Israel analyst Shir Hever speaks to guest host Greg Wilpert about the different ways in which US Secretary of State Pompeo’s latest effort to demonize the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel actually exposes the far right’s internal contradictions and could help BDS in the long run.
Hi, I’m Greg Wilpert, guest host for theAnalysis.News. Last November 19th, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel and the occupied territories where he made an unexpected announcement that immensely pleased his host, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pompeo said:
“The United States strongly opposes the global discriminatory boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and practices that facilitated, such as discriminatory labeling and the publication of databases and companies that operate in Israel or Israeli-controlled areas. As we have made clear, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. The United States is therefore committed to countering the global BDS campaign as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”
Pompeo’s policy statement went on to specify that the State Department would identify organizations that support the BDS campaign and to make sure that these do not receive any US government funds. The move was condemned by many groups, including Human Rights Watch, which issued a statement that said that Pompeo’s move actually undermines the common fight against the scourge of anti-Semitism.
To discuss this latest development in the BDS campaign and the fight over what constitutes anti-Semitism, I’m joined today from Heidelberg, Germany by Shir Hever here is the author of the book *The Privatization of Israeli Security*, which was published by Pluto Press in 2017. Also, he is a board member of the German organization Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. Thanks for joining me today, Shir.
So, it seems like Pompeo’s announcement, which is probably one of his last policy actions before leaving office, was yet another blow against BDS. Now, already about a year and a half ago, the US Congress passed a bipartisan resolution that condemned BDS as a movement that “promotes principles of collective guilt, mass punishment and group isolation, which are destructive of prospects for progress towards peace.”
Now, what does this new State Department policy that Pompeo announced with regard to BDS mean for the movement? What effect, if any, do you think it will have? And how do you see the state of BDS over the past year or so?
Well, I think the best way to look at the state of BDS is to look at what’s happening in Israel and how the Israelis are responding to BDS and how much they care about it. And if somebody believes this hype — as if BDS is trying to attack the Israeli economy or to damage the Israeli economy in some way — then they would say, “Oh, BDS has been very successful this year,” because the Israeli economy is in shambles. There is a very, very high unemployment and many companies are on the verge of bankruptcy. Many small companies have already gone bankrupt. The government is unable to pass a budget which creates a paralysis in all of the public services.
But this is not because of BDS. This is because of the of the Covid-19 crisis. This is because of the lockdown and also because of the political machinations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he tries to leave himself the option to go to elections yet again. So, he refuses to allow any kind of budget to pass. And because all of this damage to the Israeli economy is happening without anything to do with BDS and then BDS is not high on people’s minds. The whole point of BDS is to make people aware, especially to make Israelis aware, that there is an occupation going on, there is apartheid, and there are millions of people living without any rights under the Israeli control. They’re just not making it to the news anymore.
So, I would say 2020 was a bad year for BDS by far. But I think towards the end we’re starting to see a change. And here I think that I have to thank the Trump administration for making this horrible statement against BDS. It really proves that the campaign, the movement, to try to stop the BDS movement — that is, the efforts by rightwing leaders in Israel, but also among countries that are allied with Israel, first and foremost, the United States — is a campaign which is not motivated by concern for the human rights of Israelis. Quite the opposite. It’s a campaign motivated by hate and racism. And Trump, who himself has made frequent and numerous anti-Semitic comments and who is supported by some of the most dangerous white supremacist and anti-Semitic actors in the United States, is now openly saying, “Yeah, well, part of this camp is also the pro-Israeli camp.”
It embarrasses the more liberal leaders of the world who are automatically inclined to support Israel and to oppose BDS because they often make this mistake of confusing the state of Israel with the Jewish people. They think that the Israeli government has some kind of right to speak on behalf of Jewish people around the world because Israel calls itself the Jewish state. But this move by Trump, I think, now makes it very clear: those who believe that the election in the United States have been somehow stolen by the Democrats and those who believe in these conspiracy theories are also the ones who believe that BDS is anti-Semitic and that anti Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. These claims are all equally preposterous.
