There’s so much to unpack about former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s recent forays into generating book publicity. Many people have noted that the former scholar keeps getting things wrong and stepping on toes. Oren relies on everything from “bong-hit psychoanalysis,” as my friend Matt Duss brilliantly put it, about Barack Obama’s family history with Muslims to encounters with The New York Times that didn’t quite go down like he says. It is, as Duss wrote of one such play, “not analysis, but an ideological argument.” Even Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman—who shouldn’t be taken seriously on account of his own bigotries, but is nonetheless a marker of a certain brand of fiercely pro-Israel activism—thinks Oren’s gone too far. All this to make a not very persuasive case that Obama set out to damage the US-Israel relationship.
I’m not as interested, however, in all of that, per se, as I am in what the shitstorm Oren stirred up says about Israeli politics in America. The dynamics of these politics are shifting, and Oren’s rants shed a clarifying light on the changes. No one really disputes what’s going on—liberals and Democrats are, as evidenced by a series of flaps large and small, becoming disillusioned with Israel—but different voices attribute the roots of these shifts to different parties. For the pro-Israel right, there seems little question that the shifts emanate from a concerted campaign. I’m talking, of course, about the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, known by its initials, BDS.
The contradictions of blaming—or crediting, depending on your perspective—BDS speak for themselves. Pro-Israel forces constantly deride BDS as a fringe movement with no major victories or chances of success, and yet pro-Israel groups and individuals spend an inordinate amount of time inveighing against the movement. In a sense, they’re right on both counts: BDS has had limited successes, but the campaign is clearly gaining steam. And it does represent a threat to the established order of Israeli politics here: By shifting the debate to one about rights, and taking a nonviolent tack at addressing the deficits of those rights for Palestinians in territories controlled by Israel, BDS puts a tough choice to American pro-Israel liberals, those who adhere to a notion of “liberal Zionism.” (For a progressive Israeli take on that term, listen to my friend Noam Sheizaf’s remarks at the liberal J Street conference.)
Some of these liberal Zionists tend to lash out at BDS the same way the right does. Just last week, Rutgers historian and media-studies professor David Greenberg released a review in Democracy of a new anti-BDS book. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn Greenberg thinks BDS is anti-Semitic and a malicious campaign to delegitimize Israel. You should read the review for yourself, but for our purposes it suffices to say that Greenberg positions himself as a liberal defender against BDS while also mentioning, at least in passing, that liberal Zionism is under assault from the “chauvinistic pro-Israel right.” That seems fair enough, but there’s a legitimate question here about what side the liberal pro-Israel position is really under attack from: Is it BDS, which comes in for so much liberal-Zionist criticism, or right-wing Israeli leaders and pro-Israel ideologues, who come in for much less, that is undermining the tenability of liberal Zionism?