Last Thursday, the Board of Trustees overturned an insidious BDS motion that was passed at a UCLU council meeting three months prior. In reaching a decision, the Board confirmed that inflammatory political motions, which do not reflect the wider student body, have no place on campus unions whose charity objectives are to promote education and not to hinder education.
That this policy is to remain on record, however, reinforces the need to redouble our efforts to tackle discriminatory behaviour on campus. UCLU must accept that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is a strain of anti-Zionism that crosses the line between acceptable criticism of Israel to a sustained delegitimization campaign against the sole Jewish state.
Anti-Israel activists on many university campuses incessantly advocate for the boycott of Israel. Virtually none calls for the boycott of countries with incomparably worse human rights abuses. We must ask: why?
‘Anti-Semitism’, writes Rabbi Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, ‘is a virus that survives by mutating.’ He continues: ‘In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation-state, Israel. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.’
Boycotting Israel means shunning Jewish commerce. It means rejecting the huge contribution of the Jewish state of Israel to the wider world. One out of every seven prescriptions filled by the NHS is sourced from Israeli pharmaceutical companies. Our country is therefore stronger because of Israel. And that is why, despite a sinister campaign, bilateral relations with Israel are soaring and universities are beginning to expose BDS for what it really is.
There is nothing new about the BDS movement. The history of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, as Professor Alan Johnson calls it, begins when the Holocaust ends. After the Holocaust, hatred toward Jews had to find a new expression. It found that expression in the communist movement during the Cold War and the left have struggled to lift their association. By accusing the Israelis of being Nazis, the communists, as the historian Jeffrey Herf points out, ‘took the language of anti-fascism, ironically, and turned it against the Jews and against Israel.’
The Nazi analogy places Israel in opposition to those who fought against fascism. Since anti-fascist language has a great moral standing around the world, the prevailing discourse was devastating for Israel. As Maryland University historian Jeffrey Herf writes, this was ‘one of the greatest accomplishments of communist political warfare at the time, and it endures to this day in a variety of forms.’ The BDS movement is one of those forms.
It is not just the expression of anti-Semitism that has changed. The justification, too, has become even more obscene. In the middle ages, Christians persecuted Jews because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was in the name of science and racial genetics. Today, as Rabbi Lord Sacks points out, it is because of human rights. The BDS movement—in the most libellous accusation of our time—censure Israel for apartheid, racism, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide.
When the reality is so far removed from the truth, we have to internalise what the BDS movement is trying to do, and why it is trying to do it. Israel is an imperfect democracy but it is still the sole democracy in the Middle East. So when the BDS movement draws parallels with apartheid-era South Africa, despite Israeli-Arabs sitting on the Supreme Court and the Knesset, the BDS movement misconstrue history to further age-old anti-Semitic canards.
Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism distorts the meaning of Israel and Zionism so that classic anti-Semitic tropes can resurface as hostility toward Zionism and the state of Israel. As Alan Johnson notes: ‘that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: malevolent, full of blood lust and all controlling.’ This is especially depicted in Holocaust inversion discourse where Israelis are accused of being the new Nazis and the Palestinians as ‘the Holocaust-era Jews.’
Zionism is nothing more than the national liberation movement of the Jews. So when you attack Zionism you reject the idea that the Jewish people have a right to national self-determination. You reject the right of Jews to live free from persecution and centuries of institutionalised discrimination. When you reflect on the history of the Jews—the 12th century massacre in York, mass expulsions in Spain, pogroms in Russia and the Holocaust, the culmination of 2000 years of persecution—and then you vociferously support the boycott of the state of Israel because you oppose Zionism—Well, as the author Howard Jacobson points out: ‘there’s a Jewish word for that. That’s chutzpah. That’s chutzpah with blood in it.’
At its core, BDS rejects the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. It is a form of political warfare targeted against Jews. UCLU—and indeed the wider student movement—must reject the politics of hate and denounce the BDS movement because history teaches us that the hate that starts with the Jews never ends there.