BDS is a Denial of My Existence

Editors Note: This article is a part of “Swat Takes,” a curated conversation between two authors about a contentious topic. This article is in conversation with an article written by Matthew Koucky entitled “Swarthmore Should Divest from Israeli Apartheid Now.” The headline in the online version was changed to its current form at 2:11 p.m. on 10/25/18 to cohere with the headline in the print issue.

The views below are the author’s own and do not represent the opinions of any group or organization of which she is a part.

The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement completely undermines the dialogue and conversation necessary to even begin to unpack the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because at its basic level, it as an antisemitic attack. BDS and National Students for Justice in Palestine, its loudest proponents, do not support a solution to the conflict that allows for Jewish self-determination. As a movement it completely stifles the conversation necessary to even begin to unpack the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it denies my identity’s right to exist; my Judaism is fundamentally indistinguishable from my Zionism.

BDS claims that its purpose is to put pressure on the Israeli government when in reality it implies the end of the Jewish state and therefore Jewish right to self-determination. This, among other reasons, is where the antisemitism resides. Antisemitism, according to the U.S. State Department, is partially defined as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” I am a strong advocate for recognizing nuance, and so I believe that the proponents of BDS here at Swarthmore are not, at least purposefully, being antisemitic like their national representatives are. Nonetheless, in the same way that some people see my love for Israel as a threat, many Jewish people like myself see BDS as a threat.

Not only has BDS’ co-founder Omar Barghouti said, “we ought to oppose categorically a Jewish state,” but the national charter itself indirectly advocates for destruction of the Jewish state by calling for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars, as well as their descendants. A number totaling more than 7.2 million individuals, this demographic shift would effectively end the Jewish majority in the Jewish state.

I fundamentally believe in Zionism as it is defined as the right for Jewish self determination and for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. BDS as a movement inherently denies that.

Zionism at its roots means liberation of the Jewish people through their own state; BDS at its roots means destruction of that state.

Because I believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, the automatic assumption is made that I am pro-settlements, pro-apartheid, pro-Netanyahu. It takes hard conversation that cannot begin from the starting point of erasure of my identity for others to learn that the reality is, the only “pro” that I really am, is pro-Jewish state. It takes hard conversation to truly make it so that the conflict is not perpetuated as an us-versus-them binary.

I have had to challenge myself over the last few years to not hear basic criticism of Israel as an attack on my identity. As such, criticism of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. Statements like “I oppose the Netanyahu administration’s policies regarding settlements in the West Bank” are necessary, and in my opinion, valid. I will even say it out loud: I personally oppose the Netanyahu administration’s policies regarding settlements in the West Bank. While I certainly can’t speak for the entire pro-Israel community, my stance on Israel is progressive; I believe in a two-state solution, I believe in Palestinian sovereignty, and I also believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

In my experience, however, advocates of Students for Justice in Palestine don’t necessarily see my viewpoint. They often make the claim Zionism is defined as white supremacy and colonialism, and advocate for BDS as a solution to that erroneous definition, and fail to recognize the spectrum of opinions within the pro-Israel community. If they’re going to draw these conclusions, than they also need to understand how the organizations and movements they support reflect terribly on the cause they claim to be fighting for. When I see Students for Justice in Palestine, I see their co-founder Hatem Bazian perpetuating blatant antisemitism on Twitter by retweeting memes of a foolishly depicted Hassidic men with the overlay “Mom, look! I is chosen! And now I rape, smuggle or steal the land of the Palestinians! #Ashke #Nazi;” I see aggressive and intimidating protest exhibited at UCLA’s Indigenous Peoples Unite panel discussion; I see major activists tweeting (and deleting) things like “‘I would have killed all the jews in the world, But I kept some to show the world why I killed them’ -Hitler- #PrayForGaza #PrayForPalestina.” I see support for indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza landing in civilian homes filled with mothers and children and stabbing attacks and shootings, and blatant conflations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism perpetuated by their own advocates despite my hearing their own constant assertions that they are not the same thing.

