Principled Opposition

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April 16, 2010

I am not a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. For a number of years, I had direct contact with many of the international peace and solidarity groups that make it up. There’s a lot of diversity in those organizations, and amongst the people who participate in them. But for someone like me, who believes in a two-state solution, with one of those states being a democratic Jewish homeland, and who finds a great deal of fault for the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict in all parties, there is more to it than I can live with.

However, as I pointed out in an earlier articlein Zeek, pro-peace supporters of Israel do ourselves a disservice when we give in to the radical rhetoric that considers it anti-Israel for anyone to use citizen-based economic action to protest or try to end the occupation.

We’ve seen a striking example of it this week at UC Berkeley. A proposed bill in the student union called for the university to divest its holdings in two American corporations that the students said were profiting from Israel’s occupation. The bill passed by a 16-4 vote.

And then things got interesting.

A wide array of pro-Israel groups (mostly those who obstruct any pressure on Israel to end its occupation, but including, unfortunately, a couple of pro-peace groups as well) came out in opposition and mobilized on campus. The ASUC president, whom I’m told was initially quite supportive of the bill, vetoed the measure.

To override the veto, the 20-member Senate needed 14 votes. In the end, the vote was 13 for overriding, 6 against and one abstention. The motion was then tabled and will be reconsidered next week. But the week leading up to the vote, and especially the night it happened, featured a vigorous and passionate debate on the issue on the UC campus.

What Kind of Divestment?

The attack on the UC senate’s decision offered little of substance. It said the bill was “based on misleading and contested allegations that unfairly targets the State of Israel while also marginalizing Jewish students on campus who support Israel.” But it never addressed the substance.

I read this bill. Sure, there are things I can contest, and it leaves out a lot. It is also a student bill, not a Congressional one and by that standard, it’s thorough and well-documented. And what these groups that objected either thoroughly missed or deliberately ignored is that the bill goes out of its way to target only Israel’s occupation, not the state itself.

This is a crucial point, and one that also highlights the variety of views that exist in the BDS movement. It is true that my own experience, cited above, would lead me to encourage those who wish to target only the Occupation to break from the larger BDS movement, which, globally, leans much more toward demonizing Israel and has a significant contingent in it whose goal is to eradicate the state. But the fact that they haven’t done so is not an excuse for intellectual laziness on the part of others.

As a general rule, boycotts and citizen-based economic initiatives are indisputably well-established and effective means for non-violent action to effect change in objectionable policies. It is not acceptable that Israel should be somehow immune from such actions, especially not given the inevitable human rights violations that come with an occupation nearing its 43rd birthday and which have gotten dramatically worse in recent years.

Opponents of the bill say that it singles out Israel. Yes, of course it does. The purpose of the bill is to oppose, in a practical way, Israel’s occupation.

I have argued on far more occasions than I can possibly count against those who wish to paint the Occupation as the greatest crime in the world. Inflating, as the left is very prone to do, the crimes of the Occupation serves only those who wish to continue those crimes.

But the argument that as long as there are worse crimes in the world Israel should be left alone is not only specious and disingenuous, it is quite dangerous. Are we then to understand that until crimes grow to the magnitude of Bosnia, Rwanda or even Nazi Germany we should be doing nothing about them? If there is murder committed in a city, does that mean the police should ignore rape cases until the murderers are all caught? The notion is absurd.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the pro-status quo crowd of the so-called “mainstream Jewish community” has succeeded in the past at framing any sort of economic action as anti-Israel and possibly even anti-Semitic, whether it targets only occupation or not. But at UC Berkeley they pressed their argument, and may have diminished their earlier victory.

Consider this statementfrom AIPAC official Jonathan Kessler: “We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote.”

By using such heavy-handed tactics on campus, AIPAC and their cohorts sparked a much deeper conversation than usually occurs. It still had plenty of emotion and rancor, but it delved deeper into substance.

Nine Israeli groups wrote letters supporting the ASUC resolution. And they did so, in their words, because “…most US citizens … recognize that Israel’s illegal behaviors fuel anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish and anti-American hatred throughout the world. That is why, for the good of Israel, for the good of the United States, outside pressure from principled people, including students is needed to reverse the 43 year policy of illegal occupation.”

One can agree or disagree with economic action as a tactic. One can, as I do, find much of the rhetoric of the global BDS movement objectionable. One can, and I feel, should, oppose efforts aimed at truly de-legitimizing Israel and attacking the very existence of the state, rather than its policies.

But to lump any economic action against the Occupation in with more destructive efforts is a really good way to lose liberal support, and to strengthen support for the Occupation. And it backfires, anyway. Consider these words from Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace, who was at the all night meeting where the veto vote was taken and who has been deeply involved in this issue from the beginning:

“The organizing itself, and the ways it brings Jews and Muslims and Arabs together IS the solution. The trust that is created when you are a true ally to people who have been marginalized is just priceless–and I saw clearly how we Jews and Muslims and Arabs became allies for each other. When and if peace happens, it will radiate outward from these relationships, mirrored in the Israeli-Palestinian relationships in Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah. This was so apparent when you saw, on one side of the room, Jewish (including Israeli) and Palestinian and Muslim students, literally leaning on each other and holding hands–and on the other side of the room, a relatively small group of Jews that somehow mostly seemed to only have each other. It was very poignant. “

A Principled Opposition

In my view, J Street and the New Israel Fund made a terrible mistake when they signed on to the coalition letter supporting the veto of the Berkeley bill. It would have been easy enough for them to put out a separate statement, along the lines of an e-mail J Street sent out the day before the vote. That said that they felt that there were better ways to end the occupation and get to two states than BDS.

Instead, these two groups stood with AIPAC and Stand With Israel and other groups in attacking the bill as anti-Israel, and implying it promoted anti-Semitism on campus. What the NIF and J Street seemed to ignore is that there is a significant chunk of their own supporters, people writing J Street letters and mobilizing in defense of the New Israel Fund, when it came under recent attack in Israel, who support this sort of targeted economic action.

J Street, the NIF and similar groups need to build these bridges and open up these discussions, not stand with those who wish to shut them down and protect Israeli policies which they oppose, and which are opposed not only by a majority of Israelis, but by a majority of Jews worldwide. Not to mention, of course, most of the non-Jewish world.

As I said at the outset, I do not support BDS. I see myself as a gauge. I will never support measures targeting the State of Israel in a manner similar to that of South Africa. The comparison fails on many levels, and I am absolutely opposed to regime change in Israel, which was the goal of the anti-apartheid movement. I am interested only in strategies which will end the Occupation, give Palestinians their freedom, and provide Israelis security and peace, which, I believe, will lead to the resolution of many of the civil rights issues in the state.

But I oppose targeted boycotts and divestment that are confined to the Occupation only, because at this point they have been so effectively painted as anti-Israel that I think they’re counter-productive. So I try to change that. Others do as well. And when it will help bring about an end to occupation and a secure state of Israel, I’ll be back in the middle of that fight as well.

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