Jewish People's Assembly outside the JFNA General Assembly, photos by Gili Getz

Thoughts on BDS; or, What are You Doing to End the Occupation?

I want to start off with this quote from a post on the website Mondoweiss:

There are actually two types of liberal Zionists… One type is genuinely appalled by Israel’s behavior and criticize them almost as harshly as we do. They may even favor BDS or if their Zionism prevents that, they acknowledge that Israel reaps what it sows. The other type only cares about the two state solution as some abstract goal whose only purpose is to make them sound liberal. They downplay the cruelty of Israel as much as possible, never speak about Israeli atrocities though they do condemn Palestinian terror, and restrict their criticism to settlement building. That last bit is crucial– it is true that settlements are a crucial issue, but by reducing Israel’s crimes to settlement building they make Israeli misdeeds seem nonviolent and abstract, while the only violence ever condemned is Palestinian… The injustice to Palestinians isn’t something that should create any sort of rift between the US and Israel. Some people matter and some don’t.

I fall into the first category (let’s call them LZ1s). I consider the ongoing Occupation of the Palestinian people by Israel a crime, inexcusable both politically and morally. It can only be supported by Jews both in Israel and in America (that is, by LZ2s) by a combination of willful ignorance, clinging to hasbara, and an astonishing lack of empathy for the plight of the people that (need I remind you) we Jews are oppressing.
Israel’s actions are protected by the US government politically, by the use of its veto in the UN Security Council, and economically/militarily, to the tune of $3 billion dollars per year – far in excess of both Israel’s importance on the world stage and the military threats it faces from its neighbors. As as been amply demonstrated during the current presidency, any attempt to pressure on Israel to limit its settlement activities or to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians is met with massive political pressure within the US, from a Congress that marches in lockstep with AIPAC and from a political echelon (in both parties) who fear “the Israel Lobby” electorally.
Thus, no progress.
So what options are there? One response has been the development of the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Said to have been called for by “Palestinian civil society”, BDS calls for economic and cultural sanctions against Israel, including boycotting Israeli products, encouraging public figures and entertainers not to visit Israel, and excluding academic and cultural figures from international forums such as conferences etc.
This approach has been criticized as being over-broad and borderline (at least) antisemitic. However, a small but significant and growing number of Jews do support BDS. The main example of this among those who consider themselves active Jews is Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Jewish wing of the BDS movement. BDS, and therefore JVP, are considered anathema by the mainstream Jewish communal structures, so much so that it has led to an ancillary conflict on college campuses between those who want to exclude BDS supporters from participation in forums hosted by Jewish institutions such as Hillel, and those who consider this an unacceptable suppression of free speech and expression. But that’s a topic for another day.
Among those who, like me, are fed up with Israel’s intransigence and want to exert some kind of pressure, or at least make our opinions known, options (aside from BDS) include J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” alternative to AIPAC, which focuses on supporting more moderate Congressional representation; and a kind of modified boycott of products that come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), proposed with much attention by columnist Peter Beinart a couple of years ago.
Those of us on the left do not consider the OPT to be part of Israel, and we are at pains to maintain that distinction (such as, for instance, maintaining the so-called “Green Line”, that, prior to 1967, separated Israel from what became the OPT, on maps and in textbooks used in Jewish religious schools). In this we act against the will of the Israeli government, which is at great pains to erase the Green Line.
That is to say, there is a purposeful confusion promulgated by the Israeli government and its international supporters, between the boycott of the OPT and the boycott of Israel itself – for if there’s no distinction between the two, then boycotting the territories is boycotting Israel. This confusion is abated by LZ2s, who may wish for peace but consider off-limits any actions that might influence Israel to pursue it. We LZ1s hold onto the distinction, probably past the point where it actually exists.
Many former LZ1s, through heartache and frustration with Israel’s behavior, have become supporters of BDS. I count many of my friends among them – people whose Zionist upbringing and bona fides are beyond question, yet who now serve on JVP’s rabbinic council,.A recent “conversion”story was published in the Washington Post. Called “We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel,” it’s well worth a read if you haven’t already.
I can strongly identify with their level of frustration. Between the assault on Gaza last year, the reelection of the Netanyahu government (even more rightwing than the last “most rightwing ever” Israeli government), the ongoing and expanding settlement project (another 454 new units in East Jerusalem last week) and the increasing violence and racism of Jewish Israeli society, the humanist values that many of us thought Israel represented have turned into either, “Criticism of Israel isn’t necessarily antisemitic, but we can’t think of a single example that isn’t,” or “Why are you complaining about Israel? Isn’t Syria (or Iran, or Isis, or North Korea, or I don’t know, the Kligon empire) worse?”
I have not taken the step of joining JVP or otherwise announcing support for full-on BDS, for a number of reasons:
a) Israelis don’t see BDS and say, We better change our approach. They see BDS and think, the whole world is against us.
I don’t remember where I saw this, but an article recently articulated a major difference between South Africa and Israel: white South Africans maintained their identities as Europeans, maintained cultural and familial connections with family in Europe and thus felt they had someplace to go if they felt that they needed to after apartheid fell. Israel, on the other hand, is the product of the idea that the Jewish people have no place else in the world to go, that all the options had been tried and had proven to have failed. This idea – that “we have no place else to go” – whether it’s literally true or not, is psychologically very strong. 
b) The mainstream Jewish community rejects BDS, and – despite my, shall we say, checkered history within it – I still hope to retain some influence there. I also understand that this very post probably precludes that, but still, it’s a step I’m not ready to take.
c) As a human rights advocate and a civil libertarian, I am in principle opposed to cultural and academic boycotts. To this I would add two points:

