Friday, June 27, 2014

The Case for a BDS Coalition

There is a rule in movement politics: Your greatest rival is the one closest to you ideologically.

Supporters of the global BDS movement, the movement that arose as a response to the three calls of the Palestinian civil society organizations, are at best wary, and more likely,  dismissive, of progressive Zionists who support this or that boycott, divestment, or sanction measure against the continuing Occupation. Critics rightly note that these progressive Zionists are willing to settle for a “two-state” solution that doesn’t begin to do justice to the three divided constituencies of Palestinians: those under a brutal 67 occupation, those “citizen strangers” of Israel, and those exiled from their homeland.  Moreover, many of the supporters of the global BDS movement would oppose a Jewish hegemonic state anywhere on the planet, indeed, or even if it were located on some unoccupied territory of the Moon, simply because it is foundationally discriminatory against another group based on religio-ethnicity.

So why should the supporters of the global BDS movement pay much attention, much less give legitimacy, to what Peter Beinart has called, “Zionist BDS”?  Why should there be an unofficial coalition between these two groups? After all, insofar as Zionist BDS succeeds, so does a Jewish hegemonic state, one that excludes Palestinian refugees,  discriminates against non-Jews (and non-orthodox Jews in matters of personal status), and dominates a collection of Bantustans called “(New?) Palestine”.

Here’s why:

First, any call for boycott, divestment, or sanctions, for whatever motive (even on behalf of the settlers!) is seen, rightly, as a blow against the legitimacy of Israel. Progressive Zionists can protest until they are blue in the face; they can argue that they are acting out of the most statist-Zionist of motives; they can point to polls of Israelis who favor ending the Occupation – little of this matters. Even if their boycotting appears to some to be no more than a “liberal chic” tokenism that allows them to sleep better at night,  it will be rightly perceived by the pro-Israel crowd as  a threat, even an “existential one,” to use Prime Minister Netanyahu’s characterization of all  BDS.

Second, any call for boycott, divestment, or sanctions, however limited, is enhanced when those making the call present themselves as supporters of the boycott’s target.  An alcoholic who abuses someone should be turned into the police -- but when the person making the call is his brother, that makes a huge statement of the limits of familial loyalty.   I believe that when the history of the BDS movement is written, Peter Beinart’s call for “Zionist BDS” in the New York Times will deserve more than a footnote. I personally agree much more with Omar Barghouti’s Times op-ed. But “Zionist BDS” was written by  a former editor of the New Republic, a supporter of the second Iraq war, and a Zionist who attends an orthodox Jewish synagogue. “Zionist BDS” made a splash, and people who had not heard of BDS, and if they did, had associated it with Forces of Evil, heard for the first time “one of their own”  use the phrase “BDS” in a positive manner.

Third, the goal of the BDS movement, at least in my eyes, is not to punish the State of Israel. We are not talking about  retributive justice for the sake of justice, much less revenge for the sake of revenge.  The goal of the BDS movement is to get Israel to obey human rights protocols and human rights law, with respect to all sectors of the Palestinian people.  I daresay that the global BDS movement is not even a pro-Palestinian movement, except in the sense that the people whose fundamental rights are violated upon happen to be Palestinians. It is in its essence a human rights movement.

Fourth, the goals of BDS will not be achieved until a critical mass of Israelis, or at least their leaders, realize the unsustainability of the status quo.  This is one of many lessons from South Africa.  And what will enable that realization is being educated by people whom they consider trustworthy.

So what does this mean in practice? Minimally, the public disagreement between the sides should be respectful, but not blurred, with neither side dissing the other.  Both sides should wage a common fight against the brutal Occupation.  Since I don’t believe the Occupation is ending anytime soon, this will allow both sides to forge relationships that will lead to much more than a tactical alliance.  The pro-Palestinian side  will come to grips with the fact that there are over six million Jews living in Palestine; the pro-Israeli side will come to grips with the fact that Jewish hegemony cannot be morally sustained in an ethnic exclusivist state. Many on both sides have done so already.

Let there be a joint struggle, or, perhaps more realistically, an alliance of overlapping moral interests.  This is not normalization or endless dialogue; this is good old fashioned  coalition politics. There may very well come a stage when the assistance of the progressive Zionist crowd is not helpful or even welcome, when the Palestinian side has achieved enough strength and recognition to press on its own. (Cf.  whites and blacks in the US civil rights movement). There certainly will come a time when progressive Zionists have to choose between their contradictory values, and many are already making that choice.

