The BDS Debate Goes Mainstream

Critics of Israel’s most egregious and often illegal policies—occupation, colonization, mass incarceration, assassinations, and direct and indirect siege of Palestinian civilian communities—now also call for measures to deter or punish it.

The New York Times is not only considered the leading newspaper in the United States, it is also something of a bellwether of intellectual and political trends in the country. So it was noteworthy that the newspaper’s Monday opinion page feature “Room for Debate” comprised five different views on these questions: “Is Anti-Zionism merely Anti-Semitism in disguise? When does criticism of Israel become bigotry? Is rejection of the Jewish state a rejection of Jews?”

Never mind the Israel-centric nature of the questions that highlighted Israeli sentiments rather than a balance between the views of Israel and those of its critics. I still call this noteworthy because in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts, how openly and how strongly one can criticize Israeli actions against Palestinians, in particular, has become a very sensitive matter that increasingly has generated Israeli-led counter-measures to minimize such criticisms. This is because the critics of Israel’s most egregious and often illegal policies—notably occupation, colonization, mass incarceration, assassinations, and direct and indirect siege of Palestinian civilian communities—now also call for measures to deter or punish it.

Such actions have been spearheaded by the global Palestinian civil society initiative known as BDS, the initials for the proposed measures to boycott, divest investments, and sanction Israel for its mistreatment of Palestinians in three concentric circles: those living in the Israeli state as citizens, those living under Israeli occupation in the territories occupied in the 1967 war, and those who are exiled refugees living elsewhere in the region or the world.

The BDS movement has slowly been gaining strength across the United States and other parts of the world, because it has successfully projected its actions in the same spirit as the anti-apartheid sanctions against the racist South African regime half a century ago. Israelis and their friends fiercely reject these parallels, and some of them accuse the BDS movement of being simply a cover for old-fashioned anti-Semitism that rejected giving Jews equal rights as other citizens.

This battle has heated up steadily in the past decade, and has made significant gains in the heart of Western societies, rather than on their radical fringes only. Israelis became worried and started to take action in recent years, especially when some leading American mainstream churches, trade unions, and academic or professional associations signaled their willingness to sanction or boycott Israelis or foreign companies or organizations that profit from the occupation and colonization of Palestinians.

This escalating public debate about whether criticism of Israeli policies is just disguised anti-Semitism has damaged both Israel and its critics. Israel is hurt because its policies are coming under much greater public and global scrutiny in the context of discussions about apartheid, and Palestinians and their supporters are hurt because they are being savaged with the accusation of anti-Semitism. It is important to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is among the most damning brands of villainy that exist in the world today, because of its organic link with the inhuman scale, criminality, and brutality of the Holocaust against the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Anti-Semitism paved the way for the Holocaust, and persisted after the Nazis were defeated.

So it is a very big deal that opponents of the BDS movement resort to calling it anti-Semitic, in their vigorous attempt to shut down the escalating criticisms of Israeli policies and the parallel calls for corrective sanctions against Israel for the crimes it commits. Yet it seems now that it is even a bigger deal that the anti-Semitism accusation seems not to have achieved its aims of crushing the BDS movement, and in fact may have had the opposite effect: the question of whether one does or does not criticize/sanction Israeli policies has put a huge spotlight on those policies in the public arena around the world, rather than muted the discussion of how Israel treats the Palestinians or complies with international law. This debate has now reached the New York Times opinion pages.

In some ways, this has become the new front line of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the United States, and also to a lesser extent in Europe and other parts of the world. This has quickly rubbed up against the right to free speech in the United States, including the right to criticize any government’s policies and actions. It also highlights massive contradictions or hypocrisies among those who reject boycotting Israel for its harsh and often criminal acts, but advocate boycotting Iran or other states or political groups for their actions.

The simple and right answer to me is that every country’s or political group’s record should be open to public scrutiny, including Israelis, Arabs, Iranians, Americans, and others. Those that are deemed to engage in criminal or terrorist actions should be liable to sanctions, boycotts, divestment, or other such punitive actions, like those that the United States government itself routinely carries out against its foes or those whom it deems to engage in criminal behavior.

For this debate to reach the opinion pages of the New York Times is an important symbolic milestone, indicating that this is a topic that deserves public debate, rather than remaining in the realm of shadowy accusations or veiled racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism, or other such crimes that remain very much part of our world today.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @RamiKhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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