BDS Background Papers – Paper 1/2
Richard Kuper, 3 April 2009
This contribution falls into three parts
- an account of JfJfP’s particular role as a network organisation
- a summary of JfJfP’s current approach to the boycott, divestment and sanctions issue
- an argument as to why we should maintain our current approach but strengthen its application
Let me preface my remarks on BDS by saying that I distinguish between what I personally may think about particular actions, sanctions etc and what I believe JfJfP as an organisation of a particular kind should adopt as its policy.
1. The role of JfJfP
In relation to how I see JfJfP’s role, I can do no better than to repeat a large section of what I wrote in the outgoing chair’s report in October 2006. I apologise for the length, but feel it is crucial to situate the discussion we are having on BDS:
Jews for Justice for Palestinians is a network, a voluntary umbrella organisation, that sets outs to speak for Jews in Britain, whether secular or religious, Zionist or not, who support the struggle for Palestinian rights. We have succeeded in getting such Jewish support known and appreciated, not just in the UK peace movement, but also by many Israeli peace campaigners and many Palestinians. But the endeavour inevitably involves tensions, and how to negotiate them must inform our perspectives for the future.
We try, first, to work in ‘the Jewish community’. This is not a monolithic entity, but a disparate sets of groups and individuals who spend some time in specifically-Jewish cultural, social or religious activity. It includes anyone we might reach via a specifically Jewish connection – a synagogue or other Jewish organisation, or via the Jewish press. Among these audiences are people who are from time to time uneasy about or distressed by Israeli government policies. It is our task to create a space in which they can have the support necessary to express their unease – an unease which is sometimes felt as almost a betrayal of a country they genuinely see as under threat. Although we have made some headway in this regard, the task remains to get our approach accepted as a legitimate (even if strongly contested) point of view and language of discourse within the Jewish community.
Second, we try to develop solidarity with those in struggle for Palestinian rights and this work is crucial, too, to what we are. But we have to bear in mind the specific contribution we can make in this work and to remember that the more marginal we are perceived to be – or can be presented as being – by the Jewish Community (as defined above), the less value our support, as Jews rather than simply as critics of Israeli policy, can be to Palestinians
Thirdly we have a responsibility to engage with British and EU policy. This means finding effective ways of lobbying officials and elected representatives who may often have little or no sympathy with our critical positions with regard to Israeli policy.
These activities, specifically the first and second, often pull in different directions. This is reflected, for instance, in the repeated calls to consider a change of name in the belief that the existing one is a barrier to widening support within the Jewish community. Up to a point, this may be true. Yet building Jewish support is almost certainly not as easy as a name change. Whatever we call ourselves, the Jewish press, for example, is likely to continue to refer to us an ‘anti-Israel group’, while removing our overt declaration of support for the Palestinians could not possibly serve them well. At the same time, whatever the merits of a name change or not, it would indeed be a grievous error to give up on ‘the Jewish community’ On the contrary: our work in this area needs to be developed.
Tensions are also reflected in the kinds of activities people favour. While some favour higher-profile actions and/or more extreme policies, others feel these can be interpreted as attacking the community itself. (Nor is it always self-evident as to what constitutes a ‘high-profile’ action. Our ad in the Times in July  was turned by the responses it evoked into a much higher-profile action than ever we envisaged!) Equally, a preference for less visible discussion and debate can be seen either as a more suitable approach to influencing and changing Jewish opinion or effectively condoning Israel by keeping criticism ‘within the family’.”
I then made a series of proposals for developing JfJfP’s work, ending with these thoughts:
“[N]othing in the above proposals requires any new mandate or ‘policy’ changes. We are already empowered to do all this and more. Of course there are issues that are bound to come up and some people might wish us to adopt a more extreme position e.g. supporting an academic boycott (which was rejected after extensive consultation last year as going well beyond our mandate) or a boycott of Israeli goods.
It is vital not to end up posturing i.e. simply speaking more ‘extremely’ for its own sake without any clear perspective as to how this can build either JfJfP, the presence of a greater willingness among more Jews to speak out, or the wider solidarity movement. Any proposals to go ‘further’ need to be assessed carefully in the light of our wider aims and not simply reflect a frustration, experienced by all of us, that the situation of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is becoming more and more unbearable.