As for the global BDS movement, there are rightly saluting the recent decision of the Presbyterian church in the US to divest from companies profiting from the occupation, despite the fact that the resolution explicitly reaffirms Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state and affirms the two-state solution, and takes no stand on the right to return but rather calls for justice for Palestinian refugees.

What comes next? The great Moses Maimonides/Ben Maimon/Ibn Maymun says in his Code of Law that one has a duty to rebuke his neighbor when the latter commits a wrongdoing. When it comes to interpersonal matters,  that rebuke should be done privately, taking care not to shame the wrongdoer. But in “matters concerning Heaven,” if the private rebuke isn’t effective,  the wrongdoer “is put to shame in public and his sin is publicized. He is subject to abuse, scorn, and curses until he repents, as was the practice of all the prophets of Israel.” (Laws Concerning Ethical Dispositions 6:8.)

The global BDS movement doesn’t call for the elimination of Israel, much less its destruction. It calls for Israel to “repent” by recognizing the rights of Palestinians enshrined in international law and conventions. Progressive Zionists will disagree, no doubt, on what Israel’s wrongdoing consists in.But it is time for “public shame, abuse, scorn and curses,” not as a punishment, or as revenge, but in the goal of human rights.

For if the plight of the Palestinians is not a “matter concerning heaven,” I don’t know what is.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Response to U Wash Progressive Zionists

Dear Shahar and Ruth,

Thank you for answering my call to respond.

We clearly disagree over principles and tactics. On principles, I have maintained consistently for some time that the fundamental question is not what sort of political arrangement is best for the peoples of Israel/Palestine, although clearly that is a very important question. The fundamental question is how best to guarantee life, liberty, and the flourishing of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples in whatever framework that emerges,  two states, federation, one state, etc.  I have no a priori commitment to any particular state or configuration of states.

I wonder whether progressive Zionists are really pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian (as J Street U says). If they were, they would not consistently favor Israel’s security over Palestine’s security; they would support two-state proposals that empower Palestinian (more territory, end of settlement blocs, control of resources, a strong defense force, etc.) Instead, what they seem to be concerned with primarily is the flourishing of the Zionist state in such a way as not to hurt others, like the Palestinians.  They have genuine sympathy for the Palestinians, and they don’t want Israel to control Palestinian destiny. But when push comes to shove, it seems to me that their motivation (whether they realize it or not) is first what’s best for the Jewish state, and second what’s the best deal they can get for the Palestinians, given their unshaken  commitment to the Jewish state.

You state honestly in your response that you oppose the aim of the global BDS movement that calls for civil equality for Israeli Jewish and Arab citizens – presumably, because that would in some way threaten the Jewishness of the Jewish state. You seem to be willing, in principle, to support a state that creates a class of citizens who are excluded from the nation represented by that state. You bear no ill will to those citizen-aliens, and I am sure you would be happy to see their lot improved. But equality is out of the question because the state has to be Jewish in the sense that Israel today is Jewish. For the same reason, you presumably agree with the majority of Israelis who believe that Israel is a state of the Jewish people and not of the Israeli people. Here, too, we disagree.

All that said, there is an issue that is more pressing than the political and ideological ones, and that is the end of a brutal, immoral Occupation that screams to heaven daily.  And here we also disagree, if not over the principle of ending the Occupation, then over its urgency.  Many liberal Zionists are deeply upset over the Occupation, but appear not to feel any real urgency about it.  You, for example, will not support a limited divestment resolution with with you  agree, because in its preamble, mention is made of the global BDS movement, and there are members of that movement, and supporters of the resolution, who want to replace the State of Israel with a democratic state of all its citizens. Until a divestment resolution comes along that is entirely detached from the global BDS movement, you will stand with more conservative groups like Standwithus -- not because you  agree with Standwithus – you clearly don’t – but because at the end of the day, on a vote that does not allow for nuance or middle ground, you vote with those who don’t recognize that there is an occupation, much less an immoral one.

I fully understand and respect the desire to stand on principle. I also understand the predicament of standing with groups with whom one does not agree. It’s not the progressive Zionist’s fault that on this issue they are caught in the middle. 

But there are several options for progressive Zionists on campus faced with the situation that you were faced with: The first is to negotiate over a divestment resolution that focuses entirely on the Occupation,  that it is not explicitly linked to the global BDS movement. When that fails, the second is to offer one’s own divestment resolution and ask others to join on one’s own terms. And when that fails, the third option is simply to abstain on the grounds that opposing the resolution will be rightly interpreted as a victory for Israel and the current government.

