US listing of BDS as anti-Semitic sparks freedom-of-speech debate

US listing of BDS as anti-Semitic sparks freedom-of-speech debate
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. (AP)
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Updated 23 November 2020

US listing of BDS as anti-Semitic sparks freedom-of-speech debate

US listing of BDS as anti-Semitic sparks freedom-of-speech debate
  • Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel officially rejects anti-Semitism
  • American attorney: ‘To equate BDS and anti-Zionism as a whole with anti-Semitism is just factually wrong’

NEW YORK: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to list the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as an anti-Semitic organization has reignited a ferocious debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism, and where the line should be drawn regarding freedom of speech.

Kenneth Stern, an American attorney and director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, called Pompeo’s move “unproductive and troubling.”

Stern told Arab News: “Even though the BDS movers and shakers are clearly anti-Zionist, there are many organizations that support it because they’re concerned about Israel’s control of the West Bank. So to equate BDS and anti-Zionism as a whole with anti-Semitism is just factually wrong.”

Pompeo directed the State Department’s envoy on combating anti-Semitism “to identify organizations that engage in or otherwise support” BDS.

This has raised fears that Palestinian and international human rights groups that Israel accuses, rightly or wrongly, of supporting BDS could be denied US funding.

Though a self-identified Zionist, Stern considers the creation of a blacklist of groups that are highly critical of Israeli policy and society as problematic.

“That’s not how you deal with political differences, by creating a hard and fast rule that takes on all types of protest and dissent and says it’s a hateful one. In fact, it’s not,” he said.

But Harley Lippman, president of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), could not agree more with Pompeo.  

“BDS is an international movement to bring Israel to its knees,” Lippman told Arab News. “They’re not just criticizing Israeli policies. They're putting in place something that, if the nations of the world cooperated, could destroy Israel.”

Critics say BDS represents a hindrance to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by rejecting the right of the Jewish state to exist and shunning bridge-building efforts on the grounds that they “normalize” Israel.

“All these claims were created by right-wing politicians because none of them are true,” Miko Peled, an Israeli-American activist, told Arab News.

“The demands of BDS are very, very clear: Ending the military occupation, equal rights for Palestinians and all the people who live in historic Palestine, and the right of refugees to return to their land and homes,” he said. 

“These aren’t demands to hurt or expel anyone. They’re remedial, to remedy the reality in which Palestinians exist as a result of the creation of the state of Israel.”

Peled was born and raised in Jerusalem by a “very Zionist family, as Zionist as you can imagine.”

His grandfather signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, his father was a general in the army, and many of his uncles were ambassadors.

But a journey into Palestinian territories made him come out “to support the struggle for justice and liberty in Palestine.”

He discovered “a narrative that I wasn’t told, that Israelis were kept away from,” and chronicled it in his book “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.”

Peled said: “The Palestinians in Palestine live under a brutal apartheid regime, subjected to racist laws and a police state that makes their life impossible.”

He believes that Pompeo’s move to brand BDS as anti-Semitic is based on a false premise: “That opposing and rejecting Israel and Zionism is racist, where in fact the opposite is true. Opposing Zionism is opposing racism and anti-Semitism. But they (Israel’s supporters) flipped it around. Now they perpetuate this myth everywhere.”

The US House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing BDS last year, and several American states have enacted similar laws.

Some of those laws have been struck down, however, for violating the First Amendment regarding freedom of speech.

A survey released last year showed that one in five Americans approved of BDS as a means of opposing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

“In campus after campus around the world, students are supporting BDS,” said Peled. “Is it bringing the collapse of the Israeli economy? Of course not. But these things take time. It’s about awareness. More and more people are aware that buying something that’s made in Israel is wrong.”

But Lippman, a longtime member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said BDS is actually backfiring.

“All it does is galvanize people around Israel. We see ourselves threatened by this, so it ends up motivating us to do more for Israel and defend it more,” he said.

Despite pullouts from Israel by some companies, foreign investment in the country is booming. Israel relies less on exporting commodities than intellectual property such as software, which makes it harder to boycott.

“Israel, while it’s the most powerful nation in the Middle East, is also the most fragile. The fact that its economy is booming despite BDS doesn’t diminish the sinister, prejudiced nature of what they’re trying to do,” Lippman said.

“It’s like saying, ‘There’s a Nazi party in the US but they’re not hurting Jews right now, so what’s the problem?’ Well, not yet. But we all know the Nazi ideology. We know that their goal would be to murder all Jews,” added Lippman, whose family lost 86 members during the Holocaust.

