Jewish Voice and BDS

Jewish Voice and BDS

20 Dec 2016

Armin Langer

How can a Jewish organisation be at the same time pro- and anti-Israeli? The BDS movement is a divisive topic, but as our new columnist points out, the reality might require a more nuianced approach.

The organization Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East is one of the biggest Jewish NGOs in Germany today by the number of members, if not the biggest. The group promotes the two-state-solution and supports an independent Palestine, according to the borders of 1967. This position is also representative of the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the Obama-administration. They are the German chapter of the international Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) movement which enjoys the support of prominent intellectuals such as Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and Tony Kushner.

Last week however, the Bank für Sozialwirtschaft (Bank for Social Economy) denounced the German-Jewish NGOs bank account. The bank claimed that their support of certain actions of the initiative Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is anti-Semitic, and therefore not compatible with the bank’s agenda.

Denouncing all actions of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic has long been part of the discourse, although the loudest voices of this initiative are from Jews, especially Israeli Jews. The same can be said for the German discourse. Of course, sometimes this classification is valid.

However, there are various forms of the BDS movement and so an automatic stigmatization cannot be justified.

Diverse actions are carried out in the name of BDS: most activists demand the end of occupation in the West Bank, and they boycott products of companies that profit from the occupation. All companies, those owned by Jews and non-Jews alike, are affected by this. For example, the current BDS campaign also supported by the German chapter of the JVP movement targets the U.S. American IT-company Hewlett-Packard (HP). HP is neither an Israeli nor a “Jewish” company. Still, HP profits from the army checkpoints, different military objects and the illegal settlements in the West Bank. According to these activists then, it needs to be boycotted.

There are other BDS activists who go one step further and refuse all trade with Israeli companies. Moreover, others support an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This latter position is heavily criticized by several former BDS-activists, since the Israeli academia and cultural scene is generally more critical towards the occupation in the West Bank. Israeli artists and intellectuals are generally regarded rather as allies than enemies.

Obviously, the BDS movement has been abused in several instances by anti-Semites.

When the U.S. American–Jewish rapper Matisyahu was planned to perform in a music festival in Spain, the local BDS group demanded that he speak out on behalf of an independent Palestinian state. Since the artist didn’t collaborate, the organizers withdrew his invitation to the event. Matisyahu‘s positions on Israel and Palestine might be problematic for some, but he is not even an Israeli citizen. Calling for a boycott of Matisyahu was not motivated by a critique on the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Making all Jews responsible for Israel’s Palestine-policies is plain anti-Semitism.

If someone takes the time to research the activities of the JVP’s German chapter, they will learn that they have never encouraged the boycott of Israeli scholars or artists. They have been solely supporting non-violent boycotts against companies which profit from the occupation.

According to the Bank’s statement, the organization puts the State of Israel’s right to exist in question with its support for BDS. However, it says black and white in the NGO’s manifesto that they support the two-state-solution. This is certainly not an “anti-Israeli” solution, and for sure not an “anti-Semitic” one.

Despite all these facts, easily accessible on Jewish Voice for Peace’s official website, many will continue to believe in the slur campaign against critiques of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. That is, unless we Jews in Europe speak up and defend our Jewish brothers and sisters’ right of free expression in the Jewish Voice for Peace movement. Whatever our own personal position on this question might be.

I personally don’t support the BDS movement; in my opinion, it is counter-productive. Especially in the German context, a call to boycott companies with factories in the Israeli occupied West Bank surely resembles for many the Nazi slogan: “Don’t buy from Jews.” Nevertheless, I believe that BDS holds a legitimate political purpose which must be reflected and debated. Unless of course it’s motivated by anti-Semitism. But this should be assessed in each case individually, and we shouldn’t stigmatize a whole movement as such before we even listen to what their activists are saying.

Armin Langer (1990) is a graduate student of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. He is the founder and coordinator the Jewish-Muslim activist group Salaam-Shalom. He has published op-eds in several German and international outlets, and his first book "Ein Jude in Neukölln" (A Jew from the No-go-Zone) was published in 2016.

Image credit: Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost.

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