BDS is here to stay: Message to a CT synagogue

Editor’s note: A few days ago Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg and Andy Schatz published an essay in the Forward revealing that they had held a groundbreaking forum on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) at their Reform Connecticut synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek. The August 2 event featured an argument for BDS from Jewish Voice for Peace and against it from the Zionist group, J Street. Goldenberg and Schatz (who chairs the ACLU in CT) assured readers that they came away from the forum still against BDS. But they said that the Jewish community must not excommunicate pro-BDS Jews because doing so will only alienate young Jews from Israel and feed the anti-Semitic perception that Jews are a “monolithic” community.

“The meeting in Chester was closed to the public (but was videotaped),” says Robert Gelbach, who made the pro-BDS argument. “I was informed that I could not bring an observer (I had asked).  The leaders of the shul had invited a few guests (some area rabbis and the leader of the local Jewish Federation) to the panel presentation and a small-group discussion following.  Only the Federation leader and one rabbi attended as guests and their small-group discussion was merged with two small groups of members from CBSRZ.  The panelists (myself and the J Street representative) were not included in the small-group discussions. Clearly, the leaders at CBSRZ were taking care to ensure that their members would be able to participate in the program with a degree of privacy. In the future perhaps they will be able to hold such meetings more openly.  I give them credit for holding the meeting at all and for a cordial and respectful engagement with issues that clearly trouble them.”

Gelbach allowed us to publish his statement to the forum:

I want to thank all of you who have come to this event. as well as those who planned it, especially Andy Schatz who has labored long and hard to bring about this important discussion.

There is an old story about the great Rabbi Hillel. A young man challenged him one day: “Rabbi, they say you are a great teacher. Can you teach me Judaism while I stand on one foot?” Hillel thought for a moment and said “The core of Judaism is to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might, and our neighbors as ourselves. All the rest is just commentary.”

Today, Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors caught in a bitter conflict; there is little neighborly love between them. We are here to consider how they can get to a better place.

I want to address three questions here: First, “What is BDS?” Second, “What does BDS mean for Israel?” And third, “What does BDS mean for us as Jews in the 21st century?”

First, what is BDS? In 2005, some veteran Palestinian activists created the BDS National Committee, an unofficial, voluntary association, and issued the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. 173 Palestinian organizations – from labor unions to business councils, from health and social service agencies to religious, academic and cultural associations, to community and political leaders — all formally endorsed it, representing Palestinians from around the world.

Their document specifically rejects violence. It calls on people around the world to join in non-violent protest against:

1. The ongoing occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem

2. Denial of full equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel

3. Denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967

A recent survey of Palestinians worldwide found that 86% of them agreed with these goals, as well as with non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as the best means to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace.

Let me comment on each goal.

End the Occupation: Israel has occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. Under international law, an occupation should be brief and is only justified in an emergency to provide for order until an indigenous government can assume control. The occupying power must focus all its efforts on serving the indigenous population and may not transfer populations in or out of the territory, or build permanent installations, confiscate property or establish infrastructure like separation walls or highways for its own exclusive use.

Israel has violated all these expectations from day one. Its occupation has lasted 48 years. Palestinians are subjected to arbitrary military control without recourse to independent judicial review. Confiscations of land and destruction of houses are constant and rebuilding is rarely permitted. Massive illegal settlements are constructed for hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israeli settlers, all subsidized by Israel. Settler violence against Palestinians is frequent, and rarely prevented or punished. Since the Oslo Agreements of 1993, Israel and the Palestinian leadership have periodically held negotiations. This peace process has repeatedly broken down, as Israel sets conditions on a final settlement that are impossible for Palestinians to accept and still have a viable state. Many Israeli politicians declare that by changing enough “facts on the ground,” they will never have to surrender East Jerusalem or the West Bank.

