Two weeks ago, IAM reported that the “UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies Becomes an anti-Israel Platform,” which has met with a barrage of responses from our readers.
One reader suggested that IAM is calling for the boycott of Israeli academics by opposing the invitation to radical political academic-activists. Other readers suggested that IAM “attacked” the Nazarian Center. But both arguments are not correct. IAM sees the Nazarian Center as an important tool to advance the field of Israel studies. IAM keeps an eye to make sure that the mission of teaching Israel studies is met.
The Nazarian Center mission states that “Our goal is education—to advance knowledge and academic scholarship about Israel.” However, a perusal of the Center’s activities, the books it selects for review and invited scholars and speakers indicate a gap between the declaration and reality. This should come as no surprise as UCLA has a long history of anti-Israel activism and has been denounced for its “Zionophobia” and anti-Semitism.
One reader wrote to say that the speakers who participate in the colloquium should be treated as critical of Israeli policies and not anti-Israel. IAM has never objected to criticism of Israel as part of academic discourse. However, a balanced debate requires at least a similar number of speakers on both sides. Moreover, some speakers cross the line into BDS advocacy.
For instance, IAM quoted from an article by Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, who argued that “the 1948 Nakba was neither the beginning nor the end of a process of settler-colonial expropriation. In another article, Sabbagh-Khoury discussed Israel’s mixed cities of Arabs and Jews, that they “result of Israeli’s policies of settler colonialism” where the “Israeli establishment constantly strives to exclude Palestinians from these cities and to make their continued existence there difficult. In addition, I addressed Israel’s ongoing policy of Judaizing these cities, of exercising its control over them, and its attempts to remove Palestinians from them and erase them from their history. Because these cities have been absent as Palestinian cities from Palestinian ‘official political discourse’ and collective consciousness, since the advent of the Nakba.” For those not familiar with the neo-Marxist, critical nomenclature, according to the colonial theory which dominates the social sciences, the Jews were colonial settlers with no right to the land, who dispossessed and expelled the native population, the Palestinians. They created an apartheid state that keeps them subjugated. Thus, like in South Africa, the BDS is a necessary tool to roll back Israel’s colonial possession. This type of scholarship advocates that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. Negating this right is considered anti-Semitic by the worldly accepted IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Other colloquium speakers preach similar ideas. IAM reported that Ameer Fakhoury wrote of a “new partnership of Arabs and Jews, working side-by-side to combat Jewish supremacism.” He also co-authored an article, “How the Jewish Left and Palestinian Arabs Can Remake Israeli Politics,” declaring that “A political alliance between Israel’s left wing and Arab parties could topple Benjamin Netanyahu.” Worth noting that Fakhoury is described as “a political activist, a lawyer and the Director of Wahat al-Salam / Neve Shalom’s School for Peace.”
And then there is Dov Waxman, the head of the Nazarian Center. IAM mentioned that in 2011, Waxman co-authored an article “The Boycott Debate: No Longer Taboo in Progressive Pro-Israel Circles.” The article stated that a growing number of American Jews on the left are beginning to “reconsider and revise” their position on BDS, and “they are for the first time giving it serious consideration and debating it merits.” Arguably, “debating the merits” is a polite academic jargon to legitimize BDS. Waxman and his co-author stated that “A more focused and limited boycott of products made in West Bank settlements has many advantages. It combines BDS’ appeal of direct consumer activism with commitment to a two-state solution as the only acceptable outcome to the conflict. It underlines the fact the settlements are not in Israel, and hence that boycotting their products is not the same as boycotting Israeli goods produced inside the Green Line.” Waxman should be reminded that the 2011 Boycott Law also targets calls to boycott products made by Jews in the West Bank.
In a 2018 article, Waxman has stated: “The age of unquestioning support for Israel from American Jews is over: An era of conflict is replacing the age of solidarity. Within the American Jewish community, there are two major aspects to this divide: ambivalence and anger. On the one hand, there is a process of detachment from Israel, often expressed as indifference and apathy… following 1967, there is a tendency to see the relationship as newly troubled and in terminal decline. It is much more that the infatuation has come to an end; this is now a troubled marriage.”
