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Jeremy Ben-Ami’s main argument against BDS is it doesn’t affirm Israel’s right to exist as Jewish homeland

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Here’s something important I’ve missed: a debate of Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions in the July issue of Tikkun magazine, with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street and editor Michael Lerner, against, and on the pro side, Maya Wind of the Israeli refusenik group Shministim, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. The debate is not online (but I gather you can find some of it here.)

A few points: Hat’s off to Michael Lerner for giving so much space to this important debate. Next time maybe he will have the debate with Palestinians, who also have something to say about this? Omar Barghouti is very articulate, and knows the issues backward and forward.

The piece is notable for the three arguments Jeremy Ben-Ami makes against BDS that I set out in excerpts below: 1, BDS activists must start by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland with full equality for citizens, except who gets to "return" there; 2, BDS freaks out Israelis and we have to treat them with kid gloves so they willingly make concessions; 3, BDS activists paint this as a one sided story when Israelis and Palestinians are both victims and oppressors. It’s equal.

As for the first argument, Ben-Ami makes it many times, it is a kind of talking point, and sounds a little like Netanyahu demanding that there will be no negotiations until the Palestinians accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. But BDS is a Palestinian-led movement, Palestinians are members of a dispossessed people, and you can’t really expect them to begin by declaring their dispossessor’s right to be a Jewish homeland, built on their families’ lands. To his credit, Ben-Ami does insist on full equality for all Israeli citizens, but in the same breath he says Palestinians must entirely give up the right of return. While, presumably, Jews, including those of us born and bred in New Jersey and New York suburbs, maintain our right to go "home."

It seems obvious that the fear of BDS is really about right of return; i.e., it’s not about rights, it’s about demographics, which is kinda racist. (When who knows how many Palestinians would choose to return to their homes, or how they might choose to negotiate that basic human right– which American presidents from Truman to Nixon affirmed.)

As for the freak-out argument, young Maya Wind dispatches that by saying, Obama freaks them out as much as BDS. And as for his argument that only with love will Israelis make concessions, she says it’s the opposite of what we’ve seen. No pressure/discomfort =settlement expansion, more slow ethnic cleansing. You might say that BDS is the grassroots "make me" that Obama called for when he said he knew the right thing to do but he needed the people to "make him" do the right thing. Obama couldn’t make a move without a global outcry. As J Street wouldn’t exist were it not for the vast and historically deep Jewish and non Jewish grassroots activism that helped create political space for them, and Obama. J Street needs the left, in order to position itself as moderate. 

On the third point, it may be that the left does generally paint this struggle as more one-sided than it is. Yes Palestinians have been agents in what has happened in I/P. But in the end, this really is about Israel having power over Palestinians. Demands for full moral equivalence between partners are absurd, and win no converts.

Finally, note that Rebecca Vilkomerson (in #4 below) challenges Ben-Ami for signing a letter along with the ADL and the David Project that condemned University of California/Berkeley’s divestment bill– a student bill that explicitly focused on companies and not the state of Israel. And Ben-Ami says it won’t happen again.


1. Ben-Ami’s argument that anyone who supports BDS must first acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland:


[T]he question is, is the BDS critique being framed in a way that allows some to conclude that there is no need for an Israel or that there wouldn’t be any great loss if there were just to be one state? That is where our red line is…

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.

… I hope we all accept Israel’s right to exist, I hope we accept its right to self-defense,

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.


Vilkomerson: 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. I think Israel, especially because it is considered to be a democracy, it is held to that standard. There are certainly worse human rights abusers in the world. However, Israel as a democratic state, as a Western state, as it declares itself, should be held accountable to international standards. I personally—with my personal attachments to Israel—I hold Israel to that standard, just as I hold the United States to that standard.

Argument 2, BDS freaks people out

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….

MAYA WIND: 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.



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 [to separate] 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..

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 andthere 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, 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.

Argument 3, Argument that all parties are equal:

JBA: 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 hope we understand that the history of this conflict is very complex and it’s not just one side doing bad things and one innocent victim. In this conflict everybody is a victim and everybody has done bad things, and we can only focus on going forward and how we are going to be effective.

4, Exchange re the letter at UC Berkeley:


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.

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