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On equating BDS and anti-Semitism: a letter to the German government

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To the Members of the German Government:

I write to you regarding the motion recently passed by the Bundestag that equated BDS with anti-Semitism. I also write to you as Jew, a child of Holocaust survivors and as a scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

My mother, Taube, and father, Abraham, survived Auschwitz among other horrors. My father was the only survivor in his family of six children and my mother survived with only one sister in a family that was larger than my father’s. I know, without question, that if they were alive today, the motion you are being asked to endorse would terrify them given the repression of tolerance and witness that it clearly embraces. I shall not restate what others have already written protesting your action, but I do have some thoughts I would like to share.

In September 2014 I was invited to speak on Gaza at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung after the terrible events of that summer. During the question period, a gentleman stood up who was quite agitated. He argued quite strongly that given Germany’s history, it is difficult if not impossible for Germans to criticize Israel. Embedded in his statement was the belief that Germans should never engage in such criticism. He seemed to insist that I accept this. I do not. Nor would my parents.

My response to him, then, is the same as my response to you now: If your history has imposed a burden and an obligation upon you, it is to defend justice not Israel. This is what Judaism, not Zionism, demands. Your obligation does not lie in making Israel or the Jewish people special or selectively excusing injustice because Jews happen to be committing it; it lies in holding Israel and Jews to the same ethical and moral standards that you would demand of any people, including yourselves. If you think that by refusing to criticize Israel’s brutal occupation—and punishing those who do—you are protecting and securing the State of Israel or the place of the Jewish people in the world, you are terribly misguided. Your approach achieves the exact opposite—by insisting on treating Jews as an exception, you are weakening us by again making us a kind of anomaly, an intruder, a negation of Europe. It makes us more vulnerable to and unsheltered from the racism and the true anti-Semitism now resurgent throughout the world.

Your sense of guilt, if that is the correct word, should not derive from criticizing Israel. It should reside in remaining silent in the face of injustice as so many of your forebears did before, during and after the Holocaust.

I lost a large extended family to fascism and racism. By endorsing the motion that alleges that BDS is anti-Semitic—regardless of one’s position on BDS—you are criminalizing the right to free speech and dissent and those who choose to exercise it, which is exactly how fascism takes root. You also trivialize and dishonor the real meaning of anti-Semitism. How would you explain that to Taube and Abraham?


Dr. Sara Roy

This piece appeared first on Counterpunch last week.

Sara Roy

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies specializing in the Palestinian economy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is on the advisory council of ANERA, American Near East Refugee Aid. She is the author of several books including "The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development" and "Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector."

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9 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson on June 10, 2019, 12:58 pm

    RE: “If you think that by refusing to criticize Israel’s brutal occupation—and punishing those who do—you are protecting and securing the State of Israel or the place of the Jewish people in the world, you are terribly misguided. Your approach achieves the exact opposite . . .” ~ Dr. Roy

    SEE: “Gunter the Terrible” | By Uri Avnery | | April 13, 2012

    [EXCERPT] Stop me if I have told you this joke before:

    Somewhere in the US, a demonstration takes place. The police arrive and beat the protesters mercilessly.

    “Don’t hit me,” someone shouts, “I am an anti-communist!”

    “I couldn’t give a damn what kind of a communist you are!” a policeman answers as he raises his baton.

    The first time I told this joke was when a German group visited the Knesset and met with German-born members, including me.

    They went out of their way to praise Israel, lauding everything we had been doing, condemning every bit of criticism, however harmless it might be. It became downright embarrassing, since some of us in the Knesset were very critical of our government’s policy in the occupied territories.

    For me, this extreme kind of pro-Semitism is just disguised anti-Semitism. Both have a basic belief in common: that Jews – and therefore Israel – are something apart, not to be measured by the standards applied to everybody else. . .


    • JLewisDickerson on June 10, 2019, 1:03 pm

      P.S. ALSO SEE: “Israeli diplomat in Berlin: Maintaining German guilt about Holocaust helps Israel” | By Nir Gontarz | | Jun. 25, 2015

      [EXCERPT] A spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in Berlin recently told Israeli journalists it was in the country’s interest to maintain German guilt about the Holocaust, and that it isn’t seeking full normalization of relations between the governments.

      Embassy spokeswoman Adi Farjon made the comments in a closed briefing session with journalists at the embassy.