In a 2016 interview, Waxman predicted that Donald Trump’s “election would surely be a risk for Israel. His nationalist, isolationist and xenophobic orientation to American foreign policy endangers all US alliances, even that with Israel, and his recklessness, inexperience and ignorance in foreign affairs is bound to unnerve Netanyahu, who is politically conservative and is always seeking to maintain the status quo. I doubt that Netanyahu really wants a Trump presidency.” Waxman’s prophecy has failed.
Waxman’s co-organizer of the colloquium is David N. Myers, a history professor at UCLA, who published an article in 2015, “Another Way to Think about BDS,” which legitimizes BDS. He wrote: “we kid ourselves if we don’t recognize that there would be no BDS movement if there were no occupation of the West Bank and ongoing denial of Palestinian national rights. BDS took rise in July 2005, after the collapse of the Second Intifada and the Oslo peace process. Its first declared goal was to end the occupation of the West Bank. Unlike prior Palestinian actions, it is a nonviolent form of protest against the ongoing denial of self-determination to the Palestinian people.”
More consequentially, Myers currently serves as the board president of the New Israel Fund (NIF). The NIF funds several controversial groups, including B’Tselem which presents itself as a human rights group. Recently, B’Tselem declared that Israel is an apartheid state, prompting media outlets in the West to repeat the charge.
The Nazarian Center should decide whether it aims to promote the study of Israel or serve as an incubator for radical polemicists who urge to “topple Benjamin Netanyahu,” or push for an American Israeli divide in “a process of detachment from Israel,” while seeing “the relationship as newly troubled and in terminal decline,” as Waxman configured.
The above quotations clearly show that the Nazarian Center is not a neutral and detached observer as its mission statement promises. Israel is a complex society with a dynamic foreign policy within the fast-changing Middle East. As the Abraham Accords demonstrate, Israel is the nucleus of a new geostrategic alliance of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Morocco, which would confront Iran’s hegemonic drive in the region. The Abraham Accords represent a paradigm change for Israel and its allies that may eventually lead to a more creative solution to the Palestinian problem.
IAM advises the Nazarian Center that under the spell of NIF it is steeped in the old paradigm of Palestinian grievances. Hopefully, it would soon address all these issues. IAM is here to help.
https://www.international.ucla.edu/israel/article/232470Democracy in Israel: Past, Present and Future
A research colloquium organized by the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and co-sponsored by The Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA.
The colloquium will bring together an invited group of scholars from diverse disciplines – History, Law, Political Science, Sociology, and Philosophy – to present and discuss critical topics of democracy in Israel. The final papers resulting from the research meetings are to be published in an edited volume.
Dov Waxman (https://www.international.ucla.edu/israel/person/2520) and David Myers (https://history.ucla.edu/faculty/david-myers)
Liron Lavi (https://www.international.ucla.edu/israel/person/1745)
Presented remotely via Zoom
January 14, 2021 – 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM (Pacific Time)
1. Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
2. Dmitry Shumsky, Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University ofJerusalem.
3. Alexander Kaye, Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University.
Liora Halperin, Department of History, University of Washington.
March 11, 2021 – 9:00 AM – 11:00 AM (Pacific Time)
1. Dani Filc, Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
2. Amal Jamal, School of Political Science, Tel Aviv University.
3. Dahlia Scheindlin, The Century Foundation.
Gershon Shafir, Department of Sociology, University of California San Diego.
May 13, 2021 – 9:00 AM – 11:00 AM (Pacific Time)
1. Julie Cooper, School of Political Science, Tel Aviv University.
2. Ameer Fakhoury, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Haifa.
3. Menachem Mautner, The Buchmann Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.
Suzanne Stone, Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization.
TweetDov Waxman@DovWaxman·Apr 1, 2016I don’t support BDS, but it’s not necessarily anti-Semitic to do so.
