Presbyterian Church divestment from three corporations linked to the Israeli military has highlighted a growing rift between two-state solution advocates who see divestment as a legitimate tool and J Street, the leading liberal Zionist group, which lobbied against the church measure.
“BDS is the only game in town – America has given up the ghost as far as trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians is concerned, so what does J Street have to sell anymore?…J Street’s going to have to change or die,” Larry Derfner, a liberal Zionist and writer for +972 Magazine, told me.
J Street is adamant on this score. When J Street’s Rachel Lerner went before the anti-divestment group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace on June 14th, she opposed the divestment measure that was to pass a week later at the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly, by linking it to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement:
“The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, because of its refusal to acknowledge that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a two-sided conflict, and its refusal to accept a Jewish and Palestinian homeland, actually undermines the peace it claims to seek.”
Lerner is J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, and her speech was a reflection of the main strategy that liberal Jews opposed to the divestment measure took before the vote: bet that the BDS movement is toxic enough that linking a divestment measure to it would spell defeat for the measure.
But one week later, after the dust had settled on the church’s affirmative decision to divest from three corporations who supply the Israeli military, J Street sang a different tune on the divestment measure and BDS.
“This vote is far from a victory for the Global BDS Movement,” J Street said in a statement on June 23. “Despite the Movement’s attempt to claim victory following the vote, the resolution passed is in fact an explicit repudiation of the BDS Movement, stating the Church is neither divesting from Israel nor aligning with or endorsing the Movement’s goals.” Nevertheless, the leading liberal Zionist group condemned the vote.
The conflicting responses to divestment–linking it to the larger BDS movement beforehand to try to defeat it, and then celebrating the resolution’s “repudiation” of BDS–highlights the quandary the group faces now. J Street opposes the occupation of the West Bank, but also strenuously opposes efforts like divestment that act on that belief.
And the church divestment resolution comes at a time of growing frustration among those who believe in a two-state solution. Increasingly, those desperate to end the occupation are looking to the tactics BDS is pushing for salvation. And those same people, J Street’s natural constituency, are starting to voice criticism of the group for its myopic focus on being accepted by the Jewish establishment and influencing Washington.
“J Street is at a crossroads. They can either come to the table with positive solutions, which I believe are BDS, or their relevance will go down,” Seth Morrison, the former chair of J Street’s Washington, D.C. chapter who is now a supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace, told me in an interview. “There are definitely people within J Street who feel that the organization is not using the political clout and the membership that it has put together to bring change.”
Morrison’s sentiment was echoed by Aaron Lerner, a former J Street U member who was supportive of Presbyterian divestment. “I joined the organization because I believed that it offered a middle ground between the BDS movement and AIPAC, which is closely aligned with Israel’s right-wing government,” wrote Lerner in New Voices, a Jewish student publication. “I believed I was pursuing the best option to realize peace. I no longer believe this to be the case. Therefore, I have decided to join those in the Jewish community who will take meaningful, concrete steps to achieve a just solution to the conflict.”
In addition, there are some signs that liberal Zionist groups other than J Street are warming up to divestment as a tactic to save the two-state solution. Americans for Peace Now (APN), another prominent liberal Zionist group, released a statement after the Presbyterian Church’s move to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions that contrasted sharply with J Street’s.
Instead of condemning the vote, APN said that the vote “should serve as a resounding warning” that “increasingly large segments of American society…are losing patience with the nearly five decades-long occupation.” APN, while also saying that the vote rejected the BDS movement, added that “we believe it is legitimate for activists to press companies to adopt practices that deny support to settlements and the occupation, including through targeted boycotts and divestment.”
APN was at pains to distance its words on the Presbyterian Church from the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which does not take a position on one-state or two-states but advocates for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
But the fact that APN came out largely in support of the church’s move was a victory for at least the logic of BDS–a logic that is being fueled by the failure of American efforts to broker the two-state solution.
After Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed effort to revive the two-state solution, Larry Derfner, who identifies as a liberal Zionist, penned a +972 Magazine column that attracted widespread attention because of his prescription for what do about the occupation: BDS.
In a conversation conducted over Facebook chat, former Jerusalem Post columnist Derfner told me that more liberal Zionists will hop on the BDS bandwagon in the near future–with the caveat that Palestinian violence would dampen liberal support for boycotts or divestment.
While voices like Derfner are making waves in the Jewish community, the debate between J Street and other liberal Zionists over BDS isn’t something that Palestinian human rights activists like Omar Barghouti are paying close attention to.
“Palestinian human rights activists are generally not over-concerned with what spokespeople for the soft Zionist camp in the US or elsewhere think or believe,” Barghouti, the co-founder of the BDS movement, said in an e-mail. “They are increasingly becoming irrelevant. So-called ‘liberal’ Zionists know as well as we do that the BDS movement, which is led by Palestinians, asserts basic Palestinian rights and gives voice to Palestinian aspirations, has effectively stripped them of their ‘gatekeeper’ status.”