Open Zion

10.16.13

If You Want Two States, Support BDS

I have not only heard all the arguments against BDS, I have made them. I am one of those really liberal Jews who will appear on panels too treif for most mainstream Jews (because they include anti-Zionists) and argue that the liberal Zionist dream is not dead, that a Jewish and democratic Israel is still possible, that Israel (inside the green line) is a democracy. For this I am sometimes mocked. Marilyn Neimark, my co-panelist not too long ago, turned to me when it was her turn and said, "And do you also still believe in the tooth fairy?"

The audience roared. I did not take offense.

Most of those who populate the very narrow ground that I stand on (I called them "sad Zionists" in an op-ed early in the year) know that the current peace process is at best a Hail Mary, that the occupation is a lot more entrenched and sustainable than we ever thought, that the two-state solution—along with our liberal Zionist dreams—is going down the drain.   

For all of our efforts, why are we getting nowhere? For one thing, we are fighting the fight with a hand tied behind our backs. We hysterically condemn the use of a nonviolent tool that works. The tool is Boycott, Divestment Sanction (BDS).

The deciders on whether there will be a two-state solution are the Israeli people. It is they at least as much as their government who should be the targets of our advocacy. And not because they favor occupation. On the contrary, any pollster will tell you that a large majority says it favors ending occupation. But that majority neither puts pressure on its representatives nor votes in large numbers for peace candidates. Why? Because ending occupation is low on the agenda of Israeli voters, lower even than the price of cottage cheese.

The nearly 3000 people at the J Street conference two weeks ago are a testament to how much we care. But what tools is this impressive group deploying? I heard nothing new (I watched a lot as it was streamed). They are raising their voices, sending a message to Congress, supporting the administration. That is basically what we have done for 25 years. It does not shake Israelis from their indifference, an indifference that is staggering. As former Haaretz writer Lily Galili said in a recent post, Israelis are tired of "the endless parade of U.S. and European envoys bearing all kinds of solutions to the conflict, from plans to road maps" so much so that by now "Secretary of State John Kerry 's visits are hardly noticed."

Israelis are not demanding an end to occupation because the status quo is working for them. It is "sustainable," as several speakers at the J Street conference pointed out. American Zionists would make a contribution if we were to shake up that indifference, if we were able to make the status quo less comfortable.  

While we might not like all those who wield it, BDS has shown itself to be a tool that unsettles indifference. Few things focus the attention of the Israeli government on the issue of occupation like BDS, even the parve BDS of a limited boycott of settlement products (see Peter Beinart's "Zionist BDS"). I don't denigrate this limited boycott. Not buying Soda Stream or Gush Etzion wine is a start.

But maybe it is time now, maybe past time, to embrace a broader BDS tool for our own goal of ending the occupation—time for us to embrace the wake-up call that occurs when a rock group won't perform in Tel Aviv, when the E.U. refuses to fund Israeli projects that have any presence over the Green Line, when the Presbyterian Church threatens divestment in companies that profit from the occupation.

I know this tool is anathema to the Jewish community. Why is that?

One argument, one I have made myself, is that BDS just makes Israelis feel that the world is against them, engenders a siege mentality and is therefore counterproductive. But what has been gained by such deference? For how long do we have carrots only and no sticks?

Another and related argument is that BDS hurts Global Israel (Bernard Avishai's phrase for the good guys) and strengthens the Greater Israel yahoos because BDS means to isolate Israel and therefore shrinks its commerce and intellectual intercourse. That is true, but that is precisely what the boycott tool is meant to do: disrupt the status quo until justice is restored.

The almost unspoken reason I have kept my distance from BDS is the whiff of anti-Semitism that rises from some of the BDS organizations, including some in the Global BDS Movement.  Their advocacy of the "full" right of return of Palestinian refugees means an end to Jewish Israel.  Their one-sided condemnation of '48 is a rejection of our democratic Zionism. We cannot march shoulder to shoulder with them.

But why have we conflated their goals with their tools? Are they inextricable? I don't think so.

We can, if we choose, use BDS as one of our tools to end occupation rather than eschew it merely because it is wielded by people who may share some, but do not share all, of our goals.  We can create (and name) a pro-two-state, anti-occupation, Jewish BDS movement that is not limited to settlement products but that extends to everyone who profits from the occupation. Let's embrace and not condemn the performers, funders and investors who say they won't perform, fund or invest in Israel until the occupation ends. Let's not attack them and reflexively call them delegitimizers or anti-Semites (unless, of course, they are). And let's do so until Israelis do one thing: place ending the occupation higher on their priority list than the price of cottage cheese.  

I can't conclude without saying a word about fear, the fear of activist Jews that endorsing BDS means you are no longer under the communal tent. Just last week, J Street member Seth Morrison felt he had to quit J Street and remove himself from its listserve because he decided to join Jewish Voice for Peace, an American Jewish organization that supports the Global BDS Movement. What a pity that he was presented with, or felt he had to make, such a choice.