Shalom Life | February 09, 2015

Jewish Boycotts, Then and Now

A clash between anti-boycott activists and a group of Jewish studies professors, which has recently become the subject of much debate in the American Jewish community, is actually just the latest of many boycott-related controversies that have divided U.S. Jewry over the years

By: Rafael Medoff

Published: October 16th, 2014 in News » World

Jewish Boycotts, Then and Now

Photo Caption: A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. The AMCHA initiative's recent posting of a list of 218 pro-BDS Middle Eastern studies professors drew criticism from a group of 40 Jewish studies who accused AMCHA of trying “to stifle debate” through its own boycott. AMCHA, however, claims it did not call for a boycott, but rather merely alerted students about potentially biased professors

Photo Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons


A clash between anti-boycott activists and a group of Jewish studies professors, which has recently become the subject of much debate in the American Jewish community, is actually just the latest of many boycott-related controversies that have divided U.S. Jewry over the years.

The current tumult began in August, when 218 Middle Eastern studies scholars at American universities signed a petition pledging to “boycott Israeli academic institutions,” to refrain from attending conferences held at Israeli universities, and to refuse to be published in Israel-based journals.

A pro-Israel group called the AMCHA Initiative then posted a list of the 218 signatories on its website, together with a note suggesting that students “who wish to become better educated on the Middle East without subjecting themselves to anti-Israel bias… may want to check which faculty members from their university are signatories [on the anti-Israel petition] before registering [for school],” since the faculty members’ signing of the petition indicates they are “biased against the Jewish state.”

Forty Jewish studies scholars responded with an Oct. 1 statement accusing AMCHA of trying “to stifle debate” by “launching a boycott initiative” against the 218 anti-Israel professors. AMCHA countered that it has not called for a boycott, but is merely alerting students about potentially biased professors.

A look back at history reveals that the sparring between the 40 Jewish professors and AMCHA is actually very much in line with American Jewish tradition.

Boycotting Nazi Germany

Shortly after the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, grassroots American Jewish activists began organizing a boycott of German goods, under the aegis of the newly formed American League for the Defense of Jewish Rights. Eventually, the boycott movement was adopted and led by a mainstream organization, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

Much of the picketing and other legwork was carried out by the Women’s Division of the AJCongress—one of the earliest manifestations of women’s activism in the Jewish community. Nazi officials noted their role with contempt. The government-controlled German press denounced its members as “women of the streets” (and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a leading boycott advocate, as “their pimp and procurer”). Women’s Division president Louise Wise called on the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to demand an apology from Berlin. “There are certain insults the United States cannot stand,” Congresswoman Edith N. Rogers declared on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The Nazis’ rhetoric likely reflected their anxiety about the impact of the boycott. “Hitler had promised to end the depression and unemployment, and his base of popular support would diminish unless he could produce some results,” notes Prof. Melvin Urofsky, biographer of AJCongress leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. The boycott movement “could have serious effects on the economy, a fact the chancellor’s economic advisors well knew,” Urofsky says.

But while German officials worried about the damage caused to their economy by the boycott, some American Jews worried about the damage it might cause to their status in the U.S. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) warned that “the boycott is likely to stimulate anti-Semitic activity,” because “the anti-Semites [will] make use of the myth that the Jews exert a so-called ‘world economic influence.’” AJC official Joseph Proskauer charged that the boycott “imperils the foreign relations of my country—which is America—with a government with whom we are at peace.”

Some Jewish academics, too, were concerned. Solomon Grayzel, a prominent American Jewish historian, criticized the boycott movement in his remarks at the 1934 convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. He asserted that an organized boycott would make American Jews appear “uncivilized.”

Grayzel’s academic achievements were impressive, but his judgment was not always the best. He earned a Ph.D. as well as rabbinical ordination, taught at several colleges, and served for 27 years as editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). He was arguably one of the Jewish community’s premier intellectuals. Yet in 1941, he rejected two book-length manuscripts that were submitted to JPS, one describing the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, and the other chronicling the persecution of Vienna Jewry, because he feared such reports were “terrorizing” American Jewry and “eroding the community’s self-confidence.”

Boycotting the British

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (pictured here addressing the United Nations in 1947) backed a form of a boycott on the British when he said that in view of England’s “shocking record of broken pledges” regarding the Mandate of Palestine, the U.S. could not afford “to make a loan to a government whose pledged word seems to be worthless.”

Photo Caption: Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (pictured here addressing the United Nations in 1947) backed a form of a boycott on the British when he said that in view of England’s “shocking record of broken pledges” regarding the Mandate of Palestine, the U.S. could not afford “to make a loan to a government whose pledged word seems to be worthless.”

England’s post-World War II policies in Palestine generated deep resentment in the American Jewish community. The British government’s backtracking on the Balfour Declaration, turning away of Jewish refugee ships such as the Exodus, and harsh crackdown on Palestine Jewry drove even the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis—which was still officially non-Zionist—to accuse the British of “Gestapo acts.”

The U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionists, known as the New Zionist Organization of America, called for a “boycott of British goods, shipping and services.” In a full-page newspaper ad in the New York Post, revisionist supporters announced the establishment of a “Sons of Liberty Boycott Committee,” mimicking the similarly named groups that were created in colonial America “to boycott British goods as a means of stopping British tyranny and oppression.”

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