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Leanne Gale’s bold challenge to the Jewish community on BDS and anti-Zionism

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One hopeful observation I had at the J Street conference this week is that when the Jewish community reaches out to promising young Jews, it is inevitably granting a platform to non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. You simply cannot hand the microphone to thoughtful young Jews these days without risking the expression of such ideas. This was nowhere so clear as when Leanne Gale took part in a panel titled “To What Effect? Countering BDS on Campus and in Communities” — and all but endorsed the BDS movement, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Gale, who is in her mid-20s, comes out of the heart of the Jewish community, and was chosen when young to be a star for Zionism. Now a student at Yale Law School, she describes herself as a feminist, and anti-occupation activist (and may be familiar to readers because we and others have run her articles over the years). 

What follows is a transcript of four statements Leanne Gale made at the panel on BDS. I’ve eliminated casual phrases –such as her thanking J Street for inviting her. And I’ve not included the context, Peter Beinart’s questions to Gale and comments by others. Though Jeremy Burton of the Boston JCRC was totally unnerved by Gale. And Becca Lubow of the University of Michigan repeatedly called on the Jewish community to come up with an alternative to BDS so as to apply some real pressure on the Israeli government– an idea that Gale rejected. 


On the Jewish community’s refusal to discuss BDS, and the personal risk to Gale.  

I have very deep roots in many of the communities that are represented here in this room. I grew up in Solomon Schechter day school. I spent nine years of my life at URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] Eisner camp, and was very involved in NFTY [Israel youth program], as our region’s religious and cultural vice president, and in college I was president of my J Street U chapter and also president of the Reform Jewish community at the University of Pennsylvania. After college I was the New Israel Fund Shatil social justice fellow, where I worked at Ir Amim, which I think many of us are familiar with– they work to build a more equitable and sustainable Jerusalem.

After Ir Amim, I came back to the States and worked at the National Council of Jewish Women for a few years, before starting law school, where I am studying human rights law, and hoping to move back to Israel actually to start as a human rights attorney on the ground.

So I am here because I care about this conversation, but I also say all this to share with you all that I’m actually taking a pretty big risk by being on this panel. I know that the Israeli government has begun to enact more forcefully a policy of excluding people who support BDS from entering the country. I also know that many of institutions [unintelligble] Hillel student guides also have policies of excluding speakers who support BDS.

And because of that I feel very limited by what I am actually going to say on this panel. Because I don’t want to put my relationship with my Israeli family and friends at risk. I don’t want to be barred from entering the country, which is kind of the center of my personal and professional goals.

And I think politically what that means is that while we are going to try to have conversations about BDS and the American Jewish community, and I am going to try to speak as openly and honestly as I can, given my personal comfort zone and boundaries– this is not going to be an open and honest conversation. It can’t be because of the red lines that have been set up by the Israeli government, and by our communities, and I think that one of the major successes of the campaign against the BDS, which our communal institutions have put millions of dollars into, has been tamping down our ability to actually think about these issues because we are too afraid to even voice some of our thoughts in public for fear of our complete excommunication from our community.

So that’s my experience on this panel right now: trying to kind of walk on eggshells to have this conversation with my community and also having to sit here worrying does this mean I’m going to be denied entry into Israel and never be able to see my Israeli family again…


On the goals of BDS

I think before we get into debating the alternatives to BDS, I think we need to interrogate why we’re so against BDS in the first place. We did talk about the main points of the BDS movement, the three goals. One of those is the return to ’67 lines, mostly in line with ending the occupation, which I think most people in this room would agree with. Another one is the right to return. I think that everybody in this room is aware that the right to return is one of the outstanding final status issues that would come up in any form of negotiations between Israel and a future Palestinian state, if a two state solution were indeed to be the solution to this conflict. And I think that to marginalize the BDS movement simply because the Palestinian civil society organizations that started it and those who support them, are advocating for the right of return, which is very much a part of the negotiations, to me is not sensible.

And the third point is equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. And I actually think that that may be the most threatening plank of the BDS movement to many of us in the American Jewish community. Because it really gets to the heart of Zionism itself. It really gets to the heart of, Do we believe deep down, that there can be a Jewish and democratic state? As I was walking here this morning, I was thinking, It can’t be that the folks in this room have never just wondered to themselves, can it really be that a Jewish state that is dependent on maintaining a demographic majority of Jews at all costs, can forever be a democracy, can maintain liberal democratic values? I think that’s a real question. And I think to marginalize the BDS movement actually is an excuse for us to avoid that question and avoid figuring out, Do we think that can actually be true?

