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Boycotting the land you love: Israeli activist Leehee Rothschild on BDS and the struggle for Palestinian rights

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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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.)

Israeli activist Leehee Rothschild. (Photo: Tom Winters)

Israeli activist Leehee Rothschild. (Photo: Tom Winters)

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.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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26 Responses

  1. seafoid
    seafoid
    February 26, 2014, 3:52 pm

    I have a problem with the formulation “the land you love”

    Jews are supposed to love Israel, but it’s more like a land fetish – then look at how they actually treat it in terms of ecological damage, pollution, concrete etc.

    Palestinians are not allowed to “love the land” even though they took far better care of it over the centuries. No, they are all savage and they have 22 other countries they can go to.
    And Judaism needs to drop the land and go back to God anyway.

    • German Lefty
      German Lefty
      February 26, 2014, 4:18 pm

      I have a problem with the formulation “the land you love”

      Why that? The phrase refers to what Leehee said. It is not supposed to be a general statement about Jews.
      “I might not love the state, but I love the landscapes, I love the people, I love the culture–okay, some of it.”

      • kalithea
        kalithea
        February 27, 2014, 12:13 am

        I’d like to know: does she live in an area where Palestinians once lived who are now in refugee camps? And in that case: how can she “love the land”? I get that she loves the landscape, but is the land hers to love and get attached to? How can one love something stolen from someone else? Love people who used to live there and work and nurture that land and help them to return to the land stolen from them that they love just as much, yearn for and have a right to.

        I’m grateful she’s adopted BDS, but I want to know if she’s anti-Zionist and one-state.

    • kalithea
      kalithea
      February 27, 2014, 12:00 am

      “Jews are supposed to love Israel, but it’s more like a land fetish”

      I’d go a step further and call it an addiction.

      “And Judaism needs to drop the land and go back to God anyway.”

      The question should be: What’s it gonna be: God or the land?

    • LeaNder
      LeaNder
      February 27, 2014, 7:26 am

      Seafoid, you should concentrate on this:

      LR: That’s a very privileged stand, to be able to leave.

      Convince me that it is not. Besides people like her are obviously needed “at home” too. Arguably more than in Berlin or Europe.

  2. Kathleen
    Kathleen
    February 26, 2014, 3:58 pm

    LR “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.”

    What a courageous and powerful young woman.

    Last night I went to hear and see refusenik Maya Wind (heard her in D.C. five years ago) and former IDF soldier and former member of Breaking the Silence Eran Efrati. I was mesmerized. Both powerful speakers and incredibly courageous like L.R. Both talked about how they were raised in prejudicial ways with attitudes towards Palestinians and Arabs as “less than.” How Zionism and being Jewish are one and the same in Israel. No separation. If you are Jewish you are a Zionist. Period. How they have both spent years shedding their prejudicial upbringings and Zionism.

    Erin’s family has lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. He talked about his grandmother and grandfather I believe on his fathers side having lived with Palestinians in total peace before 48. How his grandfather had been nursed by a Palestinian woman because his mother had died when his grandfather was quite young. His grandmother on his mothers side is a Holocaust survivor. He described growing up listening to her horrific stories. He visited the concentration camps in Poland as a youth and visited the hut that his grandmother had lived (well survived) in. Moving. Shared horrific stories of his life as an IDF soldier. Going into Palestinians homes in the middle of the night screaming “everyone out of bed” at 3 am so that they could “map” these Palestinians. Documenting where they sleep, who is in the home. He was honest about how he was numb to how brutal this was, how he looked at Palestinians as non people. How one night when he had made a young naked Palestinian boy stand by his bed as Eran held a gun to his head he realized that this young boy was a kid he had shared a piece of candy with just days earlier as he pretended to be the kind face of the occupation. How the boys father had thought that he was going to bring the boy into Israeli custody so the father started slapping the naked boy, beating him to the ground. Yelling out to the Israeli soldiers take me to prison, I will punish the boy, don’t take him, take me. Thinking that Eran was holding the gun to the young boy’s head because he had been throwing rocks or something that the IDF will take kids into custody and throw them in prison for. At some point Eran realized that he could not continue to be such a brutal, ugly human being.

    He started working with “Breaking the Silence” collecting stories from other soldiers, from Palestinians about the crimes against humanity that Israeli soldiers and illegal settlers were sharing with him. He stated that he also at one point he broke it off with “Breaking the Silence” because of what they were censoring from his stories.

