Palestinian rights activists are pushing back against a conservative definition of antisemitism being used to criminalize the BDS movement.

by Shane Burley, Waging Nonviolence

Despite conservatives in America feigning their undying support for “free speech,” when it comes to Israel, those convictions often vanish when it comes to even mild criticism of Israel. A recent Texas state bill was introduced that, among other things, barred any worker or company on a public sector contract from supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement’s efforts to confront Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The Texas law was overturned after an engineering firm contracting with the City of Houston said that such a declaration violated its speech rights, but it was just one of dozens of bills across the country all meant to undermine the BDS movement.

Pro-Palestine protesters hold a rally in New York City during fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip

BDS is a nonviolent campaign started by Palestinian activists to pressure Israel into addressing the mistreatment of Palestinians and ending the occupation of the West Bank. BDS quickly became one of the most controversial issues on the American left as Palestian solidarity activists began lobbying civic, religious and educational organizations to pass resolutions divesting from Israeli companies and endorsing the boycotts in the mid-2000s. Opponents of BDS say that this is the latest incarnation of an age-old antisemitic campaign against Jews (often termed “new antisemitism”), and they compare it to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish goods.

To many on the outside of the issue, it may seem hyperbolic to suggest that boycotting a sovereign state is akin to anti-Jewish prejudice, but anti-BDS organizations are pointing to a particular definition of antisemitism. Called the “Working Definition” for Antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, the definition proposes consensus language for what is, and is not, antisemitism.

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