1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Israel and BDS: The boycott dividing the West

Matthias von Hein
September 7, 2018

A boycott campaign to champion Palestinian rights is polarizing public opinion in the West, and Germany is no exception. It has sparked a debate about where criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins.

BDS demo in Berlin
Image: Imago/S. Zeitz

How political are art and artists allowed to be? This summer, the Ruhrtriennale in Bochum and Berlin's Pop-Kultur festival showed that questions like this can turn a cultural event into a political minefield.

In Bochum, the rap trio Young Fathers sparked controversy for their open support of the Israel-critical movement Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). Meanwhile, artists from all over the world declined to take part in the festival in Berlin because the Israeli Embassy was one of its financial backers. Here, too, the international activists' campaign BDS got involved.

BDS is a pro-Palestinian network campaigning for a political, cultural and economic boycott of Israel. It denounces the country as a human rights abuser.

A question often at the heart of the debate surrounding BDS is: At what point does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitism? For Germany, the country that perpetrated the Holocaust, this question is an especially difficult one.

BDS campaign gathers pace

In 2005, more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations came together to call for "boycott, divestment and sanctions" against Israel. At this point, a dozen years had passed since the signing of the Oslo peace agreement — years in which the Palestinians had seen no progress at all. Instead, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories had almost doubled, to just under 500,000.

According to the BDS website, the boycott aims to exert "non-violent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:" the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, full equality for its Arab-Palestinian citizens, and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948. The last demand is especially politically explosive, despite being backed by UN Resolution 194. Critics say the demand for a comprehensive right of return jeopardizes Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Israel Unabhängigkeitskrieg1948 flüchtende Palästinenser
More than 700,000 Palestinians were forceably displaced from their homeland during the 1948 war over Israel's foundationImage: picture-alliance/CPA Media

After a slow start, BDS is now having a noticeable effect. In 2014 the biggest Dutch pension provider, PGGM, took eight-figure sums out of Israeli banks. And as early as 2011 a subsidiary of Germany's state rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, withdrew at the planning stage from a new, €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) stretch of railway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv because it had been routed in part through occupied territory. SodaStream, the manufacturer of fizzy-drink machines, in 2015 moved its factory from a settlement in the occupied West Bank to Israel proper. The BDS movement said SodaStream caved to boycott pressure, while the beverage company said the relocation was a financial decision.

Read more: 70 years of Nakba: The ongoing struggle of Palestinian refugees

On its website BDS demands that Israel be excluded from international organizations, ranging from the United Nations to sports associations such as world football's governing body, FIFA. Artists are called upon not to perform in Israel or take part in events that Israel has sponsored. Academic exchange is also affected. One prominent example was the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who died in March of this year. In 2013, he canceled an appearance as a guest of honor at the Facing Tomorrow conference in Israel. Hawking had previously been strongly critical of Israel's "completely disproportionate reaction to the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip" during the 2009 war there.

The BDS campaign is now active worldwide as a loosely coordinated network of groups and individuals. Beneath the large umbrella of this group you can find a very broad spectrum of positions, ranging from the differentiated, pacifist, and ready to compromise, to the radically polarizing. But are some of them also anti-Semitic?

Bundestag against BDS

In Germany, anti-Semitism paved the way for to the Holocaust. Ten years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel described Israel's security as part of Germany's reason of state. This year the German Parliament passed two resolutions in which the BDS movement was explicitly condemned. Its Anti-Semitism Resolution called upon the government:

"…to decisively oppose the worldwide movement 'Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions.' The German Bundestag strongly condemns the call for a boycott of Israeli businesses and goods as well as the labelling of goods from Israel with 'Don't Buy' signs. It is the task of the independent judiciary to examine the extent to which a boycott contributes to the commission of statutory offenses such as incitement of the people and, if applicable, to impose appropriate penalties on the perpetrators."

Furthermore, in its resolution the Bundestag emphasizes that it takes the view that anti-Semitism also includes all "anti-Semitic remarks and attacks formulated as supposed criticism of the politics of the state of Israel."

In May, the German government appointed career diplomat Felix Klein as its commissioner for anti-Semitism. "The BDS must be classified as anti-Semitic in both its aims and its methods, as Israeli citizens are collectively held hostage by the boycott," he told DW. "And its methods have clearly borrowed from deplorable Nazi rhetoric: 'Don't buy from Jews.'"

'Zero tolerance for anti-Semitism'

In an interview with DW, the spokesman of the BDS group in Bonn, George Rashmawi, rejected this accusation. "The Palestinians' activities are not directed against Jews as Jews," he said. "They would not behave any differently if the occupiers were Christians or Buddhists." In an e-mail to DW on July 30, the co-founder of BDS, Omar Barghouti, also referred to what he described as the decidedly anti-racist character of the movement: "BDS is anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as such categorically opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. Jewish support for BDS or for the right to BDS is growing impressively around the world."

Presenting itself as a human rights campaign does indeed make BDS acceptable to many Jews. Most recently, in mid-July, more than 40 left-leaning Jewish organizations from all over the world signed an open letter calling on people not to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and specifically defended the BDS campaign.

Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, believes there is a "certain sensitivity" in Germany around the issue of anti-Semitism. "That's understandable. And I'm certainly not going to criticize that," he told DW. "But in my view the leitmotiv of the BDS movement is justice for the Palestinians and an end to the occupation." It's true, Primor says, that there are loud anti-Semitic voices among the ranks of BDS. "But these represent neither the official politics of the movement nor the opinion of the majority of its members."

BDS has sparked a battle for interpretive authority and moral superiority that is making the Israeli government nervous. In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described BDS as "the greatest threat currently facing Israel," and warned his Cabinet: "We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name."

This warning was followed by actions, including the provision of additional funds to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which has been entrusted with the fight against BDS. Minister Gilad Erdan explained that they were moving "from the defensive to the offensive."

Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu has described BDS as 'the greatest threat currently facing Israel'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kahana

"The most dangerous thing that could happen to Israel is nonviolent resistance," says Iris Hefets when explaining the way Netanyahu's government has reacted to BDS. Hefets, an Israeli Jew, is on the board of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, a German organization that supports BDS.

"This is the first time the Israeli government has encountered a movement over which it has no influence — and which is gaining in popularity," she told DW. "It's about thought, about ideas. It's about people who see an injustice, who discover their power and do something about it. What can Israel do about it? Nothing! Apart from totalitarian attempts to prevent it, and to influence politics."


For Hefets, this included the closure of her organization's account at a German bank. A journalist from the Jerusalem Post had contacted the institution and said that the account belonged to an "anti-Semitic group." It was the first closure of an account in Germany belonging to a Jewish organization since World War II.

The move left Hefets outraged. "To receive this notification of the closure of our account, to experience that as a Jew in Germany, was extremely unpleasant," she says. "But it's not a threat to us. We only work with volunteers, and we finance ourselves through member subscriptions and donations. Despite our limited means, we've managed to reopen the account. Because a lot of small organizations and people from civil society stood up for us and said: If the Jewish Voice doesn't get its bank account back, we will leave the bank as well."

Read more: Should Germany snub artists who boycott Israel?

Save Israel — Stop the Occupation co-founder Nirit Sommerfeld, a Jewish actress and singer who was born in Israel and grew up in Germany, says she often faces resistance to her work even though she not affiliated with BDS. "Wherever I'm due to perform or have been invited, prominent members of the Jewish community in Munich write asking them to please uninvite me," she says. "In Munich I've now been uninvited four times, or not invited in the first place."

"I'm constantly being associated with [BDS]. The accusation that I'm a BDS activist even appeared in a Wikipedia entry about me, written by someone or other without my knowledge. At the top [of the entry] the only activity on there was that I was supposedly involved with the 'anti-Zionist BDS movement,' which is quite simply a lie," she explains. "But I have absolutely no desire to have to distance myself from BDS. Because I don't think BDS is either anti-Semitic or criminal in any other respect. I think that, in principle, it's totally legitimate for people to want to exert economic pressure through boycotts and sanctions."

Anti-Semitism is seen as a particularly despicable form of racism, which is why its definition is considered so important. The German government has adopted the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), according to which "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. … Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity."

Read more: Anti-Semitism on the rise? Western European Jews think so

Klein, Germany's anti-Semitism commissioner, provides a correspondingly subtle differentiation:

"If, for example, the EU decides  despite Germany's opposition  to put special labels on products that come from settlements disputed under international law, personally I don't think that's a good thing, but I wouldn't describe it as anti-Semitic per se. I'm also surprised that something like this is only politicized in this way in the case of Israel. As far as I'm aware there's no campaign to put special labels on goods produced, for example, in Crimea, which is disputed under international law.

The BDS movement's call for a boycott is so all-encompassing. It's saying: 'We want to isolate Israel in all areas – culture, economy, politics, sport.' In my view, this radicality means that all Israeli citizens are stigmatized. And I see this radicality as anti-Semitic."

Subtle differentiation from apartheid

On the BDS website it says the movement was inspired by the fight against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. The use of the term "apartheid" has sparked a particularly bitter debate. In July 2017, for example, the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak explained in an interview with DW that Israel was on the brink of a "slippery slope towards apartheid." Klein believes that such a comment is "politically absolutely correct," because Barak is not the only one with concerns about Israeli settlement policy.

"Everyone knows what's meant by 'slippery slope towards apartheid.' And it's not anti-Semitic per se," he says, though cautions: "If you say that Israel is an apartheid state, then to my mind a red line has been crossed."

Barak: 'I'm not happy with any human life lost'

Berlin's star conductor Daniel Barenboim overstepped what Klein calls a "red line" very publicly at the end of July when he commented on Israel's new nation-state law. The law says that "the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people." Barenboim wrote an opinion piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on July 22 in which he said: "We have a law that confirms the Arab population as second-class citizens. It follows that this is a very clear form of apartheid." He ended the piece with the sentence: "Therefore, I am ashamed of being an Israeli today."

In dealing with Israel, Horst Teltschik, a close confidant of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and chairman of the Munich Security Conference for almost a decade, advises taking a cautious approach. "Criticism of Israeli policy has to be very level-headed and very well grounded in reality," he said. "You must be sure to be extremely well-informed."

"But this cannot mean that, in order to escape the accusation of anti-Semitism, you deem everything the Israeli government decides — the current government in particular — to be right and good," Teltschik continued. Germany cannot not be indifferent to the Israeli government's decisions, because, among other things, he explained, this was not in its own basic interest: "The volatility of the Near and Middle Eastern region is such that it also impacts directly on peace and security in Europe."

And, as we have seen in Bochum and Berlin, it also impacts directly on social peace in Germany.