  1. This does not require anyone to go to Israel for cultural events or academic conferences or sporting events, and
  1. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: pushing Steven Salaita out of his post at University of Illinois because of his political opinions, or objecting to pro-Palestinian speakers or activism on college campuses, are every bit as objectionable an infringement on academic or cultural freedom as boycotting an Israeli academic or speaker.

d) A lot of BDSers are against the existence of the state of Israel, and JVP itself is agnostic on the subject, but for me, the alternatives are bleak. It’s hard to imagine a binational state working after everything that’s happened, when even the Czechs and the Slovaks don’t want to be in a state together. Maybe some kind of federal arrangement could work, I don’t know. I’m rather a Utopian, so i don’t want to say it’s impossible. But while the time for the two-state solution may well have passed, any final status arrangement would have to include some means by which the Jewish community could control the borders and cultural life of whatever entity it’s left with, for all the (valid) reasons that Zionism arose in the first place. In the end, I’m still a liberal (post-)Zionist, lame as that may be at this point.
So if a full economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel is not the answer, but yet the status quo is intolerable, something must be done – but what?

  • Support J-Street. The Iran deal contretemps exposed fissures in the bipartisan support of the political echelon for Israel’s policies. (Note that I don’t say, “Support for Israel.”) In particular, the grassroots of the Democratic party doesn’t seem to feel that Netanyahu deserves unquestioning American protection and support. Hillary Clinton’s recent love letter to Netanyahu is a throwback to an earlier era, when AIPAC was invulnerable and Democrats feared being seen as unfriendly. There may be billionaires who will decide how to spend based on Bibiphilia, but Jews don’t vote that way and the oligarchs aren’t going to give that money to Democrats anyway.

J-Street has its problems, being at once too moderate, too inside-the-Beltway, and too autocratic. But given where the politics on this issue are, it has an crucial role to play.

  • Support New Israel Fund. One of the most scary aspects of Israel’s tumble down the right-wing rabbit hole has been the vilification of vital human rights NGOs such as B’Tzelem or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). There is even a current proposal that their representatives wear distinctive markings when they visit the Knesset, which is unfortunately not the only way Israel has become like that which it hates. (This dynamic exists in American Jewish precincts as well, primarily in the case of Human Rights Watch, which is criticized for, apparently, not continuing its name with “except when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.”)

