NEW YORK (JTA) — Is it appropriate for a respected institution to sponsor or host a speaker who harshly accuses the Israeli government of standing in the way of Middle East peace or grossly violating human rights because of its policies toward the Palestinians?
While American Jews overwhelmingly disagree with these broad judgments, they are legitimate issues for discussion.
On the other hand, is it appropriate to sponsor or host a speaker who seeks to demonize or delegitimize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people?
In this case, the answer would be no.
The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by the U.S. State Department, includes denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and Israel’s right to exist. Of course, the exception would be a “one world” individual who rejects nationalism generally. However, for those who support the rights of other peoples to self-determination, but oppose that right for the Jewish people, the definition fits.
Let’s stipulate that the line between debate and delegitimization is often difficult to distinguish even among members of our own Jewish community, let alone trying to explain it to journalists and officials in the general community. Does the BDS movement cross the line between debate and delegitimization?
Let’s look at the evidence. The movement, co-founded by Omar Barghouti, employs boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel and seeks to turn it into a pariah state by making comparisons to the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. It supports the unfettered right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees and/or their descendants to their homes inside Israel rather than to the future State of Palestine. This position is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.
But interpretation of the right of return aside, Barghouti himself has been explicit in rejecting Jewish national self-determination. In his 2011 book “BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights,” he explains why Israeli peace groups cannot be good partners in the movement. He writes that “the most radical Israeli ‘Zionist-left’ figures and groups are still Zionist, adhering to the racist principles of Zionism that treat the indigenous Palestinians as lesser humans who are an obstacle or a ‘demographic threat’ to be dealt with in order to maintain Israel’s character as a colonial, ethnocentric, apartheid state."
This is why the principal challenge to the recent BDS conference at Brooklyn College featuring Barghouti was not because it was held on campus by an anti-Israel student group. Student programs are protected by the First Amendment right of free speech. Rather, concern by the Jewish community and many public leaders focused on the judgment of the school’s political science department in co-sponsoring the program.
It is true, as some school officials asserted, that sponsorship does not necessarily connote endorsement. But sponsorship conveys a message that the content of the program and the ideas presented by its speakers at least are deemed worthy of exposure to the campus community. Would the political science department agree to co-sponsor an event with a Holocaust denier or a professor espousing theories of African-American racial inferiority? If delegitimizing Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism, it would fall within the same genre of bigotry and hate speech.
Confusion about drawing the line was evident in a column in the Los Angeles Times dealing with the Brooklyn College episode. The author observed that "students will hear from two spokespeople for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to punish Israel for its treatment of Palestinians," and that "it does no service to Jewish students — in Brooklyn or Berkeley — to try to insulate them from debate about Israeli policies, including the denunciations offered by the BDS movement."
Again, the issue is not debating Israeli policies. Nor is it the about the right of students to speak or hear extremist views. The question is the wisdom of the political science department providing its imprimatur.
This is all rather complicated, made even more so by the existence of targeted boycotts against products made in Israeli settlements — the so-called "Zionist BDS" espoused by certain Jewish groups and the scholar-journalist Peter Beinart. While counterproductive and misguided, these boycotts are not in and of themselves expressions of delegitimization.
It isn’t easy. But we must continue to try to meet the challenge of clearly delineating the sometimes ambiguous line that separates robust and sometimes uncomfortable debate about Israel’s policies from delegitimization.
(Martin J. Raffel is the senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)