Sunday, February 17, 2013

Liberal Zionists Should Support BDS

Readers, this post appeared last week in Open Zion here and was answered by Peter Beinart here. I plan to respond to his response later. 

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, andTIAA-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.)
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.


pabelmont said...

Excellent argument! (I say this as a pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS American [Jew].)

One question sticks with me: so many seeming liberal Jews deny that there was "ethnic cleansing" in 1947-8 BUT ALSO deny a right of return (PRoR) to the exiles that I sense two major psychological blocks: [1] "denial" of Israel's obvious responsibility for the Palestinian refugees; and [2] refusal to look for ways to secure Israeli desires for the 20% rule which allow PRoR.

As to point [2], there are two clear paths for Israel to follow, both either undesired or unlikely, but not impossible.

First, Israel can encourage large Jewish immigration to bolster the "Jewish" population against the Palestinians who would/might return under PRoR. (I use quotes, because I have read that some of the Russians who immigrated into Israel may not have been sufficiently "Jewish" to satisfy whoever there must be satisfied.)

Second, Israel can agree to occupy a smaller space than previously contemplate -- smaller even than pre-1967 -- so that PRoR would bring fewer Palestinians into the so-reduced Israeli territory.

PS: As an American and a New Yorker I live in worlds which are considerably multi-ethnic including (especially in New York City) a huge Jewish population and, although I do not explicitly seek it, most of my friends are Jews. and we all exist quite happily in a sea of non-Jews.

And quite safely, as far as I am able to see. So the Israeli desire for a 20% rule entirely stymies me.

Just saying.

Unknown said...

In the first paragraph of his article Mr. Haber states a few things that he thinks liberal Zionists want, citing one thing as "...the establishment of a Palestinian state that will allow Palestinians to live as a free and secure people in their own homeland." He then goes on to write that the things he cited are "... virtually identical with two of the three aims" of the BDS National Committee," the exception being the Palestinian right of return. Mr.Haber's inference that the idea of a Palestinian homeland is aligned with BDS principles is quite disingenuous and not becoming for a professor of philosophy.

Here are the three BDS principles taken directly from

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

So while I think that every person seeking justice for Palestinians should support the BDS movement, I also think that outright misinformation by Zionists, well-intentioned or not, should be called out wherever it appears.

Jerry Haber said...

I linked to the statement, so that anybody could compare my rephrasing. You are right to point out that the first two goals of the BDS statement are captured by the first two of the three goals of liberal Zionists that I mentioned. Having said that, I don't know any supporter of the BDS movement who does not want to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. For some supporters that will be one Palestinian state that will include Israelis and Palestinians. For others, it could be a state in addition to Israel. So while that is not stated explicitly in the three goals, I think that it is fair to say that it is accord with those goals. So I am charitable assuming that liberal Zionists and one-staters both see as a common goal the establishment of a Palestinian state.