This, of course, brings us to the question of tactics. As ineffective as the global BDS movement has been to end the occupation, J Street’s “middle way” has done even less.  J Street U’s have been instrumental in bringing the ugly face of the Occupation to campuses, and that is indeed praiseworthy. I should have been more charitable in my initial post about that.

But acting on principle carries with it consequences, and in this case, the consequences were clear – a defeat for the Palestinians and their supporters.

Surely you are not happy about that.

Professive Zionists at U Wash Respond

With summer break upon us, I hope to post more. 

At the end of my previous post, criticizing supporters of J Street U at U Wash for voting down a divestment resolution, I asked for their response.  I received one yesterday from U Wash students Shahar Golan and Ruth Ferguson, and I am printing it below, as I received it.  I will comment on it in a separate post.

Dear Mr. Haber,

This is Ruth Ferguson and Shahar Golan. We are the two students who are building a J Street U chapter at the University of Washington. We always appreciate hearing opposition to our personal views. It is always important for us to hear critique and challenge our own opinions.

With that said, we’d like to clear a few things up. Firstly, the foundation on which this article supports itself is mistaken. There is no J Street U chapter at UW. We are J Street supporters and plan to bring a chapter to UW in the fall, but for the time being we are free agents and merely students who opposed the UW divestment resolution. In fact, if you had heard either of our public speeches during the student senate hearing, you would have heard no ties made back to J Street. We only raise this point in clarification because it should be noted we acted on behalf of ourselves, not on behalf or representative of any organization, despite misleading media reports to the contrary.

The beginning of your post spoke about when J Street had “gone outside of the family” in the past and received a “crack of the communal whip” which brought it back to conformity in the tribe. One can only assume that you were appropriating this same conformity onto us in this statement based on the rest of your post.

Interestingly, in our statements in opposition to the divestment bill, we condemned human rights violations carried out by the Israeli government, criticized the occupation of the West Bank, and acknowledged the catastrophe of Palestinian suffering at the hands of a movement with which we identify strongly. We didn’t mention all of these issues, or ultimately oppose the resolution, because of concern about communal condemnation. In fact, we fully expected condemnation. And that is fine by us.

While you missed our speeches, StandWithUs did not, and they tweeted their disgust and disdain for our opposition to the occupation. Let us explain why we personally took a stance.

As many have noted, BDS is a set of tactics. Nothing is inherently good or bad about them. The question for us is “to what end?” Why are we utilizing these tactics?

Towards what ultimate goal?

We believe in a two-state solution that recognizes the rights of both Palestinians and Jews to self-determination and lives of dignity. We support efforts that we believe lead us towards that objective, and object to efforts which we believe lead us away from that objective. With that in mind, we were opposed to the divestment resolution at our school for several reasons.

First, although the divestment was specifically targeted at certain companies involved in the occupation of the West Bank, it was explicitly stated to be a part of the “Global BDS Movement.” The three demands of the global BDS movement were stated explicitly in resolution 20-39 presented at UW, including:

1. Ending its (Israel’s) occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the wall

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of 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

As these demands are incompatible with the two-state solution we seek, we objected to the explicitly stated goals of the resolution as part of the broader Global BDS campaign.

Second, while we seriously oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, we were worried by the specific resolution at UW, and the Global BDS Movement’s lack of clarification regarding their interpretation of the term “occupied territories”. Some groups and individuals view Israel within the 1967 borders as an occupation of Arab land, an opinion that we wholeheartedly reject.

Finally, it was unclear to us what the ultimate goal of the resolution was and whether the resolution was intended to support an end to the occupation through two-states or another framework we do not support. As the sponsoring student group, SUPER, does not endorse either a one-state or two-state solution, we felt it unwise to support a tactic without clarity on the intention of the tactic.

You constantly accused us of guilt by association with the establishment pro-Israel groups. It is no secret that we hold different views than most supporters of groups like StandWithUs. While there is sometimes overlap in goals around particular issues, like some BDS efforts, it is quite clear that while some groups are apologists for the occupation, we are not. Our work includes challenging them and exposing them for what they are. This cannot and should not preclude us from working together, as it should not preclude us from working together with Palestinian solidarity groups. Further, your appreciation of the BDS movement's mass appeal (to one and two-staters), as well as your call for us to link “arms with over fifty Palestinian civil society organizations on this one point, despite its (J Street) disagreements with them on other points”, shows a double standard you apply to those you disagree with. You praise groups and individuals that overlook their disagreements to cooperate for the BDS cause, yet you attack us for doing the same and joining Huskies Against Divestment.

