On Tuesday, JTA published an op-ed coauthored by Jerry Silverman of the Jewish Federations of North America and Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs describing the threat of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement to Israel and the efforts of their organizations to counter that threat.
I resent having to provide this disclaimer every time the issue of BDS is broached, but here goes, because I don’t want to hear about it later: Though I don’t support a boycott of Israel in its entirety, I do support the boycott of Israeli and international businesses which operate in the occupied territories, occupation-complicit Israeli officials and institutions, and avowed Jewish nationalist extremists. I also support soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and Israeli NGOs which report on and legally challenge Israel’s human rights abuses.
I used to call myself a Zionist. I cannot any longer because of the increasingly rightward tilt of the community. I’m still a supporter of the two state solution, but I’m growing more sympathetic to the argument for one state, mostly because I do not see two states coming to pass due to the intransigence of Israel’s government, and because I’m extremely skeptical of Israel’s commitment to the rights of its Arab citizens. That’s why I’m neither hostile to BDS nor supportive of the Jewish community’s efforts to marginalize BDS supporters, and why, when I read Silverman and Gutow’s op-ed, I couldn’t help but find myself either incredulous or incensed at every line.
What follows, therefore, is a proper fisking.
Leaders of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement say they are protesting Israel’s policies in the West Bank. They are doing far more than that.
This is false and a way of accusing the BDS movement of wilfully misrepresenting its intentions. It also conflates supporters of BDS who target all of Israel, with supporters of so-called “Zionist BDS”, who target only settlements. In fact, the leaders of the BDS movement are explicit in saying that they are opposed to the Israeli occupation regime, which oversees the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; which perpetuates anti-Arab discrimination in Israel proper, where there are 50 laws on the books which target Arabs on the basis of ethnicity; to Zionist colonialism and expansionism, which seeks to disposesses the Palestinian people from East Jerusalem and the West Bank; and to the denial of Palestinian refugees’ legal right of return.
BDS advocates routinely oppose a two-state solution and seek to delegitimize the sovereign, Jewish State of Israel. In some cases, BDS becomes the latest form of anti-Semitism.
While it’s true that many BDS advocates support a binational state in which Jews and Arabs are equal citizens, some support two states, one Jewish and one Arab, living side-by-side. And yes, some are extremists who want the entire territory for their own. Which, frankly, sounds just like the political discourse in Israel to me. As usual, what is safe to discuss in Israel, is off-limits in American Jewish circles.
The BDS movement aims to isolate and punish Israel, using the same techniques applied to apartheid South Africa. Not hesitating to misrepresent facts and ignore context, these Israel bashers take advantage of ignorance and naïveté within civil society circles, mostly in Western Europe, to advance their anti-Israel agenda.
This series of generalizations could easily be turned back on pro-Israel advocates, who themselves never hesitate to misrepresent facts and ignore context, as this entire op-ed itself illustrates. For example, the next paragraph:
BDS advocates view the situation in the West Bank through a one-way lens, seeing only a single perspective. They cite, for example, the security checkpoints that make life difficult for Palestinians but conveniently overlook the reasons for those checkpoints. They ignore the fact that hurting Israel’s economy would also hurt Palestinians who earn their livelihoods from Israeli-owned businesses.
To insinuate that the checkpoints were instituted because of security threats against Israel ignores the fact that the system of checkpoints was established under the Oslo peace accords, not in response to the second intifada. And checkpoints are only the tiniest sliver of the horrors Palestinians are subjected to under occupation and to which Palestinian solidarity activists object. How about the mass-incarceration of Palestinian male youth with administrative detention orders? Nighttime raids on civilian homes? House demolitions? The targeting of civilian infrastructure? Restriction on so-called “luxury” imports? How does banning crayons and soccer balls help Israel’s security?
Also: Palestinians should not need to be dependent on their oppressor for their sustenance. They should have the ability to build their own businesses in a free Palestine that has its own import/export controls. Here, the authors are making a disingenuous expression of care for the plight of Palestinians, for whom it is obvious they have no regard.
The statement echoes that of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who argued in 1985 against the boycott of South Africa because it would harm the economic interests of blacks living under apartheid. It is an insistence without merit.
BDS backers don’t bother to protest the many countries that have horrific human rights records, instead singling out the world’s only Jewish state, often based on false or misrepresented information.
BDS is a movement instituted by Palestinian civil society organizations and supported by the international Palestinian solidarity movement, including thousands of Jews in Israel and the diaspora who oppose the occupation. Why should Palestinians and Jews be more concerned with what happens elsewhere in the world than with what happens in Israel and the occupied territories?
Also, as an American, one must ask oneself: How many other human rights abusing regimes claim to be liberal democracies that share an unbreakable bond with the United States, driven by commonly-held values? And how many receive the unparalleled diplomatic, economic, and military support of the United States?
A tipping point for the Jewish community’s response to BDS came in 2009 when a number of anti-Israel groups called for a boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival because one of its themes was Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary. The Toronto and Los Angeles Jewish federations joined forces and, with the involvement of major figures in the entertainment industry, fashioned an effective response.
The cause for the boycott was not the theme of Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary, but the participation of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the festival. The MFA’s goal in participating was the implementation of their Brand Israel strategy, which sought to whitewash Israel’s international image — just as these authors seek to do.