Now, how do you think Pompeo’s anti-BDS policy compares to those of governments in Europe, particularly in Germany, France and the U.K. and how they are dealing with this issue?
Well, one thing in common, and very unfortunately, is this conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is nothing short of, you know, dismissing the horrors of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It’s simply historical forgetfulness and lack of basic knowledge to know that most of the Jews that were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust were anti-Zionist. And today, most of the anti-Zionists who live up in the world are Jews.
This idea that this is a form of anti-Semitism is, in fact, to say, well, you know, being Jewish and being Zionist is almost the same. Jewishness is an issue of identity; Zionism is an issue of ideology. But somehow here is a group of people who have to all belong to the same ideology. Now, if I would say all Muslims have to be supportive of the Islamic State, if I would say all Christians have to vote for Trump or whatever, then people would say, “Well, this is a hateful statement. You’re making a racist generalization, which is not fair. People have a right to more than one opinion.”
I do agree that Jews have a right to be Zionists and there are many forms of Zionism. I don’t even call myself anti-Zionist because I think there are forms of Zionism that I can live with and I can accept that are not racist, that are very democratic and progressive. Sadly, these forms of Zionism are right now in the minority of the very wide variety of Zionist movements. Mainstream Zionism has been very associated with the Israeli government’s policies of occupation and apartheid. But it didn’t have to be so. And a lot of Jews are opposing this idea that Judaism has something to do with Zionism or they oppose the idea that Zionism is the only option for Jews. Many of them do it for religious reasons. I think the biggest anti-Zionist group in the world are ultra-orthodox Jews who say that the state of Israel, because it violates human rights and international law, proves itself to be not the real Jewish state. It proves the point that the state of Israel does not represent Jewish values. And so, that’s why they call themselves anti-Zionist.
Unfortunately, the right wing — not just in the United States. Your question was also about Europe. And in France, in Germany, in Britain, the rightwing is actually much more aware of what Zionism means than the left. They fully understand that the meaning of Zionism for Jews in Europe is a movement that calls on them to leave their homes. Right? I’m living in Germany. German Zionists would say, “Wouldn’t it be better if you go somewhere else — to Israel, to Palestine?” I don’t want to leave, but this kind of idea that maybe the Jews should leave is very popular among the rightwing for reasons that I cannot call by any other word than anti-Semitism. They want the Jews to leave, but they are not called anti-Semites if they say, “Oh, but we support the state of Israel.”
I think it’s horrifying to remember that Adolf Eichmann, the German Nazi that was put on trial in Jerusalem for his crimes during the Holocaust, actually made that point as part of his defense in the trial. He said, “What do you want from me? I was deporting Jews to Palestine. That’s what the Zionist movement wants. I’m just yet another Zionist.” It didn’t help his case in the trial. He was executed. But it seems that a lot of people today don’t remember that trial and don’t remember this sort of terminology and how people exploit the ideas of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in a way that manipulates the discourse and actually conceals their racist intentions to get rid of Jews.
But putting that aside, there’s also another development in which we see a very sharp difference between what’s happening in the United States and what’s happening in Europe. Specifically, this year, European courts have decided again and again to respect the right of people to support and to promote BDS, the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. It started in France. But it’s actually not just a French story because a group of activists in France that were supporting BDS were persecuted by the French government, which tried to prevent them from doing BDS activities and fined them. They appealed to the European Human Rights Court, which sits in Strasbourg, which also happens to be in France, but it’s a court for all of Europe, not just for France. This court ruled in June that the French government has exceeded its authority, that the BDS movement is legal, that the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic, and that the French government has to compensate the activists with money not just for charging them for fines, but also for treating them poorly and discriminating against them.
