Jewish BDS (Moral Posture, Strange Positionings & Uncomfortable Befellows)

jewish BDS

Politics can make for strange positionings and uncomfortable bedfellows. Friends and others ask why liberal Jews and liberal Zionists don’t support BDS in order to help promote a 2 state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. What else would move the government to act apart from these kinds of soft, economic threats? Speaking personally, the reason I don’t support BDS is because I cannot, in good faith, support or position myself vis-à-vis a group or larger movement whose goal is a 1 state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, while being suspicious of claims that supporters of BDS enjoy monopolies on social justice, human rights, and effective political action, and accusing mainstream liberal organizations of promoting inaction and injustice. Having said that, what I think makes Jewish BDS an interesting, and in my view, precarious social and political phenomenon is its peculiar middle-position. What marks Jewish BDS is not just its tense place vis-à-vis the Jewish community. Ironically, it’s hard to gauge the position that groups like Jewish Voices for Peace actually enjoy on the anti-Zionist left.

Consider these two posts that appeared at Mondoweiss. In the first post, which you can read here, claims are made regarding what is purported to be a broadening of support across the Jewish community for BDS, particularly soft-BDS which targets settlements in the occupied West Bank, not just among groups like Jewish Voices for Peace, whose position is more contentious in the community, but also by liberal Jews more in the community mainstream.   In the second post, which you can read here, there’s critical blowback from activists from more radical activists on the anti-Zionist left.  . In his own response, Omar Barghouti was so polite that it’s not worth quoting him. It was left to two Jewish anti-Zionist critics, who got right to the point. For the critics of soft Jewish BDS, it’s all or nothing. For them, the problem is not settlement in the occupation of territories in the West Bank. As an organized, activist community, BDS is predicated on targeting Israel as a settler-colonial regime, ideology, and state. In its mission statements, BDS pushes forward the Palestinian historical narrative along with demands for a comprehensive right of return for Palestinian refugees and a one state solution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

Despite the viciousness of inter-communal Jewish political polemics, solidarity with one’s fellow Jews has always been a cardinal virtue in the Jewish political tradition, including the liberal Jewish political tradition. It’s an old ghetto reflex. No simple thing, the parameters defining that solidarity have always been up for grabs, especially so in regards to Israel and the Occupied Territories. In an odd way, however, I am in complete accord with the anti-Zionist critics about partial BDS. Their message could not be more crystal clear. They pretty much conclude, you’re either in all the way, or you’re just a “useful idiot,” a historical term of abuse, it is said, that was once upon a time reserved for liberal fellow travelers by Stalinists.

About all this, Mich Levy writes:

“By giving equal weight to “BDS” strategies that attempt to protect Israel’s exclusionary Jewish character, the authors also do not support the demands put forward by those at the heart of the struggle. They do this despite their awareness that the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel is not limited to only boycotting products produced in the territories occupied in 1967. This translation of the call’s demands for one’s own purposes frames the problem as the 1967 occupation and settler policy, once again deflecting the issue of the 1948 occupation and expulsion. This framing does allow for addressing the rights of the Palestinians currently living there, but bypasses the crucial issue of the approximately seven million refugees, a problem whose origins stem from the expulsion of 1948, and whose resolution depends on contending with the Palestinian demand of right of return…. A useful guide for determining whether actions are expressions of effective solidarity with a struggle for self-determination are that they must 1) be based on an acknowledgement of the narrative of those who are most impacted; 2) support the demands put forward by those at the heart of the struggle; and 3) help create the conditions in which just solutions are to be found. Many of the actions the article surveys, and the article itself, misses all three points.”

Jamie Stern-Weiner observes the rock solid consensus in the American Jewish community about Israel, if not the occupation of the West Bank. Note how in her rebuttal, Jewish Voice for Peace comes in for special attention:

“[The first article] construes a recent Jewish People Policy Institute report as evidence of diaspora Jews’ increasing opposition to Israel’s “Zionist policies” and unease with the notion of a Jewish and democratic state.  In fact, the study found “a nearly unanimous consensus” among diaspora Jews in favour of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state (it speculated that younger Jews’ growing insistence on the right to be exposed to anti-Zionist arguments “could” lead to “some measure of erosion” in this consensus), while opposition to Israeli policies was not viewed by most Jews as opposition to “Zionism.”  (See pp. 21-35)…. It cites a handful of politically marginal Jewish and Israeli organizations that support the BDS call, but provides no evidence of their influence, which it wildly exaggerates (in what universe are BOYCOTT! and the Alternative Information Center “prominent” within Israel?).  It notes that the American group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) aligns itself with the aims as well as the methods of the BDS movement, but doesn’t mention JVP’s important strategic caveat: “As a force of U.S.-based Jews and allies, JVP has considered the full range of BDS campaigns, and has chosen to focus our efforts on boycott and divestment campaigns that directly target Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. We believe this to be the most effective way for JVP to help bring about the aims we share with the Palestinian BDS call.”… Even if JVP’s endorsement of BDS reflects growing support for BDS among Jews active in the Palestine solidarity movement, its strategic caveat caution precisely against interpreting this as evidence of increasing support for BDS among American Jews more broadly…They appear to have forgotten the most obvious reason, the one implied by JVP’s strategic caveat: that most Jews do not support the BDS platform, either because of what it contains or because of its failure to declare a position on Israel’s existence…The boundless definition of BDS used in the article has been denounced by Omar Barghouti, the BDS movement’s leading figure, who dismisses anything short of support for the full three-point BDS platform as mere “boycotting acts” of the “Zionist left.”   

It is safe to assume that one of the things that aggravates the supporters of hard BDS on the anti-Zionist left is the middle position strategically embraced by JVP. Indeed, reading its mission statement, which you can read here,  it would appear that JVP promotes goals that place it squarely within the liberal Jewish fold.  These are: [1] A U.S. foreign policy based on promoting peace, democracy, human rights, and respect for international law [2] An end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem [3] A resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem consistent with international law and equity [4] An end to all violence against civilians [5] Peace among the peoples of the Middle East. No mention is made of 1948, Zionism as an ideological doctrine, Palestinian solidarity, or the Palestinian right of return. Read on the surface, the document is anodyne.

It could be that the mild program statement was tailored for public consumption in the broader Jewish community, meant to mask a more radical agenda, even as the organization provides useful Jewish cover for the anti-Israel left. But advocates for Jewish BDS are caught in an always potentially uncomfortable position. The strategic caveat vis-à-vis the Jewish community combined with the provision of a Jewish support for anti-Zionist left has done little either to persuade the larger liberal American Jewish community or, it would appear, to impress the anti-Zionist left as sufficiently militant. Quick to criticize Israel, what separates JVP from the liberal Zionist mainstream is the more self-righteous sounding posture that comes with actively promoting BDS outside the Jewish public sphere, while partnering up with people on the anti-Zionist left who don’t seem to respect them very much.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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