‘An Arab & A Jew’ debate BDS and the future of Israel/Palestine

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and Mike Sacks hosted an episode of their weekly Huffpost Live program “An Arab & A Jew”.  Their guests were also an Arab and a Jew, Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center, and Chemi Shalev, U.S. editor of Haaretz.

This episode on ASA’s Academic Boycott of Israel and the interviews were quite telling. They packed quite a bit into 24 minutes.

Shihab-Eldin began by reading a section of ASA’s boycott resolution and asking Shalev for his reaction to either the statement or the general vote. Shalev responds saying the basis for the boycott was one-sided, Israel is being unfairly singled out(1:59) and that a lot of the people supporting the boycott are not necessarily protesting the occupation but “protesting the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”

At which point Sacks asks Shalev point blank what part of the statement would lead one to believe that it wasn’t a protest of the occupation but of the Jewish state.  And Shalev can’t answer, he says, “You’d have to show me the statement again.” I found that very telling. It means he probably has not even read the resolution and wasn’t even listening. He goes on to say he doesn’t think the wording matters (actually, words do matter Chemi).

Later in the interview (21:34) Shalev comes back to this point. He claims he was ignored over this issue. “You chose to ignore it, people who do not want a Jewish state.” When in fact he wasn’t ignored, he was asked for clarification. No one called him on this. It really pissed me off, more on that later.

Shalev then pulled out the ‘worse regimes than Israel’ shtick we always hear.

When Munayyer had a chance to respond he made mince meat of that argument saying this idea of unfairly singling out Israel was a tired argument; that there were far worse regimes around the world than the South African regime during Apartheid and that taking a stance is not wrong; that if there’s a critical mass of movement in civil society to oppose human right violations they should be encouraged.

More than once Shihab-Eldin and Sacks talk between themselves and they make an effective team. Sacks brings up the 2SS and what he calls the ‘end game’ and this is where it gets interesting because, for me, it speaks to the intentions of the parties. Shihab-Eldin said Palestinians should be able to speak for themselves and the notion the boycott was unfair to Israel, he turns that around and asks isn’t the occupation unfair? And if not boycott then what would Shalev suggest? Shalev doesn’t want to answer that. He says he “promises” if Palestinians would accept Israel as a Jewish state and agree to something Israelis would go along, or something. He’d rather discuss how there’s no ‘sympathy’ for the Israeli point of view, and let’s just put aside what’s fair or unfair!

Then he emphatically states:

We’re talking about American teachers and American universities taking completely one sided positions with no sympathy whatsoever for Israeli point of view.

Shihab-Eldin rightly points out it’s disingenuous to assume that people who voted for the boycott have not taken both sides into consideration and that this should not be framed as a one sided decision because people can evolve and change based on info made available to them. Then he brings the conversation right back to ‘if not BDS then what?’

Munayyer’s words are like crystal clear water. He spoke to the huge imbalance of power Palestinians are up against “Israel simply imposes its will and if Palestinians refuse the unjust proposals they are blamed for the failure of the peace process..Palestinians are asking for their human rights to be recognized and the rights to live in the land where they are from.” Palestinians society is saying:

Look we cannot coerce this state by ourselves we need your help, we need you to take a position that you can take on your own in whatever capacity that you can to send this message to the Israel state that the continuation of these policies are only going to lead them into further isolation.

Munayyer says change the behavior of the state itself, not just the settlements..”The settlements don’t just grow on the top of the hills themselves..a deliberate state policy crafted in the very corridors of power” and if you’re going to send a message to the state it has to be sent in “every forum and every direction possible because isolation is a message that takes a long time to get across.”

Here’s the thing, Shalev knows all to well what’s ahead. He recently wrote a killer article Israel inches closer to ‘tipping point’ of South Africa-style boycott campaign and referenced a 1998 article by political scientists Martha Finnemore,  and Kathryn Sikking “International Norms, Dynamics and Political Change,” :

laid out the foundations of the “life cycle” by which certain norms develop to shape the behavior of states and then of the international community as a whole. The first step, they claim, is “norm emergence,” when a new norm is championed by NGO’s and “norm entrepreneurs.” The second stage is a “norms cascade,” when states fall into line to embrace the new norm. And a prerequisite for evolution from the first to the second stages is a “tipping point” that occurs when a critical mass of events and opinions converge to create the norms cascade.

…..“Tipping points,” of course, are hard to predict, and efforts to do so have been the focal point of widespread, multidisciplinary research in recent years. “You know the edge is out there, but it’s dark and foggy. We’re really great at knowing where thresholds are after we fall off the cliff, but that’s not very helpful,” as lake ecologist and “tipping point” researcher Stephen Carpenter told USA today in 2009.

Israel could very well be approaching such a threshold………..One must always take into account the possibility of unforeseen developments that will turn things completely around. Barring that, the only thing that may be keeping Israel from crossing the threshold and “going over the cliff” in the international arena is Kerry’s much-maligned peace process, which is holding public opinion and foreign governments at bay and preventing a “tipping point” that would dramatically escalate the anti-Israeli boycott campaign.

So, given he knows the tipping point is likely right around the corner (if it isn’t already here) it’s quite telling the main line of defense is ‘Many BDS activists don’t want an Israeli state.’ To that I say, so what? Everyone knows lots of Israelis don’t want a Palestinian state. This is not a viable counter argument.

Words do matter, what BDS stands for does matter. The words of these resolutions do matter. If Shalev and Israeli society don’t like the implications of the ‘end game’, they should take the initiative and do something about it rather than whining about how unfair it is. And if their society is so paralyzed they’re incapable of doing anything then do what Munayyer suggests, “applaud the strategy and empower it if you want to see real change.”

I love it when Shihab-Eldin says he applauds the strategy because there’s a lack of any other options(17:12). The chances this will be resolved in the negotiations is nil and we can all read the writing on the wall, even Shalev.

Shihab-Eldin and Sacks make quite a team and I plan on watching more of these weekly shows about the Middle East.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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