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.