BDS vs Israel: Peace, Anyone?

As I write this, the US news is silent regarding antisemitic crimes. No recent shootings of Jews in synagogues, no take-downs of Jews eating at outdoor cafes in LA. I assume that Hasidim still get harassed on the streets of Brooklyn, and that swastikas still get sprayed onto any structure that might be Jewish, but that hardly qualifies as news nowadays.

The actually urgent news is coming from the streets of Israel where thousands of people are protesting Netanyahu’s plans to remake Israel’s supreme court such that he will have control of it. Until Netanyahu’s return to office last fall, it was fairly easy to be pro-Israel while wishing someone would put an end to the settlements in the West Bank. The rationale went something like, “all countries do deplorable things, but Israel is still the only democratic state in the Middle East.” If the current government succeeds in their judicial overhaul, will we lose that talking point?

Meanwhile, the people behind the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) aim at putting economic pressure on Israel to be nicer to the Palestinians. They have succeeded in gaining support across college campuses and beyond. Perhaps BDS is so successful because it seems to be the primary voice of Palestinians. Regrettably, IMO, it doesn’t support a two-state solution. This comes a shock to many because they are so successful in focusing on Israel’s bad acts that supporters often don’t dig deeper into their information. Essentially, they want Israel to cease to exist, to replace it with a single state with “equal rights for all.” In other words, no Jewish state in a country with an Arab birth rate much higher than the Jewish birth rate. 

If there are any Palestinians and Israelis who still support a two-state solution (I suspect there are and that they are keeping a low profile), they are not organized in the way that BDS is organized. 

Meanwhile, Jews within Israel and abroad have many opinions about the Jewish state, they have many different organizations to promote various opinions, and they have countless journals and websites to promote their views and elicit support.  (I’ll confess that I’m envious of a community in which disagreement is expected; I’m frustrated with people who are so settled on an answer that they don’t look for, and cannot reflect on, new information.)

When I write an article like this one, I generally spend days searching for information about different perspectives. I watch YouTube videos, scour websites, read articles and occasionally an actual book. I’ll share links to some of my sources at the end. One thing that has impressed me this time, is the rhetoric that now defines the BDS campaign and is used by some Jewish organizations as well. 

About the rhetoric: let’s start with settler-colonialism. I tend to think of settlers as people who willingly left one home in search of a better life in some new place many years ago. Nowadays, people migrate, but we don’t tend to think of today’s migrants as settlers. Unless you’re Woke and talking about Israel or white people anywhere at all.

I think of colonialism as the adventures of powerful countries searching for resources or trading opportunities in lands far afield from their point of origin. Colonial powers generally had advantages that enabled them to impose their will on residents of territories they exploited. These are not scholarly definitions, just my personal takes. Do Israelis count as settler-colonialist interlopers? 

Huh? Well, they are certainly not a colonial power; settlers, perhaps, at least back in the late 1800s when many Jews began immigrating in noticeable numbers to areas they associated with their biblical history. This migration enabled them to leave behind frequent, devastating pogroms in Eastern Europe that had prompted them to seek opportunities elsewhere. Some Jews have always lived in the Middle East, and the Arabs were not necessarily enemies. Jews lived successfully within the rules of the Ottoman Empire, though not as equals. Thus their biblical homeland seemed like a logical place to go.

What about charges of apartheid? I would suggest you read this article by the Council of Foreign Relations about Arab Citizens of Israel. Apartheid hardly seems like the right word to me. Does it to you? If so, please take time to comment. Israeli Arabs are not second class citizens under the law in the way of the Jim Crow era in the US. On average, they have larger families, less education, and less income that Jewish Israelis, but in much the same way that black people in the US have not yet caught up with white people on a variety of metrics. I suspect the BDS movement uses the term apartheid because they want people to conjure images of the brutality of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and they want BDS to be blessed with an assumption of the righteousness of its cause.

