The following post first appeared on the new website Israel: The Only Democracy in the Middle East?
People are talking about Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). People should be talking about BDS. If you’re not talking about BDS in the context of Israel/Palestine, you should be thinking about it. And here is why.
When I was a little girl, I sent my allowance to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel in the name of family members. I was told and passed on stories about an underdog that after centuries of persecution had finally found refuge in its birthplace only to face a group of greedy, violent people that had homes on two continents but insisted on denying my people this tiny strip of land. More anti-Semitism, I thought.
It took only a few months of living in Israel as an undergraduate student in the late 1990s to discover the lies – or at least key missing information – from my childhood. When I dug further, I also found out how much these rewritings of history and of the present had taken the world captive and rendered some of the most politically and economically powerful world nations Israel’s great enablers. As long as relations with Israel are normalized, its actions go unchecked, and no one really asks about the details, about “Who Profits?”. After all, support for Israel is sold to the general public as a means of supporting the only democracy in the Middle East.
But this is not a democracy; it is a nation and a nation’s people spoiled (in both senses of the word) by a separate and unequal domestic regime and an occupation that has become a 43 year-old violent apartheid. And while we Israelis accept restraints even on our own freedoms, we reap the benefits of this regime every day. Thanks to the multi-billion dollar version of my childhood tree-planting – foreign aid, military investments, and the telecommunications industry, among others – our economy stood strong while much of the world faced a recession. Ingenious inventions like the separation wall and bypass roads have meant that not only do we barely think about violent attacks within Israel but we don’t even have to see our neighbors who no longer can work or shop or socialize in our cities and towns. And we hardly worry about sending our children to the army now that they can fight remote-control wars that we only have to think about if we choose to open the paper or watch the news.
I recently met a young, hip Tel Aviv couple on the street and told them about Bil’in, and they simply had no idea that there even were occupied territories. In fact, they were fairly certain that there were just Arabs who were occupying Jewish land. And why would they know differently? At the height of Bil’in’s popularity, as it celebrates 5 years of non-violent resistance, watches the wall begin to move and return major portions of land lost, and finally has earned the support of activists, politicians, authors and every day professionals around the world, the short Israeli news broadcasts of the demonstration last Friday highlighted only the shaking down of the current (illegal) wall and the savvy army that was there to stop the protesters, once again, in a “violent clash.” The fact that these “riotous” Palestinians were joined, once again, by hundreds of Israelis and internationals – the very fact that Israelis most want to ignore, but must hear – went virtually unmentioned.
And if Israelis do take notice of the truth, we feel justified. The Zionist project has been consistent in telling the world that all Jews are a part of Israel, and then when opposition to Israel’s policies conflates Jews with Israel they use anti-Semitism as justification for maintaining them. We are raised to believe that only we can understand ourselves, only we can free ourselves and only we will keep ourselves safe.
And so the natural reaction to BDS is that it is another attempt to isolate and persecute Jews. It is a very convenient, self-protective strategy that renders all criticism of Israel tainted, and BDS one of its harshest forms. But this attitude cannot continue. And as support for BDS grows, it will not continue.
As more and more people come to realize that BDS is simply a non-violent, creative, temporary tool for highlighting what is really happening within Israel and in the territories it occupies and colonizes with settlements, Israelis will have to start looking inside and ask if maybe all these citizens from countries that they fantasize about emulating (from the US to the UK to Europe) don’t have a point.
The Palestinian call for BDS is not a campaign to bring Israel to its end, but rather a campaign to force Israel to uphold its commitments under international law and the moral and legal standards of a real democracy. It does not claim that Israel is the only country perpetuating these types of violations and crimes, but it is calling Israel’s bluff – if you purport to adhere to the standards of a healthy western democracy, then you cannot benefit from the justification that your circumstances warrant an exemption, or that in your neighboring countries far worse atrocities take place. And its message is that once you become what you preach, normalized relations will resume.
The Palestinian call for BDS is the call of intelligent, non-violent advocates for human rights, social justice, and self-determination that realize that as long as “business as usual” continues with Israel, Israelis will live in a worldwide-sponsored denial of a truth that contradicts even the most basic morals of Judaism and much of the ideals upon which Israel was supposedly founded. And more importantly, the Palestinian people will suffer decades more of displacement, harassment, economic deprivation, and the annihilation of a culture no less rich and established in this same tiny piece of land. The harm that BDS may cause to the Israeli economy – and by extension to the Palestinian economy, as well – will be small and short-term in comparison to the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians (and on Israeli democracy) for decades.
BDS is the start of a conversation that takes place in reality. BDS is a chance to force negotiations for a just solution that are balanced and honest. BDS is the beginning of an Israeli awakening to what the last century has brought, an acceptance of responsibility by the world of funders, investors and consumers that help make much of it possible, and a chance to create a place that Jews, Palestinians and world citizens alike can support. So let’s wake up and start talking.
Emily W. Schaeffer is an American-Israeli human rights lawyer and activist based in Tel Aviv, born and raised in the Boston area. She has been involved in the struggle to end the occupation for more than 10 years. A former member of Jews Against the Occupation (New York), and Jewish Voice for Peace (SF Bay Area Chapter), she is currently active in several Israeli activist groups, including the Anarchists Against the Wall and Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within. Emily’s posts represent her views alone.