Although Israel sometimes claims to want a two-state solution, the occupied territories are becoming de facto provinces, without rights for non-Jews, in a Greater Israel. BDS does not take a position on whether there should be two states or one; it focuses instead on the need for a political system that affords citizenship, democracy and equal rights to all its residents.

The second BDS demand calls for equal rights for the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians. It is a well-documented fact that Israeli law privileges citizens of Jewish nationality in many ways. This is a clear violation of the democratic norm of full legal rights for all citizens. Equal rights were also a condition of the UN partition resolution on which Israel grounded its legal claim to become an independent state in 1948. Apologists for Israel do not deny the inequality; they note instead that Palestinians are better off in Israel than are most Arabs in other Arab countries. I remember when apologists for Jim Crow laws in the US excused racial discrimination on similar grounds: Black Americans were better off than many natives of African countries, they said. We didn’t buy that as an excuse for inequality in the civil rights movement, and Palestinian Israelis don’t buy it either.

Turning finally to the right of return for Palestinian refugees: Under the UN plan of 1947 to partition Palestine between Jews and Palestinians, each new state was required to grant citizenship and equal rights to all the inhabitants of its new territory. But by the end of the 1948-49 war, 750,000 Palestinians had become refugees, forced out by Jewish militias and the Haganah. Five hundred and thirty one non-combatant Palestinian villages were cleared and destroyed or confiscated. In several cases there were massacres, and the news of these terrorist attacks caused other villages to flee. These events were a deliberate strategy, code named “Plan Dalet” and intended to reduce the percentage of non-Jews in the State of Israel.

In response, UN Resolution 194 asserted that refugees should have a right to return to their homes or to receive compensation if they no longer felt welcome or if their homes and property had been destroyed. Israel has never accepted that directive. With their families, the refugees now number 5 million. Palestinians see the wartime expulsion as an injustice that must be acknowledged and addressed.

Can BDS really work? The best example of success in such an effort is the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa. It took many years to build enough momentum to bring real change. BDS leaders point out that their campaign has had more successes more quickly than the campaign in South Africa had. In almost all cases, BDS efforts have been decentralized, private initiatives, inspired by, but not directed by, the BDS National Committee. They target particular institutions engaged in trade or cultural relationships that enable Israel to sustain its injustices. The growth of BDS internationally has increased world public awareness of the Israel/Palestine conflict and has also raised the hopes of those Jewish Israelis whose active solidarity with Palestinians has been longstanding but lonely until now.

No single organization controls BDS or speaks for all of its supporters. Many BDS supporters are selective in their choice of targets: they may oppose only Israeli policies that relate to the occupation, for example, or may focus solely on consumer boycotts. Sometimes, as with JVP, support for part of the BDS call grows into support for the whole, as supporters become more conversant with the issues. Over all, it seems clear that the BDS movement is here to stay and that continued growth of public support in many countries will eventually lead to their governments joining the movement, as happened with South Africa In the past.

Let me turn to the second major question: What does BDS mean for Israel?

Some apologists consider overt criticism of Israel to be a form of anti-Semitism or, if it comes from Jews, a form of self-hatred. This judgment is not warranted. To be sure, there is anti-Semitism in the world – that is, a view of Jews as lesser beings, a deficient race. But BDS makes no such claim; it calls on Israel to make amends for past actions so that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians can be healed.

For Israel, the real meaning of BDS is that ending each of the injustices requires substantial change in the way Israel has chosen to act and to think about itself.

Beginning in the later 19th century, Zionist leaders adopted the ideology of eastern European nationalism, which held that healthy states consisted of people united by blood and living in their own territory. Ethnic nationalists thought that too many residents of different ethnicity would weaken a country, especially if the outsiders had access to political influence. Zionists argued that Jews, as a people without a land of their own, would always be unwelcome in other lands. We should therefore reassemble in a land without a people, which was how they initially viewed Palestine. Once they realized that Palestinians considered it their homeland too, the Zionists adopted three goals:

1. Occupy and control all of Palestine, step by step

2. Transfer enough of the local population to other Arab countries so those who remained would never have significant power; and

3. Prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Those were the wartime goals of David Ben Gurion in 1948, and they have guided right wing Israeli policies in the occupied territories.