Then there’s the term occupation. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. Rules are never the same in occupied territories as they are in unoccupied areas (ask a Ukrainian if you doubt me). It’s likely that an occupying army will be visible in occupied territories. People might have some amount of autonomy, but that is always subject to the whim of the occupier. Israel’s occupation has been contentious. They have allowed many Israelis to create settlements within the West Bank, a policy that is certainly cringe-worthy to most of us who consider the settlements illegal and want peace. 

Palestinians have a very long list of injustices done to them by Israelis, and the fact is that many Jews in America as well as Jewish Israelis criticize state actions. The Israeli state generally responds that its actions are in response to terrorist actions of Palestinians; often they are correct. But are state actions disproportionate? 

What does BDS say about occupation. BDS demands three things from Israel. #1: Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall. As I’ve said, “colonization” doesn’t make sense to me. So, on to occupation. “all Arab land” deserves some scrutiny. Perhaps they’re just referring to lands occupied after the 1967 war, but actually, BDS supporters say that all of Israel is on Arab land, and they want it all “from the river to the sea.” 

Demand #2 is for equal rights for all citizens of Israel. Funny, that. Some Israelis want equal rights for all citizens, meaning that Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens would have to serve in the armed forces and give up other special considerations. In any event, I refer you back to the Council on Foreign Relations article.

Demand #3 is for the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties in accordance with UN Resolution 194:

“refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

So, here’s some math: Current population of Israel: 9,000,000; 20% of current population are Israeli Arabs: 1,800,000; BDS claims there are 7,250,000 people with the right of return. Population if all return: 9 million Jews, 9 million Arabs. Hmm. That could work, though, half them, half us? Peace on Earth? If the Jews didn’t want a Jewish State, that could work, but they do want a Jewish State. And why not. Iran? Saudi Arabia? Qatar? 

Here’s another perspective, “What Do Palestinians Want,” from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. How many words have been spent on Israel and Palestine since 1948? More words than bullets, I’m sure, and many bullets have been fired over that time. I find it exhausting. My sentiments have shifted more than once over the years. For now, I still support the idea of Israel, situated where it is, with some sort of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I’m absolutely angry that the citizens of Israel have elected Netanyahu again, and that he wants to take over the courts. I hope the protesters are able to prevent this. 

That said, I don’t support BDS. I’m OK with one Jewish state in the world. I don’t see anything constructive in the BDS program, and I see Jewish students on campuses across the country now fearful of “outing” themselves as Jews, Meanwhile, the de-platforming battles are ongoing with both sides scoring wins here and there.

The BDS movement has begun linking to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US claiming that Palestinians are in the same marginalized status as black people in the US. I don’t buy it. For one, I don’t buy the BLM narrative. The status of BIPOC people in the US has improved since the passage of civil rights legislation in the 60s and the end of red-lining in the 70s. 

Without getting hung up on that issue, the situation of the Palestinians in occupied areas is simply not comparable to the status of minorities in the US. Within Israel, Arab Israelis have full citizenship. Within the West Bank they live in an occupied territory and have limited rights. Gaza is its own mess and would do well to stop firing rockets into Israel. Israel, meanwhile, is surrounded by many millions of people who do not acknowledge its right to exist. 

Palestine could have become an independent state in 1948 but chose not to because they wanted Israel gone. Perhaps with the strength of the BDS movement, they will get their wish. But honestly, I think making peace with Israel would be the better path forward. 

Is the BDS movement antisemitic? Short answer: yes. My reasoning is this: I get how Jews came to want, and need, a Jewish state. The Holocaust was a plan to exterminate Jews. When I think about that, and about the antisemitism that exists even here, in a country that has been relatively accepting of Jews, I get why Jews want a Jewish state. They don’t trust us, and they shouldn’t. Sentiments can change, rapidly, in fact. 

