Haber: does BDS leadership seek ideological purity or a coalition?

Israel/Palestine
on 97 Comments

Yesterday we published Ahmed Moor’s criticism of Jerry Haber’s appeal to liberal Zionists to offer guarded support to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Today Haber, the Magnes Zionist, responds.

Ahmed Moor has criticized my modest attempt to convince liberal Zionists either to support BDS, or at least not to demonize the movement. He doesn’t like my approach, not because he thinks that it will not appeal to liberal Zionists (I have received that reaction) but because he doesn’t like the sell, which he finds offensive and paternalistic to Palestinians. He also doesn’t like liberal Zionism and sees no reason to reach out to liberal Zionists as long as they support a Jewish ethnic state. Time is not on their side, and sooner or later they will have to recognize that the days of a Jewish ethnic state are numbered. To call for equal rights for Palestinian citizens, one of the movement’s founding principles, entails, according to Moor, the end of the state of Israel as “Jewish and democratic.” So does the recognition of the right of return.

Moor may be correct that time is not on the side of liberal Zionism. But if he thinks that the goals of the global BDS movement rule out a Jewish ethnic state, then why don’t the leaders of the BDS movement say so? Why don’t they simply say, “A main goal of BDS is regime change.” Perhaps they think that, but I didn’t see that in the founding principles of the movement, which I cited in my post. True civil equality of Palestinian Arabs in Israel may entail the end of the Jewish state, but many people, Jews and Palestinians, don’t think that it does. They may suffer from a bad case ofdelusion or mauvais foi, but there you have it: The vast majority of Palestinian Israelis want civil equality; many Palestinian Israeli leaders want cultural autonomy and minority rights – but, if polls are correct, they do not oppose the existence of a Jewish ethnic state. Moor and I wish that they would, but they don’t. Is he not interested in marching together with them? 

Moor mistakes “liberal Zionist” for “liberal Israeli.” Perhaps my use of the term mislead him. What I mean by liberal Zionist is is somebody who accepts the state of Israel founded in 1948. Or to put it another way, if you do not demand of Israel to abandon its concern with democracy and Jewish demography, then you are a liberal Zionist. Now the number of liberal Zionists of that ilk may be declining, but not fast enough. Most nations of the world, including the United Nations, accept the legitimacy of the existence of the Jewish ethnic state founded in 1948, but do not accept the legitimacy of the Occupation. Moor may think, as I do, that the two are fundamentally connected. But one wonders whether the Palestinian leaders of the BDS movement want to constrict the movement in this manner. They certainly don’t say that in their literature. On the contrary, they appeal to decisions by international bodies, which recognize the state of Israel without preconditions.

So the issue is what sort of coalition the Palestinian leadership of BDS wishes to build, and how long one wishes to wait.

And that is a question of tactics, not principle. Would it be a good idea for the BDS movement to gain more victories now, at the expense of making the coalition diverse? Or should it just focus on the message, which rules out (according to Moor) the Zionist regime founded in 1948? These are questions for the leaders of the BDS movement to decide. Again, I think they already have decided.

I understand Moor’s offense at the “naches” line, and I regret having used that term, which I have changed. Had I said “empathy with the Palestinian’s satisfaction at BDS victories” that would have been less offensive. Let me explain what I meant. When the BDS movement achieves small victories – and all their victories are small ones, at least for the moment – such victories buoy the movement. Just look at the reactions to the boycott votes in the UK, and the partial divestment vote at Berkeley , or when a major artist decides not to appear in Israel. Now I never said that giving a little “naches” to the Palestinians is a goal of the BDS movement. Nor do I think that the guiding motivation of the liberal Zionist should be to sacrifice his principles just to make Palestinians happy. But for somebody who is straddling the fence, some support for a cause can be motivated by good will towards the Palestinians. I myself am skeptical of the efficacy of the BDS movement on the grand scale. But moral victories are important in their own right.

So if one of the student senators at Berkeley were to stand up and say, I am not entirely sure of where I stand on the tactic of BDS – I certainly support the existence of the state of Israel – but I have seen how important this issue is to the both sides, and I have seen that one side is clearly suffering more than the other. So I will not deny them the satisfaction of a win here tonight.

Moor would presumably stand up and say to that senator, We don’t want your sympathy or your crumbs. If you don’t back the resolution on its own merits, don’t back it at all.

I, for one, admire his ideological purity. But I wonder whether the BDS leadership would not rather have one in the win column.

With due respect, my post was not – and is not — addressed to Moor. It was to the people who have been able to defeat the BDS movement time after time, the liberal Zionists, or to be more accurate, those who accept the Zionist regime founded in 1948. Why has the BDS movement seen so many of its initial successes reversed? Why does so much of the world concern itself with the Occupation but not with the plight of the Palestinian Israelis? My point is that if more liberal Zionists could be convinced to be sympathethic to BDS, or at least not go out of their way to oppose it, that may not only be good for ending the Occupation, but for other goals, such as helping transform Israel from a Jewish ethnocracy to a state of all its citizens, a state with, to quote Michael Warschawski, “basic individual and collective rights, an end of domination and oppression, decolonization, equality, and as-much-justice-as-possible. “ What he calls “collective rights” I call cultural Zionism, in the Jewish case.

Two final points. Nowhere did I call on the BDS movement to accommodate its message or principles to liberal Zionists; that seems to have been Moor’s fundamental misreading. On the contrary, I think it already has done so, by not listing the end of the regime founded in 1948 as one of its principles. Moor writes that “The right of return is an inviolable and sacrosanct principle which necessarily spells out the end of the Jewish state, as such.” That’s his opinion, and the opinion of most Zionists, including liberal ones, but I wonder whether it is the opinion of the global BDS movement. And if it is, why talk in codes? In fact, I don’t think the right of return does spell the end of the Jewish state as such. It certainly is not implied in Resolution 194, which the BDS movement insists upon mentioning. Did the UN recognize a Jewish state only to pass a resolution several months later calling for its demise?

But whether regime change is implied in Resolution 194 or not, the right of return is a major goal of the movement, and one is certainly on good grounds to insist on it. Still, I wonder whether engaging with people who accept the first two goals of the movement and who bracket the third isn’t a better way to go. Building coalitions – or even unofficial agreements not to attack each other — not only makes for strange bedfellows, but allows people like Moor and me to make the case for the right of return to the folks who haven’t come over entirely to our side…yet.

But, again, that was not the point of my post, which was not addressed to him or to the leadership of the BDS movement. My point was that liberal Zionists, for their own reasons, would do well to give guarded support for BDS, or at the very least not demonize it.

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Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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