My Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) column elicited a generous and heartfelt response from Dr. Joel Berman (Sunday Monitor Forum, May 31). I don’t agree with Dr. Berman on many points but I’m sympathetic to the opinions he expressed. His response demonstrates that respectful dialogue can happen between well-meaning people.
I believe that opposing Israeli government policy doesn’t equate with being anti-Semitic – or anti-Israel, whether in Concord, Ramallah or Jerusalem. Indeed, one can be even be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic – the phenomena of conflating Judaism with political Zionism, particularly by the current Israeli regime, serves neither Israel nor advances justice.
The tension expressed by Dr. Berman, tethered between his love for Israel, his support for his community and his commitment to social justice seems clear, and while I’m sympathetic to those who view BDS with suspicion, the reality of Israel’s continued occupation can no longer be ignored.
Let me address some of the issues raised: The number of illegal West Bank colonies is not 120 but approximately 220 if one includes “outposts” permitted by the Israeli government. There are also 14 East Jerusalem “settlements.” By January 2015, there were 389,250 Israelis resident in the West Bank and 375,000 Israelis in East Jerusalem (Israeli Interior Ministry).
That means an alien population of about 765,000 Israelis controlling approximately 42 percent of Palestinian territory – not including all the IDF-controlled land (including most of the Jordan Valley) from which Palestinians have been evicted. Limited access roads used exclusively by Israelis further tighten Israel’s dominion over the Palestinians.
Israel’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies estimates that 20 percent of all Israelis live at or below the poverty line, while in East Jerusalem 75 percent of the Arab population lives below the poverty line and are poorly served by an inequitable distribution of services within what Israel presents as a united capital (Association for Civil Rights in Israel).
In 2005, after two Intifadas (uprisings) and after many years during which Palestinians were challenged, “Why don’t you have a nonviolent response to occupation,” an indigenous call to BDS, unconnected to any previous movements, emerged through Palestinian civil society.
The three-part call urges BDS against Israel until it meets its international obligations by:
“1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
“2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
“3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
These are challenging and perhaps uncomfortable concepts to many, but they are rights to which Palestinians are entitled and form a basis for negotiation and settlement to which all parties should aspire.
This Palestinian movement is legitimate. nonviolent resistance to occupation. It’s supported by an international secular and religious coalition of people of conscience; activists, artists, academics, intellectuals and organizations that represent a wide range of positions.
“We are on the side of people in Palestine and Israel – Jews, Muslims and Christians – who are seeking nonviolent means of resolving this conflict,” said the Rev. John Wagner, convener of the United Methodist Kairos Response.
Activist Palestinian Omar Barghouti says that the movement is “neutral” on a one-state or two-state solution. Even if some BDSers advocate for one state, it doesn’t delegitimize the movement just as the inclusion of Greater Israel one-staters in Netanyahu’s cabinet doesn’t delegitimize Israel.
The Kairos documents should not be conflated with the 2005 BDS call. Kairos (Palestine and USA) are not calls to BDS – they are pluralistic Christian calls to conscience that include BDS support. However one interprets them theologically, they are not determinative BDS documents.
That said I, together with Dr. Berman, urge “readers to inform themselves about the various manifestations of BDS before taking a position” – and to inform themselves about Israel’s annexation, occupation, colonization and human rights policies.
When one considers BDS one cannot ignore the conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live: the Separation Wall; the uprooting of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of olive trees; the inequitable distribution of Palestinian water between Palestinian villages and Israeli colonies (West Bank and East Jerusalem colonists use approximately six times more water than the entire Palestinian West Bank population of 2.7 million); restrictions on Palestinian building permits and house demolitions; and an American tax code that gives credits to Americans who contribute to the appropriation of Palestinian land. All highlight the humiliating circumstances Palestinians daily endure.
BDS is legitimate political expression. Grape and lettuce boycotts, civil rights and voting rights boycotts and political activism produced results. BDS against South Africa produced regime change and boycotts, and sanctions against Iran brought that country to the negotiating table.
While circumstances are different, the same moral authority exists against Israel as it did against South Africa, and arguments like those of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who insists, “BDS is an attack on the very legitimacy of the state of Israel, and it’s not simply a strategy or a tactic,” serve only to legitimize Israel’s colonial occupation while simultaneously attempting to delegitimize its critics.
We do not judge a movement on whether its membership is pure. The legitimacy of BDS is not blackened because some anti-Semites might join it. Political action is chosen on the basis of whether objectives are just and advance the cause of protecting the occupied against the occupier. Christianity is not less Christian because of the KKK, Judaism not less Jewish because of the Kahanists, Islam not less Muslim because of Daesh.
I reject the suggestion that some religious organizations or other BDS supporters are allowing themselves to be used as a “ ‘Trojan horse’ for those who work for Israel’s destruction,” and I certainly don’t think that such groups – from the American Friends Service Committee to our brothers and sisters at UCC – are complicit in a conspiracy to delegitimize Israel.
University of California-Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, a board member of Jewish Voices for Peace, says: “What might be most important is to conceive of the struggle for Palestinian political self-determination as part of a history of anti-colonial struggles. . . . We also have to make sure that anti-Semitism, state racism and Islamophobia play no part in the resistance movement or its proposed scenarios for resolution.”
Certainly anti-Semitism exists, but it’s important to note that it, a primarily Christian and Western phenomena that has been embraced in other parts of the world, including the Arab World, existed well before BDS. This nonviolent movement, as against South Africa, is not meant to eliminate Israel – it’s meant to change Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians.
I believe that most Israelis and their supporters – even if they believe peace with the Palestinians is unrealizable at this time – know that Israel is committing an injustice by denying the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for independence and freedom. Sadly, Israel’s BDS response is not to acknowledge the unjust circumstances under which Palestinians live but to try to mobilize international opinion by invoking anti-Semitism.
The road to peace in the Middle East still passes through Jerusalem, East and West. As long as the Palestinian-Israeli crisis persists, its existence will continue to be a factor fueling regional conflict – conflict often defined by insurgents, terrorists and resistance fighters alike as a fight against imperialism and occupation.
In America the Methodist and Presbyterian churches have voted for limited BDS, and this year the Episcopal and UCC churches will consider similar action. Such resolutions do not pass quickly or easily: Church members often vote with heavy hearts realizing that local interfaith dialogue may be jeopardized by supporting limited BDS – as has happened in New Hampshire – but the move toward justice for the Palestinian people, while late, is inexorable, and Israel and its supporters must choose on what side of the arc of justice they stand.
If limited BDS fails to advance justice and an equitable solution acceptable to Palestinians, then international calls for a total boycott of Israel will gain momentum – as against South Africa – with perhaps catastrophic consequences. Israel will be forced to choose whether to be the democratic State of Israel within safe and secure borders or an international pariah, a denier of human rights oppressing millions of Palestinians in violation of international law.
Dr. Berman’s response helps lead us on a straight path toward mutual understanding through respect and shared values. While we don’t always agree, it’s an approach others would do well to emulate.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.