Young British Jews stake out a liberal stance on Israel. / YouTube
American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”
In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.
But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”
Pro-Palestinian activists hold a banner reading ‘Boycott Israel’ in Paris in 2010. / Getty Images
Score this one in the victory column for BDS supporters and, much more broadly, for anyone who believes we should use language accurately — especially when we’re dealing with loaded terms like “anti-Semitism.”
EBSCO Information Services, a major provider of library resources and online research databases, raised eyebrows when it initially classified articles about BDS — the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — under the heading “Anti-Jewish Boycotts.” After some sharp-eyed EBSCO users took to Twitter on Sunday and Monday to complain about the classification, the company acknowledged its mistake and changed the indexing to “Boycotts.”
Finally submitted a complaint to EBSCO to get them to stop using “Anti-Jewish Boycotts” to describe articles about BDS/boycotts of Israel.ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
@edrabinski Yeah, and then I found an article about actual anti-Jewish boycotting (Nazi-era), and it didn't have that descriptor.ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
It’s not hard to see why people were upset to discover that an American research database was defining BDS as “anti-Jewish.” That definition buys into the popular but deeply flawed rhetoric that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown fond of promoting, and that other Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders have grown fond of parroting. It’s a definition that assumes all Israel boycotts are inherently anti-Semitic — a logical fallacy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Writing in Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz — or perhaps Tablet’s headline writer — recently asked the apparently rhetorical question “Why Talk About Israel With People Who Want It To Disappear?”
Here are five answers.
1. Because many of them and their supporters are Jews.
Hillel, the Jewish Museum, Ramaz and other organizations that have lately banned anyone who supports BDS or is otherwise insufficiently pro-Israel all have missions that involve outreach to Jews. Are some Jews simply beyond the pale? Do we give up on Jewish peoplehood when Jewish people aren’t supportive enough of Israel? Perhaps instead of swearing fealty to an ideological position, organizations that do outreach to Jews should do outreach to Jews.
2. Because talking with people who disagree with us is good.
I’m not really clear why this has to be stated, but since Liebovitz argues forcefully that it’s better not to talk to some people, I guess it does. Encountering people we disagree with is part of the process of becoming a grown-up. Thoughtful people listen to people we disagree with, and dialogue with them to see where we disagree and why. This process may not persuade anyone, but that’s not the point; the point is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed. At Hillel, in particular, this should be an obvious value, since it works in a university context. Should students not read disagreeable philosophers? Should they boycott their disagreeable peers down the dorm room hall? Oh, and saying “you can go hear this anti-Israel speaker somewhere else” is not a reply. What that says is there’s a place for the free exchange of ideas, and then there’s a little Jewish ghetto where we don’t talk of such things.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images
A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.
In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.
Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.
So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?
Pro-Palestinians activists demonstrate in 2010 in Paris, France. / Getty Images
No. It’s not.
The Prime Minister of Israel and the Grand Poobah of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Marching Band can say it as much and as loudly as they want. But the BDS movement is not, as Grand Poobah Malcolm Hoenlein put it yesterday, the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.” And despite what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, when “people on the soil of Europe [talk] about the boycott of Jews,” they are not “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”
No. Stop it.
Though I boycott the settlements, I don’t personally support BDS, for reasons that Bernard Avishai once expressed perfectly in The Nation, and I do not doubt that some members of that movement are unrepentant anti-Semites — just as some members of the Greater Israel movement are unrepentant racists and Islamophobes. Yesh ve’yesh, as we say in Hebrew. There are all kinds.
But there is simply nothing inherent to a call to boycott/divest from/sanction the modern nation state of Israel that is — inherently — an expression of (and here I quote the dictionary) “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”
David Harris-Gershon signs copies of his book / Austin Hill
When it comes to the communal tent of dialogue around Israel, the last few years have seen a concerted attempt by Jewish leaders and institutions to delineate who should be considered “in” and who should be kept “out.” On the heels of the controversy surrounding Hillel’s guidelines, the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center has now entered the fray in an embarrassing way.
Writing in Haaretz, David Harris-Gershon revealed this week that the DCJCC uninvited him from a previously scheduled book event. Harris-Gershon was to speak on his memoir “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” The reason for the cancellation? A July 2012 blog post Harris-Gershon wrote in Tikkun called “Today I’m Coming Out in Favor of BDS.” This is the second time in a few weeks that Harris-Gershon has been disinvited; as the Forward reported, last month, Hillel in Santa Barbara canceled an event at which he was slated to speak.
