NEW YORK — Soon after the first round of religious-based hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims, something unexpected happened: Muslims started raising money to help fix damaged Jewish institutions. Elsewhere, Muslim veterans offered to stand sentinel at cemeteries, and Jews raised money to repair mosques damaged in arson attacks.
For many, the support heralded a new era of welcome increased cooperation. But the thorn in this rosy scenario is that some of those who are helping Jewish communities are also vocal supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). A movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel, BDS targets Jewish groups and students, often using inflammatory language, and hosts Israel Apartheid Weeks on campuses across the United States.
Far from a marginal concern, BDS is perhaps “the” hot-button issue among pro-Israel advocates and on March 29, Jewish leaders from across the Diaspora will gather to discuss it during the Israeli Mission to the UN’s third-annual “Ambassadors Against BDS” conference. It is therefore no surprise that when BDS-supporters condemn hate crimes against Jews, the community looks askance.
The issue of blurring BDS boundaries recently took on more resonance after Linda Sarsour, former executive director of the Arab-American Association and a strident BDS supporter, initiated an online fundraising campaign to repair the desecrated Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. Sarsour and her Muslim activist colleagues raised nearly $150,000 towards the repairs.
CAIR, another group that supports BDS, also donated $5,000 to the cemetery repair effort. It declined to comment for this story.
A controversial figure, Sarsour (who didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview) once posed for a photo with a former Hamas operative. She often uses the hashtags #BDS and #FreePalestine on her tweets and once tweeted that “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.”
Of course, said journalist Ben Cohen, the majority of the people contributing to the fundraising effort didn’t know of Sarsour’s connection. Cohen is the director of coalitions at The Israel Project, a non-partisan pro-Israel American educational organization, and senior editor at The Tower Magazine.
On Sarsour’s suspected motives, Cohen wrote in a February oped, “It is easy, after all, to be empathetic and kind to dead Jews and their memories, whether in Poland or Missouri — and far harder to deal with the ones who are still alive, and who regard Sarsour’s ‘one state of Palestine’ fantasies as sinister code for a solution that would need to be imposed, in all likelihood through violent conquest, on the Jews of Israel.”
As Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder StandWithUs, a 15-year-old international Israel education organization, said in a statement to The Times of Israel, a healthy dose of skepticism is required when viewing this “support.”
“We are deeply grateful for the support Muslims and others have given to Jewish communities in this time of rising anti-Semitism around the country. That said, we remain deeply opposed to Linda Sarsour’s personal political agenda against Israel, her vicious attacks against other women, and other troubling statements she has made,” Rothstein said.
“We would be similarly skeptical of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which seek to deny Jewish people the right to self-determination, running high profile campaigns in response to individual acts of anti-Semitism. We believe in seeking out and welcoming partnerships with diverse communities, while remaining vigilant against disingenuous attempts to legitimize hate.”
Even so, Sarsour’s involvement as a coordinator of the January 21 Women’s March in Washington DC and her fundraising campaign action earned her praise from progressive Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles. Following January’s march, Brous wrote in an opinion piece that she believes coalition building takes precedence over everything.
In the Jewish Journal oped, Brous wrote, “That we disagree does not disqualify her as a serious activist and leader, nor does it tarnish or diminish the outstanding work she is doing as an organizer fighting racial and gender injustice.” (Brous also didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
How BDS boundaries are blurred
The Israel Project’s Cohen said that it’s not possible to leave BDS and the issue of Israel and Palestine out of the equation when looking at who is “supporting” the Jewish community — and why.
As he wrote in a recent column, “Can the enemies of Israel be, at the same time, the friends of Jewish communities outside the Jewish state? Conversely, do friends of Israel get a pass when they play down or outright deny the presence of anti-Semites among their political allies?”
In speaking with The Times of Israel, Cohen said it’s very important not to assume any overlap between Muslims and BDS when it comes to joining forces with the Jewish community.
“However, the issue of BDS activism is something very different in my mind. At its core its goal is genocidal. I know that sounds bombastic, but no nation voluntarily commits suicide or votes to dissolve itself. At its core it’s anti-Semitic,” he said.
Because of that, he said any aid offered by someone such as Sarsour should be rejected.
“While you are explicitly wedded to the goal of destroying the Jewish state… something that is making life materially worse for Jewish students on campus, we don’t want to have anything to do with you,” Cohen said.
During the first half of 2016, there were nearly 100 more anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses as compared with the same time period in 2015, according to AMCHA Initiative, which attempts to safeguard the civil rights of Jewish students.
The non-profit organization works to investigate, document and combat anti-Semitism at US colleges and universities. Its online “swastika tracker” monitors the appearance of neo-Nazi graffiti and flyers on campus.
According to its most recent study there were 287 incidents involving either targeting of Jewish students for harm, anti-Semitic expression, BDS activity, or some combination of these in 2016 at the schools most popular with Jewish students. The universities with the highest number of incidents were Columbia University, Vassar College and University of Chicago.
Additionally, the number of incidents opposing Israel’s right to exist nearly tripled from 2015 to 2016 and was highly correlated with behavior that targeted Jewish students for harm.
Of course there are some organizations that don’t see the issue in black and white, and hope that increased engagement might ultimately shift the views of those who support BDS.
For example, while the National Council of Jewish Women solidly opposes BDS, it does welcome support from interfaith partners.
“If there is a beacon of light in the waves of darkness, it is that Jewish communities across the country have seen an outpouring of support from the American Muslim community in the form of thousands of dollars raised to repair vandalized cemeteries and strong statements against anti-Semitic threats to our community centers,” said Nancy K. Kaufman, president and CEO of the NCJW.
However, said a source close to the issue, perhaps that best course of action is for Jewish groups simply to thank groups who lent a helping hand — without becoming part of their public relations machine.