The Growing Gap Between Israel And American Jews September 13, 2018 BY MOMENT
Symposium Editor: Marilyn Cooper
Interviews by: Sarah Breger, Marilyn Cooper, George E. Johnson, Sala Levin and Ellen Wexler
The age of unquestioning support for Israel from American Jews is over: An era of conflict is replacing the age of solidarity. Within the American Jewish community, there are two major aspects to this divide: ambivalence and anger. On the one hand, there is a process of detachment from Israel, often expressed as indifference and apathy. But the majority of American Jews, about 70 percent, remains emotionally attached to Israel. Within that group there is growing debate and argument about Israel, particularly about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. There is a mounting sense of frustration, and many are alarmed by the direction the Israeli government is heading. Ultimately, there is a risk that U.S. Jews might become completely alienated from Israel.
This is not simply a divide between Israel and American Jews; increasing divides exist throughout the American Jewish community and deep splits exist within the Israeli Jewish community. That said, there is a growing sense that Israeli and American Jewry are two separate communities moving in opposite directions. Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the second intifada (2000-2005), Israeli Jews and Israeli politics have moved to the right. American Jews, for the most part, remain firmly in the liberal camp. There is not, however, a divide between Israel and American Orthodox Jews, who remain very attached to Israel and are supportive of the Netanyahu government.
There is an ahistorical attitude that looks at the honeymoon period after 1967 as the norm. However, the American Jewish relationship with Israel has always been in flux, and it has not always, or even often, been characterized by strong, unequivocal support for Israel. Before Israel’s establishment, Zionism struggled to obtain support from American Jews. Even in the 1950s, Israel wasn’t that dominant in American Jewish life. Because most American Jews today are no longer in love with Israel in the way that they were during the period following 1967, there is a tendency to see the relationship as newly troubled and in terminal decline. It is much more that the infatuation has come to an end; this is now a troubled marriage.
Dov Waxman is a professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University. His most recent book is Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel.
Dov Waxman: “Israel Is Becoming A Divisive Issue In American Politics”
by Mitchell Plitnick
1. FOUNDATION FOR MIDDLE EAST PEACE: In your latest book, you explore a growing divide in the American Jewish community over Israel. In the current presidential election, Israel has been at issue a number of times: Donald Trump’s AIPAC speech, Bernie Sanders stating his support for Palestinian rights in a speech in Brooklyn, the Democrats refusing to use the word “occupation” in their platform while the Republicans’ platform explicitly states that Israel is not an occupying power. How do you see these issues playing out in the Jewish community, in the context of your view of this growing divide?
DOV WAXMAN: Although Israel often comes up as an issue in American presidential election campaigns (unlike most foreign policy issues which are generally given scant attention), what makes this election campaign unusual, and highly significant, is the divisive way in which Israel has been discussed and debated. Unlike in previous elections when candidates simply spouted bromides about the US-Israel relationship and competed over who was the most pro-Israel, in this election we have heard a broader range of views about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, including some unprecedented criticism of Israel during a nationally televised primary debate (Bernie Sanders’ denunciation of Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Palestinian rockets attacks in the 2014 Gaza War during a CNN Democratic debate with Hillary Clinton).
Political disagreements over Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—both within the Democratic and Republican parties and between them—have been on prominent display, clearly indicating that Israel is becoming a divisive issue in American politics. Although there is still strong support for Israel, there is growing disagreement over Israel’s policies (most notably, its continued settlement building in the West Bank), over its treatment of the Palestinians, and over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surveys show that Democrats, especially liberal democrats, have become more critical of Israel and more sympathetic towards the Palestinians, while Republican support for Israel has become emphatic and absolute (to the point that the Republican Party platform now explicitly rejects calling Israel an “occupier” of the West Bank, despite its almost 50-year military rule over that area). The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that has long reigned in American politics is, therefore, eroding, just as the pro-Israel consensus within the American Jewish community is also eroding—as I describe in my book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel. What’s happening in American politics today mirrors what’s been happening in American Jewish politics for some time—criticism of Israel is going mainstream and divisions over Israel are deepening.
