It isn’t antisemitism, but hysteria

By Daniel Blatman. 02 July 2015. Translated by Sol Salbe*

[NOTE FROM TRANSLATOR: Just posted an article I consider rather important by Professor Daniel Blatman who takes issues with those who tell lies about BDS. Blatman’s historical approach makes this a very worthwhile read, whether you agree with his view of BDS or not and whether he gets the modern BDS movement 100 per cent correct or not in your view. Thoroughly recommended.]

There’s probably no other nation which has been targeted by more boycotts over the past few centuries than the Jewish People. Boycotting of Jews has been a stand out phenomenon since the 19th century. It has grown and became more blatant as Jews integrated into European society, gaining equal status as all other citizens. Boycotting of Jews has been aimed at their integration into society, targeted against their economic activity and political influence. Naturally, it was identified with the antisemitism prevalent in European society, and it is commonly regarded as a form of popular expression of the latter.

A heightened level of BDS activity recently has prompted a great hue and cry about global antisemitism — emanating from the throats of government ministers and self-proclaimed experts on boycott and antisemitism issues. One of the most prominent of these is journalist Ben-Dror Yemini. Using an amalgam of empty slogans, half-truths and demagoguery, he has concluded that “we are dealing with a movement that is essentially denying Israel’s right to exist”. Further he asserted, “Almost everything that the Nazis said about the Jews, BDS supporters say about Israel today” (Ynet/Ynetnews, 1 June). Such assertions strike at the heartstrings of Israeli Jews, evoking rage and humiliation. These Jews do carry the burden of the painful legacy of the boycotted Jews of the past centuries. But the boycott imposed on Jews by antisemitism and the boycott of Israel today have nothing in common. The historical boycott was an unrestrained attack on a persecuted minority fighting for its place in society, while the current ban is designed to assist in the liberation of a minority without rights, which has been under the yoke of a brutal occupation for 48 years.

As a rule, boycott is an activity which rises from the bottom in consequence of a situation which the authorities don’t seem to handle. Its aim is to force the powers-that-be to change their policy. In 19th century European society, some elements wanted to act against the authorities, who did their best to avoid dealing with internal tensions straining the various countries’ social and economic infrastructure. Organising a boycott against the Jews was the way those elements expressed their fury, having regarded the Jews as the main problem. For example, the main resolutions adopted by an international antisemitic congress held in Dresden in 1882 called for limitation on Jewish traders and professionals. This was a matter which particularly irked non-Jews in the same professions and in commerce in Germany. The same thing applied in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The main slogan of the Viennese antisemites in the early 20th century was a “Don’t Buy from Jews”. But when the government announced that the slogan was illegal, the boycott supporters changed their slogan to “buy from this and that merchants only”.

The antisemitic boycott movement was directed against the authorities who had not acted against those who were not considered to belong to the nation, and even deemed the nation’s enemy. The Israeli equivalent of the boycott movement that can be found in right-wing circles, who have called for a boycott of Arab produce. It was a call which was very noticeable during Operation Protective Edge: don’t buy fruits and vegetables in east Jerusalem, don’t go eat hummus in Galilee restaurants and don’t look for bargains in Arab-owned toy shops. In Israel, too, this is an activity that arose from the bottom up, reflecting a mood in society, to which the government cannot or doesn’t want to provide legislative expression.

Jews tried to fight back in the past by using a counter-boycott, but it only made headway when a country had taken an avowed anti-Jewish policy, and had been using economic dispossession as its weapon. This was done, for example, after the Nazis took power in Germany, when Jews suffered a deterioration in all aspects of life. Jewish groups in Europe and the United States had organised an anti-German boycott. It started in Vilnius in Lithuania, extended into Warsaw, and within a short time a national committee of Polish Jews for an anti-German boycott had been established. Similar mobilisations took place among Jewish merchants in London’s East End, and among groups of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe in Paris. Boycott activity had spread to Jewish communities in Greece, Yugoslavia, Latin America, Egypt and elsewhere.

The counter-boycott mobilisation in The United States was particularly broadly based; it included several major large and important Jewish organisation, including the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committees which counted 500,000 members in its ranks. Particularly dramatic was the decision by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader of the World Jewish Congress and a major Zionist leader, to join the boycott, who argued that considerations of conscience and morals outweigh the pragmatic cost/benefit considerations. What Yemini and others refuse to understand is that the BDS movement today is far more similar to the anti-German boycott movement which Jews tried to organise in the 30s, than any anti-Jewish boycott movement initiated by antisemites in the past in every corner of Europe.

The first false contention is the assertion that BDS is a “movement”. BDS is a movement in precisely the same way as the prototype coalition carrying out anti-German boycott activities formed a movement. What we have here is a concept which seeks to portray itself as a movement, but is in fact is a collection of ideas, organisations, activists and groups. They do share a common denominator between them, but it is loose, and they operate separately. Indeed, there are some people within the BDS umbrella who aim to delegitimise Israel and who dream of its disappearance. Some weirdo antisemitic elements have also jumped on the movement’s bandwagon noting its popularity. They also appreciate the not inconsiderable funds flowing to them. But these elements were there before BDS’s appearance on the scene, and will remain there long after it vanishes.

The second, and more serious, false argument is the assertion that the destruction of Israel is the political platform of this prototype movement. The majority of supporters of one form or another of a boycott of Israel are a long way from that. They don’t preoccupy themselves with drawing borders on maps and they don’t wish to return of Tel Aviv and Haifa to the Palestinians. Professor Judith Butler, one of the most prominent spokespeople of BDS, has written of non-violent protest focused on opposition to illegal forms of dispossession, enforcement and denial of human rights. BDS provides the means for non-state actors to act against the Occupation, dispossession, illegal settlement and the terrorism carried out by Israel against the Palestinians. Its purpose is to put an end to a form of civil separation based on racist principles, and to fight for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

Anti-Semitism? Expressions reminiscent of what the Nazis said about the Jews? These exist only in the imagination of those who react hysterically, which in turn, is reminiscent of the Nazi reaction of the anti-German boycott which Jewish activists tried to mobilise with their meagre resources. Our Minister for Justice and others have proposed that we boycott the boycotters. That’s the way the Nazi Party acted when it organised an anti-Jewish boycott as of 1 April 1933 in response to the Jewish anti-German boycott. The Nazis, who were beholden to their fantasies about Jewish power in the world, reacted violently as they feared the boycott may disrupt the German economy. No one would have expected them to replace their antisemitic demagoguery with a policy of treating their victims with justice and equality. But the reactions of the Israeli leadership and of some journalists suggest that here too there’s a preference for hysterical nationalist rhetoric over the adoption of policies that will end the Occupation, would make the very existence of BDS and would return those who take advantage of the movement to promote their opposition to Israel’s existence, back to their position on the margins.

Professor Blatman is a historian of the Holocaust and genocide at the Hebrew University.

Translated by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne Australia. Hebrew original: