Defenders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel like to claim that efforts to oppose the virulent campaign stifle their right to free speech. This talking point—that supporting the BDS movement is a legitimate expression of free speech, and those who seek legal steps against it are infringing on a fundamental right—has become all too common, especially on the political left. Anti-Israel activists use this argument, as do Democrats in Congress to assail bills that would combat the BDS movement.
Michelle Goldberg makes the same case in her latest column in the New York Times, titled "Anti-Zionists Deserve Free Speech: The Trump administration bars a critic of Israel from America." Goldberg discusses the latest controversy surrounding Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement. Last week, the U.S. government denied entry to Barghouti, a permanent resident of Israel who, despite having valid travel documents, was barred from boarding a flight to New York for a multi-city speaking tour in the United States. Airline staff at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport informed Barghouti that American officials said he could not fly to the United States, telling him it was an "immigration matter."
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In her column, Goldberg explains that "the American right has presented itself as a champion of free expression," and quotes President Trump as saying, "People who are confident in their beliefs do not censor others."
"If that last line is true—and, uncharacteristically for Trump, I think it is—it says something about the insecurity of Israel's defenders," Goldberg writes. "There have indeed been illiberal attempts to silence conservative voices on college campuses, but they pale beside the assault on pro-Palestinian speech, particularly speech calling for an economic boycott of Israel."
Goldberg then argues that no other topic has been subject to more restrictions on speech. "What are pro-Israel forces afraid of?" she asks. "The BDS movement doesn't engage in or promote violence. Its leaders make an effort to separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism."
Goldberg goes on to say that the American government cannot claim a commitment to free speech because it is preventing Americans from engaging with Barghouti's views, before again attacking pro-Israel voices. "Ultimately, Barghouti threatens Israel's American defenders not because he's hateful, but because he isn't," she writes, adding that these defenders seem scared to test their ideas in public.
So, in sum, the BDS movement is a benign, even noble cause in support of social justice, and pro-Israel voices are insecure about their views, afraid to engage in honest, public debate. By framing the issue this way, it is easy for Goldberg to claim that supporters of the Jewish state are infringing on free speech.
Besides the fact that so-called "anti-BDS laws" across the United States do not actually threaten free speech, Goldberg is entirely missing the point. The BDS movement is an issue of national security, not of free speech. Framing it as the latter illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding.
It is essential to understand what the BDS movement actually is, and what it seeks. The campaign is nothing less than a form of economic warfare against Israel meant to destroy the Jewish state. Read or listen to any prominent supporter of the BDS movement, and this truth becomes painfully obvious. Goldberg is right that the movement does not advocate Israel's destruction through violence, but its proponents, anti-Zionists who do not believe in Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, seek to undermine Israel to the point that it effectively ceases to survive as the world has come to recognize it.
By demonizing, delegitimizing, and isolating Israel, supporters of the BDS movement hope to bring the world's only Jewish state to its knees. Indeed, Goldberg says that Barghouti told her that he believes in the "creation of a single state in which Israeli Jews, as individuals, would have civil rights, but Jews as a people would not have national rights." And, by supporting the right of Palestinian refugees—those displaced following Israel's founding and all of their descendants—to return to this state, he would make Jews a minority. The implications for Israeli Jews, who live in a region where most governments and too many citizens have showed no qualms about killing Jews or watching others kill them, would be disastrous. And that does not include the Jewish people's 2,000 years of exile, during which they were too often at the mercy of forces that sought either to kill or expel them. How is anti-Zionism not anti-Semitic?
So supporters of the BDS movement seek the destruction of a key American ally, Washington's most important in the Middle East, with which it shares crucial moral and strategic interests. In other words, on top of being anti-Semitic, Barghouti's campaign threatens American interests.
The BDS movement is also closely linked to terrorists. In a report released earlier this year, Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs found more than 100 links between Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), both Palestinian terrorist organizations that seek Israel's destruction, and non-governmental organizations that promote the BDS movement. "The [BDS] campaign involves a network of non-governmental organizations, a number of which have close ties to designated terrorist organizations, most prominently Hamas and [PFLP]," the report states. "Hamas and PFLP operatives have infiltrated and adopted seemingly benign NGOs in the Palestinian Authority, Europe, North America, and South Africa, for the purpose of advancing their ideological goal: the elimination of the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people." Even if supporters of the BDS movement are not advocating violence, their terrorist allies sure are.
NGOs that promote the BDS movement employ more than 30 current and former terror operatives in Hamas and PFLP, according to the report.
Simply put, Barghouti's creation is part of a terrorist network. And terrorist networks should be treated with hostility, not praise. Barring Barghouti from entering the United States is like barring someone who provides support to Hamas. Treating him as an innocent activist does not change that fact.
Criticizing the Israeli government and even boycotting Israel to make a political stand are perfectly legitimate, albeit deeply misguided, actions. But the BDS movement is something different, something much darker. Most Americans recognize that supporting Hamas or other terrorist groups is not a defensible position. Supporting the BDS movement should be viewed in the same way.
So, no, Michelle Goldberg, Israel's defenders are not worried about having their views challenged or engaging in public debate. They are worried about the Jewish state surviving. Trying to twist the issue to make it about free speech rather than an attack on Jewish sovereignty will not silence those who care about Israel's survival.