We are always open to criticism, and enjoy challenging our views. We encourage you to attend J Street U events (we are not sure if you have in the past) in the upcoming school year to hear our message first hand. We felt that your thoughts regarding J Street U at UW (which does not yet exist) rested on a lack of research on the actual occurrences at the UW. We respect your opinion regarding the BDS movement, although it differs from ours, and appreciate you posting our response.


Shahar and Ruth

Sunday, June 1, 2014

J Street U’s Choice at the University of Washington

Liberal Zionists have always been caught between the rock of criticizing Zionist injustice towards the native Palestinians and the hard place of  keeping that criticism within the family. The few times that a liberal Zionist critique went outside the family (e.g., J Street’s criticism of Israel’s human rights violations at the beginning of  the Gaza Op), a crack of the communal whip brought the liberal group back into the fold. The self-deception of being able to influence the mainstream from within, together with tribal loyalty, has always made liberal Zionists much more Zionist than liberal.

Optimist that I am, I thought the younger generation of liberal Zionists was different.  These young activists seemed to have none of the self-induced neuroses of the 67-generation, those of us who had been taught to believe that Israel was on the brink of extinction before the Six Day War,  a tiny David surrounded by murderous Arab states  (a myth put to rest by historian Avi Shlaim, inter alia, in The Iron Wall.) Unlike their parents, the millennial generation of liberal Zionists had grown up with a powerful Israel that built illegal settlements, collectively punished Palestinians, erected walls ostensibly for security, but actually for more expropriation of land.  These young people listened avidly to the testimonies of the soldiers of Breaking the Silence, and in some instances were willing to cosponsor events with Students for Justice in Palestine and other Palestinian rights group. This generation of liberal Zionists may not have endorsed the global BDS movement, but it was not shocked or scandalized by that movement, nor did it see it as anti-Semitic or illegitimate.

Well, at the University of Washington, at least, the scales have fallen from my eyes.  At stake was a divestment resolution  “to examine [the U of W’s] financial assets to identify its investments in companies that provide equipment or services used to directly maintain, support, or profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land” and “instruct its investment managers to divest from those companies meeting such criteria within the bounds of their fiduciary duties.”  This was a rather modest proposal, not calling for divestment from Israel companies per se, only divestment from companies that profit from the Occupation. One would have thought, one would have hoped that J Street U would have linked arms with over fifty Palestinian civil society organizations on this one point, despite its disagreements with them on other points.  One would have expected that J Street U would stand with the oppressed, even if it meant being barred from the communal tent. Or one could at least have hoped that J Street U would have said, “No divestment this year, but next year, if the injustice continues, we may reconsider our position.” Or that they would have sat this one out.

Nothing of the kind.  J Street U at University of Washington decided to link arms not with the oppressed, not even with Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace,  but rather with AIPAC and with StandWithUS.  In a remarkable show of Jewish unity, J Street U combined with the other “pro-Israel” forces  and collectively spat  in the faces of the  downtrodden and their advocates. To the cheers of the right-wingers, another BDS battle had been won by Israel, and now, certainly, J Street U had earned its place at the Jewish communal table.  Mazal tov, J Street U at U Wash!

Just like their parents and their grandparents generations, the progressive Zionists of J Street U wimped out, preferring tribal loyalty to fighting for justice, preferring it even to their own principles. Or perhaps tribal loyalty is their principle.  Like a long line of liberal Zionists before them, the negotiations took place not between Jews and Arabs  but  between Jews and Jews. They complained that the other side was not interested in dialogue.  What the other side wanted was not dialogue but joint action. That’s the way the oppressed operate.  

J Street U made its choice at the University of Washington, much to the crowing of those who were happy to see the Palestinians in abject defeat.  They learned their lesson well -- criticize the tribe, but only from within the tribe. Call for boycott, but only the token “Zionist BDS”  of the settlements.  Oppose the Occupation, but never, never, even begin to punish Israel for the Occupation.  Call for peace now, but make sure that the playing field for the negotiations is skewed in favor of Israel.

And above all, never let the present intolerable injustice get in the way of the illusion of a two-state solution “just around the corner if we only work hard enough.”

I welcome a member of the J Street U at the University of Washington to respond.  I was unable to find a statement that differed from the self-congratulations of the mainstream.  Tell me why you have not become the “useful idiots,” the liberal fig-leafs, of those who support the  people and the mentality that brought us this immoral mess.