Cynically Using Anti-Semitism to Attack BDS

A BDS march held on May 15, 2010. A classic bait-and-switch operation is designed to whip up opposition to BDS and Palestine solidarity organizing on college campuses.

A BDS march held on May 15, 2010. A classic bait-and-switch operation is designed to whip up opposition to BDS and Palestine solidarity organizing on college campuses. (Photo: Stephanie Law / Flickr)

The election of Donald Trump has been accompanied by an alarming rise in anti-Semitism. Trump appointed Steve Bannon, an open anti-Semite, to be his senior counselor, and in the days after the election, there was a dramatic uptick in anti-Semitic incidents.

Given this, you might be tempted to regard the U.S. Senate’s passage, by unanimous consent, of a bill called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act as a welcome measure in dark times.

Unfortunately, you would be mistaken.

Despite the bill’s title, it is actually part of the ongoing and intensifying effort by pro-Israel advocates to silence campus organizing in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The legislation is really directed at opposition to Israel’s apartheid system — being against Israel is synonymous with “anti-Semitism.”

The bill is a bipartisan effort sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to, they say, “combat increasing incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses nationwide.” According to Casey’s press release, “The Senators joined together to ensure the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has the necessary statutory tools at their disposal to investigate anti-Jewish incidents.”

The bill is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish Federations of North America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But like a growing list of laws and legislation, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act uses the code word of “anti-Semitism” to justify a crackdown on Palestine solidarity efforts, particularly on college campuses.

According to The Intercept, the bill:

encourages the Department of Education to use the State Department’s broad, widely criticized definition of anti-Semitism when investigating schools. That definition, from a 2010 memo, includes as examples of anti-Semitism “delegitimizing” Israel, “demonizing” Israel, “applying double standards” to Israel, and “focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

In other words, it encourages the labeling of legitimate political positions criticizing the policies of the Israeli government as “anti-Semitic.”

In case it weren’t clear enough what the bill is actually meant to do, the ADL confidently tweeted on December 2, the day after it passed the Senate: “Worried about anti-#Israel activity on campus? We drafted a law that will help show when it’s gone too far.”


Not only are bills like this not targeted at actual anti-Semitism, but they are dangerous because they conflate anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Zionism, thus mystifying what is and what is not an incident of anti-Semitism and making it harder to identify and fight this type of bigotry.

Labeling all criticism of Israel “anti-Semitic” weakens the fight against actual anti-Semitism by aiming the efforts of those genuinely seeking to oppose it at the wrong targets. In particular, it directs outrage at Palestinians who are the victims of Israel’s drive to colonize Palestinian land. That’s precisely what the architects of this bill want, but anyone who is a consistent anti-racist should reject this.

As someone who has been the target of anti-Semitism — for example, here and here — I think that everyone, but especially Jews, should speak out against this bill, which will do nothing to make it safer for Jews or any other oppressed groups living in Trumpian times. Jewish Voice for Peace has already begun to do this work, and I applaud them for it.

Instead of this counterproductive legislation, it is the continuation of protests by thousands of people — like the one that recently drove Steve Bannon out of New York — that will make it safer for Jews and other oppressed groups.

And when Zionists and university presidents try to use the rhetoric of “safety” to silence BDS activists, we must shine a spotlight on their hypocrisy. Such sanctimonious words ring hollow when university administrators arm campus police against the protestations of students and ignore student activists’ concern about armed right-wingers turning up at organizing meetings.

Since the advent of Israel, Zionists have tried to wed the question of Jewish liberation to the question of developing a Jewish state, an explicitly racist colonial project. But the construction of an apartheid state won’t secure Jewish liberation, but instead perpetuate the hold of racism and nationalism that will inevitably produce bouts of anti-Semitism as well — witness the incoming Trump administration.

Jewish liberation requires connecting the fight against anti-Semitism to the fight against racism of any sort, including the fight for Palestinian liberation from Zionists’ racist efforts to deny Palestinian rights.

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