I also want to say that the BDS movement is the number one non-violent movement by Palestinians and Palestinian civil society. And so if the Jewish community is not willing to engage with that– there are no Palestinians on this panel– we haven’t created a space where we are able actually to engage with that face to face. If we are not able to engage with the most powerful, consistently non-violent movement in Palestinian society, then how are we ever to get at our vision of more justice, more equality and a solution to this conflict?


Anti-Zionism is a living tradition in the Jewish community as a response to anti-Semitism

I heard several times and I was glad to hear people on the panel saying that folks who are involved in BDS are not necessarily anti-Semitic. I think that’s actually a step forward for our community!

But I have heard the sentiment over and over again this morning that anti-Zionism, the delegitimization of the state of Israel itself, is antisemitic. And I do want to share my perspective on that, because from my perspective, Zionism is one form of resistance to anti-Semitic persecution in the form of building a nationalistic movement and ultimately creating a Jewish national state, OK?

There were several other intellectual and political movements in resistance to anti-semitism, none of which were anti-Zionist before the establishment of the state. There were Bundists. There were people that decided to move to the U.S. and Canada rather than what was then Palestine because politically that was in line for them. And for many years the Reform movement itself was not a Zionist movement.

And I think in this day and age there are many Jews including myself– I’ll count myself in that– that are questioning whether Zionism is the best strategy to fight antisemitism. And whether actually there are other ways for us to build solidarity with other marginalized and persecuted groups around the world for the sake of our communal safety.

So I think to say that anti-Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitism is to ignore the rich political and intellectual history of the Jewish community itself. So that’s something I want to raise and want people to think about.

The other thing I want to bring up is Betty [Herschman of Ir Amim]’s point about the clampdown on Israeli NGO’s. The anti-BDS laws in Israel that have limited the types of funding that NGOs are able to get, that have limited the types of partnerships that NGOs are able to get into with one another, that limits the type of statements and activists NGOs are allowed to work with– that has been a clampdown on Palestinian civil society first and foremost but also on Israeli civil society. And those are the folks that are doing the hard work on the ground, of fighting to end the occupation and of fighting for more democracy, equality and dignity in the region. In a way I think it’s disingenuous to say that well, here in the United States we’re going to put many millions of dollars into fighting BDS and we’re going to try and pass legislation to tamp down BDS but we support the NIF [New Israel Fund] with public statements, we give donations to the NIF. It’s all part of the same effort that in the end is tamping down on civil society in very damaging ways.

And I think in addition to exploring how BDS might be affecting Jewish communities, when we’re talking about anti-BDS legislation, we need to acknowledge that most of the students that this legislation is going to target are Palestinian students, Muslim students and Arab students on campuses who already are living in an era of extreme Islamophobia, rising hate crimes against Muslims, and state surveillance that is actually putting some people into deportation proceedings because of that increased surveillance against Muslim communities. I think we really need to be conscious that if we are going to fight antisemitism, which I think we should, how are we also going to make sure that we are fighting Islamophobia and other forms of racism? [Applause]


Summation: BDS is not something Jews should seek an alternative to, but should engage and work alongside. 

I think that BDS, as the largest global Palestinian resistance movement… is not something we should marginalize or something we should find an alternative to.

That said, I think we need additional strategies for fighting occupation and fighting for justice. Boycott alone did not end apartheid in South Africa. There was work on the ground, there were other types of advocacy going on. The work we are doing to transform the American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel, the work that If Not Now is doing, the work we can all be doing to challenge militarism in U.S. policies, take some of the dollars that we are spending on all kinds of military and police exchanges and put that into social services here in the United States. I think that these are all things we can be doing, in addition to engaging with the Palestinian movement for BDS.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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14 Responses

  1. wondering jew on April 20, 2018, 7:20 pm

    Re: Bds’s goal of “right of return”, she seems to be saying, i (we progressive young jews) wish to make common cause with nonviolent palestinians and right of return is a reasonable attitude for them to have (as a position at this point in time), therefore it should not disrupt our desire to make common cause with them.

    in regards to the “demographic problem” she asserts that the desire to maintain a jewish majority stems from a wrong state of mind, that inevitably will lead to a clash between this desire and elimination of racism.

    these sentiments plus natalie portman’s decision right on the day of the actual 5th of iyar, hit hard.

    I actually went on the “ir amim” tour of the wall around jerusalem when i lived in jerusalem.

    i’d be curious to hear what peter beinart’s question was and what his take is.

    i think it is a reasonable response for supporters of israel to draw a red line against bds and view it as the act of an enemy. i think those who oppose the occupation need to find some means of expressing that opposition. and so far it is only “if not now” who has solid activist proposition. i cannot imagine myself observing the “if not now” street theater with anything other than mixed feelings, so i prefer not to watch up close.

    i watch warily, from middle distance.

    • johneill on April 20, 2018, 10:30 pm

      equal treatment under the law is not a ‘demographic problem’, nor did ms. gale didn’t frame it that way – though she did say the inability to ‘engage with the most powerful, consistently non-violent movement in Palestinian society,’ represents a failing of the jewish community to face the coming of equality. your calling it ‘the act of an enemy’ only proves her hypothesis.
      so, unable to engage, try to paraphrase other’s thoughts. i don’t see the point yonah.

    • philweiss on April 21, 2018, 9:06 am

      thanks yonah I corrected ir amim

  2. echinococcus on April 20, 2018, 8:33 pm

    I don’t want to put my relationship with my Israeli family and friends at risk. I don’t want to be barred from entering the country, which is kind of the center of my personal and professional goals

    Sure, Phil Weiss. That’s the kind of person who will resolutely fight Zionism, eh? An American with personal and professional goals in Palestine, as an occupier.

    Smart Zionists are more dangerous.

    • Citizen on April 21, 2018, 5:40 am

      I wonder how she would distinguish between the white nationalist principles and the Zionist principles. The alt-right in USA, the myriad of right-wing groundswells in Europe?

      • hungrydave on April 21, 2018, 5:02 pm

        It’s an interesting one. I saw an interview with David Pakman and white nationalist Richard Spencer where the conversation was as follows (my paraphrase)
        DP why do you want a white state, isn’t that racist?
        RS I want the same thing Israel has but for white Americans
        DP let’s move on because there’s other things I want to talk about

  3. Dan From Away on April 21, 2018, 5:17 am

    It should be clear to everyone that Leanne is an honest, intelligent person struggling to comprehend a complex, complicated issue. She touches upon a number of critical points and I would like to engage one now:

    “And I think in this day and age there are many Jews including myself– I’ll count myself in that– that are questioning whether Zionism is the best strategy to fight antisemitism.”

    Words matter so let’s begin at the level of the words we use to bracket the discussion i.e.: “the strategy to FIGHT antisemitism”. Did we fight slavery or did we abolish it? Did we fight Nazims or did we abolish it? Do the women who make up the #metoo movement want to fight sexism … or abolish it? Do we want to fight school massacres or do we want to abolish them?

    The preference to “fight” antisemitism means to dedicate one’s self to perpetual war without any prospect of victory. “Fighting” antisemitism means to buy into Herzl’s, and therefore contemporary political Zionism’s, view of the Other as eternally sick and irrationally hostile to Jewish life. It is to say that all Others are carriers of some latent racist trait which cannot be treated and against which all woke Zionists have their swords drawn. Forever. Without end.

    “Fighting” antisemitism connotes the idea that Others cannot be “cured” and can never be part of the effort to eradicate antisemitism. It says they are irredeemable. It undercuts the idea that antisemitism can ever be treated in much the same way we all struggle to change people’s minds about racial, religious, gender, class and other forms of bias.

    Embracing the idea of “fighting” or “combatting” antisemitism also denies well-meaning Jewish and Israeli individuals and institutions the opportunity to build the very alliances and Leanne so poignantly seeks.

    BDS is seen by political Zionists as a threat and in a very real sense it is: it is a threat to Zionism’s status quo. Because BDS is a peaceful and non-violent movememt it poses and existential threat not to Jewish life but to Zionism’s political hegemony and its preferred method of dealing with the Other…through the lense of perpetual hostility and violence-without-end.

    Leanne is concerned, and very likely with good reason, about speaking out loudly, publicly or forcefully lest she be punished by Zionism for her temerity with a form of banishment. This, in and of itself, suggests to me that Zionism is the very worst strategy for fighting antisemitism. Bar none.

    View 340 posters on the subject of boycotts and BDS:

    • JosephA on April 21, 2018, 9:04 am

      This was a very thoughtful comment, thank you. It’s easy to forget, in the era of Trump and texting, that words really do matter and must be carefully chosen.

    • hungrydave on April 21, 2018, 5:05 pm

      Agree with your conclusion but not how you get there.
      It’s common parlance to ‘fight racism’ because to abolish racism is impossible. You can do it legally maybe but then there’s the problem that it still exists in society but people say there’s no problem with racism, we abolished it!

      • gamal on April 21, 2018, 6:02 pm

        “that it still exists in society”

        this is to misunderstand anti-racism which has nothing to do with what people say or believe just as long as our lives are not circumscribed by others prejudices, let them say or think what they like.

