The claims made by Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang in a recent op-ed in the Jewish weekly The Forward, point to the prevailing ignorance that continues to dominate the US discourse on Palestine and Israel. Yang is a former Democratic Presidential candidate and is vying for the Jewish vote in New York City.
According to the reductionist assumption that all Jews must naturally support Israel and Zionism, Yang constructed an argument that is based entirely on a tired and false mantra equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. His pro-Israel logic is not only unfounded, but also confused.
“A Yang administration will push back against the BDS movement which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment,” he wrote, referring to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Shamelessly, Yang compared BDS to the “fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses”, most likely a reference to the infamous Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany, starting in April 1933.
Not only does Yang fail to construct his argument in any historically defensible fashion, but he also claims that BDS is “rooted in anti-Semitic thought and history.” The concept of BDS is indeed rooted in history, but not that of Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism. It goes back to the Palestinian General Strike of 1936, when the Palestinian Arab population took collective action to hold colonial Britain accountable for its unfair and violent treatment of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Colonial Britain backed the political aspirations of European Zionists who wanted to establish a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine.
Sadly, the efforts of the indigenous Palestinians failed, and the State of Israel became a reality in 1948; nearly one million Palestinian refugees were uprooted and ethnically cleansed as a result of a violent and very deliberate Zionist campaign, the aftershocks of which continue to this day. Israel’s ongoing military occupation and apartheid are all rooted in that tragic history.
This is the reality that the boycott movement is trying to change. No anti-Semitic, Nazi or — according to Yang’s ahistorical account — “fascist” love affair is at work here; just a beleaguered and oppressed nation struggling for its most basic and legitimate rights.
Yang’s ignorant and self-serving comments were duly answered appropriately by many anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals and other activists across the US and around the world. Alex Kane, a writer in Jewish Currents, for example, tweeted that Yang made “a messed up, wrong comparison”, and that the politician “comes across as deeply ignorant about Palestine, Palestinians and BDS.” US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) added their voices to numerous others, all pointing to Yang’s opportunism, lack of understanding of history and distorted logic.
However, this goes beyond Yang, as the debate over BDS in the US is almost entirely rooted in fallacious comparisons and ignorance, of history and much else. Those who had hoped that the unceremonious end of the Donald Trump Administration would bring about a measure of justice for the Palestinian people will surely be disappointed, as the American discourse on Palestine and Israel rarely changes, regardless of which president is in the White House and what political party dominates Congress.
Hence, reducing the boycott debate to Yang’s confused account of history and reality is, in itself, a reductionist understanding of US politics. Indeed, similar language was used by President Joe Biden’s nominee for America’s UN envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, during her confirmation hearing at the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on 27 January7. Like Yang, Thomas-Greenfield conflates legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and its apartheid policies with racism. Boycotting Israel is “unacceptable” and “verges on anti-Semitism,” she told Senators.
The presumptive envoy supported the return of the US to the Human Rights Council, UNESCO and other UN-affiliated organisations. Her reasoning for such a move, though, is merely to ensure that Washington has a place “at the table” so that it may monitor and discourage any criticism of Israel.
Yang, Thomas-Greenfield and others perpetuate such inaccurate comparisons with full confidence that they have strong support among the country’s ruling elites from the two dominant political parties. They do. Moreover, according to the latest count produced by the pro-Israel Jewish Virtual Library website, “32 [US] states have adopted laws, executive orders or resolutions that are designed to discourage boycotts against Israel.”
In fact, the criminalisation of the entirely peaceful boycott movement has taken centre stage of the federal government in Washington DC. Anti-boycott legislation was passed with overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in recent years and more is expected to follow.
The popularity of such measures prompted former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to declare the Israel boycott movement to be anti-Semitic. Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the illegal settlement of Psagot in November, Pompeo described BDS as “a cancer”.
While Pompeo’s position is unsurprising, as members of minority groups that have suffered immense racism and discrimination, it behoves Yang and Thomas-Greenfield to brush up on the history of popular boycott movements in their own country. The boycott weapon was a very effective platform to translate political dissent into tangible achievements for oppressed Black people in the heyday of the US civil rights movement in the mid-20th century. Arguably the most memorable and consequential of these boycotts was the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.
Moreover, beyond America, numerous volumes have been written about how the boycott of the White supremacist apartheid government in South Africa ignited a global movement which, combined with the sacrifices of non-white South Africans, brought apartheid to an end in the early 1990s.
The Palestinian people do not learn history from Yang and others, but from the collective experiences of oppressed peoples and nations around the world. They are guided by the wisdom of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The boycott movement aims to hold the oppressor colonial state of Israel accountable as it places a price tag on its military occupation and apartheid. Not only is the Palestinian boycott movement not racist, but it is essentially an anti-racist rallying cry against oppression.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.