Don't Divest; Invest

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November 28, 2010

Editor’s Note: This article was written for Zeek and originally published on October 28 in response to an essay by Jewish Voice for Peace advocating that Jews join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The two essays appeared on Zeek’s website simultaneously, and benefit from being read together. 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.

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.

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