When Anti-Semitism Masquerades as Social Justice

On Nathan Thrall's screed against Israel in the New York Times

Getty Images
April 1, 2019

Imagine reading an essay in which the author portrays Polish self-determination as inherently racist and efforts to destroy Poland as noble attempts to defend human rights. Would you be taken aback? Disgusted? Decent, fair-minded people would correctly decry the article and its author as anti-Polish. But replace Polish with Jewish, and Poland with Israel, and apparently the New York Times Magazine will publish the article as a respectable piece of writing.

The magazine's latest edition features an 11,000-word essay by Nathan Thrall, director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group, titled "How the Battle Over Israel and Anti-Semitism Is Fracturing American Politics." Thrall's focus is to justify the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as a form of social justice. He does so by conflating the Palestinians' situation in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem with black people struggling for civil rights in the United States, and by conflating Israel and the Jews with anti-black racism. This toxic mix produces a lengthy article that depicts Zionism as inherently racist and campaigns to destroy Israel as legitimate efforts to fight racism. That Thrall portrays these ideas as morally and intellectually defensible is shameful—perhaps even more shameful than the Times running the article.

Throughout the piece, Thrall tries to show that American blacks share common cause with the Palestinians, using every example he can find, both big and small. He even quotes Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama's former deputy national-security adviser, who claims supporters thought his former boss would be anti-Israel and support the Palestinians simply because he was black. "So you're acknowledging, through your own fears, that Israel treats the Palestinians like black people had been treated in the United States," Rhodes says of Obama's critics. This whole notion is hogwash. Israeli Arabs have far more opportunities today than blacks in the United States had during slavery and the Jim Crow era. Arabs in Israel can be elected to parliament and enjoy all of the same social rights as Jews. And Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank effectively govern themselves. To the extent that Palestinians do not have the same opportunities as Israelis, it is because of Hamas's tyrannical rule in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority's intransigence in the West Bank.

Any argument that frames opposition to Israel as social justice needs to focus on the BDS movement, the leading effort to attack Israel. Thrall writes that the BDS movement "seeks to exert economic, moral, and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories, grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return." Much of the media and many like-minded activists similarly define the BDS movement in such terms. This definition is simply wrong. Read or listen to prominent supporters of the BDS movement, and the truth becomes obvious: the campaign is a form of economic warfare against Israel meant to destroy the Jewish state. Thrall admits as much in his piece, perhaps without even realizing it. "To many Americans, the fulcrum of Israeli-Palestinian strife is the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after Israel's victory in the June 1967 war," he writes. "The BDS movement, by contrast, views the conflict as a century-long Arab struggle against the establishment of a Jewish state on land that was more than 95 percent Arab at the dawn of Zionism, in the late 19th century, and more than 90 percent Arab when the British promised in 1917 to try to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, soon to be under British rule." Putting aside the fact that Thrall's claims about how much land the Arabs owned are false and misleading, he is right that supporters of BDS are not focused on borders changed in 1967, but on the modern state of Israel, the world's only Jewish state, being created in the first place. He also notes that, for liberal Americans who support Israel, "the most troubling aspect of the BDS platform is its opposition to Israel's remaining a Jewish state."

Thrall of course adds the erroneous claim that "full equality between Jews and non-Jews" would no longer make Israel a Jewish state when, in reality, such equality already exists. But he is right that BDS supporters' demand for the right to return for all Palestinian refugees, which means any descendant of anyone who left what is now Israel in 1948—would destroy the Jewish state. So, no, the BDS movement is not about pressure and just ending the occupation; it is about destruction and ending the Jewish state.

Thrall's essay is part of the political left's larger obsession with Israel and its role in American politics. And this obsession is no longer just confined to the progressive fringes. Indeed, Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I., Vt.) views have become mainstream, as are those of the younger generation of democratic socialists who have a deep hatred of Israel. Furthermore, look at former officials from the Obama administration, such as Rhodes, endorsing the current hostility toward Israel. This obsession, and the smearing of Israel that goes along with it, is illogical. Israel is powerful and capable but still a very small country—about the size of New Jersey. And the United States, objectively, benefits a great deal from its relationship with Israel. Moreover, there are—again, objectively—far worse regimes out there, even if one believes that Israel abuses human rights. So why so much attention on Israel?

If only progressives and the media would focus the same attention on Iran, where the regime executes homosexuals; North Korea, the most repressive country in the world; China, where the Communist Party is trying to brainwash its Muslim population; and so many other horrible governments that also pose threats to American interests and security. Perhaps then America's leaders could actually come to some bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and national security, and we could all be a little safer. But no, for the media and progressives, it does not get any worse than Israel.