On Jan. 31, 1961, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Yaacov Herzog, 39, visited McGill University to debate famed 71-year-old British historian, Arnold Toynbee. Five days earlier, while lecturing at McGill, Toynbee had denied Israel’s right to exist while unfairly comparing Israelis to Nazis. In the ensuing debate, the older historian ultimately disavowed his comparison, while the Israeli diplomat eloquently defended the rights of Jews, like all peoples, to a homeland. Fifty-five years later, McGill’s students produced another righteous do-over, refusing to ratify an unfair, insulting student union resolution targeting Israel.
The 512 McGill students who supported the BDS movement – pushing for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions – disrespected democracy, trying to impose this destructive resolution for a third time in 18 months. In championing boycotts, they undermined bridge-builders who seek Israeli-Palestiniandialogue.
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In endorsing divestment, they encourage extremists and reward terrorism, further poisoning the atmosphere. In applauding sanctions, they failed to understand that the more you want Israeli territorial concessions and peace-processing, the less you should support demonizing boycotts. And in bullying Israel, they voted to make thousands of pro-Israel and Jewish students uncomfortable: on a campus that abhors micro-aggressions against women, blacks and LGBTQ students, they injected offensive anti-Semitism-laced macro-aggressions.
The BDS movement is dishonest. While it claims “only” to oppose Israeli settlement in the West Bank, its founding document opposes Israel’s existence. Falsely claiming, in the original 2005 call for an international boycott, that Israel “was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners,” essentially calls Israel a criminal state that should be eliminated.
This phrasing floats on a cesspool of Palestinians’ daily cries to kill the Jews and destroy the Jewish state. Most Palestinian BDSers admit that their fantasy is to destroy Israel, but most BDS campus activists hide those exterminationist intentions in a cloud of human rights rhetoric – which returns us to Herzog’s triumph over Toynbee.
BDS, Toynbee and the Red-Green, far left-Islamist alliance all stem from one historic poisonous plant. Despite Jews’ legitimate national rights, only Israel is subjected to a systematic campaign questioning its right to exist. BDSers, like Toynbee, weave any Israeli imperfections into a broader, ultimately anti-Semitic, demonization of Jewish actions – and repudiation of Jewish rights. For millennia, bigots have exaggerated criticisms of Jewish individuals or Jewish communal acts to caricature Jews as a global threat and Judaism as threatening. Today, that same hatred targets Zionism and the Jewish state. Israel is now treated as “the Jew among nations,” in the words of former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who watched Toynbee and Herzog debate as a 20-year-old McGill student.
Just as women, African-Americans, and gays endure insults today in the context of historic humiliations they suffered, today’s obsession with Israel reeks of historic Jew hatred. Anti-Semitism’s long pedigree, compounded by the Arab world’s vicious medieval expressions of anti-Jewish bigotry today, explains the anguish these repeated BDS attempts have caused so many who revere McGill as a centre of higher education, dialogue, reason and reasonableness.
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So, no, McGill’s pro-Israel voices were not overreacting by resenting the resolution’s insensitivity and bigotry. And yes, Jews take Israel personally, because it is the Jewish state built after millennia of Jewish suffering. Jews take Israel personally because most anti-Zionism echoes the historic demonization of Jews. And Jews take Israel personally because those attacking Israel usually attack Jews, too.
Kudos, then, to the McGill majority that created a broad left-right coalition, not for or against Israeli policy – that wasn’t the issue – but for a fair debate on campus, a safe space for all McGill students, and a reasonable, productive approach to campus discussion in ways that don’t demonize, polarize or marginalize. Let’s debate Israel’s actions – and others’ actions – substantively, passionately, but let’s drop the BDS BS – bullying, demonization and slander.