Anti-Israel activists often base their remarks on universal values—but when the audience changes, so does their language, and their fealty to the truth.
How does a person decide to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel? As someone who understands the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, supporting Israel seems to be the natural position to take. Shared values of democracy, freedom, and tolerance make backing Israel an easy decision. And yet, we now see ostensibly freedom-loving movements throughout the West turn their backs on the only state in the Middle East where the existence of these very movements is tolerated.
It is true that there are issues of democracy and freedom between Israel and the Arabs. It is possible to argue that refugees exist in squalor, that Palestinian children have died, that the conflict seems endless, and that Israel is the stronger party. But none of these suggest that Israel is the cause of the conflict, nor that it is in Israel’s hands to provide a solution. In fact, as a democratic state with a market economy that seeks foreign investment, Israel has strong motivation to avoid conflict and war. History has taught us that such nations tend to seek peace at almost any cost.
But this means nothing to supporters of BDS, because the movement is entirely based on the manipulation and distortion of the truth. If you engage with BDS supporters and directly challenge them, their response is usually little more than an illogical pack of lies. If someone you know is thinking about supporting BDS, why is it so hard to “show them the truth”?
The simple answer is that BDS is a movement that has reached its verdict beforehand. It does not ask if Israel is guilty. Instead, it seeks to determine the correct punishment for a “criminal” that is already condemned. So when you respond to a potential BDS supporter with facts, you are simply irrelevant to them. It is like bringing evidence to a sentencing hearing that should have been presented during the trial itself. You are simply too late.
Recently, I have heard more than my fair share of lies about Jews and lies about Israel. However, what is different about the recent events I have witnessed is that I have seen how these lies are created.
I witnessed the first step at a meeting of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR-UK). The group swung into action after the latest wave of anti-Israel terrorism erupted. For pro-Palestinian groups, the attacks are deeply troubling because they strike at the very foundation of their argument. These acts of terror, such as the stabbing of innocent Israeli civilians, are classic examples of anti-Semitic violence that would occur if no national conflict between Israel and the Arabs existed. Motivated by religious incitement, they represent the same types of attacks that have been regularly committed against Jews by both Muslims and Christians over the last 2,000 years.
If you remove all of the suggested causes of the tension—the “occupation,” the settlements, the checkpoints, the situation in Gaza, the refugees, and even Israel itself—you would find that identical racist violence against Jews has occurred throughout history. Even the forces behind this specific wave of terrorism, false claims that Jews are interfering with Arab religious sites in Jerusalem, have been used to incite anti-Semitic violence in the past.
Pro-Palestinian groups, then, must somehow replace the narrative of violence against Jews with a narrative of violence against Israelis, so as not to appear anti-Semitic. To do this, Israel must be accused of committing nationalist “crimes,” i.e., changing the religious status quo on the Temple Mount. This is precisely what the AOHR-UK set out to do.
The event took place on December 1, 2015 at the Holiday Inn London Bloomsbury. Although the event promised the attendance of noted anti-Israel MP Gerald Kaufman, he was unable to attend. The pro-Palestinian Israeli historian Ilan Pappe was there, alongside Arab speakers such as Adeeb Ziadah and two lawyers, Carl Buckley and Toby Cadman, who both work for pro-Palestinian organizations. Upon entry, I was handed a glossy information booklet, which laid out not the accusation that Israel is changing the status quo, but the “unarguable fact” that this is the case.
The booklet is a collection of lies and distortions. The 1929 riots that slaughtered Jewish communities in places like Hebron and Safed—and succeeded in ethnically cleansing the Jews of Hebron—are described simply as an “uprising” that caused some “people” to die. At the same time, it repeats the lie that it was caused by an attempted Jewish takeover of the Mount, 85 years after a British commission of inquiry concluded that this was false and deliberate incitement.
In telling of the story of an arson attack that took place on the Mount in 1969, the booklet highlights precisely how BDS’s lies work. The Australian extremist who committed the act is described as a “Zionist,” thus leaving the reader to mistakenly believe he was Jewish, which he was not. The damage caused by the arson was exaggerated beyond recognition. And Israel was accused of hiding the perpetrator’s crime behind an “insanity plea” and deporting him “without trial.” This is all fiction. In reality, after Israel held him in a psychiatric ward for six years, the arsonist was handed over to Australian authorities and spent the rest of his days in a similar institution. The booklet even managed to get the name of the arsonist wrong.
