Debating BDS at Princeton

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This is a post from Blumenthal’s site.

On December 15 I participated in a debate at Princeton University on the “ethics and efficacy” of BDS. The debate was held as a bookend to the battle over a resolution calling for adding an alternative in the campus cafeteria to Sabra Hummus, an Israeli brand produced by a company which has sponsored the IDF’s Givati and Golani brigades (the resolution was defeated). In my opinion, though the students from the Princeton Committee for Palestine who initiated the effort to sideline Sabra were not successful, they won anyway by forcing an open and honest discussion about Israeli war crimes, occupation and discrimination. And the students who voted against the alternative hummus resolution were simply stupid, not necessarily because they obstructed a campaign targeting a military unit that has been implicated in hideous crimes, but because they resigned themselves to a brand of hummus that contains the preservative known as sodium benzoate, which has been directly linked to everything from cancer to Parkinson’s to a variety of degenerative diseases.

The debate was not only an opportunity for Princeton to hear the arguments for BDS, which I and Jewish Voice for Peace Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson introduced, but to see the supposedly “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street showcase its opposition to the BDS movement, which it has labeled on its website as “a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism.” The group dispatched Daniel May, who serves as director of J Street’s campus wing, J Street U, to argue against BDS at Princeton. He was joined by a Princeton senior also named Daniel May, who filled in as the second debater against BDS because none of the major pro-Israel organizations invited by Princeton’s Whig-Clio debating society were able to, or were willing to, participate. (I have heard rumors from multiple sources that AIPAC has adopted an official policy of refusing to engage in public debates on BDS).

I have embedded two videos here: at the top is my opening statement, and the second contains highlights of each speaker’s presentation. While Rebecca focused her arguments on rights and results (see her excellent presentation here), I tried to outline the history of how Israel engineered its “Jewish and democratic” system through force, and why it relies on increasingly horrific levels of force to ward off the encroaching threat of real democracy. Daniel May of Princeton hammered on the notion that there are much worse human rights violators in the world than Israel, and that Israel is a longstanding ally of the U.S. that “doesn’t deserve to be boycotted.” I thought he did a pretty good job of presenting his case, though of course I disagreed with him, and said so.

The presentation by Daniel May of J Street was the most significant of the evening, simply because it revealed how far J Street is willing to go to stop BDS. I have nothing personal against May. In fact, I know him and like him a lot. He is a decent, enormously talented guy. But he is also an employee of J Street and that means that he had to recite the talking points that Jeremy Ben-Ami and his inner circle had crafted for him based on their own focus groups and polling.

Tragically, May’s case — and by extension, J Street’s case — against BDS boiled down to the Bible and the Holocaust: BDS undermines the 2000-year-old dream that Jews supposedly have of “returning to Israel,” he said, and it denies the persecution Jews have suffered “everywhere they went,” especially in Europe during the Holocaust. Aside from a few token nods May made to the Palestinian popular struggle (which ironically is linked the BDS movement), his case against BDS seemed contrived to trigger the most base emotional responses from Jewish-Americans, especially those who had been subjected to sustained Zionist conditioning. What that says about J Street’s long term political strategy and the case against BDS will be the subject of a much longer piece I plan to post in the coming days. And I will be posting complete video of (J Street U director) May’s entire opening statement as well.

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