Last weekend, Pitt Students for Justice in Palestine hosted a three-day BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) conference at the University of Pittsburgh. This movement was founded in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian groups who sought to fight for self-determination through nonviolent direct action.
Energized by the war in Gaza and the Goldstone Report, BDS activists are gaining momentum worldwide. Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, spoke about it at the last AIPAC conference as a “growing threat to the U.S.-Israel relationship.” While blanket boycotts and sanctions are rarely effective in practice, the changing tone of the debate is a dangerous trend and we should be seeking strategies to address it constructively.
What is interesting about this movement is that not all of the supporters are rabid anti-Semites. In fact, many are well-intentioned Jewish activists and intellectuals, who have lost hope that Israel will end its 41-year-old occupation of the West Bank. They are latching on to the BDS movement as a last resort, believing that the Israeli government has moved rightward, the peace camp is dispirited and that the populace has gotten used to the status quo and needs to feel the repercussions of continuing an occupation that is illegal under international law and unacceptable to the international community. Many of these people have been active in the peace movement for decades and are committed to a two-state solution based more or less on the 1967 borders. They include Jews who love Israel, live there and have a stake in Israel’s future; it is a mistake to attack them personally and dismiss them as “self-hating Jews.”
A second group is engaged in a serious and increasingly successful strategy of delegitimizing the State of Israel itself by turning it into an international pariah akin to South Africa. They enthusiastically endorse the BDS manifesto, adopted in Bilbao, Spain, in 2005, that “exposes Israel as a state which is built on the massive ethnic cleansing of 1948” and speak of the “decolonization of Israel” itself. Nowhere does it mention two states or the 1967 borders. The intent of this second group is to dismantle the Jewish state.
I believe that through dialogue, we can dissuade many would-be supporters of BDS by explaining why it is counterproductive. First, it demonizes Israel, the country and its people as a whole, rather than take aim at specific policies and practices. This conflict is not a one-dimensional issue with good guys and bad guys. The truth is much more complicated, and just as there have been terrible wrongs committed on both sides, there are people on both sides working for peace and co-existence. The most notable example of this nonsensical oversimplification of the issues is the BDS call for an academic and cultural boycott. These are the segments of Israeli society that have been the most outspoken and influential opponents of the occupation, some of whom have been calling for a targeted boycott of goods manufactured in the territories for years.
Second, BDS weakens the Israeli peace movement, because as we know, when Israel is threatened, Jews circle the wagons. Anything that makes Israelis feel besieged will only strengthen the hard-liners’ positions and popularity and discourage the government and people from taking any further risks for peace. Furthermore, despite the presence of some notable Jews at the forefront of the movement, Israelis and Jews worldwide will perceive the movement as anti-Semitic, due to our collective history of persecution and trauma. This evokes Holocaust era anti-Jewish boycotts. Even Vanessa Redgrave, a longtime and vociferous critic of Israel has said in criticism of BDS, “How then are we halting this never-ending cycle of violence by promoting the very fears that cause it?”
So, what can we do, here in Pittsburgh? One way to mitigate the hateful and vitriolic statements and demonstrations against Israel is to meet, listen and talk to some of the people “on the other side.” Members of the PAJC Muslim-Jewish dialog understand that respectful listening and sharing is the key to reconciliation. They also know that it is much harder to demonize someone whose name and story you know. We are a diverse group — Jews who are affiliated with Reform and Conservative congregations, Muslims who worship in many different mosques, African-Americans, Arabs, long-time Pittsburghers, converts, immigrants, singles, marrieds, men, women, young adults, grandparents, religiously devout and decidedly secular. But what unites us is the desire to learn about one another’s faith and culture and the deep-seated belief that we can reduce the prejudices and bigotries that separate our communities and shape our politics.
We can’t stop the BDS movement, but we can establish relationships with those who may (or may not) support it and explain our principled opposition. While it may be more emotionally satisfying to stand on a street corner, shouting slogans, waving an Israeli flag and holding posters, we at PAJC believe that person-to-person relationship building is the kind of pro-Israel advocacy that gets the best results.
(Deborah Fidel is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.)