What was interesting to me was Ilan Pappe’s obvious discomfort with these claims. I have seen him perform many times. Despite my clear opposition to his political position, there is little doubt that he is an intelligent and informed speaker. This event, with the Arab speakers pushing religious hocus-pocus and twisted tales of conspiracies against the Temple Mount, was not his natural environment and it showed. He politely suggested that much of the commentary that evening was misguided. He then entered his comfort zone when he was able to focus on what he likes best, accusing Israel of various crimes in spite of the facts.
The highlight of my evening came during the Q&A, when two pro-Israel bloggers, Jonathan Hoffman and Richard Millet, both took the opportunity to highlight the clear contradiction between the accusations against Israel and actual events. Millet focused on using the word “genocide” to describe Israeli policies toward a Palestinian population that is consistently growing. Hoffman brought up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ rhetoric justifying terrorism and his statement that Israeli Jews should not defile the Mount with “their filthy feet.” The introduction of all these points clearly unsettled the panel, but there were few in the audience who cared.
This evening provided an example of the origins of BDS claims. Accusations of racism, of various massacres, of ethnic cleansing, of genocide, of apartheid, of being a European colony, are created in this fashion, far away from debate, far away from critical eyes. By the time the subject of Israel arrives at, for example, a university, Israel has already been found guilty, charged and tried in a kangaroo court by people who consider murdering innocent people a “martyrdom that will be rewarded by Allah with a place in paradise.”
The next event I witnessed was a different stage of the process altogether. Having already declared Israeli guilty, it was now time to publicly debate a suitable punishment.
The event was put together by Artists for Palestine UK on December 9 at the P21 Gallery near Euston, London. Artists for Palestine publicly attacks other artists who agree to perform in Israel and tries to force them to pull out of their commitments. They are a major player in the campaign for a “cultural boycott” of Israel.
Unlike the first event, however, the audience was not predominantly Muslim. It was a mix of activists, anti-Semites, and a few misguided if well-meaning people caught in the gravitational pull of the BDS movement. Among them were a small number of those who attend events like that of the AOHR-UK. Almost always Arabs, they carry the verdict of “guilty” from the kangaroo court into the sentencing phase.
At this point, non-Muslims are welcome, because the rhetoric of religious incitement and the lies it fosters have already done their work. Issues such as Arab violence, Arab rejectionism, and jihad are now irrelevant and unimportant. This is no longer about what happened, who started it, or even where to apportion blame. It is simply about how to punish Israel.
Non–Zionist Jews are always present at this stage. They are usually part of “hard-Left” socialist movements. Now that the Islamist message has done its work, the left-wing activists can concentrate on humanistic messages of equality and universalism. Any opposition is shouted down as racist, uncaring, and inhumane. All talk of Islamic extremism is ignored and the Palestinians are presented as an oppressed group of radical atheist left-wing socialists with a universal vision of peace and tolerance. With a united front of Jewish non-Zionists and Palestinians attacking the State of Israel, Palestinian violent resistance to a “racist apartheid regime” becomes both inevitable and legitimate.
The event was an exercise in escalating invective, with the speakers trying to outdo each other in their attacks on Israel. If the one says, “Israel, the racist state,” he is outdone by the next, who says, “Israel, the apartheid racist state.” They are then outstripped by those adding “genocidal” to the description, and finally those who cannot bring themselves to use the word “Israel” at all.
Gone is any interest in peace or a just solution to the conflict. Since Israel is now guilty of ethnic cleansing and genocide, why let it exist at all? Soon, there are explicit calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Flooding Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees, for example, which would bring an end to Israel as a Jewish state, is simply referred to as “justice.”