But now right wing Zionists have a problem: If Israel absorbs the occupied territories all at once, the population of Israel will soon be majority Palestinian, and privileged legal status for Jews will be more obviously undemocratic. If, instead, Israel agrees to a second state, to be run by Palestinians, it will have to give up the dream of controlling all of historic Palestine. Since 1967, Israel has tried to maintain the legal status quo as occupier, while changing “facts on the ground” through colonization, so that it can make a case later for taking over those pieces of the occupied territories where many Jews have already made their homes in illegal settlements. Meanwhile, Israel’s continued control of the occupied territories, and the growth of Palestinian population there, makes the West Bank and East Jerusalem a de facto apartheid colony of Israel. But giving up the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with the huge number of Israeli Jews now living there in settlements, would risk provoking an uprising among the settlers.

As for the refugees’ right of return, Israeli fears of being overwhelmed by 5 million Palestinians are overwrought: Surveys indicate that only about 50,000 refugees have any interest in living inside Israel. The major burden for Israel in accommodating refugees would likely be the negotiated cost of compensation for the losses incurred by refugee families, who would not return.

The BDS National Committee does not tell Israel which choices it should make, so long as the issues are addressed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators; a just solution will only emerge from negotiation. In the past, negotiation has gone nowhere because Israel had nothing to lose when negotiations “failed.” But as BDS expands and has greater impact on economic, political and cultural life in Israel, the need for negotiated agreement will be more urgent. Israel will have less bargaining power and the Palestinians will have more, but if the primary goals of the negotiating parties are the goals of the BDS movement, then concessions from Israel will enable real peace to arrive.

The third question I want to address briefly is “What does the BDS Movement mean for us as Jews.” This is a more personal issue for me, as I expect it is for you. I want safety and a good life of justice and opportunity for all the people who live in historic Palestine, and for all who have had to flee from Palestine as refugees.

The three principles of justice raised by the BDS Call strike me as both reasonable and inescapable for a morally conscientious Jew. I want to affirm those goals and work for their attainment. I am offended when Israeli leaders who oppose those goals claim that they are acting on behalf of Jews everywhere. Jews should not create a regime of domination, illegal occupation, confiscation and house destruction. Jews should not establish legal systems that disadvantage non-Jewish fellow citizens or use the law to uphold private institutions that discriminate on grounds of race, religion or nationality. And Jews should not employ force and terror to drive non-Jews into refugee camps and then refuse to make amends for nearly 70 years.

Much that has gone wrong derives from the ideology of ethnic nationalism. It is an ideology that cannot conceive of people from many cultures finding a way to live together as equals, with mutual respect. That is, however, the social reality that Americans have been painstakingly building for over 200 years. In a region like the Middle East, full of diversity of every kind, the resort to ethnic exclusivism has been a recipe for endless conflict and not just in Israel/Palestine. A good Jew has an ethical obligation to notice the consequences of social choices and to learn from experience. We need to learn that ethnic exclusivism was a wrong turn and should be replaced with true democracy and respect for human rights.

Judaism is a continuously evolving religion. But one thing that seems constant is the prophetic impulse. We are taught again and again that we need to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for our wider community. When we see a wrong we must speak up. More and more Jewish people are following this principle, including brave young Israelis like those IDF veterans who formed “Breaking the Silence” to reveal and condemn the military excesses of the third Gaza war in 2014. If their example becomes widespread, change will come: the injustices of the past can be corrected and the Israeli Palestinian conflict can be healed.

In my opinion, a good Jew will recognize the justice of the BDS movement; a good Jew who cares for Israel will see how Israel can benefit from meeting the challenges of BDS; a good Jew who works for the goals of BDS will be truly living out his faith. I think Rabbi Hillel would approve.