The Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement
In January the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank, issued a report describing BDS as part of a campaign "to demonize Israel." The movement has had limited "practical success," the Reut study said, but it has been "highly successful in generating publicity and in mobilizing anti-Israel activism, in effect uniting anti-Zionists with critics of specific Israeli policies." The risk, Reut went on, was to Israel's image: "that such campaigns will create an equivalency between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa that penetrates the mainstream of public and political consciousness."
This fear was echoed by Asher Fredman, a commentator on the website of the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot, who described the BDS movement as a "soft war" against Israel. "The point that must be internalized is that the soft war constitutes not simply a nuisance or even an economic threat," Fredman warned. "It is a process that could play a major role in shaping the future status quo between Israel and the Palestinians."
Many American Jewish community groups have taken action against the movement on a similar basis. The delegitimization worry has generated some surprising alliances between liberal Zionist groups and right-wing hawks. BDS supporters counter that it is Israel's actions, not the protest, that are delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the public. Ali Abunimah, author, activist and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, said at the Hampshire BDS conference, "Israel's self-image as a liberal Jewish and democratic state is impossible to maintain against the reality of a militarized, ultranationalist, sectarian Jewish settler colony that has to carry out regular massacres of indigenous civilians in order to maintain its control. Zionism simply cannot bomb, kidnap, assassinate, expel, demolish, settle and lie its way to legitimacy and acceptance."
Some liberal Jewish organizations and individuals have adopted a now-is-not-the-time policy. Naomi Paiss of the New Israel Fund says she respects colleagues who do not buy goods made in the territories, but she believes an "official" boycott of companies in the territories would be impossible to implement, given that major Israeli companies and the Israeli government itself are involved. "We think it's a delegitimizing tactic, inflammatory, won't end the occupation and isn't productive," she e-mailed. Cora Weiss, a longtime liberal leader who championed Hampshire's South Africa divestment initiative in the 1970s, when she was on the board, says BDS is too broad-brush. "César Chávez led a focused boycott—grapes—and for several years no one ate grapes," she recalls. "That had an impact."
Americans for Peace Now has also criticized BDS as being counterproductive and even anti-Semitic. The longtime peace group said in a recent statement that the campaign creates a "circle the wagons" reaction in the Jewish community:
Such a response is understandable, since much of the pressure for such campaigns comes from historically virulently anti-Israel sources that are often not interested in Israeli security concerns or Palestinian behavior. This in turn creates very real and understandable worries about global anti-Semitism and the perception that the campaigns are not truly (or only) about Israeli policies but rather reflect a deep-seated hatred for and rejection of Israel.
Parts of this ad hoc coalition went into action during the Berkeley divestment debate. J Street, the new alternative Israel lobby, joined forces with such right-wing groups as the Anti-Defamation League, the David Project and StandWithUs\SF to decry the original Berkeley senate bill. The issue is "complex," the coalition warned, and that "complexity should be reflected in the dialogue on campus rather than singling out one side or another for condemnation and punishment."
According to the Jewish Daily Forward, Berkeley Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, "coordinated a comprehensive national lobbying campaign consisting of a teach-in, face-to-face meetings with student senators and an intervention by a Nobel laureate [Elie Wiesel], all aimed at robbing the divestment supporters of three senate votes." Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Berkeley Hillel's newly installed executive director, said the strategy was devised at a roundtable convened by Hillel and attended by representatives of local branches of J Street, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Jewish Community Relations Council, as well as local rabbis and Israel's consul general in San Francisco. This strategy included circulating antidivestment talking points that urged students to reframe the debate as an attack on the Jewish community and to avoid talking about the particulars of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
But Jewish organizations face insurgent generational forces over the issue. Some students in J Street's college organizations quietly support BDS as a nonviolent means of doing something to end the oppression of Palestinians. This tension was even on display at J Street's organizing conference in October. During a student workshop called "Reckoning With the Radical Left on Campus: Alternatives to Boycotts and Divestments," there was reportedly considerable interest in divestment campaigns targeting the occupation. At the same time, "J Street U," the student branch of J Street, is officially opposed to divestment and has begun an "Invest, Don't Divest" campaign, which encourages students to "Invest $2 for 2 States" as an alternative to BDS activities on campus.
By opposing direct action, the older generation is arguing that government must take the lead through a peace process that so far has resulted in little more than further Israeli colonization. "I find boycotts kind of distasteful. It's a little bit like collective punishment," says Ralph Seliger, long associated with Meretz USA, a left Zionist organization. "That probably wouldn't be very emotionally satisfying to someone who was upset about the issue. But I think it's part of growing up to understand that the world is not here to give you emotional satisfaction, and in this issue there is both complexity and perplexity, and you need to learn as much as you can, and be receptive to all sides, and be discerning."