A pro-Israel activist was invited recently to teach teens about Israel at a “liberal” – non-Orthodox – synagogue. Good educators know the importance of building a tent big enough politically to welcome a range of perspectives without reducing Israel to a political problem or politicizing the basic facts so many students don’t know. The challenge grew when the rabbi intervened, saying: “I expect you to present BDS fairly.”
“What,” this activist asked me, “should I do?” We knew what the rabbi meant. In this age of delegitimization, this Jewish leader wanted to make the case for boycotting Israel to the synagogue’s teens, presenting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as a fair, legitimate option.
It’s astonishing. If gays, feminists and African-Americans don’t invite homophobes, sexists and racists to present their enemies “fairly,” why should we? This was not even a request to present the Palestinian side – which has educational value – but to justify the boycotters, rooted in anti-Semitism, championing anti-Zionism, often demanding Israel’s destruction.
We need to understand how we stumbled into this pathetic state, wherein Jewish leaders urge us to disrespect ourselves and our story.
It starts with the loony Left’s identity politics and anti-“racism” obsession. Identity politics’ essentialist approach reduces people to their skin colors and ethnicities while labeling them “privileged” or “oppressed.” The privileged are automatically racist, even when biological differences are irrelevant. The oppressed are always right, even when they are violent or wrong.
Worshipers in that church rally around opposing Israeli “racism” as their grandparents rallied around Marxism. And, in Iran and elsewhere, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism overlap: attacking “Little Satan,” Israel, slams “Big Satan,” America. But Israel’s an easier target.
Radical Jews, eager to be loved, have embraced this approach, which reduces the complicated Arab-Israeli conflict to a simple, black-andwhite tale casting the Palestinians as helpless “blacks” oppressed by Israeli “whites.” While most of the Jewish world mocks this idiocy, it has seduced a loud, self-righteous minority of Jewish intellectuals and radical rabbis.
As the rabbinate becomes more of an academic track, with some students entering seminaries as a reasonable career option that teaches Judaism and Jewish history in a theoretical, scholarly manner, rather than a passionate outgrowth of their commitment to a denominational movement, many young rabbis swallow this nonsense.
Knowing this, I suggested two options. Teach BDS through the boycotters’ own words. Read the “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS” of July 9, 2005, which jumps from the post-1967 question, What borders should Israelis and Palestinians have? – a question allowing for compromise – to the pre-1948 question, Does Israel deserve to exist? which rejects compromise, because their answer is “no.”
The text manipulatively escalates from fighting “the occupation” to demonizing Israel to rejecting Israel’s existence. The document alleges Israel was “built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners,” has an “entrenched system of racial discrimination” and ignores “UN resolutions [which] have condemned Israel’s colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal... since 1948” – note, not “just” 1967.
Many BDS leaders, who compare democratic Israel to racist apartheid South Africa, are anti-Israel and often anti-Semitic. BDS leader Omar Barghouti – who should boycott himself as a Tel Aviv University student – admits that “if the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you would have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”
He justifies Palestinians’ right to “resistance by any means, including armed resistance,” by denying not just Jewish rights “to self-determination” but insisting: the Jews “are not a people.”
As’ad Abu Khalil, a Californian political scientist, admits: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the State of Israel.” Zaid Shuaibi, a boycott activist, explains: “Freedom, justice, return of refugees and self-determination in general require a rejection of normalization and greater resistance against Israel’s multitiered system of oppression which includes occupation, colonization and apartheid.”
Rejecting “normalization” means rejecting any interaction, no matter how benign, with any Israelis, no matter how liberal. And if Israel were a colonizing apartheid state, conquering distant territories without historic claims or imposing racist, biologically based bigotry, it would be reprehensible – but that’s not Israel.
I would finish by showing BDS images and videos, especially from rallies spewing anti-Semitic hate, intimidating opponents, celebrating violence – then let the students judge for themselves. Defining movements by their founding documents and leaders is fair – although not flattering considering BDS’s venom.
If the rabbi rejected this factual, let-‘em-damn-themselves approach, I offered Plan B, invoking the Joe Hochberg Rule.
Years ago, Hochberg was the business manager of Young Judaea’s national camp, Tel Yehudah. Two parents contacted him, furious that their son was sent home for misbehavior. As the argument escalated, one parent screamed, “You guys are like the Nazis.”
“That’s it,” Joe said. “This conversation is over” – and he kicked them out of his office.
Sometimes, people become so unreasonable they make dialogue futile. If a rabbi doesn’t believe presenting the boycotters in their own words is “fair,” the next step is to address the rabbi’s congregants – and appeal to them.
“This conversation is over” is an important general lesson in Israel activism. We need a big tent from left to right supporting Israel, fighting delegitimization. The further “left” you are, the more territory you want Israel to concede, the more ardently you should oppose anti-normalization which insulates and demonizes, and the more aggressively you should oppose boycotts and delegitimization, which alienate Israelis.
Still, we need some bottom lines. I don’t debate Israel’s right to exist. I don’t engage with Israel-haters and anti-Semites. And when someone cannot distinguish friends from enemies and tries suppressing the truth, it’s time to end the conversation and publicize that behavior, even if it embarrasses this leader as a lamb, sheepishly following the latest radical trends, while betraying our people.Gil Troy is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. He is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar this fall at the Brookings Institution. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy www.giltroy.com