“Zionism is Racism, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, Apartheid.”
On April 29, the Crimson Editorial Board, of which I am an associate editor, published a Staff Editorial that embraced these claims, which were plastered onto the Palestinian Student Committee’s “Wall of Resistance” at the time. The Board “proudly” endorsed the associated Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, while rendering the display a “colorful” and “spirited” emblem of “passion.” The article made no mention of the fact that BDS student activism has been tied to antisemitic exclusion and violence on college campuses.
Having missed the meeting where the Board shifted its stance on BDS, I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours puzzling over the decision, attempting to make sense of the Board’s reasoning. Yet the more I read the Staff Editorial, the more muddled its logic seemed to become. The Board, seemingly seduced by the “colorful” Wall of Resistance, directs virtually no attention to any concrete or balanced exploration of the conflict, instead evading it by stating that we “can’t nuance away” Palestinians’ lived realities. And eventually, after having evaded all precision and nuance, it blindly accepts BDS’s flawed, factually misleading mission.
And now, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has authored a Crimson letter to the editor that repeats a host of deceptive anti-Zionist talking points, recycling references to what others have dubbed “Jewish supremacy” while highlighting reports that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as a racial dispute. These declarations aren’t just wildly distorted; they’re dangerous. They paint a reductive portrait of the Jewish state, demonizing the nation and delegitimizing its very existence. But they are also provocative, evoking emotion, and are cloaked with a blanket of resonant humanitarian claims. For unknowing onlookers with a taste for justice, that seems to be all that matters.
This slick dynamic, I’ve come to realize, captures the essence — and the dangerous “artistry” — of the broader BDS movement.
It is my intuition that Zionism is not what the Editorial Board — or most people backing an anti-Zionist agenda in the name of justice — believes they are rejecting, or likening to racism and cruelty. Instead, they are rejecting a false projection of Zionism — one that has been carefully constructed by movements like BDS, whose entire narrative is founded upon a hefty hijacking of Jewish identity and history.
BDS’s official website explicitly writes that Israel’s origins can be found within a “racist ideology” of European colonialism, which it then ties to the Zionist movement. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not rooted in a racial struggle, nor in an ideology of superiority or hate. On the contrary, Zionism was born in 1896 as a movement of liberation, of freedom, and of resisting unfair power imbalances during a period in which Jews across Europe were persecuted — barred from government assemblies, attacked in the press, and excluded from business dealings, hotels, social circles, and clubs.
Early Zionist settlers in Palestine didn’t steal or conquer the land as they came in throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, as is the case with most European settler colonialism narratives; they bought the land. And in fact, early leaders of the Zionist movement, like Theodor Herzl, explicitly rejected the idea of displacing non-Jewish populations.
Nonetheless, as the Jewish population in the region grew in the years prior to 1947, Jewish people increasingly suffered violent attacks, killings, rapes, and mass lootings from neighboring non-Jewish groups.
After erasing this early history and redefining Zionism entirely, the BDS website then goes on to reduce Israel’s “violent establishment in 1948” to an act of “ethnic cleansing” against those “indigenous” to the region, designed to “uproot as many Palestinians as it can.” These words, too, reflect a complete erasure, perversion, and demonization. First of all, Jews were already indigenous to the region, as archaeological and biblical evidence has underscored.
Next, Israel’s declaration of independence came only after a 1947 United Nations two-state solution was met with fierce opposition from Arab leaders — and with the burning of Jewish homes, synagogues, and murders. Most guttingly, this narrative not only ignores but subverts the post-Holocaust environment by charging Jewish people, fresh out of the Holocaust, with a “premeditated” ethnic cleansing plot. It is my suspicion that this final move reflects an effort to counter and negate the one piece of Jewish history that cannot so readily be muted or transformed.