With calls for BDS escalating in the mainline Protestant churches, on college campuses and elsewhere, Jewish community leaders realize that the situation calls for more than an ad hoc approach: Local communities need a strategic approach with national support and coordination.
In 2010, the Jewish Federations of North America, representing more than 150 local federations, allocated significant resources so that the Israel Action Network could serve this purpose. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs — with its 16 national member organizations, including all four of the religious movements, and 125 Jewish community relations councils, which work with non-Jewish coalition partners on a range of international and domestic concerns — was the JFNA’s obvious partner.
With 40% of Jews living below the poverty line, and many more living on the brink, as well as a Jewish education affordability crisis on our hands which deeply threatens the sustainability of the non-Orthodox Jewish community in the U.S., it’s good to know we’re sinking so much of our communal resources into stopping activists from non-violently protesting Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights. Hashtag priorities.
One principle that guides this work is that we should understand our audiences. And when we speak with others, we should do so with a respect for the sensitivities of that constituency so that our important messages are authentically heard. Whether on a campus, in a church or speaking with an LGBT group, we should always be clear that we stand as partners, sharing the goal of a future with peace and security — not one of conflict and BDS.
Yes, always speak respectfully when addressing critics of Israel — while impugning their motives; while insisting they are antisemites; while banning them from addressing Jewish institutions; while financing intelligence operations to spy on, discredit, and disrupt them; and while employing state power to silence them. Show how eagerly you wish to avoid conflict by boycotting the boycotters!
Are these people for real?
Experience and research demonstrate that what works best with these audiences — mostly made up of political and religious progressives — is not an all-good-vs.-all-bad characterization of Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, a more nuanced narrative is the one that is likely to defeat the one-sided and hostile stance of those seeking to delegitimize Israel.
This means honestly conveying the situation’s complexity, expressing empathy for suffering on both sides (without implying moral equivalency) and offering a constructive pathway to helping the parties move toward peace and reconciliation based on two states for two peoples.
Yes, the best way to deal with these audiences is by patronizing them, and offering a more “nuanced” narrative in which Palestinians remain the cause of their own suffering. We wouldn’t dare wish to imply that Palestinians are morally equivalent, or heaven forbid morally superior, to their oppressor of 65 years. They are, after all, iredeemable baby killers. /sarcasm
JFNA and the JCPA say they wish to move toward peace and reconciliation based on two states for two peoples. Is that why they never challenge or condemn Israeli settlement expansion, land expropriation, price tag attacks, or Israeli politicians who call for annexation of the West Bank? Instead, they insist that the Palestinian Authority recognize a 20% Arab-populated Israel as an exclusively Jewish state, while at the same time they liken the Palestinian Authority to Nazis by claiming they desire a “Judenrein” Palestine with their demand that illegal settlers return to Israeli territory.
Whether we are dealing with a boycott of Israeli academic institutions adopted by the American Studies Association or an attempt to remove Israeli products from a Brooklyn food co-op, the most effective opponents of these initiatives are the people who travel in those circles.
Yes, the most effective opponents of these initiatives are those who are directly affected by them, which is why these organizations insert themselves into each and every one of these situations and turn them into a rallying cry for the community. Anyone who has ever worked in development for a Jewish nonprofit knows, rallying Jews around the threat of antisemitism is the most effective continual fundraising strategy.
While we in the organized Jewish community should not remain silent in the face of Israel’s delegitimization, we should strongly support and accentuate the efforts of these third-party validators who share our values and viewpoints. The 247 (and counting) universities and colleges that have denounced academic boycotts generally — and academic boycotts of Israel specifically — are just such validators.
Yeah, and I’m sure none of those universities share influential benefactors with the Federations, which coordinated a national campaign against the ASA through the Israel Action Network. Every single school was motivated by purity of intention and a spirit of academic openness and not donor pressure, at all. *Eyeroll*
It is not enough to only expose the true goals of the boycotters and their allies. Israel’s supporters must also go on the offensive and drain the swamps of ignorance that allow the poisonous ideas of the Jewish state’s opponents to incubate. Thus, we are taking the initiative to inoculate vulnerable politically progressive sectors, presenting a more factual perspective on Israel and taking prominent leaders to the region to see the real situation firsthand.
Ie., they’re spending even more Jewish communal money to take liberal politicians and activists on junkets to Israel where they can get a one-sided, non-nuanced view of the conflict from Israeli political and military leaders, and a handpicked cast of professional Arab turncoats who can attest to the magnanimity of their oppressor.
The Israel Action Network, of course, does not work alone in this arena. On a daily basis, numerous organizations stand up for Israel. Through the IAN, JFNA and JCPA are working together to convene around a common strategic planning table not only our affiliates but also a range of other North American, Israeli and European groups in order to share best practices and coordinate our collective resources in confronting this global danger.
Boycotting Israeli goods and institutions is a “global danger?” Is it any coincidence that the same language used to describe Iranian nuclear weapons is now being used to describe nonviolent protests against Israel’s human rights abuses? It is intended only to inculcate fear.
There is no imminent threat to the critical and broad North American support for Israel. But American support for Israel is not something to be taken for granted in light of the organized campaign we now face. While should not be panicked, we cannot be complacent either. We pledge to continue to work hard to prevent any erosion of that support.
They’re doing such a fine job preventing the erosion of that support, that I feel more estranged from the Jewish community than I’ve felt in my entire life.