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The BDS Movement: A Struggle for Pro-Palestinian, Muslim, and Jewish Citizens

In the U.S., the BDS movement has become a proxy battlefield for the conflict between Israel and Palestine, putting pressure on Muslim, pro-Palestinian, and Jewish Americans to defend themselves as surrogate representatives of foreign players.

Attacks on Muslims and advocates of Palestinian human rights

Since 9-11, the phenomenon of Islamaphobia has increased in the U.S., and a narrative has emerged that labels Muslims as terrorists. Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said in a 2015 interview, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim,” ignoring all the cases of non-Muslim terrorist attacks in the U.S., including many carried out by the Jewish Defense League.

Laurie Cardoza-Moore, who did not respond to a request for comment, is a major actor in anti-BDS advocacy. Through her organization, Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, she has been successful, across the U.S., in initiating state legislative action to condemn BDS activity as violent and anti-Semitic.

Accusations of anti-Semitism and terrorist connections are attempts to shut down debate and criticism, before it starts.
Dima Khalidi, Palestine Legal

Moore is also a high profile anti-Muslim, pro-Israel advocate. In 2011, she proclaimed Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the “new leader of the free world.” She has led rallies to stop mosque construction in Tennessee, and in NYC, citing a Muslim conspiracy to take over the U.S.

See Part 1 of this series: The BDS Movement: A Call for Human Rights, or Anti-Semitism in the U.S. 

This narrative is boldly asserted in the fight against the BDS movement. BDS supporters, and supporting organizations, like Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP), are regularly linked with terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting, in some cases, in being banned from U.S. college campuses. BDS advocates have also been relentlessly accused of anti-Semitism, under the vague and controversial 3 D’s definition, despite the State Department’s assertion that the definition shouldn’t be used domestically, due to threats to First Amendment rights.

Palestine Legal released its report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack, at the end of September 2015. Formed in 2012, Palestine Legal has taken civil rights cases and complaints from those who are being targeted for their support for Palestine. Cases of false accusations of terrorism have increased from 20, in 2014, to 41 cases in the first six months of 2015.

Being labeled a terrorist has consequences, says Dima Kahlidi, Founder and Director of Palestine Legal:

It’s an especially pernicious accusation for Arab and Muslim students in this post-9/11 era, when a Muslim kid can be arrested for bringing a clock to school. Israel advocacy groups send accusations to law enforcement agencies, and individuals have reported being contacted by the FBI because of smear campaigns against them.

Accusations of the BDS Movement's Deep Roots in Terrorism

Most of Palestine Legal’s work addresses individuals who are falsely accused of anti-Semitism. Their report shows that accusations are focused on campus youth, with few exceptions.

See Part 3 of this series: Is BDS Causing a Rise in Anti-Semitism

“Accusations of anti-Semitism and terrorist connections are attempts to shut down debate and criticism, before it starts,” said Kahlidi. “It is a conversation stopper to say that BDS is anti-Semitic or terrorist. The tactic is to say that advocates for Palestinians are not motivated by human rights, but against Jews.”

“It is an attempt to erase the basis for grievance. To say, ‘it is not because of policies to take land, build settlements, or for war crimes against civilians,'” she added.

Diplomacy hasn’t worked, Kahlidi said, and she asserted, “First Amendment rights are necessary to address the conflict.”

Attacks on Jewish Americans for lack of loyalty to Israel

Jewish Americans are also being attacked for their lack of loyalty to Israel.

Asking Jewish people if they are more loyal to Israel than their home country is considered anti-Semitic. Yet, pro-Israel groups put heavy pressure on U.S. Jews to declare their loyalty to Israel.

The state of Israel has initiated an intense campaign encouraging stronger identification between American Jews and Israel, and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu claims that he speaks for ‘all Jewish people.’

J Street has put up a Myths and Facts page in response to accusations that the organization is not Jewish, supports BDS, and is not sufficiently pro-Israel. They are persistently harassed to prove their Jewishness, as a function of their approval of Israeli policies, and have been publicly threatened with ex-communication.

