I am a rabbi who knows how important it is for Jews and Christians to reconcile after nearly 2,000 years of hostility. While we disagree over the divinity of Jesus, we share much: Hebrew Scriptures, God’s moral values, and the knowledge that Jesus was a Jew who lived with his fellow Jews in their biblical homeland.
I deeply appreciate Christian support for Israel. Yet I know that the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign against Israel is being presented to young evangelicals as theologically and morally correct. I believe it is neither: It is a corruption of the very Bible that Jews and Christians hold sacred and a political sham helping no one and harming many. In the end it is just an exercise in narcissistic self-love and delusion.
Zionism, the modern return of the Jewish people to its biblical homeland, is sanctioned by the Bible, history and law. In our Shared Scriptures, the Promised Land is mentioned more than 1005 times. The Bible insists again and again that the Land is an essential part of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people.
The legal legitimacy of Israel stems from the right of all peoples to self-determination—and the Jewish people is no exception. Israel is not exclusively Jewish, but an imperfect pluralistic democracy (the only one in the Middle East), whose laws guarantee equality for over two million Christians and Muslims who are full citizens of the Jewish state. This not mere theory: Israel is by far the safest place for Christians in the Middle East. It is also the only place in the region where the Christian population has grown over the last 50 years, with the number of Israeli Christians growing steadily by 2%/year.
Nor does Israel preclude a sovereign state for the Palestinian people. There is no contradiction between a free and secure Israel and a peaceful and prosperous Palestinian state alongside of it. Because most Israelis have always believed this Israeli leaders offered statehood to the Palestinians in 1947, 1967, 1979, 2000 and 2005. Tragically for all sides, Arab and Palestinian leaders rejected every one of those offers.
BDS denies all this. Its stated objectives are to weaken Israel by deterring foreign investment, isolate it diplomatically, cast the Jewish state as a pariah like apartheid South Africa and undermine Israel’s legitimacy in the family of nations. And all of this, allegedly, to aid the Palestinian people and to create a Palestinian state. In the last decade BDS has become the darling of hyper-liberals in Protestant churches, who want us to believe that BDS is the great moral cause of the day and that it possesses the same moral purity as the battle against racism.
Is it providential that the law of unintended consequences has governed the BDS campaign? Any honest evaluation of BDS from 2004 when PCUSA voted to divest from companies doing business with Israel until today indicates that it has been a failure. Not only has it failed to realize its goals, it has set them back massively. The torrent of venom and false witness that BDS has unleashed against Israel has not weakened or isolated the Jewish state one iota. Quite the opposite: Between 2005-2016 Israel has experienced unprecedented growth and become incomparably more secure economically, socially and diplomatically.
Consider the hard facts: During BDS, direct foreign investment in Israel has skyrocketed from $7 billion to $21 billion; foreign trade has grown by 42%; trade with EU countries has more than doubled, while trade with America has grown by 35% and trade with Asia by 1,200%. Israel’s GDP has risen by more than 64%. During BDS Israel has grown into an international powerhouse in hi-tech, bio-tech, science, agriculture, cyber-security, and anti-terrorism. Today no Western country can afford to ignore Israel or boycott Israeli products or companies. And socially, more than 240,000 immigrants have come to Israel to make it their new home during this period.
BDS’ campaign to isolate Israel diplomatically has also failed: Israel maintains relations with 162 out of the 195 United Nations members, only one less than in 2004. Israeli strategic cooperation with China and India has reached an all-time high and continues to climb. Even Saudi Arabia and many Sunni Gulf countries now realize that they need to coordinate and cooperate with Israel amid the shifting alliances in the Middle East. In October 2016 the Romanian Foreign Minister, Teodor Melescatnu, stated that “Israel’s diplomatic situation now is maybe the best in the history of the Jewish state,” and Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu has more official invitations to visit foreign countries than he can handle.
Significantly, the plain fact is BDS has not helped one Palestinian for one moment of one day. Today Palestinians are further away from statehood than they were in 2004. BDS undermines the possibility of peace, since it demands the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees—code for the destruction of the Jewish state. By holding out for this unrealistic demand, BDS ideologues entrench the status quo, feed the fantasies of Palestinian extremists rejecting compromise and negate any possibility of achieving peace with Israelis, who like everyone else will not agree to their own suicide.
