In February I received an email from an Israeli TV editor and Ethiopian civil rights activist working for Channel 10, a mainstream Israeli TV outlet. He was working on a short documentary series exploring the Palestinian struggle and those who express solidarity with Palestinians. He wanted to interview me particularly around the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to challenge “the Israeli media’s coverage of the Palestinian struggle.” He stated that Channel 10 sometimes airs reports that “fall outside of the mainstream consensus.” He was planning to speak with students from J Street and Noam Chomsky (pronounced with a guttural “ch”) as well. I decided to take a chance.
I was intrigued by the opportunity to speak directly to Israelis (despite my attack interview on Channel 2 a few months earlier) and soon found myself sitting in my kitchen, talking with his partner Omri, as the cameraman circled around us. The series aired last week, opening with a blond newscaster talking about American Jewry, the growing BDS movement, and the threat to the relationship between the US and Israel. Standing on a bridge over the Charles River, Omri reflected on those “between the hammer and the anvil,” liberal Jews who support minority rights and demands for equality and freedom, who choke on the Israeli occupation and increasingly turn their backs on the country they once loved. This was followed by a series of thoughtful as well as agonized comments from Chomsky, a UCLA professor, Miko Peled, students from J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Students for Justice in Palestine, highlighting (with a dab of ominous music) the loss of “religious glue” and undying support for Israeli policy in view of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and the varying levels of support and discomfort with BDS. There was one campus event of the Israeli brainwashing/hasbara variety led by a woman who post-IDF enlisted in her most important Zionist mission, connecting the young generation of American Jews to their community and to the State of Israel. The voiceover noted that her efforts were failing to stop support for BDS. Omri expressed concern that the BDS movement was using unwitting Jews to promote anti-Semitism.
Soon the camera panned to my front porch and walked into my kitchen. Refreshingly, Omri let me talk without much interruption and I elaborated on the clash between progressive Jewish values and history in the US and the indefensible occupation and the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza that I had personally witnessed in 2015 and on annual visits since 2004. I explained that BDS is a response to Israeli policy, growing racism in the society, and the death of a functional peace movement. I explained that the core issue is that Israel is the last colonial project in a post-colonial age, that having a country symbolized by a tank with Star of David is dangerous for Israelis (Jews and Palestinians) as well as our respective Diasporas.
The narrator ended the episode reflecting on the changes between older Zionist families and their children and grandchildren and expressed astonishment that there appeared to be a connection between blacks and minorities in the US and Palestinians. Who would believe this could happen? Perhaps this is the new audacious cool thing to do? As usual, Israelis were described more as passive victims than active participants in whatever was happening. So maybe Omri didn’t really get it, which is of course why I support the strategy of BDS.
As soon as the piece aired, the hate mail from Israeli viewers appeared on my Facebook page.
• There was the, we are always living in the next Holocaust variety: “…you are no more than a Jew living on borrowed time. But remember that All your activities against your own people might, in the best situation, give you a better seat on the train.”
• The complete ignorance of Middle East history, the Nakba, occupation, Muslims: “it is sad to say how misinformed you are. Have you ever asked yourself why there are no Jews living in Muslim countries, or why there are no Jews in the Palestinian government? How about the fact that a Jew can never be treated in a Palestinian hospital, when the reverse isn’t true in Israel? It’d be ironic if an angry Muslim killed you.”
• Taunting: “You are as ugly on the outside as you are on the inside, you are one vile looking creature. Only god knows why you were put on this earth, what purpose might an ugly looking “woman” like yourself be doing on earth.” “I would tell you to get raped by 10000 Arabs, but you would probably enjoy that….guaranteed you are not married, you vile woman.”
• Self-hating Jew: “I was shocked how misinformed you were about the reality of what is happening here in Israel. I haven’t come across such ignorance in a long time and in order that you don’t continue to embarrass yourself, your family and the Jewish community around you, I suggest that you get some serious education about Israel and Israeli history and learn some of the basics regarding the Arab Israeli conflict. If you are not up for doing this then perhaps you should just convert to Islam as you are an embarrassment to the Jewish people with your antisemitic remarks you are obviously a self-hating Jew with a lot of hidden anger.”
• Paranoid rant: “I just watch u on the Israeli news I disgusted by ur work and what u represent. We are in Israel don’t need ur money and ur trees. Shame on u. I lived in the USA for 14 years. As a Jew I couldn’t live safely no where in the world if Israel wasn’t excited. [sic] I’m sure ur family were in the holocaust my too, they died for them been Jewish and they wouldn’t b dead if we had a country like Israel. Shame. On u!!
At least this time there were no death threats.
Two emails from more civilized agonized liberal Israelis wanted to engage in dialogue and discussion of constructive ideas. One wrote of wanting to change the situation like two good neighbors, “but my greatest fear is the definition of Israel as an apartheid state and the consequences that ultimately will come upon us and that will take generations to repair them.” This Israeli wanted to sit down and talk, “Despite all our shortcomings, we are still a democracy and should be the way to change the discourse in society and abroad to promote the solution.” He feared the boycott and the “economic and psychological destruction of citizens.”
The second emailer identified as a member of “the Israeli Peace Camp” and agreed that the “government’s policy is both morally wrong and suicidal, but supporting the BDS is not the answer. You say there is no Israeli Left, no peace camp. This is not true. as the last election showed. Almost a half – unfortunately not more than that – voted for parties identified with the peace camp. The realities of Israeli coalition politics mean that their influence is not felt sufficiently.” She cited the active groups like Peace Now, Tag Meir, ACRI who “build bridges and promote coexistence…Why not try to support them if you care what happens to those of us in Israel who love our country and understand that the occupation is destroying it, and care deeply about human rights?” She talked about how hard BDS is on the Israeli left and “victims” of the academic and cultural boycott who “are almost always identified with the peace camp. Arguing against the occupation, we are told by the Israeli Right that we are aiding those who deny Israel’s right to exist, which is not our aim.” She also took issue with the symbol of Israel as a tank with the Star of David. “I do not know where you got this idea. It is totally false. The symbol of Israel is a menorah surrounded by olive leaves.”