None of this, however, is going to affect how American Jews will vote in November—the vast majority of them will vote for Hillary Clinton. They will do so for the same reasons they always vote overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates, and also because Donald Trump’s derogatory and inflammatory statements on the campaign trail (against Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and women) are deeply offensive to the liberal, universalistic values of most American Jews. Ultimately, neither party’s stance on Israel will have any impact on how most American Jews will vote because Israel is not what matters to most American Jewish voters (in surveys, it is ranked well below others issues). The main exceptions to this are Orthodox Jews (about 10% of American Jews), who are much more politically conservative than non-Orthodox Jews, so most of them will likely vote for Trump. If and when non-Orthodox Jews vote for Clinton and Orthodox Jews vote for Trump it will highlight the growing political and cultural divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, a divide that drives much of the current American Jewish conflict over Israel.
2. FMEP: In recent years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been more open about his relationship to the Republican Party. But the 2016 election has been a tumultuous one for the GOP, to say the least. How do you see this affecting Netanyahu’s relationship, and that of Israel more broadly, to both the Democrats and the Republicans?
DW: In the last presidential election in 2012, Netanyahu almost openly supported Mitt Romney, raising suspicions that there was an alliance between him and the Republican Party, both of whom are backed by the billionaire casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress in March 2015, at the invitation of then GOP House Leader John Boehner, confirmed these suspicions. Netanyahu seemed to be publicly aligning himself with the Republican Party, probably because he believes that Democrats cannot be counted upon to support Israel’s indefinite occupation of the West Bank. This alliance now appears to be threatened by Trump’s takeover of the GOP.
Although Trump was quick to abandon his initial promise to be “neutral” when negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and has since championed his stalwart support for Israel, his election would surely be a risk for Israel. His nationalist, isolationist and xenophobic orientation to American foreign policy endangers all US alliances, even that with Israel, and his recklessness, inexperience and ignorance in foreign affairs is bound to unnerve Netanyahu, who is politically conservative and is always seeking to maintain the status quo. I doubt that Netanyahu really wants a Trump presidency.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is someone that Netanyahu knows well, and he will probably get along much better with her than he has with President Obama. Whereas Obama’s presidency strengthened the Likud-Republican alliance, therefore, a Clinton presidency will likely weaken it, especially if the GOP loses one or both Houses of Congress as well. More broadly, a Clinton victory and a GOP implosion—both of which now look likely—would prove to most Israelis the importance of maintaining bipartisan American support for Israel, which has been jeopardized by Netanyahu’s embrace of the GOP (among other factors).
In the longer term, however, I think that Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party will become increasingly strained if Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and deny rights to millions of Palestinians. The base of the Democratic Party is strongly opposed to the Occupation, even if the party’s platform refuses to acknowledge it. The longer the Occupation goes on, the harder it will become for Democratic policy-makers to ignore it. Their grassroots supporters will demand that they apply some kind of pressure on Israel to end the Occupation. This puts the Democratic Party on a long-term collision course with Israel, although whether this collision will eventually occur obviously depends on what happens in Israel as well.
3. FMEP: The Obama Administration has, if nothing else, been more open than prior administrations to the messages of domestic peace groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Foundation for Middle East Peace and other groups that are critical of Israeli policies but firmly supportive of Israel’s security. Many fear that whoever wins this election, the next administration is going to be much less critical of Israeli policies and less committed to Palestinian rights. How do you see the post-Obama terrain for those forces pushing for a just peace and an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?
DW: If elected President, Hillary Clinton will not make attaining a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians a top priority in her foreign policy (which is what Obama did when he first entered office) because the prospects for reaching such an agreement are very slim, and she will have other, more urgent foreign policy challenges to address. Nor is Clinton likely to insist that Israel halt its settlement building. Instead, she will probably try to avoid the conflicts and tensions with Netanyahu that have marred US-Israel relations during the course of the Obama presidency. But, like every president before her, Hillary Clinton will surely find that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be placed on the foreign policy back burner for long. Sooner or later, it forces presidents to deal with it, often after a serious escalation of violence. For this reason, I think that as president, Hillary Clinton, or her foreign secretary, will eventually try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with the aim of reaching at least a partial agreement, if not a comprehensive one. When this happens, she will probably turn to groups like J Street to help her rally American Jews to support her Administration’s diplomatic efforts.
Besides the White House, if the Democrats succeed in regaining control of the Senate, or even the House of Representatives, that will undoubtedly help J Street and other left-of-center groups pushing for a more active and assertive US role in trying to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. If Congress becomes less willing to give its unconditional backing to whatever Israel does, then the cost for Israel of its occupation of the West Bank might increase, which in turn may increase the domestic pressure in Israel (currently negligible) to withdraw from at least parts of the West Bank.
One final factor worth noting is that if those Democrats in Congress who supported the nuclear agreement with Iran get re-elected in November it will be a serious blow to AIPAC’s once-fearsome reputation, and a major boost for J Street (which supported the nuclear deal).
4. FMEP: Finally, there seems to be a growing divide among anti-occupation groups, particularly over the tactic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Many leading BDS activists and groups are Jewish. Is this debate a healthy one for the Jewish community, and how do you see this split on the “Jewish left” playing out going forward?
DW: I think debate is healthy for any community. The problem with the American Jewish community today when it comes to BDS is that there isn’t enough debate about it. In fact, in much of the mainstream Jewish community the debate isn’t even allowed to take place. Supporters of BDS (for the record, I’m not one of them) are actively excluded from the organized Jewish community. Jewish Federations won’t partner with any organization that supports BDS for any kind of activity, Jewish Community Centers won’t host speakers who support BDS, and Hillels on college campuses won’t even allow public discussions about it to take place. But as long as the occupation continues, American Jews opposed to it are bound to consider whatever non-violent means is available to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and end the occupation. Support for BDS is, therefore, likely to grow on the Jewish left, and organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, which champion BDS, will continue to gain support, especially among young American Jews.
Nevertheless, many Jews on the left will still be put off from supporting the global BDS movement by its insistence on a Palestinian right of return, its strident anti-Zionism, and especially by the anti-Semitism occasionally expressed by some of its supporters. While they may become more open to some of the tactics of BDS (particularly divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of the West Bank), they will not endorse the movement as a whole. The problem for leftwing and liberal American Jews who are both opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and opposed to BDS is that, as long as the peace process is moribund, there doesn’t appear to be any suitable strategy for ending the occupation. This is why many Jews on the left are currently in a state of despair.
Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the co-director of the university’s Middle East Center. An expert on Israel, his research focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli foreign policy, U.S.-Israel relations, and American Jewry’s relationship with Israel.
Originally from London, England, Professor Waxman received his B.A. degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He has also held fellowships and visiting appointments at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Middle East Technical University, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and St. John’s College at the University of Oxford.
Professor Waxman’s most recent book is Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Reprinted, with permission, from the Foundation for Middle East Peace blog.
Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.
The Boycott Debate: No Longer Taboo in Progressive Pro-Israel Circles
Waxman/Zon- szein: The Boycott Debate
Dov Waxman and Mairav Zonszein ▪ March 29, 2011
TO BOYCOTT or not to boycott? That is the question that growing numbers of American Jews on the left wing of the pro-Israel community have reluctantly and uneasily begun to ask themselves in recent months. After initially categorically rejecting the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (or BDS, as it has become known)—a movement launched in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups that’s now a global campaign—progressive pro-Israel groups and individuals are now starting to reconsider and revise their position. They are not—at least not yet—embracing BDS, but they are for the first time giving it serious consideration and debating it merits.
