Jewish boycott: a history



On January 15, thousands of pro-Palestinian protestors in New York City marched past Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a hospital which treats patients with cancer, including children. 

They came up to the windows and screamed at the patients and staff, crying “genocide,” “shame,” and “complicit.” They specifically made sure that the patients inside could hear them. 

The protest, led by the organization Within Our Lifetime, claimed that they targeted the hospital because it collaborates with Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, and because it has accepted donations from “Zionists.”

According to a 74-year-old woman who had to be escorted by police away from the massive crowd, “I thought I was in Germany in 1939. I’m astounded. I think it’s horrific.”

Most reasonable people probably agree that shouting at cancer patients, including children, because of something happening half a world away is absurd. But the demonization of businesses and institutions that are even tangentially associated with Jews and the State of Israel actually has a long historic precedent. 



Ken Griffin is not Jewish. He probably doesn’t think of Zionism much. His crime? He signed a letter condemning the Harvard student groups who blamed Israel for the October 7 massacre. 

To summarize: Nerdeen thinks that it’s okay to scream at cancer patients because they are receiving treatment at a cancer center which accepted a $400 million donation from a billionaire who signed a letter condemning people who victim-blamed Israel for its own massacre. 

That’s a rather tenuous “connection” to the Israel-Hamas War. This “evidence” that Sloan Kettering and its patients are not “innocent bystanders” in a war half a world away is a reach longer than the Hamas tunnels. 

This kind of “activism” does absolutely nothing tangible to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. This is driven by antisemitism and antisemitism only. This is about the demonization of anything and anyone that is even remotely connected to Israel. It’s about the demonization of anything and anyone who is even a little bit supportive of Jews’ right to live. 



You’ve probably heard of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933. It’s important to note that, according to the Nazis, their boycott was merely a “defense” from the worldwide (largely Jewish-led) anti-Nazi boycott. 

The real motive behind the Nazi boycott was to marginalize their own Jewish population financially and socially. 

On April 1, 1933, the Nazis carried out their first planned action against Jews. Nazi militants stood threateningly outside of Jewish stores, offices, and more. They graffitied the establishments with Stars of Davids and antisemitic slogans. They shamed customers who attempted to cut through past the crowds with antisemitic signs. 



In 1922, Arab leaders began boycotting Jewish businesses in Mandatory Palestine (irrespective of the owners’ politics or how long they had lived there). Palestinian Arabs who refused to boycott Jews were violently attacked by their fellow Arabs.

In 1933, the Syrian-Palestinian Congress officially called for the boycott of Jewish businesses. In 1945, three years before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab League passed a declaration stating that “Products of Palestinian Jews are to be considered undesirable in Arab countries.”

The boycott still stands, though it has been broken by the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, which have since signed peace treaties or agreements with Israel. 



In the 1940s and 1950s, 850,000 Jews were expelled from the Arab world, reducing the Arab world’s ancient Jewish population by nearly 100 percent. These expulsions happened under the guise of…you guessed it…anti-Zionism.

The politics of individual Jews were totally irrelevant, and the so-called “proof” of Zionism was tenuous at best. For example, in one case in Iraq, a man was sentenced to five years of forced labor for having a Biblical Hebrew inscription, which the accusers claimed was a “coded Zionist message.” Hebrew, a language that long predates the Zionist movement, was demonized because Jews were demonized. 

The biggest shock came to the Jewish community when the wealthiest Jew in Iraq, an anti-Zionist named Shafiq Ades, was accused of Zionism and was executed on charges of Zionism. Why? Because he was Jewish. 

In 1947, the Egyptian prime minister told the British ambassador: “All Jews were potential Zionists [and] ...anyhow all Zionists were Communists.”

Similarly, in the 1950s, the Egyptian government once again proclaimed, “All Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.” Thousands of Jews were imprisoned, assets were seized, and more. Ironically, prominent anti-Zionist Jews were also removed from their positions and ended up leaving. 

These, of course, are just some examples. 



In 1918, the midst of the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Communist Party established a “Jewish branch,” with the consent of Vladimir Lenin. It was named “Yevsetskiya,” meaning “Jewish Sections of the Communist Party.”

