This letter is a response to an op-ed titled, “BDS will bring bigotry, hatred and even violence to UBC” that was published March 28, 2017.
Dear Koby Michaels,
I want to start by saying that I do respect you, your experiences and your inviolable right to freedom of expression. However, I do not beg your pardon nor am I concerned with offending or disrespecting you by claiming that your arguments are — besides misleading and contestable — inherently violent. I hope that critically addressing each and every one of them will clarify why.
My second premise is that even if there is no evidence at UBC of BDS-related anti-Semitism, your personal feelings of threatened safety are not and will never be in question. You are legitimately entitled to them, and only you can speak for your personal experience and emotions which should be properly addressed as a concern for the community and institution where you do not feel comfortable.
As a member of that community, I am genuinely sorry if you feel unsafe on campus at night with your headphones plugged in or walking in sketchy corners.
But I do not apologize as a BDS supporter because I know that the movement I stand for is not responsible for that. It is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, and it does not aim at destroying neither your cultural and ethnic identity nor the country that represents it.
It is true and not to be forgotten that anti-Semitism is alive and thriving, and that it is our duty to stand firmly against it as against all discrimination.
With these premises in mind, what is to be seriously questioned is your op-ed’s framing of BDS as bigoted, hateful and violent, as well as the fallacious arguments used to substantiate this claim. I allowed myself to group your statements under five themes in order to address them one by one.
1) BDS does not want the state of Israel to exist
“BDS makes me feel unsafe because, at its heart, the movement calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
“While the movement doesn’t explicitly call for the destruction of Israel, it doesn’t take a lot of interpretation to see that it is BDS's end goal.”
“The end goal of BDS is to see a world without Israel.”
For however deep I could dig, I have not yet found any evidence of “the heart” of the movement calling for “the destruction of the state of Israel.” Social movements are to be held accountable to their public statements on their constitution and so is BDS. Well, as you also recognize, the BDS movement has never explicitly claimed anything close to the destruction of Israel or the invocation of a Palestinian-only state. You may thus argue that there is a significant difference between the official principles and their practical application as you indeed do on the arbitrary basis of your own “interpretation” of BDS’s goals.
Which, I would like to remind you, are:
- Ending the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantling the Apartheid Wall
- Giving full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel
- Respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return
No mention of destroying Israel... on the surface level, you will say.
Let’s look more closely then and you’ll see there isn’t even any of that at interpretive or hidden levels. Indeed, a similar argument to yours was (in)famously made in 2012 by Norman Finkelstein, who argued that “the result of implementing the three [goals]” is that “there’s no Israel.” Finkelstein’s thesis has been extensively deconstructed through showing that BDS’s goals would not hinder a two-state solution and thus the existence of Israel. Matters of one vs. two-state solution will be discussed on point four.
For now, I would like to point out that:
1. Respecting the seven million Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” does not imply taking away the citizenship rights currently granted to Jewish people in Israel. In other words, recognizing the Palestinians’ rights of return does not mean to “un-recognize” it for Jewish people that wish to move to Israel and become Israeli citizens. Fascinatingly, this is especially true in the case of the creation of a democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian single state that you seem to fear so much. But more on this later.
2. Palestinians have been living as refugees for entire generations with the status of refugees being actually inherited legally. On the one hand, this means that it is rather hard to imagine that seven million people that have been displaced for decades and have constructed their lives somewhere else would all of a sudden and altogether move back and stably settle in Palestine, outnumbering and thus “sweeping out” Israeli. Beside being practically unlikely, if the transition was done within a proper legal framework of reconciliation, there would be no threat to Israel’s existence. On the other hand, the right of return to a recognized Palestinian State is synonymous with citizenship rights that are currently lacked and very much needed by Palestinians in many countries where their temporary status comports limitations of their freedoms and opportunities (e.g. Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon). They would thus be incredibly beneficial even to the refugees that do not physically return.
BDS does not want a world without Israel. It wants a world without Israeli war crimes, apartheid and the colonial oppression of Palestinians.
2) BDS does not want Jewish people to exist
“It [BDS] claims Jewish people do not have a right to self-determination and that they are not a singular group. It claims I have no right to be Jewish and safe.”
Again, BDS as a movement has never made any such claims. This point is clearly related to my first one, but it touches the most painful button — accusing BDS of anti-Semitism.
Plenty of arguments have been made to fend BDS from such charges and you can even find an entire section devoted to this endeavour on the BDS website.
I thus want to present you with an argument made by someone who is not only an Israeli Jew regularly contributing to Haaretz, but he’s also openly not supportive of BDS tactics. David Rosenberg’s article encourages a political critique of BDS, but discourages one based on anti-Semitism or racism charges, which are in his words, “unproven.” Moreover, he answers the important question of “why pick on Israel unless you don’t like Jews?” so often posed by many claiming that BDS follows a logic of singling out Israel through boycott to isolate and discriminate against Jews when there are so many other injustices in the world.
