Debating BDS in midair

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
on 29 Comments

When getting unto a long flight like my flight from the U.S. back home to Tel Aviv, there is always some tension before meeting the person sitting next to me, the person I am about to spend a day and a night with in a cramped double seat. This is one of the most intimate settings imaginable, tenderly repositioning a stranger as he dozes off and starts drooling on your shoulder…

The guy who pushed by me to the window seat seemed like a really nice young Israeli man. He immediately exclaimed to me – hey, I know you! Where do I know you from? And I, quite sure, said I did not know him, never saw him before. He asked for my name, and when I answered, his eyes glazed over and he looked around the plane and focused on his bags and suddenly the silence stood between us. I think this was when my headache started.

He recognized me from his work for the Reut Institute, where he had written reports about a grassroots movement I am associated with: the BDS [Boycott, Divest and Sanction] movement. I did not want to know more, and I certainly did not want to answer any questions by someone associated with the Israeli institutional net cast out to investigate and contain political dissent.

As an Israeli feminist activist, I have been working for years with the Coalition of Women for Peace to expose transnational corporations complicit in violations of international law and human rights in the Israeli occupation. During that time, grassroots corporate accountability campaigns of peaceful noncooperation have succeeded where nothing else would in transforming public debate around these crimes and, in some cases, in actually changing corporate policies in the occupied West Bank. With this growing success for BDS, the Israeli government has launched a coordinated attack on organizations and individuals associated with these initiatives, using anything from threatening to close down university departments,legislating severe laws to limit free speech and civil society in Israel to imprisoning Palestinian advocates for BDS and costing Israeli advocates their jobs.

My accidental seat mate turned out to be Eran Shayshon, [1] whose reports and recommendations were central to the strategy adopted by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Israeli military that formed a unit to track activists around the world. The Reut Institute is an Israeli think tank founded by ex-members of the Israeli security forces, with easy access from its inception to the highest levels of decision makers and intelligence bodies in Israel. The institute provides its services free of charge to Israeli state bodies. The Coalition of Women for Peace lists Reut in its report “All Out War: Israel against Democracy” as one of the groups participating in the orchestrated state attack on basic democratic freedoms in Israel: “Organizations such as the Reut Institute, who advise the upper echelons of power and define the human rights community as well as the peace movements as a threat to Israel, constitute a significant danger, especially since their positions are echoed in statements made by senior Israeli officials.” Shayshon agrees with the main tenet of the report: democracy in Israel is under a severe attack. Reut, he claims, is an “apolitical, Zionist” institute, and should never have been listed there along with “Fascist groups such as Im Tirzu.” I catch myself almost springing to the defense of Im Tirzu: it might use a more vocal and aggressive tone, but it too presents itself as an “apolitical, Zionist” organization.

The liberal-centrist façade is central both to the way Reut presents itself and to the plan it has devised for the state attack on critical organizations and individuals. In its recommendations to the Israeli state, Reut emphasizes “the progressive case for Israel” – appealing to progressive audiences through rebranding, embracing liberal Zionist critics of Israel while promoting strict bans or “red lines” such as the Jewish Federation’s funding guidelines in the Bay Area. A Powerpoint presentation devised for the Herzeliya Conference in 2010 uses images of Israeli author Amos Oz and singer Idan Reichel, both progressive cultural icons, and an early article by Shayshon also uses the fabrication of “homosexuals … forced to flee from Gaza to Tel Aviv” to sway progressive readers.  Rebranding and banning, Reut’s two main strategies were fully adopted by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the networks of Hasbara in the U.S.

Setting clear “red lines” for the discussion, Shayshon tells me, is actually a tactic devised for “widening the tent” and allowing more critical voices into the mainstream discussion in Jewish communities. He tells me of a panel discussion they have recently organized against BDS, inviting J Street. “They are crazy about us” he claims, “We gave them a way into the Jewish mainstream.” But I know as well as anyone reading Reut publications that the “wide tent” was never the motivation but the tactic proposed as part of the strategic plan to “delegitimize the delegitimizers.” The recommendations also included “attack and sabotage” on “network catalysts” who, in this military language, mean activists like you and me. Shayshon tells me that the “sabotage” language was revised in his report because “it was misunderstood”. As seen from their 2011 victory report where Reut takes credit for the Irvine 11, for the threats against funders of the Electronic Intifada website and other state actions of silencing by intimidation, the Reut recommendations were fully understood and implemented. 