The mission of the Yevsetskiya was, quite literally, the “destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture.” In other words, this Jewish branch of the Soviet government was dedicated solely to the destruction of fellow Soviet Jewry. The fact that the Yevsetskiya was “Jewish” was central to its purpose. After all, the Soviet regime couldn’t be accused of antisemitism when those shutting down all Jewish cultural and spiritual life were Jews themselves.

Initially, the Yevsetskiya legally abolished the “kehillas,” the traditional Jewish community organizations. Sometimes, they even burned their offices down. After their 1919 conference, when they deemed Zionism “counterrevolutionary,” they resolved to destroy all “Zionist activity,” which meant that they shut down everything from political groups to theaters to sports clubs. They raided all Ukrainian “Zionist” offices and arrested every single one of their leaders; they also arrested thousands more in the rest of the Soviet Union.

the Yevsetskiya shut down all schools that taught Hebrew, no matter their political views, and harassed Hebrew-speaking artists.

Until their dissolution in 1929, they imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands of Jews.

According to historian of Soviet history Richard Pipes, “In time, every Jewish cultural and social organization came under assault.”



As mentioned, the Soviet Union heavily suppressed Jewish cultural and spiritual life, stripping many Jewish families of thousands of years’ worth of history. For example, though not officially illegal, Jews were punished for speaking or studying Hebrew or participating in religious traditions. Jews were not allowed to assimilate into Soviet society due to their ethnic background, but they were also criminalized if they tried to hang on to their ancient traditions, ultimately resulting in a catch-22. Oftentimes, Jews were imprisoned under false pretenses, with the Soviet government accusing them of “Zionist crimes.” People with Jewish last names were subject to highly restrictive university quotas or banned from performing certain jobs. 

Following the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the oppression of Soviet Jewry drastically intensified. Desperate for a better life, thousands of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas, mostly to Israel. However, the Soviet regime almost always denied them such visas, citing bogus excuses, claiming that, sometime in the past, these Jews had been privy to information vital to Soviet national security, and, as such, allowing their emigration would put the Soviet Union at risk. These Jews came to be known as “refuseniks.”

During this period, Soviet Jews were portrayed as traitors or agitators. Requesting exit visas was considered an act of treason. In order to apply for exit visas, Jews first had to quit their jobs; however, this put them at risk of being accused of “social parasitism,” which was considered a crime. After having their visas refused, Jews were also then prevented from obtaining new work. Then, this joblessness was criminalized. Soviet Jews were stuck in an impossible living situation.



BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a movement and non-profit organization that promotes boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel. 

Is boycotting a Jewish or Israeli-owned company is inherently antisemitic or xenophobic? Well, that depends. First, you are entitled to not support any company — anywhere in the world — that does not align with your values. However, boycotting a company based solely on the owner’s ethnicity, religion, or nationality absolutely is a bigoted position to take.

Notably, proponents of BDS use tactics very similar to those of the Arab world and the Soviets. They find tenuous “connections” — such as Sloan Kettering Cancer Center accepting a $400 million donation from someone they deem a “Zionist” — as a thinly-veiled excuse to marginalize Jews out of public life. 

Nothing makes this clearer than the Mapping Project. In 2022, BDS Boston created the “Mapping Project,” a map depicting “Zionist organizations” to boycott and protest in Massachusetts. The map included Jewish summer camps, Jewish disability centers, Jewish nonprofits, and more.  

A Jewish summer camp and a Jewish disability center has zero say on Israeli policy. Boycotting a Jewish summer camp or disability center does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians; rather, all it does is further marginalize, demonize, and endanger Jews. 



These fliers encouraging people to boycott “Zionist” businesses recently popped up all over San Francisco. These businesses most likely have absolutely no say on Israeli policy. This doesn’t help Palestinians whatsoever. Like the Soviets and the Arab countries before them, campaigns like this one merely marginalize all expressions of Jewish and Israeli cultural identity. Would you hold a Mexican restaurant decorated with Mexican flags responsible for the policies of the Mexican government? Probably not, huh?

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