Having a “safe place” is something that today’s college students should relate to. Just last week, Stanford Law School students shouted down a judge, Stuart Kyle Duncan, who’s a member of the 5th Circuit. He’d been invited to speak to students, but the heckler’s veto won out because some students claimed to feel unsafe. Prior to that a Hamline University professor, Erika Lopez Prater, was fired for showing, complete with trigger warnings, a classic painting of Muhammed that led a student to feel unsafe. Surely these students can understand how Jews, both in Israel as well as in the Diaspora might feel unsafe given the ancient rhetoric that lies just below the surface today, bubbling up at the first opportunity. 

Palestinians are not without agency in fashioning their own future. Jews are certainly expressing their opinion in the streets of Israel. If they don’t win this week, they won’t be giving up. No one is optimistic regarding Israel and Palestine, but surely people are getting tired of the ongoing conflict. Do conflicts only end when people are exhausted? Or can they end when new leaders appear who are willing to chart a new path forward?

Further reading:

Anticipating Israel’s Counter-Attack: Make the “One Democratic State” Mainstream Again

Critical Race Theory and the Hyper-White Jew

There’s Hope for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Palestine lost: It’s up to the Palestinian people to share their future now

And a book:

Woke Antisemitism: How Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, by David L Bernstein, 2022

Israel Solves Our Problem With Israel?

Israel. Aargh! My sixth grade social studies teacher (this was 1955) told us that he expected the problems in the Middle East would set off WW III. Basically, for my entire life, it has seemed as though he would be vindicated any day now. You might be thinking that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be the most likely location today for the outbreak of a new world war. But I would remind you that Putin and Netanyahu are an interesting pair of leaders; they are frenemies in a way that keeps everyone guessing about where their relationship will go next.

A column by Tom Friedman in the Jan.17 NYT urges Biden to make it clear to Netanyahu that the US will not be Israel’s “useful idiot.” Why is he so vexed right now? He sees a political situation in Israel that could dramatically change the nature of the “only democracy in the Middle East.” He worries that Netanyahu will support ultra-conservative partisans in order to avoid the consequences of his own corrupt behavior. The fallout of adopting policies that further privilege orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews over conservative, reform, and sectarian Jews, plus non-Jewish citizens of Israel, could precipitate a crisis within Israel that would force the US to seriously re-evaluate its relationship with the Jewish state. 

I’m fascinated by Friedman’s confidence that Biden is the one person who could prevent Israel from going over this cliff. Perhaps he could talk some fundamentalist Islamic states into backing off their extremist policies while he’s at it. Meanwhile, we are left to watch from a distance and hope that Israel pulls back from the cliff of extremist policies. 

But wait! What if Israel doesn’t pull back? Maybe there are some positive aspects of that scenario. At present, many people throughout the western world are concerned about the fate of the Palestinians in territories controlled by Israel, namely the West Bank and Gaza. A few decades ago, Americans still remembered that at the time Great Britain divided the area into Israel and Palestine, the Arabs in and around the territory refused to accept the division; most continue to reject the division today, yet many Americans continue to hope for a two-state solution to this now hopeless conflict. So: what if Israel doesn’t moderate its internal conflict? Might moderate Israelis leave rather than live within Orthodox constraints? Might the country simply implode with some version of a civil war? (That would be interesting because the Ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the military; they might wish they had taken basic training.) Might Israel’s supporters outside of Russia pull back and say, no, we’re not dragging ourselves into this conflict?

Is it possible that Israel will solve our problem for us? If it ceases to be the only democracy in the middle east, it could also cease to be our concern. Where would moderate Israelis go? I’d welcome them here. Most countries love moderate immigrants. Is another diaspora on the horizon?

While I don’t want Israel to disappear, I also don’t want to see it become an extreme religious state. I want Palestinians and other Arabs to support a two-state solution rather than continue to want Israel wiped off the map. I want the vision of a two-state solution to be viable again. Or maybe let’s just bring back the Ottoman Empire. Jews were accommodated in that era, and maybe that’s the best we can hope for. 

If you’re interested in some short histories of the Jewish people and of Islam, here are some links:

History of Islam in 10 Minutes

All Jewish History in Under 18 Minutes