On May 17, 2019, the German Bundestag adopted a motion by the parties of the Grand Coalition (CDU/CSU and SPD), the Greens 
and the liberals (FDP) with the objective of "resolutely opposing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) –fighting anti-Semitism."1

As a result, a movement of solidarity with the Palestinians which, until that point, had hardly been noticed by the general public in Germany, has become the focus of the discussion about what has been termed the new anti-Semitism. 
In view of the reality in Germany, the approach adopted in the motion was rather astonishing: Anti-Semitic crimes, which have increased significantly in recent years, are overwhelmingly attributed to the right wing and to right-wing extremists.2 The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution currently estimates that there are more than 12,000 potentially violent right-wing extremists in Germany.3 At the same time, according to the assessment of the Independent Expert Group on Anti-Semitism, BDS is a negligible factor in the Federal Republic.4

The Bundestag motion’s blanket characterization of BDS as anti- Semitic leads to the marginalization of a movement that campaigns nonviolently for Palestinian rights. This designation is promoted, inter alia, by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs under Minister Gilad Erdan, who has declared BDS a strategic threat to Israel. Yet, the campaign the ministry has unleashed is by no means about discrediting BDS activists only; rather, it is about questioning Palestinian rights and claims in principle and about delegitimizing persons and organizations that criticize Israel's occupation regime and its discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. This 
campaign has already brought about a marked shift in discourse in Germany.

At the same time, the controversy over BDS overlooks two central issues: What measures should be taken to effectively prevent a further increase in anti-Semitism? And what contribution could and should Germany make to a political settlement in the Middle East that would guarantee human rights for everyone, realize the right of self-determination of both peoples in Israel and Palestine, and find a solution to the refugee question?

But what is BDS and what is the controversy actually about? This article attempts to put the controversy into perspective.

The BDS Movement

The acronym BDS stands for a civil society movement founded by Palestinians in 2005, inspired among others by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

BDS seeks to build up pressure on Israel to respect international law. It aims to do so by using nonviolent means such as boycott (consumer, academic, and cultural boycotts), divestment, and sanctions, as all previous approaches have proven unsuccessful in achieving Palestinian selfdetermination, an end to the Israeli occupation, and a lasting resolution of the conflict. Neither negotiations within the Oslo framework nor the armed "resistance" of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) nor international legal action – such as the 2004 legal opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Israeli separation barrier – had achieved any progress toward the achievement of Palestinian goals.

In concrete terms, the movement has three objectives: the end of the 52-year-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (as well as the Syrian Golan Heights); equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and recognition of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.5 It is important to note that the goals pursued by the movement are not confined to BDS; rather, they represent a broad consensus in Palestinian society.

The national BDS committee based in Ramallah determines the general direction of activities and initiates campaigns on specific occasions. It is supported by the overwhelming majority of civil society organizations and factions in the Palestinian territories. The global movement is made up of a large number of local and national groups that have their own websites and independently conduct campaigns and events. It has no hierarchical structure. The national BDS committee thus has no power of sanction or discipline over individual groups. Accordingly, concrete statements, approaches, and activities of individual groups vary considerably.

Internationally, the movement has a broad and diverse circle of supporters that include eminent personalities, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu; British trade unions; city councils in Spain; the American Studies Association; as well as Jewish groups and individuals inside and outside Israel.

The Blanket Anti-Semitism Charge

In its May 2019 resolution, the Bundestag claims that the BDS movement's patterns of argumentation as well as its methods are anti- Semitic. It condemns the BDS campaign and the call to boycott Israeli goods, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and athletes, for these are seen as "anti-Semitic statements and attacks that are formulated as criticism of the policies of the State of Israel" while in reality they are, according to the motion, "an expression of hatred of Jews and their religion", i.e. Israelrelated anti-Semitism, because the "call for an all-encompassing boycott leads in its radicalism to the stigmatization of Israeli citizens of Jewish faith." Moreover, the "calls of the campaign to boycott Israeli artists as well as stickers on Israeli goods, which are supposed to deter customers from buying them, [...] recall the most terrible phase in German history. The BDS movement’s ‘Don't Buy’ stickers on Israeli products inevitably arouse associations with the Nazi slogan ‘Don't buy from Jews!’"

In the case of a large, decentralized movement like BDS, it cannot be ruled out that individual activists and supporters are motivated by hatred against Jews. And, in fact, individuals affiliated with the movement have used imagery and language with anti-Semitic connotations.6 Yet, the movement explicitly opposes anti-Semitism.7 More importantly, it does not aim at isolating Jews or attacking Judaism but denounces Israeli policy toward Palestinians. The boycott it calls for is, explicitly not directed at people of the Jewish faith but at those Israelis (regardless of their faith) who do not distance themselves from the occupation and discrimination. In the actual implementation of the boycott, however, these nuances at times get lost, especially in the context of academic boycotts.8

The methods of the movement, i.e. the call for boycotts, a withdrawal of investment, and sanctions, are legitimate instruments for achieving political goals (even if one does not consider them to be expedient, which is the view of the author of this contribution). To accuse those who propagate such methods per se of anti-Semitic motivations or to even deem the methods themselves anti-Semitic when they are employed against Israel just does not make any sense. This is also the case when it comes to actions, such as the disruption of a June 2017 event with a Holocaust survivor by BDS activists, which is often cited in the German debate9 – regardless of the fact that such actions do little to advance a constructive dialogue or convince the German public of the BDS movement’s causes.

In this context, it is also problematic that the Bundestag resolution does not distinguish between Israel on the one hand and the territories occupied by Israel on the other. Rather, it categorically rejects any boycott of Israeli goods, businesses, and individuals. It is of course plausible that, against the backdrop of the Shoah, German politics would not advocate a boycott of Israel. Such an approach would also be in contradiction to the dictum of Israel's security as an element of Germany’s raison d'état. Still, a more nuanced position would have been appropriate on this issue. For Germany has committed itself to differentiate between its dealings with Israel and with Israeli institutions in the territories occupied in 1967 in the framework of the EU and in sync with Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 2016.10 Accordingly, Berlin also supported a European decision to correctly label products originating from Israeli settlements in occupied territories. If differentiation is not applied, Germany runs the risk of signalling consent to the current Israeli Government, which has long abandoned a two-state approach, seeks to erode the so-called Green Line between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and permanently control East Jerusalem and strategic areas in the West Bank.11

Although all three goals of the BDS movement are rooted in international law (above all in UNGA Resolution 194, UN Security Council Resolution 242, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 4th Geneva Convention), these too are increasingly depicted as anti-Semitic – and thus as illegitimate because the movement, so the charges say, ultimately aims at the extermination of Israel and the annihilation of the Jews. Proponents of such charges argue that the movement does not explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist; it is unclear to which territory the "colonization and occupation of Arab land" that it seeks to end refers; it denies Israel's Jewish identity; and a return of Palestinian refugees would change Israel's demographic balance in a way that would ultimately render a Jewish, democratic state impossible.12

It is correct that the movement does not take a position on the format of conflict settlement, i.e. it does not explicitly advocate a two-state settlement. However, it has repeatedly emphasized that the goal of ending the occupation and colonization refers to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 only.13 It could, of course, counter concerns that it would promote Palestinian rights at the expense of Jewish Israeli rights more actively by advocating not only the Palestinian but also the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and by clarifying the territorial reference in the 2005 call. Nor does the movement explain how the return of Palestinian refugees should be put into practice. It merely insists on the recognition of the individual right of return, as guaranteed by international law. It thus emphasizes that the refugee issue – as is also enshrined in the Oslo Accords – still needs to be resolved and that any settlement must take into account the rights of refugees. By contrast, it does not postulate that the only possible implementation of the right of return would be the actual return of all refugees to Israel.14

A Broad Campaign

The BDS motion of the German Bundestag can be understood only in the context of a major campaign of the Israeli Government, led by the Ministry for Strategic Affairs under Gilad Erdan and actively supported by NGO Monitor.15 The campaign’s core aim is to sweepingly discredit criticism of Israeli Government policies as anti-Semitic and to demonize critics as terrorists or anti-Semites and intimidate their supporters. Ultimately, it is about asserting the official Israeli reading of Middle Eastern history and present.

