Biden officials pledge to fight BDS

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has pledged to work against the Palestinian-led BDS movement (CNP)

Josh Ruebner

The Electronic Intifada  /  February 4, 2021

The Biden administration “embraces and champions” the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, a State Department official said on Monday.

Kara McDonald, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, praised the definition “with its real-world examples” as “an invaluable tool” to “call hate by its proper name and take effective action,” according to the JTA news agency.

McDonald is serving temporarily as the Biden administration’s point person on the issue until it names a special envoy on anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition has been promoted by Israel and its lobby groups.

It has been strongly opposed by civil libertarians and Palestinian and Jewish organizations which see it as a pretext to smear and censor supporters of Palestinian rights.

Its use as a tool of censorship has even been criticized by the definition’s original author.

This is because some of the definition’s accompanying examples equate legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies and actions with anti-Jewish bigotry.

Vitriolic opposition to BDS

For example, deeming Israel a “racist endeavour,” as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem did when it characterized Israel as a “regime of Jewish supremacy” that practices “apartheid,” would qualify as anti-Semitism under the definition.

Another of the IHRA’s examples of anti-Semitism includes applying “double standards” toward Israel “by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Under this example, any campaign utilizing the tactics of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) to advocate for Palestinian rights could be deemed anti-Semitic unless campaigners simultaneously devoted equal attention and vigour to addressing human rights abuses in other countries.

McDonald’s statement is another worrying indicator that the Biden administration will be hostile to speech and action supportive of Palestinian rights. Several Biden administration nominees have also expressed truculent and even vitriolic opposition to BDS in their Senate confirmation hearings.

At his 19 January hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he and President Biden “resolutely opposed” BDS.

Echoing the IHRA example, Blinken claimed that the Palestinian-led BDS movement “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel and creates a double standard that we do not apply to other countries.”

Based on this absurd standard, Palestinians themselves cannot advocate for their own rights in their own homeland without being accused of anti-Semitism, unless they simultaneously wage campaigns about other countries.

However, Blinken also stated: “We fully respect and will always respect the First Amendment rights of Americans to say what they believe and think. But BDS itself is something we oppose.”

In her 27 January confirmation hearing, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to the United Nations, issued a full-throated denunciation of BDS.

“I find the actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel unacceptable,” Thomas-Greenfield stated. “It verges on anti-Semitism, and it is important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the United Nations. I intend to work very strongly against that.”

Blinken’s and Thomas-Greenfield’s drawing of parallels between BDS and the IHRA’s examples of anti-Semitism are disturbing.

Alarm bells

But perhaps the most troubling position toward BDS was spelled out by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a written response to questions posed by senators in advance of her confirmation hearing.

Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, noted correctly that for “more than 40 years, the Treasury Department has played a key role in fighting international efforts to boycott Israel.”

He then asked Yellen, “If confirmed, are you committed to fighting efforts to boycott, divest or sanction our ally Israel?”

Yellen responded that Biden has “led efforts to oppose the delegitimization of Israel, whether in international organizations or by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States.”

“I support President Biden’s approach,” she added, affirming that she would “work as Treasury Secretary to oppose BDS activities directed at Israel.”

Yellen’s well-considered written response was not off-the-cuff and should set off alarm bells.

The Treasury Department issues guidelines that inform the work of the Commerce Department’s Office of Antiboycott Compliance (OAC), which slaps fines on US companies participating in the Arab League boycott of Israel.

The law which led to the creation of the OAC – the Export Administration Act of 1979 – was passed decades before the advent of the Palestinian civil society-led BDS movement in 2005.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, attempted to amend the law through the 2017 Israel Anti-Boycott Act to impose fines and a prison sentence of up to 20 years against individuals who support or further an international organization’s call to boycott a company complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses.

The bill was defeated through a combined outcry and lobbying campaign from Palestine solidarity activists and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yellen’s pledge to “oppose BDS activities directed at Israel“ goes well beyond her duty to issue guidelines to enforce current prohibitions against compliance with the Arab League boycott.

Instead, it raises the specter of her support for future legislation to crack down on civil society initiatives to boycott companies and institutions complicit in violations of Palestinian rights.

Yellen’s response not only potentially contradicts Blinken’s testimony, but also the 2020 platform of the Democratic Party, which opposes BDS efforts at the UN “while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.”

These developments suggest that Biden’s rhetorical opposition to BDS, and the struggle for Palestinian rights more broadly, will be similar to the Trump and Obama administrations’ opposition to the movement – with the important caveat of recognizing the constitutionality of boycotting for Palestinian rights.

In its first two weeks, the Biden administration has commendably issued a flurry of executive orders on immigration reform, climate change and racial justice and has suspended weapons sales to human rights abusing regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

However, it has struck a woefully discordant tune to these otherwise positive steps by equating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and going out of its way to denounce, and potentially act against, people engaged in civil society action to support Palestinian rights.

Josh Ruebner is adjunct professor at Georgetown University, managing director of American Muslims for Palestine and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace. The views expressed here are solely those of the writer and are not on behalf of any organization