Activists from the BDS movement against Israel [File].
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
To the American Jewish college and high school students who attended the AIPAC Policy Conference or the Ambassadors Against BDS conference in March: Over the next few years you will live in a political climate largely hostile to Israel and Zionism. While there has always been strong anti-Israel feelings on college campuses and in other progressive spaces, today it is amplified by the international boycott movement and intersectional activist movements, which seek to connect the struggles of oppressed people throughout the world.
Like you, I don’t believe Israel should be treated as apartheid South Africa was in the 1980s. While no major American university will actually divest from Israel, the BDS movement has the potential to create a poisonous environment in which pro-Israel students are deemed racists by their peers. Thus it’s important, to appropriate a term from our critics, to normalize discourse around Israel. To do this, we must be honest about the direction in which Israel is heading.
Your role should begin and end with making Israel a normal state in the eyes of the next generation of progressive Americans, the only group to which BDS appeals in the first place. You are not a public relations agent for the Netanyahu government. A normal state is subject to strong criticism, sometimes fierce and unfair.
Unfortunately, while your passion and love for Israel is real, the current Israeli government is making your job much harder, by exploiting the weak delegitimization movement to enact “illiberal democracy” at home. Separating your advocacy for a country, culture and people, from propaganda for a state, will be crucial to your success.
As students, you probably don’t have enough time to follow everything that’s happened in Israel in recent weeks. In early March, the Knesset passed legislation to ban entry to both supporters of the BDS movement and those who boycott the settlements. While the narrow practical effect of this law will only apply to noncitizens, it sends a message to the government’s left-wing opponents at home, whether they be politicians, NGOs or critical journalists, who oppose the settlement movement: the state considers your views dangerous and will use its awesome powers to weaken you.
Sometimes, a new law isn’t necessary for the state to behave in such a manner. On March 14, Jeff Halper, an Israeli citizen, was detained by the police in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim on suspicion of possessing BDS pamphlets. As former Israeli state attorney Talia Sasson pointed out, this was in gross violation of Israeli law and norms. But in times of hysteria, laws can bend quite easily to ultra-nationalist impulses.
On March 21, it was reported that the Public Security Ministry was trying to create an internal database of Israelis who support boycotts against Israel or the settlements. Although this proposal seems to have been killed by the attorney-general, it is emblematic of a hard-line approach to boycotts. The creation of such a database on the views and political activities of private citizens would draw justified and inevitable comparisons to the McCarthy era. That the Israeli government is thinking this way should frighten you.
Such an approach, distasteful in itself, is also completely unjustified. The BDS movement has not succeeded in isolating Israel, not even in Europe, where Israeli defense exports grew by nearly $1 billion in 2016. Indeed, one aspect of Israel advocacy in recent years has been to point out the failures of BDS. Stories about new investments, acquisitions, or economic growth in Israel are often met with the hashtag #BDSFail.
So the question becomes: Is BDS failing miserably or is it a movement so strong that it has compelled Israel to monitor, detain, and ban peaceful opposition? It can’t be both.
In advocating for Israel, you should refuse to be a shill for the government, which you did not elect and for whom you are not responsible. While I probably don’t agree with most of you on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, I hope we can at least agree that Israeli leftists and Diaspora progressive Zionists are not your enemies. But in equating settlement boycotts, which have been a feature of anti-occupation advocacy in Israel for decades, and BDS, that is effectively what the Israeli government is asking you to do: expand your list of opponents to include friends who happen to disagree with the government.
Finally, please resist those who are trying to bring these tactics to US campuses. Databases of domestic enemies, or shame lists like Canary Mission, are not the way to defend a democracy against an ideological threat. This was the case in 1953, and it remains so in 2017.
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and US-Israel relations from New York.
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