Glen Weyl’s agonizing journey to boycott the country he loves

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A week ago we picked up a landmark article in the Washington Post: two Jewish scholars at Harvard and Yale who described themselves as lifelong Zionists came out for boycott of Israel because it permanently denies rights to Palestinians. Though they seek to save the Jewish state from its leaders, the authors’ preference for “full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state” over occupation will surely be a depth charge in the Jewish community; and create space inside mainstream Jewish organizations for boycott of Israel and the growth of anti-Zionism.

On his twitter feed, co-author Glen Weyl, 30, an economist at Yale, said that he and co-author Steven Levitsky, a 47-year-old Government professor at Harvard, “spent 6 months agonizing over every word of this piece.”

As it turns out, the junior author has been on the path toward this decision for a long time– and Israel is his favorite place in the world even as it is dominated by a political culture he calls “fascistic.” Weyl is widely described as an economics prodigy, an emerging establishment figure who went from the University of Chicago to Yale this year and has a top research job at Microsoft, whose operations in Israel he opposes.

For all his mainstream success, Weyl is a sincere and open person. His Facebook posts in the last year or so tell a lot about his progress.

Weyl visited Israel before the Gaza onslaught of summer 2014. He had no comment on that war but the subsequent reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu last March staggered him, convincing him that Israeli society was on the wrong course.

Anyone who, like me, believed my people would voluntarily choose to drink from the cup of justice has been proved naïve,” he wrote after the election, and then announced that he had joined the BDS movement: 

After last night’s election in Israel I have joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement and will be boycotting both Israeli products and trips to the country that I love to visit most in the world.
I had committed myself to this if the election returned the right to power, but thought it would be a very hard decision. In the event it turned out to be easy, given the behavior of Prime Minister Netanyahu in the last few days, as he promised that a Palestinian State would never be established under his watch and decried the “Arab droves” voting in the election. Netenyahu has now fully embraced the fascist ideology of his coalition partners.
In the Israel of David Ben-Gurion, the Israel I have loved, this behavior would have been taken as a sign of desperation and would have led to a complete rejection of such a leader. In the past days I was sure this is what would happen. But instead it led to the strongest showing for the right in many years. After this outcome, no one can doubt the choice the Israeli people have made and where they stand.
There is now an overwhelming majority of 71 seats for parties (the fascist right of Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-religious of Shas and UTJ and the joint Arab list) that are fundamentally opposed to a democratic, secular Jewish homeland that is a member of the international community and at peace with its neighbors. This is the only vision of Israel I can support and the people of Israel overwhelmingly do not share it.
Anyone who, like me, believed my people would voluntarily choose to drink from the cup of justice has been proved naïve. Anyone who believes anything short of overwhelming international pressure will make Israel ever give even a scrap of decency and independence to those whose land its prosperity is built on must understand that the people of Israel have resoundingly rejected this path. The Israeli electorate had a clear choice and they turned out in their greatest numbers for years to choose the path to a nationalist and militarist damnation.
Now is the time to stand with the struggle of the Palestinian people in their international struggle for justice. Only clear solidarity of humanitarian Jews around the world with the cause of those who are enslaved by our elected representatives can begin to absolve us of their continuing crimes.
Please see my next post about which elements of BDS I endorse, namely its methods but not its end solution (arguably though not explicitly) of one state and an unlimited right of return.

That endorsement stirred up a lot of comment. Weyl responded that he was endorsing BDS “in solidarity with the Palestinian leadership” and spoke then of the hatred of Arabs inside Israel:

I think that the continuing relative calm despite the oppression of the Palestinians has normalized Israelis to this situation and increased their hatred of Arabs.
And I think Netenyahu very intelligently harnessed this. This is probably why the exit polls were off: people are still a bit embarrassed of these views so didn’t want to tell pollsters, but they voted that way.

He said that the same rightwing trends were visible in the U.S. but Israel is worse, and it’s the country he loves. He also commented on South Africa and the importance of doing something to alter Israel’s conduct:

I object to those things in the US, but not nearly as much as I object to the direction Israel is going. If I did, I would leave the country.

And there were periods during the Bush administration where I was coming close to feeling that way…but never nearly as much as I feel this way now with Israel. And I feel much more emotional about Israel than about the US, because honestly I feel much more at home there than in the US.

…they are my people, I feel closer to them than any other in the world including the US, and that is why I take their choices so to my heart.

On BDS I do not see any alternative to make a personal statement about how strongly I feel about this. And I do feel this is as bad as South Africa, and more important to me. I don’t think anything else has worked or will. Will this? I don’t know.

At that time, a commenter named Jesse Wolfson said that many Jews were coming to Weyl’s position:

Glen, thank you for posting this. It is a brave stance to take, one which I think more American Jews are coming to, and one which I hope more will come to as they consider things in the context of our moral heritage.

Weyl later amended his enorsement to make clear that his BDS was consistent with the two-state solution: 

I want to clarify, given many have commented on this, that while I feel the only action I can take to show my strong opposition to the increasingly fascistic Israeli regime and support for the cause of the Palestinians who oppose it is to join the BDS movement, I do not support the end aim that some have argued it has of one state or of an unlimited right of return. I support the international consensus and widely Arab-supported peace plan of two states for two people roughly along the lines of 1967, a solution now officially repudiated by the openly racist Netanyahu government which also includes even more extreme elements from Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home. In the call for BDS it is very open to interpretation whether they favor a one-state or a two-state solution; this is why I am comfortable endorsing it. However, I want to be clear on my views. Here is the statement of what they call for:
http://www.bdsmovement.net/call

“These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

“1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
“2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
“3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
This strikes me as consistent with a two-state solution

(Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has lately said that Weyl and Levitsky’s endorsement is not consistent with the BDS call of 2005, for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).

