Well, nothing is wrong with the picture itself. It’s real. It wasn’t faked. It is a true artifact of 20th century European history. The poster on the shop window reads: “Germans beware. Don’t buy from Jews”. What started as boycotts against Jewish shops and businesses eventually led to the gas chambers and incinerators of Auschwitz and Treblinka. All of this is irrefutable.
What’s wrong is how this picture, and others taken at the same time in the early 1930’s, are now being used to suppress free speech and non-violent protest and brand a movement for civil and political rights as racist and illegitimate.
It’s an ironic and depressing state of affairs.
Photographs like this have appeared in a recent booklet published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and in a report on antisemitism by the new British branch of Christians United for Israel.
So what’s going on here?
What we are seeing is a deliberate attempt to make a direct link between those that follow the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and those that perpetrated the Holocaust.
This week Hillary Clinton joined the anti-BDS campaign. In a letter to the Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban she adopted the language aimed at delegitimising the entire BDS movement.
“Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world — especially in Europe — we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.”
Hillary’s letter follows the comments made last month by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while on a visit to Poland that directly compared BDS to the actions of the Nazis towards the Jews.
“The attacks on the Jews were always preceded by slander. What was done to the Jewish people then is being done to the Jewish state now. In those days [in Poland] we could do nothing. Today we can speak our mind, hold our ground. We are going to do both.”
The use of the Nazi era photographs and the rhetoric of Bibi and Hillary is poor deduction, sloppy history, and appalling ethics. It also looks desperate and hysterical. Meanwhile, we could do without the constant politicisation of the Holocaust. But I’m afraid we are only going to see more of this kind of thing as Israel is setting aside serious money to combat a campaign that is getting global traction.
So how does it work?
The skewed logic goes like this. The Nazis boycotted Jews. The Nazis were antisemites. There was a direct chronological and political link between boycotting Jews and murdering them. What started as an economic weapon eventually became genocide.
That’s the premise. Now here’s the corollary.
The BDS movement wants to boycott Jews and Jewish businesses (actually it doesn’t, but I’ll get to that sleight of hand in a moment). The BDS movement directs hatred against Jews (ditto previous parenthesis). Slander against Jews is always the prelude to violence and murder against Jews (to quote Prime Minister Netanyahu).
And therefore the conclusion must be…
BDS is inherently racist and extremely dangerous and is consequently an entirely illegitimate form of protest.
Just look at history, goes the argument, see what happened in Germany. They did it to us then and now they are trying to do it again.
But accusing BDS of attempting to ‘delegitimise Israel’, as both Hillary and Bibi do, just turns every criticism of Israel’s actions into a matter of life and death for the Jewish people.
Can’t we dial down the hysteria and have a rational conversation about all this?
It would be better to see BDS as opening a debate about what kind of state Israel wants to be as it approaches its seventieth birthday. Is it going to be a Jewish homeland that protects and upholds the rights of all of its citizens? Or will Jewish ethnicity and Judaism trump the liberal and democratic values that Israel says it shares with Western democracies?
Spotting the difference between Nazis and BDSers
The German boycott of the Jews was inspired by racial hatred. Jews were presented as a cancer to be eradicated. It was aimed not at some Jews but at all Jews and nothing they could do or say would change their status as political, economic and social pariahs. It was not an economic protest to bring about change. It was an economic hammer to destroy the sustainability of a whole people.
In contrast, BDS is inspired by the wish to address the national and civil rights of the Palestinian people following decades of failed international diplomacy.
It is not directed at all Jews.
It is directed at businesses around the world with contracts or investments that help the Israeli government continue its illegal occupation of the West Bank.
It is directed at businesses around the world selling fresh produce or products from the Jewish Settlements on the West Bank, Settlements which are considered illegal by just about every government in the world including Britain and the United States.
If a company stops aiding the Occupation or selling products from the Settlements then the boycott or divestment ends.
While some that support BDS want to target just the Settlements themselves or the companies that aid the Occupation, others promote a full boycott of the State of Israel. Whether you agree with it or not, there is a clear logic in the full boycott stance since it is not the Settlers themselves that either maintain the Occupation or allow for more Settlements or the expansion of existing ones. It’s the government of Israel that does all of that. And if the the Israeli government stopped the Occupation, addressed the rights of Palestinians and agreed a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue then the boycott, divestment and sanctions would end.
Unlike the Nazi boycott, there is a clear way to end BDS and it does not involve the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Okay, there are some racists who hate Jews and are happy to use BDS as political ‘cover’ for their antisemitism. But, to return to the rules of argument by deduction, just because some antisemites support BDS it does not mean that BDS is antisemitic. However, vigilance on this issue by the BDS leadership is required.
As for the sanctions part of the equation, the arguments from the anti-BDSers seem to revolve around the accusation that its unfair and immoral to call for sanctions against Israel while keeping silent on the world’s real perpetrators of evil (they’re thinking Islamic State, President Assad of Syria, Boko Haram etc).
Well, last time I checked there were already plenty of sanctions in place against Syria and I think we are still bombing Islamic State in Iraq. Even Russia gets sanctions imposed for its behaviour in Ukraine. Israel, which ought not to set its benchmark for human rights against its Arab neighbours but rather in line with Western democracies, has no sanctions imposed upon it despite being in breach of international law in multiple ways.
So the question is not why pick on Israel? But why does Israel get off so lightly?
A respectable position
Whether you agree with it or not, BDS is a perfectly respectable position to hold. In fact when it comes to the boycott of Settlement produce and products it should be those businesses still trading with them that need to justify their position rather than the other way around.
Why would you continue to trade with farms or factories operating on stolen land according to international law? Setting aside the ethics for a moment, at the very least it looks like an avoidable commercial risk in terms of your brand reputation.
Of course if you think that BDS is a racist tactic and an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people would you prefer to return to the previous tactics of passed decades to draw attention to the Palestinian cause and show resistance to the Occupation?
Hi-jacking and assassination in the 1970s?
Stone throwing in the 1980s?
Suicide bombing in the 2000s?
Indiscriminate rocket fire and ‘terror tunnels’ today?
Personally, I’ll take BDS every time. It’s peaceful, it’s lawful and nobody has to die.
Hillary Clinton in her letter to Saban said that only direct negotiations between the two sides will lead to a resolution. I think she’s right. But the imbalance between the two sides is exactly why BDS is so needed. Israel will not negotiate seriously until its Jewish citizens and Jewish politicians accept that they have something to lose by not making serious concessions.
So let’s keep the Nazi photographs in the history books and museums and refer to them only to explain the policies that led to the Holocaust.
As for BDS, let’s start debating the issues and stop shooting the messengers.