In this vein, representatives of the Israeli Government and their allies in Germany (who engage out of a variety of motivations) have in recent years increasingly intervened in order to prevent events in public spaces and at universities that deal critically with Israel's policies, to promote anti-BDS decisions at all levels, and to discredit the work of political foundations in Israel/Palestine, in particular their support for human rights organizations.16 In this context, in January 2019 the Israeli Prime Minister's demand that the German Government cease its support for the Jewish Museum in Berlin because of its alleged anti-Israeli activities, such as its Jerusalem exhibition, attracted particular attention. The request was initially rejected by the Minister of State for Culture. In June 2019, however, the museum’s director Peter Schäfer felt compelled to resign as a consequence of a scandal over a tweet recommending an article in the taz which referred to a critical statement by Jewish and Israeli scholars, among others, on the Bundestag’s BDS resolution. Against this backdrop, the emeritus professor and publicist Micha Brumlik notes a "new McCarthyism" in the debate about BDS, anti- Semitism, and Israel.17

In Germany, the campaign rests on a broad range of supporters: the Central Council of Jews; the Springer media; pro-Israel lobby organizations, such as the Values Initiative (Werteinitiative), NAFFO, and the Initiative 27 January; personalities from politics, academia, and the media; as well as the coordinators for Jewish life and the fight against anti-Semitism at the federal and state level.18 In this endeavour, the "Three D-Test" developed in 2003 by Nathan Sharansky, then minister in the Sharon government, 
and the working definition of anti-Semitism (including the illustrative examples) adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) serve as entry points. Both claim to provide clear criteria for the demarcation between legitimate criticism of Israel or Israeli politics and Israel-related anti-Semitism.19 According to Sharansky, statements that demonize Israel, apply double standards, or delegitimize Israel are to be considered Israel-related anti-Semitism. According to the examples of the 
IHRA working definition, we might be faced with a case of Israel-related anti-Semitism when Israel is described as a racist state or Israel's right to exist is denied, among other manifestations. Increasingly, this definition also informs administrative reality in Germany. In September 2019, Berlin's Senator for the Interior Andreas Geisel even called for BDS to be monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.20

However, it is precisely those elements of anti-Semitism definitions that refer to Israel-related anti-Semitism that are controversial among experts. In fact, according to anti-Semitism researcher Peter Ullrich, "the 'working definition' is conducive to contradictory and error-prone application in practice. Rather than providing clear orientation, it "leads to assessments of incidents and facts that are not based on clear criteria but on the preconceptions of those applying it or on prevalent interpretations adopted without reflection.” Thus the working definition is easily instrumentalized politically, such as to discredit positions on the Middle East conflict.21 Criticism of the Israeli Nation-State Law of July 2018, which enshrines the legal inequality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel and is hardly in line with democratic standards, cannot simply be dismissed as Israel-related anti-Semitism. It is also open to debate, to provide another example, whether and to what extent the prolonged Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories can be compared to South Africa's historical apartheid system or whether it corresponds to the legal definition of an apartheid system (e.g. according to the 2002 Statute of the International Criminal Court). But to claim that the apartheid comparison per se is an indication of anti-Semitism is an unacceptable simplification that serves to delegitimize criticism of the occupation and unequal treatment.