Last May, Weyl posted an article from Haaretz about young Jews who had gone on birthright and ended up endorsing BDS, saying: “This is the journey I followed.” Among the comments that followed he stated:

I am still a Zionist and Israel is still my favorite place in the world

But this government is destroying it

He pointed to the appointment of the “truly totalitarian” Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked.

She is unbelievable. To have a pro-genocide justice minister in a country founded on the idea of saving a people from national destruction is almost unimaginable. But it is happening.

Marshall Steinbaum then asked Weyl:

I am put off by the unchallenged reference to Israel as “the land of our ancestors.” I am American; my “ancestors” have been American for three or four generations, and before that they were European. One of my dearest and most faithfully Jewish friends is a convert, so Israel isn’t “the land of her ancestors” either, and in fact she would not be considered Jewish there since their Rabbis did not perform her conversion. It bothers me that Judaism has metamorphosed from a religion with diverse adherents from many different ethnic and national backgrounds to an ethnos with an invented common pre-history. Consider the lengths that Israeli archaeology has gone to establish the notion that Israel was a unitary Jewish state in King David’s time and thereafter. Israel now and Israel then are both modern creations.

Weyl responded:

Marshall, to a large extent I agree. My connection to Israel comes from the choice of the modern Jewish people to make it their state. But that choice comes with responsibilities which that polity is systematically refusing to accept

Last year Weyl had seemed to endorse an announcement from the liberal Zionist group J Street. But on June 4, he endorsed a Jewish Voice for Peace video that honored Jews’ desire to move to Palestine but described the Nakba and expulsion of Palestinians as a fundamental cause of the conflict.

On July 4, Weyl noted with irony the reasons people love being Americans:

Today I am delighted to celebrate our nation’s collective satisfaction at being the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, a satisfaction that Michael Clemens [a development economist who studies migration] has shown many if not most people on earth would be willing to take a one-in-three chance of dying to share in. Congratulations, my fellow Americans, on winning the lottery of birth.

And then last week, Weyl announced his Washington Post piece:

“My very personal take, with Steven Levitsky, on the disturbing state of a country I love more than the US. In tomorrow’s Washington Post.”

On Wednesday Weyl sought to amend his piece, stating that he did not support BDS as such.

In response to many comments on our op-ed, I wish to clarify a two points:
1. We were extremely space-constrained in our op-ed so we did not discuss the Palestinian side of the issue. I want to be clear about this. We have absolutely no sympathy for Hamas or any other form of radical Islam and never support any form of violence against Israeli civilians or military. We only sympathize with purely non-violent resistance, of which sanctions, divestment, reduction in aid and boycotts are one well-recognized form. We also support other non-violent Palestinian civil disobedience, of which there has been far too little. We find many faults in the current PLO and PA leadership, from corruption, to lack of charismatic non-violent resistance to intransigence at some points. Israeli leadership bears some responsibility for the poor leadership on the Palestinian side because the best leaders, such as Marwan Barghouti, have been kept in jail. Please remember that the leadership of the ANC was weak for a long time and quite violent as well, and had substantial communist elements. None of this excuses either the failures of Palestinian leadership or the terrible failures of Israeli leadership.
2. While I briefly was sympathetic to the BDS movement, I do not and Steve does not support the movement now. We concurrently support the boycott, divestment, sanctions and especially reduction in or elimination of US aid. However, this does not in any form imply that we support a one state solution unless this is the democratic and freely agreed-to will of both sides, which seems a very unlikely outcome. Nor do we endorse or sympathize with anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or anti-Jewish elements of this movement.

Then Weyl noted that some had pointed out he was married to a non-Jew (the scholar Alisha Holland). His response:

On a more personal note, many people have questioned my Jewish identity because a) I married a non-religious woman of Christian heritage and b) I identify as Jewish Unitarian Universalist (http://www.uua.org/beliefs/who-we-are/beliefs/judaism) not as a practicing Jew. These attacks are very strange. My grandfather fled Germany because the German government took our family’s factories and tried to kill them because they were Jews. Apparently the fact that my grandfather was not practicing did not affect their attitude. Apparently it also did not affect Birthright Israel’s willingness to sponsor my visit there. Nor the Latke Hamantash debate’s willingness to have me defend the latke. Nor invitations from Chabad and Hillel many times at Chicago to have me speak as a Jewish faculty member. It appears that the definition of a Jew is not about religion but about whether you support the policies of an extreme right-wing government that is destroying the country I love.

Weyl added this clarification three days ago:

I want to add one more clarification. We emphatically reject any form of boycott against individuals, most importantly we oppose an academic boycott, a boycott of cultural products (so long as they are not commercial) and any boycott of travel by Israelis to the West. These exchanges are crucial for progress and a boycott against them would be harmful to the cause we support.

I would only venture that the rock has not finished its tumble down the hillside.

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