November 10 marked the 34th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s passage of the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution. That day, noting that it was the 37th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ countrywide pogrom on “the night of broken glass,” UN ambassador Chaim Herzog denounced the resolution.
“I stand here not as a supplicant… For the issue is neither Israel nor Zionism,” Herzog said. “The issue is the continued existence of this organization, which has been dragged to its lowest point of discredit by a coalition of despots and racists. The vote of each delegation will record in history its country’s stand on anti-Semitic racism and anti-Judaism. You yourselves bear the responsibility for your stand before history, for as
such will you be viewed in history. We, the Jewish people, will not forget.”
As he concluded, remembering how his father, Palestine’s chief rabbi in the 1930s, protested the British White Paper restricting Jewish immigration, Herzog ripped up his copy of the resolution.
Herzog could tear the resolution to tatters. The UN could rescind it in 1991. Yet 34 years later this new Big Lie, the Soviet and Nazi roots of which historian Bernard Lewis uncovered, still persists. Jews, long victimized by racists and disgusted by racism, have been tagged as racists.
Israel, the Jewish people’s collective entity, has been compared to apartheid South Africa, with the Palestinian-Israeli national conflict cast falsely as a racial conflict. And just as anti-apartheid activists once nobly agitated to boycott South African products, divest from South African companies and sanction South African racists, an ignoble BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine) seeks to impose similar punishments on Israel.
BDS sounds like a new communicable disease – in many ways it is. It is viral and pathological; we ignore it at our peril.
One of the first sessions held as the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities convened this Sunday in Washington featured speakers who understand what Herzog understood, that this campaign reflects on its perpetuators its perpetrators. It reflects their bias, their double standards, their blindness to the sins of others and their myopic obsession with Israel’s imperfections.
Herzog understood something else too. Israel’s adversaries have given it a gift of sorts by drawing a clear line in the sand. The BDS debate is not about “occupation” or borders or peace processes. It is not about Likud vs. Labor or Meretz vs. Shas. The BDS campaign assails Israel’s legitimacy, declaring it so odious that no one should drink any Israeli wine, no one should enjoy any Israeli film, no one should collaborate with any Israeli academic. This BDS movement is an obscene campaign of blacklisting,
demonizing and slandering, as activists in Toronto have redefined it, understanding we must name, shame and reframe.
So far, the warfare has been asymmetrical. Facing the systematic BDS campaign to delegitimize Israel, Jewish groups have responded sporadically, haphazardly. But there is a growing awareness that the Jewish community needs a sophisticated, coordinated strategy. As Herzog’s UN colleague Daniel Patrick Moynihan would later write:
“It would be tempting to see in this propaganda nothing more than bigotry of a quite traditional sort that can, sooner or later, be overcome. But the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist campaign is not uninformed bigotry, it is conscious politics… It is not merely that our adversaries have commenced an effort to destroy the legitimacy of a kindred democracy through the incessant repetition of the Zionist-racist lie. It is that others can come to believe it also. Americans among them.”
At the session, which I moderated and which attracted an overflow crowd, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called this fight “the defining issue of our time.” He said the Jewish people, despite our pride in being a tolerant people, must have “zero tolerance for this intolerance.”
Professor Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian minister of justice and attorney-general, analyzed the anti-Israel “lawfare,” showing how the language of human rights, the important infrastructure of international law, is hijacked to legalize and legitimize Israel’s delegitimization.
Cotler showed how this unrighteous assault using righteous concepts sought to make Israel today’s “new anti-Christ.” Cotler, a noted human rights activist, also reported that when he was invited to join a UN human rights inquiry whose biased anti-Israel mandate predetermined a guilty verdict, he said no. Cotler refused to be “a Jewish fig leaf” for a corrupted, anti-Israel, human rights-lynching, unlike his colleague Richard Goldstone.
The remainder of the session provided reports from the field of useful tactics to combat the Israel-haters. The Jewish community cannot do this alone. Relationships must be nurtured, grassroots must be tended to establish common cause against the forces of hatred. We must be proactive not reactive, nimble and subtle, mastering the insider lingo of each special interest group involved in a particular fight.
When boycotters targeted the Toronto International Film Festival, Hollywood heavyweights mobilized, not just to defend Israel, but to fight blacklists, which are anathema in that community. Corporations must realize how much money they will lose if the world market becomes a politically correct, divestment-strewn battlefield on which the world’s despots target Israel, the perennial whipping boy, or some other perceived enemy.
And soldiers fighting terror all over the world must realize that if Israel’s anti-terror squads are prosecuted in international courts one day, America’s or England’s or Canada’s war heroes could be next.
The pro-Israel community can make lemonade from these BDS lemons. In Toronto, when the BDSers boycotted Israeli wine merchants, they triggered a wave of Israeli wine purchases; when they protested a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit and the Toronto International Film Festival’s tribute to Tel Aviv, they guaranteed sold-out events.
More broadly, we should seize this opportunity to reframe the debate away from the messy complexities of Israeli politics and Israeli-Palestinian disputes to the simple question the blacklisters-demonizers-slanderers raise about accepting or repudiating Israel’s right to exist. And we should recall, that just as 40 years ago the prospects of freeing Soviet Jewry seemed dim, just as a century ago the dream of a Jewish state
seemed impossible, sometimes the good guys win, conditions improve, grassroots movements shape historical earthquakes.
The time to forge coalitions of the righteous against the hypocritically self-righteous has come. We need a sustained, effective, movement against the delegitimization of Israel, understanding that in defeating this Orwellian inversion of all that is good, we will restore the world’s moral balance while defending the Jewish state, the Jewish people, and democracy from despots and terrorists.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: