Three Israels: Why We Can't Talk about BDS

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November 30, 2010

Begining this November, Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture has begun to run a set of articles for and against the movement to boycott products made in Israel, divest from companies doing business with Israel, and sanction the Israeli government (the BDS movement).

Many have asked me why Zeek, a magazine devoted to Jewish identity and a long-time supporter of Israeli arts and culture, would even consider running articles on the BDS movement. I’ve also gotten personal queries about why I, as a person who opposes the BDS movement, would support running articles in favor of that movement in the magazine I edit.

The short answer is that Zeek’s mission is to be a catalyst for conversations in the Jewish community. We passionately believe that unless we air our differences, we will not be able to build a Jewish identity strong enough to survive and thrive into the future. The role of the free press and media in a democratic society is precisely to give voice to such differences. Exploring and analyzing the roots of controversy are one of the reasons a magazine like Zeek exists.

The long answer is more complex and rooted in Zeek’s role as a magazine about the Jewish future. I will argue here that the controversy swirling around the BDS movement does not merely reflect differences between people who are pro-Israel and anti-Israel, but reflects the very different understandings we have of Israel itself.

In general, whether you oppose or favor the BDS movement depends largely on how you conceive of the geographic, political, and symbolic place that is named “Israel” The fact is that, despite Theodor Herzl’s dream, Israel is not simply, or merely, a state like any other state. The Israel that is a “state like any other state” is only one of three very different Israels that coexist in the geopolitical world.

First, there is the the Israel that is a “state like any other state,” what we now call the modern State of Israel. This is the modern nation-state recognized by UN declarations and today recognized by almost every nation state on the planet. It has a democratically-elected Parliament, an autonomous juridical system and performs all the usual functions of a nation-state. Its boundaries are currently disputed, but that makes it no different from India (and its fiercely disputed border with Pakistan), Turkey (which challenges Greece for Cyprus), or many other modern states. In fact, while not nearly as significant, even the United States still has disputed boundary areas with Canada and Mexico.

Second, there is the Israel that is Israel/Palestine. This entity encompasses both the geographic space of the current nation-state of Israel and what is often called the Occupied Territories. The existence of this Israel/Palestine entity is rejected by those who believe the West Bank and Gaza should be recognized as an integral part of the State of Israel; they do not recognize Israel/Palestine nor do they recognize the “occupation.”, preferring to call this geographic space “Greater Israel.”

For the rest of the world, Israel/Palestine is a cuneiform tablet on which individuals rewrite the histories of their cultural identities. Those who deny the validity of the existence of the modern State of Israel, for example, see in Israel/Palestine an emerging state of “Palestine” that will one day overcome the “Israeli (i.e. Jewish) entity.” Others see in Israel/Palestine the apotheosis of the liberal state, a “one state” solution that would negate current geopolitical barriers and create one modern democratic nation-state of mixed religions and ethnicities. The more pragmatic majority, in Israel and in the world, imagines a “two-state” solution in which a modern nation-state of Palestine is formed side-by-side with the modern nation-state of Israel. The Israel that is Israel/Palestine is a land of both nightmare and dream, a topos of ethnic cleansing, ethnic pride, and post-ethnic statism.

Third and finally, there is the Israel that is the Jewish State. The Israel that is the Jewish State claims as its “virtual” citizens all those of Jewish descent (as determined by the State), no matter where on the planet they actually reside. Claims are made upon Jews worldwide to support the Jewish State financially, politically, and emotionally. Jews around the world are called upon to wave the flag of the Jewish state, to celebrate its secular holidays (such as its Day of Independence), and to indulge in its foods (falafel, humus), song and dance. Israel as the Jewish State may be the first truly postmodern state, as it attempts to be both rooted in a particular geographic locale and yet include a population unbounded by geography. It is a state for a “people” and not merely a state for its inhabitants.

It is important to understand that these three Israels are not exclusive. In fact, many Jews believe in two, or even three, of these Israels at the same time, often without recognizing the distinctions between them. It is this confusion between the state as a geopolitical entity and as a political-ethnic identity that is at the heart of the BDS debate. Attempts to undermine a Jewish State have a far different valence than attempts to pressure a legitimate government. Believing in self-determination for two peoples is far different from believing that a modern nation-state is an illegitimate political entity. Yet, because boycotts, divestment and sanctions are tools used precisely to pressure states qua states, these very different understandings of Israel are conflated in the BDS debate.

How you understand the BDS movement depends largely on which of the three Israeli states shapes your dominant understanding of Israel.

Though the movement is often referred to as BDS, very few Jews, when pressed, actually support international diplomatic or economic sanctions against Israel. Sanctions are supposed to be used to enforce international law. In actual practice, sanctions are used primarily to rein in rogue states: according to researchers David Cortright and George A. Lopez sanctions mainly have been applied to “reverse territorial aggression, restore democratically elected leaders, promote human rights, deter and punish terrorism and promote disarmament.”.

If your “Israel” is the modern, democratically-elected nation-state, it would make no more sense to sanction Israel than to sanction the United States, France, or Australia. All of these states have some political dirty laundry, but none can be categorized as “rogue states.” Their leaders are elected in fair and clean elections, and they support, in principle, the values of human rights, territorial boundaries, and so forth. For anyone whose Israel is the modern State of Israel, any talk of sanctions is de facto “anti-Israel,” an action against the democratic nation-state, just as we would take any talk of sanctions against the United States as being “anti-American.”

Likewise, if your “Israel” is the Jewish State, then you will be strongly opposed to sanctions, but for a very different and even more visceral reason. If you understand Israel to be state of the Jewish people, then sanctions against the state would be sanctions against the Jewish people, as a people. In other words, sanctions become not a statement about governance, but a statement about ethnicity. When people who oppose BDS say that any BDS campaign is “anti-Semitic,” I suggest this is precisely the sense they mean.

If, however, your “Israel” is Israel/Palestine, then you will have a very different understanding of what sanctions mean. For example, if your “Israel” is Israel/Palestine, you may believe that there is no truly democratic nation-state, at least within the Occupied Territories. For example, you may believe that the people of the Occupied Territories are denied the right of self-determination as citizens of the country in which they are occupied. You may also believe that the settlements on the West Bank do constitute a case of territorial aggression. It is then possible that you will support sanctions.

To be clear, those who understand Israel as “Israel/Palestine” could support sanctions for a wide variety of reasons. They could in fact be acting from an anti-Semitic position, understanding Israel as both Israel/Palestine and as the Jewish State, and wishing to destroy the latter. They could be acting from an anti-Israel position, believing in a Greater Palestine with Israel as a rogue “Zionist entity” and wishing to destroy the latter. However, they could also be acting from the belief that without clarifying the relationship between a future Palestinian and Israeli state, or between the Palestinian people and the Jewish people, peace will not be possible. In that case, support for sanctions cannot be understood as either “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.”

A number of Arab countries have officially sanctioned Israel, and a sanction movement is growing in Europe, precisely because most Europeans have turned away from the modern State of Israel and instead embraced an understanding of Israel primarily as Israel/Palestine. That does not mean Europeans do not believe in the right of Israel to exist—instead, what drives their understanding of Israel is its relationship to the Palestinian people. Clarity around this understanding of Israel would help separate out legitimate concerns for peace from those who are, in fact, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

Despite the possibility that sanctions could be used in a way that is not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, most Americans, and most Jews, even on the left, will not support sanctions. Why? Because even if their “Israel” is Israel/Palestine, most Americans and most Jews also believe in the State of Israel. If so,, then the relationship between Israel and Palestine still falls under the rubric of international law—the State of Israel won the territories in the 1968 war, and technically, as a legal matter, treats the land as “occupied” rather than annexed. Furthermore, Israel has created a whole set of rules and regulations to attempt to ensure some level of governance in these areas. In short, for most Americans and for almost all Jews, Israel/Palestine does not fit the description of a rogue state. For these groups Israel/Palestine and the State of Israel coexist. Thus, within the United States, sanctions are rarely proposed by the BDS movement.

The heart of the BDS movement, and the real break between diasporic and Israeli identity, can be found in the boycott and divestment effort.

A divestment campaign asks stockholders to sell off stock in a targeted company. A boycott can mean refusing to purchase products, services, or stock of a targeted company, or refusing to purchase the products or bonds of a targeted country. Unlike sanctions, boycotts do not challenge the legitimacy of a country, but only challenge a particular policy of a country.

The U.S. boycott of Cuba, for example, was designed to protest Cuba’s adoption of communism and its stated desire to “export revolution” to the Western hemisphere. The Arab world’s current boycott of France is designed to protest a new French law prohibiting women from wearing veils in public. The current boycott of Arizona by many U.S. citizens is designed to protest Arizona’s new law authorizing unwarranted searches, designed to crack down on illegal immigrants. In each of these instances, the entity being boycotted is recognized as a legal entity that has a “right to exist”: the boycott is an effort to push that entity to change its policies.

How one understands the effort to boycott Israel depends, again, on which Israel one imagines. For those whose Israel is only Israel/Palestine, particularly for those who wish to see a fully functioning Palestinian state and are not interested in what happens to an Israeli state, boycotting is another tool in the arsenal, along with sanctions. Almost no Americans fall into this category, however.

On the other hand, for those who understand Israel as both as the State of Israel and the Jewish State (but not Israel/Palestine)—that is, for many Israelis and for Zionists–boycotts make no sense and instead are a veiled sign of anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred. If you live within a democratic State, and want to change government policy, you do so through the electoral process. Since Israel welcomes all Jews as citizens, all Jews have the potential for voting on Israeli government policy—if they make aliyah and live on Israeli land. So for those who understand Israel as both the modern democractic nation-state and a Jewish State if you are Jewish but have not made aliyah to Israel and applied for citizenship, then you have no right to boycott. You have not exercised your rights, so you don’t deserve a say.

For those whose “Israel” is the State of Israel, or the State of Israel and Israel/Palestine, which would include Israeli citizens, boycotts could be a legitimate way to push a recalcitrant government to make changes if the issue at hand seemed significant enough. For some Israelis, this is precisely the case. These are the Israelis who protest, for example, at Sheikh Jarrah, because they feel that they no longer have a voice in their own government. Other Israelis may feel that these protesters are betraying their own government, but this is different from being anti-Israel (in the same way that Sixties protesters were considered “unAmerican” but not anti-American).

It should be noted that for those who are not Jews or Arabs—those with no investment in Jewish or Palestinian ethnicity—and who understand “Israel” as the State of Israel or even as Israel/Palestine, Israel’s politics are no more interesting or troubling than ethnic politics anywhere else in the world, from India/Pakistan to Spain/Basque. Further, there are many reasons not to boycott. No country wants others examining its internal politics too closely. More importantly, as long as Israel pursues diplomacy in the international arena, pursuing a boyctott would show a mistrust of the state itself. In this view, boycotting Israel is anti-Israel. This is the position of the United States government, and most other governments.

Thus the boycott issue is only truly complicated for American Jews. Many American Jews feel uneasy with the idea that they are de facto citizens of the Jewish State, yet they also feel guilty about rejecting such citizenship. Their response is to make donations to the Jewish Agency and to voice support when asked, but to remain passive in the face of Israeli politics. The American Jews at the center of the BDS movement are not these Jews. Instead, they are Jews who hold all three Israels in their consciousness.

A Jew who is inclined to boycott Israel is one who understands Israel as the modern state (with a right to exist), as Israel/Palestine, and as the Jewish State. For these Jews, Israel represents them completely (as citizens of the Jewish State) and yet they have no voice in Israel’s policies (since they are not citizens of the State of Israel). As “virtual” or potential citizens of the Jewish State, they strongly disagree with the Israeli government’s policies when it comes to the West Bank and Gaza, yet they have no power to exercise their opinion through the democratic process. Insofar as the Jewish State and the State of Israel are identical entities, these Jews are citizens without a vote. Of course, this is also true of American right-leaning Zionists many of whom exercise their “vote” through reflexive support of Israel and lobbying the U.S. government. In this sense, the American Jewish critics of Israel (those supporting BDS) are similarly exercising their opinion by other means.

It is precisely because these Jews feel so strongly about their virtual citizenship in the Jewish State that they support boycotts.. Most of these boycott proposals focus specifically on materials used for the construction of settlements in the West Bank, and so don’t challenge the existence or integrity of the modern State of Israel. Like Californians who boycott Arizona because they feel that Arizona’s anti-immigration policies sully the image of all Americans, these American Jews feel that the actions of those in the State of Israel toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza sully the image of all Jews. In other words, their motivation to boycott comes directly from their understanding of themselves as virtual citizens of the Jewish State. Members of Jewish Voice for Peace and other American Jewish peace groups join the BDS campaign precisely as Jews, and as supporters of the Jewish State.

The confusion around the BDS movement now becomes clearer. Some of those in the BDS movement are indeed acting from anti-Semitic and anti-Israel positions. Yet to equate the BDS with anti-Semitism is mistaken. In particular, most American Jewish supporters of BDS are acting from a heartfelt desire to express an authentic Jewish identity, one that they believe is being sullied by Israel’s policies in the territories. These different groups can only be distinguished by understanding which Israel (or which combinations of Israel) they believe in—the State of Israel, a version of Israel/Palestine, or the Jewish State.

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