The moral critique of Israel on human rights, embodied in the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, has managed to divide the Jewish public in the US and Europe, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom said on Monday.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion titled “Islam and BDS in Europe: a strategic threat?” at the Herzliya Conference, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said that unlike previous anti-Semitic attempts to target Israel, the global BDS campaign has partially succeeded in its goals.
“Israel was always a uniting factor in Jewish life; it has become a divisive factor,” Sacks told the audience.
Modeled after the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the global BDS campaign launched in July 2005 is aimed at amassing economic and political pressure on Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. The goals of BDS actors are diverse, however, ranging from a call to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank to the elimination of Israel altogether.
Today, the BDS movement has made it “almost impossible” for Jews living in Europe to support Israel, Sacks argued. “Jews have been faced with a choice: live in Europe and criticize Israel or be silent, or leave Europe,” he said.
In his seven-minute speech, Sacks — who served as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 and currently lectures on Jewish thought at New York University, Yeshiva University and King’s College London — placed the BDS movement on a historic continuum dating back to the blood libels of the middle ages.
“In the middle ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were hated because of their race. In the twenty first century, they are hated because of their nation state. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism,” he said.
BDS has also so far been “fairly successful” in de-legitimizing Israel internationally, he noted. Isolating Israel in the global arena could eventually leave Jews defenseless, just as the American-initiated Évian Conference of July 1938 had Adolph Hitler see “the world declare that it cares about Jews but not prepared to do anything to actually help them.”
“If Israel is thoroughly isolated, it too will be seen to be defenseless, and that will be very dangerous indeed,” he said.
Sacks said that the return of anti-Semitism to Europe has confirmed Israel’s deep-seated, destructive belief in Shlilat Hagolah, or the ideological negation of diaspora.
“Jews have for far, far too long defined themselves as Am Levadad Yishkon, a people that dwells alone. If believed for long enough, it becomes a self-justifying prediction.”
In order to remedy the situation, Jews must make it clear to Europe that “if it is not safe for Jews, it is not safe for Europeans,” he said.
“If Europe loses its Jews, it will have lost its freedom,” he argued. “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with them … We must not be left to fight this battle alone.”