The ADL has compiled a list of anti-Israel organizations in the U.S., including Jewish Voice for Peace. ADL accuses JVP of shielding anti-Israelism with their Jewish identity and denounces the organization for accusing Israel of apartheid policies and endorsing BDS.

Hillel International is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. A main goal of Hillel is to strengthen the connection between Jewish students and Israel. The organization “views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students,” according to the organization’s Israel Guidelines.

While the guidelines include a section, Political Pluralism, which welcomes diverse political views on Israel, the following section, Standards of Partnership, prohibits engagement with groups who are perceived to fit the vague and controversial 3 D’s definition of anti-Semitism, support BDS, or — also a vague criteria — exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior on campus.

See Part 2 of this series: How Do We Define Anti-Semitism?

Disenfranchised students accuse Hillel International of 'stifling Jewish life on campus,' 'bullying students into silence,' and 'legally blackmailing' students.
Hillel International has taken legal action against student Hillel groups who have engaged with alleged anti-Israel voices, including Jewish civil rights activists, JVP, and pro-Palestinian campus organizations. This has led to a break with Jewish students who wish to have a comprehensive discussion about the Israel-Palestine issue, and to the creation of Open Hillel.

Disenfranchised students accuse Hillel International of “stifling Jewish life on campus,” “bullying students into silence,” and “legally blackmailing” students.

In December 2014, under pressure from donors, the D.C. Jewish Community Center fired Theater J’s longtime artistic director, Ari Roth. He was given an ultimatum — change your programming to fit within pro-Israel perimeters, or leave.

The end of his career at Theater J was fraught with censorship. He was required by the JCC to ask each artist, “On behalf of the Jewish people, are you now or have you ever been a signatory to a boycott of Israel?”

Since his firing, Roth has started a new theater company in D.C. — one that will explore pieces like The Admission, about a massacre during the War of Israeli Independence, and Return to Haifa, a parallel story of Jewish and Arab displacement, which were censored by the JCC.

The D.C. JCC, has also canceled appearances by the band, The Shondes, for anti-Zionist lyrics, and the author, Harris-Gershon, whose book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Man Who Killed Your Wife?, recounts a journey of reconciliation with the terrorist who killed his wife.

Gershon’s appearance was canceled after the community center saw a remark he made on social media supporting BDS.

In August 2015, The Jewish Agency, an international agency that connects Jewish diaspora with Israel, said it will cut connections with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, due to program changes it says will silence dissent, and threaten to control private aspects of Jewish life.

Conclusion

The conflict over the BDS movement has been framed and defined by its critics.

Muslim, pro-Palestinian, and Jewish citizens are being abused by domestic and extra-national pressures. It is important that the U.S. stand up to protect these citizens from pressures that infringe on their civil rights of free speech, and equality under the law.

Labeling pro-Palestinian Americans as extremists marginalizes them, and places them in a vulnerable position. Attempts to re-define anti-Israelism, and anti-Zionism, as anti-Semitic, restrict constitutionally protected free speech, and allow for widespread public shaming of Americans who voice criticisms of Israel or Zionism.

Labeling pro-Palestinian Americans as terrorists puts citizens in a dangerous legal path. There is a real danger here of fueling domestic conflict and extremism.

Most Americans are not well aware of the facts of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or of BDS, or of the pressures on Muslims and Jews in the U.S., as symbols of the conflict.

It is only by listening, learning, and reflecting on history that citizens will find understanding. Fear of looking at the history of the conflict, as Laurie Cardoza-Moore suggests, because of what one might find, has three main negative outcomes:

  1. It denies Jewish and pro-Palestinian Americans the necessary right to define their relation to the conflict (whether they choose to voice their opinions, or not);
  2. Enables the U.S. to deny anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments that truly discriminate against and affect the quality of life for Jewish and Muslim Americans; and
  3. Further delays meaningful debate on the U.S.’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Considering the challenges the U.S. faces in fighting terrorism, deteriorating relations with Israel, and recognizing the unique position of Jewish and Muslim citizens, it is in America’s interest to ensure an honest, rigorous debate to help educate U.S. citizens about the issues, and to advance possible solutions.