A Jewish Voice for Peace and New Israel Fund debate on BDS

October 29, 2010
Richard Kuper
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zeekIs divestment the way forward? A Jewish Voice for Peace/New Israel Fund debate

Editor’s Note: Zeek is a catalyst for conversation about the Jewish tomorrow. Israel is an essential part of Jewish identity, now and in the future. With peace talks breaking down once again, anger against the Israeli government has swellled on the diasporic Jewish left. The time was ripe for a debate about BDS. This [Rebecca Vilkomerson’s article] appears on Zeek’s website simultaneous with the first public response from the New Israel Fund on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Please comment on either piece, keeping in mind Zeek’s comment policy: all comments should address ideas in the articles. Comments that feature ad hominem attacks, or that use racist, sexist, homophobic, or language that attacks a religion or people qua religion or people (i.e. anti-Semitic, anti-Christian or anti-Islamic language), will be deleted at the editor’s discretion.

Don’t Divest; Invest

By Naomi Paiss, Director of Communications of the New Israel Fund.

Since 1979, the New Israel Fund has dedicated itself to a vision of Israel that lives up to its founders’ vision, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, of a Jewish homeland and a shared society that is at peace with itself and its neighbors. Now, the New Israel Fund is the leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis. NIF strengthens organizations and leaders that work to achieve equality for all the citizens of the state; realize the civil and human rights of all, including Palestinian citizens of Israel; recognize and reinforce the essential pluralism of Israeli society; and empower groups on the economic margins of Israeli society.

We are not a “peace” group and are not directly involved with negotiations. We don’t lobby the American government and we don’t opine on eventual borders or other final status issues. We do, however, oppose the occupation and the post-1967 settlement enterprise. We only support organizations registered with the Israeli government as non-profits in the state of Israel, and that includes Israeli organizations working for human and civil rights on both sides of the Green Line.

At a time when the atmosphere in Israel is rapidly polarizing, it can be challenging to be pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy. The international anti-Israel forces on both the hard left and right are doing their best to make that characterization an oxymoron. But we are not going to relinquish the character of Israel to the extremists. We will not condemn Israel for its lifelong struggle for legitimacy and security in a neighborhood that often denies it both. Nor will we give up on the objective of a two-state solution – the solution we believe is the only viable answer to the need for two homelands for two peoples.

Facts on the Ground

Those who only see Israel through the lens of the conflict are missing too much about a vibrant, argumentative and intensely emotional society, one in which civil society organizations – the organizations NIF seed-funded or founded – are playing a key role in preserving and expanding progressive values.

Having survived direct, vicious and dishonest attacks for much of the past year, NIF well understands the serious challenges to Israel’s democratic character. The recent Cabinet passage of the “loyalty oath” is only the latest in a series of outrageous attempts by ultra-nationalists to stifle dissent and ensure that Israel’s Palestinian minority is permanently relegated to second-class citizenship. Our family of organizations has been falsely attacked for complicity with the Goldstone report, assailed for our support of civil rights and freedom of conscience for the Palestinian community, and even labeled treasonous for our support of an increase in royalty payments to the government for new natural gas discoveries. Even the Likud Finance Minister supports that last one!

In such an atmosphere, it would be easy to give up on Israel’s ability to reform itself from within and re-assert the values of liberal democracy. But we are not giving up, and that is precisely why we object to the tactics of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

The BDS Message

Those who assert that boycotts, divestment and sanctions are the only remaining route towards influencing a recalcitrant Israeli government misunderstand much about the effect of these tactics. For some time now, some Israeli leaders have described any criticism of Israeli government policy as part of a plot to “delegitimize” Israel. Obviously, we couldn’t disagree more, and we think healthy debate over every aspect of Israel’s society, and the existence of a free and vocal civil society, does more to legitimize Israel than any amount of cynical hasbara can accomplish.

But it’s important to understand what lies behind that ‘delegitimizing’ message. Many if not most Israelis favor a two-state solution and a withdrawal to some negotiated version of the 1967 lines. Most oppose the settlement enterprise. But most also feel besieged and singled out by those outside Israel who hold it to a standard not applied to truly authoritarian and repressive regimes, from Russia to China to Sudan. From the equation of Zionism with racism more than forty years ago, to the current contortions of some international institutions that single out Israel for pariah status, many Israelis see uncompromising hostility to the entire endeavor of a Jewish homeland, not only to its actions or policies.

We see global BDS as a tactic that embodies the message that Israel cannot and will not change itself, and for that reason, we think it is inflammatory and counter-productive. We see proposals that would ban Israeli academics, no matter what their personal and political views may be, from participation in the free exchange of ideas in international conferences. We see artists and musicians, who often come bearing badly-needed messages of peace and tolerance, being urged to take Israel off their tour itineraries. We see a message that says that Israel is beyond hope of redemption, that it must be held behind a cordon sanitaire of contempt and disengagement.

And we disagree. The way to change Israel is not to divest, but to invest in Israelis and Palestinians who are struggling every day to change the status quo. From J Street and Americans for Peace Now in the U.S., to NIF and the hundreds of organizations we fund in Israel, to new NGOs working to build civil society in the occupied territories, there are hundreds of organizations and thousands of people who deserve financial support and a megaphone for their ideas and causes.

For example, NIF supports a successful weaving micro-enterprise for Bedouin women in the Negev. We seed-funded a program that allows underprivileged immigrant women to turn their cooking talents into catering businesses. After the Second Lebanon War, we funded an artists’ co-operative in the North – in a former kibbutz chicken house! – to better publicize their work and products. Our action arm SHATIL is working with an innovative program to train underemployed Palestinian Israelis for work in the high-tech sector. These are just a few programs that provide support for tangible products and employment by Israelis who desperately need economic empowerment – the list of organizations successfully engendering social change in every sector is diverse and long.

Anyone who is truly interested in a peaceful, multicultural and just Israel should realize that global BDS condemns these Israelis, and millions like them, to isolation and vilification. In a small and interconnected society like Israel, the blunt force of global BDS penalizes the innocent along with the guilty, pushes moderates towards right-wing nationalism, and spurs rejection of progressive and humanist values.
And the key issue here is this: Israel has a history of self-correction. The reaction to the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the eventual support even on the center-right for a Palestinian state, the many High Court decisions expanding rights for Arabs, women, the LGBT community and other marginalized Israelis – these are not the mark of a society that does not question itself or evolve.

Israel is not an ‘apartheid state’; that is a historically inaccurate and inflammatory term that serves only to demonize Israel and alienate a majority of Jews around the world, including those who care deeply about issues of democracy, human rights, social justice and peace. Israel is not South Africa; it is a country where thousands upon thousands of activists are busy with actions aimed at making their lives – and those of their fellow citizens – better. They have not capitulated to despair and to the abandonment of the goal of a just and egalitarian society. They will not forgive us if we do.

The Exception to the Rule

As is our way, we look for a more nuanced approach to the BDS issue.

It is clear to us that products and services that come from the settlements are in a different category. It is also clear that Israelis who boycott the settlements, as did the artists who refused to perform in Ariel, are expressing their heartfelt opposition to Israel’s most misguided and damaging policy. As Israelis and Palestinians begin to organize themselves into non-violent protest of the settlements, including holding those settlements economically accountable, it is critically important to find ways to support those efforts productively and pro-actively.

The settlements are not in Israel. They represent not “just” a blot on Israel as a just and decent nation, and a terrible danger to its survival, but also the waste of billions of shekels for security, expensive bypass roads, government-subsidized construction and mortgages, and more. Those are shekels that could be used to build a more prosperous and socially just Israel. Refusing products and services made in the settlements, and opposing government expenditures there, is well within the rights of every organization and individual who intends to influence the Israeli government to finally abandon the quixotic and immoral settlement enterprise.

Not a Dead Armadillo

Recently, an NIF board member was invited to speak at a panel in a community whose food co-op was considering a boycott of all Israeli products. Literally positioned between Stand With Us and Code Pink, she described our work and the alternatives to global BDS offered by the New Israel Fund and other pro-Israel, progressive organizations. At the end of the night, she was literally embraced by several audience members, who were urgently looking for ways to live their progressive values without shunning Israel as a pariah state, beyond redemption.

A Texas populist once said the only things found in the middle of the road were yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Nope. Where Israel is concerned, there are too many on both the left and right whose intransigent insistence on a narrow and self-righteous narrative is hampering efforts to build a better and more open society. We at the New Israel Fund will continue to look for positive solutions to desperately difficult issues. We’ll continue to debate our friends and adversaries on these complicated issues, and listen to other points of view. And we’ll continue to ensure that there are means for engagement with Israel that really contribute to the long and arduous search for equality, justice and peace.

Naomi Paiss is the Director of Communications of the New Israel Fund.

Peace Process or Land Grab?

Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace

The “peace process” has been going on for 19 years now.

