Tikkun Magazine: Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) debate
Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner recently convened a groundbreaking roundtable discussion on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement with Jewish Voice for Peace director Rebecca Vilkomerson; Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, founder of Shalom Shomer Network for Jewish Nonviolence; J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami; and Israeli Shministit (refuser) Maya Wind. The entire conversation can only be accessed by purchasing the July/August edition of Tikkun Magazine, but here are some key excerpts:
Rabbi Michael Lerner (ML): We've convened this roundtable discussion because we at Tikkun are aware that the various movements and people engaged in the struggle for peace in the Middle East and who seek reconciliation between Israel and Palestine are increasingly divided over the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). What we all share in this discussion is the desire to bring peace and justice to the people of Israel and the people of Palestine. We also share a belief that the violence and the suffering on both sides must end and that one important step in that direction is to end the Occupation of the West Bank by Israel, though that is only part of the solution. So today, we're not here to explore the suffering on both sides, though that provides the backdrop to this conversation. Instead, we're asking, "What are the most effective strategies to end the Occupation and to move toward peace, justice, and reconciliation between these two peoples, and how does BDS contribute or not to that process?"
Rebecca Vilkomerson (RV): I want to thank you, Rabbi Lerner, and to thank the Tikkun community for giving us the opportunity to have this conversation. I think it's a real model for exactly the kind of conversations we should be having in all sorts of forums within the Jewish community about boycotts, divestment, and sanctions—the BDS movement.
We in Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) recognize that BDS has been used as a tool of all kinds of righteous social justice movements over time. JVP defends the right of activists to use the full range of BDS tactics without being persecuted or demonized. We practice one such use of BDS: the divestment from and boycott of companies that profit from Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. That would include companies operating in occupied Palestinian territory, exploiting Palestinian labor, participating in providing materials or labor for settlements, exploiting environmental resources, producing military or other equipment, and helping to enforce the Occupation. We have come to this position out of a real sense of frustration—not to say despair—that after forty-three years of occupation and decades of "a peace process" there's been no improvement in the situation and things have gotten simply progressively worse on the ground.
BDS is a nonviolent tactic against the daily violence of the Occupation. It's a time-honored tactic that's been used in our own civil rights struggles in the United States, in the grape boycott organized by the United Farmworkers Union under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, in India's struggle for independence from the British led by Gandhi, and of course in South African apartheid days. It's a legitimate tactic and a way of holding Israel accountable to human rights standards and international law. There are a growing number of Israeli groups who are asking the allies of peace around the world to join in this boycott, in support of the Palestinians who are calling for this help from civil society. Many of the participants in the boycott movement are Jewish, so this is a legitimate part of the Jewish community. It may not be the mainstream part, but it is a growing part.
Jeremy Ben Ami (JBA) : I don't think that attacking Israel by boycotting, divesting, engaging in protests, preventing its ambassador from speaking, preventing academics from going places, and not buying products from Israel is going to encourage Israelis to think that there's an atmosphere in which they can make peace.
I think these behaviors on the part of people opposed to the Occupation only feed into a mentality and an atmosphere in which people circle the wagons and become more defensive. And in fact they argue: "The entire world is against us. How can we make concessions for peace when everybody's against us?"
The types of tactics that are being used only feed into that mentality and make it more plausible to argue that in fact the world is ganging up on Israel. I know that it is counterintuitive, because the tactics are being used because of the very behaviors that Israel's engaging in. But it's all a vicious cycle, and I'm afraid that this set of tactics feeds rather than helps to halt that vicious cycle.
Rabbi Gottlieb said that after forty years of being involved in attempts at the peace movement and negotiations and two-state solutions and all of that, that she's given up a little bit of hope and so have a lot of people. But I don't see an alternative, and I think we need to double down on our movement to try to get particularly President Obama to be deeply and actively engaged to outline what a solution is and to make it clear that Israelis and Palestinians have to make some choices now about where they're at and what they're going forward to do. Only with American leadership and only in the next couple of years can we stop the situation from becoming irreversible, which really in the long run, for those of us who care about Israel, would mean the end of Israel as we know it.
Maya Wind (MW) : As an Israeli activist, I can attest to the fact that Israelis freak out when people talk about BDS, and certainly they do tend to get very defensive. And it kind of plays to the whole narrative that anyway is so strong here, about how "the whole world is against us; we're in an existential threat forever."
I would argue, however, that the alternative that you pose of having Obama or the U.S. administration push Israel along in changing its policies does a similar thing. I mean, if you go around the West Bank, there's countless signs of Obama with a kaffiyeh, "Hussein Obama," "Danger to the Jews," and even just today on the radio, I heard Ehud Barak say very clearly, "Jerusalem, both east and west, is the capital of the Jewish people. We will do with it as we please. The U.S. and Obama can say what they want via recommendations, and we will listen, but it's our country and it's our right." And I think there's a lot of discourse in Israel right now about our autonomy, which of course is a joke, because we get so much in subsidies from the U.S. But still, a lot of Israelis are talking about how it's important to stand strong and be independent and not let the U.S. decide for us, because we're not their fifty-second state or whatever. So I would argue that it also contributes a very negative and defensive response from Israelis, probably no less than BDS.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (LG) I believe BDS is a sign of hope. It is not taken up out of despair or the feeling that nothing is working. It is one element of ten thousand flowers—let them all bloom—which include pressuring the United States, working in the international community, etc. I believe that BDS is a form of pressure which has a historical track record, which the Jewish community themselves have used on many occasions, including the outbreak of World War II—l'havdil, of course, not to equate the two—but the Jewish community has used BDS itself. So I would not characterize it as a lack of hope. I would say it is simply the next phase in this struggle. As Jeremy himself said, if we truly are at the end of a process that in two or three years will take us to a very different dimension if it hasn't already, then BDS should be looked at as a positive influence to apply pressure where none has worked up till now.
