. to stop making arms deals with Saudi Arabia, these are political statements intended to safeguard human rights — not statements concocted out of Islamophobic vitriol.

Whether it’s segregated buses in Montgomery, Shell Oil’s operations in apartheid South Africa or the U.S.’ military support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Americans have the right to boycott injustice. If we really want to stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters, we should call out anti-Semitic hatred and violence everywhere it exists without conflating real anti-Semitism with legitimate boycotts against Israel.