Why the quotation marks? Because the “peace process” looks more and more like an excuse to help Israel consolidate and permanently annex the occupied territories, rather than a sincere attempt to ensure justice, freedom and security for Palestinians and Israelis. We at Jewish Voice for Peace cannot be enthusiastic about U.S.-brokered peace talks that actually perpetuate the occupation.

Israelis have all the time in the world to continue the talks, since they can live their lives in the meantime – they can go to school, work, receive health care when needed, travel freely, and pursue all other aspects of a normal life. Palestinians, in contrast, are penned into ever smaller areas of land, with their freedom of movement strictly curtailed. They are subject to military law, and the prospect of violent repression, whether perpetrated by settlers or the Army, is a daily reality. This inequity – the difference between occupier and occupied – is the furthest thing from the level playing field necessary for fair and honest negotiations. Israel has the military power, the economic power, and the support of the United States.

Facts on the Ground

Prime Minister Shamir, whose government began negotiations in 1991 in Madrid, told Maariv newspaper after his electoral defeat in 1992, that “I would have conducted [peace] negotiations for 10 years, and in the meantime we would have reached half a million souls in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]….Without such a basis there would be nothing to stop the establishment of a Palestinian state” (quoted in English in the New York Times.

Shamir was a Likudnik, but that hardly matters when it comes to Israel’s settlement policy. Every Israeli government has continued to build, and build, and build even as they talk, and talk, and talk, in a policy widely known as “creating facts on the ground.” Even Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is often revered for working toward peace, supported continued settlement construction, especially around Jerusalem. In fact, in an interview with Davar, an Israeli publication, he boasted,

“For all its faults, Labor has done more and remains capable of doing more in the future [in expanding Jewish settlements] than Likud with all of its doing. We have never talked about Jerusalem. We have just made a ‘fait accompli.’ It was we who built the suburbs in [the annexed part of] Jerusalem. The Americans didn’t say a word, because we built these suburbs cleverly.” (quoted in English in the Washington Report on Mideast Affairs

When Shamir began the peace process in 1991, there were about 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Today there are around 500,000 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It took twice the time Shamir predicted, but his stated intention indeed came to pass.

Settlements are far from the only issue that needs to be resolved in order to establish a just peace. But stopping the annexation of land and the flow of Jewish Israelis into the occupied territories, which becomes harder and harder to reverse, is a good case study of how Israel has managed to shift the discussion so far from the root issues that we are now talking about the fly on the flower of the plant growing from those roots. That is, rather than talking about the right of return, the status of Jerusalem, or permanent borders, the debate now rages around an extension of a partial, temporary settlement freeze in exchange for permanent Israeli gains.

The Role of the U.S.

The U.S. has always claimed for itself the role of “honest broker” in Palestinian-Israeli talks. But the U.S. has never played a neutral role. It is widely known that Israel is the largest recipient of military aid from the United States, and every U.S. president trumpets the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. Aaron David Miller, former state department negotiator and advisor, called the U.S. “Israel’s lawyer.”

What has happened since Obama became President is instructive. In Cairo in June 2009, in his first major policy speech on the Mideast, Obama revealed an insightful understanding of the role that Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination play in the widespread Arab enmity against the U.S, and called for a permanent ban on settlement expansion.

Since that time, however, President Obama has been unable or unwilling to hold the Israelis to this most basic precondition for negotiation. When the Israelis refused a permanent settlement ban, Obama obligingly shifted to a call for a settlement freeze.

A couple of weeks ago, the settlement “freeze” expired. “Freeze” also belongs in quotation marks, given that, according to Peace Now, 600 new buildings for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem were begun in 60 settlements, 492 in direct violation of the terms of the freeze, during the time that it was in place.

Israelis are back to ostentatiously building, and President Obama is now begging Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept a one-time, two-month settlement freeze, in exchange for massive concessions to Israel’s continuing occupation. As Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and negotiator under President Clinton said, “It’s an extraordinary package for essentially nothing.” In other words, it is a bribe for Israel to briefly refrain from doing things that are illegal.

This is the way it goes in U.S. diplomacy on this issue. Despite the growing power of alternative Jewish voices critical of Israeli policies, AIPAC was still able to get 87 of 100 senators to sign on to a letter in September that puts the pressure on the Palestinian Authority to continue the talks regardless of settlement construction.

An Alternative Vision

Given these conditions – the worsening human and civil rights situation on the ground in the Palestinian territories, the decades-long continuation of peace talks that only serves to solidify Israel’s position, the U.S. government’s utter unwillingness to intervene in any meaningful way to create the conditions of negotiations between equals – we at Jewish Voice for Peace can only conclude that focusing on the official “peace process” will not bring about the change we seek. Yes, we are in favor of negotiations with all parties at the table, including Hamas. But the current inequities built into this process doom it to something worse than failure – a false hope that perpetuates an inaccurate narrative about the balance of power and the reality on the ground.

The only thing that can right this inequity is a movement that forces our own Congressional representatives and the U.S. political apparatus to realize that blind support of Israel’s policies is no longer acceptable to the American public. Since the assault on Gaza in 2008-2009, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, has been gaining strength in the U.S., and the attack on the flotilla in 2010 gave it further momentum.

The BDS movement is a non-violent response to the ongoing and structural violence of Israel’s relationship to Palestinians. It is a movement that allows people all over the world to peacefully act on their values. Its emergence reflects both a strategic and moral analysis by Palestinian civil society leaders that the violence of the second intifada was leading the Palestinians nowhere. Yet Israel and the Jewish establishment in the U.S., has responded with the same level of vitriolic attack as they did to the violent resistance of the most recent intifada.

Most importantly, BDS offers us a road map that can work. BDS efforts have been employed in some of the most noble struggles in history, from sugar boycotts in protest of the slave trade in the 1700’s, to Gandhi’s boycott of British goods, the Montgomery bus boycott in our own civil rights struggle, and of course, the world-wide movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa. Israel is not just like any of these cases, but there are enough similarities to make it reasonable to think that these strategies could work.

The BDS movement grows stronger by the day. In just the last two months, for example, the Norwegian government pension fund has announced that it is divesting from several companies profiting from the occupation, and the Dutch government dis-invited a delegation of Israeli mayors because several of them were mayors of settlements. And a board member of CARE, a large international aid organization, had to resign due to his affiliation with Africa Israel, a company implicated in illegal settlement construction. In each of these cases, BDS is the chosen medium for governments and institutions to express their displeasure with Israel’s policies, because BDS is the most direct and effective way to make this point.

Here in the United States, we are just at the beginning. Two years ago, Hampshire College divested from the occupation. Last year, at least five more campuses launched serious divestment efforts. At Evergreen and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, they were successful. At UC-Berkeley, only the veto of the student Senate president was able to overturn the divestment bill.

Perhaps the most important impact of these efforts, especially here in the U.S., is their success in educating people about the reality of what is happening in Israel and Palestine, and emboldening them to speak out about it.

In the Jewish community, many of us were brought up to be proud of Jewish values of justice and the principle of tikkun olam, repairing the world. We have much to be proud of in U.S. Jewish history, given the strong support Jewish Americans have offered civil rights struggles here. As a small religious minority in the U.S. we certainly should appreciate the principles of religious freedom and full equality for everyone.

Yet many of us have also been taught to blindly defend Israel, no matter its actions. This can create a terrible cognitive dissonance. It is only through opportunities to really talk about what is happening – like at the two all night hearings at Berkeley this spring, when a serious, passionate, largely respectful conversation was held by the most diverse range of young people imaginable – that we can start to reconcile, understand, and stand up for the values we most deeply treasure.

For it is really some of the most bedrock principles – freedom and equality, not settlement freezes – that this discussion should be about. Each time one of these conversations happens, the generational shift that will push toward an ultimate change in U.S. policy moves a little closer.

Why shouldn’t we try BDS? Many Israeli activists have been putting their bodies on the line for literally decades to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Now they too have turned to BDS and formed a group called Boycott from Within. At last, there is a time-tested, non-violent strategy that everyone can adapt to their own local communities and circumstances. The other options have already proven inadequate, so why not try it?

That’s why JVP is proud to be a part of the BDS movement, which encompasses a variety of tactics and strategies. Our own practice of BDS entails a focus on the Occupied Territories. As such, in June we launched a campaign to get the pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit from the occupation; it has already attracted the support of over 17,000 people. And in September, we were able to support Israeli artists who are boycotting performances in the settlements by getting over 200 prominent U.S. (and U.K) theater artists to affirm their courageous stand.

One of the things that distinguishes JVP is that we don’t just talk, we act to bring about the conditions for a just peace. We look forward to the day that Israelis and Palestinians can meet as equals to pursue negotiations about a future for Israel and Palestine that values the freedom and security of all of its people equally. We believe that BDS tactics can bring us closer to that day, and that is why we are a part of it.

Rebecca Vilkomerson is the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace www.jvp.org. Many thanks to Jesse Bacon for his assistance with this article.

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