About a year ago, I walked into an auditorium at a prominent West Coast university, intending to give a personal and historical perspective on the U.S.-Israel relationship. I had scarcely begun my remarks, when a student stood up and started screaming that Israel had massacred Palestinian babies, and that I, as Israel’s ambassador, was a war criminal.
I was forced to stop and wait while the student was subdued. But then no sooner had I resumed my speech when another student sprung up and started hollering similar charges. And so it went on – students, strategically placed in center rows and seats from which they could not easily be evicted, jumping up and heckling at intervals designed to prevent me from ever completing the first five minutes, much less the full duration, of my speech.
I faced a serious dilemma. Should I leave the stage and not allow the State of Israel to be used as a punching bag, or rather, stay and continue restarting a speech that could not be honorably completed or even audibly heard?
At this point, I became keenly aware that at stake was not my pride, nor even my speech, but the right of the State of Israel to be heard in America and, moreover, in an institution dedicated to open discourse. At stake was Israel’s very legitimacy.
My experience on that day was only a small example of a global campaign to deny Israel the right to defend itself or even the right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state in our ancestral homeland. Elsewhere, in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where Israel was accused of mounting a preplanned genocidal war against the people of Gaza; in British universities and labor unions that called for boycotting Israeli scholars and goods; in Scandinavian grocery stores that banned Israeli products from their shelves; in European capitals where warrants for war crimes were issued against former Israeli civilian and military leaders; in mainline churches that condemned Israeli military responses without mentioning the terror that necessitated them; and on the front page of a prestigious national magazine that suggested Israelis preferred money to peace – Israel was under assault.
Faced with this onslaught, the Jewish world reeled in crisis. How could we understand this sophisticated, multi-pronged threat? How could we summon the resources – moral, fiscal, and even physical – to meet it? And most dauntingly, how could we even define it?
A year ago I had not heard the term BDS – short for Boycott, Divestment, Sanction. BDS describes a range of threats we face in this country. There have been attempts by student senates and town councils to boycott and divest from Israel, and demands to cut off vital U.S. aid for Israel’s defense. Elsewhere, however, particularly in parts of Europe and throughout the Muslim world, BDS represents something vastly more sinister.
Technically, tactically, BDS represents the latest of the effort to destroy the Jewish state. The first stage, beginning in 1948, was the effort to defeat Israel by conventional military means — a stage that ended in the failed Arab attacks of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The second stage, beginning with the massacres of the early 1970s, was the terror stage, and that stage ended only a few years ago with the failed Second Intifada. Now comes the third and most critical stage, the attempt to succeed where armies and terrorists failed, to eliminate not only the Israeli army or Israeli civilians but to obliterate the very idea of Israel.
This is new type of warfare, one that is being waged in the media, in our households and supermarkets, our communities and schools. And the power of this war may exceed that of any previous offensive because it can be cloaked in political correctness and the prevailing anti-war mood. Behind that veneer, though, BDS hooks into the oldest hatred, one which has caused incalculable Jewish suffering. Indeed, in another place and generation, BDS might have stood for Banish, Desecrate, and Sequester or in another, Burn, Destroy, and Slaughter. The acronym BDS is nothing less than a synonym for anti-Semitism.
“Hasn’t he gone a bit far here?” some of you may ask. No doubt, many well-meaning people support the boycotts and sanctions thinking they are promoting the peace process. But, no, I have not gone too far. And here is why.
All peoples are their stories and there is no story as epic and astonishing as that of the Jews. From a small, anonymous band of nomads, bonded by the revolutionary notions of a single God and a universal morality, we survived 400 years of slavery and 40 years of desert wandering to establish an independent state in the land of their forefathers; we were exiled and repatriated and exiled again, in the process inspiring the two faiths to which half of humanity today subscribes. We survived countless expulsions, depredations, and massacres, and, finally, the largest mass murder in history.
Yet the Jewish people did not merely survive. We returned once again to our homeland, revived our ancient language, created a thriving democracy and flourishing economy, and absorbed millions of our fellow Jews from around the world – all the while, fighting superior forces determined to destroy us.
There is no story in human history remotely like it. And yet it is precisely that story that anti-Semitism seeks to pervert.
For centuries, Anti-Semites scoured the Bible for stories of cruelty, licentiousness, and greed, and, upheld them as uniquely Jewish defects. The story of the golden calf, they claimed proved that Jews worshipped only money. The Jews gave Moses a hard time. Therefore, the anti-Semites said, they were all stiff-nicked and eye-for-an-eye meant that Jews were vengeful and cruel.
