Every Jewish group in the United States is rattled for one reason: Since Donald Trump’s election, 90 bomb threats have been called in to 73 Jewish Community Centers and schools throughout the country (and once in Canada).
Many Jewish groups connect the wave of anti-Semitic threats and hate crimes, including the vandalism of two Jewish cemeteries, to an empowered white nationalist movement that is blossoming under President Trump.
But there is a stark, albeit expected, divide on one question: whether the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel over human rights abuses is helping fuel the uptick in anti-Semitism in the U.S. Right-wing Jewish groups have cast BDS as a threat not only to Israel, but to Jews around the world. Left-wing groups that criticize Israel, though, say that this conflation obscures the roots of anti-Semitism, and is more about shutting up dissent than combatting anti-Jewish hatred.
On Monday, Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the Times of Israel that anti-Semitism is becoming a “pandemic” around the world. He’s worried about the phoned-in bomb threats, telling the Israeli outlet that they disrupt Jewish communal life. But, Hoenlein said, he’s more troubled about “what happens on campuses and the greater acceptance of charges against Israel.”
“Today it is accepted to say I am anti-Jewish,” said Hoenlein, whose organization consists of dozens of Jewish groups from across the political spectrum (though pro-BDS Jewish groups are nowhere to be found). And one of the reasons why it’s acceptable to be anti-Semitic, Hoenlein added, is BDS, which has provided a “cover for anti-Semitism.”
Hoenlein is the most prominent Jewish official to make the link between BDS and the worsening climate for Jewish Americans.
Also on Monday, Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., wrote in Israel Hayom that “the main anti-Semitic threat to U.S. Jews today is from elements mostly identified with the Left — such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — whose purpose is to completely delegitimize the State of Israel and to cancel out the Jewish people’s very existence.” Michael Oren, another former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., made a similar argument.
The comments are part of a sustained campaign by right-wing Jewish and Israeli figures to link BDS to anti-Semitism. Critics of BDS have pointed to research alleging that BDS activism spurs anti-Semitic activity on college campuses. But anti-occupation Jewish groups say the current wave of anti-Semitic attacks clearly originates from the far-right.
JJ Goldberg, the editor-at-large at The Forward, said this divide over BDS and anti-Semitism is a reflection of intense polarization in the Jewish community.
“There’s a whole lot of team playing going on, where the right want to blame everything on the left, and the left wants to blame everything on the right,” he said.
IfNotNow, a group focused on ending American Jewish support for Israel’s occupation but takes no position on the BDS movement, is one progressive group that rejects Hoenlein’s reasoning.
“There’s really no basis to connect BDS to the recent spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes we’re seeing. There’s clearly been a spike in these types of incidents since the election of Trump, who has openly aligned himself with known anti-Semites and white nationalists,” said Morriah Kaplan, a member of IfNotNow.
“It seems [Hoenlein is] more interested in using these incidents to vilify the BDS movement, in line with de facto Israeli foreign policy, rather than taking action to actually keep American Jews safe,” Kaplan added.
Ben Lorber, Jewish Voice for Peace’s campus coordinator, told Mondoweiss that there is a deliberate strategy at work when Jewish groups conflate the BDS movement with anti-Semitism in the U.S. Lorber said Jewish establishment organizations want to tarnish the BDS movement with charges of bigotry to halt the spread of criticism of Israel, which has been particularly vociferous on college campuses. He also said that Palestine solidarity groups have consistently condemned anti-Semitism.
He pointed to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has pressed the Trump administration to pour resources into a plan to halt the spread of anti-Semitism. But at the same time, the ADL continues to focus on fighting the BDS movement, which the organization says is anti-Semitic.
In December, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill crafted by the ADL to address anti-Semitism in the U.S., passed the Senate. But critics of the bill said it conflated legitimate criticism of Israel with bigotry by using a State Department definition of anti-Semitism that they say could be used to crack down on Palestinian rights activism. The bill did not advance farther than the Senate, but Lorber said that Congress, working in concert with groups like the ADL, may reintroduce the legislation and work with President Trump to sign it into law. Lorber fears that Trump could exploit fears of anti-Semitism to go after Palestinian human rights advocates.
That’s exactly what the Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group, is now urging Trump to do. In response to the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, the group called on the Justice Department to investigate anti-Semitism on college campuses–which they say comes from Students for Justice in Palestine–alongside the anti-Semitic hate crimes and bomb threats.
“What’s so dangerous is that in Trump’s America, free speech is under attack at levels of society from the media to college campuses,” said Jewish Voice for Peace’s Lorber. “We might see, under the guise of protecting Jews, the Trump administration going to silence the human rights voices of thousands of college students, instead of fighting white supremacists and neo-Nazis.”