The Anti-Defamation League, one of North America’s most prominent Jewish advocacy agencies, has taken a stand that is at odds with the consensus position of almost all other local, national and international Jewish and Zionist organizations.
Responding to the BDS movement, which strives to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, and which is condemned by some as being founded on antisemitic premises, most Jewish organizations have stood emphatically in opposition to the movement.
Governments have also come out against BDS. The government of Canada passed a motion in Parliament in February, condemning “any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.” Just in the last year, nine U.S. states have enacted anti-BDS laws, which generally prevent state government departments and agencies from doing business with organizations that support BDS. Similar legislation may come to the U.S. Congress.
The ADL’s position, which has been slammed by the Zionist Organization of America, is that the issue comes down to free speech.
“A decision by a private body to boycott Israel, as despicable as it may be, is protected by our Constitution,” wrote Abraham Foxman last year, when he was the national director of the ADL. “Perhaps in Europe, where hate speech laws exist and are acceptable within their own legal frameworks, such bills could be sustained. But not here in America.”
There is no question that the American political tradition falls very heavily on individual rights and free expression. Canadian and European approaches tend to balance individual and group rights. Free speech, sacrosanct in American constitutionalism, is limited by law in some cases in Canada and other democracies if it is seen to possibly incite hatred against individuals or groups.
The United States has its unique constitutional history and relationship with free expression and the Jewish organizations in that country can be left to argue these issues among themselves. As Canadians, we would contend that, in fact, countering the BDS boycotters by boycotting them is not an infringement on free expression, but rather an entirely logical extension of it.
When the House of Commons passed the anti-BDS motion last winter, it was an expression by members of the House that the movement was founded on ideas that are selective, misguided and potentially discriminatory. The motion did nothing whatsoever to legally forbid those ideas and their promulgation. They merely condemned them.
The idea that state or other governments would forbid their departments and agencies from investing in or doing business with organizations that promote BDS may seem heavy-handed. A government is not the same thing as a business or a church. People can quit a church or disagree with the policies of the business by voting with their dollars. A government represents all of its people. But governments also, by definition, must take stands on the issues of the day. By rejecting the BDS movement, governments are doing precisely that. Voters will have the opportunity to endorse or repudiate those positions at the time of the next election.
Boycotting the boycotters, which is effectively what nine U.S. states have chosen to do, is fair game. We have made the case before in this space that one person’s free speech does not erase that of another person. When an individual or group expresses an ugly idea, in a democracy, it does not abrogate their rights if another individual or group speaks up to condemn the ugly idea.
Whether legislation against BDS is the most effective means of combating BDS is open to debate.
Foxman argued that education, lobbying or persuasion may be the more effective long-term strategy. In our view, legislation and education need not be mutually exclusive.