BDS supporters typically recoil with horror at the suggestion that their movement is laden with anti-Semitism. They insist that their criticisms are directed not at Jews but at Zionism, an ideology not a people.
But what happens when members of the far right Jobbik party in Hungary justify anti-Jewish statements with the same rhetoric? How does the BDS respond to seeing its language adopted by an anti-Semitic party?
For Aviva Stahl, a journalist and BDS supporter, it was a time to question how her own movement was relating to anti-Semitism.
“This may sound counterintuitive, but we cannot prioritize the Palestinian struggle or Palestinian voices in our movement unless we confront our confusion about anti-Semitism,” she wrote.
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Referring to statements from Jobbik, which recently won 20 of the vote in a Hungarian election, Stahl questioned the party’s claim that they were merely criticizing Zionists, not Jews, when they decried the “subjugation” of Hungary to the Zionists.
If anti-Semitic groups use anti-Zionist language to attack institutions like the World Jewish Congress, what exactly is the appropriate response?
BDS activists have long responded with a simple, four-word retort when they come under attack: “Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.” But if a group like Jobbik can borrow that exact phrase as a means of explaining and justifying their politics, it is time for us to accept that the motto isn’t an absolute truth.
Stahl asks how the BDS movement should respond to attacks on the movement from the Jewish establishment without using the anti-Semitic tropes of the all-powerful Jewish collective:
How do we speak about the pro-Israel lobby, the Israeli and Western governments’ coordinated response to the BDS movement, without shoring up anti-Semitic stereotypes? Given that social movements require straightforward rhetoric, how do we account for political complexity and resist the creation of a Zionist straw man?
Finally, she notes that the failure to deal with the question of anti-Semitism has serious consequences for the BDS movement:
The implicit comparison [Jobbik member] Gyongyosi draws between the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the so-called Zionist colonization of Hungary is insulting. So are the totalizing references to Zionist power I sometimes encounter in conversation with Palestine solidarity activists, which essentially disappear US and European neo-colonialism (eg, “the Zionist War on Islam”). Our hesitancy to accept that anti-Semitism can speak in the language of anti-Zionism endangers the BDS movement, but it also enables racists and imperialists to exploit Palestinians’ suffering to further their own political aims.
Stahl’s public questioning puts her in a rare category among those who support BDS. We’ve often complained about the unacceptable tolerance of anti-Semitism found in the BDS movement. Is it possible that the rhetoric has finally crossed the line and a backlash is beginning?
It’s hard to say if Stahl’s article was a lone voice in the wilderness or if the BDS movement is really starting to take a good look at itself in the mirror. But removing the anti-Semitism from the BDS may also prove perilous for the movement. Once the hate is gone, there may not be much left.