Against this backdrop, renowned Jewish and Israeli academics, among them prominent Holocaust researchers, reject the equation of BDS and anti- Semitism and emphasize the right of anybody to support BDS – regardless of their respective individual stance on the movement.22 Several court rulings in various German cities have also rejected the blanket accusation of anti-Semitism against BDS activists and suspended venue cancellations or the exclusion from events based on such allegations. The court rulings also emphasize that the Bundestag resolution (as well as corresponding resolutions on the level of federal states) is not legally binding and, therefore, cannot serve as a legal basis to restrict the constitutional right of freedom of opinion.23 In the same vein, the German Government has maintained its policy of not classifying the BDS movement per se as anti-Semitic and of considering support for BDS as covered by the right to freedom of opinion. This is also in line with the positions of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and the UN rapporteurs for the Human Rights Covenants, who consider BDS as covered by the freedom of expression.24

A Constructive Approach

The controversy over BDS in Germany, as it has played out since the Bundestag motion, skirts the concrete challenges in the German-Israeli- Palestinian triangle. It obscures the view of developments on the ground that make conflict resolution increasingly impossible and does not benefit an effective fight against anti-Semitism in Germany.

It would therefore make sense to firstly deal with the BDS movement in a way that is not guided by “rhetoric of suspicion.”25 The movement and its demands should not be dismissed as anti-Semitic per se; at the same time, concrete allegations of anti-Semitism should be taken seriously and examined on a case-by-case basis. In that endeavor, the IHRA working definition is of little help.

Secondly, there needs to be concerted action in the areas of prevention, education, integration, and criminal law against the further rise of anti-Semitism. This also includes an examination of how anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia are related and which specific approaches are needed to effectively counter anti-Semitism in all parts of German society.

Thirdly, the space for a constructive debate on a resolution of the conflict in the Middle East, which would guarantee the human rights of all concerned and take into account the right of self-determination of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people, should be (re)opened –in the media, in parliament, and by the German political foundations, among others. Those that stand up for Palestinian rights and are ready to engage must not be excluded from this debate, stigmatized as anti-Semitic, or associated with 
terrorism, including those who advocate nonviolent pressure on Israel.



1 German Bundestag, Der BDS-Bewegung entschlossen entgegentreten – Antisemitismus bekämpfen, Antrag der Fraktionen CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP und BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN, 15.5.2019, http://; for a critical statement on the resolution see Muriel Asseburg et al., Im Kampf gegen Antisemitismus hilft das nicht, Zeit Online, 4.6.2019, 

2 According to the Ministry of the Interior, the number of anti-Semitic crimes rose by 19.6% from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, almost 90% of anti-Semitic crimes were politically motivated crimes from the right. BMI, Politisch motivierte Kriminalität im Jahr 2018 – Bundesweite Fallzahlen, May 2019, p. 5, 

3 Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Rechtsextremistisches Potential (Gesamtübersicht), 31.12.2018, 

4 BMI/Unabhängiger Expertenkreis Antisemitismus, Antisemitismus in Deutschland – aktuelle Entwicklungen, 8.6.2017, pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=4.

5 BDS, What is BDS?, 2019,

6 See Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Behind the Mask – The Anti-Semitic Nature of BDS Exposed, September 2019,, p. 43, 63. Interestingly, the report does not contain any examples from Germany.

7 BDS, FAQs Isn’t a boycott of Israel anti-Semitic?, 2019,

8 See for example the obstruction of an appearance by the Israeli journalist Amira Hass at Birzeit University in 2014 despite her unambiguous attitude. Middle East Media Research Institute, Palestinian journalists come out against BDS movement, Ramallah Municipality for banning Lebanese Director Ziad Doueiri’s film in Ramallah, 22.1.2018, banning-of-lebanese-film-at-ramallah-film-festival.

9 For diverging assessments of the incident see Tagesspiegel, Antisemitismus in Berlin – Drei Israel- Gegner stören Veranstaltung in der Humboldt-Uni, 23.6.2017, antisemitismus-in-berlin-drei-israel-gegner-stoeren-veranstaltung-in-der-humboldt-uni/19974986.html and Riri Hylton, Three activists go on trial for challenging Israeli apartheid in Berlin, The Electronic Intifada, 4.3.2019, 

10 Council of the European Union, Council Conclusion on the Middle East Peace Process, 10.12.2012,; UN Security Council, Resolution 2334 (2016), 23.12.2016, SRES2334-2016.pdf. 