        I have been involved with “anti-racism” in the west for 42 years, officially many of them professionally,

        i am from nearly the Windrush generation, but i came from Africa, we never blamed racism on white working class people, who married us and taught us anti-racism, in my case true,

        it was in my day made clear that we did not wish to police peoples minds or statements, only to have equal access and be judged on our merits, other than that we can look after ourselves, we are no damsels in distress.

  4. Stephen Shenfield on April 21, 2018, 8:52 am

    The founders of Zionism imagined themselves to be ‘fighting antisemitism’ but in a very peculiar sense. They agreed with the antisemites that Jews were sick and repulsive people and considered it natural and inevitable that Gentiles should hate them. Their ‘solution’ was to reconstruct Jews into a ‘healthy’ or normal nation so that Gentiles would no longer feel repelled by them. Nowadays, however, Zionists tend to see the main threat as assimilation. The long-term decline in antisemitism facilitates assimilation. From this point of view the problem is not antisemitism but not enough antisemitism. While loudly complaining about real and fabricated manifestations of antisemitism they really welcome it.

    • Sibiriak on April 21, 2018, 9:13 am

      Stephen Shenfield: … Jews were sick and repulsive people and considered it natural and inevitable that Gentiles should hate them.

      American Zionists roundly rejected such a view of “diaspora” Jews.

      Louis D. Brandeis, for example, crystallized the basic ideas, however misguided, of American liberal Zionism in a famous 1915 speech:

      […]Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; for being loyal to his family, and to his profession or trade; for being loyal to his college or his lodge. Every Irish American who contributed toward advancing home rule was a better man and a better American for the sacrifice he made.

      Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there , will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.


      […]There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry. The Jewish spirit, the product of our religion and experiences, is essentially modem and essentially American. Not since the destruction of the Temple have the Jews in spirit and in ideals been so fully in harmony with the noblest aspirations of the country in which they lived.

      America’s fundamental law seeks to make real the brotherhood of man. That brotherhood became the Jewish fundamental law more than twenty-five hundred years ago. America’s insistent demand in the twentieth century is for social justice. That also has been the Jews’ striving for ages. Their affliction, as well as their religion, has prepared the Jews for effective democracy. Persecution broadened their sympathies. […]


      Since the Jewish problem is single and universal, the Jews of every country should strive for its solution. But the duty resting upon us of America is especially insistent. We number about 3,000,000, which is more than one-fifth of all the Jews in the world, a number larger than that comprised within any other country except the Russian Empire.

      We are representative of all the Jews in the world; for we are composed of immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, coming from every other country, or district. We include persons from every section of society, and of every shade of religious belief. We are ourselves free from civil or political disabilities, and are relatively prosperous.

      Our fellow Americans are infused with a high and generous spirit, which insures approval of our struggle to ennoble, liberate, and otherwise improve the condition of an important part of the human race; and their innate manliness makes them sympathize particularly with our efforts at self-help.

      America’s detachment from the old world problem relieves us from suspicions and embarrassments frequently attending the activities of Jews of rival European countries. And a conflict between American interests or ambitions and Jewish aims is not conceivable. Our loyalty to America can never be questioned.

      (Hertzberg, ” The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader ” emphasis added)

  5. MHughes976 on April 21, 2018, 9:09 am

    I was reading an article in the Washington Post about the ‘Senate Majority PAC’, which raises funds for Democrat Senate campaigns. In March, we learned, $14m were raised, mostly from six – just six – individuals. Four of these were named, Donald Sussman, Deborah Simon, Alexander Soros and Haim Saban. Of these only Saban is regarded as strongly Zionist. The Soros family has an anti-Z reputation, Simon and Sussman do not, as far as I can see, concern themselves with the matter that much. We’re reminded that Jewish opinion is diverse but we are also reminded how the Democrats as a party and movement have been shaped over the decades by the commitment, financial and other, of Jewish people and by their conscience and humanity – particularly those at the top of the economic pile. If American Jews went the way of their UK counterparts over to the right wing party the Democrats would cease to exist, at least on anything like their current scale. Jewish opinion is diverse but mainstream Jewish opinion, which the leading figures would have difficulty in crossing, is very strongly pro-Israel. Which tells us what a small thing, so far, is the falling away from Zionism in the intellectual world – even where clearly brilliant people like Ms.Gale are concerned – compared with a political force so massive and essential to the system.

    • hungrydave on April 21, 2018, 5:10 pm

      The democrats don’t need to keep the corrupt funding, they need to quit the habit. Hence movements like justice democrats who don’t take Lobby money, PAC money or billionaire money. They raise in small donations from ordinary people and therefore represent ordinary people

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