Stern, author of “The Conflict over the Conflict,” which tackles the Israeli-Palestinian debate on college campuses, said: “I understand the desire in parts of the Jewish community and the evangelical community, that there’s one Jewish state and to target it and question its right to exist is a manifestation of anti-Semitism. I get why they want to push that.

“But I worry about the flip side of that. We’re implying in legal terms the idea that anti-Zionism is always anti-Semitism. It’s going to have a negative impact on the ability of Palestinians and others to make their cases. I may not be agreeing fully with their case, but they certainly have a right to make it.”


New migrant caravan leaves Honduras in pursuit of American dream

New migrant caravan leaves Honduras in pursuit of American dream
Updated 16 January 2021

New migrant caravan leaves Honduras in pursuit of American dream

New migrant caravan leaves Honduras in pursuit of American dream
  • The 3,000 or so migrants plan to walk thousands of kilometers through Central America
  • Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have an agreement with the US to stop north-bound migratory flows

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras: Some 3,000 people left Honduras on foot Friday in the latest migrant caravan hoping to find a welcome, and a better life, in the US under President-elect Joe Biden.
Seeking to escape poverty, unemployment, gang and drug violence and the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes, the migrants plan to walk thousands of kilometers through Central America.
But they will have to overcome a rash of travel restrictions in Guatemala and Mexico long before they even make it to the American border.
The quest is likely to end in heartbreak for many, with American authorities already having warned off the group that includes people of all ages and some entire families.
“I want to work for my house and a car, to work and live a dignified life with my family,” said Melvin Fernandez, a taxi driver from the Caribbean port city of La Ceiba in Honduras, who set off on the long journey with his wife and three children, aged 10, 15 and 22.
Most of the group set off shortly after 4 a.m. (1000 GMT) from the transport terminal of San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, headed for Agua Caliente on the Guatemalan border some 260 km (162 miles) away.
The migrants walked along side roads wearing backpacks, some holding the Honduras flag, many with small children in their arms, and most with facemasks to protect against the coronavirus.
The migrants say they hope to catch lifts from passing motorists or truckers or, failing that, walk the entire way.
To enter Guatemala, the first country on their route, however, the migrants will have to show travel documents and a negative coronavirus test — requirements that not all of them meet.
“We are leaving with a broken heart, because in my case, I leave my family, my husband and my three children behind,” 36-year-old Jessenia Ramirez told AFP.
“We are going in search of a better future, a job so we can send a few cents back home. We are trusting in God to open our path, Biden is supposed to give work opportunities to those who are there (on American soil).”
The travelers are hopeful that Biden, who takes over the US presidency on Wednesday, will be more flexible than his predecessor Donald Trump.
Biden has promised “a fair and humane immigration system” and pledged aid to tackle the root causes of poverty and violence that drive Central Americans to the United States.
But Mark Morgan, acting Commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection, warned the group last week not to “waste your time and money.”
The US commitment to the “rule of law and public health” is not affected by the change in administration, he said in a statement.
More than a dozen caravans, some with thousands of migrants, have set off from Honduras since October 2018.
But all have run up against thousands of US border guards and soldiers under Trump, who has characterized immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” who were “bringing drugs” and other criminal activity to the United States.
Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have an agreement with the United States to stop north-bound migratory flows from the south of the continent.
Honduras has mobilized 7,000 police officers to supervise the latest caravan on its journey to the Guatemalan border.
Guatemala declared seven departments in a state of “alert,” giving security forces the authority to “forcibly dissolve” any type of public groupings.
On Friday, officials said they had already returned about 100 Hondurans who began the trip from San Pedro Sula on Thursday and entered Guatemala illegally, without Covid tests. Another 600-odd migrants who arrived at the border were prevented from entering, Guatemalan police reported.
Hundreds of police and soldiers manned three border crossings to stop the caravan. Many wore gas masks and carried shields and truncheons.
On the Honduran side, in the town of El Florido, there were signs of desperation.
“We will not move until they let us cross. We will stage a hunger strike,” said Dania Hinestrosa, 23, waiting with her young daughter.
“We have no work or food. That is why I am traveling to the United States,” she said.
Mexican authorities said late Thursday that 500 immigration officers were being deployed to the Guatemalan border in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival.
But the migrants are keeping the end goal in sight.
Among them, 28-year-old Eduardo Lanza said he dreamed of living in a country where people of different sexual orientations can live with dignity, “respect... and a job opportunity.”
Norma Pineda, 51, said last year’s hurricanes left her “on the street.”
“We are leaving because here is no work, no state support, we need food, clothes...” she told AFP.