A senior European Union representative has been advised to malign Palestine solidarity campaigners.
Vera Jourova, the EU’s justice commissioner, was given a briefing paper earlier this year about how to handle various topics in a discussion with the pro-Israel lobby.
Drawn up by Brussels officials, the paper provides some talking points about the EU’s “position” on the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. It alleges that “the encouragement of boycotts against cultural and academic institutions or artists” contradicts the “EU’s stand on non-discrimination and freedom of expression.”
That paints a false picture of the BDS movement. Its activities are subject to guidelines, which make clear that the cultural boycott does not target Israeli artists as individuals.
The cultural boycott is, instead, applied to artists who represent the Israeli state or institutions complicit in Israeli crimes or take part in branding exercises intended to divert attention away from the oppression of Palestinians.
Jourova’s briefing paper - obtained under freedom of information rules - was prepared ahead of a Holocaust memorial ceremony held in January this year.
The ceremony was hosted by Israel’s embassy to the EU and the American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israel advocacy group.
The officials who drew up the paper recycle almost verbatim accusations made in 2016 by Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU’s anti-Semitism coordinator. Von Schnurbein had claimed that “anti-Semitic incidents rise after BDS activities” in Europe’s universities. She was unable to provide specific examples of such incidents when asked.
Jourova’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The BDS National Committee, a Palestinian umbrella group that coordinates boycott activities, stated that it was “appalled” by Jourova’s briefing paper. The document “defamed the BDS movement as anti-Semitic,” Ingrid Jaradat, a legal adviser to the committee, stated.
A crucial detail omitted from the briefing paper is that the BDS movement has consistently denounced anti-Jewish bigotry.
Jourova’s briefing paper is at odds with previous comments made by other EU representatives.
The Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated last year that the EU “stands firm in protecting freedom of expression.” Although she opposed the boycott of Israel, Mogherini recognized that activists have a right to advocate BDS tactics. That right is protected by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Despite the clarity of that statement, some of the EU’s institutions and governments have continued to cast aspersions against the Palestine solidarity movement.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has conflated opposition to Israel’s state ideology Zionism with hatred of Jews. On Sunday, Macron called anti-Zionism “a mere re-invention of anti-Semitism.”
Macron’s comments echo a decades-long effort by Israel and its supporters to imply that Palestine solidarity activists have ulterior motives. The efforts have been undertaken since at least 1973, when Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, labeled anti-Zionism as the “new anti-Semitism.”
That deliberate dishonesty has been reflected by a dubious definition of anti-Semitism approved last year by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body.
That definition is virtually identical to one which was proposed by pro-Israel lobby groups more than a decade earlier. It recommends that strong criticism of Israel – such as describing that state’s foundation as a “racist endeavor” – should be seen as anti-Semitic.
Even the definition’s lead author, formerly a senior figure in the American Jewish Committee, has strongly criticized efforts to use it to stifle speech critical of Israel.
Yet the German government has been particularly supportive of the definition. In late 2016, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then the German foreign minister, contacted senior EU officials to argue that the definition was a “very useful instrument for combating anti-Semitism – both for the police and in science and education.”
The definition is not legally binding. Yet 24 of the EU’s 28 governments have endorsed it. According to internal documents, police services in a number of the Union’s countries are already using the definition for training purposes.
During a visit to Israel last month, Jourova issued a joint statement with her hosts applauding the European Parliament for endorsing the definition. She encouraged governments to use it while monitoring their citizens’ activities.
Not for the first time, the European Union’s representatives are sending out mixed signals. Supposed champions of free speech are trying to muzzle dissent. Solidarity is being smeared to placate an increasingly belligerent Israeli government.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 20 July 2017.