Columnist Joe Gannon: Friends of Israel must look past criticism of BDS

  • An Egyptian buys a pin with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logo. AP

Published: 11/8/2019 7:00:28 PM
Modified: 11/8/2019 7:00:15 PM

Next week UMass will host another panel discussion about the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to compel Israel to recognize the humanity and human rights of Palestinians living under Israel’s illegal military occupation.

And can’t we hear the gnashing of teeth yet again? Last year, a similar panel was held amidst much sound and fury that, ultimately, signified nothing. Like everything else in this world, it seems, opinions are already cast in iron and cannot be changed except with a roaring furnace and a hammer.

This is because today, mostly, you learn not by listening, but by watching the reactions of people who don’t want to listen. (Or in the case of the UMass chancellor, don’t want to be associated with an event your campus is hosting.) Last time a lawsuit was filed to keep the BDS panel off campus because it might “trigger” Jewish students who would be made to feel afraid of such a panel. But mostly the palaver was about freedom of speech. Can a university campus host a controversial panel speaking on a highly controversial topic?

On this score progressives who might support the rights of the Palestinian people have only themselves to blame. Once right-wing speakers are barred because they might trigger the LGBTQ community, for example, means the tables had to be turned at one point. In that case, turnabout was fair play.

But the debate over Palestine does hold a special place in the world of endless political squabbles. That is because Israel has held a special place in American politics. The state of Israel would not had been recognized without the full support of the United States; it was American presidents who played a role in the small peace that has been wrought: Jimmy Carter and later Bill Clinton.

And, as next week’s panel will explore, Israel has a special place in American politics because of the outsized influence on our politics of Israel and Israelis. Next week’s panel has added the subplot: “the attack on BDS and American Democracy.”

It seems our democracy can, at present, not be spoken of without someone or thing attacking our democratic elections and policies. In this case, it’s the Israeli ploy to have America state governments pass laws making it illegal for American citizens to advocate for or participate in a boycott of Israel. Twenty-six states have passed such laws, mostly aimed at preventing contractors with state jobs from joining the BDS.

Now, no one believes the United States is a virgin when it comes to interfering in the politics of other countries. But that doesn’t mean we should now roll over and let the same be done to us. Not by Trump, not by Russia and not by Israel.

Can you imagine if Saudi Arabia tried that? OK, scratch that. Saudi Arabia has already bought innumerable past administrations. Can you imagine if China lobbied to have state laws passed that forced American citizens or businesses to do its domestic bidding? Oh wait, Hollywood and the NBA already did that!

So why then must Israel be immune to such criticism when beating up Saudi Arabia or China for the same behavior is practically a national pastime?

Because to speak of Israel’s outsized influence on our politics is either to speak an obvious truth or to be one anti-Semitic sumbitch. No one would denounce you as racist or Islamophobic for calling out Saudi Arabia or China — well, at least not anyone in the U.S. Congress. But criticism of Israel comes with the accusation. But I fear the old canard of accusing anyone who criticizes Israel of anti-Semitism is becoming like the accusation of “fake news!”

“Fake news” nowadays means that whatever you are calling fake is completely true and “fake news” is the only lame defense you have. “Anti-Semitism” is in danger of coming to mean the opposite of what it charges. And this is dangerous in a time when right wing anti-Semitic violence is on an alarming rise.

So why all the sound and fury when discussing Palestine and their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I believe the dirty little secret at the heart of Israel is that there can be no peace with the Palestinians without a vicious civil war that would pit Jews against each other. Since the assassination of prime minister (and land-for-peace peacemaker) Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish student, Israel has fallen hostage to its extremist settler movement. They are mostly religious fanatics who claim a purely Biblical basis for not only maintaining Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, but eventually expelling the Arabs from those lands.

And that small group of fanatics — whose rabbis issued “fatwas” against Rabin in the days before his murder — are not the tail that wags the dog, they have become the entire critter. And they will not allow a land-for-peace-deal no matter what, including the killing of Jews who disagree with them if the government ever tired to remove them from their (mostly) illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

And that is the ire, the fire behind those who would keep Americans from listening, discussing, or acting on their belief that Israel is a pariah state, an apartheid state, which must for its own survival make peace with their neighbors and the world. How else would anti-BDS activists overlook the large numbers of American Jews and Jewish groups that support the BDS and the right of its proponents to speak?

Oh, I forgot they are self-hating Jews.

If you believe things in America could not get any worse, just look to poor Israel.

Joe Gannon lives in Northampton. He can be reached at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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