This is a very important ruling because this is a precedent that is much more powerful than decisions of specific courts or specific parliaments in Europe. Now, the French government decided not to appeal the court case. They decided to accept its ruling. But now the French government is trying to find a way to continue to oppose the BDS movement and to try to criminalize it in other ways, even though the court case clearly says they’re not allowed to do that. So, we’re going to see what’s going to happen.
But meanwhile, we also see things happening in Britain and in Germany. In Britain, there’s a very important ruling. The Supreme Court ruled that the British government decision to ban BDS from local authorities has been illegal. The British government had made a statement that all local authorities would not be allowed to divest from Israeli companies or from international companies involved in the illegal Israeli occupation. There was an appeal to the Supreme Court in Britain that basically said, “You know, workers in these local authorities, they pay into their pensions. They have a right to decide that their pensions will not invest that money in companies that are involved in violating international law.” The Supreme Court completely accepted that appeal and ruled against the decision of the government.
Just this past November, a court in Germany made a very important ruling as well. So, in Germany, there is a non-binding parliamentary declaration that also compares BDS with anti-Semitism, which I think is a very, very problematic thing for several reasons. Maybe we can talk about that as well. But the city of Munich has declared that any organization that has anything to do with BDS will not be allowed to use any public spaces in the city of Munich and will be banned from having events or showing films or all of that. And of course, the main people who were affected by this are Jews, critical leftist Jewish activists who wanted to speak about an occupation, about their own country, regardless of whether they support BDS or not. It really doesn’t matter. The Munich municipality just decided to close the doors and not let these events happen. So, local organizations have appealed to the district court of the state of Bavaria, where Munich is, and the court again declared that the BDS movement is legal, that it is not anti-Semitic, and that it is forbidden to deny public spaces to people because of their political opinions.
Now, I want to say that when these courts are saying the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic, that’s not to say that all of the people who support BDS are now exempt from being called anti-Semitic or maybe harboring racist thoughts towards Jews. Of course, every group of people has racists among it. It would be very unusual and very surprising if you could find one specific group of people who say, “Oh, these people are holy and have no racist thoughts among them.” But the movement itself, in terms of the content that it promotes, statements that it puts on its website, the demands it makes of the state of Israel, and the means to make those demands, the kind of boycott that it promotes — none of these things in themselves are anti-Semitic.
I want to get to that point again, actually a little bit later, particularly because Congress’s resolution and others have made the argument that one of the reasons they consider BDS to be anti-Semitic is because it promotes the destruction of Israel. But before we get to that, from what you said just now, it sounds like, actually, that on the one hand within Israel, the movement hasn’t had that much success, but on an international level — that is, in Europe at least — it seems to have had some successes, particularly with regard to the court decisions.
Now, what effect has all of this had within Israel? That is, how has Pompeo’s anti-BDS policy been received within Israel, particularly in the media and in public discourse?
Well, because BDS did not make headlines in Israeli media this year so much, the focus of the Israeli media was not so much on Pompeo’s statements regarding BDS, but more about his statements about the illegal colonies in the West Bank and the Syrian Golan, where he said that these colonies are legal according to the US perspective. This is, of course, not acceptable to people who follow international law, but the Trump administration decided to make its own laws.
He also promoted specifically one colony called Psagot, which is very famous for its wine, that has been involved in several court cases in France and in Canada where this company tried to argue that it should be allowed to put the label “Made in Israel” on the wine, even though it is clearly not in Israel, but in the occupied West Bank. And Pompeo decided to go to that particular vineyard in order to make a statement. So, that certainly caught some attention in Israel. People know that this wine brand is very controversial. I think people were also a little bit surprised that Pompeo is promoting a specific company.