      “We were all in shock,” said a female journalist present at the briefing. “The spokeswoman clearly said it was an Israeli interest to maintain German guilt feelings. She even said that without them, we’d be just another country as far as they’re concerned.”

      Others present at the event confirmed the journalist’s account.

      Some added that the Israeli ambassador himself, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, was present for some of the briefing, as were other embassy workers who don’t speak Hebrew. Another journalist commented, “It was so awkward. We couldn’t believe our ears. We’re sitting there eating peanuts, and behind the spokeswoman there are two German women sitting there who don’t understand a word of Hebrew – and the embassy staff is telling us they’re working to preserve the German guilt feelings and that Israel has no interest in normalization of relations between the two countries.”

      “I don’t remember saying that,” Farjon told Haaretz in response. “I can’t vouch for any particular quote, she added. “It was an off-the-record conversation, a briefing talk. The way I speak with Israeli journalists is a little different. These things aren’t intended to get out. I can’t reveal the principles I work by. For example, I don’t say who I go to in order to get good stories out here, or who I pay for things like that.” . . .


    • Stephen Shenfield on June 13, 2019, 7:50 am

      In general, anti-Semitism and pro-Semitism (or philo-Semitism) are closely related because they are based on the same attitudes and methods. One easily mutates into the other, they can coexist in a single mind, and they can be hard to distinguish. They should be studied together as different manifestations of the same phenomenon, for which unfortunately we do not have a convenient term.

      Most Germans who buy into the irrational idea of guilt for the sins of their forebears are seeking rehabilitation in the eyes of Jews. I recall at an Esperanto conference a German man coming up to me, eyes haunted by guilt, and telling me how he had given his children Jewish names. I was annoyed because it spoiled my mood. On reflection it also seemed to me a form of child abuse: he was acting as an agent of the guilt pushers by passing the guilt on to the next generation. Obviously he thought this would rehabilitate him in my eyes. Of course it did nothing of the sort.

      What some Germans may eventually realize is that what wins them rehabilitation in the eyes of some Jews may further alienate others. So they can never achieve their goal. However, they can get as close as possible to it by orienting themselves toward the Jewish majority. If the majority of Jews were anti-Zionist they would be too. As things are, how can it be in their psychic interest to win the plaudits of a minority of Jews at the cost of bringing down on themselves the curses and insults of the majority? It would make no sense at all.

  2. DaBakr on June 10, 2019, 10:34 pm

    The fact that only Israel and the promoting of bds even had to be debated in Germany is an indication that Israel is being held to a higher standard then any other nation in the region.

    E.g. Syrian Assad with Russian help just killed dozens of civilian women and children in western Syria bombing runs yesterday. Germans arent debating about that.

    Germans have transcended, more then any other western European nation, their history as a brutalized and oppressor of jews. That 70yrs hence some are still sensitive to the issue is reasonable. The same way they are sensitive about displaying nationalistic symbols such as flags (as opposed to say Israel or the US)

    And yes, I lost family in both Europe and the ME. Does that qualify me to anything other then another opinion? I wasnt aware.

    • eljay on June 11, 2019, 10:29 am

      || @aar: The fact that only Israel and the promoting of bds even had to be debated in Germany is an indication that Israel is being held to a higher standard then any other nation in the region. … ||

      It’s cute how you Zionists routinely elevate Israel high above any other nation in the region (“moral beacon”, “light unto the nations”, “Western-style democracy”, “the only democracy in the Middle East”, “progressive paradise”) and then do nothing but whine, bitch and moan when others expect Israel to live up to the standard to which you have elevated it.

      Anyway, Israel is a deliberately and unapologetically oppressive, colonialist, (war) criminal and religion-supremacist state. There’s absolutely nothing wrong or immoral or “anti-Semitic” about holding Israel accountable for the evil it is and the evil it does.

  3. Misterioso on June 11, 2019, 10:05 am


    “The fact that only Israel and the promoting of bds even had to be debated in Germany is an indication that Israel is being held to a higher standard then any other nation in the region. ”

    Your phony, baseless “argument” has been used before:

    “How Israel’s anti-BDS Tactics Mirror White South Africa’s Defense of Apartheid”
    MIDDLE EAST MONITOR – 04/25/2019

    By Michael Bueckert

    “The Israeli state and its supporters frequently accuse its critics of being motivated by anti-Semitism, and although they usually concede that it is not inherently anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, recent controversies have proven that it is quite difficult to ascertain precisely where genuine criticism ends and racism begins.

