I asked myself, should I blog first about the J Street conference as a whole, or about the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) panel in particular, since I plan to write both.
I decided to start with the BDS panel, because it really was a remarkable event. J Street got an enormous amount of flak for agreeing to host a discussion about BDS in a liberal Jewish venue. Many on the right used it to “prove” that J Street was really anti-Israel, though that argument seemed to have convinced no one outside of their own
While the panel of four featured only one explicitly pro-BDS person, another opposed the global BDS movement but supported certain kinds of economic action against the occupation and a third expressed sympathy to some of the motivations behind BDS, objecting more to the atmosphere the debate creates and the bellicosity of some of its proponents.
Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace acquitted herself very well in being the lone voice supporting BDS on the panel. It was a tough task, but, having known Rebecca for many years, I had no doubt that she was up to it, and she didn’t disappoint.
Still, her task was not as hard as it might have been, and perhaps as it might have seemed to her and to her organization coming in. Nothing, of course, was settled in that room, and I imagine few people left with a different opinion than they came in with, albeit perhaps with a lot more to think about with regard to BDS.
But the panel was still a triumph simply because it was at a major national Jewish pro-Israel event and the conversation was civilized, respectful, and for the most part very informative. People listened. Sure, there were occasional murmurs, but everyone was allowed to speak, and the questions that were asked by both sides were genuine and respectful. That in itself is a triumph on this subject.
The panel, in fact was almost completed without disruption. In literally the last minute of the the talk, one unruly audience member began to shout at Vilkomerson (not, in fact, about BDS, but about JVP’s agnosticism on a one- or two-state solution). But that one scar on the perfection of the audience’s behavior, despite strong feelings only highlighted the success of the conversation in that room.
Ken Bob of Ameinu was by far the most reactionary of the group, opening his comments with a blanket statement that the global BDS movement’s goal is “one state between Mediterranean and Jordan.” He’s wrong about that, though he is accurately reflecting a widespread perception of the global BDS movement. The other two speakers, author and economist Bernard Avishai and student leader Simone Zimmerman gave considerably more nuanced presentations.
Bob’s comments, though, were very important, because his view was the most representative of genuine peace advocates (which Ken most certainly is) who are hostile to the BDS movement.
At this stage, I should probably reiterate that I don’t support the global BDS movement, though I also oppose its demonization, and do support economic action aimed at ending the occupation. This was probably the biggest reason that I left my friends at JVP three years ago, despite the very good work they do. You can see my reasons at the above link.
But I also know that there is good reason to support strong economic action against the occupation, especially here in the United States, where our ostensibly superpower government has been completely impotent in stopping settlement expansion and numerous Israeli crimes against Palestinians.
The strong reactions to BDS make sense, but should be examined critically. They make sense because BDS does cast Israel in a harsh light, and is based, certainly for many if not most BDS activists, on the comparison with South Africa. That is going to upset a lot of people.
And this was somewhat evident when Bob made the point that BDS puts the focus on targeting Israel rather than on ending the occupation. The point is a little odd, but it also betrays a certain framework that should be examined critically as well.
The occupation is about to complete its 44th year. Even if one grants (and I do not) that Israel fought a defensive war in 1967 and ended up with the land without intent, it cannot be argued that Israel has, in those 44 years, made a serious effort to end that occupation. The massive expansion of settlements in occupied territory, which are now home to around 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, puts the lie to any claim of Israeli determination to end the occupation. It’s even more striking when you consider that this represents a more than an 80% population increase since 1993, the year the Oslo Accords were culminated.
That circumstance, the frustration at Israel’s refusal to slow down its settlement enterprise, the decline of Palestinian standards of living since the inception of the Oslo era (largely due to the evaporation of job opportunities for Palestinians in Israel and the massive proliferation of checkpoints which disrupt routine life and commerce for Palestinians), the disparity of power between Israeli and the Palestinians and the dishonest role the United States has played in the peace process created the impetus for the BDS movement.
Increased awareness of the human rights violations inherent in the occupation, the tightening of the occupation with the separation barrier and the tiny scope of relief Israel has given West Bankers in the wake of universally praised efforts by the PA to crack down on Hamas and enforce security for Israelis gave the movement added momentum. And the Israeli siege on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla incident last year made BDS expand like a balloon hooked up to a compressed air tank.
These worsening conditions are happening in years where Israelis are more secure than they’ve ever been. Can we really expect that Israel won’t be attacked under such circumstances? It is Israel’s own policies that are feeding this movement, and it will continue to grow until Israel stops feeding it. For those of us who do not wish to see Israel so targeted, it’s crucial that we lay the blame where it belongs: at the door of Israeli policy.
To be sure, many in the global BDS movement could rightly be called “anti-Israel.” But many others are simply responding to some serious escalations in human rights issues, particularly in Gaza, and the lack of hope for substantive change in the West Bank. Demonizing those activists instead of recognizing that Israel’s own actions are causing this is only going to make matters worse. We can deal with these issues more directly, as the J Street panel proved. And so we should.