A reluctant convert to BDS deals with some FAQs
Is It Kosher to Boycott? (After the UN, Some FAQ on BDS)
By Robert Cohen
The story so far…
So, the Palestinians have failed in their attempt to gain full statehood recognition through the UN Security Council. Even if they had achieved the nine votes required, we know that the United States would have used its veto to turn the win into only a moral victory. The General Assembly can now have its say but can only vote on a lesser status than full statehood for the Palestinians.
Of course, even if the statehood bid had been successful it would have done little to change the reality on the ground for Palestinians. In fact, it could have made things worse, depending on how punitive Israel wished to be. A General Assembly vote to enhance Palestinian status at the UN could yet cause more problems. Look at Israel’s reaction to the UNESCO admittance vote last month. Palestinian funds withheld, settlement building speeded up in the West Bank, and further expansion of the ‘eternal’ and ‘unified’ Jerusalem announced. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu administration seems determined to undermine Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, despite him being the most moderate Palestinian leader currently on the stage. No wonder Obama and Sarkozy were caught on mic swapping frustrations about the intransigence of Bibi Netanyahu.
However, the UN vote strategy has not been without its critics among Palestinians. For a start, it puts to one side other critical issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees living outside of the Israeli Occupied Territories and the condition of Palestinians living within the State of Israel. Overall though, the strategy has been a useful one. Israel and the United States have found themselves on the back foot and out of step with the majority of governments around the world. For the first time in years, the Palestinians have taken the initiative with a bold, peaceful move to secure international acceptance for their cause.
Prompted by the failure to win acceptance within the Security Council, there now appear to be fresh moves to negotiate a workable Fatah/Hamas unity administration across the West Bank and Gaza with elections next spring.
So where does all of this leave those of us who wish to see a resolution to the century old conflict between Jews and Palestinians? What will put us on the path to justice, reconciliation and the peace that comes from mutual respect and understanding? As individuals, what can we do to bring this about?
Up to now, I have stepped back from any support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by a broad alliance of Palestinian civil society in 2005. For a start, I doubted the general public was ready to understand the complexity of the conflict. Could it be explained and understood in the same way that the Anti-Apartheid campaign was in the 1980s? And if it could be explained, would it make any difference to the lives of Palestinians? Finally, would support for BDS be an act of treachery for any Jew wanting to profess solidarity with the Jewish people?
In short: can it be kosher to boycott?
Here are some other Frequently Asked Questions that I’m going to tackle: Why now? Why BDS? Is Israel really like South Africa under Apartheid? Isn’t it anti-Semitic? Why will it be so hard for it to succeed? Doesn’t BDS lead to the destruction of Israel? I hope by the end to convince readers that the time has come to support the BDS call, as well as a campaign of non-violent resistance to the occupation. Because doing so will be good for both Palestinians and for Jews. Your responses, as ever, are most welcome.
In 2009, President Obama in his Cairo speech, believed that increased Jewish settlement building on the West Bank and East Jerusalem was a barrier to peace and called for it to end. Since then the reality of US domestic politics and the enormous pressure that can be brought to bear on members of the US Congress by Jewish pro-Israel lobby groups, Christian Zionists and military manufacturing interests have removed Obama’s chance of giving his Cairo principles any teeth or chance of success. From this side of the ‘Pond’, it all looks like a terrible indictment of the US political system.
And the truth is that even with an enlightened President like Barack Obama, the United States will never be the impartial honest broker in the Middle-East that it likes to make itself out to be. Obama’s priorities must now focus on the domestic economy and his re-election. One thing is for sure, Obama won’t be sacrificing four more years in office for the sake of the Palestinians. As for his Republican rivals, they compete with each other on who can be the most compliant to the pro-Israel lobby and the most friendly to the wishes of the government in Jerusalem. As for the European Union, although historically more favourable to the Palestinians, the EU is too closely tied to US foreign policy to shift the impasse. In Britain, our government prefers to abstain in crucial votes, walking away from the mess it first created back in 1917 through the Balfour Declaration. In Israel itself, the Knesset becomes ever more right-wing and is doing a thoroughly good job of ‘delegitimising’ the state without any help from outsiders.
So, relying on the politicians to ’sort something out’ is not going to happen anytime soon, unless it’s the current status quo that you want. And the current political dynamics will not change unless there is a clear shift in the attitude of electorates around the world. In other words, it’s down to us as individuals to work collectively to change the situation. As Gandhi liked to say: “be the change you want to see in the world”.
