This interview was originally published in German.
Belltower.News: Mr. Feuerherdt, the BDS movement, founded in 2005, wishes to boycott and isolate solely Israel. That sounds rather like the old antisemitic slogan “Don’t buy from Jews”, doesn’t it?
Alex Feuerherdt: The campaign is and remains antisemitic to the core. It’s nothing more than a modernised version of the old Nazi slogan. But now it goes: “Don’t buy from the Jewish state”. You always have to ask yourself: Why is Israel, of all countries, chosen as the only land against which such a campaign is waged? Especially when there are so many wars and conflicts in the world – with significantly higher numbers of victims. The Israeli government also makes mistakes. There is racism in Israel too – as in all other democratic countries. But the campaign against Israel is unique in the world.
So criticism of Israeli policy is certainly justified?
Of course, you can criticise a lot of things. But BDS doesn’t target a specific policy, but rather the existence of the Jewish state as such. However, the argumentation of the BDS campaign is really nothing new. The old form of antisemitism is merely modernised – and projected from the individual level of “the Jew” onto the nation-state level. As the Israeli historian Jacob Talmon already put it in the 1970s: Israel appears as a “collective Jew” among the nations. The country is singled out and made out to be a pariah state: the Jewish state is demonised, delegitimised and measured against standards that are not applied to any other country in this world. And that is antisemitic – because it’s an attack on the most important symbol of modern Judaism.
Even before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, there was a boycott by the Arab League against Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine, and later against Israel…
From this point of view, too, the BDS movement is nothing fundamentally new. The Arab League’s boycott lasted for many decades and was organised through its own “Boycott Office”. The immediate economic successes have been limited, however – unlike the boycott against the apartheid regime in South Africa. But the campaign against Israel back then did inflict a lot of damage on the political level. It also called to boycott companies trading with other companies that in turn did business with Israel – sometimes successfully.
The subtitle of your book is “old hatred in a new guise”. So what is actually new about the BDS movement?
What’s new is that the whole thing is framed within human rights jargon in order to make it appear as a humanistic and humanitarian cause. For example, there are three core demands of BDS. The first is: The occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands must end. At first, this sounds like a human rights demand that’s about freedom and self-reliance. But it doesn’t even say what is specifically meant by “all Arab land”. Only the West Bank? Or are we talking about the whole of Israel? And that’s already the first sticking point.
So the vagueness of the demands is a conscious strategy of the BDS movement?
Definitely. It remains ambiguous – and that has a lot to do with not wanting to scare off supporters from the USA and Europe. They are led to believe that it’s only about Gaza and the West Bank. For Palestinian organisations, however, it is absolutely clear that “all Arab land” refers to all of Israel. This means that Israel’s right to exist is denied. Another example: BDS demands the demolition of the wall. A world without a wall sounds great, who wouldn’t be in favour of that? But they fail to mention at all why these barriers between the West Bank and Israel were built in the first place – because there was a spate of suicide bombings during the second “Intifada” starting in 2000. Israel built these barriers to prevent them – which they did. But Israel’s need for security isn’t addressed at all.
So the goal of the BDS campaign is the end of the Jewish state in the Middle East?
In its implications, yes. The third core demand of BDS, for example, is a right of return for all Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory – including their descendants. There are now 5.6 million Palestinians, which would mean the end of the Jewish state. The aim is to achieve by demographic means what couldn’t be accomplished by political and military means. What isn’t mentioned is this: The United Nations partition plan of 1947, which also envisaged the establishment of an Arab state, was rejected by the Arab states. On the day after the founding of Israel in 1948, they attacked the Jewish state with the aim of wiping it off the map immediately. This was the main reason for the refugee problem: About 700,000 Palestinians left the country and at the same time there were also hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from neighbouring Arab countries who were expelled. No one ever demanded their right of return. This should also not be forgotten when talking about these core demands.
It’s often claimed that the BDS movement emerged from Palestinian civil society. Is that true?
That isn’t true for two reasons. Firstly, the roots of the movement don’t lie within the Palestinian territories at all, but in Durban, South Africa, at the UN’s World Conference against Racism in 2001. An NGO forum took place parallel to the conference. Back then, a declaration was adopted that contained a great deal of what was later to become BDS topics. The forum was a kind of antisemitic tribunal: Jewish participants were attacked and excluded, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and other antisemitic pamphlets were distributed on the conference grounds. It was nothing other than a festival of hatred against Israel. The roots of the movement also lie with European, not least British and US-American intellectuals and academics, who called for a boycott at an early stage.
