The narrative surrounding the mere mention of Israel has becomes so toxic that BDS – the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – has managed to position itself as the enlightened, progressive, just and virtuous solution to the intractable Israel-Palestine problem. That is, you agitate politically and amass economic pressure on Israel to end ‘occupation’ of the West Bank and ‘free Palestine’, or they demand that we all boycott Israeli goods, divest ourselves of assets and impose trade or travel sanctions of the sort meted out to apartheid South Africa, to which the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is often compared.
BDS supporters campaigned to have Israel expelled from FIFA, as though its footballers and ‘La Familia’ are responsible for the abduction and lynching of Palestinian teenagers. Hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill has just cancelled a planned concert, because “the presence of artists is routinely used by Israel to legitimize its policies and maintain its reputation as a normal member of the international community”. And now Ken Loach is calling on London cinemas to boycott Israeli films, and “not to accept money from a state that has blood on its hands”, as though its actors and directors are responsible for the lack of progress on a two-state solution. If Tesco stops selling Jaffa oranges, it is because their shelves are being routinely vandalised and ‘health and safety’ trumps retail choice.
You can still buy your ‘Made in China’ iPod, despite their treatment of Tibet, its appalling record on human rights, the routine jailing of dissidents and execrable cruelty toward animals. You can still enjoy contemporary Iranian art, despite their flogging of bloggers, jailing of Christian pastors and daily subjection of women to sub-human levels of degradation. Don’t mention the Palestinian treatment of Jews, gays or Christians, by the way, at the hands of (inter alia) the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. The BDS movements doesn’t care: their hate is reserved exclusively for Israel, which some BDS-ers desire to de-legitimise to the extent of eradication. It is not peace or justice they seek, but the end of Zionism and the expulsion of Jews from their homeland. In this, they are the Islamists’ greatest ally.
To call BDS ‘anti-Semitic’ is routinely met with a tedious riposte along the lines of “So, criticising Israel or opposing Netanyahu is anti-Semitic, is it?” And the patient response is blown aside by the fierce spittle of unreason. Of course you can criticise the Israeli government, and of course you are free to campaign for the liberation of the oppressed. But to single out the democratic Jewish State for ‘special treatment’ when so many other nations of the world are far worse is shameless anti-Semitism. And then to rail against that allegation with a pompous charge of ‘whataboutery’ is to de-legitimise the basis of comparative debate and rational philosophy.
The former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks gave a speech earlier this week at the Herzliya Conference, entitled ‘Islam and BDS in Europe: a strategic threat?’. He pointed out that unlike the anti-Semitic pogroms of centuries past, the BDS campaign is succeeding in its objectives. “Israel was always a uniting factor in Jewish life; it has become a divisive factor,” he explained. The BDS movement has made it “almost impossible” for Jews living in Europe to support Israel: “Jews have been faced with a choice: live in Europe and criticise Israel or be silent, or leave Europe,” he said.
And he placed the BDS movement in ‘blood libel’ perspective on a historic continuum: “In the middle ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were hated because of their race. In the twenty first century, they are hated because of their nation state. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism,” he said.
The status of Jews and the land of Israel in God’s design may well be a matter of controversy: it has been so since St Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans. But we must not forget that the gospel of Christ is ‘the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16). We so easily forget that the Church came out of the Synagogue: Christians were grafted in to the Jewish vine of salvation.
“If Israel is thoroughly isolated, it too will be seen to be defenseless, and that will be very dangerous indeed,” Lord Sacks said. “Jews have for far, far too long defined themselves as Am Levadad Yishkon, a people that dwells alone. If believed for long enough, it becomes a self-justifying prediction.” The solution, he avers, is for Jews to make it clear to us all that if Europe “is not safe for Jews, it is not safe for Europeans”; that “if Europe loses its Jews, it will have lost its freedom”. And he invoked a familiar spectre: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with them… We must not be left to fight this battle alone.”
The evil of the de-legitimisation of Israel is that it isolates the only democracy and persecutes the only free people in the Middle East. BDS casts Israel as villain and Palestine as hero, when theologically and politically it is much more nuanced. God has not rejected His people: ‘And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins‘ (Rom 11:26f). The Sinai covenant remains soteriologically valid: you may repudiate Israel, but God is true and faithful.
If the past century has taught us anything at all, it is that our failure to confront anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism has tragic consequences. How Christians should regard Israel and the Jews should be a central ethical issue; not one shunted to the periphery by church obsessions about gender and sexuality. If you think the Nazis were bad, try living under the reign of terror of the Islamic State. We may yet live to see another holocaust.