Brooklyn church crowd goes with the idealists on BDS

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I went to the ‘Jewish Perspectives on the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement’ event in Park Slope last night. It was at the Church of Gethsemane, an appealingly humble Presbyterian Church on 8th avenue. The lady who’d arranged the event said they’d asked for space at several synagogues and other churches, no luck, then Gethsemane stepped forward. The place was full but not overflowing.

Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace went first. She said the boycott-divest-sanction movement was nonviolent, a good way for individuals to get involved in the issue, a proven strategy in that it had worked before in the South and in South Africa, and had wide support internationally.

Kathleen Peratis of J Street was next. She stood to recite her ‘opening statement.’ She said there were four reasons BDS wouldn’t work: the Israeli economy is booming and it would have zero impact; it would make things worse in Israel by triggering a circle-the-wagons defensiveness; only direct action in the US government and American Jews are capable of effecting a policy change in Israel; and, finally, because it amounts to the progressive left ‘giving up’ on the idea of a Jewish democratic state.

Hannah Mermelstein of Adalah-NY is young, soft-spoken but persistent. She said that the BDS movement was launched in 2005 not by politicians but by Palestinian ‘civil society’–170 civic groups that agreed on three principles: an end to the occupation and the dismantling of the wall, equal rights for Israeli Arabs, and the right of return for all Palestinians. The latter didn’t mean ‘throwing Jews into the sea,’ she argued, but simply an end to ‘anti-democratic practices.’  ‘We’re all Jews,’ she concluded, looking at her fellow panelists, ‘but ultimately this isn’t up to us–it’s a Palestinian movement.’

Gil Kulick is another J Street stalwart, and formerly some kind of deputy counselor to the US consulate in Jerusalem (and former communications director of the New Israel Fund). If we fail to end the occupation, he said, we’ll have a militarized apartheid state. But BDS isn’t the answer. Instead of forcing Israelis to reexamine their policies, it would simply kick them further down the road to right-wing extremism. What is the answer? Obama needs to put the old ‘Clinton parameters’ on the table, he said, and threaten ‘real consequences’ if one side or the other doesn’t sign.

The J Streeters were older and more polished. They had written speeches. They tried to position themselves as pragmatists who were just stating the obvious: ‘we all know the solution; it’s not rocket science’ (Peratis) and ‘everyone knows that the [Palestinian] right of return will have to be relinquished’ (Kulick). Vilkomerson and Mermelstein went the other way, towards idealism, and the crowd went with them. The best exchange of the night came when Peratis asked Mermelstein what she obviously thought was a ‘gotcha’ question: ‘Do you believe a democratic Jewish state is possible?’

‘That was going to be my question to you,’ Mermelstein replied.

And of course that’s what it comes down to. What IS a Jewish democratic state? What makes it better or more desirable than a regular democratic state? And if it’s not better, why would any citizen of this country ultimately believe in it or want to support it?

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