LG: I also want to talk about the ethical dimension of BDS. I would not describe BDS as making us feel better per se, because we are in a struggle for lives and for the future and there is an ethical dimension of noncooperation which is part of the refusal movement, in which even from a kosher point of view one is not allowed to profit or benefit from any products that are either created by exploited labor or through the use of violence. So, from an ethical Jewish point of view, I believe we have an obligation to look at noncooperation, omets lesarev, the courage to refuse to cooperate with the products and outcomes of occupation. That is a religious obligation for me, which I take very seriously.
No one who engages in nonviolent struggle knows the outcome of the struggle. There is a level at which one does things because we are ethically called to do them.
RV: I very much agree with what Lynn just said. I find BDS to be the most hopeful thing that's happened in recent years. I was still living in Israel during the Gaza war and during the elections after that, and it was one of the most despairing times that I can remember. The BDS strategy brought Israeli and Palestinian activists together, and it made activists in both communities feel that there is a way to start to transform the current situation, which otherwise seemed hopeless.
I want to ask Jeremy Ben-Ami about the recent Berkeley divestment resolution because you talked, Jeremy, about your fears that boycott was being used to attack Israel and to say it didn't have a right to exist. The Berkeley divestment resolution was a very carefully crafted resolution that simply asked the university to divest from two American military companies that are supporting the continuing Occupation, which is a recognized illegal occupation. I know that J Street is against the Occupation and is against the expansion of settlements, and yet J Street took a position against that divestment resolution at Berkeley along with a long list of other organizations, including the David Project and the Anti-Defamation League and Stand With Us, which have been quite extreme in their tactics and rhetoric. What was your reasoning to oppose a resolution like that, that is so targeted and in no way challenges the right of Israel to exist but simply challenges the Occupation?
JBA: Well I think it was a sin of omission rather than commission. I would agree that the bill was drafted in a way to limit it to the two companies. But I wonder whether it wouldn't have been possible to reaffirm somewhere in the "whereas" clauses that Israel has a right to exist, that there is a historic right to a Jewish home. In these kinds of resolutions there should be affirmation of the right of Israel to exist and of a state of Palestine and a Palestinian home, to live side by side in peace and security. That kind of an introductory paragraph would, to my mind, be a very important step in the right direction. I think that it would be helpful for there to be indications that while the Occupation and the treatment of Gazans and settlement expansion are all bad things, a resolution like that should also indicate that the use of terror and the use of rockets and all of the violence that has been used in the past against Israel are bad things too. A resolution like this would have to have more balance and it would have to indicate that there's not just one side to the story. For the record, J Street will not be signing on to letters with organizations like that in group settings again. I won't comment on going backward, but I will just say going forward you won't find us signing on to letters like that.
JBA ...The Palestinian people will have to give up the notion that they can return to the homes that they had to flee in 1948 and that their grandparents and parents fled. Israelis are going to have to pull back their cousins and country-mates from settlements on the West Bank; they're going to have to share Jerusalem. There is going to be painful compromise required on both sides and there is going to be a need to provide a sense of assurance around security, that this is going to work, that people on both sides are committed to each other and committed to this happening. And my concern continues to be that the tone of BDS and the tone of some of the remarks even in this conversation do tend to point the finger at only one side, and tend to lay blame exclusively in one place, and are not helpful to creating that atmosphere. And that in fact they do the reverse—they make people dig in and they make it less likely that there is any hope of a nonviolent end to this conflict.
...I still didn't hear from any of the other three folks an affirmation of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish home, with equal rights for all its citizens and a state of Palestine side by side. I'd like to hear that that is a fundamental tenet of the BDS movement and of those who use the tactics, that Israel has a right to exist, and I haven't heard that.
RV: I certainly have no problem affirming the right of Israel to exist. I don't think during the anti-apartheid struggle anyone was saying that because we were against apartheid we were against the right of South Africa to exist. States exist.
Lynn actually did say that there is suffering on both sides, and that is absolutely true. And I—as someone who has an Israeli husband and children, who lived in Israel for three years—I don't think anyone can accuse me personally or anyone from JVP of not having the interests of the people of Israel at heart. And I think Maya is a fantastic example of someone from within Israel who is saying the same thing, that we're all fighting together for a better future for all of the people, both in Israel and in Palestine.
But I think one thing that is very problematic about the accusation that it has something to do with the legitimacy of the state is that it sort of turns the argument on its head. People have been condemning Palestinian violent resistance against civilians, rightfully, for years. Yet here's this nonviolent tactic that's a way for Israelis and Palestinians and people of good faith around the world to make an impact on what these policies are doing to people every day in real time, and yet it's those tactics that are being attacked as delegitimizing the state just as vociferously as, if not more than, the violent tactics were. So then what tactic is left to use? I think it's extremely important as citizens of the world, as Jews, and as Americans—as Jews we're implicated in the Israeli state; as Americans we're implicated because of our tax dollars—that we have a way to express, and express in the political full-citizenship sense, our displeasure with Israel's actions.
Additionally, I don't think it's fair to talk about this as a "conflict." Israel is the occupying power. Israel is the one that is illegally, by international standards, occupying Palestinian land, and Israel is the one that is violating human rights, unfortunately, every single day. So I don't think it's quite fair to say that it always needs to be about two sides, because sometimes one side does need to be called out more than the other.