There’s a supreme irony in Israel’s current all-out war on BDS. A boycott played a critical part in one critical episode in modern Jewish history. In 1933, American Jewish leaders organized an international boycott of Germany. The campaign was extremely effective. Over five years, German trade declined dramatically and its economic recovery was impaired. In response, the Germans developed, together with the Yishuv Zionist leadership, the Haavara Agreement, which enabled Germany to barter the plundered property and valuables of German Jews. In turn, it transformed German Jewish wealth into products exported by the Third Reich to Palestine in order to facilitate the expulsion and resettlement of these Jews in Palestine.
By signing this agreement, the Zionists gained the looted proceeds of Germany Jewry in the form of German goods, which in turn provided an economic and demographic boost to the Yishuv. But there was another, more disturbing impact: the Jewish-led boycott campaign was sabotaged and ultimately failed because a major portion of the world Jewish community rejected and abandoned it. Meaning that the most effective tool that world Jewry devised to combat the Nazis was torpedoed by Ben Gurion. This is a little known historical incident which pro-Israel advocates either themselves don’t know; or else ignore because it poses inconvenient moral questions about the loyalties of the Zionist leadership in the lead-up to the Holocaust. One might argue that had the boycott played itself out fully, that the Nazis would not have been as strong as they were going into the War and thereby failed, or at least modified their Final Solution. Or perhaps the Nazis would have failed completely and never been able to mount a World War against their enemies.
And if you want an example of a truly racist boycott you have to look no further than the anti-Jewish boycott organized by the Nazis against Jewish businesses in Germany. It was to this monstrous act which American Jews responded in pursuing their own boycott. The Nazi boycott clearly was discriminatory and anti-Semitic since it targeted Jewish business. It had no legitimate motive because Jews were not enemies of Nazi Germany. They did not harm the country in any way, despite Nazi rhetoric to the contrary.
I introduced this post with this historical episode in order to contradict a major claim of those who attack BDS: it is not a form of discrimination; it is not anti-Semitic. If it is, then one could easily argue that boycotting Nazi Germany was discriminatory. And if a national boycott such as BDS is discrimination then one of Germany would have to be as well. Clearly, in the earlier case of boycott, Jews objected to Nazi anti-Semitism and exercised their right to refuse to do business with such Jew-haters. In the case of BDS, those supporting it object to Israel’s Occupation and its policies which discriminate against Palestinians both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories. BDS is a political act having nothing to do with either ethnic or religious discrimination.
Moving closer to home: was the Montgomery Bus Boycott a discriminatory act against the white people of the city? Or was it a justified response by the Black residents to suffocating racial discrimination they suffered at the hands of the white majority? The answer is self-evident. And if we grant Black Americans the right to protest their mistreatment we cannot deny the same to those advocating for Palestinian rights denied under Israeli Occupation.
Why I Welcome an Israeli Court’s Decision to Refuse Entry to Lara Alqasem
Today, the Tel Aviv district court refused to permit Palestinian-American student, Lara Alqasem, from entering Israel to enroll in a graduate program in human rights at the Hebrew University. As an undergraduate, Alqasem was a member of a small student group at her Florida university which supported BDS. She has made a point in her “defense” of nothing that she no longer supports BDS, and that her decision to study in Israel is proof of this rejection.
However, the Strategic Affairs ministry, leading the Israeli war on BDS, argues that Alqasem cannot be trusted in these statements. It demands that she apologize for her past behavior and publicly renounce BDS before it will change its decision. Her Israeli lawyer has rejected this proposal as unnecessarily punitive and humiliating.
Alqasem, in the meantime, is in a detention facility under prison-like conditions. For the first few days, she even had to sleep on a bed riddled with bed-bugs. She has little access to any form of outside communication, including cell phones or internet.
