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Are Israel boycotts really anti-Semitic?



In late 2017, New Zealand singer Lorde (pictured) announced she was cancelling her upcoming 2018 concert in Israel. This was in response to an open letter by New Zealander women Justine Sachs (Jewish) and Nadia Abu-Shanab (Palestinian), urging the singer not to perform in Israel due to its ongoing oppression and occupation of Palestine.

LordeIn their words: 'Our part in movements for justice and equality shouldn't just be a memory that gathers dust. We can play an important role in challenging injustice today.'

Lorde's decision made waves. While many artists applauded the decision, which sees her join ranks of others who boycott Israel — such as Roger Waters, Elvis Costello, Pixies, Lauryn Hill, and Annie Lennox — Israel's ambassador to New Zealand asked to meet with the singer, saying that the boycott of Israel represented 'hostility and intolerance'. The ambassador concluded by inviting Lorde to discuss Israel's role 'as the only democracy in the Middle East'.

A month after Lorde's announcement, in 'the only democracy in the Middle East', several Israelis decided to sue Justine and Nadia for their role in Lorde's cancellation. To me this is an ironic turn of events — in a democracy, free speech, freedom of thought, and dissenting views ought to be protected. Suing individuals for exercising these rights seems ... somewhat undemocratic.

For those in Israel/Palestine activist or Jewish circles, BDS is a topic of contention. Standing for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, BDS is a Palestinian-led movement calling for economic, political, and other non-violent pressure on Israel, until Israel abides by international law and ends its illegal occupation of Palestine.

Launched in 2005, the movement gained significant traction in recent years due to some high-profile campaigns. One, targeting SodaStream, caused the company to close its factory in the West Bank and move it to the Negev Desert.

Opponents of BDS argue that the campaign didn't take into account the welfare of Palestinians: the closure of SodaStream in the West Bank meant many Palestinian workers were laid off, as work permits (Palestinians need permits to enter Israel) were approved only for a small percentage. Supporters of BDS consider the SodaStream campaign a success as it demonstrated the movement's influence.


"In another ironic twist, we end up with Jewish groups being targeted by a law meant to protect Israel from a supposedly anti-Semitic movement."


But BDS isn't just about putting economic pressure on Israel. A cultural boycott has seen hundreds of artists and performers cancel shows in Israel. Academic boycotts are gaining traction as well — in 2013, physicist Stephen Hawking withdrew from a conference held in Israel to show his support of BDS and the Palestinian cause.

Some, however, believe BDS is more sinister. In response to Hawking's decision, British writer Howard Jacobson implies that underlying BDS is anti-Semitism — and he is not alone. The Anti-Defamation League claims 'BDS advocates employ anti-Semitic rhetoric and narratives to isolate and demonise Israel'. Others tie BDS with other historic boycotts of Jewish businesses, such as 1933 Nazi Germany. Then, Jewish businesses were identified and marked with large stars of David on shop windows, alongside signs warning 'Don't Buy from Jews'.

The sentiment against BDS in Israel today harks back to this painful historical memory — of Jews being boycotted simply because they're Jews. For many, BDS is anti-Semitism in disguise. This argument is made more complex when we consider that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and so BDS is seen as targeting Jews rather than politics.

In response to the growing boycott movement, Israel brought in legislation banning entry of individuals and groups who support BDS. Some 20 organisations are blacklisted, including Jewish Voices for Peace. Their deputy-director, Rabbi Wise, was one of the first people banned entry to Israel under this new law. In another ironic twist, we end up with Jewish groups being targeted by a law meant to protect Israel from a supposedly anti-Semitic movement.  

As Israel attempts to make BDS and support of BDS illegal, we must consider why should it be illegal to boycott in the first place? Boycotting is a common and effective method of protest. As with any form of protest, the personal bleeds into the political. We may boycott goods made in sweatshops, or organisations that exploit their staff or have an agenda we do not support. In fact, boycotts are popular in Israel, where people express views on anything from the cost of cottage cheese and chocolate pudding to businesses that open on the Sabbath by boycotting. There have even been calls to boycott Arabs — thus targeting individuals simply based on their ethnicity.

The fact that PM Netanyahu's right-wing government campaigns against BDS, claiming it is anti-Semitic, rather than addressing the core issues at hand (oppression and occupation of Palestine), only highlights that this is a government concerned with suppressing dissent and human rights. Non-violent forms of protest, such as boycotts, are legitimate in every civil, democratic society. By criminalising BDS, however, we must question how democratic Israel is, after all.



Na'ama CarlinNa'ama Carlin holds a PhD in Sociology. A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, she writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethics, identity, and violence. Follow her @derridalicious

Topic tags: Na'ama Carlin, Lorde, Israel, Palestine, anti-Semitism



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article – the first I've seen anywhere that challenges the notion that any and all criticism of Israel (including BDS) is anti-semitic. That Israel defines itself as a Jewish state (never mind its Arab Muslim and Christian citizens) and has a religious symbol on its flag does not put that state beyond criticism. Neither does the history of the Holocaust. Present day Israeli actions can and should be judged on their merits. If Israel doesn't like that, it is being dishonest. For anyone who wants to arm themselves with a few more facts, I found a very good and very readable place to start is Charles D. Smith's “Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents” (currently up to its 9th edition, 2017). It is also an eye-opening read in that it presents a very different picture to that which is presented in the mainstream Western media, including The Tablet at times. It's also well worth watching the Al Jazeera news service from time to time just to get a perspective that isn't influenced by the Israeli/Jewish lobby – and in saying that, how does one describe a Jew who is not an Israeli but actively supports Israel? It gets back to the flag/religion/politics conundrum.