I tell him of my friend Rae, whose participation in a Jewish cultural event almost led to its banishment from the Jewish library, just because she worked for an organization that led a boycott campaign against Ahava, a settlement product. He seems confused. “BDS,” he states, “does not differentiate between Israel and settlements”. He heard someone explain that in a BDS conference in London. He thinks “the movement” should come out with clear objectives which are acceptable to him. I find myself trying to explain to him the concept of a grassroots movement, the idea of change from below, and how noncooperation targets our own complicity and not anyone else. I am not sure I believe his confusion – it is so much easier to debate the text of the Palestinian Call for BDS then it is to respond to it as the oppressed people’s call for action.

It dawns on me that Shayshon does not really think of Rae or me as one of the “catalyst” targets for “sabotage.” Or is he just being polite to my face? He describes other Jewish activists as well intentioned, but naïve, “promoting an agenda which is set behind the scenes by other people, with completely different goals.” In the Re’ut papers this is termed “the red-green alliance.” He thinks of the tactics of using divestment and boycotts as if it was a global organization, somehow covertly led by a few gentile anti-Semites, mostly Palestinians, with a plan to “destroy Israel,” followed by misinformed and confused progressives. All the Jews he mentions are of the second category. How to explain a joint movement for equal rights for all against the backdrop of Israeli security thinking, which has always prided itself on ethnic profiling and separation?

Shayshon is on his way back from Toronto, Canada, with a colleague that sits in another row (is that intentional? a moment of paranoia…). They are coming back from presenting their new report to the Jewish community organizations about connections between the Toronto Jewish community and the local Israeli immigrant community. As Jews drift away from identification with Israel, it is important to think of ways to recruit the Israeli diaspora. “’Peoplehood’ – that’s the new buzz word” he says. I wonder why Toronto Jews would hire an Israeli think tank to investigate their own community. But then I find out that the newly appointed Israeli Consul General in Toronto, DJ Schneeweiss, was the coordinator of the anti-BDS strategy department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I marvel how this too turned out to be a profitable industry.

If I have ever thought I could withstand an interrogation, I just learned that all it took was a boring flight, outrageous statements by the person sitting next to me, and off I go into dogged arguments and fiery speeches. Two hours into the flight and into the argument, the Canadian flight attendant spilled a tower of half-filled glasses into my lap, and I suddenly realized I had a ponderous migraine. At last, I let my new friend fall asleep on my shoulder. With the announcement of morning, hours later, I was still awake, my mind racing. I have tried to write down what I had learned from the conversation, and as he woke up our conversation resumed, in a different, softer tone.

We understand politics in a different way, and I find his so hard to follow. It seems to me that in his world view, public opinion is mostly irrelevant, and change is change of policy, the manipulation and application of state power. He tried to explain his “apolitical” institute’s very clear political agenda: they advocate unilateral Israeli steps to end the military control in the West Bank and recognize a reduced Palestinian “state” in areas behind the Wall.

I did not get any sleep at night and his vision suddenly makes me realize how tired I am. The logic of separation and control presented as a peace plan; fragmented Palestinian Bantustans presented as self-determination; the erasure of Palestinians from the negotiations as well as from the landscape. Earlier he told me how offended he had been when he heard Ben White in London explain that liberal Zionism was a contradiction in terms. He is a proud liberal Zionist, Shayshon says and I concede: liberalism has never looked so sad.

As we land in Tel Aviv, Shayshon disappears and we hardly say goodbye. I confidently walk past two passengers who were pulled aside for questioning by plainclothes security guards, past the biometric ID systems installed by HP in the airport as well as in military checkpoints in the West Bank, and enter the familiar welcoming hall.

Notes

[1] Originally I have intended to leave his name out, until he published his own account of our encounter at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03/19/sitting-beside-a-bds-leader.html

29 Responses

  1. Donald
    March 26, 2013, 4:02 pm

    “Originally I have intended to leave his name out, until he published his own account of our encounter at… ”

    I read that when it came out. I wondered what it looked like from the other side of the conversation.

  2. Avi_G.
    March 26, 2013, 4:24 pm

    Given the fact he published his own account of the encounter first, you can bet that his expressed ignorance and naivete which you referenced throughout your article were not genuine but part of his public relations schtick.

    At last, I let my new friend fall asleep on my shoulder.

    So you view him as a friend, or is that a mere expression? And you let him sleep on your shoulder. That’s cute. But I wouldn’t let a fascist make physical contact with me, regardless of the circumstances.

    I confidently walk past two passengers who were pulled aside for questioning by plainclothes security guards.

    Yes. It’s nice to be a privileged Jew in the Jewish state where one can be confident. A non-Jewish citizen would be worried about those plainclothes security guards discriminatory order-obeying robots.

    • W.Jones
      March 26, 2013, 9:25 pm

      One of the directors of a Christian charity that works there told me he recently shaved his beard on his return to pass through their security better.

    • Citizen
      March 27, 2013, 6:46 am

      @ Avi_G
      Yep. Many of us noticed the glaring gloat of privilege. Must have been like that for certified Aryans way back when, and over there.

  3. Morgan Bach
    March 26, 2013, 5:08 pm

    “his vision suddenly makes me realize how tired I am.”

    I had the same experience at a JStreet house party at Stanford. For the first time ever I felt like giving up. That discussion is utterly exhausting!

    Thank you for sharing Dalit, and keep up the amazing work. We will succeed in shifting the framework.

  4. pabelmont
    March 26, 2013, 5:15 pm

    “We understand politics in a different way, and I find his so hard to follow. It seems to me that in his world view, public opinion is mostly irrelevant, and change is change of policy, the manipulation and application of state power.”

    This much is clear: if the author is right, Re’ut (or her conversant) is a pure fascist or other flavor of totalitarian who doesn’t care what state policy is and who does not imagine asserting any power over what it is or changing it. He might claim not to try to change the minds of voters, although propaganda within Israel (as well as without) in advancement of current state policy must be a large part of what Re’ut does.

    So perhaps this guy is best described as a totalitarian who uses propaganda to make citizen voters hew to the existing government line (a line set who knows how and he doesn’t care), whereas the author is an anti-totalitarian who uses propaganda to make citizen voters oppose parts of the existing government line according to her own (and her group’s) ideas and values.

    Part of what Re’ut promotes, it seems, is state action to shut down citizen discussion, citizen propaganda, citizen action, citizen political groups. The ultimate end of this would be the end of democracy. Which — did it happen — might be called, Orwellianly — maximal democracy.

    The real test of these ideas is whether this guy would continue to work, and just as hard, for Re’ut, if the government changed to an anti-settlement policy. If he jumped ship at that point, then he is a real ideologist for settlement, a hard-expansionist-zio. If he soldiered on anyhow, then he is just a wage-earner who does whatever it takes to keep his income going, without regard for ideology, and just as willing to promote state-power to suppress settlerism (then) as he is to use state-power to suppress anti-settlerism (now).

  5. eGuard
    March 26, 2013, 6:32 pm

    Putting the two accounts together: he lied he did not recognise you.

    • ritzl
      March 26, 2013, 9:11 pm

      Thanks eGuard. That’s an excruciatingly critical snapshot of this exchange, the issues, contentions, and tactics involved, and the credibility of Shayshon’s Open Zion post.

  6. chinese box
    March 26, 2013, 8:02 pm

    “He thinks of the tactics of using divestment and boycotts as if it was a global organization, somehow covertly led by a few gentile anti-Semites, mostly Palestinians, with a plan to “destroy Israel,” followed by misinformed and confused progressives. All the Jews he mentions are of the second category.”

    Yes, BDS is really a sinister multinational enterprise (run by George Soros?), engaged in the same “rabbit breeding” techniques the Communists used to rope in naive dupes in the early twentieth century. If Shayshon truly believes this, he’s being more than a bit insulting to his co-religionists–he basically labelled all Jews as useful idiots with this statement.

  7. eljay
    March 26, 2013, 8:02 pm

    >> He is a proud liberal Zionist …

    He is proud of his supremacism. What a sad little man.

  8. Inanna
    March 26, 2013, 8:06 pm

    Years ago I was on a 16-hr flight with a lovely Jewish couple originally from Eastern Europe. They had kosher meals and wanted to talk about Judaism non-stop. They told me that the Jews who went to live in Europe and Africa, over time, just started to look like the non-Jews around them not due to inter-marriage or conversion but through proximity. Calling Dr. Mendel.

  9. kma
    March 26, 2013, 10:15 pm

    wow, the ultimate “jew vs jew” on Palestine! it’s Israeli vs Israeli!
    Dalit rocks!
    in the stupid piece on thedailybeast, Mr Reut calls Dalit “my interlocutor” and “my traveling companion”. she is neither! all she did was sit in her assigned seat on an airplane and endure his company. but she engaged him and wrote about it!
    she rocks. all he did was spout the crap we already hear: divestment is anti-two-state. (who cares?) divestment is anti-“israel” (the democraticandjewishstate whatever that means….) who cares?

    so, … is that all? Mr Reut who develops the state of the art in Israel propaganda can only spout the same old? that’s all? there will be no one state because it isn’t Jewish and democratic, and there will be no two state because BDS and the world won’t stand for several million people paying taxes and not voting and being ethnically cleansed (it’s called apartheid to say the least)?
    that’s all?

  10. dbroncos
    March 26, 2013, 11:54 pm

    “… public opinion is mostly irrelevant, and change is change of policy, the manipulation and application of state power.”

    This is an apt description of the Zionist’s strategic MO to win support in the US.

  11. seafoid
    March 26, 2013, 11:57 pm

    “With the announcement of morning, hours later, I was still awake, my mind racing. I have tried to write down what I had learned from the conversation”

    Fascinating story. One of those conversations you can’t get enough of. So much content. You can’t take notes- it would be rude plus you would lose track of the conversation.

    I haven’t had a chat like that on Israel for a while.

  12. seafoid
    March 27, 2013, 12:02 am

    Such an interesting contrast between the 2 articles. The thinker versus the ideologue.

    Baum writes in English :”As Jews drift away from identification with Israel, it is important to think of ways to recruit the Israeli diaspora. “’Peoplehood’ – that’s the new buzz word” he says. I wonder why Toronto Jews would hire an Israeli think tank to investigate their own community”

    The other guy writes in bot
    “First is the refusal to take a clear position against the current assault on the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination. Is this right not a progressive cause worth standing for? The boycott campaign against Israel advances the assault on Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state’

    Will bot win the debate ? Not a snowball’s.
    The memes are all knackered.

    • eGuard
      March 27, 2013, 6:22 am

      That bot piece is tough reading, and even worse on reasoning. Remember that it is on Open Zion, the current successor of J Street as “liberal Zionist” home base.

      Reut’s Eran Shayshon: Yet my travel companion [Dalit Baum] and the boycott campaign destructively radicalize the discourse about Israel, harming the moderate Zionist left by undermining the credibility of their cause.

      Well, mr. Shayshon, if credibility is undermined … get a better one. Are you still crying at home over some truth you ran into?

  13. talknic
    March 27, 2013, 12:21 am

    People who refuse to accept irrefutable facts aren’t debating, they’re propagandists.

  14. yourstruly
    March 27, 2013, 1:31 am

    debating a zionist on the subject of bds?

    besides being a painful exercise in futility

    nothing to be gained

  15. kylebisme
    March 27, 2013, 5:04 am

    From the second paragrpah of the Daily Beast article:

    Her organization frequently bashes Reut, claiming that we are an “extreme organization”

    Googling for “extreme organization” on bdsmovement.net turns up not a single use of the phrase, in reference to Reut or otherwise. Googling for the prhase along with the names Reut and BDS movment only turns up links back to the Daily Beast article, copies of it, and “extreme orignization” being used to describe the BDS movment, the IHH, and the Iraqi government, nothing from the BDS movment using the phrase to describe Reut. So, did Eran Shayshon start his article off with a fabrication?

  16. eGuard
    March 27, 2013, 7:07 am

    Another difference between the two pieces is about the “tent” concept. Shayshon: We in Reut advocate for a broad tent approach.

    Well. According to Dalit Baum here, on the plane was discussed: Reut’s red lines (or bans, by US Jewish organisations), sabotage (“misunderstood” he says) and other tactics, and his quote that “BDS does not differentiate between Israel and settlements” (as an objection — would it make a difference then?).

    None of these points, quite major in the discourse I’d say and contradicting the broad tent-image, is in his Open Zion piece.

  17. Citizen
    March 27, 2013, 7:22 am

    If you read the comments beneath The Daily Beast article, you get to read a whole bunch by–Richard Witty. He’s got a new link association.

    Generally, the comments are about evenly divided. But the stronger ones don’t spout the usual tedious hasbara.

  18. Sumud
    March 27, 2013, 10:45 am

    I’ve read Eran Shayshon’s account of the journey at Open Zion as linked as the end of the article. Shayson writes:

    I never got a clear answer from her, or from other BDS supporters I have spoken with, regarding the circumstances under which they would stop advocating for BDS. What would need to happen? My flight companion claimed that the boycott campaign targeted the “occupation,” while acknowledging that she and others don’t believe in the two-state solution. So which occupation was she referring to?

    Shayson is lying here. Zionists have been told and told and told of the goals of the BDS movement and they are threefold (as quoted directly from the 2005 BDS call):

    These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

    1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
    2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
    3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

    One point each for Palestinians in: Occupied Palestine (ie. West Bank and Gaza), Israeli-Palestinians, and Palestinians refugees respectively. BDS’ goals can be achieved via either a 1- or 2-state solution.

    Even the issue of right of return can be resolved, and leave Israel as a jewish majority state. The right of return cannot be denied – no matter how much Shayson or any other zionist dislikes it – but there is nothing stopping Israel making significant financial/other offers to Palestinian refugees that they re-settle in the new state of Palestine in exchange for relinquishing their right of return to Israel proper. Israel can control how many refugees return to Israel by offering larger or smaller settlements. It is the only just solution, and Palestinians (originally from what is now Israel) who wish to return to Israel proper must be permitted to.

    One of the most common strategies of people opposed to BDS is what is commonly referred to as FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. By continually pretending that BDS’ers have unknown and or sinister goals they seek to scare people about it.

    Dalit – I’m interested to hear your account of this part of the conversation.

    • yomochai
      March 29, 2013, 2:03 am

      Sumud, your suggestion of ” … Israel making significant financial/other offers to Palestinian refugees that they re-settle in the new state of Palestine in exchange for relinquishing their right of return to Israel proper. Israel can control how many refugees return to Israel by offering larger or smaller settlements…” is actually consistent with a lot of mainstream left Zionist thinking- however, I am yet to hear any prominent BDS activist/advocate endorse such a position – have you?

  19. chinese box
    March 27, 2013, 12:03 pm

    “Reut, he claims, is an “apolitical, Zionist” institute, and should never have been listed there along with “Fascist groups such as Im Tirzu.” ”

    I just had deja vu while rereading this (excellent) article. The American settler/student in the recent piece on Ariel University also described herself as “not political.” Is this the latest hasbara meme making the rounds? Do they figure that if they repeat this enough ten gullible people out of a hundred will swallow it? Or is it more a way of rationalizing their own dubious aims to themselves?

    • Annie Robbins
      March 27, 2013, 7:42 pm

      there’s no such thing as an apolitical zionist because zionism is a political construct, a political choice. only if one doesn’t consider zionism a choice or an option could one consider ones self apolitical. but still, they would be wrong.

  20. MK_Ultra
    March 27, 2013, 6:25 pm

    Very interesting piece. I pity this poor woman, having to sit for almost 2 days next to that. Suicide thoughts would have crossed thru my head.

    On a separate note, Carterpillar has just been awarded a huge contract with the MIC. Apparently, they plan to implement the razing of villages and running over activists with bulldozers all over the Middle East. I can’t wait to seem the succumb to some significant BDS sanctions.

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