That was also in the same context of Trump lifting the restrictions from Jonathan Pollard, the spy who was convicted of treason in the United States and imprisoned for many years. Jonathan Pollard is now allowed to travel to Israel because the restrictions against them were lifted. It’s not an Israeli national interest to have Jonathan Pollard travel to Israel. It’s not an Israeli national interest to have Psagot wines making a bigger profit in Canada or in France. But it’s something that got more attention in the news as a symbolic gesture by Trump saying that he is one hundred percent pro-Israel no matter what. But he’s leaving. [Laughs.] So, it doesn’t mean that much.
So, because of this, I think the way the Israelis are talking about BDS is changing. It’s also changing because there is a new minister. Netanyahu tried to capitalize on the BDS movement by appointing a minister, a so-called BDS Minister — that’s not his official title, but that’s how people referred to him. His official title was Minister for Strategic Affairs. His name is Gilad Erdan, and he made a big campaign about how he’s going to fight the BDS movement. Over several years, it became clear that most of his fight against the BDS movement is the campaign about how he is going to fight it. It was an advertisement campaign aimed mainly at Israeli Jews telling them, “Don’t worry. I’m going to use the Israeli Mossad. I’m going to use Israeli secret services and cyberwarriors to fight against the BDS movement.” But other than rightwing politicians in Europe and in the United States who wanted to coordinate with Erdan and invite him as a guest of honor, he didn’t do much in Europe or the United States.
Now he has been replaced, partially because of internal political things in Israel. Netanyahu doesn’t like an up-and-coming politician that might one day try to replace him. So, Erdan is sent to the UN and the new minister, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, is from the Blue and White Party, not from the Likud Party. Even though she’s not openly saying that she completely disagrees with how Erdan managed the ministry before, it seems that her efforts are now focused on social media.
So, you see in the Israeli media that now the fight against BDS is happening on social media platforms. She pressured Facebook to appoint an Israeli official to be a kind of censor on behalf of Facebook. And now Facebook is starting to clamp down on posts that criticize the Zionist movement. So, again, conflating Zionism with Judaism, taking down these posts if they’re not pro-Zionist, and of course, that’s a very, very bad thing, mainly for Jews. It hurts Jews around the world much more than it hurts Palestinians.
You mentioned that the Trump administration and Pompeo are completely in agreement on this policy. Could make some comments on why you think they’re so intent on promoting this anti-Zionism-is-anti-Semitism and an extremely strong pro-Israel policy. I mean, of course, there’s been some speculation, and I don’t know if this is part of it, that Pompeo might consider a run for the presidency in 2024, and that he’s actually solidifying his support among evangelical Christians, a group to which he belongs. Now, what do you think is the connection there? And more generally, why do you think the Trump administration is so gung-ho about pursuing this policy?
Yeah, I think they’re looking for the common denominator that can put together rightwing American Jews like Sheldon Adelson, one of Trump’s biggest donors, the evangelical Christians, and even further right, a white supremacist like Richard Spencer. If you’re looking for a denominator for these three groups, the only denominator that you can find is Zionism. You have Sheldon Adelson, who promotes his version of extreme rightwing Zionism which he supports with a lot of money, basically convincing American Jews to take free trips to Israel where they are told that this is actually their country and that they should emigrate to Israel, marry Israelis, and start families in Israel, and so on.
Then you have the evangelical Christians, which are a very powerful and big group. It’s been shown by Max Blumenthal, for example, that they have more money and make bigger donations to the pro-Israel lobby than the Jewish community in the United States. Much, much more. Zionism is a very important part of their evangelical beliefs. They see the so-called return of Jews to their homelands as one of the signs of the end time and something that will bring the second coming of Christ. If you follow this theological interpretation to its end, what these reverends are saying is pretty horrible. In the Jews are either killed or they have one last chance to convert to Christianity. So, Jews tend to be very skeptical about this kind of support from the evangelical community.
There are people like Reverend John Hagee, a big supporter of Trump, who has followed Trump’s campaign and presidency very closely. He has published these videos saying how wonderful it is that Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem and so on. And John Hagee is also the reverend who said that Hitler was doing God’s work because he concentrated Jews in Israel, a statement which indeed is is horrifying for Jews to hear. But it’s part of his theology.
