Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why We Jews Get So Worked Up Over BDS

Introducing myself
I'm Jonah Shepp, a writer based in New York City.  After graduating from Amherst College, I lived for four years in Amman, Jordan, where I was a local news editor at the Jordan Times and worked on a variety of policy and development projects.  My work has appeared in the Jordan Times, the Palestine-Israel Journal, and on policymic.com.  I'm currently an intern at The Dish.

This piece is addressed mainly to the non-Jew who cannot understand why something so seemingly benign and banal as a largely symbolic academic boycott can arouse such passionate suspicions even among Israel’s most critical supporters. It is an attempt to explain the uniquely Jewish perspective on the BDS movement, the fears and concerns that inform that perspective, and why so many Jews see the movement as inherently hostile to their very identity.

If you believe in human rights, you probably believe, as I do, that the Palestinians have a right to see their oppression, dispossession, and statelessness rectified. You likely also believe that the Jews who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea have a right not to be exterminated, ejected from their homes, or forced to move “back" to Europe, where they have no roots, where they are not wanted, and where their history is one of persecution and genocide. These may seem like farfetched outcomes to the casual observer, but each one of them has been advocated as a “solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by past or present Palestinian leaders.

Given decades of statements to this effect from the Palestinian nationalist leadership, along with the perfectly understandable animosity of Palestinians writ large to the Zionist enterprise, it should shock absolutely nobody that the majority of Israeli Jews expect one of these outcomes should the “one state” favored by the pro-Palestinian left come to pass. At the very least, they fear the loss of their rights to practice their religion, assert a Jewish cultural identity, or live Western lifestyles in what would be a majority Arab and Muslim state. They fear the vengeance of the oppressed turned rulers — that a post-Israel Palestine would resemble not so much South Africa as Zimbabwe.

Leftists who support the subsuming of Israel into a single state of Palestine claim that this is mere paranoia and that no such vengeance would be exacted; they believe Palestinian nationalist leaders' claims that the one state would grant equal rights to all its citizens. Yet these selfsame leaders refuse to accept that Jews as such are a "people" in any meaningful sense of the word, least of all the sense in which they were understood as a "race" by those who attempted to exterminate them in Europe.

While Western proponents of the one-state concept like to refer to that state as “bi-national,” their Palestinian allies shy from this term, as they do not recognize the Jews, or even just the Israeli Jews, as a “nation.” (They themselves, however, are perfectly entitled to claim membership in the Palestinian, Arab, and sometimes Islamic “nations” as suits the political purposes of the moment—somehow, nationalism is totally permitted in the leftist discourse except when Jewish people attempt to assert it.) When pressed on this matter and asked what the national character of this state would be, its proponents sometimes reply with platitudes about the Jews and Arabs of Palestine coming together to form one grand, democratic, post-racial, post-national, post-religious Palestinian nation, which simply beggars belief.

The left has lost sight of the fact that Israel was established with the express purpose of guaranteeing that Jews could never be persecuted again, by creating a homeland for them to seek refuge in and by forming a Jewish military to enforce that guarantee. It certainly served those purposes when six Arab countries sought to destroy the Jewish population of Palestine in 1948-49 and when hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled or fled in fear of their lives from various Arab countries after that war (funny how nobody ever speaks of their rights — of return or otherwise).  It is not a "colonial" enterprise. Tell me, from what mother country did these "colonists" arrive, and to what metropolitan government do they answer? None.

The Jews who formed Israel were not colonists. They were, by and large, refugees, with literally no place else to go. Israel was expressly established so that they would have someplace to go, given that pretty much every country in Europe was only too happy to get rid of them. The left has no time for this fact, but that makes it no less a fact: Israel exists to provide a safe haven for Jews. Not to launder money. Not to fight the Cold War for America. Not to fight an apocalyptic battle against Islam or fulfill the prophesies of the Book of Revelation or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Just to protect Jews. Full stop.

Would that remain true of the "one state"? Doubtful. Why would the Palestinians allow more Jews on their land than already were there? It would be against their interest, so the Law of (Jewish) Return would be the first thing scrapped in the constitution of the new single state. Besides, the State of Palestine, it would be said, can't possibly preference the protection of a "people" that it officially holds does not exist! So even if the one-state "solution" does not result in a second Holocaust or the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine, it would immediately cancel out the first, most fundamental purpose of the Zionist project, which is to prevent genocide of the Jews from ever happening again.

Perhaps the absence of a nuclear-armed state committed to the protection of Jews would embolden the anti-Semitic movements in Europe that have been hiding in plain sight for the past seventy years. A second Holocaust would no longer be outside the realm of possibility, least of all in Palestine itself, where Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to name a few, would be readily enlisted to disarm, round up, and deport the entire Jewish population (But deport them where? There would be no place for them to go, as the Jewish homeland meant to prevent this tragedy had been destroyed.) If the fantasies of the Palestinian Marxists were fulfilled and the Jews of Israel all returned to their ancestral homes in Europe, what would become of them? And what of those Israelis who originated not in Poland or Austria, but rather in Egypt, Iraq, or Iran? Should they, too, “go home”?

By now you’re probably wondering: what does all this have to do with BDS? Well, the BDS movement purports to take no position on the two-state vs. one-state question, but given the rhetoric with which it addresses—not the occupation of 1967—but the entire Zionist enterprise as a settler-colonial project, and given that the return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel proper, which BDS supports, would produce an Arab-majority Israel, it is clear that its intent is not to produce a peace settlement with the State of Israel but rather to eliminate it through non-violent means. There is no other possible outcome of the BDS movement achieving its goals except the dismantling of Israel. While that might not look like an anti-Semitic goal to you ("But they can still live there! Just not in a so-called Jewish state!"), considering that the Jewish-majority state of Israel is the only meaningful protection the Jews have against the unceasing waves of hatred directed toward them—now more than ever from the Arab world—a desire to remove that protection is ipso facto anti-Semitic, for if stated in full knowledge of contemporary reality, it equates at best to a desire that the Jews be exposed to the possibility of fresh persecution. When BDS activists, et alia, deny having any such desire, many Jews understand this as either some form of willful ignorance or a malicious lie.

So the issue is not, as some would have it, that some BDS supporters are anti-Semites, but rather that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic per se in that it seeks to strip the Jews of that essential protection. The same is true for all other one-state activism. Evidence of overt anti-Semitism within these movements can be found by spending a few minutes on Ali Abunimah's Twitter feed or in the comments section of any MondoWeiss article. (I suppose one might argue, as they often do, that one can hate Israel and want to destroy it yet somehow not have anything against Jewish people, but considering the reality described above, it is beyond me how anyone can make such claims with a straight face.)

This is the understanding of the world that goes into the passionate opposition of most Jews to the BDS movement. Whether it is a fair assessment or a paranoid fantasy, it is the reason why so many Jews of all political stripes cannot take seriously the leftist claim that the one-state idea and the wholesale return of Palestinian refugees pose no real threat to the rights and security of the Jews in Israel or around the world. One is welcome to advocate for those outcomes, but really ought to reckon with their logical ramifications and cannot be surprised when one finds little support from Jews.

As for myself, I would love to see the day when Jews and Arabs can live together in an Israel/Palestine without borders, in the post-nationalist democracy of the left-wing imagination. I do not believe, however, that this utopian outcome is possible, at least not today. Whether or not the consequences for the Israeli Jews are as dire as some fear, a unitary state born out of conflict will remain a state in conflict. But if peace is made now, on the imperfect principle of two states for two peoples, perhaps in a generation or two, when everyone who remembers the horrors of the past 70 years is dead and when both Israelis and Palestinians exist who have no memory of war at all, the border between these two states will simply melt away and one, uncontroversial state will remain. Until that time, however, there’s little promise in pretending that we live in a world without nation-states and ethnic strife.


Lilly Rivlin said...

Jonah, this is one of the best replies that I have seen, to the American Studies recent boycott of Israeli scholars. I have known you in the past to be a fine writer, and so on your maiden article for the PPI blog, I welcome you and look forward to more articles. It is so important for this Blog to be a place for your generation.

Ralph Seliger said...

The international BDS movement (as opposed to many sincere activists who embrace BDS as a tool to end Palestinian suffering) sees Israel as the lone transgressor in the conflict and clearly wants to negate Israel's existence as a sovereign nation. This is why Norman Finkelstein -- not exactly a lover of Israel -- has raised his voice against the BDS movement for not advocating the two state solution, which he rightly feels is the only lawful international consensus position for ending the conflict.

Jack Eisenberg said...

A great article, not only because it's so well written, but because it's true. In specific ethnic terms, however, I cannot agree with its conclusion except perhaps along the parameters of what we mean as
"One World."

Jack Eisenberg

Steven AL said...

I agree with most of what you said and do not support BDS, but I think you should avoid describing the 'left' in a unified way. There are many opinions on the left on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and should not be painted in a broad brush. Meretz is affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America http://www.dsausa.org/, which is not a supporter of BDS and has long supported a two state solution. A question, which you did not need to answer in this blog but we need to think about, is what are the legitimate means of pressuring Israel to stop settlement construction and negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians? If not BDS, then what?

Anonymous said...

Dear Jonah,

The great fear that you express seems to suggest you must have felt quite endangered living as a Jew for four years in Jordan. Would you care to tell us more about how that experience informs your perspective?

Thanks very much,


Edward Goldstein said...

Jonah's formulation leaves no room for a "Zionist BDS" as proposed by Peter Beinart or for targeted BDS as practiced by some Israeli and American Jews. Boycotting settlement products and cultural venues or, for that matter, select companies profiting from the occupation does not equate at all with advocacy of or trending towards One State. If I am not mistaken, PPI's chair, Theodore Bikel, supports settlement boycott, as do I.

Hillel Schenker said...


A very good article, and a valuable contribution to the debate about BDS and how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the benefit of both of the Israelis and the Palestinians.

As you know, the Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org), which I co-edit, supports Israeli-Palestinian cooperation to end the occupation and achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace based upon a two-state solution.

The one thing I would add to your analysis is the validity and even importance of a target
ed boycott against the settlements in the West Bank (and the Golan Heights). This makes a clear distinction between a challenge to the legitimacy of the State of Israel, which as you note makes the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews very anxious, and a challenge to the settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories, which is one of the primary obstacles to a resolution of the conflict.