At least a couple times a week ever since I became involved with Palestinian solidarity activism, I have been asked: of all the disagreeable governments in the world, why do I and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement single out Israel for such harsh criticism? This is not only the most common anti-BDS argument, but one that has been used to counter movements for human rights in countless contexts, serving as the last defense when the movement’s complaints cannot be denied and they must instead be minimized.
Yet despite the frequency with which it is utilized, I actually find it to be one of the least difficult arguments to address.
For me, singling out Israel is hardly a choice. Although I am far from being a victim of its crimes, Israel has always held a centrality in my life that no other country has. In Hebrew school as a kid, I went from building Kibbutzes out of sugar cubes at 7 to army crawling in the playground as a part of a mock-Israeli Defense Forces training at 11. At 12, I went with my family on a Jewish Federation-led tour of Israel that struck me as such a dutiful, common occurrence among my upper-middle class Jewish community that I didn’t even consider it a vacation. Living in a politically engaged family and community, arguments about foreign affairs at social and family events have always been a big part of my life, but no country is praised, derided, and argued about as much as Israel.
So when I began to grow into myself as a politically-oriented young adult and interrogate the mainstream liberal Zionist narrative that had been chosen for me as a progressive American Jew, the contradictions I found were not just disturbing, but life-changing. And as I searched for ways to leverage my privilege to help the less fortunate, I found BDS, a movement initiated and led by Palestinians. For them, there is no question of singling out Israel: they did not ask for their lives to be controlled by the Israeli military, nor did they ask for their parents and grandparents to suffer the wrath of a Zionist settler-colonial force in their land. Their struggle is life and death, and when they call for an international boycott of Israel they do so with the belief that their liberation can be achieved non-violently.
Gradually, I realized that the country I had been raised to consider my own was in no way that. I realized, too, that there was no way to opt out of my connection with this country, for even if I never traveled to Israel again, a spot was being reserved for me, no questions asked, in this country that has designated itself the true home of the Jews. At this point, Israel didn’t suddenly enter my life as my foremost concern, my way of interacting with it simply changed, and I had new perspectives to offer in the arguments that were already taking place.
I do not single out Israel any more than the rest of the American Jewish community. But because I do so in a radically different way– holding the Jewish state to the standards of universal human rights rather than defending its repeated, grievous errors– I stand out as obsessed. The people who say that I am singling out Israel are the same ones that lobby our government to continue to provide an exceptional amount of military aid to Israel. They are the same ones who literally worship the Israeli flag that hangs on the Bima of their synagogue. When Zionists work so hard to center Israel in the Jewish community and shower it with praise, can they blame me for using just as much energy to hold it responsible for its crimes?
I would never deny that I single out Israel- I am a progressive and an activist for many causes, but my energy at this time in my life is devoted to the Palestinian struggle. And through my Palestine work I have come into contact with so many people singling out other things and places, like police, prisons, systematic racism, the US government, and North Korea. These people are ready to help, and need my help in their projects, but none of our work could be done if we did not have our tireless focus on our respective issues. Indeed, no deeply ingrained systematic injustice such as Israel’s occupation and continued colonization of Palestinian land can ever be countered without a group of activists’ near-obsessive pursuit of justice. Which is why, as an American Jew, I am proud to say that I single out Israel.