If you spend enough time in the Jewish social media universe, you start to see the same questions repeated over and over: Are the children of intermarriage with Gentiles really Jewish? Did the Khazars really exist? Why is chicken “meat?” The conversations on Facebook, Twitter and, I imagine, Friendster and MySpace before that, go on and on in endlessly recursive spirals, ebbing and flowing, only to be kicked to the top of everyone’s feed by some controversy, offense, or media headline.
By far the most persistent of these tropes today relates to whether the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and criticism of the State of Israel generally, is antisemitic in-and-of-itself. While many advocates for BDS and critics of the Israeli government’s policies in the Occupied Territories are often inclined to dismiss the very idea as absurd, it does make a certain amount of sense from within some of the more insular regions of the Jewish social network. These are frightening times to be Jewish, when antisemitism is on the rise in the United States and around the world. And Israel, which was founded 71 years ago to be, in part, a refuge for survivors of the most horrifying antisemitic crime in history, finds itself condemned and increasingly isolated in the global community.
It is not difficult for many Jews to put these two developments together and to see BDS not as a movement campaigning for the human rights and national self-determination of Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation, but as an antisemitic conspiracy whose goal is nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state. Jewish opinion is, of course, sharply divided on this very question, and the Jewish social network – not to mention the community itself – is continually alight with impassioned arguments and disputes about whether one can equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The controversy does not, however, often spill over into the wider environs of social media.
Yet that happened last week with an article published by the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS), a site run by the neoconservative editor and journalist Jonathan S. Tobin, under the headline “UN releases ‘unprecedented’ report linking anti-Semitism to BDS movement.” A user on a Jewish Facebook forum shared it with the comment, “Please remember this when Omar and Tlaib introduce new legislation proposing adoption of the BDS agenda.” The usual flamewar erupted between Zionist, not-so-Zionist, and anti- and non-Zionist Jewish users, and I thought that would be the end of it. After all, a site like JNS serves a fairly narrow, somewhat insular audience, and this kind of thing comes up all the time.
I was not prepared for the article, and another flurry of impassioned social media commentary, to make the jump to a wider, non-Jewish audience. Yet, when it did, it ceased to be the kind of parochial family issue, like that question about the Kashrut status of chickens, that I can usually ignore, and became an issue that demanded a closer, critical look.
On Sunday, a non-Jewish friend shared the JNS article, which had been picked up by The Algemeiner, a New York-based Jewish weekly founded in 1972. My friend, a gifted writer and academic who, like me, is committed to Palestinian human rights and national self-determination, offered the link to the article with the comment “Curious what some of you think about this. I think it’s too broad a brush.”
It was a fair question; If, as the JNS article suggested – quoting Anne Herzberg, Legal Advisor and UN Liaison at NGO Monitor – the UN had finally, and explicitly, taken sides on whether BDS was an antisemitic movement, it would be unprecedented and, to be honest, earth-shaking. “This report marks one of the first times the U.N. has addressed the issue of anti-Semitism in any detail,” Herzberg said in the article. “The Special Rapporteur condemned the use of anti-Semitic tropes and denial of Israel’s right to exist by BDS activists.”
The relationship between Zionism and the United Nations is somewhat complex. On one hand, the State of Israel has consistently chafed at what it considers to be the international community’s pro-Arab bias and interference in domestic policy – even when that “domestic policy” is a violation of international law, like building settlements in the Occupied Territories. This is hardly a new phenomenon, Israel’s hostile relationship with the UN goes back to 1948, when Zionist terrorists murdered the UN official Count Bernadotte.
On the other hand, Israel’s very legitimacy as a nation rests on the authority of the United Nations. It would not exist at all if the UN had not passed Resolution 181 in November 1947, recommending the partition of British Mandatory Palestine, and the creation of Jewish and Palestinian Arab states. (Resolution 181 is equally the legal basis for Palestinian statehood, but that is something that most Zionists prefer to ignore.) The admission of Israel as “a peace-loving state” to the United Nations community a year later was the final, irrevocable recognition of Israeli statehood.
So, as much as the Israeli government might dislike or mistrust the UN, the international community’s recognition of one of its core claims – that opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territory and criticism of Israeli policy, as embodied in the BDS movement is nothing less than antisemitism under a different label – would be significant validation. Jewish Zionists enthusiastically welcomed the news, while Jewish and non-Jewish advocates for Palestinian rights were left scratching their heads. How could this be true?
It isn’t. Like much reporting on and discussion of BDS in the conjoined universes of Jewish media and social media, the JNS story was, at best, grossly inaccurate and, at worst, a tissue of lies. About the only accurate part of the report is that Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, did submit a report on antisemitism to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights last month. Shaheed’s report is a significant, and welcomed, indication that the international community is taking antisemitism seriously, and his recommendations for how “States, civil society, the media and the United Nations [can] follow a human rights-based approach to combatting antisemitism” should be required reading. But nowhere in the text does Shaheed equate BDS with antisemitism. It is “fake news.”
All the report does is note that BDS is controversial and that its critics equate it with antisemitism: “The Special Rapporteur further notes claims that the objectives, activities and effects of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement are fundamentally antisemitic… Critics of BDS assert the architects of the campaign have indicated that one of its core aims is to bring about the end of the State of Israel and further allege that some individuals have employed antisemitic narratives, conspiracies and tropes in the course of expressing support for the BDS campaign.”
It is a far cry from noting the Zionist claim that BDS is antisemitic to endorsing the idea that it is antisemitic. I can, for example, note that my niece believes in the Tooth Fairy without necessarily endorsing the nocturnal dental sprite’s existence. Indeed, in the very next sentence, the report “notes that these allegations are rejected by the BDS movement, including by one of its principal actors, who asserted that the movement is ‘inspired by the South African anti-apartheid and U.S. Civil Rights movements;’ maintained that they oppose all forms of racism and that they take steps against those who use antisemitic tropes in the campaign, and stressed that they employ ‘nonviolent measures to bring about Israel’s compliance with its obligations under international law.’”
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the claim that the United Nations, in Shaheed’s report, recognizes that BDS is antisemitic is nothing less than “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse.” Indeed, the one unequivocal statement that Shaheed makes with regard to BDS is that the adoption of laws that penalize support for the movement are an unconscionable restriction of the right to free speech. The Special Rapporteur “recalls that international law recognizes boycotts as constituting legitimate forms of political expression, and that non-violent expressions of support for boycotts are, as a general matter, legitimate speech that should be protected.”
It is unlikely that anything more than a few readers of the JNS article made the effort to seek out and actually read the Special Rapporteur’s report. The anonymous author disingenuously failed to provide a link, while nonetheless providing one for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s extremely controversial working definition of antisemitism. At the end of the day, readers had to depend on the spin provided by Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon, the World Jewish Congress and, above all Herzberg, NGO Monitor’s UN liaison. And while, at first glance, Herzberg might seem to be the kind of international affairs wonk who you’d like to take seriously, NGO Monitor, the Jerusalem-based organization she works for, is funded by the most prominent right wing, Likudnik Zionists in America.
This web of deception is typical of how the Zionist movement and the State of Israel maintain traction and manufacture consent in the Diaspora Jewish community. We are being played. Israel, and its proxies, leverages the very real and justifiable fears that Diaspora Jews have of antisemitism. The memory of the pogroms and the Holocaust stalk our nightmares, and the escalation of white nationalist and neo-Nazi violence haunts our reality. Antisemitism is real but, as the JNS coverage of the UN report illustrates all too well, it is a reality that the Zionist and Israeli propaganda machine has no scruples about cynically twisting in its campaign to silence their critics.
As I used to tell my journalism school students, consider the source.