One aspect of the shifting battle over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is that liberal Zionists have become the front line against BDS inside the American pro-Israel community. They are taking on BDS as avowed progressives, arguing that BDS rejects an idealistic project, the self-determination of the Jewish people.
This was the thrust of the pro-Israel side at the University of Michigan student government debate on divestment the other night. Yael Aronoff, an Israel studies associate professor at Michigan State, was the lead opponent of divestment (above). Aronoff identified herself as a liberal who had long opposed the occupation and worked for Human Rights Watch, then argued that in a “tragic” conflict of “right” against “right”, what BDS “is really about” is opposing the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel.
If Israel has flaws, she said (sounding more the hard-boiled realist than a progressive), they are the flaws of all nation-states, from ethnic cleansing at their establishment to the removal of nomadic peoples so as to foster modernity. And looking through rose-colored lenses, she said that Israel is “in the midst of negotiating withdrawal” from the occupied territories.
Her argument is aimed directly at the leftwing, pro-Palestinian view of the conflict as one between a settler state and an indigenous people. We must honor the “dreams and rights” of both peoples, Aronoff said. That view was later echoed by Sara Berlin, a Zionist student, who said she was a human rights activist and the Palestinian narrative denies her narrative:
“Your equality does not include self-determination of my people.”
This view of the conflict as a tragic one in which two victimized peoples are each struggling to determine their political destiny is now the liberal Zionist talking point against BDS. Liberal Zionists have adopted the Roger Cohen position that BDS means the end of the Jewish state, and that this would be a great tragedy.
Here are some other examples of this trend.
Two days ago, MJ Rosenberg wrote a head-on attack on the BDS movement, calling it a campaign to dismantle the state of Israel. The piece was promptly endorsed by Tom Friedman.
MJ Rosenberg gets the anti-Israel BDS movement right. http://t.co/caHa00Kmcj
— Thomas L. Friedman (@tomfriedman) March 27, 2014
The reason why BDS keeps failing despite the almost universal recognition that the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the blockade of Gaza, are illegal and immoral is that the BDS movement is not targeting the occupation per se. Its goal is the end of the State of Israel itself. . . .
In other words, millions of the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees could return not just to the West Bank or Gaza but to Israel itself, essentially reversing the independence Israel achieved in 1948. As far as Israeli towns and villages, they would be “property” returned to the Palestinians. Hence, no more Israel. . . .
Of course, this will not happen in the real world, even if there is some justice in the demands…. Israel is not going to dismantle itself and Jews will not be the first people in the world to relinquish the right to self-determination.
MJ used to tell me not to refer to Jews as “my people.” I wonder if he’s changed his view on that.
Meantime, the Third Narrative, a project of the liberal Zionist group Ameinu, launched an initiative against academic boycott last week. Yael Aronoff, the lead Michigan speaker, is one of the signatories. The group seeks to validate a narrative of Jews as a persecuted people who need a state of their own. Its view of Israel is glass half-full — “a Jewish Athens, not Sparta,” as one writer on the site puts it.
Third Narrative’s Academic Advisory Council’s mission statement claims progressive ground:
A new progressive initiative was launched today to combat academic boycotts and defend freedom of expression, while challenging the false choice presented to the academic community that it must either undermine the legitimacy of Israel or accept violations of the rights and dignity of Palestinians. More than 50 leading academics, spread across a wide range of disciplines and from throughout North America, announced today the formation of The Third Narrative’s Academic Advisory Council. The founding statement declares that:
“We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. We believe that empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples, and respect for their national narratives, is essential if there is to be a peaceful solution…
“We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. …
The Third Narrative group has a frankly-Jewish character:
We feel a deep connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. We are also committed to social justice and human rights for everyone. Some say those commitments are contradictory, that particularist attachments to a state or a people can’t be reconciled with universal values. Our response is that belonging to a people, a community larger than ourselves, is a basic human need –indeed, it is our right. And balancing our communal attachments with a commitment to humanity as a whole is our responsibility.
Evidently it is speaking for the Jewish people, which transcends borders, and not the Israeli people, who are nearly 25 percent non-Jewish.
Its academics’ announcement includes a statement from Todd Gitlin sounding Aronoff’s “right” versus “right” theme: “Wrongs committed by a state, like Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, are not legitimate reasons to dismantle the state or to impose collective punishment. In the Middle East, riddled with conflict between right and right, justice requires reconciliation, not hatred.”
And Michael Walzer:
“Rejectionists on both sides who advocate a single state, who want the whole thing, are not only wrongheaded; they are radically unrealistic. This Council will provide a forum for an exchange of ideas about what is really possible and about what is best for the two peoples.”
Though the group seeks to advocate for what is best for two peoples, I don’t see any Palestinians on its statement. (Ziad Asali has a piece on the site.) There are many well-known (and mostly Jewish) names among the signatories, including Derek Penslar, Mira Sucharov, Steven Zipperstein, Eric Alterman, Peter Beinart, Cary Nelson, David Greenberg, Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman.
Also at the Third Narrative site, Brooklyn Rabbi Andy Bachman brags that he bought Ahava products, which are made in a West Bank settlement, in arguing that BDS “is insidious and stupid” and “wildly ineffective.”
That would seem to be one flaw in the liberal Zionist attack. MJ Rosenberg says it’s “irrelevant,” but that’s wishful: BDS is obviously gaining traction, especially in Europe, and the Third Narrative is spurred by the American Studies Association vote for boycott last year.
At the Michigan debate the other night (livestream at 1:28:00 or so), Victor Lieberman, a professor at the university, said there was an “emotional chasm” between one side and the other, and he sided with the Israeli narrative. But when asked about BDS, he likened it to Gandhi’s nonviolent movement:
“This is the most impressive Palestinian movement of its kind… For sure, it is very impressive what it’s achieved so far.”
If the latest round of talks fail, Lieberman predicted that Palestinians will initiate a new intifada of legal actions at international fora, combined with non-violent actions like BDS. “That would probably be fairly effective.”
This seems to be what the opponents of BDS are afraid of, that it will be effective in the discourse, delegitimizing the idea of a Jewish democracy. And in their effort to preserve Jewish status in Israel, some of these liberal Zionists would seem to be… conservative.
Update: In my original post, I failed to distinguish between the Third Narrative, which launched last summer, and its new academic advisory council, launched March 18. I’ve revised accordingly. Thanks to Dan Fleshler for the correction. He adds: “I also note that you also didn’t include the other, important half of the AAC’s message, which is opposition to attempts on campus to stifle those who support boycotts. These are people who object to efforts to stop BDS supporters, post-Zionists and anti-Zionists from speaking on campus.”