Best Hope

Liberal Zionists Should Support BDS

Jerry Haber explains why liberal Zionists should build a BDS coalition with Palestinian activists.

Liberal Zionists want to end Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, abolish institutional discrimination between the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and witness the establishment of a Palestinian state that will allow Palestinians to live as a free and secure people in their own homeland. As liberals, they insist on preserving the civil and human rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. These objectives are virtually identical with two of the three aims of the Palestinian BDS National Committee. The sticking point is the third, which is “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194.”

I don’t agree with Mira Sucharov that an endorsement of the Palestinian right of return is incompatible with the State of Israel having a Jewish character or that such an endorsement will lead to millions of Palestinians returning to their homes and properties. Conjuring up that scenario (which has zero likelihood of coming about) allows Zionists to justify the demographic cap of “only 20 percent Arab” that they consider necessary for the continued existence of a Jewish ethnic state.

Still, I realize that the right of return is a red flag for the vast majority of liberal Zionists, who use it to explain why they won’t endorse the Palestinian BDS movement. So let me argue why I think this is the wrong approach for them to take.

Liberal Zionists have three options, as I see it:

1. They can continue to oppose BDS and support liberal organizations as effective as J Street, shaking their heads at reports in the New York Times about the latest Israeli settlement expansions, and placing their faith in a U.S. administration that has done nothing to stem Israel’s inexorable march toward a state that is Jewish and democratic and apartheid: Jewish for the Palestinian Israelis, democratic for the Jewish Israelis, and apartheid for the Palestinians living under the control of the military and the settlers. They can continue to defer for generations the moral scandal of the Palestinian refugees, a problem created when Israel unilaterally barred their return to their homes, populated its state with Jewish immigrants, and made use of their Palestinian property in defiance of international law and U.N. resolutions (not to mention the Balfour Declaration).

2. Or, publicly eschewing the Palestinian BDS movement, they can practice their own “targeted BDS” or “Zionist BDS,” focusing their efforts on boycotting products produced in the Occupied Territories, like SodaStream and Ahava beauty products, or supporting divestment from companies like Caterpillar that benefit from the Occupation. (Some of them may extend this to Israeli agricultural companies.)

3. Or they can express solidarity with the global BDS movement as a non-violent protest movement emerging from Palestinian civil society, while at the same time making known their reservations about endorsing the right of return. In other words, they can join hands with the global BDS movement in its efforts to end the occupation and institutional discrimination against Palestinians, while agreeing to disagree about the right of return. Two out of three aims is basis enough for joint action.

In a post written three years ago, I tried to persuade liberal Zionists to offer support, if only qualified, to the BDS movement. As I anticipated, my “bridge proposal” was criticized by both sides for conceding too much to the other. The liberal Zionists gave the standard arguments: BDS will harden the Israelis, strengthen the right wing, and hurt the peace camp. Adopting the tactics of the “demonizers” will only make the Israeli left less relevant (if that’s possible). Some called the BDS movement potentially dangerous to Israel. Others called it weak and ineffectual, a minor annoyance. I was told that liberal Zionists can only have influence if they stay within the tribe, ally themselves with “moderate Palestinians” like Salam Fayyad (who has endorsed BDS in the territories) and distance themselves from the Palestinian one-staters. And then there is Eric Alterman’s view that the Palestinians’ “only hope can come by convincing Jewish Israelis that the risks and benefits of peace outweigh the risks and benefits of continued conflict.” That’s going to be a tough sell when Israelis are doing quite well without peace. They have shown that they can handle the occasional intifada, and they know that the benefits of occupation outweigh the risks of ending it—especially when there’s no external pressure to do so.

Neither segregation in the South nor apartheid in South Africa ended when blacks convinced the majority of whites to end it. Concerted action, including but not limited to boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, were instrumental in convincing a few white people in power that the status quo was untenable. It took an intifada to convince Yitzhak Rabin that the occupation was untenable.

The BDS movement is currently the only game “out of town,” i.e., outside of human rights activism and political organization within Israel and the territories. And it has been partly effective. Israelis, except for the hard-core settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, care deeply about their image. Every cancellation of a concert by a fading rock star, or of a lecture by a protesting academic, is front-page news. The artistic boycott of theaters in the settlements, the European supermarket boycott, the various divestment campaigns—all have tremendous psychological value. We are now at the stage when major Christian denominations, European supermarkets, and TIAA-CREF are contemplating some form of BDS. Even those individuals who boycott shitake mushrooms from Tekoa make a statement.

BDS, in fact, may be the best hope for liberal Zionists who haven’t given in entirely to ethnic loyalties or to a blind faith in an illusory and never ending “peace process” that serves only one side, the powerful one.

Traditional Jews are familiar with the problem of the agunah, the “chained wife” whose husband refuses to divorce her unless it is on his terms. Both sides may have legitimate grievances. But according to Jewish law, the power of divorce lies entirely with the husband; the wife is powerless to effect anything on her own. If the husband refuses until he is able to extort his terms from the other side, Jewish law empowers the court to force him to “voluntarily” divorce his wife. In the old days, recalcitrant husbands would be flogged. Today, communities publicly shame them, and in Israel they are jailed. (Just yesterday my shul rabbi publicly shamed a recalcitrant husband, and community protests have been organized against the offender.)

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In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, both sides have legitimate grievances. But in terms of the power equation, Israel is the recalcitrant husband and the Palestinian people, the agunah. Shame and ostracism are not guaranteed to be effective; like the recalcitrant husband, Israel may indeed dig in. But as an Israeli I have more faith in my country than that. As I wrote above, Israel is acutely sensitive to its public image, and most Israelis want to be part of the community of nations. A broad coalition between Palestinians and Jews, occasionally acting together, occasionally acting in parallel, may be the best hope for allowing the divorce that liberal Zionists feel is important for both sides.

At the very least, by endorsing the BDS movement, albeit with reservations, liberal Zionists will have publicly declared their moral priorities and will have importantly set limits to their ethnic loyalties.