Liberal Zionists vs BDS
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
The international movement for Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions on Israel (BDS) is causing quite a stir in its tenth year. Using tactics learned from the struggle against South African apartheid, BDS demands 1) an end to the Occupation, 2) the right of return of Palestinians outside of Israel, and 3) full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Conservative Americans and Israelis are trying to silence BDS. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a war against it. The Israeli Justice Ministry is preparing to launch international lawsuits against those who support it. American billionaire Sheldon Adelson has convened a secret summit against it. The US Congress is working on a bill to criminalize it.
Liberals are also joining the battle against BDS. The editors of the liberal Jewish US newspaper, The Forward, suggest that the left should join together to defeat BDS. The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” political action committee, J-Street, says it merely ”opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but it “strongly opposes” BDS. The editors of Israel’s liberal newspaper, Haaretz, often express opposition to BDS (1, 2, 3). Even the outspoken critic of Israel, Norman Finkelstein, has criticized BDS as a cult.
In Israel and the US, the huge Jewish right-wing is made up of racist white Jewish-supremacists who are proud colonizers. On the far left, there is a much smaller group that seeks equal rights for Palestinians and supports movements like BDS. Between these extremes is a substantial “liberal Zionist” constituency that supposedly wants peace and an end to Occupation, but doesn’t really want to rock the boat.
Zionists of all stripes want Israel to be Jewish-controlled, but liberal Zionists want that control to be somehow benevolent. Right-wing Zionists don’t care about benevolence, and don’t pretend, like liberals do, that they are willing to give up much of anything for peace or justice. Liberal Zionists, like liberal Americans, don’t want their country bombing or occupying anyone, but they really have no interest in giving up any privileges to achieve that.
In recent years, Netanyahu’s brutal attacks and racist campaign rhetoric have eroded support for this middle ground. Amidst a backdrop of images of Israel’s ugly campaign of ethnic cleansing, their dream of a peaceful, democratic, yet still racially-defined state, is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to visualize.
Liberals Zionists supposedly agree on one of the BDS demands: an end to Occupation. BDS’s other two demands — full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and especially Palestinian right of return — make the liberals nervous. Those who aren’t ok with having the Palestinians who were kicked out of their homes (and their descendants) move home, are not willing to make the fundamental changes needed to achieve justice.
Liberal Zionists must understand that the question of Israeli ‘democracy’ hinges on these other two demands, but they also fear an Israel in which white-looking Jews don’t have extra special rights and access. The dream of a third option appeals to those who want to end the Occupation without giving up any of their privileges. However, for BDS supporters, an end to the Occupation that still includes legal inequality means little more than a nicer-looking apartheid.
To bring pressure on Israel, BDS organizes non-violent economic, academic, government, and cultural campaigns. If liberals agree with BDS about a need to end the Occupation through non-violent tactics, yet they reject BDS tactics, what tactics are left — just voting? Liberals characterize boycotts and confrontational tactics as too ‘alienating,’ and resent their radical counterparts for not adopting more polite and obedient tactics (as if those ever work). So, liberals find themselves confronting BDS on behalf of the racist status quo. They are reminiscent of liberals and churches in the 60s that claimed to oppose racial injustice, but had nothing but criticism for MLK’s movement.
J-Street lobbies politicians but, so far, has had little effect. US and Israeli politicians almost unanimously support Occupation. There are differences between conservative and centrist politicians in the US and Israel on the issue of new settlements, but when it comes to dismantling the existing settlements and ending the Occupation, no mainstream politicians are even talking about that.
The main pillar of the Zionist left has long been the ‘two-state solution.’ Progressive folks get yelled at if they criticize or question the two-state solution, despite the fact that nothing is being done by either side to work towards such a solution. At some point, and for some people, perhaps, the ‘two-state solution’ meant two states equal and free of each other’s control. If so, the term was later co-opted. Now it signifies an illegally nuclear-armed Israel on the one side, and on the other, a bunch of non-contiguous enclaves (read “bantustans”) called Palestine, with massive Israeli military checkpoints between them. Israel would control the airspace and borders of this Palestine, which would be demilitarized, and apparently, would have to affirm that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Those who push for this type of two-state solution are akin to various groups throughout the twentieth century who supported apartheid, separate and unequal segregation, or the transfer of indigenous onto reservations.
The Zionist left and right are united in their deep dislike of BDS. For them, BDS is even more exasperating than Hamas rockets, because it’s harder to play the victim when all you’re up against is a nonviolent human rights movement. Liberal Zionists seem more concerned with defeating BDS than defeating the Occupation itself.
by Nick Cooper