BDS – Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism

Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor.

While the conversation of the moment is: the Iran agreement and whether or not the Obama proposal should be supported or rejected; if there is a better deal that could be brokered; and, is this good for the Jews and for Israel – there is a greater threat to our Jewish people and to the State of Israel – and it is manifest all around us, and most especially in churches and on college campuses across the country. It is the growing BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) fueled by a virulent “Anti-Zionism” – neatly repackaged Anti-Semitism.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote recently (6-11-15) in a piece in the Jerusalem Post: “…the larger phenomenon which forms the backdrop for the BDS movement has become ever clearer in the course of the 21st century. It is the latest incarnation of the denial to Jews as a distinctive faith and people the right to be: the right to govern themselves in the land of their beginnings. Anti-Semitism is not a static phenomenon. It is a virus that mutates, thereby defeating the immune system of free societies. During the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were hated for their race. Today they are hated for their nation state. For a thousand years they were the most conspicuous non-Christian presence in a Christian Europe. Today the State of Israel is the most obvious non-Islamic state in a largely Muslim Middle East. Anti-Semitism is not simply about Jews. It is an offense against the fundamental dignity of difference.”

The concept of BDS was used against the Apartheid Government of South Africa to bring about the necessary changes so that the Black community would be afforded their basic civil rights. The use and abuse of the economic goad is an affont that we Jews have suffered throughout the ages. Now, under the guise of punishing the State of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and making an analogue of Apartheid South Africa and its treatment of its black citizens, the leaders and supporters attempt to both delegitimize the State of Israel, and break it, through economic sanctions.

On college campuses across the country, student groups pick up the hackneyed phraseology of “Zionism Is Racism” and seek to paint Israel and her supporters as colonialists, racists, rabid nationalists and bigots. This is not simply rhetoric that comes from supporters of the Palestinian community, but fueled, in large measure from religious communities, churches, — national bodies of church communions.

A year ago, the Jewish world was shaken by the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies that it claims “further the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

The denomination placed itself squarely on the side of the divestment movement that seeks to hold Israel solely to blame for the plight of the Palestinian people. It did so, furthermore, over the opposition of many Presbyterian pastors and lay leaders.

Despite protests to the contrary by the denomination’s leaders, the church’s embrace of divestment is an affront to the Jewish community. That insult was made worse by a failed attempt by a subgroup of the PCUSA, known as the Israel/Palestine Mission Network to distribute a vehemently anti-Zionist congregational study guide, “Zionism Unsettled.” This ahistorical and wildly biased broadside impugned the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and the very legitimacy of this core element of Jewish identity. Zionism Unsettled was removed from the PCUSA’s website, but copies are still around, and sections are used to fuel “talking points” for those who seek to delegitimize the Jewish connection to the land of our history and heritage.

Regrettably, the church — which often has been a partner of the Jewish community on critical social justice issues — has been on a more than 10-year road to this moment. At the Presbyterians’ 2004 General Assembly, the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee called for a “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” Since then, within the church, Israel has often been compared to South Africa’s nefarious apartheid regime.

Even worse, these ostensibly political actions are part of a warped theological framework that delegitimizes any Jewish attachment to the land of Israel. This theological structure represents a wholesale denial of Jewish history, Jewish experience and Jewish religious strivings to live in covenant with God.

Irrespective of repeated statements by the denomination’s leaders that the church loves its Jewish friends, the real problem is what the church thinks about Judaism. The truth is that the denomination is theologically unreconciled with the Jewish community.

The PCUSA is not alone in tolerating this “Anti-Zionism” – often couched as ‘we love our Jewish friends, but we oppose Israel.’ (Or its racist policies, or its unfair government, or military, or… you can fill in the blanks). Other church communions in the wider Protestant community have allowed sentiments like those expressed by a segment of the PCUSA to be offered on denominational websites and spoken without intervention (or response) on convention floors.

In 2005, the U.S. State Department adopted a definition of anti-Semitism, passed into law by Congress, recognizing that language or behavior that demonizes and delegitimizes the Jewish state or denies its right to exist can be defined as anti-Semitism. President Obama stated “I think a good baseline [for when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism] is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people. … If your answer is no … then that is a problem.” Pope Francis made a similar connection, stating that, “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel – and their right to exist – is guilty of anti-Semitism.”