I love Israel with all my heart. It is a haven, a shelter, a home, a protection. Saying that support for Israel equals unapologetic support for all things Netanyahu is drastically unfair, and believing that the Jewish people don’t have a right to their national homeland denies the blatant need for one. 80 years after the Holocaust and living in a country where the Jewish population is primarily white and European can numb anti-Zionists to antisemitism around the world, and give rise to the argument that I have oft heard that Jews are  “are safe enough” to not need that homeland as a level of protection. Yet this is a myopic view that focuses on white European and American diasporas, ignoring the need for a safe haven for victims of modern expulsions — Jews of color in the Yemeni, Mizrachi, North Africa, Sephardic, and Arab communities. For more information on this, I would recommend the film “Expulsion and Memory: Descendants of Hidden Jews.

To advocate for the disintegration of the Jewish state via BDS is to advocate for the displacement of these very people. And so how do I disregard the reality that the Jewish people are still in danger to this day, that six million of my people were massacred no more than 80 years ago and the constantly impending fear that there’s no telling when a massacre may happen again? How am I supposed to throw away the level of protection that Israel provides by supporting its disintegration? How am I supposed to ignore the millennia of pain my own people have faced? And so, how could I possibly support a movement that, at its core, threatens to take that away?


  1. Hi!
    I’m not a student but I’m a Swarthmore community member and a fellow Jew and I felt like there are a few points here that any Jewish person is responsible for addressing, so here I am, I hope that’s ok.
    1) “As a movement…[BDS] denies my identity’s right to exist. My Judaism is fundamentally indistinguishable from my Zionism.” I think this is a pretty common but disturbing way that logic gets shifted around in identity politics of all sorts, but especially in moments when state policy is at play – but BDS as a movement does not deny you the right to call yourself a Zionist, it would only deny the college’s financial support to a political movement that you choose to identify with by using that label. If Swarthmore decided not to invest money in the Republican Party, that would not change your ability to identify as a Republican; if Swarthmore divested from fossil fuels, you would still be completely free to call yourself a climate change denier. Identity, by definition, exists as much as it is believed to exist – whether Zionist policy is protected by Swarthmore or not has very little to do with your claim to the perfectly legitimate identity of a Zionist.
    2) “Antisemitism, according to the U.S. State Department, is partially defined as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”” This is a pretty contentious point – the US State Department is hardly a neutral party in the question of Zionism. In terms of history, the State definition is very inaccurate. Antisemitism refers to the ethnic theories of Ernest Renan in the 19th century, his belief that the speakers of Semitic languages constituted a race of their own, inferior to the speakers of Saxonic Aryan languages due to their lustful, violent, and selfish nature. The speakers of Semitic languages, of course, are mostly Arabs and Jews. So for someone to oppose a particular Arab state or movement is no less (or more) antisemitic than for someone to oppose Israel or Zionism. Since BDS specifically supports self-determination for a large and oppressed body of Semitic peoples, the Palestinians, the concept of antisemitism really does not apply in this case. That seems like a facetious point, but I (and many other Jews) feel that the history of European anti-Jewish hatred back to the Crusades has always lumped Arabs and Jews together, and that there is no substantial link between that European hatred and the understandable frustration of Palestinians and their allies against Israel.
    3) “I fundamentally believe in Zionism as it is defined as the right for Jewish self determination and for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. BDS as a movement inherently denies that.” You could very easily invert this statement – “I fundamentally believe in BDS as it is defined as the right for Palestinian self determination and for the Palestinian people to have their human rights and sovereignty protected. Zionism as a movement inherently denies that.” In your previous paragraph, you take issue with the fact that BDS demands the right of return for the 7 million Palestinian refugees. Basically, the assertion you are making is that the future of a Jewish-majority state is more important to you than the human rights of the people that state has displaced. It has always disturbed me how quickly Jews in my own family have taken that exact stance which, if you replace the word Jewish with German, looms very large in our family’s (and collectively, our civilization’s) history.