Further, anti-Semites focused obsessively on those alleged shortcomings, ignoring those of other people, and blamed them for the world’s problems. BDS similarly selects aspects of Israeli policy and society, deprives them of context, and uses them to defame Israel as a whole. BDS does this, moreover, while ignoring the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by Israel’s neighbors—their repression of women, their hatred of gays and religious minorities, their denial of the basic freedoms of assembly and expression. All of the Middle East’s problems are Israel’s fault, say the champions of BDS. For them, Zionism is not liberation but colonialism; Israel is not redemption but oppression.
Anti-Semitism, we know, ascribes to the Jews those qualities most hated by any given society. If the society is communist, Jews are capitalists, and if the society is capitalist, then the Jews are socialists. If the state is nationalist, Jews are cosmopolitans; if militarist, Jews are pacifists—or, conversely, in a post-nationalist, post-militarist state, Jews are chauvinistic warmongers.
Today’s world has emerged largely victorious from the civil rights struggles, the battle against white supremacist regimes, and the genocides of Rwanda, Darfur, and the Balkans. In that world, there are labels every bit as hateful as those formerly applied to Jews. In our world, one of the worst stigmas to attach to any individual or people is the term “racist.” Worse yet, “apartheid.” And, the worst is “ethnic cleansing.” Racist. Apartheid. Ethnic Cleansing – those are precisely the words that the promoters of BDS associate with Israel.
But BDS is not just an Israeli problem. It is a Jewish problem, employing the tools that have been used to distort and demonize our story for thousands of years. Historically, every attempt to destroy us as a people began with a campaign to delegitimize us as a people. That was the case before the Inquisition; it was the case before the Holocaust. And it is the case today, as terrorist groups amass tens of thousands of missiles and and Iranian mullahs strive to produce nuclear weapons, all with the goal of wiping Israel and its millions of inhabitants off the face of the earth.
But BDS is not only an Israeli and a Jewish problem, it is an American problem. Like anti-Semitism, it is an attack on democracy. BDS promoters today tell Americans what can they can and cannot say on campus, what products they can buy on the stores, and what authors they can and cannot read. Imagine what they will try to do tomorrow.
What, then, is our answer? The first response is to understand the true nature of BDS and the dangers it poses. We must educate our communities and especially our young people that BDS, far from being a non-violent means of opposing this or that Israeli policy, is nothing less than the de-legitimization of the State of Israel, stripping it of the means to defend itself and even the right to define itself as a Jewish state. BDS employs classic anti-Semitic tools in ways that threaten not only Israel but also American Jews, and American values.
And BDS is anti-peace. The use of cellphones and computers by struggling democratizing movements would have been outlawed because of them have components made in Israel. BDS would prevent an Israeli start-up from exporting alternative energy technology to developing countries or an Israeli-Arab doctor from attending a medical conference in London.
Peace will come about only as a revolt of open and direct dialogue and wide-ranging interaction between Arabs and Israelis. BDS blocks that. BDS is about demonization, not reconciliation – about isolation, not co-existence.
Yet recognizing BDS is not enough: we have to unite to actively combat it. Not only must we educate our own community about the dangers of BDS, but reach out to other ethnic and religious groups, to help them understand that BDS imperils their communities as well. It must be understood that BDS is discriminatory and racist and if allowed to progress threatens our fundamental democratic ideals. Today it seeks to choose for us what we can and cannot buy, but what about tomorrow? If Mexico seeks a trade treaty with Israel, will Mexican products and the Mexican-American community be threatened? If the Baptist Church decides to build a new church in Tel Aviv, will African-Americans find themselves the target of renewed discrimination and threats here in the US?
We must educate and we must act. If there are calls to boycott Israeli products, buy those products. If someone is calling for divestment from Israeli companies, invest in them. And if an Israeli or pro-Israeli speaker is coming to a community center or campus near you, attend and ensure that speaker is heard.
I remember being at that West Coast campus a year ago and having to decide whether to leave the rostrum, and so allowing the hecklers to win, or to stay, endure their hatred, but make Israel’s case. Out in the audience were members of the community – students, professionals, retirees – who were encouraging me and telling me to stay no matter what. I looked at them. I remembered our extraordinary story. And I stayed.