BDS: resistant to reason and knowledge

Academic Denis MacEoin discusses the debate surrounding the Israel boycott movement BDS

September 26, 2019 11:09

On Thursday 19 September, St Andrews University Union Debating Society hosted a debate under the motion, “This House Supports the BDS Movement”. 

The society claims to be the oldest of its kind in the world, and its debates are carried out with a degree of formality. This was not a casual dialogue.

The motion was proposed by a leading figure of the hard-left group Jewish Voice for Labour, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, a scientist formerly of the London School of Economics. 

It was opposed by myself. I am not Jewish, formerly a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University. 

I am also chairman of North-East Friends of Israel and resident in the UK.

Mr Rosenhead opened the proceedings and treated Israel with contempt throughout. He is a lifetime socialist and perhaps the only Jew to re-join the Labour Party precisely because Jeremy Corbyn had just become its leader. 

In his opening remarks, he spoke of ‘whataboutery’, the question of ‘why boycott Israel’ when there are so many other human rights abusing countries.

He dismissed this as a distraction from the central business of harming Israel through its economy and more. His approach was, ‘Why worry about other bad countries when Israel is the easiest to damage?’ 

The many accusations he laid against Israel, focusing on its treatment of the Palestinians, followed standard BDS distortions that will be familiar to all readers.

I had already planned how best to turn the tables on the BDS claims by introducing a ‘whataboutery’ of my own. My doctorate (Cambridge, 1979) is in Persian/Iranian Studies, my second 4-year MA (Edinburgh 1975) was in Persian, Arabic and Islamic History and I have special expertise in Iranian Shi’ism.

I have, for over 50 years, acquired a love of Iranian people, Iranian culture, poetry, music, architecture, painting, mysticism and, above all, calligraphy. 

Iran is one of the most remarkable civilizations. But it has been grossly disfigured for 40 years by a revolutionary, hardline Islamic regime. Lovely calligraphic art but everywhere you hear the chanting of marg bar esra’il: “Death to Israel”. Think Ahmadinejhad and his threat to wipe the Jewish state from the map.

I proceeded to enumerate the massive human rights transgressions of the theocratic regime there, listing its record as the country with the highest number of executions per capita; its executions of gay men and women possibly approaching 10,000, its oppression of women (including a recent case of a young woman sentenced to 24 years in jail merely for choosing not to wear her hijab); and its persecution of religious minorities, notably the Baha’is, whose shrines have all been demolished, cemeteries dug up, leaders executed or imprisoned, and more. 

I followed this account of Iran’s rights denials by listing Israel’s record on the same issues: one individual executed since 1948 (Adolf Eichmann); full rights extended to all LGBT persons (which Mr Rosenhead tried predictably and without evidence to dismiss as “pinkwashing”); rights for women; and the protection afforded to the Baha’is, which locate their three holiest shrines in Haifa and outside Acco.

I based my argument on morality. As a liberal who used to vote Labour (until Jeremy Corbyn came along) and is now a Lib Dem, I was sincere in arguing that anyone who values human rights must surely choose to attack Iran, one of the world’s most anti-liberal regimes, and support Israel, which does so much good in the world and which upholds human rights values in a liberal democracy.

In my final summing up, I pressed home one crucial point: that the BDS arguments all seem to work only if everything is taken out of context. I asked the large, packed hall how many of them had read either of the two Hamas Covenants, which are available in English translation online. Not a single hand went up. 

I asked why should anyone of a non-violent disposition would be indifferent to such genocidal documents.
Do you need to guess who won the debate? Mr Rosenhead received over 40 votes, Mr MacEoin 29. 

Perhaps this was predictable in a university setting, yet significant for that reason. Here was an old-school socialist and Corbynista without any serious knowledge of the Middle East applauded by students who knew nothing of the full context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict beating someone with a lifetime’s knowledge of the region capable of reading the Hamas Mithaq in the original Arabic. 

Both were experienced speakers, yet those in attendance were more easily persuaded by the immoral BDS arguments than by rational and moral claims in favour of the world’s most hated state. 

Having young people — who no doubt think of themselves as ‘woke’ and ‘progressive’ — vote against their own values in order to defame Israel says much about the challenge we all face in arguing the case against BDS, anti-Zionism and, in the end, antisemitism.

Denis MacEoin is currently finishing a book on antisemitism and Islamophobia

September 26, 2019 11:09

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