Debating BDS in midair

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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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

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