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July 28, 2019 11:01 pm

‘Is BDS Anti-Semitic?’ The New York Times Inquires

avatar by Ira Stoll


The New York Times logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times devotes a full page in its Sunday newspaper to a deeply flawed look at the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel.

Given all the advance work that usually goes into a long Sunday feature, you’d think the Times could be troubled to get the facts right the first time around. Yet by Sunday morning, the Times article already carried a two part correction: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the status of legislation in Ireland concerning goods produced by Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Ireland has advanced legislation to ban the import of those goods, it has not banned them. Also, the article misstated the status of Omar Barghouti, a B.D.S. spokesman. He is a Palestinian resident of Israel, not a citizen.”

That correction, though, only scratches the surface in terms of the problems with the Times article, which extend well beyond the errors that were corrected.

The so-far-uncorrected problems begin with first sentence, which claims, “In a matter of months, a campaign to boycott Israel has moved from the margins of politics — liberal college campuses and protest marches — to Congress.” Yet the overwhelming Congressional vote was to condemn the BDS campaign, indicating that the campaign remains marginal. And, far from being a recent phenomenon as the phrase “a matter of months” indicates, the effort to boycott Israel, and Jews, dates back to before Israel even existed. Laws forbidding American companies from cooperating with such boycotts were passed in 1976 and 1977, a fact the Times almost invariably ignores in its coverage attempting to hype the boycott as some sort of innovative, new, or recent development.

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In a section headed, “Who Is Behind It?” The Times article claims that BDS “appeals to those, including a significant number of politically liberal Jews, who are frustrated by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the blockade and frequent bloodshed in Gaza.” That was a clumsily worded sentence that could have used an editor. It can be interpreted two different ways. One way is accurate: it is true that a significant number of politically liberal Jews are frustrated by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Even some politically conservative Jews are frustrated by it. It is indeed frustrating, though if there’s an immediate better alternative, the Israeli electorate has yet to be convinced of it. But it’s also possible to read the Times as claiming something inaccurate: that the BDS movement is backed by “a significant number of politically liberal Jews.” That is misleading, because there’s no evidence to indicate that “a significant number of politically liberal Jews” support the movement to boycott, divest, or sanction Israel. The Times doesn’t define “significant” or provide any evidence to support the claim that the BDS movement has significant Jewish backing. It’s also misleading to refer to “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank” without letting readers on to the fact that Palestinian Arabs in much of that territory exercise self-rule to a significant degree.

The Times article appears under the online headline “Is B.D.S. Anti-Semitic? A Closer Look at the Boycott Israel Campaign.” In print, the headline is the more innocuous, “A Look at the International Drive to Boycott Israel.”

It’s often a bad sign when an article fails to answer the question in the headline. The Times waffles. In a section headed, “Is B.D.S. anti-Semitic?” the article reports,Leaders of B.D.S. insist that it is not anti-Semitic… But many Israelis and American Jews say it is.” That’s not particularly helpful. In a different section, the Times article does eventually concede, “There is some overlap between support for B.D.S. and anti-Semitism.” What a coincidence!

Another unsatisfactorily answered question in the Times article is, “Is there a link between the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and B.D.S.?” The Times reports,

Anti-Semitism has increased in Europe because of numerous factors, including globalization, populism, loss of national identity and the perceived oppression of Palestinians by Israel. A growing Muslim minority, mostly from North Africa, has viewed Israeli policies toward the Palestinians as anti-Muslim, leading many to support B.D.S.

This is actually so confused it approaches being funny — the Times blaming “loss of national identity” for anti-Semitism. In America, the Times blames nationalism for antisemitism, so it’s a bit jarring, or at least confusing, for the Times to blame “loss of national identity” and “globalization” rather than “resurgent nationalism” for antisemitism. Should one oppose globalization on the grounds that it would reduce antisemitism? The Times has previously told us that using “globalist” as code for Jews is a sign of antisemitism, yet here the paper is earnestly explaining that globalization contributes to antisemitism. In addition, plenty of Europeans and Muslims had antisemitic attitudes well before any “Israeli policies,” leading many Jews, including myself, to conclude that the antisemitism has nothing to do with “Israeli policies.” The whole Times take on this question veers perilously close to blaming the Jews, rather than the antisemites, for the antisemitism.

For an effort that seems designed to explain the issue to Times readers, the whole project amounts to a disappointment, offering lots of questions but few answers. When it comes to the underlying issues, it confuses more than clarifies. It does serve to clarify, though, that the Times is an unreliable guide on these topics.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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