    He is in total support of BDS and hopes to witness one state, one person, one vote where his children might possibly grow up in peace and democracy. I was so moved by his bravery. Real bravery.

    Maya shared how her awareness of the oppressive apartheid government of Israel that she lives with in. How her decision to be a refusenik landed her in Israeli prison for four months where she really came to realize that the only people the apartheid government of Israel was a small percentage of Ashkenazi Jews (which she is). That Israeli prisons are not only filled with Palestinians but poor underprivileged Jews from Russia, Ethiopia etc.

    She brought up the “economy of occupation.” The economic exploitation of Palestinians who do enormous amounts of manual labor for Jews. I had thought that that had stopped somewhat because many Israeli’s were importing cheap laborers from other parts of the world. She also talked a fair amount about the Israeli security industry.

    Both Eran and Maya see the BDS movement as the only movement to bring any potential justice to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. They are both committed to BDS and the one state solution being the only solution. They are both as dynamic and honorable as people can potentially be. Was an honor to listen to both of them and then talk with them later.

    They will be speaking again tonight at 7 here in Boulder at the Friends meeting house.

    • LeaNder
      LeaNder
      February 27, 2014, 7:57 am

      thanks Kathleen, interesting report.

    • seafoid
      seafoid
      February 27, 2014, 8:25 am

      “one of the greatest failures of the radical Israeli left over the years ”

      Justice and humanity are not radical.
      Zionism is severely dysfunctional . That is the problem.

    • adele
      adele
      February 27, 2014, 3:55 pm

      Thanks for sharing this Kathleen, Maya’s and Eran’s courage and conviction is truly commendable, not something to be taken for granted. Their stories that you shared are very powerful and moving.

    • adele
      adele
      February 28, 2014, 4:10 pm

      It is sheer coincidence that I just came across this video of Maya tweeted by a friend, thought I would share it so others who are interested can hear Maya explaining her experience w/ the IDF.

  3. German Lefty
    German Lefty
    February 26, 2014, 4:11 pm

    Thanks to Alex and Leehee. Very interesting interview.

    As Israelis who are part of the oppressor group, our first role as allies…

    I disagree with that view. As Leehee is an anti-Zionist, she is definitely not part of the oppressor group. It’s not your ethnicity or citizenship that makes you an oppressor. It’s your views and actions that determine whether you are part of the oppressor group or not.
    If you live in Israel, then you have no choice but to pay taxes and use the services there. That’s an inevitable necessity and therefore not tantamount to complicity.

    Once people were against apartheid, it didn’t matter whether they were black or white. What mattered was they were against apartheid.

    Exactly!

    We should also not refrain from using the privilege that we have for the struggle.

    Exactly!

    • Sycamores
      Sycamores
      February 26, 2014, 10:09 pm

      German Lefty

      As Israelis who are part of the oppressor group, our first role as allies is to support resistance initiatives coming from the Palestinians.

      i believe Leehee Rothschild makes a valid point here on the subject of the occupier standing with the occupied.

      Sarah Irving wrote an interesting piece in the Electronic Intifada 6 February 2014

      Can occupiers struggle alongside the occupied?
      http://electronicintifada.net/content/can-occupiers-struggle-alongside-occupied/13137

      Leehee Rothschild recognising her privilege stance is important.

      however Leehee Rothschild is a very courageous been apart of Boycott from Within and supports Anarchists Against the Wall has put her in a very precarious place.

      check out the history of Anarchists Against the Wall members http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchists_Against_the_Wall

    • kalithea
      kalithea
      February 26, 2014, 11:53 pm

      “As Leehee is an anti-Zionist”

      Where does it state or where does she actually say she’s an anti-Zionist. I don’t even know if she’s one-state or two? I don’t know about you, but I need to have an answer to these questions.

      • German Lefty
        German Lefty
        February 27, 2014, 4:15 am

        @ kalithea

        Where does it state or where does she actually say she’s an anti-Zionist.
        She said, “We should be involved in showing solidarity with Palestinian struggling against the occupation, whether that’s within ‘48 or inside ‘67.”
        A Zionist wouldn’t refer to ‘48 as “occupation”.

