An edited version of this article appeared in
The Australian – 18 April 2015
A few years ago, I participated in an ABC Radio panel on the subject of courage in the face of adversity and the compulsion of some remarkable human beings to put concern for others above any interest for self-preservation.
One panellist introduced the Nazi regime’s attempts to murder every Jewish child, woman and man on the planet, and recounted a true story of a non-Jewish German who risked everything, and lost everything, in an attempt to save a Jewish person’s life.
Another panellist opined that it was a good thing there isn’t real antisemitism any more so Jewish people (like him) could spend their time on other matters.
My response was to ask him if certain events, all of which had taken place in Australia, were antisemitic.
Synagogues set on fire, or daubed with swastikas and/or having windows smashed? Yes, he conceded, antisemitism.
Articles in community newspapers on evil “cosmopolitan” forces seeking to control the banks, media and politics, referencing individuals by their Judaism or perceived connection to Jews. Yes, he agreed, antisemitism.
Claims Jews use blood of non-Jews for religious purposes, follow the instructions of a cabal of Elders to subvert democracy and oppress all others, quoting religious texts (often Islamic, but also Christian) to justify existential warfare against Jews? Yes, antisemitism.
Radio broadcasts alleging fraud and greed were inherent Jewish characteristics? Jewish men having skull caps knocked off their heads, Jewish people being subjected to vile insults before being subjected to assault? At that point, he conceded he really hadn’t known what he was talking about.
If that discussion was taking place today, I would also ask is it antisemitic when leading Australian political figures blithely defends the right of every Australian to participate in political debate – and then attacks one, and only one group for doing so, and that group is Jews? If Jewish students run in campus elections, and are the only candidates bullied with questions as to how their religion/peoplehood will impact on their decision making? If Jewish academics from Israel, and not non-Jewish academics from the same country, are subject to vilification and exclusion? If self-determination is promoted as a value, but one, and only one people, are told they don’t have this human right, and this is Jews, is that antisemitic?
There may be nuances, and even cognitive dissonance, when these questions are answered, but anyone serious about understanding antisemitism will ask them.
The contemporary movement which calls itself “BDS” (with the letters correctly identifying the supporters as Bullies, Dissemblers and Slanderers, although they brand this as support for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions directed at Israel) has gathered non-experts together to assert it cannot possibly be fairly linked to antisemitism, but is this a valid proposition?
In some amoral political philosophies, the end will be seen as justifying the means. If I thought boycotts and related strategies would contribute in any way to peace and justice in the Middle East, or that this campaign would make evil-doers suffer, and prompt them to reform, then there would at least be a quasi-moral reason to back them.
If I believed it assisted Palestinians in the process of state-building or improving their human rights position I would not oppose this. But with decades of working towards these ideals, I am convinced it does the very opposite – it reinforces the worst instincts, it rewards obstinance and it inflames tension.
It might serve the egos of its advocates, lull some well-meaning people into thinking they are working for the social good or feed the bullying impulses of individuals who think the bigger the placards and louder the megaphone the more convincing the argument, but it certainly isn’t part of any serious human rights advocacy.
Just because something is wrong, unhelpful and even counterproductive, doesn’t necessarily mean it is anti-Jewish racism, but the effect of BDS overwhelmingly is to foster antisemitism.
I am an alumnus of the University of Sydney, which has been the scene of some prominent anti-Israel activism in recent times. As a student there, involved in campus politics, the fact I am Jewish was anything but a secret, but bore little relevance to the issues in which I was involved. In one election, I ran with three people who broadly shared my outlook on where student politics should focus, such as funding of universities, the structures of degrees, principles of non-discrimination and support for students in need financially.
I had no idea of the views of my running-mates on most other subjects, although I assumed we weren’t that far apart.
When the main rival factions distributed their literature, we were described by the “Right” as “the Jewish lobby and their allies” and by the “Left” as the “Zionists”, which said a great deal about the mindset of our opponents (and also of the students on campus, who voted us into four of the five delegate positions).
It takes a considerable degree of obsessiveness to think that one Jewish person in four constitutes a “lobby” or views on Israel’s right to existence was what united us, but it can be seen to be a pathology which has come more and more to the fore in recent years.
It is worth recording events at one of the Australian Union of Students (AUS) Conferences to which I was a delegate.
In the international affairs session, virtually every resolution attacked Israel. This was a time of severe repression in the Soviet Union, regional warfare and a proliferation of post-colonial dictatorships.
A friend and I decided that we would see whether the critics of Israel were motivated by bigotry or concern for human rights.
So, we moved resolutions on human rights, alphabetically.
Some countries beginning with “A” restricted the media, others allowed child labour.
A few “Bs” denied rights to women, some had no religious freedom.
I am not sure why, but “Cs” were not generally hosts to free media.
Before we made progress on the “Ds”, the leadership of the campus far left realised what was going on and used their numerical advantage to stifle the process, allowing them just enough time to condemn Israel.
This made it clear that the so-called human rights champions of the left were nothing of the sort.
My experiences at many conferences since, ranging from student events to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, has been that the critiques of Israel for alleged abuses of human rights are rarely founded in support for human rights generally, and that attacking Israel has become a self-sustaining ideology which bears no relation to stances on any other issues.
Most, if not all, supporters of the contemporary anti-Israel campaign maintain double standards, use extreme rhetoric and seem to find association with overt antisemitism more comfortable than disassociation from it.
In South Africa, BDS supporters have called for all Jewish students to be thrown out of one university, while others have combined threats of violence with calls to expel Jews from that country.
In the USA, a growing number of cases of overt antisemitism from BDS supporters are being documented, and the most prominent international Church-backed supporters of boycotts have been recorded using base anti-Jewish rhetoric.
In Europe, and in Australia, some despicable quasi-Nazi groups have leapt on the BDS bandwagon and, in some cases, seized the reins.
A University of Sydney academic inserted himself into a facebook discussion this past week with the comment “I am happy to be considered anti-semitic” if that was the cost of opposing Israel. Not far in the past, this would have been seen for the intellectual disgrace it is, but it doesn’t seem to worry supporters of BDS.
The motley crew who last month sought to drown out a visiting lecturer at Sydney University due to his intellectual position on Israel began their protest with support for the “free speech” rights of a group which had been recorded promoting a series of vile, overt anti-Jewish slurs, Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
When a (different) University of Sydney academic was recorded waving money in the face of an elderly Jewish woman, with all the horrific imagery that captures, it was seen as repugnant, but hardly surprising.
Laurence Summers, President of Harvard University, observed BDS both contributes and adds to a hostile, anti-Jewish environment on US campuses, and “the general failure of American academic leaders to aggressively take on the challenge posed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement represents a consequential abdication of moral responsibility.”
Although there are undoubtedly some individuals who are attracted to anti-Israel campaigns due to their understanding of contemporary affairs, self-righteousness and political predispositions, it is incontrovertibly a fact that the so-called “BDS” activity is a magnet for the malicious, and a podium for prejudice.
Jeremy Jones is the Director of International and of Community Affairs, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council; Co-Chair of the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, and former President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry