The Ideological Roots and Characteristics of the anti-Israel Movement23
Understanding the ideology behind the anti-Israel and BDS movement has been somewhat difficult for Israel supporters, in large part because the movement is not monolithic and it is often disingenuous as to its true aims. Moreover, there are varying ideological points of view within the Jewish community about its nature. One underpinning is becoming clear however: a large part of the anti-Israel movement has little to do with the realities of Israel itself. Rather, it embodies the myth of Israel as the last colonial aggressor and the myth of the Palestinians as the last of an indigenous peoples fighting colonialization. As Professor Gil Troy notes, “We are fighting forces … rooted in the intellectual, political and social revolutions of the 1960s.”24
Race has also become a more dominant motif, as de-legitimizers strive to conflate the white-black paradigm in America to the Israeli-Palestinian one. A telling article notes the “show of solidarity” as “the people of Palestine and Ferguson are reaching out to each other because they are fighting a common system of injustice, control and racism.”25 Haaretz also noted the conscious use of the comparison to draw attention to the Palestinian cause, exploiting the Ferguson moment.26
According to pro-Israel campus groups, this was a deliberate strategy shift adopted over the past few years to reach a broader audience, as de-legitimizers realized that most Americans cared mostly about causes closer to home. Thus, the shift from conflicting nationalistic and political narratives to one of illegitimate and racist colonizer versus the legitimate and victimized indigenous group, has succeeded in eroding Israel’s legitimacy in liberal circles, while moving the Palestine issue from the radical left further toward the liberal center’s agenda.
1948 or 1967?
The BDS movement is not monolithic in its goals. While many of the driving forces behind it are opposed to Israel’s existence and regard the Jewish state as an historical mistake that can and should be corrected, others restrict their claims to the “occupation of Palestinians since 1967,” and support Israel’s right to exist. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a significant force in the BDS movement, supports a two-state solution, as do many individuals under the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) umbrella.27 Although difficult to measure, a trend seems to be emerging on campuses of a shift in the narrative from “1967” to “1948” borders, namely – Israel’s right to exist. Omar Barghouti, founder of the BDS movement, said:
“Going back to the two-state solution, besides having passed its expiry date, it was never a moral solution to start with. We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it, for Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.”28
In any case, since the movement as a whole understands that announcing its one-state intention publically may alienate potential mainstream supporters, it attempts to maintain a veneer of agnosticism on the question of Israel’s future. Even outspoken Israel critics such as Norman Finkelstein have taken the BDS movement to task because its leadership advocates – explicitly or implicitly – the end of the Jewish state.29 Still, calling Israel’s right to exist into question has become more explicit and more acceptable on American campuses.
Legitimate Criticism vs. Anti-Zionism
Drawing demarcation lines between legitimate criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism has been difficult for the U.S. Jewish community and Israeli decision-makers, but it is crucial to developing counter-strategies.
The debate essentially centers on the level of Israeli culpability for the pressure being placed on it. Thus, the Jewish far left, many of whom support BDS, blame Israel for the “continued occupation” while the Jewish far right sees in BDS the “new anti-Semitism,” bearing little connection to Israeli actions and policies. Most groups take a nuanced approach and believe a peace process (and eventually a two-state solution) would mitigate at least some if not most of the de-legitimization pressure on Israel and render much but not all of the BDS movement obsolete.
Even those who hold that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are separate increasingly note that one of the more worrying aspects of the radicalization within the anti-Israel movement on campus over the past year or so is that it increasingly crosses the line from criticism to biased anti-Zionism and outright anti-Semitism. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin from Amcha Initiative notes (May 22, 2015), “Students (are) threatened with everything from swastikas … on dorm buildings and flyers blaming Jews for 9/11 to graffiti saying Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” and comparisons between Netanyahu and Hitler.30
A number of recent polls have noted high levels of anti-Semitism on campuses. A 2012 AICE/Israel Project poll reports 66 percent of Jewish students witnessed, and 46 percent experienced, campus anti-Semitism;31 a 2013 Pew survey found that 22 percent of Jews on campus reported being called offensive names;32 and, most recently, a February 2015 Brandeis Center/Trinity College report by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar notes 54 percent of Jews on campus either witnessed or suffered anti-Semitism.33
Conversely, the Forward (March 24, 2015) takes aim at these findings, noting that the ADL itself asserts, “The number of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses in three of the last four years is actually the lowest it’s been since the ADL started keeping track in 1999.”34 And, data presented by the BBC reflect a similar downward trend in anti-Semitic incidents over the past decade in the U.S.35
Although it would be inaccurate to equate all criticism of Israel and its policies with anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, spillover occurs when Israel is consistently singled out and held to an unparalleled standard, and often includes distortions or outright lies regarding Israel’s behavior. Over time, Israel’s legitimacy erodes and the discourse turns anti-Zionist, and increasingly anti-Semitic.