In my pantheon of commentators on Israel/Palestine, I rate MJ Rosenberg near the top. In fact, I agree with him on virtually everything, and I value his knowledge of America and the American Jewish community.
But his latest post on why he, a liberal Zionist, doesn’t support targeting all of Israel with the BDS campaign, makes no sense to me. It’s not his position I don’t understand; it’s his reasons.
MJ gives two reasons why he won’t endorse BDS against all of Israel, although he does endorse BDS when restricted to the Occupied Territories.
The first reason is that BDS against all of Israel hurts all Israelis, not just West Bank settlers and the settlement enterprise. And as a liberal Zionist, MJ draws a distinction between the Israeli state and the post-67 settlement project.
The second reason is that Americans have no right to criticize Israel since we are guilty of more crimes than the Israelis. So we should take the mote out of own eye, or as he puts it, “Physician, heal thyself”.
To see why the second reason makes no sense to me, perform the following thought experiment. It is 1974. The United States is winding down the Vietnam war, a war in which it has committed massive human rights violations and war crimes (including “millions of dead” according to MJ.) We certainly are in no position to judge morally another country for human rights violation that are minor in comparison. And yet, the trade sanctions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment were passed against the Soviet Union in 1974 with the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community. And why? Because the USSR did not allow its citizens to emigrate without imposing taxes on them. In 1974 there are much worse human rights violations going on in the world – but the US singled out the Soviet Union for censure. (Note to Abe Foxman: Does this mean that the real motive of the supporters of the Jackson-Vanik amendment was anti-Sovietism?)
Why wasn’t it hutzpah for the US to pass sanctions that inevitably and collectively hurt innocent Russian people, a lot more than boycotting Israeli products does? If we have no moral right to judge Israel now, why did we have the moral right to judge the Soviet Union then?
The truth is that human beings always have the moral right and obligation to judge others and to judge themselves. We always have the moral right and obligation to fight injustice. And clearly we do not have the obligation to fight all injustices equally; what engages our attention and our efforts needs to be justified, to be sure, but what of it? Surely one wouldn’t argue that a Palestinian American forfeits the right to call for BDS against Israel because he is collectively responsible for injustice as an American. And yet isn’t that implied in the argument?
As for the idea that “targeted BDS” only hurts the settlers and the settlement enterprise, that’s already been dismissed for several reasons. First, we Israelis benefit directly from the Occupation of the West Bank, if only for its resources. Second, Israel is a democracy, and if we Israelis truly wanted to, we could have ended the Occupation years ago. We bear some sort of responsibility for the ongoing exploitation of the West Bank, and in the short term we benefit from it, as I said. Third, BDS campaigns, like strikes, like the Jackson-Vanik amendment, inevitably hurt innocent people. In South Africa, thousands of blacks lost jobs when BDS successfully closed auto factories and plants. Look at the sanctions against Iran. Are there no good people being hurt? The question is how to balance the harm with the greater good, while not harming so much. I do not call for crushing sanctions against Israel. Or Iran, for that matter. Balance is important. Convincing Lady Gaga not to appear in Tel Aviv because of the Occupation is perfectly kosher in my eyes. I hope MJ agrees with me.
I boycott the settlements as an act of solidarity with the global BDS movement and because I think that of all my country’s current sins, the Occupation is the worst. I also am convinced that what explains the successes of the global BDS movement is the world consensus against the Occupation, and so the focus of the BDS movement should be there, even if the particular target is in Tel Aviv and not in Ariel.
But it is wishful thinking to place the onus of the Occupation on some rightwing crazies, to absolve Israelis and their supporters from responsibility for the Occupation, and to fail to see that the Occupation is a direct consequence of some thinking that has accompanied Zionism since Ben-Gurion and before. The Occupation is a symptom of the disease, not the disease, itself.
Like liberal Zionists there are many things I admire about the State of Israel, and those good things are worth preserving in whatever political arrangement will emerge from the current mess. But I join hands with liberal Zionists and post-Zionists and anti-Zionists in a common front to end the Occupation and to see the Palestinian people, wherever they may, rise from their current state.
Of course, MJ is aware that for many, if not most Israelis, boycotting the Jews and factories of Judea and Samaria, is the same as boycotting Israel. The careful distinctions that liberal Zionists make seem like so much pilpul/casuistry to them. The proposed anti-boycott law would make MJ potentially liable to civil suits, were he an Israeli citizen.
So if he, like Pete Beinart, wants to engage in “Zionist BDS,” let him do so…but for better reasons. I don’t boycott all of Israel because it’s my home, my family lives there, and if I don’t engage, who will? I see myself as an ally of those who want Israel to be a decent state, and I still believe that the way I can do that is from within. I have not gotten to the state that says it’s hopeless.
In fact, I don’t think it is.