The UK Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions view with alarm and regret the May 2019 Bundestag Resolution equating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement with anti-Semitism. [Please follow these links to view the Resolution in German or in English Translation].
The Resolution is based on errors and misunderstandings and appears to offend the democratic precepts upon which the Federal Republic of Germany rests. It constitutes a severe misreading of the aims and methods of the BDS movement and, perhaps by inadvertence, insensitively trespasses into taking sides on what constitutes Jewish personhood.
Who are we?
ICAHD, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, is an Israeli Committee set up originally to draw attention to the demolition of houses by the Israeli Government in the occupied territory of Palestine. Today it also looks more widely at the Nation-State law and the discrimination by the Israeli Government in favour of Jews against Palestinians, and at the increasing Judaisation of all of historic Palestine, and seeks a solution which would give equal rights to all, whatever their race or religion.
ICAHD UK is the UK member of the ICAHD family. It seeks to help achieve a just and sustainable peace between Palestinians and Israelis and to educate and inform the British public about what is happening on the ground, and to advocate for democracy and human rights. Its members include Jews, Christians, people with other faiths, and of none.
Context – a snapshot
Between January – June 2019 Israel has destroyed 298 Palestinian structures, including homes and displaced 439 people. The total number of structures demolished since 1967 in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) is in the order of 55,000. At the end of April 2019, there were 5,152 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners from the OPT being held by the Israel Prison Service. As at 30 April 2019, 205 Palestinian children from the OPT were held in military detention. These repressive measures, many of which are illegal under International and Humanitarian law, flow directly from Israel’s explicit policy of denying Palestinians any form of sovereignty. In addition, and in breach of International Law, Israel has annexed East Jerusalem while some 622,670 settlers live illegally in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but with the active support and encouragement of the Israeli state. The settlers of the West Bank are subject to Israel civil law, whilst the indigenous Palestinian population lives under military law.
Most egregious of all is Israel’s Nation-State Law which embeds and systematises discrimination against non-Jewish Palestinian citizens into the foundations of the Israeli state’s constitution.
In the light of these, and other, gross infringements of humanitarian and international law, the Bundestag has passed a resolution condemning, and seeking to limit the actions, of the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Critique of the Resolution
The Resolution supports itself by identifying eight justifications:
The first rests upon acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. This definition has been widely criticised, not least by scholars of anti-Semitism including Brian Klug, Antony Lerman, David Feldman, jurists including Hugh Tomlinson, Stephen Sedley, Geoffrey Bindman and Geoffrey Robertson; and one of the original drafters, Kenneth S. Stern, has opposed the misuse of the definition to suppress and limit free speech.
The particular cause for concern is that the IHRA definition and examples allows, too easily, for an illegitimate and inaccurate conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel and indeed of Zionism understood as a political project. There are many Jews, within Israel and without, who have significant objections to Israel as an exclusively Jewish State, something the Resolution ignores. The error is further compounded by the assertion that ‘the state of Israel can be understood as a Jewish collective’. It can only be so described by accepting that the 21% non-Jewish population of Israel are in effect non-persons. A point we return to below.
Opposition to the project of creating and maintaining a Jewish State, as reflected in Israel’s recent Nation-State Law, is not of itself anti-Semitic. Objections to such a state need to be understood within the wider context of ethical and political opposition to all forms of racial and religious prejudice. This includes any form of privileging a particular racial or religious group. This is the platform upon which we, the UK Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, firmly stand.
The second justification refers to the ‘murderous consequences’ that can and have accompanied anti-Semitism in the past in Germany, Europe and remains a threat today. The facts as stated are obviously correct and a major source of concern. However, they do not of themselves lead to any particular policy conclusion, and certainly not to the condemnation and effective banning of a non-violent campaign for justice in the Palestine/Israel conflict. Closing the channels available for non-violent, peaceful political pressure rarely if ever aids the cause of peace for if peaceful channels are closed, what then is the alternative?
