In recent months, the Israel lobby and its allies in Canada’s political establishment have waged a full-fledged assault on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. This culminated in the anti-BDS motion that passed with enormous support in the House of Commons.
What is the purpose of this massive mobilization of resources against a non-violent civil society movement? Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Israel lobby group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)–a major proponent of this anti-BDS motion– claims that BDS has been an “absolute failure” (22:42) at pressuring Israel economically.
Yet BDS has been cited as a primary cause for the nearly 50% drop in Foreign Direct Investment into Israel in 2015. And, more importantly, BDS challenges Israel’s dominant narrative, which has been a fixture of Western societies for generations. Israel lobby groups see that this threatens the way Canadians view this issue.
In a recent HuffPost commentary, Fogel chose to lambaste Palestinians’ right of return in an apparent effort to justify the government’s censure of Canadians who support BDS. Fogel denied both that Palestinians are entitled to this right, and that Canada supports it officially.
Not only is the Palestinian right of return to their homes and properties enshrined innumerous bodies of international law, but Canada’s official policy is that concerned parties must come to a solution that “should respect the rights of the refugees, in accordance with international law.”
How can Fogel claim so boldly that Palestinians — those who were born in current-day Israel or whose parents and grandparents were born there, and whose ancestors lived there for countless generations– should be forbidden to ever return, while a Jewish person who may have no familial connection to the land should be granted automatic citizenship? Fogel claims “a ‘return’ of these refugees … would demographically overwhelm Israel, destroy the Jewish state and turn it into another Arab-majority state.”
It seems odd, and even racist, to describe the right of Arabs to return to their homes as intrinsically destructive. There is no doubt that respecting refugees’ rights would lead to the return of some individuals to their ancestral homeland (not all refugees wish to return), and would ultimately transform Israel into a state that treats Jews and non-Jews as equals.
Israel is already an Arab-majority state; 52% of Israelis are Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, most coming from Arab countries. One of the leading organizations promoting the rights of Arab Jews even calls itself “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.” A further 20.2% of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian.
Yet, rather than embracing the diversity of Jewish identities and cultures from around the world, the European-dominated Zionist movement has opted for a parochial form of ultra-nationalism which suppresses Arab identity as “backward” and “primitive.”
It also regards the native Arab population (Palestinians) as invisible, while Jewish people from all corners of the earth — including recent converts to the Jewish faith — are regarded as “indigenous” to the land.
Seeing Arabs in this light has obvious repercussions for Israel’s non-Jewish Arab population. Israel’s Minister of Education proclaimed “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
And Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense described Palestinians as being “like animals. They aren’t human.”
Such incitement against Palestinians from Israeli cabinet ministers has becomecommonplace.
This racism isn’t restricted to Palestinians; African asylum seekers are widely loathed, as well. Haaretz notes “Israel is the least moral country in the world when it comes to awarding asylum to people who deserve it, according to the United Nations Refugee Convention.”
The consequences have been severe: “Interviews with former Holot prison inmates reveal that many who departed Israel in [the] past two years have been subjected to torture, imprisonment and persecution after returning home.”
Jewish people should understand better than anyone the importance of granting asylum to persecuted peoples. But in Israel’s obsession with engineering and maintaining a Jewish demographic majority–in a land where Jews were a tiny minority until very recently in modern history–the country has shirked its responsibilities under international law with regard to refugees. Surely, this is not the Jewish way.
In demanding that Palestinians and the international community accept Israel as a “Jewish state,” Israel and its lobby groups like CIJA are in fact conflating the behaviour of this state with all Jewish people. Many Jews, like myself, see this conflation of Jewish people with militant Zionism as actually endangering Jews, both inside and outside of Israel. This is compounded by the fact that those who challenge Israel’s brutal mistreatment of non-Jews under its control are frequently labeled as “anti-Semites.”
CIJA is clear: it holds that anti-Zionism–an ideology opposed to the dispossession of Palestinians, institutional discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Israel’s apartheid policies–is inherently anti-Semitic. In Fogel’s own words, “[University] Administrations … are finally waking up and recognizing that this anti-Zionism, however it’s expressed–whether it’s BDS, or Israel Apartheid Week, or some of the programs or activities that anti-Israel forces have on campus–actually does constitute anti-Semitism.” (27:01)
CIJA’s Director of Communications, Steve McDonald, agrees. In response to concerns about a growing hatred of Jews based merely on the fact that they’re Jewish (real anti-Semitism), he said: “I think that the bigger challenge really is … that anti-Zionism has become the new acceptable form of anti-Semitism in certain left wing and academic circles. So I don’t see the classic white supremacist anti-Semitism as in any way rising in North America.” (21:23)
Many self-identifying Zionists, including Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (which dissolved and was replaced by the far less democratic CIJA), reject the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Farber said, in response to the allegation that the United Church’s Unsettling Goods campaign is anti-Semitic, “I wouldn’t wave the anti-Semitism flag [here], because I think when the Jewish community does that all the time, it confuses people and turns them off. It confuses true Jew-hatred from anti-Zionism….”
Accusing Palestinians of being anti-Semitic for strongly opposing the Zionist project–responsible for the dispossession of their homeland and the erasure of their civilization– is at best naïve, and at worst terribly racist. And many Jews–ranging from very religious to secular–have always opposed political Zionism. Does CIJA honestly believe that all these people are anti-Semites, or are motivated by a deep-seated hatred of Jews?
It’s important to recognize that not all supporters of the tactic of BDS are anti-Zionists. Increasing numbers of Zionists are waking up to the fact that Israel’songoing colonization of what little remains of Palestine must be challenged with external non-violent pressure.
The vilification of BDS activists by Israel and its lobby groups abroad (and thesuccessful criminalization of BDS in certain jurisdictions) must no longer be tolerated, lest someone get hurt.
Israeli transportation Minister Yisrael Katz recently called for a “targeted civil eliminations” effort aimed at BDS leaders–singling out the movement’s founder, Omar Barghouti.
Rather than confront the increasingly racist and violent tendencies of Jewish-Israeli society, Israel lobby groups–purporting to represent Canada’s diverse Jewish communities– prefer to bury their heads in the sand.
These lobby groups would serve Israel’s long-term interests far better by demanding Israel treat all those living under its control with dignity, freedom and equality. Manipulating the term “anti-Semitism” in an effort to silence dissent, and propagating timeworn myths about a “Jewish and democratic state,” are mere distractions from reality. They will only lead us further astray from a just and lasting peace.
This article was originally published to Tyler Levitan’s blog on The Huffington Post Canada.