    4) “My stance on Israel is progressive.” Progressive support for Israel is fascinating to me. Support for either ethno-nationalism or Biblical literalism – and ultimately, the legitimacy of the Israeli people’s claim to the land they stole through violent conquest in many people’s living memory hinges on one of the other – is not progressive. A two-state solution in which the Palestinian refugees are trapped on inadequate land, without control of their own borders, after having been forced off of much more fertile and religiously central land in the Nakba of 1948, is not a progressive solution. Again, you are free to believe whatever you want, but these are things you choose to believe, and your choice to believe in them does not outweigh other peoples’ right to return to land that can adequately feed and shelter them.
    5) “believing that the Jewish people don’t have a right to their national homeland denies the blatant need for one” I recommend you read Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People. Sand is an Israeli professor, widely celebrated, who argues that the vast majority of people who identify as Jewish do not share a central heritage in the Biblical Holy Land, but instead that there was vast proselytization during the early part of the Diaspora – it certainly helped me understand my own Jewish identity. So Israel is certainly not “our” national homeland, at least not more than it is the homeland of those forced out of its borders 70 years ago. Also, the idea of a “blatant need” for Jewish national homeland that overrides the needs of Palestinian people is I think absurd. My experience as a Jew in the United States – not my native homeland – has been defined by privilege; Jews are one of the wealthiest and most powerful demographics in this country, we certainly do not need to escape to another people’s homeland to “exist.” The vast majority of Jews are “safe enough,” as you put it. You list “Jews of color,” who face possible marginalization, which I agree is an underdiscussed issue – including in Israel, where Ethiopian Jews especially face enhanced oppression from the police state. But justice for marginalized Jews is not to offer them land occupied by millions of people. There is more than enough wealth and space in the global north to offer any threatened population shelter, if our political system actually valued their humanity. It’s also worth noting that the Arab and North African Jews you mentioned have lived under Muslim rule for centuries as full citizens, unlike European Jews who survived Christian tyranny, and Islamic violence against Jewish communities only began after Israel forced the Muslim population of Palestine to become brutalized refugees.
    6) “that six million of my people were massacred no more than 80 years ago and the constantly impending fear that there’s no telling when a massacre may happen again” As so often happens in mainstream justifications for Israeli oppression, we return to the Holocaust. Here I highly recommend Norman Finkelstein’s book, The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein is a Jew, the son of two Holocaust survivors, who brilliantly illustrates how the genocide has been used to dodge political discussion since (and only since) 1967. I have family who died in the Holocaust, I have family who survived the Holocaust, I’ve worked with Holocaust survivors as a nursing aid, I grew up hearing about its horrors like any Jew (or any person) should. But there is no way Jews can rationally fear another genocide. “When a massacre may happen again” – massacres happen constantly, and some of the most appalling ones going on right now are those being carried out by the Israeli state, with American military support, and with Swarthmore’s investment, against the Palestinian people. I believe all people, and Jews especially, should remember the Holocaust at all times, and should go to any lengths possible to prevent it from recurring anywhere, to any people. It is simply bizarre to suggest that Jews in the United States or Israel have more to fear from the impending threat of genocide than the Palestinians BDS stands in solidarity with. We can wave the specter of potential Holocausts around all we like, but in the actual world, 200 Palestinians have been killed and 18,000 wounded by Israel since April – as long as the Jewish state can only assert its legitimacy through overwhelming lethal force, the only humane path forward is boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning their rogue government.
    I hope obviously that the violence and destruction ends soon, and any suffering on either side is tragic, but the Israeli government (and Jews in Israel and America) needs to realize that until they take actual steps to offer true justice and fair reparations to the Palestinian people, resistance to the regime is not only inevitable but necessary.

    • Like most BDS supporters, your view is mounted on a wanton denial of reality. Even Hamas officials admitted, if not boasted, that many of the fatalities of its clearly violent, sententiously suicidal and needlessly provoking “protests” were militant operatives. We have eyewitness reports and videos of the protesters using rockets, guns, and incendiary devices to wreak whatever havoc they could, burning hundreds of acres of farm land and killing innocent animals. Many were given maps of nearby Israeli civilian villages were they to breach boarders by force in a way that would cause any other country would resort to lethal force to protect itself.