The third justification restates that it is unacceptable that anti-Semitism has increased in the ‘free democratic’ state of Germany. That is obviously true. But this self-evident truth has tendentious intent, for it implies, as it no doubt is intended to imply, that support for BDS is somehow part of the growth in this trend. It is not. This is further attested to by the 40 Jewish groups from 15 different countries that have voiced public concern about, and opposition to, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and the anti-BDS stance of some governments and organisations. It is not clear on what grounds the supporters of the Resolution think they are entitled to judge which Jews hold acceptable opinions about BDS, and which not. The Bundestag Resolution over-reaches itself.
We welcome the opening phrases of the fourth justification – ‘We will resist any who defame people because of their Jewish identity, question their freedom of movement…’ – but which then falls into the error of conflating anti-Semitism with a political perspective that opposes Israel in so far it is committed to being an exclusive and discriminatory Jewish ethnoreligious state. The Israeli state in effect defines itself against the 1.7 million Palestinians (21% of the total population of Israel) residing within the Green Line boundary.
The recently passed Israel Nation-State Law states unequivocally that ‘Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it’. Note ‘exclusive right’. It is a contradiction in terms to call Israel democratic when 21% of its population has no right to self-determination, a privilege exclusively reserved for Jews. It is a paradox, surely, that the Federal Republic of Germany, in this ill-judged resolution, assesses Israel as democratic by virtue of criteria that the Federal Republic would not accept for itself.
The fifth justification rests on the ‘special historical responsibility’ of Germany alluding, of course, to the Nazi past. A further reference is made to the ‘terrible phase of German history’ in the subsequent, sixth, justification. Addressing these perspectives is a matter of the utmost sensitivity but cannot be avoided. It cannot be avoided because a moral wrong turn here can, perhaps unwittingly, generate discrimination, nurture injustice and deprive people, specifically the Palestinian people, of the very same rights found in Germany’s Basic Law: Human Dignity (Article 1), Personal Freedom (Article 2), Equality Before the Law (Article 3).
21% of Israel’s population enjoy no or limited such rights.
We hold that the sins of Nazi Germany, belong to Nazi Germany. The present generation bear no direct responsibility for the past. Rather, they share the same responsibility as any other people or nation, which is to do right by ethical criteria which are applicable to all. In terms of genuine democratic states, for example the Federal Republic of Germany, this means adherence to human rights principles, support for international law, disallowing arbitrary arrest without trial, and a rooted opposition to collective punishment. In the light of these criteria, the Resolution represents a shameful failure to confront the reality of Israel’s systematic and violent oppression of Palestinians, the effect of which is to legitimise and sustain the injustices visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli state.
The sixth justification is simply mistaken as a matter of fact. It is difficult to see how the BDS movement is anti-Semitic when it is supported by many Jews, not least the 40 Jewish groups from 15 different countries referred to above. In addition, the call for boycott is in respect of institutions, not individuals who are not affected by the boycott call. Once again, we find it odd that Members of the Bundestag appear to arrogate to themselves the right to adjudicate as to which opinions, and what actions, different Jews are allowed to have.
We are sympathetic to the resonances that the ‘Do not buy’ slogan evoke. But the sensitivity is misplaced and relies for its force on a presupposition of anti-Semitic intent - a presupposition that has no factual basis and, as stated, is actively opposed by Jewish individuals and groups.
The final justification is no justification at all. It is simply a circular statement seeking to justify the unjustifiable.
The Resolution is emblematic of a wrong turn, for it links what it deems a moral stance in relation to Germany’s past, to the condemnation, indeed anathematisation, of what are simply political positions which, by their nature, may be agreed with or contested. What a democratic state must avoid is actions that delegitimise non-violent political action or speech, a principle that the Bundestag in this case has more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
As is clear from the Resolution, the burden of the relatively recent past weighs heavily on many Bundestag Members and constitutes what we might call the emotional heartland of the Resolution. That burden, however, cannot vicariously be relieved by placing it upon Palestinian shoulders.
We urge the Bundestag to rescind the motion.