Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2017, pp. 42, 44

Israel and Judaism

Israel’s War on BDS Increasingly Alienating American Jews

By Allan C. Brownfeld


ISRAEL HAS DECLARED war on the nonviolent movement calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a means to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine and violation of Palestinian human rights. In the process, it is alienating more and more American Jews who are part of the BDS movement, as well as others who see Israel’s move as a retreat from “shared democratic values.”

The BDS movement was started in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian non-governmental organizations as a peaceful movement to restore Palestinian rights in accordance with international law through strategies of boycotting Israeli products and cultural institutions, divesting from companies complicit in violations against Palestinians, and implementing state sanctions against the Israeli government. They cited a body of U.N. resolutions and specifically echoed the anti-apartheid campaign against minority white rule in South Africa.

In July 2011, the Knesset passed a law making it a civil offense to publicly call for a boycott against Israel. In response, 32 Israeli law professors signed a petition calling the law unconstitutional and said it did grievous harm to freedom of political expression and protest. In March 2016, Israeli Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Yisrael Katz argued that Israel should employ “targeted civil eliminations” against BDS leaders. The expression is a play on the Hebrew word for targeted assassinations. In June 2016, Haaretz reported that Israel’s strategic affairs minister was going to create a “dirty tricks” unit to “establish, hire or tempt nonprofit organizations or groups not associated with Israel to disseminate” negative information about BDS supporters.

In the U.S., establishment Jewish organizations from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the Simon Wiesenthal Center have called the BDS movement “anti-Semitic”—this despite the fact that it is supported by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and such international groups as Jews for Palestinian Right of Return and the Israeli activist organization Boycott From Within. 

Not surprisingly, as support for BDS increases, particularly on university campuses, the attacks upon it have become more shrill. ADL national director Jonathan Greenblatt, speaking at a 2016 meeting hosted by the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, said, “We need to expose the extremists and anti-Semites who are behind BDS. BDS is an anti-Semitic movement...a continuation, a modern version, if you will, of an irrational hatred of the Jewish people...Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

In March of this year, the Knesset passed legislation that prohibits the entrance into Israel of anyone supporting and belonging to the BDS movement. Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Yonah Jeremy Bob asks: “Does this include a left-wing Jewish college student who calls for a boycott of Israel on his Facebook page? Does it include an individual who made a small, one-time contribution to a BDS organization? Are foreigners who wish to boycott only the settlements, but not the rest of Israel, included in the ban?”

Peter Beinart, a contributing editor to The Forward, wrote a March 17 column headlined, “I support boycotting settlements—Should I be banned from Israel?” He notes that “I’m one of those people” at whom Israel’s new law is aimed because, “In 2012, I wrote a book that urged American Jews to buy products from ‘democratic Israel,’ the territory inside Israel’s original boundaries in which Jews and Palestinians live under the same law, but not ‘nondemocratic Israel,’ the West Bank, where Jews enjoy citizenship and Palestinians live under colonial rule. So while I oppose boycotting Israel as a whole, I support boycotting Israeli settlements, which I believe threaten Israel’s moral character and its long-term survival.”

In the April 18 issue of The Forward, Rachael Stryer, a senior and co-chair of J Street U at Stanford, wrote an article asking, “Will Birthright Kowtow To Israel’s Right-Wing Government?” Discussing the Birthright Israel program, which sends Jewish students on free trips to Israel, she writes: “This summer I planned to travel to Israel through Birthright...I had long been looking forward to the voyage. Now, I don’t know whether I’ll be allowed on the trip...I am a strong supporter of the two-state solution as the only way to secure Israel’s future...and guarantee the rights of the Palestinian people. I see the occupation and the entrenchment and expansion of the settlement movement as a threat to these principles. Because of this, I make the personal choice not to buy products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

Because of the new law, Stryer notes, “Many pro-Israel American Jews are worried that, thanks to our political beliefs, we may no longer be welcome in Israel....There are many Jewish young people like me at Stanford and across the country who are excited about exploring Israel, but who also find ourselves in opposition to the country’s settlement policy and deeply concerned about the ongoing occupation.…More than just my summer plans are on the line here. Israel’s future—and the future of the American Jewish relationship with Israel—hang in the balance.”

In the view of Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, the Israeli law banning entry to supporters of BDS criminalizes thought, “since it would imply that anyone who helped organize a public discussion of whether to boycott the State of Israel would also be bannable from the country. In other words, it would be an attempt to stop people from thinking.” 

In a March 16, 2017 editorial, Washington Jewish Week asked, “Is Israel Shutting the Door on Skeptics?” It declared: “We support efforts to combat the BDS movement...But the anti-BDS bill...will neither halt nor diminish BDS activities and will not make Israel more secure. All it will really accomplish is to make Israel a less welcoming place...”


Last December, Isabel Phiri, a theologian and an assistant general secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, was refused entry. In July of last year, five Americans on a fact-finding trip were detained, questioned and deported. This past February, an American executive with the liberal New Israel Fund was detained and questioned at the Tel Aviv airport by an interviewer holding a document that said “BDS,” although the Fund does not support the movement. According to Laura Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, the new law is “redefining as an enemy of Israel anyone who does not agree that the settlements are now and will forever be part of Israel. That’s going to be problematic for a lot of American Jews who care about Israel. It’s just heartbreaking.” 

Writing in The Nation, Mairav Zonszein described the new law as marking a turning point in Israel’s relationship with American Jews: Israel no longer cares what American Jews think, she said: “Israel is sending the message that it does not want or need American Jewish involvement if that involvement takes the form of pitched criticism or dissent and that the cultural or historical connection is just not that important to them.” 

Open Hillel has called on Hillel International to condemn Israel’s “dissenter ban,” which it says “will impact the thousands of Jewish students who travel to Israel to tour, study, research, intern or work.” 

In the opinion of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, “A law that stifles dissidents, that bars lovers of Israel from Israel itself, is not only repugnant on the face of it, but also additional evidence that occupation of the West Bank is corroding Israeli democracy. Israel may win the West Bank and lose its soul.”

Speaking to J Street’s annual Washington conference in February, Tony Klug, a special adviser on the Middle East at the Oxford Research Group, said that support for Israel’s “never-ending” occupation is changing the nature of what it means to be Jewish. “We used to be people devoted to justice,” he said. “Now we have become enablers of Israel’s injustice.”

Klug declared: “We now face the major reality of a state that describes itself loudly and often to be Jewish...as withholding fundamental human rights from millions of people indefinitely, a standpoint that is in total defiance of quintessential Jewish principles.” 

It is becoming apparent to more and more American Jews that Israel does not share their values. The law banning those who dissent from Israeli government policy is yet another example. And the idealized—and largely false—image of Israel so long promoted by establishment Jewish groups is undergoing renewed scrutiny. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also addressed the annual J Street conference. He recalled living on a kibbutz near Haifa in 1963 and reminisced about the “progressive values” nurtured there. “But,” he added, “as you all know, there was another side to the story of Israel’s creation, a more painful side...the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees...”

The real story of Israel is replacing the mythical one for an increasing number of American Jews, particularly in the younger generation. A sea change in the American Jewish relationship with Israel now seems to be underway, and Israel’s declaration of war against the BDS movement and its supporters has given this added impetus.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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1983, Lebanon, U.S. Embassy bombed, 63 killed. Months later, Marine Barracks bombed, 241 killed.

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