    “One popular method for working this out is the so-called ‘3D test’ — the ‘Three Ds of anti-Semitism’ — developed by Israel’s one-time Minister of Internal Affairs, Natan Sharansky. This framework evaluates criticism of Israel against three ‘Ds’, namely demonization, when ‘Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion;’ double standards, when Israel is ‘singled out’ or criticism is ‘applied selectively,’ and delegitimization, when ‘Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied.’ If a critical statement meets any of these criteria, then it is determined to be anti-Semitic.

    “This test has been promoted by the likes of the US Anti-Defamation League as a simple way to distinguish ‘anti-Israel”’criticism from anti-Semitism, but it falls short in at least one important way: its standards can easily be applied to the discourse surrounding countries other than Israel. In fact, the ‘3 Ds’ mirror complaints made by supporters of apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 80s, who also believed that their favoured country was subject to unfair criticism.

    “A brief overview of pro-South African propaganda reveals comparable accusations of demonization, double standards, and delegitimization. Far from providing a reliable tool for analysis, Sharansky’s ‘3D test’ merely codifies the same rhetoric that was used to defend apartheid South Africa, turning the language of pariah states into supposed evidence of anti-Semitism.

    Glenn Babb, South African Ambassador to Canada from 1985 to 1987, often criticized the ‘exaggerated rhetoric’ that was used against his country. He felt that South Africa was being ‘vilified’ in the public debate, and that its critics were full of ‘dismal ignorance.’ Babb claimed that the Canadian government was conspiring with ‘anti-South Africa’ groups and the African National Congress (ANC) to manufacture an unfriendly attitude towards the apartheid state; he referred to this ‘incestuous relationship’ as ‘the anti-South Africa industry.’

    “South Africa’s supporters frequently complained that the country was being depicted from an entirely negative and one-sided point of view; they blamed the ‘biased’ and ‘liberal media’ for repeating uncritically disinformation from ‘terrorists’ and Soviet Union ‘puppets’ like the ANC, and for convincing the public that apartheid was uniquely evil. Indeed, they argued that biased media coverage had triggered emotional responses at the expense of rational analysis, poisoning the possibility of constructive debate.

    “Apartheid is a Crime: Portraits of the Israeli Occupation
    John Shingler, a professor at McGill University who was also a director of an elite pro-South Africa group, wrote that campus debates around South African divestment were ‘unbalanced,’ ‘one-dimensional’ and ‘wholly negative.’ The result was that South Africa itself had become tainted as a country (and not just its policies), which had two main effects: the tone of the debate had become ‘abusive’ and ‘shrill,’ and it had become impossible to take a ‘moderate’ position or to oppose sanctions without being accused of being ‘racists’ and ‘fascists.’ By demonising South Africa, it was claimed, any association with the country had become toxic.

    “Double standards
    A glossy 1987 pro-apartheid magazine called South Africa: Nation on Trial opened with a combative editorial claiming that ‘South Africa bashing has become a national sport.’ The magazine, which was mailed to spouses of Canadian members of parliament, went on to complain that ‘South Africa is judged by double, triple, and even quadruple standards. Many of these are highly subjective, intellectually inconsistent, biased, racist, and downright arrogant.’

    “South Africa’s supporters felt that many in the West had an ‘obsession’ with the country, and questioned the disproportionate attention it received from governments. John Chettle of the South Africa Foundation blasted the ‘ruthless majority’ in the UN for applying ‘illegal sanctions’ against South Africa, while Babb pointed out the ‘selectivity’ with which ‘the world singles South Africa out as a special case.’

    “Many others questioned why ‘liberal do-gooders’ did not boycott the Soviet Union or other African states. An anti-sanctions advertisement published in November 1985 by both the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen lambasted Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s ‘one-sided ‘get-South Africa’ threats’ and ‘hypocritical’ sanctions, and asked why Canada was not boycotting ‘the Marxist dictatorship of Tanzania.’

    “While allegations of hypocrisy largely took an anti-Communist ideological line, South Africa’s defenders occasionally drew upon other examples. As one audience member remarked during a public forum on South African censorship in 1988, while the First Intifada was raging in occupied Palestine, ‘What is this maniacal preoccupation with South Africa at the moment? I mean, 200 Palestinians are being shot to death in the streets on the West Bank you know. I hope [you] will use the same kind of energy to bring inequities in Israel to the general public.’

