Israel’s leading Holocaust historian has declared the BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions — campaign “a total failure” and denounced it for its true agenda, a desire “to abolish Israel because it is Jewish”.

Professor Yehuda Bauer was in conversation with the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq, at London’s JW3. The event took place under the auspices of the left-wing Zionist group, Yachad, which brought the 90-year-old academic to the UK for a series of meetings.

Bauer, emeritus professor of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University and an academic adviser to Yad Vashem, said: “Anti-Zionists love Jews, especially dead ones. With live Jews, they have a problem. When you want to destroy the Jewish state, because it is a Jewish state, that means you are an anti-Semite. If you want to criticise the Israeli government, it’s perfectly legitimate. But if you want to abolish a state, that’s a genocidal thing — and the only way to abolish Israel is to destroy the Jews who live there.”

To laughter from the packed audience, Professor Bauer said: “You don’t want to buy an Israeli avocado from a London shop? Fine. Don’t. But if you want to change Israel, then the way to do it is to do the opposite of the boycott, to try to have relations with Israel, to influence the Israeli public. To have academics from outside visit Israel and vice versa, business contacts, and have mutual interests.

“The boycott people attack Israel because it’s Jewish, because if they were really concerned about the denial of human rights, then why Israel, why not India? There’s a Muslim majority in Kashmir which is forcefully ruled by a Hindu minority. You have Tibet, conquered by China, where terrible things happened and thousands lost their lives in these struggles.”

The professor’s belief in human contact across the divide featured in his response to a question from a Muslim woman in the audience, who asked about the Middle East conflict. Professor Bauer said he had no easy answer and was not optimistic about “imposed” solutions from outside governments.

But he was keen, he said, on the development of existing contacts between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly in the areas of health, law, business and hi-tech.”The more you spread these contacts, the more you form a ground on which a later political opportunity can enter”, he said, adding that without such cross-people conversations, it would be much more difficult to achieve a political sttlement.