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Matthew J. Webster – Writer

My work, not The Forward’s

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(The following essay was submitted to The Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar–Sargon on 6/18/19. In an abhorrent — if typical and perfectly legal — example of journalistic hackery, Ungar-Sargon appears to have assigned the thesis of my submission to a staffer and published his “hot” take today.

I love good editors and want to work with them! If this one had responded whatsoever to my efforts, I would not be calling her out. Instead she blithely stole my idea.)

6/18/19 — LOS ANGELES — Matthew J. Webster

A worldwide legislative effort to discredit boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel continues apace.

In Germany, the country my Jewish grandfather fled for the US as an undocumented (I prefer “illegal”) refugee in 1939, the Bundestag last month moved to declare BDS activities anti-Semitic and illegitimate. The Netanyahu government is lobbying hard for Germany lawmakers to formally adopt and enforce the motion, which notes that the “Don’t Buy” stickers BDS activists have placed on Israeli products disturbingly recall the Nazi slogan “Don’t Buy From Jews.”

Merely suggesting that citizens have the right to boycott Israel can be career suicide in Germany, where recent anti-Semitic incidents have rattled the Jewish population of 200,000. Last week the director of Berlin’s Jewish museum resigned following backlash to his tweet referencing a letter signed by 240 Israeli and American scientists. The signatories, among them prominent anti-Semitism and Holocaust researchers, defended BDS as a legitimate, non-violent means of resistance.

In Israel, a law passed in 2017 barring BDS supporters from entering the country has to date mainly resulted in alienating two-plus million ethnic minorities and the outrageous detention of an American college student in October. A public benefit corporation staffed by former Netanyahu advisor Dore Gold and a pair of ex-generals has also received about $36 million of government funds to combat BDS, and datebooks of Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan confirmed that in 2018 Erdan met with Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen specifically to discuss “the struggle against the boycott.”

In my native US, 27 states have adopted legislation hoping to dissuade Americans from exercising their Constitutional freedoms specifically to criticize Israel, and Senate Teds Cruz and Kaine are now pushing a complementary federal bill.

I have to wonder if this is all a bit much. As permanently flawed as Israel may be, I love the country and don’t support BDS, because boycotts separate Israel’s critics from the very counterparts they should be dialoguing with.

On the other hand, data from the Brookings Institute estimate the effects of BDS on Israel’s economy are approximately zero, and you can’t effectively ban an idea. If my neighbor won’t buy wine grown in the Golan Heights for ideological reasons, what can I or the government do about it? And why is it so important to punish Israel’s critics for boycotting when they have little real impact?

US politicians sponsor anti-BDS legislation because it’s popular. Most Americans support Israel, and there is no major downside in espousing to protect it.

Germany’s history makes criticism of Israel even more fraught than in the US, but nothing (yet) stops thousands of people from demonstrating each year on al-Quds Day. Legislation calling their actions anti-Semitic will not influence their personal sentiments, and overzealous restrictions on speech may produce a reaction Germans absolutely do not want.

In 2016, federal judges rejected the last of many attempts to outlaw the NDP, an extreme-right wing, openly anti-Semitic political party, ruling the NDP had no real influence beyond municipal politics. The judges also noted that banning the group would not change the mentality of its members, who even after a ban could form a new party or change their votes to the much larger anti-immigration party, AfD. (Incidentally, AfD voted in favor of the January motion delegitimizing BDS.)

All men being equal in the eyes of the law, I hope the Bundestag will apply the same principles to the BDS movement. Mischaracterizing reasonable criticism of Israel’s administration as equivalent to anti-Semitism is repression, and creates a chilling effect where respectful debate is the only way forward.

Israel faces another general election in September. Netanyahu’s support of the 2017 anti-BDS law helped him curry favor with racist, extreme-right parties and win the April election. Meanwhile, insiders profit from the richly financed war on BDS.

I also hope Israeli voters will consider the cynicism of these arrangements, and how they are seen from abroad. The state of Israel is a thing, and Jews are people. When even Jews are afraid to openly evaluate Israel’s government, what future remains?

Written by webster71

July 10, 2019 at 14:20

Posted in Uncategorized

When Your House Explodes

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True story for OZY about that time my house burned down in unglamorous Allston, MA.


Written by webster71

May 22, 2019 at 20:22

Posted in OZY Media

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