Contra BDS: Strengthening Progressive Zionism

Editor’s Note: This essay is presented as a three-way discussion with Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jessica Rosenberg and Rabbi David Teutsch.

Outside of Israel and within Israel, vocal critiques of the direction of Israeli policy have been made over the course of the past four decades. For a variety of reasons, those critiques have often had little effect. As the grip of the Israeli right has become stronger, some have felt the need for even stronger critique, to the point of joining efforts with those who support anti-Israel boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS).

But BDS is not an answer to our dilemma.

BDS is premised on a faulty narrative and a set of half-truths: the presumption that Israel is uniquely responsible for the current crisis, and that if Israel changed, everything would change. That assumption dismisses the Arabs as actors on the scene. Arab parties, too, are actors—subjects of the conflict, not only passive objects. We do them no honor to claim otherwise. Just as they legitimately hold a share of the rights, they also hold a share of the responsibility.

There is much about Israel that needs criticism, and liberal Jews and we as Reconstructionist Judaism have not been critical loudly enough. But our criticism of Israel must be shaped and voiced in an effort to improve Israel, not to destroy Israel. We must voice criticism that is fashioned to encourage and enable Israel to move forward in a positive direction, not move backward in fear.

The language of BDS is not shaped with the goal of improving Israel. BDS is built on the premise that nothing Israeli is acceptable. According to this narrative, there is no such thing as a Zionism that is not racism, no such thing as a Zionism that respects the rights of other people. Much of the language of BDS is aimed at eliminating Israel, delegitimizing the state so that it is acceptable to destroy it, and to remove support from Israel so that it can be isolated and destroyed. This only stokes fear among Jews inside and outside Israel, and that sort of fear only strengthens the political right. It strengthens the Israeli right because centrist Jews feel they have no choice but to find security among the militant right. It strengthens the Palestinian right because it makes them feel hope that their efforts to destroy Israel will ultimately meet with success. Whenever we do anything that strengthens both the Israeli right and the Palestinian right, we are not contributing to justice or peace.

What the language of BDS describes is a distortion of Zionism—a distortion that does exist among many right-wing Jews, a distortion that we are right to denounce and should be denouncing more loudly in the name of Zionism itself. But, in actuality, what holds an Israeli consensus together is not some deep-seated desire to oppress Palestinian Arabs. What holds an Israeli consensus together is a desire not to be killed.

When Jews were dreaming in the 19th century of moving to Ottoman Palestine, they were not dreaming of oppressing Arabs but of fleeing persecution and oppression themselves. When Jews of the Yishuv were moving to British Mandate Palestine, they were not uprooting their lives in order to kick Arabs out of their homes. They were going there to escape oppression or escape being killed. When Jews fought beginning in 1947 and into 1949, they were not fighting a war they wanted to fight. The vast majority accepted the U.N. partition plan that divided sovereignty over the land but took no homes or property away from Arab or Jew. But local Arab militias and established neighboring Arab nations chose a violent military response. Israelis were forced to fight for their lives. Only months into the fighting (from the end of November 1947 to the beginning of April 1948) did Palestinian Jewish leaders (as they were then called) decide that if they were going to survive they were going to have to go on the offensive. The nakba, or “catastrophe,” which did happen, is that great numbers of Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes. That indeed was a catastrophe. But the establishment of the State of Israel was not a catastrophe. It was a blessing to a terribly injured and persistently traumatized people living in both European and Arab lands that need not have been accompanied by Arab expulsion if only Arab leaders had accepted a two-state solution in 1948. When Israel fought the 1967 war, they were not waging war to expand their borders; they were once again fighting not to be killed. When left-wingers (yes, left-wingers) first suggested building a separation wall, they were not motivated by a desire to expel Arabs but to save lives from terrorist attacks.

Alongside and outside of this consensus, however, there is a segment of right-wingers who hold the rest of Israelis hostage, telling them that if you do not want to be killed, then you have to help us occupy far more of the land than is justified or necessary, and disenfranchise or maybe even expel Arabs from their homes. What the majority of Israeli society needs, therefore, is an alternative besides either maintaining occupation or being killed. When the majority of Israelis seem to have such an alternative, they have in the past been able to find the strength to break from their hostage-takers and offer potential resolutions for peace. Oslo was one such example, where Israelis thought that enough Palestinians would guarantee peace so that some sort of political settlement with justice could be worked out. This temporarily loosened the grip of the right-wing Israeli hostage-takers to the point that they reacted with vitriol and anger, and at least one of them decided to assassinate the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin.

What really put the nail in the coffin of Oslo, however, was the violent response of some Palestinians who never wanted a peace with Israel because they want no Israel at all. If peace is established with Israel, then Israel’s long-term existence will be assured. Such a peace with Israel would be a defeat for efforts to destroy Israel. That peace would be unacceptable to them. So their answer to Oslo was to mount bus-bombing after bus-bombing after restaurant-bombing after bus-bombing. Even when in the end, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a resolution with a Palestinian state on Gaza, 97% of the West Bank and a formula for sharing Jerusalem, this was not enough. Violence accelerated. What even many left-leaning Israeli’s learned is that the phrase “there can be no peace before justice” for some Palestinians is code language for Israel’s destruction because in their view, the existence of Israel is itself an injustice. These Palestinians are intent on sabotaging any peaceful resolution because, in their view, if Israel still exists at all, that is an absolute defeat.

