BDS Advocacy, Antisemitism, and Free Speech

Posted December 20, 2016
By Richard Moon

The Ontario Legislature has joined a number of other legislative bodies and political organizations in condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign directed at the state of Israel – which according to the campaign website is intended, “to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”. The legislature has taken the position that the BDS campaign is not simply political speech that should be debated in the public sphere, but is, instead, anti-Semitic or racist and should be condemned and perhaps even excluded from debate on university campuses and elsewhere.

How might criticism of the state of Israel, and more particularly the criticism that occurs as part of the BDS campaign, amount to a racist attack on the Jewish people? One concern has been that the campaign has “occasionally” been “associated with the use of symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism.” While little or no evidence is given to support this claim, anti-Semitism remains a significant problem, and so it is certainly possible that familiar forms of anti-Semitic speech (including representations of Jews as dishonest or conspiratorial) may sometimes surface at BDS events. If these forms of anti-Semitic speech heard or seen with enough frequency at BDS events, then the campaign might be viewed as anti-Semitic, at least as tainted by anti-Semitism, and appropriately banned. But there seems to be no evidence that these standard forms of anti-Semitic speech occur at such events, except rarely and marginally. In any event, a prophylactic response to anti-Semitic speech (in this case shutting down BDS advocacy entirely) would do great harm to free speech interests and ought to be avoided except in the most extreme situations. To shut down a demonstration or event because some participants might engage in racist speech, is to penalize everyone for the wrongs of a few. Any restriction should be directed at the actual instance(s) of anti-Semitic speech and not at the entire event or campaign.

The critics of the BDS campaign, though, might be making a different argument -- that criticism of Israel, even that which is not anti-Semitic, ought to be limited or avoided because of the risk it may feed bigoted attitudes in the general community. But even if it were sometimes true that criticism of Israel reinforced the anti-Semitic views of some audience members – and this would be difficult to demonstrate -- a commitment to free speech means that the speaker should not be held responsible for how some in the audience understand or use her speech – most obviously when this understanding is at odds with the speaker’s intent. We may ask the speaker to be careful in her choice of words and to be conscious of the potential impact of her speech, but we cannot justify censoring her because others may misconstrue or misuse her words.

More often, though, the critics of the BDS campaign emphasize two other, less direct, ways in which the campaign may be anti-Semitic. They argue that the campaign is anti-Semitic, first because it holds all Jews accountable for the actions of Israel, and second because it singles Israel out for condemnation. Yet there is little or no evidence offered to support the first claim other than to note that Jewish students who are forthright in their support of Israel are sometimes subject to criticism on campus. The critics, though, may attribute such a position – collective responsibility – to the supporters of BDS because they themselves see a strong link between the Jewish community as a whole and the state of Israel – and indeed appear to regard fundamental criticism of Israel as an attack on the Jewish people. The critics of BDS appear to be projecting on to the campaign’s supporters, the view that all Jews are responsible for the actions of Israel -- even though many of these supporters reject the idea of a Jewish homeland and the link between Israel and the Jewish community. Indeed, it appears that what the critics really object to is the BDS campaign’s questioning of the need for, or morality of, an exclusively Jewish state.         

Opponents of BDS also take exception to what they see as the campaign’s “differential treatment” or singling out of Israel. The critics’ claim is that a different standard of behaviour is imposed on Israel because it is a Jewish state. The critics note that the BDS campaign focuses on the (perceived) wrongs of Israel and ignores the greater wrongs of other countries, and conclude that anti-Semitism can by the only explanation for this. But the supporters of BDS may have a number of reasons, other than anti-Semitism, for directing their protest at Israel. These may include Israel’s formal establishment as an ethnic/religious political community, its claim to be a Western style democracy (and the perception that, despite its location, Israel is of the West rather than the Middle East), and the substantial political and economic support it receives from the United States and Canada – which means that these countries may have some influence over Israeli policy.

For those who oppose BDS, the link between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism may not be contingent – may not depend on the occurrence of explicit anti-Semitic statements or on the singling out of Israel for criticism. The opponents of BDS insist that they do not regard all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic and unacceptable. What is anti-Semitic and unacceptable, they say, is criticism “that brings into question the viability of Israel as a Jewish state”. Because the state of Israel has come to play such an important role in Jewish identity (a role that cuts across religious and cultural divisions within the Jewish tradition) an ‘attack’ on Israel – on its viability as a Jewish state -- is experienced as an attack on Jews. The flourishing, and even the survival, of the Jewish people are understood to depend on the existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland. The opponents of BDS regard the advocacy of any action (including support for a “one-state solution”) that might undermine the viability of the state Israel as anti-Semitic – as a call for the “destruction” not just of the state Israel but of the Jewish people.

The legislature’s labelling of BDS as anti-Semitic and therefore outside the scope of legitimate political debate is worrisome. It is important that the scope of legitimate public/political debate be broadly defined. There must be room for debate about what is or is not necessary to the viability of Israel as a Jewish state. Indeed, there must also be room for debate about whether the existence of a Jewish state is critical to the existence of the Jewish people – and more specifically about the appropriateness of a two or one state solution. (Just as there may be debate about how to address the needs and interests of Palestinians.) I may believe that certain positions in this debate are foolish or insensitive. But the scope of legitimate public debate cannot be restricted on such grounds. If we understand the speech that occurs in support of BDS to be political (the criticism of the policies of the government or state of Israel and even the criticism of Israel an ethnic-religious state) then no matter how unfair or unbalanced it may seem to some in the community, it must be addressed and not simply stigmatized or silenced.