Three critical responses to ‘Growing Jewish support for boycott’

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Reform Jewish leader Rick Jacobs speaking to Jewish Voice for Peace members at the Presbyterian convention. (Photo: @lizaveta9/Twitter)
Reform Jewish leader Rick Jacobs speaking to Jewish Voice for Peace members at the Presbyterian convention. (Photo: @lizaveta9/Twitter)

Last week we published “Growing Jewish support for boycott and the changing landscape of the BDS debate” by Paul Duffill and Gabriella Skoff and it has generated quite a discussion. Below are three critical responses to the piece by Omar Barghouti, Mich Levy and Jamie Stern-Weiner.

1. Omar Barghouti

superb piece of research on Jewish support for BDS and selective boycotts of, or divestment from, Israel, despite the obvious errors and the very problematic conclusion.

The most glaring factual error is this:

Reasons for why a narrow settlement boycott is preferred [by Israeli and other Jews] over a broader BDS include that international law is less ambiguous regarding the illegality of settlements (as compared to the BDS goals of the right of return, or legal equality in Israel) …

This is simply not true. International law is clearest on the right to equality above everything else. It is a pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law.

Also, international law is just as clear on the right of any person who leaves his/her home to return to it and the right of all refugees displaced during conflicts (whether compelled to flee under duress or forcibly displaced) to return home. When it comes to Palestinian refugees in particular the UN has numerous resolutions, from 194 onward, stipulating the right of return.

Zionists, particularly of the “soft” type, many of whom are mentioned in this article, have consistently opposed full equality in Israel’s pre-67 borders and the right of return, not because these two rights are more “ambiguous” or tenuous under international law but only because granting these two rights would end Israel’s regime of apartheid and settler-colonialism. The only way to preserve Israeli apartheid is by denying full equality and the right of return, Zionists understand.

As to the conclusion, it is awfully ill-conceived and contradicts many points that the two authors make in the article. In their conclusion, the authors write:

At a deeper level, however, this growing Jewish support is an indication that the spirit of the boycott call reflects a truly democratic vision that is shared by Jews internationally, a call that wants to see the preservation, not the demise, of a democratic Israel, …

This assumes, contrary to fact and logic, that Israel is already a democratic state! Why else would you want to “preserve” it? Had the authors used the more appropriate term of “transforming” Israel into a democratic state, they would have been much more consistent with the facts and arguments that they themselves present in the article. How can a state that has more than 50 racist laws that discriminate against part of its citizenry on ethno-religious grounds be a democracy? How can a state that ethnically cleanses most of the indigenous population then prevents it, by law and power, from returning be a democracy? What is there to preserve? Jewish-Israeli apartheid must be preserved, rather than dismantled?

Try to South-Africanize this argument and see how it sounds like.

“The global boycotts of South Africa in the 1980s were aimed at the preservation, not the demise, of a democratic South Africa …” How does that sound?

These major faults aside, the article is truly praiseworthy in its comprehensive nature and detailed research.

Omar Barghouti is a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

2. Mich Levy

The authors of “Growing Jewish support for boycott and the changing landscape of the BDS debate” published by Mondoweiss on June 17, 2014, describe the purpose of the article as to “explore the growing Jewish support for both the BDS movement and other civil society boycott activities which advance the human rights goals of the movement.” However, a great number of the activities they surveyed do something very different: they use the BDS call to advance their aims of protecting and maintaining an exclusionary Jewish state in Israel. It is dangerous to assume that Zionist “support” for a “narrow” BDS campaign is a gain for a movement supporting Palestinian self-determination. It is precisely these kinds of assumptions that we rely on our alternative media sources to counter rather than reinforce.  

A useful guide for determining whether actions are expressions of effective solidarity with a struggle for self-determination are that they must 1) be based on an acknowledgement of the narrative of those who are most impacted; 2) support the demands put forward by those at the heart of the struggle; and 3) help create the conditions in which just solutions are to be found. Many of the actions the article surveys, and the article itself, misses all three points.  

Support for BDS requires a critique of the Zionist narrative – be it Left or Right

The article starts with and is framed by a reference to a Jerusalem-based think-tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute, and its recent study (this is the corrected link) “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry.” The study collected and analyzed the views of Jewish groups around the world with strong connections to Israel.Following from this starting point, the article discusses concerns about the “current Zionist policies of the Jewish state” rather than the Zionist history and nature of the State of Israel – or any Palestinian narrative which reiterates how they define the problem on their own terms.  

By using this frame, the authors adopt the underlying premise that the “current Zionist policies” are the problem. But “current” Zionist policies have been consistent prior to, during and after the founding of the Israeli state. They reflect a coherent history of Zionist ideology manifested through Zionist institutions, erected over a hundred years ago, which became the foundation of a Zionist state. The building of Zionist infrastructure in Palestine throughout the first part of the 20th century systematically excluded Palestinian people (other than Jews) from political and economic power. After the state was erected, Zionist policies of exclusion and chauvinism have been maintained consistently regardless of whether the government has been led by the Zionist Right or the Zionist Left. 

The article argues that the changing BDS landscape they map reflects a call that wants to see the “preservation, not the demise, of a democratic Israel.” This goal becomes irrelevant, and worse, misleading, with the acknowledgement of history and fact that there is no “democratic Israel” to preserve.In short, the article fails to acknowledge that the Zionist Left is indeed Zionist. (A useful overview of this topic can be found in Debunking the Myth of the Zionist Left, a book by Tikva Honig-Parnass of which I co-authored a review on Jadaliyya.)

The article being reviewed here bypasses all of this history and therefore invisiblizies, for example, the Palestinian narrative of the catastrophe, or Nakba, on which the Zionist state was founded in 1948 – including the policies that were “current” then, such as the ethnic cleansing and expulsion of approximately 750,000 people. In these ways the Palestinian narrative which names the problem and its historical and systemic roots is overridden by a Zionist one in which “current policies” are examined in isolation. Attempts to address unjust policies isolated from the incentive that drives them will only serve to maintain an unjust system. 

Support for a movement requires supporting its demands

By giving equal weight to “BDS” strategies that attempt to protect Israel’s exclusionary Jewish character, the authors also do not support the demands put forward by those at the heart of the struggle. They do this despite their awareness that the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel is not limited to only boycotting products produced in the territories occupied in 1967. This translation of the call’s demands for one’s own purposes frames the problem as the 1967 occupation and settler policy, once again deflecting the issue of the 1948 occupation and expulsion. This framing does allow for addressing the rights of the Palestinians currently living there, but bypasses the crucial issue of the approximately seven million refugees, a problem whose origins stem from the expulsion of 1948, and whose resolution depends on contending with the Palestinian demand of right of return. 

The importance of this issue is multiplied again given the unimaginable circumstances of, for example, refugees being ethnically cleansed from Syrian camps. The BBC recently reported that the number of people living as refugees from war or persecution now exceeds 50 million for the first time since World War Two; by these numbers, 10-15 percent of the forcefully displaced in the world are Palestinian. Reshaping the demands of those most impacted by unjust policies and practices to one’s own benefit is not a definition of “support” for a movement. 

Which “BDS” movement will create which conditions?

The Palestinian call for BDS against Israel clearly has and is fulfilling its intended and vital goal of bringing the issues to the fore and exposing them for the world to see and to build external pressure around. Israel is indeed coming to understand that its old strategies of justifying its systematic violence, branding the other as the dangerous enemy, and making false claims of anti-Semitism when challenged, have become dubious to the public eye. If it is not careful, this trend could lead to the actual delegitimization of the concept that an exclusionary state built on occupation and oppression of another is or can ever be democratic. But Israel’s power to shape public discourse and possible “solutions” is significantly greater than that of the Palestinian people. If and when Israel finds itself in need of responding to pressure from BDS, it will likely be able to use the changing landscape of BDS outlined here to its own advantage. 

In the first place, Israel’s response to international pressure, rather than to popular solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, minimizes the perceived impact of Palestinian dissent, the most formidable challenge it faces. Secondly, if this were to come to pass, changing isolated policies would circumvent the more significant Palestinian demands and calls from the Arab street which see the root of the problem as a colonial and imperial history – and therefore intimately connected to other struggles for justice around the world. Thirdly, with any changes made under such circumstances, Israel would be seen as acting under pressure, as if it is losing something or being held accountable, when in reality, its “compromises” are more likely to reinforce the legitimization of a Jewish state at the expense of the other people living there. Finally, BDS is increasingly understood as hindering Israeli profits in business and technology; ironically, the stage is currently set for the Israeli public to support an end to the 1967 occupation in its current form because doing so would be beneficial to the growth of the Israeli state. 

The article states that “growing Jewish support is an indication that the spirit of the boycott call reflects a truly democratic vision that is shared by Jews internationally” and that “given the lack of success of official diplomacy in the region we should be encouraging, not dismissing, these growing local and international efforts.” I would argue to the contrary. The validity of the democratic vision of the Palestinian call for boycott against Israel need not – and cannot – be validated through these kinds of Jewish “support.” Likewise, the authors do not describe an alternative to official diplomacy, but rather a means for its future entrenchment.  

As I write, Israeli military presence and collective punishment in the territories occupied in 1967 are at their highest point since the second intifada. Throughout the region people, including Palestinian refugees, struggle for self-determination in a context of battles over military, political and economic dominance. Ultimately, the misleading use of the word “support” is a symptom of a larger problem. The larger problem is the use of the word at all: those of us who are less impacted by state violence, those battles between the 1% for power and profit, need not see the struggles of those most impacted as separate from our own. 

Mich Levy is a co-founder of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and has a master’s degree in the Politics of Alternative Development Studies. Mich’s current project, We Tip the Balance, provides social justice-oriented organizational development consulting and coaching. 

3. Jamie Stern-Weiner

An article just published on Mondoweiss sets out to document “growing Jewish support for both the BDS movement and other civil society boycott activities which advance the human rights goals of the movement.” (my emph.)  

Let’s take these claims in turn.  What evidence does the article provide of “growing Jewish support for… the BDS movement,” which is to say, the movement to secure the realisation of the three-point BDS platform?

None.  It construes a recent Jewish People Policy Institute report as evidence of diaspora Jews’ increasing opposition to Israel’s “Zionist policies” and unease with the notion of a Jewish and democratic state.  In fact, the study found “a nearly unanimous consensus” among diaspora Jews in favour of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state (it speculated that younger Jews’ growing insistence on the right to be exposed to anti-Zionist arguments “could” lead to “some measure of erosion” in this consensus), while opposition to Israeli policies was not viewed by most Jews as opposition to “Zionism.”  (See pp. 21-35).

It cites a handful of politically marginal Jewish and Israeli organisations that support the BDS call, but provides no evidence of their influence, which it wildly exaggerates (in what universe are BOYCOTT! and the Alternative Information Center “prominent” within Israel?).  It notes that the American group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) aligns itself with the aims as well as the methods of the BDS movement, but doesn’t mention JVP’s important strategic caveat:

As a force of U.S.-based Jews and allies, JVP has considered the full range of BDS campaigns, and has chosen to focus our efforts on boycott and divestment campaigns that directly target Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. We believe this to be the most effective way for JVP to help bring about the aims we share with the Palestinian BDS call.

In other words, while JVP supports BDS (as distinct from boycotts, divestments and sanctions) it recognises that American Jews do not, and furthermore has opted to appeal to American Jews on the basis of opposition to Israel’s occupation rather than trying to persuade them to act on the basis of the BDS platform—a task which, it has apparently concluded, has little prospect of success.  Even if JVP’s endorsement of BDS reflects growing support for BDS among Jews active in the Palestine solidarity movement, its strategic caveat cautions precisely against interpreting this as evidence of increasing support for BDS among American Jews more broadly. 

The authors themselves acknowledge that “the most widely adopted mode of targeted support for BDS from within Israel and by Jewish individuals and organizations worldwide is a boycott of the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem).”  What accounts for this?

Reasons for why a narrow settlement boycott is preferred over a broader BDS include that international law is less ambiguous regarding the illegality of settlements (as compared to the BDS goals of the right of return, or legal equality in Israel) and that it is easier to consistently boycott settlements (rather than boycott broader Israeli or international organizations involved in abuses of Palestinian human rights).

They appear to have forgotten the most obvious reason, the one implied by JVP’s strategic caveat: that most Jews do not support the BDS platform, either because of what it contains or because of its failure to declare a position on Israel’s existence.  

So much for growing Jewish support for BDS.  What about “other civil society boycott activities which advance the human rights goals of the [BDS] movement”?  This refers, the authors write, to activities which, “though not necessarily always explicitly linked to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement… do fall within the scope of the movement and help to advance its goals.”  What is meant by “fall within the scope”?

While not all of the individuals and organizations we mention actively support every aspect of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, they represent a multi-faceted approach to applying international pressure on Israel to abide by international law and human rights treaties.

It quickly becomes apparent that the article’s operative definition of BDS-friendly activities is sufficiently expansive to encompass campaigns whose objectives run directly contrary to the BDS platform, and which are organised by individuals and organisations who emphatically reject BDS.  As examples of such “targeted support for BDS” the authors cite, among others, Gush Shalom, Peace Now, Meretz, Peter Beinart, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, the New Israel Fund, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Amnesty International.  If these diverse groups and individuals do not endorse the BDS platform, the authors insist, they nonetheless support “BDS methods.”  But then, in what sense do their actions constitute “targeted support for BDS”?  Indeed what makes their methods “BDS methods”?  

The boundless definition of BDS used in the article has been denounced by Omar Barghouti, the BDS movement’s leading figure, who dismisses anything short of support for the full three-point BDS platform as mere “boycotting acts” of the “Zionist left.”  More importantly, it obscures rather than clarifies the crucial strategic question facing the solidarity movement, namely, how do we most effectively reach liberals in general, and liberal Jews in particular?  The only conceivable purpose of the authors’ conflation of boycott tactics with the BDS strategy, and of groups that support with those that reject BDS’s political goals, is to enable the BDS movement to claim credit for actions that are in fact motivated by quite different objectives.  

The “growing support from Jews internationally for the BDS call and the boycott of Israel” posited by the authors is a figment of their imagination: there is growing support only for the latter, and only, it would appear, to the extent that it is divorced from the former.  The evidence presented in the article suggests that while Jews are more and more receptive to boycotts, divestment and sanctions targeting Israel’s occupation and the settlements, they will not be reached on the basis of BDS.  

“Increasingly,” the authors declare, “the question is no longer whether or not to boycott, but rather to what extent do we boycott?”  At least as crucial, however, is the question, until when do we boycott—until the BDS platform is realised, or until Israel acts in accordance with the international consensus of ending the occupation and achieving a just resolution of the refugee question?  If some supporters of BDS want to brush this matter aside, the evidence suggests that most Jews, even those opposed to Israel’s occupation, will not.

Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.

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The BDS campaign is larger today than it was 10 years ago, hence it has grown. I believe that it includes Jewish voices as well in that growth. On the other hand, the original article said: “Though not necessarily always explicitly linked to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, these activities do fall within the scope of the movement and help to advance its goals… While not all of the individuals and organizations we… Read more »

I guess we are going to have to wait until the Jewish diaspora sees beyond the hasbara and becomes aware of the inhumanity of today’s Zionism.

Hatikva ended up as a butcher’s shop.

Want to actually win and end the occupation?
Then BDS the US politicians.
Imagine the effect of all the BDS effort and oxgyen applied to Washington and political candidates.

Passing the US senate is easy as pie regarding anything benefiting Israel.

Omar Barghouti writes: International law is clearest on the right to equality above everything else. Speaking of equality in international law, a fundamental principle of international law is the equality of states. Doesn’t that mean that Israel, within its legal borders, has the same rights as well as responsibilities as every other UN member state? If so, and if the BDS platform is grounded in international law, why is it silent on the question of… Read more »