New Israel Fund (itself similarly vilified) is the main overseas fund-raiser of these irreplaceable organizations.

  • Stay informed – even when it hurts. Ignorance is not an excuse. There is plenty of information out there. Read the webpages of the human rights organizations I mentioned earlier. Read Gideon Levy and Amira Hass in Haaretz. Read Juan Cole and +972 Magazine, especially Dahlia Scheindlin and Noam Sheizaf. Read Daoud Kuttab and Rami Khouri. If you’re really brave, read Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal. Most or all of these also have Twitter feeds, so they’re easy to find and follow.
  • Stop denying and rationalizing. People are so eager to see plausible (-ish) justifications for positions they desperately want to agree with. Israel has a ton of people doing hasbara (propaganda) for it, some of it paid for by the Israeli government, some of it by American philanthropists. It has as much value as any other propaganda – which is to say, not much. The idea that the IDF or the Israeli government is somehow more credible than other sources, in situations where their interests clearly lie in making themselves look blameless, is implausible, to say the least. The phrases, “They brought it on themselves,” “they use human shields” or any variation of Golda Meir’s ugly and tiresome, “We’ll never forgive them for making us kill them” should be treated with an entire shaker of salt, not just a grain. And StandWithUs, the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Israel Project, Free Beacon, or their ilk should not be treated as any more than the propaganda outlets they are.
  • Support economic sanctions that specifically target the Israeli occupation. Several years ago, when I was a Jewish Federation director, our major communal relations initiative was to fend off church-based economic sanctions against Caterpillar and other companies whose products are used to support the Occupation. My language in those interactions was focused on Israelis and Palestinians understanding each other’s narratives, the long history of Christian antisemitism, and the importance of not usurping negotiations. Since then it has become apparent that international quiet only leads to more Israeli intransigence. So – the European labeling of settlement products? Go for it. The Episcopal Church wants to divest from Caterpillar because of the use of its products in human rights violations? I’m completely supportive.

Either the Occupation is not Israel, and actions targeted against it are not against Israel’s “right to exist,” or the Occupation is Israel, and Israel’s existence depends entirely on the forced suppression of Palestinian identity and nationhood. In the latter case, we would have to rethink the entire Zionist project, which I suppose is what BDS does. I’m not there, but you can’t have it both ways.
Oh, and feel free to academically and culturally boycott anyone who lives or works in the Occupied Territories as well. 

  • Grow your compassion. This is a personal, or I guess communal, spiritual practice. Need I remind you that the Torah time and again instructs us to “love the stranger, for you yourself were strangers in the land of Egypt”? To my mind the greatest contribution of contemporary Judaism is the idea that the purpose of human life is to partner with God in the task of repairing the world. Dedication to human rights, economic justice, and tikkun olam are, in my opinion, core Jewish values. Israel is currently, tragically, on the wrong side of these issues. Ethnic solidarity and saving the remnant is important, but not at the cost of our souls.

Here’s a question to ask your synagogue or rabbi, your Federation, your JCRC, your local Jewish newspaper. It’s a simple question, very clear and concise. It deserves to be considered, and it needs to be answered. It is this:
What are you doing to end the Occupation?
The oppression of the Palestinians is inexcusable. It is not “Jewish” in any way that makes any sense to me.
BDS is a response to Occupation, and is not, in its origin and motivation, an expression of antisemitism (although antisemites may well find common cause there). If Israel wants to deal with it, and to be a full and fully accepted member of the international community, even in the eyes of its coreligionists, then the Occupation must end. It’s really as simple as that.

One thought on “Thoughts on BDS; or, What are You Doing to End the Occupation?

  1. BDS, like this vile antizionist publication, seeks Israel’s destruction.
    For the life of me, I will never understand who these anti-israel lunatics think they are fooling.

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