The American Studies Association has come under withering criticism for having singled out the State of Israel for a boycott of its universities because of their government’s human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank.
The critics charge that not one of the many countries whose record on human rights is no better, or even far worse, than Israel’s has been subjected to a boycott by this organization or by other anti-Israel Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) organizations. Consequently, as argued by Alan Dershowitz in Haaretz and by others, their real motivation must be anti-Semitism.
While I have questions about the wisdom of boycotting Israeli universities some of whose faculties are often among the most vigorous critics of their government’s policies towards the Palestinians, the accusation of anti-Semitism is groundless. Of course, it is possible that anti-Semites can be found among BDS supporters. But just as the fact that Zionists can also be racists (as many unfortunately are, including government ministers and leading rabbis who have publicly urged that Israeli Jews bar Israeli Arabs from their neighborhoods) does not mean that Zionism is racism, a charge made by the UN General Assembly in 1975 that was subsequently retracted, so the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic because some of its supporters may be.
The charge that the BDS movement is guilty of applying a double standard to Israel is equally groundless. For the opponents of Israel’s half-a-century-long occupation of the Palestinians and its denial of the Palestinians’ individual and national rights would not be conducting BDS campaigns against Israel if, to begin with, Israel had not been singled out for special treatment that no other country with equal or even far better human rights records has received.
I challenge critics of the BDS movement to identify another democracy from among those that do not hold another people under near-permanent occupation (no other democracy does) that receives the massive economic, military and diplomatic support lavished on Israel. I challenge them to identify another country, no matter how spotless its human rights record, about which America’s leaders—its president, vice president and secretary of state—repeatedly declare “there is no daylight between our countries,” even as they warn—virtually in the same breath—that Israel’s policies are leading the Jewish state to apartheid.
Yes, there was a time when Israel needed and deserved that assistance because it was uniquely exposed to existential threats from its neighbors, but that time is long gone. Today, Israel is the regional hegemon, while its neighbors are in a state of radical upheaval or disintegration. Neither individually nor collectively, in the judgment of former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet, Mossad, and Military Intelligence, do these neighbors pose an existential threat to Israel. And every living former head of the Shin Bet, as well as former heads of Israel’s other security organizations, have insisted that Israel’s failure to strike a fair peace agreement with Palestinians constitutes a far greater existential threat to the country than Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As to Israel’s democratic credentials, there is no more egregious violation of elementary democratic norms than a predatory occupation that denies an entire people all individual and national rights, confiscates their properties, bulldozes their homes and dispossesses them from their internationally recognized patrimony east of the 1967-border.
Even worse are the democratic pretensions by which Israel seeks to justify this behavior. Even Tzipi Livni, who has been a faithful advocate of a two-state solution, told Mahmoud Abbas in 2009 that there could be no Israeli compromise over the status of Jerusalem, for Israel’s decision to deny a Palestinian state its capital in any part of East Jerusalem “is within the Israel consensus.”
One might have thought that a democracy understands that a consensus of its own citizens cannot determine what it is free to do to a foreign population. After all, Germany’s eliminationist policies against the Jews in the 1930’s and 1940’s may have been within the German consensus, but that did not constitute a democratic mandate.
There is something particularly offensive about such attempts to give outrageously undemocratic behavior the gloss of democratic legitimacy. It is precisely such phony pretensions of democratic behavior that the BDS movement objects to. Countries that make no bones about their despotism and their contempt for human rights do not require that kind of exposure. They also do not require it because none is a beneficiary of the largesse that the State of Israel receives, which makes the donors accessories to the beneficiary’s bad behavior.
The reason for that largesse, as explained repeatedly by America’s political leaders, is supposedly not an efficient pro-Israel lobbying operation, but “deeply shared values.” It is an explanation that becomes increasingly embarrassing when it comes from political leaders who also warn that Israel’s policies are creating an apartheid society.
Those who have not challenged the singling out of Israel for the unprecedented support it is receiving from the United States have no ground for their challenge of the BDS movement’s singling out of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. BDS supporters would have had no reason for their initiative if Israel had not been favored for that support even as it disenfranchises and dispossesses another people under its occupation.
It is the critics of BDS who have been applying a double standard.
Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He served as a Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations and as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.