Sitting Beside A BDS Leader

03.19.13 7:35 PM ET

What are the odds? This thought constantly reverberated in my head during my flight back to Israel several weeks ago. Out of all the passengers, it was I who found myself seated next to one of the most prominent leaders of the BDS movement—the campaign that I have been strategizing and writing against over the past few years at the Reut Institute. Symbolically, she was connecting in Toronto, originally flying from San Francisco—two places that we at Reut described as hubs of delegitimization.

I recognized her instantly. She regularly lobbies for boycotting Israel all around the world. Her organization frequently bashes Reut, claiming that we are an "extreme organization" and implying falsely that we call for physical violence against "delegitimizers." I decided, nonetheless, that this would be an outstanding opportunity to learn more, and so I introduced myself.

It did not start out very well, and her first reaction was to look for a free seat to move to. Later, we started a conversation that was much more vocal than I would have liked. She had obviously mastered the content of the Reut documents, and often quoted her least favorite parts (in particular, the "delegitimize the delegitimizers" tactic that we introduced). Soon enough, however, we did begin to engage in an open conversation, and thus I will not reveal her identity or her organizational affiliation.

I did learn to respect her motives as stemming from a desire to promote what she genuinely perceives as equality, peace, and justice. Unlike some of her peers, she is not motivated by an ideological zeal to precipitate Israel's destruction.

And yet, there was obviously a gaping chasm between us. Her positions demonstrate the responsibility that she and many of her colleagues choose not to take for the "collateral" damage of their simplistic approach, which in effect challenges the two-state solution and Israel's very existence.

First is the refusal to take a clear position against the current assault on the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination. Is this right not a progressive cause worth standing for? The boycott campaign against Israel advances the assault on Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state. In many cases, the leaders of the BDS movement state this goal outright, and in others, it is demonstrated in their consistent singling out of Israel, undermining of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, promoting the "right of return," and negatively branding Israel as an apartheid state. Thus, while it may be that many supporters of the boycott campaign are not seeking to delegitimize Israel, the campaign is perceived by the movement's leaders as an act of delegitimization.

Second, my interlocutor represents a phenomenon that is destructive to a two-state solution and antithetical to the ultimate goal of achieving peace between the two sides. I never got a clear answer from her, or from other BDS supporters I have spoken with, regarding the circumstances under which they would stop advocating for BDS. What would need to happen? My flight companion claimed that the boycott campaign targeted the "occupation," while acknowledging that she and others don't believe in the two-state solution. So which occupation was she referring to? Is it only the West Bank that is occupied, or also Tel Aviv? Is it about the occupation or about the State of Israel?

Isolating Israel through BDS reflects a one-sided and biased worldview that blames only Israel and fails to take into consideration the manifest complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My interlocutor failed to explain, for example, how BDS would solve the problematic dynamics on the Palestinian side, such as Hamas’s declared goal of bringing about the destruction of the State of Israel, or the Palestinians’ current inability to conduct themselves within an agreed-upon political framework that represents the Palestinian people.

We in Reut advocate for a broad tent approach—that is, increasing the tolerance for diverse opinions on Israel as a means to fight the political assault on Israel. We have even criticized the government of Israel and Jewish communal organizations on those grounds. Yet my travel companion and the boycott campaign destructively radicalize the discourse about Israel, harming the moderate Zionist left by undermining the credibility of their cause. The simplistic and superficial approach BDS offers is a recipe for the continuation of the conflict and is likely to cause more human misery.