A Dangerous Move to Crack Down on Protests Against Israel

Demonstrators rally in New York City to protest anti-BDS legislation, June 9, 2016. (Photo: Sipa USA via AP)

A Dangerous Move to Crack Down on Protests Against Israel

Pompeo’s decision to brand the BDS movement as anti-Semitic has bipartisan support. Will Biden let it stand?

Late last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government finds the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign to be inherently "anti-Semitic." He pledged to "immediately take steps to identify organizations that engage in hateful BDS conduct and withdraw U.S. government support for such groups" and urged all nations to "recognize the BDS movement for the cancer that it is."

Pompeo made no distinction between those who support a boycott of Israel itself and those who support more limited forms of BDS, such as only targeting products from illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories or companies which directly support the occupation and settlements.

Pompeo made no distinction between those who support a boycott of Israel itself and those who support more limited forms of BDS.

Ignoring the longstanding division within Jewish communities regarding Zionism and the fact that many Zionists support at least a targeted BDS campaign against the occupation, Pompeo added, "As we have made clear, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. The United States is, therefore, committed to countering the Global BDS Campaign as a manifestation of anti-Semitism."

Pompeo's announcement means that the United States can deny government funding of, or official business with, groups that have supported some aspect of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel or the Israeli occupation. For example, it would prevent funding of social services provided by the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and other denominations which have divested from U.S. companies supporting the occupation and settlements. And it would prohibit the State Department from meeting to discuss human rights issues with representatives of Amnesty International, which has called on certain companies not to invest in illegal settlements.

Human rights advocates have protested this latest unilateral action by the Trump Administration, which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called "blatantly unconstitutional."

Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, has accused Pompeo of falsely equating support for such nonviolent tactics targeting Israel's right-wing government with anti-Semitism. "Instead of combating systemic racism and far-right extremism in the United States," he said, the Trump Administration is undermining the common fight against the scourge of antisemitism by equating it with the peaceful advocacy of boycott.

However, like the Trump Administration's decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israeli settlements in Palestine, the move to crack down on supporters of BDS has long been advocated by politicians of both parties.

Throughout the country, both Democrat-controlled legislatures as well as Republican-led bodies with Democratic support have passed measures declaring that supporting BDS--even when just targeting the occupation and illegal settlements and not Israel itself--constitutes anti-Semitism.

For example, in response to the student senate of a Quaker college calling for divestment from four companies supporting the occupation, the Indiana state Senate, in a near-unanimous 2015 resolution, declared such campaigns for corporate responsibility as "anti-Jewish," accusing the student body of "promoting a climate of hatred, intimidation, intolerance, and violence against Jews."

A bill passed by the New York state senate in 2017 held that any campaign to persuade university endowments to divest from stockholdings in companies supporting the Israeli occupation and settlements "seeks to advance anti-Semitic, anti-freedom, and anti-capitalist principles." Even in liberal Democratic-controlled California, the state assembly in 2012 passed a measure declaring that "student and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns against Israel" at state university campuses constitute "anti-Semitic activity" which should not be allowed.

A number of prominent Democratic leaders have repeatedly insisted that the BDS campaign is rooted not in upholding human rights and international law but in prejudice against Jews. In 2016, the U.S. Senate passed a bill by unanimous consent that would have required the Department of Education to pressure colleges and universities to suppress BDS activism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by including "anti-Israel conduct" as a form of "anti-Semitism." Chief sponsor Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennslyvania, justified the bill, which never passed the House, as a response to growing anti-Semitic attacks.

Similarly, Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, has branded the BDS campaign "anti-Semitic." Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, claimed BDS was working to "malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people." Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, has called BDS "bigoted." The 2020 Democratic platform, while failing to even mention the Israeli occupation, condemns BDS as an effort to "delegitimize Israel," which Democrats have long claimed is in itself an anti-Semitic position.

Unlike some of the recent unilateral initiatives by the Trump Administration, Pompeo's designation of BDS as anti-Semitic is something that Biden could revoke with the stroke of a pen.

However, it is far from certain that he will do so. Undoing the designation would pit him against not just Republicans, rightwing Zionists, Christian fundamentalists, other Trump supporters, and powerful corporate interests profiting from the occupation, but many prominent Democratic leaders as well.

Unlike some of the recent unilateral initiatives by the Trump Administration, Pompeo's designation of BDS as anti-Semitic is something that Biden could revoke with the stroke of a pen.

Given their strong corporate ties, both Trump and Biden are motivated to discourage campaigns for corporate responsibility. The wording of some of the anti-BDS legislation is broad enough to similarly discourage the ongoing BDS campaign against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and other campaigns targeting U.S.-backed governments violating human rights and international law.

Fortunately, most rank-and-file Democrats do not oppose BDS, much less consider it anti-Semitic. Only 15 percent of Democrats who are familiar with the BDS campaign have expressed opposition to the campaign and, presumably, a much smaller percentage would associate it with anti-Semitism.

There are reasonable critiques, even by opponents of the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank, of certain aspects of the BDS campaign. Given the history of anti-Semitic boycotts and the ubiquitous, if sometimes subtle, nature of anti-Semitism, there is certainly merit to encouraging a special sensitivity in the course of BDS advocacy.

But the bipartisan effort to label the BDS campaign as inherently anti-Semitic and the punitive nature of such a designation, suggests that the actual motivation is to discourage campaigns for corporate responsibility and nonviolent advocacy overall, such as those targeting other corporations backing other repressive governments allied with the United States, major carbon emitters and other polluters, arms manufacturers, sweatshop owners, union busters, and others.

Had similar anti-boycott initiatives been on the books prohibiting boycotts of non-union grapes and lettuce, bus lines with segregated seating, Woolworth's and other retailers with discriminatory practices, J.P. Stevens and other manufacturers suppressing unions, or companies investing in apartheid South Africa, it would have seriously hampered these important social justice campaigns.

Had similar anti-boycott initiatives been on the books prohibiting boycotts, it would have seriously hampered important social justice campaigns [in the past].

It is no accident that many of the anti-BDS efforts are also backed by the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other lobbying groups tied to corporate interests, as these laws create an important precedent in allowing corporations to act with impunity without the fear of a consumer boycott.

Biden will have his hands full in his early days in office undoing the many harmful executive orders of the Trump presidency. However he views the BDS campaign overall, Biden must reverse its designation as "anti-Semitic."

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