In recent years the question of what can and cannot be defined as antisemitism, especially with regard to Israel, has been hotly debated in connection with the BDS movement. What is this movement? What are its goals? And what characterizes its activity?
BDS stands for: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, and it is a movement that tries to isolate Israel from the international community, by encouraging consumer boycotts of Israeli goods or boycotts of Israeli artists or to try and persuade Western artists not to perform in Israel, sanctions by governments, and divestment by institutions in the West, basically pull their money out of Israel, not do business with Israel. And it’s a model which is based on anti-apartheid campaigns that were used against apartheid South Africa, which really built a global structure of boycott and isolation of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s until the end of apartheid.
Now on the face of it, these tactics are a legitimate way to conduct non-violent, legal, political campaigns, and they have a long tradition in not just left-wing politics, of using boycotts to try and effect change in foreign governments. Just because a liberal minded person who cares about humanitarian issues, worries about the condition of the Palestinians, feels they have a right to statehood, and decides as a result they’re gonna buy a Spanish orange instead of an Israeli one in their supermarket, it doesn’t make them an antisemite. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that they want Israel to disappear. There is a whole range of motivations behind people who follow the BDS movement.
So I don’t think we can say BDS is antisemitic, but as with everything in life things are a little bit more complicated if you look beneath the surface. Once you start to look at who are the organizations behind this BDS strategy, who are the leaders of the movement, what do they say about Israel, what do they actually want, what you find more often than not, is that there is an overarching political vision that doesn’t include Israel’s existence in the future. The BDS movement, BDS campaigns often keep their aims vague and ambiguous, precisely because it can draw in people from a whole range of political backgrounds and views.
But the people running the campaigns, quite often are from a much more hard-line, anti-Zionist position - that they want Israel to go. The essence of this movement is to create an intellectual environment whereby the very existence of the State of Israel is illegitimate. Now this is something that is difficult to notice, because many people who are part of the movement, of the BDS movement, of the battle to delegitimize Israel, will argue that they are actually non-violent protesters against Zionism.
And a lot of people when they hear non-violent they think - “ah, these are Gandhi, these are Martin Luther King,” and there is a tendency to assume that if the means of struggle are non-violent, therefore it must be a noble struggle for a good cause. But of course there’s no relationship - you can have a very bloody and violent struggle that is waged for a very noble cause, in fact most of the world’s noble battles were bloody and violent, and, and this is less intuitive, you can have a non-violent struggle for a very violent purpose, for a very ignoble purpose, and this is exactly the essence of the movement to delegitimize Israel.
The movement works by a very simple strategy, which I’ve come to call “the placard strategy”. People know it - you go to any anti-Israel demonstration, they hold placards. What do these placards say? The placards say there are equations, they say “Israel”, “Zionism”, sometimes they just draw a Star of David, equals… Now this strategy has been so effective, these equations have been so effective, that even people who know very little about Israel, even people who love Israel, know exactly what these equations say. This strategy has been so effective that it equates Zionsim Israel and the Star of David with apartheid and Nazism, and genocide, and colonialism, and racism, and imperialism. And those who engage in the “placard strategy” will say, “What?”
“We are merely describing reality.” “This is what Zionism is. This is what Israel is.” And of course it bears no relation to reality. The reason that those words are chosen is that by now those words have reached a consensus that they are evil. So basically what the “placard strategy” does is expose people to the refrain that says, “Israel, Zionsim, Star of David equal evil.” “Israel, Zionsim, Star of David equal evil.” Now why is that important? Because most of people, for them to carry out acts of mass violence they need an ideology. They are not psychopaths. Only few humans are.
So for people to be violent, to carry out a genocide they need to believe that what they are about to do is good. And there is no greater good in this world than the eradication of evil. So if you create an intellectual mindset that says, “ “Israel, Zionsim, Star of David equals evil,” you are basically creating a global invitation to mass violence. You are saying, “Look, there is an evil out there. Do whatever you can by whatever means necessary to eradicate this evil.” Zionism is the stumbling block, is the thing that stands between the world and utopia. “If only we didn’t have Zionism. It’s about an image - creating an image where there is a world without Israel.
And then we can say, “Isn’t it a much nicer world?” “Look! Look at the UN. Look at FIFA. Wouldn’t they be so much nicer without Israel?” And this is why this movement is so so dangerous. It is a non-violent movement for an extremely violent purpose.