And the second reason?
Civil society sounds like a peaceful grassroots movement that comes from below and aims to start some sort of democratic process without using violence. That isn’t the case here. You only have to look at which organisations and associations signed BDS’ founding manifesto in July 2005: At the top of the list are the “Palestinian National and Islamic Forces”. As the name suggests, this isn’t a non-violent organisation but an alliance of all relevant Palestinian organisations and parties – including terrorist organisations such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). These groups came together during the second “Intifada” in the early 2000s to coordinate their activities – terrorist as well as political – against Israel. This has nothing to do with civil society.
BDS also has Jewish supporters. Are they also antisemitic?
That can sometimes be the case, even if it does sound strange. But there are also migrants who are racist, or women who are sexist – even if this obviously doesn’t apply to the majority. In the BDS movement, the very few but very loud Jewish voices are always deliberately pushed to the front – as star witnesses to give the movement a kosher stamp of approval and reject any claims of antisemitism. The overwhelming majority of Jews in the world, however, completely oppose BDS. At the same time, it has to be said that the demands of the movement itself are what is important, not who is doing the talking. And the demands are in their implications and methods antisemitic.
The supporters of BDS also repeatedly emphasise that the campaign is non-violent. Is it not legitimate to boycott a state peacefully?
Of course, there’s the question of to which extent boycotts are truly free of violence. Is it a non-violent protest or is it a demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel with a clear antisemitic tinge? A campaign that is antisemitic at its core cannot be non-violent per se. The aggressiveness with which BDS activists act speaks for itself: they massively disrupt events, shout down Jewish and Israeli speakers, physically attack university lecturers.
Supposedly left-wing and progressive circles are often very receptive to the BDS campaign, whether it’s at Anglo-American universities, in parts of the queer community or in the Berlin techno scene. Why is that?
You could write a whole book about left-wing antisemitism, as Jeffrey Herf has already done. I would like to highlight one aspect: The misconceptions of the anti-imperialist worldview that divides the world into oppressors and oppressed, good and evil, imperialists and exploited. This distorted image is ultimately also the ideological basis of the BDS movement and left-wing antisemitism: Israel is the perpetrator, Palestine the victim. And Israel is clearly the stronger one, backed by the superpower USA, so the logic goes. It’s a classic underdog story. The UN partition plan of 1947 for a two-state solution, the attempts by Arab states to destroy Israel after its founding in 1948 or the long history of antisemitism in the Middle East – all this is ignored.
Israel-related antisemitism also exists within the German left – despite or perhaps precisely because of the Shoah…
German leftists like to become leftist Germans when it comes to Jews and Israel. In this respect, they aren’t so fundamentally different from their ancestors, whom they ostensibly oppose. Through a so-called “criticism of Israel”, they have created a possibility be antisemitic in a supposedly politically correct way and with a crystal clear conscience. The fact that Israel exists as a Jewish state is also a reminder, especially within the German left, of their defeat against the Nazis which they hadn’t been able to prevent.
More than 15 years after the BDS call in 2005, what has the campaign actually achieved – and what successes has it had for the Palestinians so far?
It hasn’t helped the Palestinians at all. In fact, it’s done them more harm than good. The small “economic successes” of the campaign have, for example, led to Palestinians losing their jobs in Israel or the West Bank. Economically, however, BDS has played no role for Israel. But the campaign was able to cause damage on the political level and in the cultural sphere. It’s made a new form of antisemitism more acceptable and contributed to a normalisation of Israel-related antisemitism, as well as to an overall increase in antisemitism. Jews, especially at universities, increasingly live in a climate of fear. This is an essential part of BDS’ legacy.
In interview: Alex Feuerherdt is a freelance journalist and regularly publishes on the topics of Israel, the Middle East conflict, antisemitism and football. He writes for Jungle World, konkret, Jüdische Allgemeine and n-tv.de, among other publications. He also runs the blog Lizas Welt. In 2020, his book Die Israel-Boykottbewegung: Alter Hass in neuem Gewand (The Israel Boycott Movement: Old Hate in a New Guise), which he wrote with the political scientist and head of the Middle East think tank Mena Watch Florian Markl, was published by Hentrich & Hentrich.