As a privileged, assimilated Jew growing up in a friendly environment, having friends from all walks of life among all religions and communities, I have been shocked by the anti-Israel bigotry and hostility I have encountered, especially over the years since roughly 2000 when I became aware of it. I had always been liberal in outlook, tolerant of those with other opinions or emphases, a dedicated follower of the English language Press (Cape Times, Argus, Sunday Times, etc.), but the anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel that I have seen since those halcyon days has changed my outlook personally and politically. Liberalism has not retained its original meaning and has turned into something ugly and threatening.
As an interested layman I have attended talks, read widely and been involved in one-to-one discussions over the past 13-years. I have become an inveterate letter writer and a speaker to groups, sharing what I have learned about the history of modern Israel. Each time I would speak I would take questions for an hour or more, learning by so doing from my audiences. Many of those to whom I spoke were supportive, friendly, and open to hearing about Israel. But, sadly, some were not.
Anti-Semitism has been around for a long time and did not just disappear with the end of World War II so, like most Jews, I got used to having ugly things said to me from time to time. Mostly I could stand up for myself. I graduated from the inarticulateness of a youth where my answers were inevitably punctuated by blows being exchanged, to being able to formulate arguments and use words to defend my position. I was lucky and grateful for the many Christian friends who stood up for me and found complete acceptance in their company. But nothing prepared me for the misinformation, demonisation of Israel, and the gut-wrenching, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic hostility expressed by many students, professors, church members, and even erstwhile “liberal” newspapers.
I was further shocked by how unaware the Jewish community is and how little they are actually doing to counter this rising anti-Semitism.
I learned that this new form of bigotry against Israel is called the “new anti-Semitism,” with “Israel” replacing “Jew” in traditional anti-Semitic imagery and canards, singling out and discriminating against the Jewish state, and denying the Jewish people alone the right to self-determination. The new anti-Semitism is packaged in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS), which claims to champion Palestinian rights though its real goal is to erode support for Israel, discredit Jews who support Israel, and pave the way for eliminating the Jewish state.
BDS’s central demands include the “complete right of return” for all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees, subtle language that means the end of Israel as the Jewish homeland because it would turn Israel into a Palestinian-Arab majority state, and for Israel to retreat to the lines that as a border would make Israel completely exposed and almost impossible to defend.
It is surprising that an extremist group like BDS is ever taken seriously, but BDS advocates have found receptive audiences in some circles. Their campaigns are well organised and in many cases, well financed. They have lobbied parliamentarians, universities, corporations, churches, performing artists, labour unions, and other organisations to boycott Israel and companies that do business with Israel. But even if some of the above don’t agree to treat Israel as a pariah state, the BDS activists manage to spread their anti-Israel misinformation, lies and prejudice simply by the tactic of forcing a debate based on their false claims about Israel. Those who fall for this in the spirit of hearing the other side find themselves in a trap of having to debate a lie thereby lending credibility to it.
To give you a taste of the viciousness of the BDS attacks, let me cite just a few of the many shocking examples I read about or have come across. At a BDS event in Portland, USA, a professor from a Seattle University told the assembled crowd that the Jews of Israel have no national rights and should be forced out of the country. When asked, “Where do you want them to go?” she calmly answered, “I don’t care. I don’t care if they don’t have any place else to go. They should not be there.” When it was pointed out that she was calling for ethnic cleansing, both she and her supporters denied it. On other BDS occasions Jews were repeatedly accused of being killers, while at others, anti-Israel activists called Jews rapists.
In my own experience, at the BDS anti-Apartheid week at UCT in 2011, I heard members of a panel comprising Ronnie Kasrils, Jonathan Shapiro, Terry Crawford-Browne, Zachie Achmat, Allan Boesak and others declaim against Israel in the most offensive way. The claims go beyond being absurd – in one case, a very courageous young woman who defended Israel was asked by one of the audience if she knew how many Palestinians have been raped by IDF forces. She answered that as far as she knew, none. This person triumphantly responded in my hearing, “Israeli soldiers don’t rape Palestinians because Israelis are so racist and disgusted by them that they won’t touch them.”
Such irrational accusations are symptomatic of dangerous anti-Semitism. Yet, alarmingly, many Jews living in South Africa and elsewhere are completely oblivious to this ugly movement and the threat it poses. They seem to be asleep, unaware that this anti-Jewish bigotry is peddled on campuses, by speakers in high schools, churches, and communities, and is often deceptively camouflaged in the rhetoric of human rights.