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BDS Event in Seattle

Last week, the BDS and the Future of Israel-Palestine panel happened in Seattle.  It featured Profs. Joel Beinin, David Palumbo-Liu and Nada Elia discussing various elements of the BDS mission.  Prof. Beinin gave a broad overview of the history of the Palestinian national movement and various (mostly failed) strategies it’s used since 1920 to advance its cause.  Prof. Elia spoke about the principles of the BDS movement.  David Palumbo-Liu spoke about the roiling emotions that beset all discussions of this issue among supporters of Israel and the Palestinians.

Besides thanking the panelists, I want to thank University Temple and its pastor Rev. Rich Lang.  I also want to thank Mike McCormick (whose video is above) and Todd Boyle, who both videotaped the event. Todd’s video is here.  Thanks to the audience too for attending and for donations which helped cover the expenses of the event.  Readers of the blog can also make donations (via WePay, tax deductible or Paypal) as expenses exceeded the donations we took in.

A bit later on I’m going to feature my own paper.  But before doing that I wanted to focus on an important point Prof. Beinin made during his talk which offered me a perspective I hadn’t ever thought about concerning one particular failure of the Palestinian movement.  In the 1920 and 1930s, the father of the idea of Palestine was Musa Kazim al-Husseini.  When he died, in 1934, his son, Amin, assumed leadership.  In 1937, the British announced that they planned to arrest the new leader.  He left Palestine and never again set foot there for the rest of his life.

But in 1941, al-Husseini made a fateful decision to go “all-in” with the Nazis.  He not only recruited hundreds of Bosnian Muslims to fight for the Nazis, he even endorsed the Final Solution.  If truth be told, both major Palestinian Jewish political movements, the Revisionists and Avodah, both negotiated with the Nazis.  The latter even signed the Haavara Agreement which saved the lives of European Jews in return for forfeiting their personal wealth to the Nazis. Revisionists also made common cause with Mussolini for a time.

So while it is true that both sides saw the Nazis as people with whom they could do business, Prof. Beinin pointed out correctly that this choice was tactical for the Jews, but strategic for al-Husseini.  In other words, except for the Sternists, no Israeli political group endorsed the Nazi program.  They merely negotiated deals to save Jews.  The Palestinian leader, on the other hand, sought agreement from Hitler that if the Nazis won the war he would give Palestine to the Arabs (an agreement to which the Nazis never acceded).

As a result of al-Husseini’s disastrous miscalculation, after WWII ended, the entire Palestinian movement was damaged goods in the eyes of the Allies who’d fought during the War against the Nazis.  No western government was willing to do anything to further the Palestinian cause given that its leader had thrown in his fate with the enemy.  Beinin argues that it wasn’t until the early 1960s, when the Palestinian movement allied itself with other anti-colonialist revolts in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere, that the former regained a sense of forward movement.

But the turn to terror and mass violence represented by the Munich Olympics attack (1972) and subsequent hijackings including the Achille Lauro (1985), once again turned many in the west away from the Palestinian cause.

BDS, on the other hand, represents a recognition that armed struggle can only take the movement so far.  To truly succeed on the world stage, Palestine needs to return to a non-violent form of resistance that combines both vigorous opposition to Occupation and apartheid, while applying principles that shun the mass violence of the oppressor.  Such a movement, much like South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, could create a stark, unflattering portrait of the oppressor compared to the oppressed and lead to the demise of the regime.

What follows is the address I gave to the panel discussion.  A short note of explanation: the panel took place on June 20th, the same day the Presbyterians voted to endorse BDS:

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has, since its founding in 2005 by Israeli Palestinian Omar Barghouti, been controversial.  But in the past year, it has taken on new gravitas as a fast-growing grassroots opponent of Israel’s Occupation.  BDS advocates three main principles which you just heard in Prof. Elia’s talk: an end to Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands, full equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees exiled during the 1948 War of Independence.

BDS pressures multinational corporations and investment funds to divest of companies which benefit from Israeli Occupation.  In the U.S., companies like Motorola (surveillance systems for illegal settlements), Caterpillar (armored bulldozers which destroy Palestinian homes like the one which killed Rachel Corrie), and Hewlett Packard (biometric ID system for security checkpoints), and have been targeted.

One of these recent divestitures has a distinctly local angle.  In the Gates Foundation’s stock portfolio was the security firm G4S, which provides scanning devices for Israeli prisons and checkpoints.  After activists wrote to the Foundation and asked it to divest from the company’s stock, it did so.  This was followed by a corporate announcement that G4S would not renew its contracts with Israeli security agencies when they lapsed within the year.  Another small victory.

Today, the Presbyterian synod meeting in Detroit voted on a BDS resolution.  In the past, the Church has rejected such measures under severe pressure from the Israel Lobby.  Threats were made that if it endorsed BDS, it would cause a fatal rupture with American Jews (note how the Lobby professes to speak for all of us!).  Such pressure and threats have, in the past, brought American Protestants to heel.

But that may be changing.  The committee guiding the Synod voted a few days ago by a strong majority to endorse BDS.  The full gathering voted earlier today to endorse by a very slim majority.

