“My contention is that being able to depart from those communitarian moorings as they have been historically formed is a difficult and necessary struggle and that some aspects of Jewish ethics require us to depart from a concern only with the vulnerability and fate of the Jewish people.” – Judith Butler, Parting Ways, 2012, p. 27.
Philip Mendes, in part of his letter published in the Australian Jewish News on May 30, called on the AJDS to demonstrate “loyalty” to his idea of the acceptable politics of the Jewish community and what he terms “Jewish concerns”. His letter exists as merely one instance in the flurry of writing and conversations that followed the AJDS’ launch of its ‘Don’t Buy Settlement Products’ campaign at Pesach this year. I write this response to him – as well as to others who share his perspective, or parts of it – as a member of the AJDS executive, but not on behalf of what is a diverse executive.
It seems that there has been a misunderstanding of our recent campaign calling on people to not buy products made in settlements built on Palestinian or Syrian land. To begin with, I must affirm that it makes no claim to being part of the official BDS movement. But yes, it certainly borrows a tactic from that movement. This is, after all, a tactic that is widely used in all manner of progressive campaigns: that of ethical purchasing. The basic idea is that one should spend ones money only on products that they deem to be ethical. In this way, businesses will receive a financial penalty for their actions, and will see an incentive in changing the way in which their business operates. It recognises that ethical or moral arguments sometimes do not work to force businesses to change their ways; instead we sometimes need to use the tools of capitalism on those who seek to benefit from its profits. To understand more about the campaign, and for an in-depth explanation of why settlements are disastrous, I encourage you to look at the campaign website.
That is the ‘B’: boycott. AJDS has never organised a campaign, which borrowed the tactics of either the ‘D’ (divestment) or the ‘S’ (sanctions). But while our campaign is not part of BDS as such, various people have continued to assert that it is. Repeating the claim, however, doesn’t make it true. And yet, in his letter, Mendes writes that if AJDS wants to be a part of the Jewish community, then AJDS needs to “issu[e] a clear statement rejecting both the core aims of the BDS movement, and stating their solidarity with Jewish community groups campaigning against the BDS agenda of eliminating Israel. If they can’t do that, then they are obviously excluding themselves.”
While affirming that the AJDS campaign is not BDS, I still refuse to be a part of something that rejects “the core aims of the BDS movement”. BDS is not an identity position or a set, homogenous ideology. There is no “BDS agenda of eliminating Israel.” It is a movement with incredibly broad support across Palestinian societies and which has specific political aims. It encourages people to use a set of tactics to bring light to those aims. The BDS has three aims (all of which I support):
“1. Ending [the] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
Without wanting to speak for them, it does seem that the leaders of the BDS campaign – who are Palestinian – make no claim for the elimination of Israel. It is only for those who assert that their aims are incompatible with Israel’s existence, that the Israel they want to exist must not allow these three aims to be realised, that Mendes’ formulation is true. And of course people who believe that will disagree with our campaign (which it must be remembered, addresses only the first demand of the BDS call): that is the effect of political differences, of having different ideas about how the world should be.
This though is where a fundamental misunderstanding occurs. BDS was started by Palestinians, and is led by Palestinians. People around the world who are not Palestinian have taken up its practices in acts of solidarity, but they are not its leaders. This fact is one of the prime reasons why BDS is not inherently antisemitic: it is a set of political tactics, to be used strategically, where appropriate and useful. It is a form of political speech, aimed at a nation-state. And there are many within Israel that also support this movement, , forming a “Boycott from Within” campaign.
When people assert that BDS is antisemitic because it unfairly focuses on Israel, I wonder why they are so keen for the focus not to be on Israel. Why not see this as an opportunity: the world wants Israel to be better! They want to work together to end the occupation and bring justice and peace! Why is this necessarily a bad focus? Moreover, what queue of atrocities or oppressions do they imagine exists, which means that Israel should not be discussed, and its actions protested, right now? If not now, when?
BDS is a set of tactics designed to bring attention to what the occupation does to Palestinians. And this is where there is wilful blindness, and a muddying of the discussion. People such as Mendes are outraged by what they see BDS doing to them, but don’t express the same outrage for what Israel does in their name. BDS makes them feel bad; it hurts their feelings, creates a sense of alienation. True, it does do those things. I take that emotional effect seriously. And yet. The occupation is brutal: It ends Palestinian lives, it is checkpoints, and tear gas, and guns. It is children being taken from their beds at night and land stolen. It is PTSD and bed-wetting, and other emotional effects. It is destroying not just the Palestinians who are occupied but also the Israelis who are carrying out the occupation. This is no secret: it is discussed daily in the Israeli media.
If only the people who wrote against BDS spent their time instead trying to end the occupation (or admitting that they have no problem with the occupation: this would be honest, and make clearer the terms of the discussion). At what cost should their desire for the expression of Jewish nationalism come?
In his letter, Mendes asserts that if we do not reject BDS we are excluding ourselves from the Jewish community. What a sad state of affairs, what a sad indictment of the poverty of Jewish thinking in our community, what a terrible misunderstanding of the richness of Jewish history and thought.
We have in our community diasporists, Bundists, anti-nationalists and religious Jews who have never seen a future for Jewishness or the conglomeration that we call the Jewish people expressed through a nation-state. There are also many Zionists whose vision of Zionism is not expressed in the limited ideas that Mendes promotes. Indeed, it was not so long ago that Zionism was a marginal political movement, that Jews saw themselves as belonging wherever they found themselves; that Jews found communal strength in the diversity of Jewish cultures. It was not that long ago – and for many of us it is still true – that Jews believed in the importance of being able to live equitably amongst people that were different to ourselves. Indeed, if we want to live in Australia, we rely on that having to be true.
But Mendes wants to create an imagined community where everyone has taken a loyalty oath to a particular version of Israel and where we disavow solidarity with Palestinians. I have no problem saying that I want nothing to do with the community that Mendes envisions, even though I know that there are many in Melbourne that share his vision. I have my own Jewish community, one which is shared with more people than Mendes thinks; and we are diverse, and we are vibrant. We are creating new Jewish cultures and ways of thinking and we are interacting with amazing Jewish histories. And we are fighting for justice alongside Palestinians and Israelis.