And then you go all the way to Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi, who said, I’m also a kind of Zionist, echoing Eichmann — I don’t know if he did that on purpose — by saying, I also think Jews should go to Israel. I support Sheldon Adelson’s work to send the Jews to Israel. And I also agree with this idea to create a state only for people who share the identity of the state. So, if Jews get to have their Jewish state in Israel, we should have a white state in the US. So, he calls himself a White Zionist.
So, if you want to create a common denominator of these different groups, then you need to legitimize Zionism and you need to legitimize the most extreme form of Zionism. By conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, you’re doing just that. And I think that’s the reason they’re doing it.
Now, of course, the Trump administration, we presume, is on its way out. How do you think that the incoming Biden administration will deal with this issue? As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of Democrats in Congress actually support exactly this equation of BDS with anti-Semitism. But there is a progressive wing within the party that has been resisting this, particularly, of course, the progressive Muslim members of the House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. But we’ve got some indication now who is appointed to the cabinet: Anthony Blinken is supposed to be the new secretary of state. Any ideas as to how he might deal with this or how Biden in general might?
Well, I’m not your best guest to talk about internal US politics, but I do see the way that the Israeli media is following this story and how they’re interpreting it. There’s now a lot of anger in Israel against Netanyahu because they’re saying Netanyahu formed this unholy alliance with Trump that turned the issue of Israel/Palestine into a highly partisan issue. And so, even if Biden tries to be as pro-Israel as Trump — and he has been, actually. Even under Obama, when he was the vice president, Biden took a position even more pro-Israel than Obama and tried to get Obama even more on Israel’s side.
But it’s not just about what he wants. It’s also about what the party wants. Like you said, there is a progressive wing of the party now, which is a very powerful wing of the party. They cannot just be ignored and thrown aside. And I think Biden cannot get away with copying the policies of Trump. He has to show that he’s taking a new direction.
And now Netanyahu is accused by Israelis: “Look what you did. You have turned yourself into an enemy of the Democratic Party.” And this is something that Netanyahu is now trying to fend off and say, “No, no. I’ve always been also an ally of the Democratic Party,” but it’s not exactly true. He had gotten into a fight with Obama, during the Obama years. He banned two congresswomen, the two that you’ve mentioned, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from entering Israel.
So, I don’t think that the Democratic Party can just say, “Oh, well, so you’re betting our party members from entering your country, but we’re going to still support you.” [Laughs.] And of course, it’s not just them. It’s also Bernie Sanders who said that US aid to Israel should be made conditional. And that statement drew a lot of support from within the Democratic Party. And so, that’s also very important.
I also find maybe a glimmer of hope in the fact that Biden is now making a big deal of his history of opposing apartheid in South Africa. And again, it doesn’t matter how genuine that story really is. What matters is that it’s part of his discourse now to say “I have opposed apartheid in South Africa.” And now it is beyond question that there is apartheid in Israel/Palestine. The Israeli government is openly saying it. They’re just using the Hebrew word instead of the Afrikaans word. They don’t call it “apartheid,” they call it “hafrada.” But this is the translation of the word “apartheid.” The new law of the nation — the official name is The Nation-State Law — which was legislated in July, 2018 in Israel is a law that simply takes parts of the definition of apartheid, the Rome definition that was published in 1973, and it makes it into official law in Israel. Not that this is a new policy in Israel, but now they put it in the law books so that nobody will have a doubt about it anymore. So, I think that’s going to put Biden in a serious spot. It will be very difficult for him to say apartheid was wrong for South Africa, but it’s OK for Israel.
Very fascinating developments. I think we’re going to leave it there for now, though. I was speaking to Shir Hever, board member of the German organization Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East. Thanks again, Shir, for having joined me today.
And thanks to our listeners for having tuned in. I’m Greg Wilpert, signing off until next time.