Last November, I wrote about the decision by Le Mood Montreal to bar two panelists due to their controversial views on Israel. But what we’re seeing now is a self-declared Zionist being barred from Jewish institutions for not being loyal enough — a new low in attempting to discipline discourse and silence meaningful dialogue.
In addition to the Scarlett Johansson Super Bowl ad, part of the reason that SodaStream has gotten so much attention — as opposed to many other products on the boycott Israel list — is because it presents an ethical conundrum for its lefty customers. SodaStream has become a symbol for health and environmentalism, but also for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In other words, if you want to make your soda at home, but you’re also a BDS adherent — or even if you’re practicing limited, West-Bank-only BDS — you’re mostly out of luck. As a recent New York Magazine story pointed out, “Even the most fervent anti-Zionists will admit that, for seltzer addicts, SodaStream’s competitors leave something to be desired.”
But what happens if you’re a SodaStream detractor who happens to own a SodaStream — whether by dint of a gift, or a purchase made previous to a political awakening (or maybe even a guilty one-time acquisition)? Rather than toss their seltzer makers, some SodaStream owners are taking a cue from hackers who have figured out how to use the machines without continuing to support the company by buying its CO2. For the hackers, it’s all about saving money — a SodaStream CO2 cartridge, which must be replaced every two to four months, costs between $15 and $45. For the anti-occupation SodaStream owners, on the other hand, it’s political.
I would love to say that powerful argument won the day. I’d like to claim that intellect and facts persuaded the members, and whether the resolution was won or lost, its decisive outcome was a result of profound and significant reflection.
The first resolution before the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly served to censure the Israeli government for preventing the free and open travel of American academics to Palestine passed, despite little but anecdotal evidence.
The removal of the term ‘arbitrary’ from the original proposal in response to critical evidence proving the procedural legitimacy of Israel’s actions left a resolution which declaimed that Israel should no longer be allowed to control its own borders. With only 142 Americans denied access to Israel out of 626,000 last year, it seems ludicrous to consider a denial rate of 0.023% prejudicial and illegal. But that didn’t stop the resolution from passing 60:53.
Unfortunately, the public farce that was the Delegate Assembly made it impossible to take any of the process seriously. United in condemnation of the MLA officers who managed the room, both those who spoke for the resolution and those who spoke against it were mainly silenced by the arbitrary application of rules of governance, which frequently left the officers huddled at the back of the stage.
This year’s MLA was supposed to be discussing the crisis of affairs in the Humanities. Only a lucky few of the graduate students on the market with their freshly minted PhDs will find jobs in academia — ever.
The increasing corporatization of higher education is driving the scholarly agenda, as funders begin to dictate the scope of the university’s educational mission. Students are being pushed into ever higher debt in order to get undergraduate degrees, which further drives the expectation that only high paying jobs in business, accounting, and computing, to name but a few fields are worth their time and money.
Only those who anticipate that they will be able to carry mortgage sized debt, some for the next 25 years, can embark on advanced degrees in Law, Psychology, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary sciences, without strong financial support from family. All that is to say, we are making education for the rich, and for those who think they’ll probably be rich. We are making it for those who don’t already carry financial burdens for their families, for the families they hope to have, and the communities they’d like to one day contribute to.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student. Flickr: Hillel News and Views.
Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult. The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims — all to rattle the unflappable teacher. But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.
Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely. And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath. While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.
In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.
It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.
There’s a new weapon in the anti-BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) arsenal. It’s a viral video by Cleveland-based Orthodox hip-hop artist Ari Lesser, and, based on the more than 18,000 hits it’s gotten since Monday, it’s proving to be pretty powerful.
Lesser raps “Boycott Israel,” a catchy reggae number pointing out the hypocrisy of boycotting Israel when countries all over the world are committing human rights violations—many of them far worse than anything Israel is doing to the Palestinians. Lesser points out specific offences and atrocities committed globally—from North Korea to Syria to Russia to Ecuador, and every point in between.
The song’s refrain pretty much sums up Lesser’s point:
Boycott Israel if you think that’s just, But unless you have a double standard you must Also boycott the rest of the nations, Where there are human rights allegations. We’re not perfect, but if you think we’re the worst, First take a look at the rest of the Earth. Don’t pick and choose, to pick on the Jews, Pick up the paper and read the news.
The musician was commissioned by Here Is Israel, a new pro-Israel campus advocacy group, to write and perform the song.
“It’s not to say that Israel is always right — I definitely criticize when I disagree — but I don’t think a boycott of the whole country is honest,” Lesser told The Times of Israel. “Really, you see if you’re not willing to boycott every major country — and minor country — in the world, then BDS is anti-Semitism, or anti-Israelism, or whatever.”