    ‘There is a war going on,’ stated journalist Peter Worthington grimly in his 1987 anti-ANC documentary, ‘not against apartheid, but against South Africa itself.’

    “South Africa never had an argument that was exactly equivalent to Israel’s ‘right to exist;’ that is, its supporters did not claim that white South Africans had a positive right to maintain ethnocratic control over the state, per se. Nonetheless, they argued that the demands of the anti-apartheid movement would lead to the violent overthrow or destruction of South Africa itself, and as such posed an existential threat. In this, the pro-South African lobby mobilised an implicit idea of white self-determination as threatened by African and Marxist barbarism.

    “Supporters of South Africa rejected the call for ‘one person, one vote’ by pointing to neighbouring African countries to show that democracy has not worked elsewhere on the continent but was in fact a ‘cataclysmic failure.’ Toronto Sun columnist McKenzie Porter blamed this on ‘the inability of native blacks to govern well a modern state’ and predicted that if apartheid was dismantled, ‘within a decade the only civilised nation on the African
    continent would collapse.’ Babb warned of a ‘bloodbath’ and in a full-page article for the Globe and Mail titled ‘The good side of white South Africa,’ Kenneth Walker wrote that one person, one vote ‘is a recipe for slaughter in South Africa.’

    ‘Such predictions were often apocalyptic. Most evocative was a pro-apartheid comic strip by Disney cartoonist Vic Lockman, whose panel on the ‘Soviet encirclement of South Africa’ presented an image of a giant bear with a hammer and sickle, moving down the African continent upon frightened South African factories and mines which were completely surrounded, declaring ‘We shall drive South Africa into the Sea!’

    “The 3D test is fatally flawed
    “This is only a small sample of the arguments advanced by supporters of apartheid South Africa, who insisted that criticism of the country was unfair in a manner consistent with allegations of demonization, double standards and delegitimization. This suggests that Sharansky’s ‘3D test’ for distinguishing criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism is fatally flawed because, in effect, it bundles together a number of rhetorical strategies that are not unique to Israel but have been used by other pariah states to justify their own oppressive practices. These strategies are, in essence, claims about a lack of fairness, and they are likely to be advanced by any country facing significant criticism. Using these tired and repackaged arguments as a weapon against Israel’s critics will not contribute to the fight against anti-Semitism, but rather undermine human rights activism.”

  4. Nathan on June 11, 2019, 8:17 pm

    Sara Roy – Your interpretation is that the Bundestag’s position on BDS is based on their sense of guilt. Part of your “proof” is the debate you had with a German who commented at one of your lectures about German guilt. It really is quite strange that a university professor builds a case on such a childish logic. Perhaps the Bundestag has determined that the BDS is antisemitic simply because they actually think that the BDS Movement is antisemitic. You think that “defending justice” means that one has to have an anti-Israel outlook. You might be surprised to learn that there are people who think that the pro-Israel position is just. As a university professor, you might have come across the phenomenon in which good and intelligent people see things differently than you do.

    It is especially in poor taste that you ask the members of the Bundestag how they would explain their decision to your late parents (who were Holocaust survivors). On the one hand, you accuse the Bundestag members of making a (pro-Israel) decision based on a guilty conscience, and then you try to convince them to change their position by giving them a guilty conscience. In short, you have no problem that the Germans have a sense of guilt because of the Holocaust as long as that guilt brings them to accepting your anti-Israel outlook.

    • RoHa on June 11, 2019, 9:54 pm

      “You might be surprised to learn that there are people who think that the pro-Israel position is just. As a university professor, you might have come across the phenomenon in which good and intelligent people see things differently than you do.”

      You keep saying this sort of thing. What is your point?

    • eljay on June 12, 2019, 8:00 am

      || Nathan: … You think that “defending justice” means that one has to have an anti-Israel outlook. … ||

      I agree that to defend justice in I-P:
      – one does not have to be anti-Israel (opposed to the existence of the state of Israel); but
      – one does have to be anti-Zionism (opposed to the hateful and immoral ideology, its religion-supremacist construct and their past and on-going (war) crimes committed).

      So…when will you Zionists stop being anti-justice?

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