Amidst the post-Trump euphoria and inauguration festivities, President Biden’s Secretary of State nominee quietly affirmed the new administration’s intent to keep the U.S. embassy to Israel in the disputed city of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the military occupation and colonial settlement of the West Bank continues unabated, despite immense cost in lives and human dignity as well as near-ubiquitous global condemnation. Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, remains under siege; its nearly two million inhabitants (over 40% of which are under the age of 14) do their best to carry on despite serial Israeli bombing campaigns from which Gazans are materially unable to rebuild. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new front to Israeli apartheid, as Israel refuses to provide vaccinations to millions of Palestinians within its sovereign domain. The incoming Biden administration has signaled no desire to deviate from the unflinching American political, military, and diplomatic support for Israel that has maintained these degrading conditions for decades.
In response, the American left, freshly torqued off four years of a Trump presidency and an insurgent Bernie Sanders presidential run, has seen the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Red Nation, and other left organizations join the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. This call to end Israeli apartheid was originally initiated by wide swaths of Palestinian civil society in 2005. The BDS movement emerged after the relative failure of two intifadas (the first unarmed and the second armed), bilateral negotiations mediated by the US, and appeals to US-controlled international bodies. It calls for an international boycott of Israeli institutions that uphold the apartheid regime until three demands are met: 1) the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab lands including the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights and the dismantling of the Wall; 2) recognition of the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) recognition and promotion of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Since its initiation, it has gained notable steam both globally and in the US as various unions, churches, NGOs, movement organizations, and celebrity activists and academics have pledged support for the effort.
Unsurprisingly, BDS has been systemically opposed by those in the US who support apartheid. For years, critics have argued that the BDS movement is unfairly targeting Israel for its human rights and humanitarian abuses, since other such atrocities exist around the world without corresponding boycotts. Critics claim on this basis that support for BDS within the US is veiled antisemitism directed at the only Jewish majority nation and that opposition to the occupation of Palestine operates as a cover for this hidden animus. They point to growing incidents of antisemitism nationally and to openly antisemitic statements and demonstrations from neo-Nazi movements as part of a rising tide of cross-ideological antisemitism, of which they view the BDS movement as one expression.
It should go without saying that these criticisms are completely unfounded. There is no reason why Palestinian civil society should be expected to organize boycott campaigns against other repressive regimes aside from the one imposing apartheid on their homeland. Moreover, the BDS movement directly targets those state institutions and private corporations which uphold the apartheid regime. This includes security and technology firms, but also universities and agricultural businesses that support the infrastructure of apartheid and occupation. Any entity that refuses to participate in the oppression of Palestinians is by definition not a target of BDS. Neither is any person in their individual capacity as an Israeli subject to BDS.
Nevertheless, the smear of antisemitism has been increasingly levied against BDS and its proponents in the United States and Britain. Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of Britain’s Labour Party, has been an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian cause throughout his career, including through partial support for BDS. As a result, he and his allies in the party have been plagued by unsubstantiated accusations of antisemitism (based entirely on this support) since his 2015 ascendancy to party leadership. These accusations from conservative forces within the Labour party escalated into an all-out witch hunt, resulting in a purge of hundreds of party members. Corbyn himself was eventually suspended from the party and forced to apologize, even after it was revealed that his own party intentionally sabotaged his campaign. New Labour leader Keir Starmer and his allies have made it their mission to eradicate any trace of respect for Palestinian rights and dignity from the party, creating purge lists of Labour MPs and members.
This strategy has been so successful in Britain that pro-Israel counterparts in the US are now seeking to replicate it. In the Fall of 2020, New York City DSA was lambasted by the Israel lobby and friends when the chapter’s city council questionnaire was leaked, asking candidates if they would pledge not to travel to Israel. Following this, 50 Democrats in the New York State Assembly signed a statement suggesting DSA should be banned from its halls. And just last month, Queens DSA became the subject of a city council candidate forum after Soma Syed, a candidate who sought DSA’s endorsement, walked back her previous, favorable position on BDS, dragged DSA through the mud, and pledged her loyalty to capitalism. Another frequent critic of DSA and self-proclaimed “pro-Israel progressive” Ritchie Torres has called BDS “an insidious form of antisemitism,” arguing “the act of singling out Israel as BDS has done is the definition of discrimination.” Andrew Yang, who is now running for mayor of New York City, even went so far as to compare participants in BDS with Nazis refusing to patronize Jewish establishments in the lead up to the Holocaust.
Perhaps the best way to understand this phenomenon is as a marriage of convenience between the institutional forces within center-left parties opposed to socialists in their ranks and an Israel lobby concerned about growing momentum for BDS. To this end, the framing of BDS as a front for left antisemitism accomplishes a dual function: first, it serves to castigate the anti-Zionist left in the ostensibly progressive language of nondiscrimination, and second, it serves to delegitimize the preeminent form of nonviolent Palestinian resistance by conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
In order to criticize the left in ostensibly progressive terms, the antisemitism smear employs a perverse form of what Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò dubs deference epistemology: the discursive practice of “listening to the most marginalized” or deferring to those in the proverbial room whose lived experiences are most at issue. In the United States, Palestinians suffering under occupation tend not to be in the room, and advocates for BDS are generally engaging in political solidarity. By redefining all solidarity action with Palestine as antisemitism, BDS critics demand ultimate deference to Jews directly experiencing antisemitism, cropping both Palestinians experiencing violent apartheid and their advocates out of the conversation. Excluded by this institutionalized mandate for deference, oppressed Palestinians are prevented from defining the scope and source of their own harm; instead, that power is awarded to their oppressors. This allows critics from within nominally left-leaning institutions to oppose solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement, and indeed to oppose leftist political currents more broadly, all while maintaining their claims on a progressive identity and brand. Wielding the language of identitarian politics against the left is not unique to proponents of Israel. In their 2016 presidential primary, Hillary Clinton infamously derided the Bernie Sanders campaign with the quip “if we broke up the banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” We can look to just a few months ago, when Democrat mayors were renaming streets and painting Black Lives Matter on roads while simultaneously increasing the budgets and military equipment of their police forces to see how the cooptation of identity and branding works to quell real movements for change. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that this strategy of specious progressivism forms the backbone of messaging against the anti-Zionist left.
