At a recent forum of McGill’s Task Force on Respect and Inclusion, Associate Professor Laila Parsons defended the existence of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel at McGill. Parsons claimed that “BDS is a normal method of activism, [and] the University’s condemnation of the BDS [movement] exacerbated the tensions,” referring to the ongoing debate surrounding the BDS movement. Her characterization of BDS is more than just plain wrong. Parsons fails to recognize the ways in which BDS and anti-Semitism intersect—a phenomenon that is particularly evident at McGill.
BDS activism at McGill has long been a vehicle for anti-Semitic vitriol. In 2015, even before the McGill BDS Action Network was formed, The McGill Daily was forced to apologize when one of their BDS-supporting editors objectified Jewish students based on their religious garb by tweeting about “sitting in a section of kippas” at a General Assembly vote on BDS.
To borrow Parsons’ words, tensions were truly exacerbated last year. On Feb. 6, 2017, Igor Sadikov, a BDS Action Network member and then-SSMU councillor and director, tweeted a violent threat against Zionists. At a subsequent Legislative Council meeting, Sadikov openly questioned if Jews constituted an ethno-religious group.
Sadikov’s tweets and comments are unequivocally anti-Semitic. I have argued that, at this juncture, the smart move for BDS supporters would have been to condemn and distance themselves from Sadikov. Instead, BDS supporters celebrated Sadikov with increased fervour. They threw the full weight of their movement behind him. They lined up to defend Sadikov because they shared his views: If they let Sadikov go down, BDS activists would go down with him.
To understand this point, it is important to place BDS in the larger context of the long, violent, and ever-changing foundations of anti-Semitism. John-Paul Pagano, a Brooklyn-based writer with a specialty in the foundations of anti-Semitism, points out that anti-Semitism is, at its core, a “conspiracy theory about the maleficent Jewish elite.” Unlike other forms of racism, anti-Semitism “punches up.” It views Jews not as inferior beings to be dominated, but as an all-powerful group that dominates non-Jews. Pagano finds this common thread in all instances anti-Semitism, regardless of the philosophical movement, time period, or geographical location.
This conception makes it dangerously easy for anti-Semitism to seep into modern leftist activism: Because anti-Semitism is based on a conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful overlords, the necessary conclusion is that the non-Jews should resist them. Thus, as Pagano puts it, it is “easy to disguise [anti-Semitism] as a politics of liberation, or at least, to embed anti-Semitism quietly in efforts for social justice,” because anti-Semitism enables the conflation of Jews writ-large with an all-powerful group of oppressors. As a result, BDS campaigns have become mired in anti-Semitism across Canada, where pro-BDS students derailed a vote to commemorate the Holocaust; in the United States, where a BDS vote was strategically scheduled on the Jewish holiday of Passover, when most Jewish students couldn’t attend; and in Europe, where Jewish students face anti-Semitic slurs and are forced out from campus clubs.
Last semester’s “Democratize SSMU” debacle is a perfect example of anti-Semitism rearing its head within pro-BDS activism. The group was forced to apologize for the blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric in its campaign against ratifying several SSMU Board of Directors members with perceived ties to Jewish groups. The material in question has been conveniently deleted, but in its apology, Democratize SSMU expressed its remorse for “tropes of Jewish people as corrupt and politically powerful.” These are more than “tropes.” They are textbook anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. As Pagano’s analysis reveals, this is a way of thinking inherent to Jew-hatred.
To this day, despite the one-off, half-baked non-apologies, McGill BDS supporters have refused to reckon with their movement’s vile anti-Semitic undercurrent. They steadfastly believe in the nobility of their project. They are fighting for the little guy. They are anti-imperialists. They can do no wrong. Any criticism is merely an attempt by powerful groups to silence them and pro-Palestine advocacy. But, BDS’ mission to support the rights of Palestinians has fallen by the wayside. In reality, the noble BDS crusade at McGill has served only to target Jews.
Sadly, Parsons’ comments fall within this same pattern of anti-Semitism apologia: Proclaim the absolute innocence of BDS, and blame anyone but yourself for the harm done to countless Zionist and Jewish students. Until they reckon with the mess they’ve caused, BDS activists don’t deserve space to spread anti-Semitism—at McGill, or anywhere. Faculty members like Associate Professor Parsons who defend BDS are complicit in this hatred.