The clearest sign yet of this new willingness to discuss what was previously off-limits occurred during a recent conference organized by J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group. Holding its second annual conference in the cavernous Washington Convention Center (also the site of the yearly conference of AIPAC, J Street’s much larger and richer rival), J Street included a panel session entitled “Who is Afraid of the BDS?” Among the speakers was Rebecca Vilkomerson, the director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization that advocates the boycott of companies that profit from the Israeli occupation and has been labeled by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top ten anti-Israel groups in the United States. Her inclusion was noteworthy in itself, but what made the panel even more remarkable was the fact that it was conducted in a calm, reasonable manner, free of diatribes and invectives. In other words, it was completely different from the way in which discussions of BDS usually take place in the American-Jewish community. Instead of assailing the legitimacy of BDS in principle, the discussion focused on the efficacy of BDS—can it help promote an end to the Israeli occupation and a two-state solution? The large audience that packed the room (people were even queuing outside to get in) listened calmly and intently and asked the panel earnest questions.
To hold a rational and civil debate on a topic that until now has been hugely inflammatory for American Jews and Israelis is quite an achievement for J Street. Even more commendable is the fact that it took place despite fierce criticism of J Street for including JVP—an organization that is shunned and vilified by the mainstream American-Jewish community— in its program. Contrary to the accusations of its critics, by allowing BDS to be debated at its conference, J Street did not embrace these controversial tactics (it continues to oppose BDS). Rather, J Street has asserted that BDS is a subject that cannot and should not be ignored by the American-Jewish community. By upholding the values of freedom of speech and inclusive dialogue, J Street is insisting that grappling with the pros and cons of BDS does not in itself delegitimize Israel or deem one to be an anti-Zionist. As such, J Street is helping to break the BDS taboo in the American-Jewish community in general and among progressive pro-Israel activists in particular.
THE BDS taboo is only the latest in a long line of Israel-related taboos that have been broken by American Jews. For a long time, negotiating with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and recognizing the right of Palestinian statehood were taboos that only radical left-wing Jewish activists were willing to openly advocate. In 1976, for instance, members of Breira, an organization that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, met with representatives of the PLO, considered at the time a terrorist organization. Breira was condemned and ostracized by the organized American-Jewish community and forced to disband in 1977. Despite its brief existence and rapid demise, Breira helped pave the way for other Jewish organizations to promote “land for peace” and to insist that Israel end its occupation.
The erosion of the BDS taboo has come about for several reasons. The first is the widespread disillusionment among American Jews with the “Israel right or wrong” approach propagated by the mainstream Jewish establishment. Peter Beinart’s much-discussed article in the New York Review of Books gave powerful voice to this disillusionment. Beinart urged his American-Jewish contemporaries to openly challenge Israeli policies and actions that conflicted with their own liberal beliefs. A similar call for American-Jewish dissent was issued during the Second Intifada in a collection of essays written by American-Jewish writers and intellectuals entitled Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In their opening essay, the editors stressed the “centuries-old Jewish traditions of lively dispute and rigorous, unapologetic skeptical inquiry.” These are merely two examples over the past decade of growing public opposition to what is regarded as the attempt by the American-Jewish establishment to stifle open Jewish criticism of Israel and silence those who refuse to toe the mainstream line.
The most significant example of this trend is the establishment of J Street itself, as an alternative to AIPAC and as a political home for Americans Jews who do not question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but oppose its occupation of Palestinian territories. J Street has tried to redefine the meaning of being “pro-Israel,” and, at least judging by its growing membership—it now boasts nearly 200,000 members—it has succeeded in doing so. With such a large base of support, J Street cannot simply be written off as a marginal movement among American Jews.
The second reason for the lifting of the BDS taboo is the widening gap between the liberal political views and attitudes of American Jews and increasingly illiberal Israeli policies and rhetoric. The Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai, and Bibi Netanyahu trinity in Israel’s government, which encourages further settlement construction, continues to employ rabbis who call on Israeli Jews not to rent or sell property to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and pushes forward anti-democratic bills (such as the loyalty oath and the investigation into NGOs critical of Israel’s occupation), challenges American-Jewish ideals. There is a growing sentiment in the American-Jewish community that Israel is on a downward spiral that endangers its standing in the international community and threatens its democratic character.