So while BDS proponents are stuck in some imaginary and unrealizable universe they ignore the real interests of individual Palestinians and their national cause. Bassem Eid, founder of Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, put it this way: “The BDS campaign is completely contradictory to the Palestinian cause. We will never build peace this way. The Palestinian people want prosperity, and BDS is about a totally different agenda….It has been catastrophic….The agenda of the BDS campaign is to destroy Israel. I explain to people that if you support BDS, you are not supporting the Palestinian cause. You are not even aware of the Palestinian cause.”
BDS has boomeranged, not weakening Israel but the churches that champion its cause. PCUSA and the United Church of Christ (UCC) have been in the forefront of BDS, while the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have flirted off and on with BDS. All those churches are in precipitous decline with no end in sight.
Again the facts: During BDS PCUSA membership has fallen by 37% and UCC’s decline has been 28%. UMC has lost almost one million members since 2005 and ELCA membership has declined by 24%. BDS’ anti-Israel rhetoric has hurt these churches retain or attract worshippers, since Americans have consistently supported Israel over the Palestinians during these years by ratios between 4:1 and 3:1.
BDS continues to do a lot of damage around the world. Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but some certainly is. Not all supporters of BDS are anti-Semites, but surely many of its architects and advocates are. Their anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism because it singles out the Jewish people using an egregious double standard: BDS anti-Zionists deny to Jews what they grant to all other people: the right of national self-determination. This August UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that “when you mention those who call for the destruction of Israel that is a form of modern anti-Semitism.” Even Palestinians free to speak acknowledge the anti-Semitism. Regarding BDS Eid stated, “Of course it’s anti-Semitic. It is because it’s anti-Semitic that the campaign has such energy around it. These activists believe that Israel should not exist, that there should not be a Jewish state, that the Jewish people should not exist.”
The poisonous BDS rhetoric against Israel has opened a Pandora’s Box of anti-Semitism and intimidation of Jews on campuses in America and Europe. This should not surprise us. Christian BDS’ers should look around and see who is campaigning with them: Rabid anti-Semites like David Duke, terrorist groups like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, pan-Islamists like the Global Muslim Brotherhood, radical communists like the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party UK and the South African Communist Party, anarchists like the International Solidarity Movement, convicted serial murderers like Omar Barghouti, and too many hate-filled enemies of America like Iran and its Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to name but a few.
The BDS name itself reveals its essential negative character: Its paltry attempts to help Palestinians are afterthoughts, as BDS warriors focus overwhelmingly on demonizing Israel. BDS is about coarse politics, not positive Christian values nor faithfulness to Jesus’ gospel. Hate and falsehoods about Israel do not co-exist well with Christian aspirations of peace, justice and love. In the end its own negativity has doomed BDS to spiritual and political failure.
Though masquerading as a commitment to justice, this dismal record indicates that BDS is mere adolescent cheerleading devoid of moral, political and theological responsibility. More false witness than prophetic protest, BDSers’ revel in their own immature vanity: They experience an immediate surge of pleasure from feelings of self-righteousness and relevance while entertaining the delusion of aiding others.
If mainline churches want to be taken seriously, they should get real about promoting peace. Rather than futilely blaspheming Israel, churches committed to helping Palestinians should adopt constructive goals. Here are some:
1. Invest in the Palestinian economy and ensure that the funds are used for the welfare of Palestinians, rather than disappearing to corruption and terrorism.
2. Help Palestinians build strong transparent democratic institutions.
3. Strengthen moderate Palestinian voices willing to engage constructively with Israelis.
4. Convince Palestinian leaders to prepare their people for the realistic compromises needed for a peace agreement.
5. Urge Palestinian leaders to drop their rigid policy of rejecting peace offers because they entail compromise and recognition of Israel.
Given this record of consistent failure, falsehood and frequent anti-Semitism, why do mainline churches allow their ideologues to pursue BDS so mindlessly at the cost of peace, fidelity to the Bible, the interests of the Palestinians, Christian-Jewish understanding and even the welfare of their own churches?
That’s a good question that all serious Christians should be asking themselves while, thank God, Israel continues to flourish and, sadly, the Palestinians continue to suffer.
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is the Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Jerusalem, which he helped found. For the past 20 years he has dedicated his career to furthering understanding between Christians and Jews.