Leehee Rothschild is a rarity in Israel. She refused to serve in the Israeli army. She joins West Bank demonstrations against the occupation. And she’s a full-throated supporter of the campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction the country she lives in and calls home.
Rothschild is part of a small group of Israeli Jews looking to lift their country out of the ugly muck of right-wing racism and occupation. She’s a member of Boycott From Within–Israelis who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement–and Anarchists Against the Wall. Rothschild is also a contributor to the new book Anarchists Against the Wall: Direct Action and Solidarity with the Palestinian Popular Struggle. (She has also contributed to Mondoweiss.)
Two weeks ago, Rothschild was in New York, and I met up with her in Brooklyn. Over beers and blaring music, we discussed BDS, the role of Israelis in the Palestinian movement for freedom and how Israeli society reacts to the radical left. Our conversation took place as BDS garners an unprecedented amount of attention, with Secretary of State John Kerry predicting a deluge of boycotts directed at Israel if the peace process fails and Israel’s prime minister calling BDS anti-Semitic. What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with Rothschild.
Alex Kane: So you are a member of Boycott From Within. To begin with, could you talk about why it’s important for Israelis to organize under the banner of boycott, divestment and sanctions?
Leehee Rothschild: As Israelis who are part of the oppressor group, our first role as allies is to support resistance initiatives coming from the Palestinians. Our role in the resistance is three-fold:
One is addressing the Israeli population, and that is work that I’m doing with organizations like the Coalition of Women for Peace, which is also one of the very few Israeli organizations to endorse the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), or my involvement with groups in Yaffa, who are working with the Palestinian and Israeli public in ‘48 [Israel proper]. The second form of resistance we should be involved in is showing solidarity with Palestinian struggling against the occupation, whether that’s within ‘48 or inside ‘67 [the occupied territories], which is done by groups like Anarchists Against the Wall or Ta’ayush or by joining protests like the one that they had against the Prawer Plan in Hura and in Haifa. And the third form is addressing the international community, and that can only be done through BDS.
As Israelis, we have a very specific role to play in the BDS struggle. We stress that BDS is not anti-Semitic, BDS is not anti-Jewish, it’s not anti-Israeli, it’s anti-occupation, anti-apartheid, it’s anti-colonialism. When it comes from Israeli voices, it resonates much stronger than when coming from American voices, or British voices, or French voices.
AK: Is Boycott From Within, and other Israelis that support BDS, having an impact?
LR: I believe so. There were cases in which artists who chose to boycott clearly stated that one of the reasons they chose to boycott was their engagement with members of Boycott From Within. When it came to churches in the U.S. that have passed decisions on Israel–disregarding the fact that their decisions have been to boycott only settlement products, which might not be ideal but is important–there was strong involvement from Boycott From Within. And many divestment campaigns were based on information and resources gathered by Who Profits, another Israeli group.
AK: Is that problematic? On the one hand, it helps BDS. On the other it plays into this unequal dynamic where Palestinians are not listened to, and Israelis and American Jews are listened to more.
LR: It is problematic. Around the International Day Against Violence Against Women last year, or the year before that, several feminist Israeli men did this action, in which they walked the streets in skirts and heels, and said “Wearing a skirt is not asking for it.” Their photo was widely circulated. But exactly the same question arose: do we really need to show that through a man–why can’t people listen to women? Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to take this approach. In the same way that as a woman, I rejoice in every man that joins the feminist struggle, I believe that Israelis who join the Palestinian struggle are important.
Additionally, we’re constantly comparing Israel to South Africa, to the struggle against apartheid there. Last year, I got to meet up with Khusta Jack, one of the leaders of the student movement against apartheid, and one of the instigators of the consumer boycott over there, and he said that once people joined the movement, once people were against apartheid, it didn’t matter whether they were black or white. What mattered was they were against apartheid. Eventually, we’re aiming for a state in which everybody lives. We shouldn’t disregard that it is problematic that Israeli voices are heard over Palestinians, nor ignore the Israeli privileged position and we should try and make Palestinian voices resonate louder. We should also not refrain from using the privilege that we have for the struggle.
AK: How do you think Israeli society at large has reacted to groups like the ones you’re a part of, to people like you, who support BDS?
