BDS Is Waging War Against Liberal Democracy
Anti-Semitism is a non-sectarian project. Left and Right converge in their embrace of the world’s oldest hatred. It’s something American Jews are keenly aware of, as evidenced by a recently published AJC poll about anti-Semitism. The poll found that 89% of US Jews believe the anti-Semitism of the “extreme political right” represents a threat, while 64% say the same about the “extreme political left.”
The poll’s respondents did view in right-wing anti-Semitism a greater level of threat, with the largest share calling it a “very serious threat,” while the largest share viewed in the anti-Semitism of the extreme left “a slight threat.”
But in the long term, it is the passion of left progressives — in Corbyn’s Labour Party and on the fringes of the Democratic Party in America — that may prove more dangerous for Jews, as well as for the rest of the world.
True, the Democratic Party is a Big Tent party, and most Americans, especially Jews, remain firm in their support of Israel. And yet, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the state of Israel, known as BDS, has begun to gain steam. The movement has a threefold agenda: to end the occupation of the Palestinians, to ensure equality for Arab Israelis, and to guarantee the right of return to all Palestinians who fled in 1948 and their decedents, effectively ensuring a Muslim majority in Israel and the end of the Jewish state.
Alarmingly, the ideas that inform BDS have become part of an ideological status quo on university campuses across the United States, despite the anti-Semitic elements that the movement has collected (the AJC poll found that 35% of US Jews believe that BDS is mostly anti-Semitic and 47% believe it has some anti-Semitic elements).
It is ironic that BDS would be taking hold in intellectual circles through out the US. Though often clothed as part of a social justice agenda and aligned with other minority and underprivileged groups, BDS advocates for academic boycotts, clamps down on free speech, and specializes in the intimidation of scholars, artists and athletes who visit the Jewish State, in other words, it is a full cultural boycott. Leaders of the BDS movement insist on the innocence of anti-Zionism — “some of our friends are Jews, really” is something one often hears — while effectively advocating the dismantling of the Jewish state with its rallying cry, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In this “progressive” worldview, Israel is the font of all evils, the embodiment of fundamentalist religion, ultra-nationalist politics, and militarism.
But BDS does not need to win over the Democratic Party mainstream to its radical agenda to succeed. Masquerading as social justice, BDS plays on Western ambivalence towards its own democratic institutions to erode support for Israel. And the strategy works. When, for example, the Icelandic band Hatari, self-described as an “anti-capitalist, BDS-inspired, techno-punk band”, played at the Israel-hosted Eurovision Song Contest parading banners for LGBT rights alongside a Palestinian flag, American and European observers cheered them on; but when the fate of gays in Gaza City (or even in the more “liberal” West Bank) gets mentioned, the comfort of their armchair indifference gets the better of them. Rather than defend their values, lest they give succor to the hated Israel, they say, “I’m against oppression of every kind.”
Game, set and match, BDS.
Western ambivalence towards its cultural heritage is balanced by the material comfort of living in Western society, which anesthetizes most to the prospect of an existential threat. For the moment, life is good: The people who still believe in something will not kill us today.
Faced by Hamlet’s dilemma, many centrist liberals in America choose “to be,” while repressing the knowledge that without commitment, Western culture will not survive the far greater conviction of anti-democratic forces. Today, to update Hamlet, the “conscience that doth make cowards of us all” is not the fear of the “undiscovered country of death,” but of life without an iPhone.
Those in the BDS Movement, and especially their radical Islamist allies, understand the ideological exhaustion of liberals. They cultivate the sense put forward by progressives that the institutions of democracy are irrevocably tainted by colonialism, racism, and sexism. American kids come home from university advocating the anti-Zionist allegory of Israel as evil. Although their parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars for educations that undermine their life-long commitments, and although they may experience some discomfort about the demonization of Israel, they can, however, “see their point.” Centrist democrats frequently experience a yearning, a desire for excitement, no matter how misguided its implicit utopianism. So parents end up going along: “I’m agnostic towards BDS; I like to keep an open mind towards those who want to destroy the Jewish State.”
Another victory for BDS.
There are those who claim that progressives are reinvigorating liberalism. But from the perspective of most Jews, this new movement looks more like an exclusionary populism, casting the Jewish nation-state as the point against which all the interests and values of minority and underprivileged groups converge in opposition.
BDS is a war not only against Israel, but the institutions of liberal democracy, and the convictions that uphold them.
If centrist liberals do not wake up to the creeping dangers of BDS and its Labour equivalent in the UK, its drive to instill not hatred towards Israel but indifference, and, further, revive their conviction in liberal democracy against populism in all its forms, it will not only be the fate of Israel that hangs in the balance.
William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He is author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996); Mary Astell: Reason, Gender and Faith (Ashgate 2009), and The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana 2016). His collection of hybrid personal essays “Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love” was published by Continuum/Bloomsbury in 2011.