2. A restatement of our current position.
The statement signatories sign up to says nothing on the topic of boycott, divestment or sanctions but we have slowly over the years interpreted the opposition to the occupation to justify certain kinds of actions to further that end including:
- a boycott of settlement goods;
- divestment from and campaigns against companies that profit from the occupation (e.g. Caterpillar)
- opposition to the export of arms to Israel as any and all arms seem to end up furthering the occupation.
- Sanctioning Israel by suspending the privileges granted to it under the EU- Israel Association Agreement until such time as Israel abides by the human rights and democratic principles on which the agreement in premised.
- A boycott of the settler University of Judea and Samaria (the former college of Ariel) [though this has never been formally ratified]
- Opposition to the sale of settlement property in the UK
As far as I am aware we have not had a single voice raised in objection to any of these positions at any point in time.
When it comes to campaigning, our approach has been summed up essentially in the notion of support for ‘smart’ boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns i.e. for campaigns that have specific targets and specific outcomes we wish to see e.g.
- supermarkets not stocking herbs from the settlements, misleadingly labelled as ‘West Bank’ (on which the government has moved considerably over the last year as a result of this pressure from civil society);
- institutions divesting from companies profiting from the occupation (where we supported the Church of England Synod resolution to ‘disinvest from companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc, until they change their policies’, unfortunately over-ruled by higher powers);
- MPs calling for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement;
- Opposition to Zionist trade fairs offering settlement property for sale (where as a result of campaigning, the Foreign Office announced it was to put a health warning on its website, to the effect that ‘future peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria could affect property purchases there.’)
In addition we had a consultation among the signatories about the issue of supporting calls for an academic boycott in 2005. As a result of the consultation we did not support such a call, as it was obviously deeply divisive, clear that while some signatories were in favour, many others disapproved strongly and that a significant number of these would withdraw their signatures if JfJfP supported that boycott.
We summed up our position after that consultation:
‘In general, JfJfP has always sought to operate by consensus among those who oppose the occupation and are willing to align themselves with our statement. We wish to reaffirm this understanding. We describe ourselves as a network, we think for good reason: trying to achieve the maximum agreement on a very basic policy and allowing – indeed encouraging – a diversity, a plurality of views. This has never prevented signatories working on issues they feel passionately about under a different banner and we are absolutely convinced the same thing should happen here.’
3. The future
So have things changed after Gaza such that we should extend and deepen our policy with regard to BDS? And if so in what ways should this be done?
In some ways we do face a new situation. Popular support for Palestinian rights has never been higher – and many in the Jewish community have clearly been profoundly shaken by what happened in Gaza. The question is how to relate to a potentially new and quite large constituency within the Jewish community we have not been able to reach before, while at the same time working with and effectively within the rapidly burgeoning Palestine solidarity movement.
My feeling is that our policy to date is spot on, but that it needs more vigorous implementation than it has hitherto received. I am not in favour of JfJfP adopting a more extensive boycott policy i.e. one embracing Israeli (as opposed to settlement) goods, or a cultural, sporting or indeed tourist boycott of Israel.
At the same time I totally reject opposition to any of these on the grounds that they are ‘essentially antisemitic’. (Though of course I recognise that some individuals may indeed support such moves on antisemitic grounds, I do not see either the demands as such or the people spearheading these campaigns as antisemitic.)
My opposition is strategic. I ask two questions:
- Would extending our position help JfJfP expand its influence within the Jewish community?
- I have seen no evidence in favour of such a view and every conversation I have had that touches on the boycott suggests otherwise.
- Would we be able to extend our remit beyond the current position to a more extensive boycott without threatening a loss of some of our current signatories?
- I doubt it. We know from the survey of signatories conducted at the time that support for an academic boycott would have been deeply divisive. I suspect that support for a generalised cultural, sporting or even an economic boycott would arouse similar passions.
I come to two conclusions as to what JfJfP should and should not do as an organisation:
- We should support the general call for BDS from Palestinian civil society insofar as we as an organisation can do so. In my view this limits us to a ‘boycott the occupation’ framework, but this still allows many, effective campaigns to be mounted.
- We should not take a position on the wider and more divisive issues of boycott
Both these positions flow from how I see our particular role, outlined in the first section of my contribution.
But I believe we have been relatively weak and insufficiently focused in some of the work we have undertaken in relation to campaigns we can and should support such as the ‘bitter herbs’ campaign (labelling of settlement goods on which the government has moved considerably over the last year), the new campaign against Ahava (settlement) cosmetics, a possible campaign against Golan-heights wines etc. This is where I believe we should be putting some energy in the coming months.
3 April 2009