Pro-Palestinian activists hold a banner reading ‘Boycott Israel’ in Paris in 2010. / Getty Images
Score this one in the victory column for BDS supporters and, much more broadly, for anyone who believes we should use language accurately — especially when we’re dealing with loaded terms like “anti-Semitism.”
EBSCO Information Services, a major provider of library resources and online research databases, raised eyebrows when it initially classified articles about BDS — the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — under the heading “Anti-Jewish Boycotts.” After some sharp-eyed EBSCO users took to Twitter on Sunday and Monday to complain about the classification, the company acknowledged its mistake and changed the indexing to “Boycotts.”
Finally submitted a complaint to EBSCO to get them to stop using “Anti-Jewish Boycotts” to describe articles about BDS/boycotts of Israel. ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
@edrabinski Yeah, and then I found an article about actual anti-Jewish boycotting (Nazi-era), and it didn't have that descriptor. ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
It’s not hard to see why people were upset to discover that an American research database was defining BDS as “anti-Jewish.” That definition buys into the popular but deeply flawed rhetoric that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown fond of promoting, and that other Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders have grown fond of parroting. It’s a definition that assumes all Israel boycotts are inherently anti-Semitic — a logical fallacy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The right wing can claim as often as it likes that BDS supporters are “classical anti-Semites in modern garb” and that the BDS movement is the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.” But it’s not. The terms “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Jewish” are — or should be — reserved for those who hate and demonize all Jewish people, not those who take issue with the idea of a Jewish nation-state or even just the Jewish nation-state’s current right-wing government policies.
Plenty of Jews care deeply about Israel and even self-identify as Zionists, while simultaneously supporting full or partial BDS out of opposition to Israel’s occupation. Does that mean they hate and demonize all Jewish people? Of course not.
The same goes for Jews who identify as anti-Zionists. Their support for BDS doesn’t make them any less Jewish, or any more anti-Jewish. It just makes them more anti-Jewish-nation-state or more anti-current-Israeli-government-policies. There’s a big difference.
When we ignore that difference, we actually do a disservice to the real victims of anti-Semitism, both past and present. “Anti-Semitism” is an extremely strong and serious term, but when we apply it willy-nilly, we drain it of semantic power. EBSCO’s “anti-Jewish” classification is problematic partly because it lends itself to that sort of dilution.
EBSCO’s initial phrasing also grates because it assumes a perfect overlap between Israel and the Jewish people as a whole — as if those terms were somehow coextensive. It grates for the same reason Netanyahu’s tendency to call himself the “leader of the Jewish people” grates, and for the same reason Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was roundly castigated for a 2008 comment in which he referred to the pro-Israel lobby as the “Jewish lobby.”
To their credit, the librarians at EBSCO have now recognized their mistake and changed their indexing accordingly. It’s a small change, and perhaps a pedantic-seeming one. But it should make us all breathe a sigh of relief — not just BDS supporters, but everyone who believes that the way we use words has real political consequences, and that we should save our harshest ones for the people who truly deserve them.
. @InfAgit@librarygrrrl@edrabinski Thanks for bringing this to our attention. This impacted two articles & the indexing is now Boycotts. — EBSCO (@EBSCO) March 10, 2014
@InfAgit We have found a total of 7 but please let us know if you find additional examples. Changes should be reflected by tomorrow. ampmdash; EBSCO (@EBSCO) March 10, 2014
Sigal Samuel is the Opinion Editor at the Forward. When she’s not tackling race or identity politics, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s Kabbalistic secret society. Her novel THE MYSTICS OF MILE END tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. Contact Sigal at email@example.com, check out her author website, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.