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Your Anti-BDS Crusade Hurts Jews

“Congress Trying to Use Spending Bill to Criminalize Boycotts of Israel.”

“Texas Speech Pathologist Fired for Refusing to Pledge Not to Boycott Israel.”

“Prominent Black Activist Denied Civil Rights Award Because She Supports BDS.”

Headlines like these reveal the disturbing consequences of the American Jewish communal establishment’s unhealthy obsession with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Like the vast majority of American Jews, I oppose the BDS movement, as does J Street, the organization I lead. And I believe that our overwrought communal response to BDS is doing far more damage to American Jews and to Israel’s reputation than the movement itself could ever hope to do.

This obsession is harming Jewish institutions and eroding important relationships with other communities, particularly communities of color. It is undermining our core values and distracting from far more important challenges — both in Israel and at home. It is creating an atmosphere of paranoia and censorship.

In states across the country, lawmakers — with the backing of major Jewish communal groups — have trampled on First Amendment rights by passing laws which penalize companies and individual contractors who engage in BDS against Israel, or even against Israeli settlements. Teachers and others employed by state or local governments have lost jobs because they would not sign a pledge promising not to engage in BDS activities.

While the ACLU strongly opposes these laws and two federal courts have found them unconstitutional, their backers now seek to enshrine federal support for them, promoting similar bills in Congress. Faced with opposition, they deride their critics as secret supporters of BDS.

In Jewish communal spaces and beyond, we see efforts to shun BDS supporters — even when such support appears rooted in legitimate concerns over Palestinian rights and Israeli government policy in the occupied territory. Communal bodies seek to expel groups who merely engage or partner with BDS proponents. Millions of dollars are spent on programs intended to root out support for the movement on college campuses — and into shadowy websites targeting and blacklisting student activists.

The anti-BDS crusaders have also targeted public figures who support the movement — with no regard for their other beliefs or accomplishments. In particular, they’ve focused their ire on prominent people of color, especially women. Newly-elected Members of Congress Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have been portrayed as anti-Semites because they sympathize with BDS. Veteran civil rights activist and academic Angela Davis was denied an award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute after apparent pressure from some members of the local Jewish community.

No individual or group should be above scrutiny or criticism for their statements and beliefs. Nor can there be any doubt that some in the BDS Movement hold anti-Semitic beliefs or have made anti-Semitic statements.

Such anti-Semitism is a very real problem that must be addressed. At the same time, systematically treating all BDS proponents and outspoken critics of Israel as enemies of the Jewish community is wrong. Stigmatizing communities of color and some of their leaders as anti-Semitic because of their views on BDS is wrong. Governmental suppression of free speech and non-violent activism is wrong.

These illiberal actions are inconsistent with the longstanding American Jewish commitment to open debate and to civil and political rights. They wound Jewish people of color and alienate American Jews from fellow minority communities, who have been and must be our natural allies in a shared struggle against xenophobia and white supremacy. These actions ignore the nuances and differences of perspective that shape how different individuals and communities view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The scope of the panic over boycotts is totally out of proportion. The truth is that BDS has had very little impact on Israel or its economy, which has seen years of growth and success. Very few significant governments or corporations have paid it any attention. In the United States, its relative popularity is extremely low.

While the Jewish community continues to pour staggering resources into the BDS fight, we have neglected far more urgent challenges. It is the current Israeli government’s continued creeping annexation of the occupied West Bank, not BDS, which seriously threatens Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people. It is the rise of white supremacism and authoritarian nationalism, not BDS, which seriously threatens the future of American democracy and American Jews.

We can’t let the bogeyman of BDS undermine our community’s true ideals and interests. We have to end this obsession — and turn our attention and resources to the fights that truly matter for our country, Israel and the Jewish people.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group.

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