The particular form of anti-Zionist rhetoric fueled by the BDS movement isn’t just misleading — it’s also brazenly antisemitic, with its origins traceable to a KGB propaganda campaign that thrived under the leadership of KGB chairman Yuri Andropov. The campaign’s aim was to undermine the Israeli state amid its growth in the Cold War period, and igniting antisemitism was seen as a strategic means to that end. The operation’s leaders treated Hitler’s Mein Kampf as something of a bible, using it as a source of information about Zionism. In publications, the campaign circulated direct replicas of Nazi Germany caricatures that now attacked “Zionists” instead of “Jews.” The USSR also added new vilifying analogies into the mix — equating Zionism to Nazism itself, and construing Zionism as an inherently racist ideology. Today, the BDS movement has thrived upon these very tacts: At the BDS movement’s fringes, comparisons between Jews and Nazis are weaponized. And at the BDS movement’s heart, the denigrating conflation of Zionism and racism continues to pulsate loudly.
Today, the BDS movement’s leaders, like Barghouti, may outwardly oppose antisemitism. But misinformation was part and parcel of what made anti-Jewish hatred, and eventually genocide, a thinkable project in Nazi Germany. It’s what turned Soviet Jews into targets of persecution and hatred years later. Now, the BDS movement is being driven by strikingly similar notes of factual manipulation. One can only expect that the inherited offshoots of this rhetoric would continue to spur antisemitic violence today.
This is exactly what has taken shape amidst BDS’s expanding reach, which stretches outward onto today’s college campuses: One report explicitly attributed the increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses to the rise of the BDS movement. Anti-Zionist and pro-BDS student groups also produce outright exclusion, as legions of college students across the country are pledging not to affiliate with pro-Israel student organizations and are isolating individual Zionist students. Sometimes, these attacks more overtly transpose themselves onto Judaism itself. Only a few years ago at Stony Brook University, a student member of the school’s pro-BDS, anti-Zionist Students for Justice in Palestine chapter was quoted in the school paper as stating, “we want Zionism off this campus, so we also want Hillel off this campus.”
Jewish people are also systematically shut down by the BDS movement’s followers when they try to speak up: According to the Anti-Defamation League, a central goal of SJP, a leading source of BDS activism on college campuses, is to protest pro-Israel campus events by heckling speakers to the point of quietitude. As dialogue is stifled by anti-Zionist and pro-BDS students, vilifying slurs and monikers, new and old, also tend to make their way into the air — from referencing the trope of a “smelly Jew,” to chanting “Zionists are terrorists,” to spewing the words “f—cking Zionist.”
BDS’s strategy of ideological warfare is all the more frightening because of how well it works — after all, it has led some of the most decent, kind, and thoughtful people that I know at Harvard to become patrons and propagators of antisemitism.
The Board admits, still in line with past precedent, that BDS is a “blunt tool.” I believe that this tool is finer than we realize. It has been sharpened by societal forces, and historical precedents, in order to wage what is, at its core, not a fundamentally economic war of boycotts and sanctions — but a more sinister and violent ideological one. People like me — a “f-cking Zionist,” a “smelly Jew,” a modern-day “Elder of Zion” — are not simply “collateral damage” in this war. We are targets — directly wounded by signals and signs of rhetorical weaponry, and dismissed when we respond to what we know has historically been the writing on the wall.
Writing this has not been easy — not just because of the complicated history, to which I have personal ties. It has also been difficult because BDS is the embodiment of everything that I have known the Board to stand against — and, in light of the Board’s failure to recognize that, I can’t help but feel a strange mix of sadness, disappointment, and fear. Back in February 2020, we opined as a Board that casting either group as “the evil one” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a counterproductive approach, and we made an explicit call for nuance. Now, the Board has tacitly endorsed Israel’s demonization while maintaining that “we can’t nuance away” Palestinians’ lived realities. In my view, this is yet another testament to BDS’s chilling “artistry”; it is an embodiment of the fact that BDS’s messaging invokes an emotional reaction that bypasses thought at a visceral level. When nuance is present, it becomes harder to demonize one party — so BDS does all that it can to reject that complexity and thought.
This negation of nuance doesn’t just enable the mobilization of age-old antisemitic machinery. It also fuels discord and division, when what the mitigation and eventual resolution of this conflict most desperately need is unity, objectivity, and even-handed advocates calling for peace. Still, I have to believe that we all fundamentally want to pursue progress, productive dialogue, and peace — it’s just that some of us were seduced, by misinformation and “passion,” into thinking that BDS could get us there.
I don’t know what you see. Maybe it’s color; maybe it’s spirit. I see a violent history that has been reproduced in a camouflaged modern-day form.
Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.