Pompeo's Attack on BDS is About Protecting Settlements—Not Defending Jews | Opinion

"Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism." This is how Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained the US decision to move against the BDS movement during his visit to Israel last month. He went on to describe as "cancer" the non-violent movement for Palestinian rights, calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel.

BDS has attracted huge controversy ever since its launch in 2005. But the attention it has received stands in inverse relation to its actual impact. Its main success has been in keeping alive political activism on Palestine, particularly in university campuses in the West, even as public opinion turned to multiple other crises, from Syria to climate change. Yet the BDS campaign has failed to achieve meaningful economic divestment from or diplomatic sanctions on Israel. It has not dented Israel's spectacular trade growth, or its strengthening ties with key global and regional powers, including, most recently, the UAE and Bahrain.

When BDS was launched, its supporters believed that the tide of history was with them. Like in the case of Apartheid South Africa, global public opinion would eventually turn against Israel. The plight of Palestinian refugees, discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and above all, Israel's decades-long occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza, were out of step with 21st century liberal values. Israeli laws and policies was an anachronism that would be exposed and defeated through non-violent campaigns.

But that assumption proved wrong, with the global rise of authoritarian and right-wing populism. From India to Brazil, democracies took an illiberal turn, adopting rhetoric of nativism and incitement against minorities. For the ascending global hard right, Israel appeared not as a pariah state but as an attractive partner. Israel's assets included not only its military and high-tech industry, but also its success in containing Palestinian resistance through varied means, from population control to drone strikes. This is the backdrop of the clampdown on BDS, and the turn against "anti-Zionism" in general.

The equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism has been the topic of intensifying debate. Is Zionism a movement of national self determination for the Jewish people, or a settler-colonial project that has dispossessed the Palestinian indigenous population?

Both Zionists and anti-Zionists try to prove their case through lengthy quotes from the writing of early Zionist leaders such as Theodor Herzl, or by arguing over the history of the 1948 war. But these debates miss the point. When Pompeo talks about Zionism, he is not referring to Theodor Herzl or to the the UN's 1947 Palestine partition plan. He is not talking about what Zionism could have been or should have been. He is talking about Israel in 2020. He is referring to the political model of "Greater Israel": perpetual Israeli rule over the occupied West Bank, continuous Jewish-Israeli colonisation, and limited or no political rights for Palestinians.

Pompeo's comments came shortly after his visit to the settlement of Psagot, in the heart of the West Bank. This was the first visit to an Israeli settlement by any senior Western official. Breaking with the international legal consensus, the Trump administration no longer considers settlements illegal, and Pompeo declared that settlement products exported to the U.S. will from now on be labeled as "made in Israel." In recent years, the U.S. has also severely weakened the Palestinian Authority by cutting aid and terminating Palestinian representation in Washington, DC. All these steps signal U.S. endorsement of Israeli permanent rule over the West Bank. The campaign against "anti-Zionism as antisemitism" is much wider than BDS, and is aimed at all critics of Israel's occupation and settlement project, from Amnesty International or liberal Jewish voices.

With the demise of the Oslo peace process, the occupation has become a permanent feature in Israel's political model. The contours of this model can be seen in Israel's 2018 "Nation State Law": national self-determination rights for Jews only, ongoing Jewish settlement, downgraded status for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and no citizenship for Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank. Opposing this model— according to Israeli government and now, to its allies—is tantamount to antisemitism.

This is the latest, and most extreme version of the "New Antisemitism" philosophy: the idea that opposition to Israel is today the primary mode of antisemitism, because the Jewish State is the sovereign embodiment of the Jewish people, "the Jew among nations." If Israeli rule over the West Bank is now integral to Israel's political model, opposing it is, by definition, antisemitic. Israel's ethno-national Jewish character has to be defended, even if it means discrimination, exclusion and oppression of Palestinians. Nothing demonstrates this more than the looming appointment of Effi Eitam, a retired right-wing general, as the director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. Eitam had previously called for the expulsion of most Palestinians from the West Bank, and for the disenfranchisement of Arab citizens of Israel.

The Israel-centred approach to antisemitism marks a departure from the common understanding of antisemitism as anti-Jewish racism, involving the negative depiction, harassment, discrimination and violence against Jews as Jews. This traditional approach centres the experience of diaspora Jews as minority communities and is directly related to the historical manifestations of antisemitism. References to Israel can be antisemitic—but the test is whether they invoke familiar anti-Jewish motifs such as conspiracies of finance or hidden global control, not their position on Israel's history or political model.

To be sure, antisemitic rhetoric can found among some anti-Zionists, but it is also found among the "philosemitic" global hard right. Yet advocates of this Israeli-centred understanding of antisemitism have no qualms endorsing hard-right governments who support Israel, even when this means turning a blind eye to Hungary's antisemitic campaigns against George Soros, or excusing the Trump administration's links with white nationalism in the U.S. The Israeli government speaks the contemporary global language of exclusivist citizenship and nativist politics. It believes that the rights of Jewish diaspora communities are best protected not through safeguarding liberal citizenship in their countries, but through the existence of a strong and unchallenged Israel.

For some, this neo-Zionist Greater Israel is a logical product of the historical trajectory of Zionism. For others, it is an aberration from the true meaning of Zionism. Regardless of where one stands on this question, it is clear that the regime of Jewish-Israeli hegemony, exclusive citizenship, unequal access to resources, and ongoing colonisation of the West Bank, is a decades-long entrenched reality, not a temporary condition. Addressing the inequality, injustice and suffering this particular model engenders is not made any easier when those who reject it are in danger to be denounced not only as anti-Zionist, but also as antisemites.

The fundamental question is what we mean by antisemitism, going into the 21st century. Do we take up a diaspora-centred approach, rooted in humanism and equality before the law, centred on the protection of civic rights of Jews the world over as individual citizens and as minority communities? Or, conversely, do we embrace an Israel-centered approach, which prioritizes the defense of a neo-Zionist Greater Israel, its regime of exclusive Jewish-Israeli hegemony, and its ongoing colonisation project—all while Palestinians and other non-Jews under Israeli control are subjected to the kind of treatment we'd rally against—forcefully—if visited upon Jews abroad? The values that inform these two approaches are so diametrically opposed we simply can't have both.

Yair Wallach is Senior Lecturer in Israeli Studies at SOAS, University of London, where he is also the head of the Centre for Jewish Studies. He tweets at @YairWallach.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.