Anti-racist boycott of Israel widely misunderstood in US
Claims made by Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang in an op-ed in The Forward online newspaper last month point to the prevailing ignorance that continues to dominate the US discourse on Palestine and Israel. Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate, is vying for the Jewish vote in New York City. And, based on the reductionist assumption that all Jews must naturally support Israel and Zionism, he constructed an argument that was entirely based on a tired and false mantra equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
Yang’s pro-Israel logic is not only unfounded, but confused as well. “A Yang administration will push back against the BDS movement, which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment,” he wrote, referring to the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He even compared the BDS movement to the “fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses,” most likely a reference to the infamous Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany, starting in April 1933. Not only does Yang fail to construct his argument in any historically defensible fashion, he also claims that BDS is “rooted in anti-Semitic thought and history.”
BDS is, in fact, rooted in history, but not that of Nazi Germany. Rather, it goes back to the Palestinian general strike of 1936, when the Palestinian Arab population took collective action to hold colonial Britain accountable for its unfair and violent treatment of Muslims and Christians. Instead of helping Palestine achieve full sovereignty, colonial Britain backed the political aspirations of White European Zionists who aimed to establish a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine. Sadly, the efforts of the Palestinian natives failed and the new state of Israel became a reality in 1948, after nearly 1 million Palestinians were uprooted and ethnically cleansed as a result of a violent campaign, the aftershocks of which continue to this day. Indeed, today’s ongoing military occupation and apartheid are rooted in that tragic history.
This is the reality that the BDS movement is fighting to change. No anti-Semitic, Nazi — or, according to Yang’s ahistorical account, “fascist” — love affair is at work here; just a beleaguered and oppressed people fighting for their most basic human rights.
Yang’s ignorant and self-serving comments were duly countered, including by many anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals and activists. Alex Kane, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents magazine, tweeted that Yang made “a messed up, wrong comparison,” and that the politician “comes across as deeply ignorant about Palestine, Palestinians and BDS.” The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) added its voice to numerous others, all pointing to Yang’s opportunism, lack of understanding of history, and distorted logic.
But this goes beyond Yang, as the debate over BDS in America is almost entirely rooted in fallacious comparisons and an ignorance of history. Those who hoped that the end of the Trump administration would bring about a measure of justice for the Palestinian people will surely be disappointed, as the American discourse on Palestine and Israel rarely changes, regardless of who resides in the White House or what political party dominates Congress.
Reducing the boycott debate to Yang’s confused account of history and reality is, in itself, a reductionist understanding of US politics. Indeed, similar language is regularly used, such as by President Joe Biden’s nominee for UN envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, while addressing her confirmation hearing at the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee last month. Like Yang, Thomas-Greenfield also found boycotting Israel an “unacceptable” act that “verges on anti-Semitism.”
While the presumptive envoy supported the return of the US to the Human Rights Council, UNESCO and other UN-affiliated organizations, her reasoning for such moves is merely to ensure Washington has a place “at the table,” so that it may monitor and discourage any criticism of Israel.
Yang, Thomas-Greenfield and others perpetuate such inaccurate comparisons with full confidence that they have strong support among the country’s ruling elites in the two dominant political parties. Indeed, according to the latest count by the pro-Israel Jewish Virtual Library website, “32 states have adopted laws, executive orders or resolutions that are designed to discourage boycotts against Israel.” The criminalization of the boycott movement has even taken center stage in the federal government in Washington. Anti-boycott legislation was passed with overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2019, with more expected to follow.
The popularity of such measures prompted former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to declare the Israel boycott movement to be anti-Semitic and describe it at as “a cancer” at a press conference last November. While Pompeo’s position is unsurprising, Yang and Thomas-Greenfield — both members of minority groups that have suffered immense historical racism and discrimination — should brush up on the history of popular boycott movements in their own country. The weapon of boycott was a most effective platform for translating political dissent into tangible achievements for oppressed black people in the US during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. The most memorable and consequential of these was the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56.
Moreover, outside the US, numerous volumes have been written about how the boycott of the white supremacist apartheid government of South Africa ignited a global movement that, combined with the sacrifices of black South Africans, brought apartheid to an end in the early 1990s.
The debate over BDS in America is almost entirely rooted in fallacious comparisons and an ignorance of history.
The Palestinian people do not learn history from Yang and his ilk, but from the collective experiences of oppressed peoples and nations throughout the world. They are guided by the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., who once said: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The boycott movement aims to hold the oppressor accountable, as it places a price tag on military occupation and apartheid. Not only is the Palestinian boycott movement not racist, it is essentially a rallying cry against racism and oppression.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, the latest being “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud