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How do you aim BDS at the Israel lobby?

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Amy Goodman had a good debate of BDS today, between Omar Barghouti of Palestinian civil society and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the longtime peace activist, who admits he was all for BDS when it was South African apartheid, but not this time around. One distinction he makes is that maybe we should be boycotting the Israel lobby, not Israel?

Well, one major difference is a strategic difference. The enormous support for the South African apartheid regime did not come from governmental sources. It came from private banks. I did a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1965 to demand an end to its loans to the apartheid government. In this situation, the enormous economic support is not coming from private banks and industry. There’s some, but that’s not the big support. The big support is from the United States government. That’s totally different from the South African situation. If you apply the kind of basic issue in South Africa, how do you change the economic relations, with the unjust behavior of the Israeli government now and the unjust and violent and occasionally vile behavior of some Palestinian leaders? How do you change that? It’s the United States government you’ve got to look to, not private industry or private commerce. So that’s one really big difference simply at strategic and tactical levels. BDS is demonizing Israel.

Waskow admitted that he was all for BDS when it was South Africa, but he doesn’t want to demonize Israel because it’s a "decent" and "real society" and Palestinians are bad, too. I don’t really see his distinction here. South Africa had a culture too, Nadine Gordimer springs to mind. Isn’t he just saying Israel is Jewish? The ANC was classified as a terrorist movement in South Africa.

Ethically, the problem is that there is a real Israeli society with a decent substructure: culture, economics, life process, the revival of Hebrew, the creation of novels, etc., etc. The trouble with the BDS, across-the-board sanctions and boycotts and so on, vis-à-vis Israel is that it demonizes Israeli society. It does not say there is an Israeli government which is behaving badly, and therefore we need to bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government, as, by the way, and not so by the way, the folks who actually did the Gaza Freedom voyage found that when they got into Gaza, Hamas acted unjustly and repressively toward them. It didn’t want them to make contact with the Palestinians of Gaza, the real folks in the streets. So there is not just the demonization of a whole people and the sanctification of another people. The Israeli government, overwhelmingly, some Palestinian leaders, less powerfully, because they have less power, are acting unjustly and oppressively…

Is it really fair to compare the oppressions of the Palestinians to those of the Israelis? Who is controlling those places? Barghouti is more straightforward:

This is not about demonizing Israel as in an abstract term. What BDS is delegitimizing is delegitimizing racism, apartheid and colonial rule, exactly what BDS in the South African case was delegitimizing. It was not delegitimizing white people or Christians; it was delegitimizing apartheid. So this is what we are against. We’ve never come out and said we’re against this or that group of people based on their identity. We’re against Israeli apartheid and colonialism. We couldn’t care less if Israel were a Jewish state, Catholic state or Muslim state. So long as it’s oppressing us, we will continue to resist it.

Juan Gonzales brings it back to the lobby, and asks Waskow if BDS isn’t the best way to go after the lobby:

But doesn’t the fact that both the Democrats and Republican parties, virtually all of the leadership of both parties has lined up for decades behind Israeli policy, indicate that perhaps a different direction, a civil society approach, as this one represented by the BDS campaign, is a new way to go and that precisely it’s the fact that it is a non-state movement that is developing under BDS that has some sections of Israeli society worried about its effectiveness?

Waskow seems to squirm. He suggests that the American Jewish community is capable of reform. But how fair is that? He has seen reform movements come and go in the liberal Jewish community for 30 years, and what do the Palestinians have to show for it, but chainsawed olive trees?

[I]f BDS spreads in Western Europe, it isn’t going to matter. It’s the United States that has the actual power to make a difference. And BDS is not going to engage enough of the American population to matter. What is going to matter is the structure of American military aid and the structure of American diplomacy toward Israel, toward Egypt, toward the Arab world. That’s what matters. And BDS in Western Europe is not going to matter. So it’s not a matter of what gets worse; it’s a matter of how to end the worse.
And I say again, the—yes, there needs to be a social movement. There now is—in the Jewish community, there’s not only J Street having absorbed and empowered the folks of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, there is also movement inside the Reform Jewish movement. There is movement among Jews who, in theory, are unaffiliated, but care about this issue, and who feel unrepresented by most of the American Jewish established institutions…

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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