Finally, progressive American Jews are frustrated with the paralysis of the peace process and disappointed with the Obama administration’s failure to advance it. After almost two decades of fitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, a resolution to the conflict still does not appear to be in sight. If anything, it seems to be receding further into the distant future, if not disappearing altogether. Few once-ardent American-Jewish supporters of the peace process now hold out much hope for it.
Nor do many progressive American Jews believe any longer that President Obama can deliver a peace agreement. The high hopes that President Obama initially raised about his desire and determination to swiftly resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have now been transformed into bitter criticisms of his administration’s inept handling of the conflict and especially its vacillating treatment of Israel—from confronting the Netanyahu government over its settlement building to capitulating to it. Having dropped its demand that Israel end all settlement construction as a condition for negotiations and vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council that condemned this settlement activity as illegal (which is, after all, the official position of the U.S. government), the Obama administration has so far demonstrated an unwillingness to really pressure the Netanyahu government, especially when Congress opposes such pressure. In fact, the Obama administration has preferred to try to bribe Israel (for example, last September offering it twenty fighter jets worth $3 billion if Israel extended the West Bank settlement freeze for only ninety days), rather than cajole it. But this too has achieved few if any results.
Fading faith in the peace process, in the United States’ ability to act as an honest broker in it, and in Israel’s willingness to compromise in order to make peace (reinforced by the recently leaked “Palestine Papers,” which revealed that major Palestinian concessions were still not enough to satisfy Israeli negotiators) have created a new political space in which once inconceivable ideas are gaining currency. American-Jewish “doves” are considering what other options exist to peacefully end the occupation, bring about a two-state solution, and “save Israel from itself.” For better or for worse, the only option that appears to be available is BDS. These combined tactics promise to gradually raise the economic cost of the occupation for Israel, thereby supposedly making the status quo increasingly intolerable for Israelis.
It is out of a deep sense of anguish and despair that left-wing pro-Israel activists are starting to assess the possibility of BDS as a means of essentially coercing Israel to end its self-defeating, forty-four-year-old occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. While advocates of the global BDS movement praise it as a means of direct, grassroots action and proclaim its nonviolent nature, for most members of the left-wing pro-Israel community these positive attributes do not outweigh the many negative aspects of the BDS campaign. Put simply, BDS is widely regarded as both unfair and unhelpful.
However critical American-Jewish “doves” are of Israeli policies and actions, by and large they do not think it is fair to punish Israeli society as a whole, as BDS seeks to do. Israeli Jews may be politically complacent and apathetic when it comes to the occupation, but for the most part they do not support it—they just don’t believe it can be ended any time soon, at least not without jeopardizing their own security. Most Israelis still favor a two-state solution and a withdrawal to some negotiated version of the 1967 lines, and they are not opposed to a Palestinian state, as long as it doesn’t threaten them. Targeting them with sanctions and boycotting their businesses, therefore, seems fundamentally misplaced and unethical, as it would penalize the innocent along with the guilty.
By appearing to lay the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exclusively on Israel, BDS is also seen as one-sided by many progressive American Jews. While Israel is by no means blameless, according to this view, neither are the Palestinians, especially Hamas and its supporters. To identify Israel as the aggressor and the sole perpetrator of human rights violations is historically inaccurate and morally simplistic.
Finally, the global BDS movement is believed to be unfair because it singles out Israel for pariah status. Israel is by no means the worst violator of international law and human rights, so why just pick on it? Why not target Sudan, Iran, or any number of other states that repress and brutalize their citizens? Or other countries that occupy the territory of others, such as China in Tibet and Russia in Georgia?
Coupled with these criticisms of BDS as essentially unfair is a more practical assessment of its effectiveness. Most left-wing pro-Israel activists are highly skeptical that BDS will actually work. In fact, they tend to believe that it will be politically counterproductive because it deeply alienates Israelis and feeds into a suspicious and defensive Israeli mentality summed up by the popular Israeli expression, “The whole world is against us.” This only reinforces right-wing Jewish nationalism in Israel and weakens what is left of its peace camp. Even for left-wing American and Israeli Jews, BDS is highly controversial and polarizing. As such, it serves to divide and thus debilitate the one group of people who can steer Israel in a better direction.
