When good intentions aren’t good enough: Liberal Zionists and BDS

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“But what about me?”

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Such is the unarticulated, yet ever present, refrain evinced by liberal Zionist’s anti-BDS arguments, epitomized by the New Israel Fund’s (NIF) Naomi Paiss in a recent piece for Zion Square. In defending her characterization of the BDS movement as “penaliz[ing] the progressive community, increas[ing] the intransigence of ordinary Israelis, and provid[ing] political cover for the most extreme right-wing ultra-nationalists,” Paiss employs the usual host of tropes. In her world, similar to that of a typical Israeli leftist, “targeting Israel is counter-productive and inflammatory,” while it is meekly suggested that “Boycotting goods and services coming from the settlements… is another matter” (despite detailed evidence that the Green Line has no meaning in the occupation economy). In this world, BDS is an instrument that “tends to penalize collectively academics, artists and others who actually oppose the occupation,” despite the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s guidelines explicitly targeting complicit institutions and their associates, not hapless individuals. And Paiss, like BDS critics before her, conflates conversation about the movement’s moral standing and necessity with its supposed ineffectiveness—implicitly suggesting that we should forfeit collective action in support of human rights unless it can smite our foes sometime before breakfast. 

But wait; BDS is also dangerous. Why? In the words of Paiss, it “allows the proponents of the status quo to deflect pressure for change by pointing to the imminent danger to Israel posed by this so-called giant delegitimizing force.” Fortunately for supporters of BDS, such claims, while perhaps true, are ultimately irrelevant to the task of working towards justice. The Israeli left would do well to remember that this sort of logic—that oppressors will employ rhetoric to deflect attention to their opponents—could be used to immobilize any prospective stand against agents of injustice. Jim Crow era segregationists were fond of leveling the blame for unrest in their midst on “outside agitators” stirring discontent among “their negroes”—yet did this absolve people of conscience from the duty of solidarity actions in support of the American south’s disenfranchised and downtrodden blacks? Who today impugns the brave activists who traveled from far and wide to participate in sit-ins and freedom rides in southern states for lending veracity to segregationists’ grumbles about the machinations of outsiders? 


The voices of oppressors will always be raised against agitators for justice. The job of the latter is to convey their message, the message of justice, freedom, and equality, through clear, consistent words and action to match; everything else is just noise. The point of BDS, among other things, is to act as a mirror for the architects and passive beneficiaries of structural injustice and inequality to see the ugliness in which they are garbed; they are free to fancy the unseemly visage as emanating from beyond the glass if they so choose, while the rest of the world comes to realize that apartheid by any other name is just as repugnant. 

Further symptomatic of the liberal Zionist’s self-centered frame of reference is the contention that the “folly of Global BDS activists is compounded when they target the institutions and organizations that promote peace and justice.” Paiss says that BDS proponents are reminiscent of a teenager picking on “geeky kids who make an easier target” instead of “the real bullies” (despite the tireless efforts of activists to take on corporations complicit in occupation and encourage universities and churches to divest that she so cavalierly dismisses earlier in her piece). But what is the sort of “peace” and “justice” for which Paiss is so concerned? The following lines provide a clue to the source of Paiss’s irritation:

BDS proponents […] demand that this organization—which empowers the most open-minded Israelis—take political positions regarding very divisive issues, come out in favor of the Palestinian right of return, and stop “enabling the occupation.”  


Some of those people are well-intentioned, horrified by 44 years of occupation and human rights abuses, and stand ready to use anything they can for leverage. Others clearly intend the end of Israel as a recognizably Jewish entity, and they hold Israel to standards that no other nation in its circumstances could meet.  This group reminds me of the radical Israeli ultra-nationalists… Both are maximalists whose all-or-nothing ambitions continue to collide to everyone’s detriment

The fact that Paiss would mention “divisive issues” and the Palestinian right of return in the same breath, as well as her negative juxtaposition of those who “clearly intend” the end of Israel as a state defined by ethno-religious privilege with others who are “well-intentioned,” speaks volumes. 

BDS advocates should take heart that many liberal Zionists and progressive Israeli Jews are well-meaning, but good intentions aren’t always good enough. While I personally believe that the work of the NIF is sorely needed—I first heard of the organization through a friend who was involved in their advocacy for unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev—Palestinians have called on their allies to assist in challenging the extant paradigm whereby “dialogue” obfuscates the realities of power and privilege that have undermined the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights for more than sixty years. It is exactly this privilege that Paiss unwittingly evokes when she casts aspersions upon “maximalists” for human rights.

Efforts to improve the lot of Palestinians should be applauded, yet supporters of justice, freedom, and equality shouldn’t wait for leftist Israelis to sort out their feelings about their structural privilege before exposing, opposing, and bringing pressure to bear on it. Solidarity with the Palestinian people, manifested through action against, not dialogue with, the system that guarantees their oppression, is an urgent imperative. Stokely Carmichael, a black rights advocate active during the American Civil Rights Movement, spoke to an earlier generation of well-meaning beneficiaries of institutional privilege with these words:

I have said that most liberal whites react to “black power” with the question, What about me?, rather than saying: Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll see if I can do it.

Today, as always, Palestinians are leading their own struggle and have asked their allies to support them through BDS. The response shown by liberal Zionists, and many in the Israeli left, would seem to indicate that they don’t see the conflict having to do with Palestinians, but simply about themselves.

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Thanks, Austin. When Stokely was with SNCC, it published a huge 2-page article for Palestinian rights in its 1967 newsletter. This was an incredibly important development that put Palestine solidarity on the map in U.S. politics. 36 years later, the Wayne State University Student Council voted for total divestment against… Read more »

I’ve never understood why it’s contoversial to say, “yes, I would like to see Israel cease to be a “jewish state” – if “jewish state” means a state for jews the world over, instead of a state of its citizens. The response to people saying “oh, well look at all… Read more »

Does anyone know what proportion of Israel’s economy is based on the West Bank? I don’t know the number, but it’s very very small. Which means, a boycott of the settlers would be largely a symbolic gesture. You can boycott Israel, or not boycott Israe, but there’s no real middle… Read more »

So, Naomi Paiss wants the stage cleared for “lefties”, “progressives”, “institutions and organizations that promote peace and justice”, “open-minded Israelis”, “those of us who truly care”, “pro-democracy [forces]”, “anti-occupation forces”, “organizations with a demonstrated commitment to democracy and a two state solution”. One of the great side effects of the… Read more »

Naomi Paiss, my bolding: There are those who naively believe the situation can’t be changed until Israel is being beaten, metaphorically or actually, with a [an] international club.

Note that the the word of violence is introduced by Naomi Paiss of NIF.