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A Discussion with J Street (Part I): BDS, the Boycott Law

This piece is the first part of a series of articles exploring the relationship of American Jews with Israel, with a special focus on J Street. The remainder of the series will be published here in the coming days.

Earlier this week, the Knesset passed a law that made calling for boycotts against West Bank settlements a legal cause of action. Prior to the new law, the merits and goals of settlement boycotts and the broader Palestinan-led global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have become particularly divisive in Diaspora Jewish communities in recent years. Very few American Jews, however, have come out against the tactic of boycott itself. Doing so would be difficult as boycotts represent the successes of many of the last 70 years in American liberal causes.

Boycotts remain one of the most powerful tools in the hands of civil society when engaging in social struggle. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the 1960s Civil Rights era, to the César Chavez-led Grape Boycott in the 1980s, to the fall of South African Apartheid in the early 1990s, boycotts have played an integral role in many of the social changes of the last century.

On the sidelines of the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeremy Ben-Ami – founder and executive-director of J Street, the American “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby – about the merits of BDS and other boycotts relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

J Street has been hit with considerable criticism due to the inclusion of (Jewish) BDS proponents at its annual conference earlier this year. Notably, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson, who represented the lone voice defending BDS in a panel on the topic.

Despite its willingness to discuss it, J Street has consistently come out against the Palestinian-led BDS campaign. But in our conversation, Ben-Ami was much more ambiguous about boycotts against settlements from within Israel, led for years by individual Israelis and groups like Gush Shalom.

Ben-Ami’s problem with BDS is not its tactics but the fact that it does not support the two-state solution. (BDS doesn’t reject the two-state solution – or any solution – per se, but rather advocates human rights goals including the Palestinian right of return, which critics – this author included – say precludes a Jewish state.)

“J Street’s position is that the global BDS movement is not acknowledging Israel’s right to exist,” he says. One of J Street’s “red lines,” Ben-Ami explains, “is that people who are interested in ending this conflict need to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist and the right of the Jewish people to a national home.”

Probed about more targeted campaigns within Israel boycotting only settlement goods, Ben-Ami stopped short of endorsing such boycotts but accepted those organizations promoting them as "legitimate partners."

“If the principle of anyone, whatever their tactic is, [that] they accept the right of the State of Israel to exist, they accept its right to defend itself, and they understand we have to reach a border that the world recognizes, then I will accept them as a legitimate partner and [as] people that I can work with.”

But the issue of partnership is irrelevant; as an organization that supports the State of Israel, J Street itself is boycottable by the standards of BDS. What is relevant is recognizing that BDS has become an integral part of the Palestinian non-violent struggle against the occupation.

Ben-Ami added, “I don’t really care what their tactic is, it’s more important what the principles are that they stand for."

Contrary to Ben-Ami’s assertion, however, tactics are very relevant. In democracies, opposing principles are always welcomed and necessary for healthy debate. In struggling to advance those opposing principles, violence is forbidden. Boycotts, non-violent by nature, are considered a basic and fundamental channel for exercising free speech and engaging in political and social struggle.

While weekly protests in the West Bank rarely evoke images of Gandhi (they are unarmed but regularly employ low-level violence), the boycott is perhaps the most powerful non-violent tool the Palestinians have used in their struggle to date. By allowing the small power of an individual to effect large-scale change, the tactic of boycotting is one of the purest modern forms of democracy available to private citizens.

The new Boycott Law, it seems, may be pushing even J Street toward acknowledging the legitimacy of all boycotts, regardless of their "principles."

J Street on Tuesday put out an official statement condemning Israel’s new Boycott Law, calling it, “a clear and unabashed violation of the fundamental democratic precept of freedom of speech.”

The law, it continued, “is part of a disturbing anti-democratic trend that undermines its purported purpose by giving fodder to Israel’s critics and alienating many of its friends.”

The issue of Israel alienating its friends, specifically the United States and its Jewish population, was another theme of my conversation with Ben-Ami.

I asked Ben-Ami to address the importance of shared values in the US-Israel relationship and the danger posed to that relationship by a growing gap between the two countries’ values.

“The friendship and the natural strategic alliance with Israel and the United States is rooted in common interests and common values,” Ben-Ami said. “The extent to which some of those values and some of those interests start to be damaged by the policies that are pushed by this particular [Israeli] government, it’s obviously bound to have an impact on the relationship, and that’s a really terrible thing.”

“We’re a pro-Israel organization in the sense that we reflect the values and the ideals that as Jews we believe we all share and that we would like to see reflected in the national home of our people,” he said.

Legislation like the Nakba Law and inquiries into Israeli NGOs (and presumably the Boycott Law) pose a threat to Israel, Ben-Ami added, “If we hope to keep the bond between Israel and the United States strong, then those values need to continue to be defended and shared. If there’s a break in the values, then there’s going to be a difference growing in our relationship.” (Ben-Ami did note that the relationship between the US, American Jewry and Israel is deeper than shared democratic values alone.)

But the distance between the values of the United States and Israel hardly begins or ends with the Boycott and Nakba Laws. The occupation was and remains the catalyst inside American Jewry that led to the establishment and growth of groups like J Street in the first place.

In the eyes of many J Street supporters and liberals at large, the immorality of maintaining a military occupation over another people for over 44 years is the biggest threat to the ability of American Jews to continue supporting the Jewish state and its status as a democracy. As Ben-Ami has previously stated, the status quo of occupation is simply unsustainable.

What the J Street director and many other American Jews seem to miss, however, is that the Boycott Bill is only a minor symptom of the absolute entrenchment of the occupation in Israeli politics and society. The only reason that the new Boycott Bill has even garnered so much attention is that it brings to Israelis living inside the Green Line, the anti-democratic and ugly nature of a regime intent on perpetuating occupation. Ironically, that in itself may be advancing the goals of BDS.

The debate and outrage in Israel and the Diaspora over the new Boycott Law is a false controversy - the Boycott and Nakba laws are mere symptoms of a greater corrupting force, the occupation.

Unfortunately for those involved, exposing the continually growing rift in shared values will most likely drive American Jews and the United States away from Israel.

Follow Michael Omer-Man on Twitter: @ConflictedLand

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