        I don’t even know if she’s one-state or two?
        She said, “What mattered was they were against apartheid. Eventually, we’re aiming for a state in which everybody lives.”
        Sounds to me that she wants a one-state solution.

  4. hophmi
    hophmi
    February 26, 2014, 4:23 pm

    “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.”

    Let’s be honest. If she were any other country in the region, she’d probably be dead or severely repressed. As Ahmadinejad said when they asked him poly-persons in Iran: “I don’t what that is, but I’m sure I’ll kill it as soon I find out.”

    There’s something perverse about someone who enjoys the human rights privilege of living in Israel as a collection of ists and sexual orientations, while refraining from recognizing the human rights privilege she enjoys amongst others in the region who have no freedom to define themselves in this way.

    • Real Jew
      Real Jew
      February 26, 2014, 7:15 pm

      Hop, its the same ol story with you and your ilk. A very typical Hasbara response. If you cant lie or misdiriect your way out you give an example of another country who does it too. You white wash Israel’s dehumanization of Palestinians by claiming its worst somewhere else. News for you bud, IT DOESN’T MATTER! Persecution is wrong regardless of the country it happens in.

    • kalithea
      kalithea
      February 27, 2014, 12:21 am

      “If she were any other country in the region, she’d probably be dead…”

      I suggest she doesn’t go for a stroll in Kiryat Arba.

    • February 27, 2014, 7:52 am

      You think she is not severely oppressed in Israel?

      This is classic suppression. Hophmi claims he supports her right to free speech, and then calls her perverse for using it to make a case he opposes.

      Along with the usual “look over there, they’re worse” defense of Israel. Sure I burned down the house and killed all inside, but look at what they are doing elsewhere.

    • adele
      adele
      February 27, 2014, 4:00 pm

      Oh Hophmi,
      isn’t it precisely because one enjoys human rights privileges that one should advocate for those who are being denied it, instead of sitting on the sidelines in all the privileged-splendor? Think Hophmi, think.

  5. Amsterdam
    Amsterdam
    February 26, 2014, 5:02 pm

    Speaking about BDS: the pension fund of Luxembourg’s government workers has added all five of Israel’s major banks and several top Israeli firms to its list of banned investment targets.

    Source: i24 news: http://tinyurl.com/mt3f6q7

  6. jayn0t
    jayn0t
    February 26, 2014, 11:38 pm

    “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.”

    Into what? Left-wing racism and occupation? “Their country” is based on ethnic cleansing. The idea that it can be “lifted” out of this is an illusion. I wonder if Rothschild’s “small group of Israeli Jews” are really as naive as they appear to be.

  7. seafoid
    seafoid
    February 27, 2014, 2:03 am

    Fighting the chaos part 5632

    http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.576624

    “A fully-paid honeymoon for newly-married Jewish couples from the Diaspora is one of the ideas being explored by the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency, according to Maariv newspaper. “

  8. seafoid
    seafoid
    February 27, 2014, 2:12 am

    @ Phil, Annie

    Have you done a piece on this Pew report ?

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/03/more-white-evangelicals-than-american-jews-say-god-gave-israel-to-the-jewish-people/

    Percentage of Jews who believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people : 40
    Percentage of white US evangelicals who do : 82

    The table is fascinating. Only 38% of US catholics, 47% of US mainline Protestants and 40% of US Jews believe that God gave Israel to the Jews.
    Trend that out a few years . Most of the Jewish support for the idea is orthodox 90% or haredi 81% .

  9. adele
    adele
    February 27, 2014, 4:34 pm

    Great interview, really inspiring. Leehee’s insights are incredible & inspiring. It underscores what a collaborative effort this is, everyone has a part to play when justice is concerned.

    • Susan A
      Susan A
      February 28, 2014, 7:10 pm

      Quite right Adele! jayn0t says ‘I wonder if Rothschild’s “small group of Israeli Jews” are really as naive as they appear to be.’ I think ‘really’ is the operative word here. With so many of them having been shot at and maimed, including Jewish and non-Jewish internationals, I don’t think naiveté comes into it. At least one of these people was standing next to one of his Palestinian friends when he was shot dead. We can hardly imagine the utter helplessness he must have felt, for all his privilege. A harrowing experience; and still he calls himself privileged; it’s all relative, of course. Yes, everyone has a part to play when justice is what is being cried out for, whoever and wherever we are.

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