And so, on college campuses across the country, our Jewish youth, and others of good will are being assaulted with distortions of history, histrionic demonstrations and pamphlets attesting to horrors that Israelis visit upon the Palestinians (often wildly inflated, exaggerated or fabricated without any regard for fact-checking or supporting references). According to the ADL, in the academic year of 2014-15:

“The most prevalent BDS initiative on campus involved the introduction of divestment resolutions and referenda by various anti-Israel student groups. Nineteen campuses held votes on such resolutions or referenda in the … academic year. Although none of the resolutions or referenda are binding or are likely to alter university policy, support for these initiatives in some cases created a divisive atmosphere on campus. While weeklong programs like “Israeli Apartheid Week” and “Palestine Awareness Week” continued to wane in popularity among anti-Israel students over the past year ,,, there was a significant increase in anti-Israel events overall.  520 explicitly anti-Israel events and programs took place nationwide on college campuses, representing a 30% increase from the previous academic year.  Well over 50% of these events focused various aspects of the BDS movement.

My colleague, Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El in Riverside CA, recently wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper in which she points out the increasing number of incidents on University of California campuses – often formulated as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist – claiming legitimacy as valid criticism of alleged human rights abuses in the part of the State of Israel. Graffiti stating “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” was found at UC Berkeley and swastikas were painted on a Jewish fraternity house at US Davis and flyers were posted at UC Santa Barbara that stated that Jews were responsible for 9-11.

Students for Justice in Palestine —the most prevalent of the anti-Israel groups, whose members frequently express support for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah while calling for the unequivocal destruction of the Jewish state—has opened new chapters on 40 additional campuses last year alone, and the BDS movement, which calls on organized and bigoted boycotts of Israel, expanded its efforts by 132 percent, to 44 campaigns last year, up from 19 in 2013-2014.

As Dan Pine wrote in Haaretz (May 23, 2015): “Something bad is happening on American campuses, and it’s not unrelated to the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. A survey by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law found that 54 percent of Jewish college students experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-14 school year, including incidents of harassment, violence or a ‘hostile environment.’ Incidents can range from swastikas scrawled on frat houses to student committees questioning whether Jewish students are fit to serve in student government. The latter occurred earlier this year at UCLA as well as Stanford….”

Guest lecturers are regularly invited to college campus – often with seemingly legitimate academic bona fides, spewing hateful and inaccurate portrayals of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Those who rise to challenge or ask questions are often shouted down – or silenced – or even forcibly removed. And while the college campuses must be places of academic inquiry, where give and take leads toward deeper understanding, academic bullying is regularly tolerated at the expense of those who support Israel and or the Jewish people. As Rabbi Singer wrote: “Now, I support the right of anyone to criticize the government of Israel, just as I support everyone’s right to criticize our own government. This is how we maintain a healthy democracy. However, when the rhetoric or the actions are really thinly-veiled excuses to delegitimize the State of Israel, then we have veered into a whole other area, one that should properly be characterized as anti-Semitic.”

So how do we combat this growing threat? Hatred is always rooted in ignorance, and so we must combat distortions of history with facts – and as we send our children and grandchildren off to college, we need to arm them with the facts. And as we might engage colleagues, neighbors and co-workers, or even golf partners who hold these virulent views, we need to educate ourselves in ways to counter this anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. Let me be clear, Israel needs to do a better job of caring for those who live within its borders, and create more positive relationships with those on the other sides of those borders (and nurture relationships with more moderate Arab states). But Israel is not an apartheid state and any religious person who finds truth in the Biblical text cannot ignore the covenantal and historic rootedness of our people in that land.

And let me raise the issue of the Iran deal – albeit briefly in this context (as we will have time to discuss this in greater length at a special Adult Education session being planned for Monday Sept 21 at 3pm). I am not worried about the lovers of Israel who are both sides of the fence on this issue – and lovers of Israel are legitimately on both sides of the fence. I worry far more about those who could not care less about Israel, its safety, its security, its people – who walk the halls of congress, and those who are positions of power and influence as spiritual advisors of those who enact laws, and vote on bills and appropriations.

All are justified in worrying about not if, but when. Iran has a nuclear weapon. All are justified in worrying about whether a restoration of aid and trade will result in funds being funneled back into terrorist organizations. But, as real as those fears are, the growing anti-Zionism in our own country and in Europe scares me silly and keep me up at night. For those who oppose the existence of the State of Israel, are not half-way around the world, but are our children’s and grandchildren’s college roommates, our colleagues in the work place, our neighbors next door or down the block or the person who will fill out the foursome at the golf course.

These days of repentance and hope should find us with greater resolve to stand up for the State of Israel and her people, the Land of our heritage. And for every product that we see others boycotting, whether it is Soda Stream or Golani wines, Ahava cosmetics or hummus or beer, let us buy double. And let us stand up to those who would seek to destroy our beloved Israel whether though rhetoric or economic sanction. May this New Year find our resolve strengthened, our support for Israel enhanced, and our willingness to stand up against those who seek to delegitimize or destroy our connection to Medinat v Eretz Yisrael increased.

Shana Tova u’mitukah!


Thanks to Rabbi Suzanne Singer, Ben Cohen, ADL, Liel Leibovitz, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Dan PIne

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