The Wrong Way To Fight BDS

Censoring Anti-Israel Views Inevitably Backfires

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By Jay Michaelson

Published February 21, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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Of course there is anti-Semitism in the BDS world — just as there is racism among many right-wing Zionists. But Butler and Schulman are reasonable, thoughtful intellectuals. I think they are deeply wrong about Israel/Palestine, and have said so in print. But anti-Semites? Come on. That doesn’t pass the laugh test.

The ADL has set the gold standard in fighting anti-Semitism. But with every pro-censorship stance it takes — against the “Ground Zero Mosque,” against free speech on campus — it loses more and more credibility and cheapens the meaning of the term “anti-Semitism” itself.

Instead of being a watchdog, the ADL has become the boy who cried wolf.

Second, Foxman’s distinction between the public square and a university or community center misses the whole point of the latter kinds of institutions and turns supporters of Israel into blackmailing bullies. Community centers, universities and communal organizations are meant to be spaces for community members to convene, discuss and debate. Selectively vetoing a subset of those activities — especially using financial pressure — undermines the very mission these organizations are meant to serve. It’s not a “community center” if some members of the community are excluded, especially those with the stature of Butler or Schulman.

Moreover, censorship is counterproductive. It doesn’t work (ever heard of the Internet?), and it makes the “Case for Israel” (in Alan Dershowitz’s phrase) seem pathetic. Is banning the opposition by financial blackmail the only way to make this case? It must be a pretty weak one.

In sum, by cheapening the term “anti-Semitism,” by turning Israel’s supporters into bullies and by undermining the true case for Israel, the “Pro-Censorship Movement” ends up delegitimizing Israel and Judaism.

BDS isn’t hate speech — it’s just speech that some people hate. There may be good reasons to dislike it; BDS rhetoric distorts Israel’s motives, ignores Palestinian violence, singles out Israel unfairly and calls for destroying a society that many people love. Its supporters are often silent about bigotry within their ranks, and duplicitous as to their vision for the future. But I could say the same about Democrats, Republicans and Likudniks. Hate it or not, BDS is a legitimate political view, and an understandable response to the diplomatic standstill and creeping land-grabs in the West Bank.

If you oppose BDS as I do, let’s fight it not by driving it out of our community institutions — that only turns BDS’ers into victims and Israel’s supporters into bullies. Let’s engage with its arguments, prove them wrong and win out of right, not might.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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