Well, right now it looks a whole lot more appealing than the present and past alternatives. What would you prefer to BDS? A return to the international terrorism of the 1970s? The stone throwing of the late 80s? Suicide bombings? Or perhaps the never ending (or in truth never really beginning) ‘peace process’. The Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment campaign has the advantage of being led by a broad, representative, cross-section of Palestinian society. It is not the strategy of a narrow, unelected elite. It is peaceful and it is pro-active, putting Palestinians, and the international solidarity movement, on the front foot while raising awareness and education in the process.
BDS does not in itself advocate any particular political solution to the conflict. It is not a call for one state or two states or any other formulation based only on borders. It is about civil rights, those that have them and those that don’t. It embraces the totality of the dispute – discrimination, refugees, the West Bank occupation and the Gaza siege. BDS takes us to the heart of the conflict, not simply an argument about real estate, but a campaign for human rights.
The campaign allows individuals and organisations around the world to become involved at whatever level they feel comfortable. It raises awareness of a situation that is greatly misunderstood and badly reported in the West. Some will prefer to target only the West Bank settlements, their products and services. Others will see the occupation, the settlement building and the condition of Palestinians, inside and outside of Israel, as integral to the constitution and outlook of the State of Israel under successive governments since 1948. In which case the boycott should be total and comprehensive. Personally, I prefer this stance as it reflects a realistic understanding of the conflict and how it touches every aspect of Israeli and Palestinian life. The issue for BDS is not just a few extremist Jewish nationalists wanting to live in historic Judea and Samaria. Taking the occupation as just one aspect of the conflict, its consequences spread into every aspect of Israeli life, academic, commercial, cultural and sporting.
Is Israel really like South Africa under Apartheid?
Israel is not like South Africa. In the same way that South Africa was not like segregated Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s. And neither South Africa nor Alabama were like Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The story of the Zionist pioneers is not the same of as the Dutch Boers or Hitler’s Brown Shirts. The comparisons don’t stack up and history becomes meaningless if you attempt to force an exact match.
However, there is another sense in which all these places and people are exactly the same.
The details are always unique but the story does not change. One people are favoured over another by ethnicity, religion, culture, or all three of these things, and political and institutional discrimination is justified through a national story or founding myth of superiority. The fact that Palestinians living in Israel can vote in elections and sit on the same park benches and use the same toilets as Jewish Israelis does not mean that everything is okay.
Palestinian Israelis living inside the 1967 borders, already internally dispossessed of their land in 1948, continue to face cultural and institutional discrimination in education, jobs and housing. How else could it be when the state has been set up with the guiding principle that it is the State of the Jewish People.
In the West Bank you do not need to consult statistics to discover the discrimination. The whole place has been carved up to favour Jews over Palestinians. Land, water and roads are controlled for the benefit of Jewish settlers who have no intention of leaving what the rest of the world considers to be occupied Palestinian territory.
The situation in Israel needs to be studied on its own terms. Comparisons with other places and other times leads to fruitless arguments that distract from the discrimination of the here and now. No, it’s not Johannesburg. Or Birmingham, Alabama. Or Nuremberg, Germany. It’s Israel, and tragically, after suffering two thousand years of discrimination and persecution, we have invented our very own version of hell.
Isn’t BDS anti-Semitic?
It’s easy to see where this idea comes from. Didn’t the Nazis start by boycotting Jews too? Isn’t BDS a modern version of daubing graffiti on store fronts and burning books by Jewish authors and academics? These are the accusations that go to the heart of the debate over whether anti-Zionism is just the latest manifestation of anti-Semitism. You may like to read my criticism of comments made by the Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, few months ago on this particular debate.
It’s true that anti-Zionism can easily morph into anti-Semitism, mainly because of Zionism’s success in making Judaism and Zionism interchangeable words in most people’s minds. But thinking that Arab anti-Zionism is exactly the same as European anti-Semitism is lazy thinking in the extreme. Rather than getting to grips with the real history and politics of modern Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, this approach drops everything into the box labelled ‘anti-Semitism’ as if this were the cosmic order of things and nothing can be done about it. It’s an attitude that prevents a proper debate and forces into exile all voices of Jewish dissent.
Protesting against Israel is not by definition anti-Semitic. Unless of course you have decided that Jewish nationalism, as it evolved from the end of the 19th century, is now part of the defining characteristic of being Jewish. If support for the current way in which the State of Israel is configured is part of your definition of Jewish identity then you will have to disassociate yourself from some of the towering figures of Jewish life in the 20th century: Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Albert Einstein for a start. You may like to look back at another earlier post ‘Lost Jewish Voices pt 2′.
Support for BDS is not support for an anti-Semitic campaign against the Jews as a whole or Israeli Jews in particular. It is a campaign in favour of equal rights and equal recognition for two communities. Inevitably, to address past injustice, it is the Jewish side of the warring parties that must relinquish power. But remember, this is in no way a conflict of equals.