I appreciate Hillel Halkin’s passionate response to a cartoon that supports the boycott of Israel, promotes anti-Semitism, and advocates a viewpoint that he insists must not be permitted in a Jewish newspaper.
Unfortunately, that is not the cartoon I drew.
My cartoon pilloried the absurdity and intellectual vacuity of hasbara, the public relations effort by Israel and its supporters to disseminate the Israeli point of view. It was a satire of chauvinistic Jewish discourse on the issue of Israel in light of the recent uproar against Stephen Hawking, and it made no comment either for or against what Halkin calls “the Israel boycott movement.”
To be sure, Halkin alludes to the actual content of my cartoon in order to summarily dismiss it, insisting that the most jingoistic critiques of Hawking — particularly of the “He Should Discard His Israeli-Made Intel Voice Chip” variety — were fringe and marginal. Hillel Halkin’s claim is not supported by fact. But having made this claim, he goes on to insist that my cartoon can only be read as a championing of boycotts. “It is a pro-boycott cartoon,” Halkin concludes about a satire of contemporary Jewish debate.
If Halkin would prefer to discuss the boycott movement rather than a cartoon about hasbara, he might be surprised to learn that I am not an advocate of boycotting Israel for the same reason that I am not an advocate of censoring items from Jewish newspapers based on ideological filters. I have faith in open discourse, I have confidence in the capacity of people to reason and grapple with opinions they might not agree with, and I feel that when we start outlawing the free exchange of ideas, we sacrifice much more than a single cultural exchange or cartoon.
British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking waded into the Israel debate last week by announcing his decision to boycott an academic conference. Eli Valley, the Forward’s artist in residence, offers his own unique graphic take on the controversy.
Got wheels, Mr. Hawking?
As it transpired, the brouhaha surrounding Brooklyn College’s BDS event was a good deal of hullabaloo over not a lot. Roughly 300 people turned up to listen to Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti speak about the need to boycott and divest from Israel, while outside the hall 150 protested either in favour of or against the event and the movement. In the end, those proposing that the event be shut down were made to look rather foolish.
Far better, perhaps, that Alan Dershowitz and others sought to negate their right to speak redirect their efforts and energies into cautioning against BDS’ even tacit acceptance by those liberal Zionists who earnestly wish to see the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the coming about of two states for two peoples. BDS, it has become apparent, has no interest in this – indeed, as a movement and an idea, it is fundamentally incompatible with Zionism.
That much is evident from its manifesto. For, in addition to advocating an end to the occupation, the dismantling of the Security Barrier, and the recognition of full rights for Arab Israelis, BDS demands “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” At present, there are five million Palestinians – one third residing in villages and camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding states – who are refugees according to the UNWRA standard.
Setting aside the impracticality of the proposition — would the Israeli authorities evict Jewish families from their homes in Haifa and Yafo? — permitting the influx of that many Palestinian exiles would only serve to undo and end the Zionist project. Instead of there being one Jewish and one Arab state between the river and the sea, there would instead be two Arab-majority states, and with time, one state. As such, and as Yair Rosenberg has argued, the right of return and BDS is “antithetical to the two-state solution, the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepted by majorities on both sides and the international community.”
In his latest column, Philologos correctly parses the linguistic problems with Yitzhak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg’s invented term, “Jew-washing.” His political analysis, alas, fails miserably.
Philologos has it completely wrong when he speaks of the “anti-Semitism in boycotts of Israel.” To begin with, Santis and Steinberg did not use the term “Jew-washing” in reference to a boycott of Israel as a whole, but rather to a resolution recently brought to the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that called for divestment of their pension funds from three specific companies that profit from Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank.
Regardless, it is highly disingenuous for Philologos to accuse the Presbyterian Church of anti-Semitism. Our Christian friends’ response to the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), reflects their deeply held commitment to justice in a land their tradition also considers holy.
While I am not a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, I can’t help but be pulled into the controversy surrounding a prized neighborhood institution as it debates whether or not to take a position on boycotting Israeli food products. The coop will vote on March 27th on whether or not to hold a referendum for the coop to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement. What I don’t understand is: What is the goal of the organizers of this effort? If their goal is to end Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, then this is the wrong way to go about it. If the goal is delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state, then full speed ahead.
For months now, I have been dissecting communications and articles by BDS activists, for a range of reasons, both personal and professional. In one case, I was helping a friend to decide whether or not to perform in Israel. That’s why I found myself going through literally dozens and dozens of Facebook posts imploring him not to frequent Israel, posted by BDS activists all apparently reading from the same hymnal.
