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Stifling debate on Israel and BDS puts us all in danger

| March 1, 2016
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For writing these words, I could be put in prison.

I'm in France, where last October, the country's highest court ruled that advocating for the movement to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) companies dealing with Israeli settlements is a criminal offence.

Last week, the U.K. announced that it will penalize local councils and publicly funded bodies that support such boycotts, and in the U.S., several states have passed sweeping anti-BDS legislation.

Now, Canada has joined the widening backlash, with Parliament adopting a Conservative motion to condemn the BDS movement, saying it  "promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel." It calls on the government "to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement."

Parliament it seems, has been misled.

The BDS campaign is a protest movement against the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and a peaceful alternative to armed struggle.  But Canada is the latest country to be swept up in the breathless propaganda spread by an Israeli government bent on quelling opposition to its continuing annexation of Palestinian land. (More than half a million Jewish "settlers" have occupied vast tracts of land in the West Bank alone.)

The campaign of disinformation has been so effective that some call BDS "anti-Semitic." I would like to know how that might be, so I contacted a dozen Jewish Canadian organizations -- a few of which have replied. 

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center sent me an opinion piece by Avi Benlolo, its President and CEO. "Today's call for anti-Israel boycotts is the direct descendant of Nazi edict 'Do Not Buy From Jews,'" he writes. "The true goal of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign," he adds, "is the end of Israel as a state."

Conservative MP Peter Kent told the House of Commons last week that BDS is a "multi-dimensional hate campaign," which seeks to "demonize Israel with hateful, hypocritical anti-Semitic attacks."

These are extraordinary claims, which may apply to some unsavoury individuals. But they stand in stark contrast to the movement's clearly stated goals.

BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti wrote in The New York Times that "Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism."  

The BDS movement defines itself as a "campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights."

Nowhere in its campaign literature or official statements does it call for "the elimination of the state of Israel" -- a ghastly and abhorrent claim, which, if uttered, should be met with reprobation and investigation.

But the growing international movement, which includes universities, the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers, has so rattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he has appointed a special government department to monitor the campaign. 

A report last year estimated that the BDS movement could cost the Israeli economy more than $50 billion over the next 10 years in diverted investments and pension funds, and hundreds of millions more in lost business and falling exports.

It is true that an inordinate amount of attention is directed at Israel, whereas there is no shortage of despots that oppress their own people, not least in the Middle East. But Israel touts itself as a democracy.

As do Canada, Britain, France and the U.S. But far from denouncing land grabs that are illegal under international law, they are attacking the human rights activists who oppose them.

Simply tarring people with the slur that they are anti-Semitic because they decry Israeli government policy is simple-minded slander mired in bad faith. Accusers either fail to see the difference between critiques of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism; between a grass roots movement and racist interlopers, or they are trying to cloud the distinction and crush dissent.  

But they are also sowing the seeds of distrust, such that when actual anti-Semitic incidents occur, they risk dulling the public outrage we rightly feel whenever Jews are insulted, intimidated or abused. After all, people will be less likely to call their MP over headlines of anti-Semitic acts, when it's discovered the umbrella term now includes policy critiques of Netanyahu or calls to respect international law.

It's often forgotten that prominent Jewish groups in North America and around the world support the BDS movement and condemn the bullying from Parliament Hill. Are they too, anti-Semitic? We are at risk of adopting a kind of group-think heckling that leaves no room for debate, nuance or alternative views.

Israel controls Palestinian ports, its water supply, even essential tax revenues -- withholding them when Israel wants to make a point, such as last year when Palestinians joined the International Criminal Court. Palestinians are unable to respond in kind to a nuclear-armed neighbour whose economy is almost 30 times larger than their own.

So no wonder that an international movement has sided with the underdog. Wielding economic pressure on behalf of an impoverished people is one of the few non-violent means of resistance that remains. 

We have every right to ignore the BDS campaign -- as most of us do. But if we are not going to help Palestinians, the least we can do is allow for peaceful protest and grass roots organization. We must break from the all too common policy of protecting the strong while denigrating the weak.

Kyle G. Brown is a freelance journalist based in Paris and creator of GlobalNewsbeat.com.  He's researching a book about propaganda and the power of language. 

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