Why will it be harder than South Africa?
Many of my past reservations about the BDS campaign have been around the lack of understanding of the issues among ordinary consumers, membership organisations, and businesses. Unlike the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s, there is no consensus around what is happening in Israel and the Occupied Territories and how Palestinians are being treated day in and day out.
Unlike the white South Africans, the Israelis still have enormous support in the West from governments and individuals. This is hardly surprising. The Holocaust has become iconic as a period of diabolical cruelty and murder. The creation of the State of Israel has always appeared in the West as a just recompense for a crime that in reality could never be compensated for. The creation of Israel has had the effect of absolving European guilt for the murder of six million Jews and wiping the slate clean on the previous two thousand years of discrimination and persecution. Naturally, the West is predisposed towards Israel.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are perceived as forever terrorists, or would-be terrorists, unwilling to share a land or be friendly to the new neighbours who have escaped such horror elsewhere.
Nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, all of this plays powerfully into the collective European and American psyche. How can the Jews be the bad guys after all that has happened to them? How can we deny them their Promised Land and the heritage of biblical stories connected to that land that also run so deeply through Western culture?
To counter this narrative will need a radical shift in the understanding of the Jewish story. But this is unlikely to happen until Jews themselves begin to question in greater numbers the Zionist paradigm of Jewish history that slots our self-understanding into a narrow nationalism that owes more to 19th century mid-European romanticism than it does to the Torah. Christian Zionism, particularly in the US, is the other huge challenge.
In short, this is not going to be easy. But remember, the boycott movement against South Africa began in the 1950s and by the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were still defending Apartheid. This will not be a quick fix solution.
Doesn’t BDS lead to the destruction of Israel?
The BDS movement does not call for the destruction of Israel. Is does call for the legitimate rights of Palestinians in Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the refugee camps to be recognised and addressed. The BDS leadership does not advocate any specific political solution to the conflict. It does not call for a one state or a two state solution. The aim is to shift the debate away from borders and onto human rights.
That said, there is no way that the demands at the heart of the BDS campaign can be addressed without a fundamental change in the nature of the State of Israel.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence from 1948 is full of high moral ambition. The State of Israel will, it promises, develop the country:”…for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
But at the heart of this founding document is a fundamental contradiction. How can a state that defines itself as “Jewish” and sets in place Basic Laws that significantly disadvantage non-Jews, ever hope to create a genuinely democratic state of all its citizens on the British, French or American model. Israel has to become the State of Israelis and not the State of the Jews. That does not mean that it cannot continue to be a centre of Jewish culture and learning but it must also be a truly pluralistic society that honours and protects all of its people, just as its founding document promised. Any neighbouring Palestinian State must, of course, be established on the same basis.
So BDS does not have to “delegitimize” Israel or Israelis. It does, however, need to delegitimise the present concept of a Jewish state. That, of course, calls into question the entire Zionist project since Theodor Herzl and will demand a monumental change in mainstream Jewish thinking.
Some final thoughts
The key message of BDS must be that this is a peaceful, international act of solidarity with the Palestinian people who are asking only for the same rights enjoyed by Jews. In Israel/Palestine itself, a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience and resistance to the occupation by Palestinians, and their Jewish Israeli supporters, will begin to win over the hearts and minds of Western electorates that could change the international political dynamic over Israel. The attempt by Palestinian activists to echo the ‘freedom riders’ of the American civil rights movement by boarding ‘Jewish only’ public Israeli buses that link the West Bank settlements to Israel could be an important step in this strategy.
In the long run, I believe a post-Zionist Israel will be to the distinct advantage of both Palestinians and Jews. If the Zionist aim was to ‘normalise’ the condition of the Jews in the modern world then it has it been a spectacular failure. Israel, as it is currently constituted, has become the problem and not the solution. In the 21st century, growing beyond Zionism must be the way forward. We must aim for and nurture not a Judaism of narrow nationalism but a Judaism that embraces the justice envisaged by the biblical prophets of ancient Israel. We must promote a Judaism that learns the right lessons from its own painful history. Championing the rights of Palestinians is not only a moral imperative but the Jewish route to healing a fractured world.
Whether all of this is achieved through two states or one, or two states that eventually become one, I do not know. What I do know is that we should not fear such possible futures but embrace opportunities to build a beacon of trust and mutual respect in the Middle-East. Let Israel become a “Light unto the Nations” rather than a darkness at the heart of Judaism.
Robert Cohen is the author of Micah’s Paradigm Shift, a blog about Israel/Palestine and interfaith relations from a United Kingdom and progressive Jewish perspective.