The first speaker at the event was Hazem Jamjoum. He began by explaining that as long ago as 1920, boycotts were “our way of stopping any kind of normalization with the Israeli regime.” For those that know what happened in 1920—a brutal pogrom against the Jews of Jerusalem—the message is clear: Jamjoum is opposed to accepting the presence of any Jews in Israel at all. But many of those in the audience do not know, and nobody is going to tell them. At this stage, the dark intentions of the BDS movement are clear to those familiar with the history of the conflict, but to the innocent ear they are messages of peace.
The speakers’ tactic, for the most part, is not to discuss history but rather case studies. Everyone has a tale to tell, each more horrific than the last. They are nameless, faceless accusations that sound like they have been created with a storytelling version of Photoshop. Here, for example, is one from Gerald Kaufman, taken from a booklet I received at an event in Westminster on October 27: “I spoke to a girl who told me she was standing between her parents when an Israeli soldier came up and shot her father dead in the head, and then shot her mother dead in the head.”
In the virulently anti-Israel writer Max Blumenthal’s book on the Gaza War, there are similar tales. Thousands of such stories are circulating. I have no reason to believe the messengers themselves are lying, but who was this girl and who decided she would be the one to meet Gerald Kaufman? Stories such as this cannot be confirmed or denied. They are purely anecdotal, and admit of no attempt to prove or disprove them. As untrue as they may be, as damaging, as slanderous, and as poisonous, in an arena such as this event, they do their work as swiftly as an image on Twitter of a child’s broken body.
It was clear to me that there were many in the room who simply had an issue with Jews. And without such people swelling the ranks, BDS would probably crumble. At this particular event I was sitting behind the secretary of the pro-Palestinian group Islington Friends of Yibna. Toward the end, I spoke to him and he told me that he had been sitting next to a pro-Israeli activist, “a Jew,’’ and continued: “I turned my back on her, to give her a bit of Jewish eh, you know, because that’s the type, eh, Jewish type of thing, to turn your back on somebody or spit at somebody, you know. So I think she got the message.” Just a few seconds before, he had declared that Israelis recognized a person from their looks as being “top of the pile, you know, a German Jew.” This was from the secretary of a movement that lists current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as one of its patrons.
This is nothing new. Just a few weeks before, I was at another event where I recorded Kaufman declaring that “Jewish money” had bought British foreign policy. Though it was the most quoted, it wasn’t the nastiest comment of that particular evening. It was as if Kaufman’s bile had given confidence to other conspiracy theorists. One of them began to publicly connect the situation in Israel to tales of global Jewish domination. At these events, anti-Semitism is never out of earshot.
But with its message disguised as one of peace and justice, it spreads its way amongst students on campus. It has become poison disguised as medicine.
There is no simple way to defeat the BDS movement. But one of the ways to do so is to examine the process outlined above, to see the different steps, the progression from a terror attack in Israel to the call for boycotting Israel to the claim that it is as a racist, genocidal, apartheid state. If BDS is to be faced down, we need to understand that different elements of the movement require different strategies. There is no point in turning up for the sentencing as if the trial itself were still underway.
It is imperative for us to do so, because BDS is nothing less than a terrorist movement, an arm of terror that has been designed to operate in an atmosphere of left-wing activism throughout the West. Moreover, it pushes any chance of a true settlement further and further away. As Ilan Pappe said at an event at the University of Exeter in October, “The only thing that is working for us of course is the international movement, the BDS that doesn’t wait for Palestinian unity or the Israeli Left to get its act together.”
And there is another, equally important reason to take up the fight: At the moment, there is only one narrative among activist groups, left-wing ideologues, and college students, and that is BDS. Pro-Israeli movements are purely reactive, and struggling to come up with an answer. As a result, the BDS movement has become a threat to truth itself. Like so many totalitarian movements, it enshrines a single, privileged narrative without regard to fact. In doing so, it makes truth itself irrelevant. Those it designates as oppressed are always in the right, those designated as oppressors are always in the wrong. This destroys any possibility of mutual empathy between Israelis and Palestinians, making peace impossible. Increasingly, it is also making any mutual empathy between gentiles and Jews impossible, raising a threat whose implications need hardly be mentioned.
The fight against BDS is a fight for truth itself, and it is time us to join it.
Banner Photo: Davide Simonetti / flickr