11 See for example CNN, Netanyahu won’t commit to two-state solution, 28.9.2018,

12 See, for example the line of argument put forward by Thomas Thiel, Wegbereiter des Judenhasses, FAZ Online, 17.7.2019, des-judenhasses-16287947.html; Michael Wolfssohn, Das Ziel von BDS ist Israels 
Ende, RP Online, 12.6.2019, ende_aid-39368509. 

13 See Deutschlandweiter BDS-Aufruf, 20.6.2015, aufruf/; a clarification is also provided here: BDS, Palestinians overwhelmingly condemn German Parliament’s anti-Palestinian resolution, 23.5.2019, palestinians-overwhelmingly-condemn-german-parliament%E2%80%99s-anti-palestinianresolution

14 The BDS movement thus neither disputes nor explicitly advocates specific approaches for the implementation of the right of return, such as were part of earlier Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for an agreed-upon settlement between all concerned parties that would include Israeli recognition of shared responsibility for flight and displacement, compensation as well as a limited return of refugees to Israel and resettlement of others in Palestine and third countries. For a discussion of options for a settlement see Muriel Asseburg and Jan Busse, Der Nahostkonflikt - Geschichte, Positionen, Perspektiven, Munich, 2018, chapter III.

15 See the website “4IL” launched by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and the defamatory reports on BDS, Palestinian organizations and European support for human rights organisations posted there. For critical positions on the ministry’s approach see Amos Yadlin and Michal Hatuel Radoshitzky, BDS and Antisemitism: Examining the Ministry of Strategic Affairs‘ Report, The Jerusalem Post, 11.10.2019, BDS-and-antisemitism-604286 and Yael Patir, Who needs the Strategic Affairs Ministry?, Haaretz, 20.10.2019, 
ministry-1.8009618. For NGO Monitor see the website as well as a critical assessment by Policy Working Group, NGO Monitor: Shrinking Space – Defaming human rights organizations that criticize the Israeli occupation, September 2018, 

16 For a chronology see Middle East Monitor, Timeline: International attempts to boycott BDS, 16.3.2017, bds/. In October 2019, motions similar to the one adopted by the Bundestag were also prepared or adopted in the Czech, Austrian and French parliaments. 

17 Micha Brumlik, Unter BDS-Verdacht: der neue McCarthyismus, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 8/2019.

18 In September 2019, Minister Erdan presented the report on BDS in the EU Parliament together with the EU Anti-Semitism Coordinator Katharina von Schnurbein and subsequently met with the German Coordinator Felix Klein. 

19 Nathan Sharansky, 3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization, Jewish Political Studies Review, 17:1-2, 2005,; IHRA, Working definition of Antisemitism, 26.5.2016,

20 Andreas Geisel, "Sie stellen das Existenzrecht Israels in Frage", Zeit Online, 25.9.2019,

21 See Peter Ullrich, Expert Opinion on the 'Working Definition of Anti-Semitism' of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, September 2019, p. 3, https://www.

22 See Aufruf von Jüdischen und Israelischen Wissenschaftler an Deutsche Parteien zu ‘BDS‘, May 2019, Wissenschaftler-an-Deutsche-Parteien-zu-BDS

23 See ruling of the Higher Administrative Court Lüneburg, 27.3.2019; ruling of the des Administrative Court Cologne, 12.9.2019; ruling of the State Court Munich, 23.9.2019. 

24 Federica Mogherini, Parliamentary Questions – Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini on behalf of the Commission, 15.9.2016,; Rania Salloum and Christoph Schult, Resolution zu BDSBoykottbewegung: Uno rügt Antisemitismus-Beschluss des Bundestages, in: Spiegel, 25.10.2019, bundestags-a-1293375.html.

25 See Natan Sznaider and Doron Rabinovic, Neuer Antisemitismus? Fortsetzung einer globalen Debatte, Frankfurt a.M., March 2019, p. 11f.