What we should have learned from this is, even though there likely can be no peace without justice there also cannot be justice without peace. Right-wing Palestinians know that ongoing violence keeps alive the battle against Israel’s existence. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, agricultural infrastructure and border-crossings were left open in the hope that Palestinians in Gaza would develop economic and civic infrastructure. The idea and the opportunity were for this to become the beginnings of a peaceful, neighboring Palestinian state. Within 24 hours of Israel’s departure, the greenhouses available for industrial-scale agriculture were destroyed. Soon thereafter, Palestinian terrorists started attacking the border-crossings with truck bombs. Israel closed those border-crossings in order to protect their own soldiers. Eventually, the entire area was taken over by Hamas, one of the Palestinian entities dedicated to Israel’s destruction rather than any form of peace with an existing Israel.

We can be critical of many aspects of Israel’s policy towards Gaza today and many details of the blockade it maintains, but the thousands of rockets that fly into Israel out of Gaza every year are not a response to Israel’s policy. The use of Gaza as a platform for attacking Israel’s existence grows out of right-wing Palestinian commitment to the use of violence to destroy Israel. Israeli policies towards Gaza are a response to that right-wing Palestinian commitment to Israel’s destruction. BDS arguments are based on the premise that if Israel were to act unilaterally to end the occupation of all lands beyond the Green Line, then somehow the conflict would come to an end. The lesson of Gaza is that there is no reason to believe this. More likely, the entire West Bank would become a platform used for Israel’s destruction, including the launching of thousands of rockets, in the same way that Gaza has been used. When you add to that the use of Lebanon as a base of attack against Israel, the whole country would be under crippling siege. Unilateral Israeli action will not produce peace.

Palestinian Arabs have power in this endeavor as well, if only the power to obstruct. The resort to violence, the commitment to violence, is how right-wing Palestinians keep left-leaning Palestinians hostage to this ongoing conflict, just as surely as right-wing Israelis keep left-leaning Israelis hostage by insisting on occupation as the price for staying alive. It makes no sense therefore to direct pressure for action at Israel alone, as the conflict is being maintained by both the Israeli right and the Palestinian right simultaneously. On the contrary, when people like us come forward and advocate boycotting Israel for maintaining the occupation, ultimately, we are bolstering the right-wing, anti-peace, anti-justice elements in both societies. We reinforce the arguments of the Palestinian right that the very existence of Israel is the basis of the entire conflict, implying that the solution ultimately is Israel’s destruction. Simultaneously, we strengthen the grip that the Israeli right has over all of Israel by reinforcing the argument that the only Israeli alternative to maintaining the occupation is more rockets raining upon Israeli countryside and cities.

These BDS arguments ultimately supporting the elimination of Israel also delegitimize the authority and relevance of Liberal Zionism—a Zionism based on a vision of the affirmation of rights and dignity of all peoples. That is a Reconstructionist vision of Zionism, even on some level a Herzlian view. Theodor Herzl, in a way consistent to his day, envisioned a Jewish state that was a model society for all peoples. Yes, Herzl was naïve about a lot of things, but that does not make him demonic.[1] Certainly, we should not turn to a late 19th-century Austrian Jew for advice on 21st-century policy in the Middle East. Nor is it legitimate to cite him as evidence that Zionism is racist.

In particular, we as Reconstructionist Jews should not be proclaiming that we ourselves do not exist. We should not be proclaiming that a Reconstructionist vision of Zionism never existed or that it is now irrelevant. Indeed, such a Zionism is needed now more than ever, and we should be the first and foremost to be proclaiming it and organizing a broad coalition of allies around it.[2]

We need to proclaim this progressive form of Zionism because other routes, such as BDS, lead only to dead ends on a practical level. They are counterproductive. We need Israelis to feel enough confidence and acceptance in the world to be able to take bold steps towards peace. Israel is not the only side in the conflict with power, but Israel is the largest immediate power. Therefore, we need Israel to act first to set the conditions necessary for the peace that is needed. The right-wing Israelis will not do it. The left-wing Israelis cannot do it without strong support from the political center. So we need to help the center feel secure and hopeful enough to work with the left towards a just and peaceful resolution.

BDS, on the other hand, is a recipe only for greater isolation, fear and despair among centrist Israelis because it is ultimately aimed at the delegitimization and destruction of Israel. That is not what we can be about. Our arguments instead must be clear, direct and single-minded, and voiced towards all parties in the conflict: Stop the killing and stop the stealing. Stop the killing of each other, whether Arab or Jew or anyone else. And stop the stealing of land, real estate or resources. Stop the killing, stop the stealing, establish peace and then pursue justice through a negotiation process that recognizes the full human dignity of the other.

[1] See Mark Overbrook, Kaplan, Herzl and the Current State of Israeli and American Politics

[2] Mordecai M. Kaplan, The New Zionism

3 Responses

  1. Thank you Rabbi Carl.
    There is much in your writing to be admired and hopefully utilized. There is much for us to do to bring American Jews together to face anti-Semitism and the future of Jews here in the Diaspora and in Israel-Palestine.
    Larry Snider

  2. Fascinating how the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands is rarely mentioned and that prior to 1948 the initiation of violence was from Arabs.

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