Perhaps the single biggest problem that BDS poses for progressive American Jews is that it is widely perceived as being anti-Israel, not just anti-occupation. That is, the BDS movement is seen as aimed at delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state. Nor is this perception wholly inaccurate. Although the global BDS movement is very broad and diverse, many of the activist groups associated with it openly express hostility to Israel as a Jewish state, and many BDS advocates are “one-staters”—supporters of a single, binational state in Israel/Palestine rather than a two-state solution. More specifically, the BDS movement supports the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel proper—something that is a red line for pro-Israel supporters since they see it as tantamount to the destruction of a Jewish state.
The fact that BDS generally fails to make a clear distinction between Israel and the occupied territories is something that troubles American Jews who support Israel but are against the occupation. For them, it is imperative to distinguish between Israel within the Green Line—which is seen as legitimate—and Israeli rule beyond it—which is deemed illegitimate. By blurring this distinction, intentionally or not, BDS makes a resolution of the conflict harder, not easier, to achieve.
WHAT, THEN, are progressive American Jews to do? If the peace process is a waste of time, and BDS is unfair and unhelpful, is there another alternative? Indeed there is: a selective boycott against settlement products, not Israeli products or people in general. This is already being practiced by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and several Israeli peace organizations, such as Gush Shalom and the Coalition of Women for Peace, both of which actively advocate the boycott of settlement products and companies that profit from operating in the West Bank. Left-wing American-Jewish groups like the New Israel Fund and Meretz USA have also recently expressed support for such a boycott.
A boycott of settlement goods is aimed at anything that is produced in the occupied territories, not just goods actually made in Israeli settlements. This includes a wide variety of agricultural produce (such as fruits and flowers) and manufactured goods (such as plastics, textiles, cosmetics, food, and wine) that are made in factories located in large Israeli industrial zones within the occupied territories. While most of these products are purchased locally by Israelis and Palestinians, some are exported abroad (Israeli wine from the West Bank and Golan Heights and skin-care products from the Dead Sea inside the West Bank, for example, have a large international market). Although it would target only a small fraction of the goods Israel exports—an estimated 2 or 3 percent—a boycott of these goods still has an economic impact. In particular, by penalizing Israeli companies now operating in the territories, a boycott of their goods encourages them to relocate their production inside the Green Line, as some have reportedly already done due to the boycott. In practice, however, it can be difficult to boycott only goods produced in the territories, since they are not clearly labeled and companies operating in the territories are permitted to have marketing addresses within Israel. A labeling campaign, such as the one that has been conducted in Europe in recent years, is one remedy for this.
A more focused and limited boycott of products made in West Bank settlements has many advantages. It combines BDS’ appeal of direct consumer activism with commitment to a two-state solution as the only acceptable outcome to the conflict. It underlines the fact the settlements are not in Israel, and hence that boycotting their products is not the same as boycotting Israeli goods produced inside the Green Line. While it will certainly not hit Israeli pockets in the way that across-the-board BDS intends to do, it will not alienate Israelis in the same way either. It also has a much greater chance of gaining broad support among Americans and Europeans, who are unwilling to boycott and sanction Israel as a state.
Whether growing numbers of progressive American Jews support this “third way,” however, depends on their willingness to reject the hard line against all boycotts taken by Israel and much of the American-Jewish establishment. Major American-Jewish organizations frequently depict any boycott, however limited, as being anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. The Knesset recently passed the first reading of a bill to impose a hefty fine on Israeli citizens and a ten-year ban on entering the country against foreign nationals who call for or engage in any type of boycott against Israel, including its settlements in the West Bank. But these pressure tactics are unlikely to succeed if Israel continues its settlement activity and the peace process remains all but dead. As long as Israel’s occupation drags on, boycotts of one form or another are bound to grow.
Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist based in Jerusalem and a writer and editor at 972mag.com.