There is a rule in movement politics: Your greatest rival is the one closest to you ideologically.
Supporters of the global BDS movement, the movement that arose as a response to the three calls of the Palestinian civil society organizations, are at best wary, and more likely, dismissive, of progressive Zionists who support this or that boycott, divestment, or sanction measure against the continuing Occupation. Critics rightly note that these progressive Zionists are willing to settle for a “two-state” solution that doesn’t begin to do justice to the three divided constituencies of Palestinians: those under a brutal 67 occupation, those “citizen strangers” of Israel, and those exiled from their homeland. Moreover, many of the supporters of the global BDS movement would oppose a Jewish hegemonic state anywhere on the planet, indeed, or even if it were located on some unoccupied territory of the Moon, simply because it is foundationally discriminatory against another group based on religio-ethnicity.
So why should the supporters of the global BDS movement pay much attention, much less give legitimacy, to what Peter Beinart has called, “Zionist BDS”? Why should there be an unofficial coalition between these two groups? After all, insofar as Zionist BDS succeeds, so does a Jewish hegemonic state, one that excludes Palestinian refugees, discriminates against non-Jews (and non-orthodox Jews in matters of personal status), and dominates a collection of Bantustans called “(New?) Palestine”.
First, any call for boycott, divestment, or sanctions, for whatever motive (even on behalf of the settlers!) is seen, rightly, as a blow against the legitimacy of Israel. Progressive Zionists can protest until they are blue in the face; they can argue that they are acting out of the most statist-Zionist of motives; they can point to polls of Israelis who favor ending the Occupation – little of this matters. Even if their boycotting appears to some to be no more than a “liberal chic” tokenism that allows them to sleep better at night, it will be rightly perceived by the pro-Israel crowd as a threat, even an “existential one,” to use Prime Minister Netanyahu’s characterization of all BDS.
Second, any call for boycott, divestment, or sanctions, however limited, is enhanced when those making the call present themselves as supporters of the boycott’s target. An alcoholic who abuses someone should be turned into the police — but when the person making the call is his brother, that makes a huge statement of the limits of familial loyalty. I believe that when the history of the BDS movement is written, Peter Beinart’s call for “Zionist BDS” in the New York Times will deserve more than a footnote. I personally agree much more with Omar Barghouti’s Times op-ed. But “Zionist BDS” was written by a former editor of the New Republic, a supporter of the second Iraq war, and a Zionist who attends an orthodox Jewish synagogue. “Zionist BDS” made a splash, and people who had not heard of BDS, and if they did, had associated it with Forces of Evil, heard for the first time “one of their own” use the phrase “BDS” in a positive manner.
Third, the goal of the BDS movement, at least in my eyes, is not to punish the State of Israel. We are not talking about retributive justice for the sake of justice, much less revenge for the sake of revenge. The goal of the BDS movement is to get Israel to obey human rights protocols and human rights law, with respect to all sectors of the Palestinian people. I daresay that the global BDS movement is not even a pro-Palestinian movement, except in the sense that the people whose fundamental rights are violated upon happen to be Palestinians. It is in its essence a human rights movement.
Fourth, the goals of BDS will not be achieved until a critical mass of Israelis, or at least their leaders, realize the unsustainability of the status quo. This is one of many lessons from South Africa. And what will enable that realization is being educated by people whom they consider trustworthy.
So what does this mean in practice? Minimally, the public disagreement between the sides should be respectful, but not blurred, with neither side dissing the other. Both sides should wage a common fight against the brutal Occupation. Since I don’t believe the Occupation is ending anytime soon, this will allow both sides to forge relationships that will lead to much more than a tactical alliance. The pro-Palestinian side will come to grips with the fact that there are over six million Jews living in Palestine; the pro-Israeli side will come to grips with the fact that Jewish hegemony cannot be morally sustained in an ethnic exclusivist state. Many on both sides have done so already.
Let there be a joint struggle, or, perhaps more realistically, an alliance of overlapping moral interests. This is not normalization or endless dialogue; this is good old fashioned coalition politics. There may very well come a stage when the assistance of the progressive Zionist crowd is not helpful or even welcome, when the Palestinian side has achieved enough strength and recognition to press on its own. (Cf. whites and blacks in the US civil rights movement). There certainly will come a time when progressive Zionists have to choose between their contradictory values, and many are already making that choice.
As for the global BDS movement, there are rightly saluting the recent decision of the Presbyterian church in the US to divest from companies profiting from the occupation, despite the fact that the resolution explicitly reaffirms Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state and affirms the two-state solution, and takes no stand on the right to return but rather calls for justice for Palestinian refugees.
What comes next? The great Moses Maimonides/Ben Maimon/Ibn Maymun says in his Code of Law that one has a duty to rebuke his neighbor when the latter commits a wrongdoing. When it comes to interpersonal matters, that rebuke should be done privately, taking care not to shame the wrongdoer. But in “matters concerning Heaven,” if the private rebuke isn’t effective, the wrongdoer “is put to shame in public and his sin is publicized. He is subject to abuse, scorn, and curses until he repents, as was the practice of all the prophets of Israel.” (Laws Concerning Ethical Dispositions 6:8.)
The global BDS movement doesn’t call for the elimination of Israel, much less its destruction. It calls for Israel to “repent” by recognizing the rights of Palestinians enshrined in international law and conventions. Progressive Zionists will disagree, no doubt, on what Israel’s wrongdoing consists in. But it is time for “public shame, abuse, scorn and curses,” not as a punishment, or as revenge, but in the goal of human rights.
For if the plight of the Palestinians is not a “matter concerning heaven,” I don’t know what is.