Rosenberg answers that the question makes little sense because “BDS is a one-issue group,” initiated by Palestinians whose issue is the Israeli occupation. Quoting his own metaphor, asking that question is like “saying the American Lyme Disease Foundation has no business raising money that should go to fighting cancer.” He also does make a distinction between the movement organization and its grassroots reality, saying that standing against Israeli policies will inevitably attract the crowd of those who are against Israel because they are against Jews. Does that mean we should de-legitimize an entire movement, its founding principles and the reasons behind it? No.
Or would you stop going to the stadium because some people behave violently? Let me tell you, most people would not.
Anti-Semitism is a serious problem in the world and thus within movements as well — including BDS — and it needs to be addressed as it deserves. But it is not a good reason to dismiss political requests of respecting human rights and international law, especially because the movement itself does not condone anti-Semitism and rather condemns it.
3) Founders and “prominent supporters” of BDS are anti-Semitic
“Founders and prominent supporters of BDS have time and time again called for a one-state solution, have denied that Israel has a right to exist and have even gone as far as to say Jews are not a people.”
First, it is true that some founders and supporters of BDS have publicly called for a one-state solution, envisioning it as a secular and democratic state based on equality of citizenship for Palestinians (including refugees) and Jewish Israeli. However, they have never made any of these claims on behalf of or with reference to the BDS movement. The matter of the one vs. two-state solution will be discussed in point four.
Second, it is not true that those founders and supporters have denied Israel the right to exist — they deny its right to violate human rights and to exist as an apartheid state segregating Palestinians.
Third, I literally searched for evidence of BDS supporters saying that Jews are not people. And guess what I found? Nothing. If you have found such evidence, I would encourage you to share it to support your thesis.
Fourth, I invite you to take a look yourself at the list of Palestinian organizations that make up the organizing core of BDS — the BNC or Boycott National Committee. You can find a list here and search about each of them to make sure they haven’t made anti-Semitic declarations or actions. You can spare your time and trust me — they have not.
Lastly, I would like to remind you that some “prominent” supporters with which I deduce you mean publicly visible and vocal are actually Jews themselves.
4) One vs. two-state solution
“BDS organizers and supporters at UBC may very well be for a two-state solution, but BDS is not.”
For those who do not know, the two-state solution is deemed as the one international diplomacy has reached consensus upon, whereas the one-state solution is deemed unrealistic and envisioned in different ways.
As one of the BDS founders, Omar Barghouti, has remarked several times, the BDS movement takes no position on the political solution, but takes an only rights-based approach. While some founders and supporters do advocate a one-state solution, “most networks, unions and political parties in the BNC still advocate a two-state solution outside the realm of the BDS movement.”
At the same time, BDS organizers and supporters at UBC are not unanimously supporting a two-state solution as the most desirable (rather than viable) and that does not make them anti-Semitic, anti-peace or anti-right of self-determination for Jewish people.
The way you have framed a one-state solution as a means to get rid of Israel is dangerous, misleading and unfounded. I have already noted that the BDS leading supporters advocating for one-state solution have advocated for a unitary, pluralistic, secular and democratic state with equal citizenship rights without “privilege [for] the rights of one ethnic or religious group over another.” Is the number of states the issue that really bothers you and Zionists? Or is the eradication of colonial privileges the real problem?
5) Cases of anti-Semitism in other universities
I see you are concerned for episodes alike to occur at UBC, but it is trivial to base a claim that an entire movement is essentially bigoted, hateful and violent on a series of events that prove only that anti-Semitism is bigoted, hateful and violent, and we need to stand united against it.
Indeed, not only have we up to now collected quite the evidence that BDS and its supporters are not anti-Semitic, but the episodes themselves that you report are actually not all necessarily related to BDS as, for example, is the case of the post by McGill’s student politician.
I know this letter is long, but I did consider each of your points worth an analysis, especially for readers who may not have a background on the subject matter and may be seriously deceived by the information you provided.
Conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and appealing to legitimate — yet unrelated in this case — safety concerns is a powerful way to steer attention away from the real conversation that BDS and SPHR at UBC want people to engage in. It is a conversation about rights and their ongoing violation. Full stop.
If those attacking BDS on the unfounded ground of spreading hate would actually be interested in peace, they would easily see that the movement doesn’t want a “world without Israelis.” It wants a world without Israel’s existence depending on “racial and colonial privileges for Jews at the expense of fundamental Palestinian rights.”
As guests living on unceded land, we should know very well what this conversation is about. We should feel particularly moved to mobilize while thinking about and acting upon our own settler nation as an ongoing colonial project that perpetuates violence and discrimination — perhaps without a wall and checkpoints, but tangible enough to continue affecting generations of Indigenous people.
Your op-ed has painfully demonstrated that bigotry, hatred and violence are already here, laying in the ideological rhetoric that wants to silence movements and the suffering of people.
We don’t need more violent ideology, but a true conversation based on evidence and driven by intellectual honesty.
Emma Russo is a third-year arts student, an editor for The Talon and is a member of SPHR. The opinions expressed represent her own views.