So, here is my response to my cousins in the Levant. I know that the US and the American Jewish community are utterly complicit in the status quo and we have our Trump, Cruz, (and Hillary) supporters and shock radio spouting all sorts of propaganda, talking points, lies, and vicious trash talk. Enough said.
Now to the serious conversation. The let’s be two good neighbors and just talk about this approach ignores the nearly 50 years of unsuccessful dialoguing, the occupier/occupied, power/control dynamic, and the role of US and global military industrial corporations. Dialogue does not work when one of the parties is a highly militarized world power who will only settle for a surrender agreement, where Israeli policy has enforced an increasingly restrictive occupation with arbitrary detention, well documented torture, theft of land and water, continued massive settlement building, etc, etc. Palestinians, (with all of their aspirations, trauma, mistakes, resilience, poetry) are fighting a liberation struggle for their survival, which is inextricably entwined with yours.
During the endless peace process/dialogue, Jewish settlements in territory that is internationally recognized as occupied grew relentlessly and Palestinians were left with apartheid/bantustans while Israeli society moved increasingly anti-democratic and right wing. A poll in the US in 2015 revealed that 47% of Democrats and 1/3 of US citizens think Israel is a racist state. In 2016 only 31% of Americans thought Israel was a democracy, 38% thought Israel was making a sincere effort for peace, 44% thought settlements hurt Israeli security. This is how you look to us. You should not be afraid that Israel is defined as an apartheid state, you should be afraid that Israel IS an apartheid state and that description is used by diplomats, politicians, mainstream Jewish leaders, writers, as well as political activists.
I also find it painfully delusional for Israelis to believe “We are still a democracy.” By definition a democracy is a state of equal citizens, or more honestly, a state that strives for universal equality of its citizens, as democracy is actually a constant work in progress. But in Israel, Jewish privilege is institutionalized in the legal system, housing, opportunity, universities, hospitals. How do you think it feels to sing Hatikvah when your family was expelled from Jaffa and your history, grief, and yearning is invisible in the educational system and cultural mythos? A democracy maybe for white Ashkenazi Jews and maybe some Jews of color. Maybe.
This is the first I have heard of a living breathing peace camp in a while. Certainly there are excellent humanitarian/civil rights/antimilitary organizations in Israel, under severe attack from the right, and these groups are to be celebrated and supported. That is different from an organized political effort that is struggling with the consequences of Zionism which are the core issues that date back to pre-1948. Until Israelis are willing to confront Jewish exceptionalism, then Jim Crow in Israel, (segregated towns and cities and schools and opportunity), and apartheid everywhere else, will continue. And I missed the blossoming of peace, love and understanding in the last election. Yes, Israel has a parliamentary system and yes small right wing parties have a disproportionate amount of power, but every analysis I have read reveals a society moving to the right. Last I checked, a majority of Israeli Jews supported the soldier who executed the wounded Palestinian lying in the street in Hebron. In the last 15 years, Israeli soldiers have killed more than 5,500 Palestinians and ten foreign nationals (excluding war casualties) and no soldier has been charged with homicide. Amnesty International issued a report in 2013 titled: Trigger-happy: Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank. There is a growing number of children who are murdered by Israeli soldiers with little to no provocation. Where are the outcries from the peace camp?
With regard to the academic boycott, some leftist academics may be hurt, but this is a larger struggle focused on institutions. Think about the universities built on destroyed Palestinian villages, the campuses located in Jewish settlements, the huge alliances between the military and security industries and academic departments, the special relationships with US institutions that are well funded efforts at Israeli hasbara. Ask yourself how many Jewish academics are seriously questioning the underpinnings of Jewish exceptionalism, promoting Palestinian scholars in their departments, crying out for their academic peers in the occupied territories who cannot get to work, cannot travel abroad to conferences, cannot get funding for their research. How many of these liberal academics condemn the IDF when it invades Al Quds University or Birzeit wreaking buildings and arresting students?
Lastly, some factual information. The BDS movement does not question Israel’s right to exist, it questions Israel’s right to exist as an occupying force that maintains second class citizenship in ’48 Israel and does not recognize the Nakba and its role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis. So yes, we are calling on Israel to change and this call is growing. Bernie Sanders has shown that it is possible to take note of Palestinian suffering and to put some daylight between himself and Netanyahu, and the sky does not fall. 49% of Democrats support imposing economic sanctions or more serious actions against Israel over settlement construction. This is no longer political suicide, pay attention. And as far as the tank with the Star of David, I am sorry. This iconic reference appears in political cartoons, graphic novels, and it is an easily recognized internationally understood symbol of Israel. The symbol of Israel as a menorah surrounded by olive leaves may be the official photo op, but at this point it feels almost laughable if it were not so tragic.
So brothers and sisters, I am begging you to awaken from your stupor and to see what is happening. You are not passive victims but active participants, as am I. That is why I am part of an international actively anti-occupation, pro-democracy BDS movement. We are doing this because our Palestinian brothers and sisters are asking this of the international community and because we honor the idea of equal rights and justice which are ironically beautifully described in your Declaration of Independence. Check it out, you might learn something.
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
This post first appeared at Alice Rothchild’s site.