Today, the court agreed with Erdan and ruled Alqasem is an undesirable. She has until Sunday to decide whether to accept expulsion or to appeal to the Supreme Court. If she does appeal, there is no guarantee that the decision will be overturned, as this Court is no longer the defender of human rights it once was. It now has sitting judges who are settlers and Likud supporters. It is always leery of overturning the decisions of military-intelligence officials in matters of state security.
Alqasem has found a strange amalgam of supporters who normally would have nothing to do with each other. The left representing CodePink activist, Ariel Gold and the pro-Israel far right represented by Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss have all weighed in with columns or statements denouncing Erdan’s decision to ban the Palestinian-American student. Liberal Zionist, Peter Beinart, has also criticized Erdan’s excessive zeal. Even Lahav Harkov, the Jerusalem Post’s far-right journalist has bemoaned Alqasem’s treatment as an Israeli own-goal.
Another important sidelight is that Israeli security forces (the Shin Bet vets all incoming travelers and is responsible for decisions on detaining visitors) who detained Alqasem used data from the Canary Mission website. Recently, the Forward has exposed both the dirty ops and smear tactics of this semi-secret organization. It has also reported that some of the wealthiest Jewish philanthropic institutions in America have funded this monstrous group. The San Francisco Jewish federation donated $100,000 (and also donated to wide array of Islamophobic-racist organizations) and today the Forward reported that the Los Angeles federation donated $250,000. Each has announced its intention to no longer offer such funding. But there are other entities like the Schusterman Foundation and Central Fund for Israel and others which continue such funding.
Think what that means: American Jewish plutocrats are funding a campaign smearing young Jewish and non-Jewish Americans seeking to enter Israel and engage in political activism on behalf of the values they learned as Jews here in this country. That means the leadership of these Jewish federations are responsible for creating a litmus test about which Jews are good enough to be entitled to enter Israel. Do they really want to be responsible, even indirectly, for Shin Bet agents roughing up Peter Beinart (not physically perhaps, but certainly mentally and emotionally)? Not to mention Ariel Gold or Julie Weinberg-Connors, or Julie Carmel, Prof. Katherine Franke or Lara Alqasem.
I’m about to say something totally contrarian and counter-intuitive about the Alqasem case. I’m glad the Israeli court ruled her treif. Why? Because a victory for Alqasem would’ve permitted liberal Zionists and other Israel apologists to say: see, the system worked; Israel is a democracy; there is rule of law. When none of that is true. Israel is a country bereft of democratic values. It has lost its moorings and it is tempest-tossed in a Judeo-fascist storm. Anything that allows Jews to minimize the severity of this crisis merely palliates the condition; instead of forcing us to examine the patient and admit the severity of the disease.
There are other troubling aspects of this case. The only reason pro-Israel journalist hacks like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss wrote a column defending her is because she is a ‘poster-girl’ for liberal Zionism. She is the “good” Arab, the one who renounced BDS. The one who wanted to come to Israel to hear the Good News about Brand Israel. The one who would presumably return home to her fellow Arabs and tell them: yes, Israel does some bad things to Palestinians; but there are good Israelis and we have to be patient and work with them for peace.
Why else do you think Alqasem was adopted by Meretz, the Zionist “left” party? The pictures of the American in Haaretz and elsewhere showed her sitting with Party chair Tamar Zandberg and two other Meretz MKs. She wasn’t adopted by the Joint List, the Party of the Israeli Palestinians. That’s because she threw in her lot with Israeli Zionists. That’s also the only reason why Stephens, Weiss and Harkov would take up her cause.
If Israel relents and permits her entry, then all of them can trumpet how well the Israeli system works. Let me make clear that I’m not belittling the suffering Alqasem has had to endure. No one should sit in prison on such nonsensical charges.
Finally, it’s wholly ironic that Alqasem intends to study human rights at the Hebrew University. Why does any Palestinian need to study this subject at an Israeli state institution when it is the Israeli state which violates their rights routinely? That being said, in a perverse way Alqasem has her MA thesis already prepared for her given that she can use her personal experience as a case study in human rights violations under Israeli “law.”
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.