      The call of Israel’s right of self-determination is never attached to the right of annihilating another people. That’s one of the big differences (among many) between Zionism and BDS. If you don’t believe in the utter perniciousness of BDS, which is financially connected to known terrorist regimes, all you have to do is listen to its leaders:

      “[Palestinians have a right to] resistance by any means, including armed resistance.”
      Omar Barghouti,
      BDS founder

      “Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself.”
      -Ahmed Moor,
      Pro-BDS Author

      “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel….That should be stated as an unambiguous goal.”
      As’ad AbuKhalil,
      Leading BDS proponent

      • I am not sure if you are familiar with IDF General Amos Gilead’s leaked comment – “We don’t do Gandhi very well.” If Hamas operatives participated in the March of Return this year, and it is not at all clear that they did, a person who truly believed in the democratic rights and human rights of the Gazan and Palestinian people would be GLAD that Hamas is supporting non-violent protest. But even though Israeli violence against Palestine is so overwhelming, and because hundreds of unarmed Palestinians have been killed in the latest protests without a single Israeli civilian casualty, you claim that their non-violent protest is illegitimate. Any efforts to justify Israeli violence always return to the same problem – as long as Palestinians call for their right to return, Israel has no legitimacy, so Palestinians requesting rights must be completely illegitimate. The reports you mention do not correspond to the large number of international human rights observers, who describe the March of Return as categorically non-violent. But even if they are true, the reports of Palestinian “havoc-wreaking” in no way justify the IDF response, which is to shoot into crowds of civilians with live ammunition and to bomb heavily populated cities.
        You accuse me of “wanton denial of reality.” Your claim that “Israel’s right of self-determination is never attached to the right of annihilating another people” is just that. If a nation claims exclusive rights to land already occupied by another people, and violently forces the original occupants to leave, they are by definition claiming a right to annihilate another people.
        The United Nations has clearly enumerated the rights of colonized people to self-determination through violence if necessary, the Palestinians are a colonized people. So your quote from Omar Barghouti simply finds him in line with the principles of international law and human rights. Similarly, the other voices you cite are not wrong to object to the completely illegitimate and illegal presence of a nation that has dislocated another nation and continues to violently deny those people their rights. If Israel (with its western patrons) is not willing to offer substantial reparations to the Palestinian people and accommodate their right to return, then they will face righteous resistance.

  2. Palestinians have fair representation already – in Israel. They are allowed to vote and participate in the society in the same way as everyone else. Why do you think the Druids and Bedouins are pro-Israel? Why do you think Israel has peace with its neighbors Jordan and Egypt? All of these groups realize that Israel is the beacon of democracy and hope in the middle – including for Muslims and Arabs and Palestinians!

    • With all due respect, please do some research before you spread completely false and misleading information.
      Yes, the Palestinian population within Israel’s borders can vote – but they are explicitly denied the right to self determination. Netanyahu’s Nation State law, passed this July, clearly states that “the right to self determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” So no, non-Jews in Israel are not allowed to “participate in society in the same way as everyone else.”
      Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Palestinian people, who live within borders designated not by their consent but by Israeli military force, have absolutely no human rights in the eyes of the Israeli regime, including no right to democratic representation. When the people of Gaza voted for a government Israel did not approve of in 2006, Israel simply stripped them of their sovereignty.
      There are no Druids in Israel, I presume you mean the Druze. It is true that some Druze and some Bedouins have accepted Israeli rule – not unreasonable, considering the fact that those who do not have faced extreme violence from the Israeli military. Even as we speak, the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar is being bulldozed by the IDF to make room for settlements, an act the United Nations, in accordance with the fundamental principles of international law and human rights, calls a war crime.
      As for “peace with Jordan and Egypt” – do you really believe this is because “Israel is the beacon of democracy and hope”? Jordan’s government is a repressive monarchy, Egypt’s government is a brutal dictatorship characterized by murdering dissidents. Saudi Arabia is also at peace with Israel – do you think they care about democracy and hope? In fact, it’s very easy to predict whether or not a particular government will support Israel. If that government is a far-right dictatorship that relies on American weapons to stay in power, odds are, that government will support Israel — because in fact, Israel’s rule over the Palestinians is in every way a far-right dictatorship that relies on American weapons to stay in power.
      The actual movements for democracy and hope in the Middle East have all been very clear about their support for Palestinian self-determination. If you are serious about wanting democracy and hope, you should be as well.

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