This is how Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Judaism, spoke to the Presbyterians yesterday.  His message was both naked and guileful.  This is an account from the Jewish Forward:

“A vote for divestment will cause a painful rift with the great majority of the Jewish community.  If we are truly partners and you disapprove this divestment overture, I look forward to sitting with your leadership in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem,” Jacobs said. “You can choose partnership and engagement or you can choose separation and divestment.”

Jacobs said he shared the Presbyterians’ concerned about settlement policy.

“We are against settlements,” he said. “We are for a two-state solution, but we can’t fight alone. We need each other, and if you choose partnership over divestment and BDS, together we can change the world.”

Rabbi Jacobs is essentially telling one of American Protestantism’s major denominations that if it doesn’t reject an Israel boycott that American Jewry will boycott it.  That doesn’t seem a fair bargain to me.

And why would Jacobs think a meeting with Bibi Netanyahu would induce Presbyterians to reject BDS?  Why does he believe Israel’s prime minister would be a persuasive voice in the debate?  On the contrary, Netanyahu, who has a reputation within Israel as a persuasive orator, has almost the opposite reputation abroad.  Pres. Obama doesn’t like him, nor do most of the rest of us.

In Jacobs’ plea to the Church, his assumptions expose the weakness of Reform Judaism’s commitment to real change in Israel-Palestine.  When he talks about the common agenda of the Jewish and Christian communities after rejecting BDS, it amounts to one thing: opposing settlements.  But settlements are only one part of a much larger problem.  He omits Israeli democracy.  He omits the Right of Return.  Most glaringly of all, he omits a Palestinian state.  So on what basis will Christians find common cause with such a paltry program?

The Israeli beverage maker, Sodastream, which has a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank, bought Super Bowl TV time for an ad featuring Scarlett Johansson.  The actress was also a celebrity spokesperson for the UK human rights group, Oxfam.  BDS pressured the British group about its affiliation with her.  As a result, Oxfam asked her to choose between her commercial endorsement or itself.  Johansson chose Sodastream.  The resulting controversy garnered more press attention for BDS than any marketing campaign could ever have done.

The movement also asks artists and academics not to participate in state-sponsored conferences, colloquia or performances.  Among those who’ve heeded this call have been Stephen Hawking and Pink Floyd.  There is also an academic boycott which highlights the many ways in which Israeli universities either benefit from Occupation or refuse to speak out in support of Palestinian institutions which suffer under Israel’s oppressive policies.

The more effective BDS has become, the more its opponents have tarred it with terms like “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel.”  The latest example, was an event hosted by the Seattle Jewish Federation and virtually all of the mainstream community organizations.  It boasted the itle: BDS Campaign against Israel: Bad for Jews in Seattle and Beyond.  The event featured Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, who argued that BDS’ goal wasn’t to end the Occupation, but to end Israel.  Opponents claim that the Right of Return would flood Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees who would destroy Israel as a Jewish State.  From there, it’s but a hop, skip and jump to claim that any ideology that advocates Israel’s destruction is anti-Semitic.

Locally, students at the University of Washington, led by the campus group, SUPER, brought a resolution calling for divestment from some of the companies I listed earlier who benefit from Occupation.  The local Jewish community led by StandWithUs, the pro-Israel advocacy group, hijacked the campus opposition to the divestment initiative.  The result was a loss for BDS.  But in Prof. Beinin and Palumbo-Liu’s home state, California, five out of nine UC campuses have endorsed divestment.  The fight is not over.  In fact, it’s just begun and I reckon UW students will have another chance to weigh in on this issue.

The local Israel Lobby has convinced local media that BDS is too hot to handle.  In seeking media coverage for tonight’s event, I repeatedly asked the major public radio station and the Seattle Times to do interviews with our speakers.  Only when I wrote to the radio station’s general manager did I even get a reply.  We still never got on the air, though I’m hopeful the audio of this panel may still be broadcast.  This is the same station which featured an interview with then-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.  His conditions for appearing were that there be no guest sharing the airwaves either with him or following him and that there be no listener call-in questions.

When I protested to the station manager that this was capitulation rather than journalism, he replied that he trusted his interviewer to ask tough questions.  He also promised there would be future programming that would present Israel from a different perspective.  They had a chance this time and weren’t interested.

After the Times’ assistant op-ed editor suggested that I submit a piece for the op-ed page, she rejected it with the odd reasoning that the Times doesn’t publish op-eds that “call for boycotts.”

When I asked her what she meant, since BDS is a political movement and doesn’t advocate commercial boycotts as part of a business dispute, she maintained radio silence as did other editors I contacted.  Yesterday, she broke her silence and replied by e mail that I had a good point and BDS didn’t seem to fall into that forbidden category.  But my piece was still rejected.  This time for no reason.

Little of what opponents say about BDS is true.  The problem lies with one’s definition of Israel.  Does being a Jewish state mean its Jewish citizens should be guaranteed superior rights to non-Jewish citizens (the Palestinians)?  Or does it merely mean that Israel must be a state in which Jews are secure and may realize their dream of self-determination alongside other ethnic groups doing the same within a single country?

The mission of BDS is nothing more than realizing the principles in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which remain unrealized since they were written in 1948.  It calls for Israel to be a state “of all its citizens.”  It calls for equal economic, political, civil and religious rights for both Jews and non-Jews.  This is far from the death-knell for Israel claimed by opponents.  It is a call for a democratic Israel which doesn’t designate one religion or ethnic group as superior to another.

Though many BDS activists may support a one-state solution that would unite Israel and the Occupied Territories in a single entity, the elegance of the movement is that it doesn’t make any explicit claims on the subject of one state or two.  It leaves the subject to be determined by the parties after the three main principles are realized.

Such a strategy enables even some Israeli liberal Zionist two-staters like Larry Derfner, who writes for the Forward and the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, to support BDS.  This is important if BDS is to move beyond its core audience and become a widely accepted political movement even among Israelis.

BDS isn’t Israel’s enemy.  In fact, both Jews and Israelis have endorsed it.  One of the co-founders of Israel’s Peace Now, Ran Edelist, wrote an article in the Israeli magazine, Liberal.  Its ironic title, echoing the Israeli national anthem, is Hope is Not Yet Lost (for International Pressure). Here is the money paragraph:

It’s clear that peace cannot take hold here either with this nation [as currently constituted] or its current government.  It’s also clear that if something drastic doesn’t happen, we are on the road to slaughter.  On the way to the slaughterhouse called a bi-national state.  But still, the skeptical Israeli public rocks in its chair gently and leisurely, living life in a bubble.

Luckily, we have the world.  Slowly but surely, the world understands that it must draw out the splinter which interferes with too many people and interests.  Slowly but surely, more than a few Israelis understand that without international pressure we will fly off the 50th floor toward the pavement below, an accident waiting to happen. This pressure isn’t meant to destroy Israel’s economy or security, but to clarify to those who are hopping a ride on the messianic-nationalist horse, that this horse is dead.

If we survey from a bird’s-eye view the organization of the pressure campaign against Israel, there’s much that is hopeful: economic sanctions, cancellation of artistic performances, academic boycott, arms embargo, prohibition on buying products marked “Made in Yehuda and Shomron.”  All this, by the way, is happening right now.  And if nothing changes, we will jump up step by step, till we reach the roof from which we will plummet to the ground.

While there is much wisdom in this passage–as is often true of liberal Zionists, there is a blinkered perspective that refuses to acknowledge a looming reality.  No sane or reasonable Israeli believes that a binational or one-state solution will result in a blood bath.  This is the view of those who try vainly to stave off the inevitable.  It is the time-old refrain of Israelis who envision a Holocaust around every corner.

While one-state will certainly result in enormous tension and conflict within Israel, neither the world nor the interested parties would allow their state to devolve into a Rwanda or Bosnia.  Both Israelis and Palestinians, when faced with the inevitable, will understand that they must live together or die.  Both are a practical people and will “choose life,” as the Bible exhorts.

What is astonishing about Edelist’s article is that he recognizes that Israel itself is incapable of doing the right thing.  He’s begging the world to “stop us before we kill again.”  He’s saying to the world, don’t worry about the impact BDS will have on our country.  We know you’re not trying to destroy us.  We understand that your intent is to destroy the political power of the messianic-nationalists currently ruling us.  Go right ahead.

There is, in this perspective, a sad fatalism.  The fatalism of the liberal left which realizes it has come to the end of the road.  It has no longer wields any meaningful power within Israel.  For any sane outcome, the world must come to our rescue.  The admission, though pathetic, is a tonic.  It allows us to realize that if the world doesn’t intervene, Israel will die.  Edelist is inviting us to stop Israeli before it’s too late.

As Israel’s government grows increasingly extreme, those of us who care deeply about what will happen resonate with the words of Canadian-Jewish novelist, Ayelet Waldman, who was born in Israel and is married to noted writer, Michael Chabon.  She was interviewed by Israel’s Haaretz:

She was asked if she thought the country could still serve as a refuge for Diaspora Jews facing anti-Semitism.

“If you don’t ruin everything,” she replied. “If something is left once Netanyahu and all his friends are done. The road is getting more and more nationalist, and I don’t see any way that the end will be anything but a disaster.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  While some come to BDS enthusiastically, others come reluctantly after all previous attempts at reason ended in failure.  Since nothing else has worked a dose of stronger medicine is needed to bring Israel to its senses.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • AEL June 25, 2014, 10:09 PM

    Thank you Richard, for your tireless work.

  • Katt June 26, 2014, 3:09 AM

    Re WWII affiliations – it seems to be a case of your enemy’s enemy is your friend. In that regard they are no different to those fighting for a free Ireland who made the same allegiances.

    • Richard Silverstein June 26, 2014, 5:12 PM

      @ Katt: Absolutely right. In fact, I was thinking of including that analogy but somehow forgot in the midst of writing the post. DeValera remained neutral during WWII but other Irish nationalists embraced the Nazi cause: enemy of my enemy…

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