The Israeli state’s long slide into the magnification of all of its worst features has become a downhill slalom of late. Granted, the militant nationalist Zionism that underlies the state was born in injustice and bad decisions and is founded on a betrayal of both Jewish tradition and the lessons of Jewish history, but of late the situation has become so horrific that it is difficult to even talk about.
In recent years the Israeli government has declared that Jews alone have a right to self-determination in Israel and demoted Arabic from being an official language; aggressively continued moving Jews into the Occupied Territories as settlers while displacing Palestinians; implicitly or explicitly allowed Jewish settler violence against Palestinians, their farms, and their water sources; killed and jailed scores of Palestinians including children; made a legal distinction between the rape of a Jewish woman by a Jewish man and a Palestinian man (the latter carries the penalty of a terrorist act), and continued to countenance millions of Palestinians living in sealed off, poverty soaked, under-resourced, and policed ghettoes. In the last two days I read of allegations that Israeli police branded a Palestinian in custody on the face with a Star of David and saw footage of Jewish settlers, women and men, standing in a street to block the passage of a Palestinian ambulance.
The Kahanist (Jewish Supremacist) bloc which is now part of the ruling government of Israel, is composed of, or allied with, settlers with extreme, genocidal aspirations. I have recently seen video of a mother allied with this movement joyfully encouraging genocidal sentiments among her young children, as well as footage of other children raised by these people singing songs about killing Arabs. It is not just Arabs, whose existence is a symbol of everything which obstructs the Jewish purity of Israel, but also Christians, another symbolic enemy, who are being attacked. In recent months an Israeli journalist went “under cover” as a priest and was spat on in the street by Orthodox Jews. Video surfaced of a Christian monk being told to remove his cross by an Israeli soldier because it was offensive to the Jewishness of the city; there have been numerous incidents of Jewish settlers engaging in hate speech, violence and thuggery against Christians.
This is why after years of being on the edge, I am finally, belatedly, embracing the BDS movement, an international nonviolent movement which has aimed, for the last eighteen years, to apply the methods used against South African apartheid against Israeli apartheid. I have spent years defending those who do support BDS against scurrilous charges of antisemitism or deception about the nature of Israeli human rights abuses, without myself getting on board. Yet at this point I feel that all people of conscience, and all Jews who hold best values of our tradition in their hearts, should do so as well.
Here is why.
As I understand it, the BDS (Boycot, Divest and Sanction) movement is predicated on two things.
#1: the status quo for Palestinians in Israel is intolerable, and extreme pressure must be brought to bear both on the on the government and the relatively privileged members of the state (Israeli Jews) to change things.
#2: Palestinian civil society has requested internationals to show solidarity through BDS. BDS is a nonviolent movement founded by Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti (winner of the Gandhi Peace Award) and other Palestinian activists which is an alternative to the violent resistance of the Israeli state practiced by many Palestinian militants over the last several decades.
The origin of BDS among Palestinians distinguishes it from, for example, a call by a Canadian activist to boycott China, or Nike, or Myanmar. In this case, the victims themselves- Palestinians, are calling for BDS of Israel.
Why I Have Not Embraced BDS Before
In the Jewish community BDS is largely considered outside the bounds of acceptable discourse and action. In Vancouver where I live there is, as far as I know, only one Jewish Institution willing to openly rent space to Jewish organizations who promote it like IJV, the Peretz Centre for Secular Judaism. There is one more- Or Shalom Synagogue, where I worked for four years, willing to seriously allow BDS supporters and anti-Zionists (usually, if not always, an overlapping group) to engage in public community dialogue.
For the last three years I have worked as education director at Or Shalom, a role coming to an end this October due to downsizing in the organization. For the last few years I have felt that publicly embracing BDS would be a self-defeating obstacle to teaching and leading dialogues about the realties of the Israeli state and the history of Zionism within a Jewish institutional context. Now that I am moving away from a role as institutionally embedded Jewish educator, I don’t think that’s the case any longer.
I also want to give internal pressure it’s due. For some time I have in fact practiced an informal type of BDS- I have not attended Israeli Independence Day celebrations or collaborated in any form of celebration of the Israeli state, and when I have taught or spoken about Israeli it has solely been from a place of critique. Yet the situation now, which I feel is every bit as dire as that of Apartheid South Africa, and bears comparison with the most egregious human rights violations in human history, makes any form of collaboration or interaction with the Israeli state ethically intolerable.
On the Jewish calendar, we are now in the month of Elul, traditionally a time for confronting our own wrongdoings and reckoning with what we need to change. What could be more pressing for the global Jewish community than reckoning with the failure of Zionism and standing up to the evils perpetrated by the Israeli state, Kahanism, and Jewish supremacist settlers in our name?