Margaret MC | 14 February 2018  

The most damaging accompaniment of belief is blindness. Modern Israel is in dire need of a guide dog. Last week, the shooting down of an Israeli jet when it was bombing a country beyond Israel's borders was condemned by Netanyahu as an attack on Israel !!!

john frawley | 14 February 2018  

I struggle to find the words in which to express the loathing I undergo every time I read the words "anti-semitic". The definition of semitic is clear - it has always meant Hebrew and Arabic peoples - the application of it by Israelis and Zionists is ludicrous. It is this constant barrage by the Zionists of attack first, ask questions (maybe, maybe not) later which puts supporters of Palestine on the back foot. Crude, rude and often highly offensive racist remarks are delivered as some kind of "right of reply" - rarely have I had dialogue with a pro-Israeli/Zionist Jew that is informative and thought provoking. Being called a self-hating Jew is one of the most bizarre experiences of my life - stating that I placed humanitarian issues first over "religion" , "state" and "race" brought about the vilest comment by a "rabbi". The sickness that is Israel has no cure other than true Jews standing up and saying "No more"! Continue with BDS - hurt them in the pocket - seems to be the only way these fools can respond.

Frances Yule | 14 February 2018  

Thank you Na'ama for an excellent article. This view of Israels government's actions is just not covered in our local press. The ABC to its credit does attempt to cover these issues but the powerful Israel government support in Australia tends to have a huge influence. Tragic for all wanting peace and justice in this area of the world.

Tom Kingston | 15 February 2018  

The Israeli government is terrible and needs to be defeated by their people voting for alternative parties. However, it is true that many BDS advocates often do employ anti-Semitic rhetoric and narratives to isolate and demonise Israel. Some are on the extreme left and others on the extreme right. They should be called out and labelled racists whenever that occurs.

Angela | 15 February 2018  

I would almost certainly boycott products made in the Vatican, but that doesn’t make me anti-Catholic or a “self hater.”

Peter Downie | 15 February 2018  

From the BDS website: "Faced with resistance from the predominantly Arab indigenous population, the Zionist movement began to develop “transfer plans” from the early 1930s. In 1948..." Is that all that was happening in that period? Really? Does omission constitute denial? I'm not sure but I do feel that there is something terribly naive about this article.

Tony | 15 February 2018  

John Frawley. The Israeli plane WAS responding to a previous attack on Israel, hitting the place where the attack came from in order to discourage further attacks

Jason | 16 February 2018  

Na'ama Carlin's article seriously understates the extremist nature of the BDS movement which does not favour a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in fact actively vilifies supporters of two states including leading Israeli peace activists such as Amos Oz and Uri Avnery, The key leaders of the BDS movement such as Omar Barghouti and Ali Abunimah openly state their preference for the so-called one-state solution which means the destruction of the state of Israel, and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine in which Jews would only be allowed to remain as a religious minority. For further detail, see our recently published book: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/why-boycotting-israel-wrong/

Philip Mendes | 18 February 2018  

Surely it's clear that boycotts are not anti-Semitic - just anti-Zionist. Isn't it time people started articulating to Israel that the only way forward is a modern secular society where there's a separation of state and religion? Haven't the Jewish people already seen the perils of totalitarianism?

AURELIUS | 26 February 2018  

Of course BDS is anti-Semitic, which is defined as "hostile to or prejudiced against Jews". Despite the hundreds of thousands killed in Syria by that sadist; Assad, the persecution of minorities and the deaths of women after being raped, and the persistence of slavery in all Muslim countries from Pakistan to Morocco, not one Muslim country has ever been a boycott target. No Israeli-Arab company has ever been boycotted, So why is Israel not allowed to protect itself? Israel protects all its people; Jews, Muslims and Christians. I live in Israel for most of the year. I see what goes on there. There are Arabs walking freely everywhere. No-one hassles them, Jews work with them, are pleasant to them and treat them with courtesy and respect. Now, how long do you think a Jew will survive if he walked down a street in Ramallah, or Cairo, or Bagdad, or Damascus? I was warned to take off my skull-cap before walking the streets of Amman, Jordan a few years ago. You are really only getting half the story from this writer. The truth is far more complicated than you could imagine.

Les Brown | 30 April 2018  

It is time that Zionist Jews and Zionist Christians were challenged about their use of the label "antisemitic" against those who rightly criticise the Israeli state of crimes against humanity in Palestine and the unlawful and often brutal occupation of Palestinian lands. Palestinian Christians and Muslims are also Semites and the inhumane treatment that they receive at the hands of the Zionist Israeli state is also antisemitic. This fact is recognised by "righteous " Jews who speak out against the genocide of the Palestinians. And they are also labelled as being antisemitic by Zionist Jews and Christians.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 February 2019  

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