LR: Most Israelis probably wouldn’t even know who Boycott From Within are, specifically, but they do think of those who call for boycott as traitors and a fifth column. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
A great deal of the Israeli public thinks they support peace, if you ask them. What that peace means for them, though, still rejects most Palestinian rights. They say, “I believe in peace,” but at the same time, “I believe in a Jewish state,” in which Palestinians are unequal. It wouldn’t seem contradictory to them. In recent years, though, there’s an interesting shift. There has been a growing campaign by the Israeli government and groups such as Im Tirtzu to delegitimize any organizations that support the Palestinian struggle and any human rights organization in general, even those that are very strictly Zionist and very much in support of a Jewish state, and for the most part these campaigns were successful, so there’s much hostility within the public against such organizations, and the traitors list has for the most part expanded.
At the same time, many Israelis who were somewhat affiliated with the Zionist left, and thought themselves to be within the consensus, have found themselves marked and persecuted, and these people have been growing more radical, and the possibility of boycott of some sort becomes more and more appealing, or at least, understandable to them.
AK: You’ve been highly active, highly visible, in this struggle. Do you feel ostracized from Israeli society?
LR: I’ve always been estranged. My opinions place me at the margins of society in many aspects: as a feminist, as a queer, as a poly-person, as an activist for Palestine and as an activist for refugee rights, for migrant workers. So I feel ostracized from society in general, and my support for Palestinian rights is part of that. I started being politically active during the Second Intifada, when it began, and shortly after that, I refused to serve in the army, which placed me at odds with most of my age group. That made me one of the five people out of five hundred in my school who didn’t join the army. In a way, it’s something I’ve gotten used to. It doesn’t feel strange.
It does get more intense at times when the spirits are rising, during the assaults on Gaza, during the massacre in 2009 or around the time of the Mavi Marmara, where I was feeling like I’m living in an Orwellian world where everybody believes one thing, and I know the truth. At these times, it was very intense, or it can get very intense when I come back from demonstrations in the West Bank. All my parents care for is whether they threw stones or not. And I’m telling them, “wait, they’ve been shooting me with live ammunition. Who cares whether somebody threw stones? They were shooting people who were unarmed with live ammunition. They were shooting children with live ammunition–and you’re asking me whether they threw stones?” At this point, it gets very tense.
AK: Do you think it’s important to stay in Israel to carry on the struggle? There’s a lot of talk about leftist Israelis, or Israelis that are interested in the arts, they go to Germany, they go to Europe.
LR: That’s a very privileged stand, to be able to leave. But I love this place. I might not love the state, but I love the landscapes, I love the people, I love the culture–okay, some of it. I love both languages. My world is there. Both my family of origin and my chosen family–most of my friends. And I’m fighting to change a place, not to leave it. While I do believe Israelis have an important role to play in the BDS campaign, I think we have no less an important role to play in changing Israeli society, because even if Israel is fully boycotted, but the public attitude towards Palestine and Palestinians doesn’t change, then we’ll find ourselves in a very bleak and very dangerous place. I think one of the greatest failures of the radical Israeli left over the years has been its avoidance of engaging with the Israeli public. It’s been addressing Palestinians, it’s been addressing the international community, but it hasn’t been addressing Israelis, and has allowed Israeli society to grow more and more racist.
AK: Many liberal Zionists in the U.S. and Israel argue against BDS. They say it punishes those people in Israeli society–academics, artists, Israeli liberals, people who want peace–it’s collective punishment. What’s your response to that?
LR: There are several answers to that. One would be that every Israeli living in Israel is complicit in the occupation, as much as we would like to avoid it. We pay taxes to the government that perpetuates it, and we can’t avoid using the services of companies that are complicit in the occupation, such as Egged [an Israeli bus company], or cellular phone companies. You’re punishing people that are involved in the occupation. Nonetheless, the call for BDS very specifically calls for a boycott of institutions and not individuals.
The second answer is that those academics, those artists, those liberals–instead of working against BDS, they should be working against the occupation. Instead of accusing academic institutions that refuse to work with their university because they collaborate with the army, they should work within their universities to cease that collaboration with the army, or to cut ties with the university of Ariel, or to stop unique programs for Israeli prison services, the Israeli police, the Israeli army, and so on.