This framing aims to conflate anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and does so with some success. Political institutions in the United States and Britain have been systematically adopting formal definitions of antisemitism that are vague enough to include targeted criticism of the state of Israel—most notably the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, a definition so controversial that its original author now opposes its formal use. By adopting these expansive definitions and then referring to them as evidence for the claim that BDS is antisemitic, institutional actors tautologically identify BDS as the left expression of a cross-ideological wave of antisemitism. This is of course absurd: neo-Nazis such as Richard Spencer and his ilk are both openly antisemitic and support the Zionist project, going so far as to use it as inspiration for their imagined American ethnostate. This association, which is common enough to be stated openly, is a much more damning one than any between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Additionally, there are many anti-Zionist Jews who support Palestinian liberation as well as BDS. Nevertheless, these contradictions are routinely ignored, and the false association between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is assumed to be self-evident.
Critically, the success of this rhetorical strategy, which we might call “Woke Zionism”, depends on the irrelevance of material Palestinian suffering. If proponents of BDS are antisemites operating based on anti-Jewish animus, the substantive basis of their claim—namely the inhumanity of the occupation—can be ignored as pretext. Under the logic of Woke Zionism, the American BDS advocate is merely appropriating alleged harms suffered by Palestinians as a guise for covert bigotry. As such, Palestinians, their experiences, and their harms endured are quickly evacuated from the discourse. There is a marked shift in subject: the material harms of occupation are supplanted by the supposed harms a national boycott inflicts on non-nationals of the same religion thousands of miles away. This becomes an increasingly attractive rhetorical move for supporters of the status quo as conditions on the ground in Palestine worsen and the indignities of the Zionist project become harder to dismiss or justify on their face.
While the particular rhetorical tactic of Woke Zionism is a relatively modern innovation, the erasure of Palestinian existence, both physically and discursively, is one of Zionism’s fundamental features. “A land without a people for a people without a land” is more than a foundational myth for the Israeli state; it is the aspirational horizon that Zionism, as a settler-colonial project and as an ideology, is constantly operating towards. It is to this end that more crass Zionists will insist, as a rebuttal to the charge of oppression, that Palestine does not exist and the Palestinians are an invented people. The physical Zionist project operates to concentrate Palestinians living in historic Palestine into Bantustans, clearing the way for the expansion of the Israeli state. To the same extent, its ideological commitment is to the de-subjectification of the Palestinians, scouring clean the discursive terrain to allow for Zionist logic to take root. Palestinian suffering must always be folded back into the frame of Jewish subjectivity.
For this reason, it is critical that we respond by reaffirming the subjectivity of Palestinians living under apartheid. Pro-Israel critics have clearly decided to attack BDS with specious claims of antisemitism because they are not comfortable defending apartheid directly. Likewise, conservative forces within center-left institutions see an opportunity to scold the left in its own increasingly popular lexicon. As socialists, and as supporters of the Palestinian cause, we must reject this entire discursive frame.
In DSA, we have already seen our own candidates and elected officials smeared along these lines, and we should only expect this to escalate as our movement builds power. Democrat and so-called progressive candidates for elected office will most often default to “security for Israel” and “the two-state solution” as their “safe space”: their uncontroversial, unexamined, and unquestioned position on Israel/Palestine. If progressives are serious about challenging the status quo, their default position should not be to defend the status quo, which in this case happens to be an apartheid regime. If they feel the need to default, it should be to their values: equality for all and respect for human rights. In any other context, this would be uncontroversial, and upholding these values consistently is all that the BDS movement asks.
So from those who claim to be progressives who support Israel, we’d like to know: which of the three objectives of the BDS Movement do you so vehemently oppose? Is it the demand to end Israel’s illegal occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights, and to dismantle the apartheid wall? Do you oppose recognizing the fundamental rights and full equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel? Or is it the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were forced from their homes as stipulated in UN resolution 194 that you can’t abide? Like it or not, these are the only demands of the BDS Movement. Claiming that the movement represents anything other than demands for equality, freedom, and justice for Palestinians is simply false. Our job as socialists is not to be defensive and apologetic when faced with baseless accusations meant to derail our advocacy, but to be proactive in promoting the virtue of our cause. We stand with Palestine because the Israeli apartheid regime is an ongoing and pervasive affront to law, justice, and fundamental principles of human dignity. Anyone seeking to smear us, our candidates, and our organizations with ugly accusations of antisemitism should be made to answer why they do not.
Correction requested by author and made on 6.7.21: An earlier version of this article had the phrase “covert bigotry” in consecutive sentences: “If proponents of BDS are antisemites operating based on anti-Jewish animus, the substantive basis of their claim—namely the inhumanity of the occupation—can be ignored as pretext for covert bigotry. Under the logic of Woke Zionism, the American BDS advocate is merely appropriating alleged harms suffered by Palestinians as a guise for covert bigotry.” This phrase has been removed from the first sentence for an improved reading experience.