It was an illuminating exercise. I discovered that many of the emails were orchestrated from activists in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, much less so from the Palestinian Authority areas (which I usually call Palestine), and a good amount from inside Israel from Israeli Jewish BDS activists. The language was almost uniformly against “Israeli apartheid,” and never once against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the onerous conditions still partly the domain of Israel regarding border crossing and closures in Gaza. In fact, there was almost zero distinction between the occupied territories and what I consider to be Israel proper (as does much of the world’s powers), Israel within the 1967 borders more or less.
There is a reason for this. BDS’s prime motivation, if their messaging is to be believed, is not to end the occupation at all; rather, it is to end Israel. This plays directly into the very hands of those who are maintaining the occupation and who have an interest, even, in strengthening the occupation.
The first national conference of the BDS movement, going on now at the University of Pennsylvania, has certainly riled up people on all sides of this controversial topic, as our Naomi Zeveloff reports here.
Let’s put aside for a moment whether this movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel is about undoing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory or eliminating Israel as a Jewish state. (I fear the latter). But one thing ought to be clear: If our adherence to the principle of free speech means that Penn was right to allow the conference to take place — and I think the university was right — then the conference organizers ought to treat all members of the media equally.
It’s not for PennBDS, or any other self-appointed arbiter, to decide who gets to cover a newsworthy event. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Jewish Exponent, the newspaper covering the Jewish community in the Philadelphia area.
We recently ran a symposium on our op-ed pages gathering together various opinions on what will happen in September when the Palestinians ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state. Even though there was quite a range of opinion — from condemnation to encouragement — I was surprised to find that the overall tone of all the contributions was gloomy. Even Maen Areikat, the PLO’s representative to the United States, characterized the move as a “last resort” — a far cry from the excitement I would expect to accompany the birth of one’s nation.
Now it seems even the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, that international web of activists that works to advance the goals of a committee of Palestinian civil society organizations, sees no real positive gain from UN-approved statehood.
The BDS National Committee issued a statement earlier this week reiterating their position on the unilateral UN push. Basically it boils down to seeing it as a nice gesture, but hardly making a dent in achieving their goals (goals, I should add, that they always leave purposefully vague — a clear desire for a one-state solution, which they never state explicitly but hides just under the cover of asking Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law). The new statement actually makes this stance much more explicit. They are not satisfied with Palestinian statehood, since that would not take into the account all the Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza. They should be allowed to return to their pre-1948 homes. This, of course, as everyone knows, means death by demography for the Jewish state.
I’m still reeling from the news yesterday that the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just Israelis on the left that are outraged by this. In this morning’s Maariv, Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most prominent and influential columnists, tears into the new law, expressing much anguish — you can read the original Hebrew or a translation. He is not, by any stretch, sympathetic to boycotts, which he calls “childish” and “fairly silly.” Caspit was in fact the first Israeli journalist to publicize the findings of the right-wing group Im Tirzu, which painted an ominous picture of the human rights NGOs operating in Israel. This is no knee-jerk leftie. He’s just shocked about what happened yesterday:
The idea of a boycott law was not born in sin, but the baby itself yesterday emerged into the world as a bad thing. Yes, I too think that Israeli companies that won tenders to build in the Palestinian city of Rawabi on condition that they boycott the settlements should suffer from government sanctions. The government has the tools to do this. And I also think that theaters that receive government funding cannot boycott Ariel. In this matter too, there are tools to handle this. But when this law is also applied to private people, and when the determination as to “what is a boycott” is taken away from the court and given to bureaucrats, and when private citizens can be convicted for voicing their opinion, based on the determination of those bureaucrats and also to sentence them to pay compensation even without proving damage, this is fascism. This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people’s mouths. This is a thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging.
Even if you don’t agree with the aims of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, there is great reason to be concerned about what is transpiring in the Israeli parliament at this moment (for Hebrew speakers, live proceedings can be seen here). Debate is underway over a bill that would impose harsh punishment and financial fines on anyone engaged in the nonviolent protest tactic of boycotting, directly or indirectly, Israeli goods or institutions (even if the boycott is not successful).
This is an odious law for the ways in which it chills free speech in Israel — if democracy’s greatest test is its ability to allow the harshest criticism, whether the flag burners or the boycotters, Israel will be failing if it passes this law.
But what makes it even worse is that it purposefully conflates protest against the occupation with protest against Israel. The text of the bill, courtesy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, defines a “a boycott against the State of Israel” in the following way: “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.” (emphasis mine)