Growing up in Israel, I joined a lot of organizations: Youth Against Racism, Hashomer Hatza’ir, Reut Sadaka, and maybe one or two groups even further to the left. I attended Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and Meretz Youth weekend seminars, a kind of experience I’ve never seen in the US, not even when I was a college student. At these seminars, high school students would listen to Members of Knesset, well known professors and journalists, professional youth educators and others as they dissected Israel’s social issues.
During this entire formative period, regardless of where you stood in the left wing spectrum, certain things were true:
- Our side was in favor of dialogue with the Palestinians, while right wing Israelis were racists who denied the Palestinians essential humanity, let along their human and national rights.
- Our side addressed a combination of moral elements and enlightened self-interest. The occupation might be wrong, but it is also suicidal.
- Our side drew inspiration from Western values that flowed from the enlightenment. Rationality, skepticism, a slight fear of the mob, an emphasis on individual identity over collective identity.
- Our side was focused on liberating Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) from the burden of having to represent anything else other than who we were. In other words, even the hard core Zionists were often in favor of ‘post Zionist’ measures like removing religion from identity cards, affirming the validity of the Palestinian narrative, and de-mythologizing the founding of Israel.
I was part of the lucky minority of Israel Jews that interacted with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories on a regular basis. They represented a fairly diverse range of opinions and backgrounds, though less from among the poor and seriously religious, a bit more from the upper and middle classes, the Christians, and those from larger cities and villages. At a certain point, my identity as an Israeli changed into one that wholeheartedly embraced the reality of Israel: one fifth Palestinian, one fifth Russian, inclusive of countless racial, ethnic and religious minorities, with a tragic mix of conflicting impulses. Together, we were Israeli, and deserved to be truly equal for all our sakes.
If only the left could organize more successfully! If we had just a bit more electoral power, a bit more leverage, then a government would come into power and start the transition – undoubtedly lengthy – into a real democracy, side by side with Palestinians. You know – our friends from all the summer camps. We resisted the right wing with all our might, but we never looked at their voters in our midst as irrelevant. There were often just like us, but with views we opposed. Someday they’d understand how logical our approach was, what a wonderful future lay in store for a smaller Israel, side by side with a free Palestine.
My problem with the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement is that it treats the entire field of democratic contention in Israel as so much wasted breath. Was all that effort I put into inviting Jews to meet Palestinians for the first time just wasted? Were all those weekend seminars and visits to Arab villages, the West Bank and Gaza for nothing? All the time spent passing out election flyers and poll watching – just wasted effort? What about the months I spent in military prison as a refusenik?
I spent years arguing that the basic conflict in Israel and the Middle East generally was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between supporters of the ‘democratic camp’ and ‘the right.’ My democratic camp included Palestinians, and even better, I was included when they were talking about the ‘democratic camp’ in Arabic, to to Palestinian audiences.
When Gush Shalom inaugurated the age of BDS by calling for a boycott of settlement products in 1997, I was there, happily participating and promoting. This was a boycott strategy that respected the lines of demarcation I had come to believe in: me, the Israeli left and the Palestinians seeking statehood on one side, the settlers and their allies on the other. It always did feel like a shame that more Palestinian organizations didn’t join in that effort; but it made some sense. They were state building; we were fighting the occupation.
I realize I’m not linking to quotes here. But listening to the stream of pro-BDS statements on twitter, email lists I subscribe to and blogs I visit, what I hear is the abandonment of the Israeli public as a site of struggle. Why bother? If the goal is unrelenting international pressure designed to bend Israel to the will if its critics, then the left in Israel is reduced to the status of impotent cheerleader. Dear world: we have failed – do our job for us. Bend our elected leaders to your will.
And if the BDS strategy succeeds, will the Israeli left be in any kind of leadership position compared to today? Of course not. We’ll be reviled as the servants of foreign enemies. Victorious foreign enemies. Unlike in South Africa, Israeli left wing Jews will not become part of the ruling, post colonial infrastructure in a multiracial party, as left wing whites were within the ANC. We’ll be ‘Jews’ to the Palestinians, and ‘Arab lovers’ to the Jews.
If the BDS strategy fails, it will have strengthened the most backward elements in Israeli society, giving more and more prominence to the least democratic politicians. It will have played a role in the unraveling of the protections that did exist, for Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab. As Uri Avnery wrote: “Anyone who understands this must be interested in a worldwide protest that does not push the Israeli population into the arms of the settlers, but, on the contrary, isolates the settlers and turns the general (Israeli) public against them.”
I can’t find it in me to denounce BDS in general. Or to give it a blanket endorsement. Mostly, it just fills me with sadness to see how irrelevant my generation of peace-fighters turned out to be. My ideology has always been about fighting ‘for the people.’ My people too. Even as a small political minority, our vision was explicitly for everyone. The BDS vision is for the Palestinians – not the Israeli Jews. The solidarity movement they have built is for the Palestinians – not the ‘democratic camp’ of my youth that included me as well. Maybe it’s better strategy in some objective sense. But it feels to me like a retreat to a place of hopelessness.