Growing Jewish support for boycott and the changing landscape of the BDS debate
A couple of weeks ago Jerusalem-based think-tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute, released the findings from its study “Jewish & Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry”. The key findings demonstrate a growing trend towards a concern for the current Zionist policies of the Jewish state from the core of its international supporters—Jews themselves. This reveals a more critical portrayal of Israel’s “implementation of Jewishness” than ever before, including a growing tension associated with the idea of a state that is both a “Jewish” and “democratic”. Participants of the study said that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and “the continued building of Jewish settlements”, as well as its treatment of minorities falls seriously short of behavior expected from a democracy. The Jewish-only settlements are of course not only frowned upon by a growing number in the Jewish community, but also considered illegal by a large majority of states (as most recently demonstrated in UN General Assembly Resolution 68/82). Although Israel and its chief ally the United States continue to contest this, even U.S. officials blame Israeli settlements for the collapse of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. There also appears to be an emerging consensus among government officials in Israel, Palestine, and the U.S., as well as among legal experts, that Israel and especially the Palestinian territories are in—or are rapidly heading towards—a situation of apartheid.
Unfortunately the extent of this new reality of Jewish criticism of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians that is taking hold appears largely unreported by mainstream media. One place where opposition to Israel’s policies finds concrete expression amongst Jews both within Israel and internationally is in a wide range of boycotts and divestments activities aimed at promoting legal equality and human rights in Israel-Palestine. Though not necessarily always explicitly linked to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, these activities do fall within the scope of the movement and help to advance its goals. The call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions came in 2005 from an unprecedented coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations including NGOs, unions, professional associations, religious groups, human rights organizations, refugee networks, youth, and cultural organizations. The BDS campaign has three goals: an end to the occupation of Arab lands occupied by Israel since 1967, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of Palestinian refugees displaced or expelled during conflict in the region to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. The BDS movement was launched on the one year anniversary of the landmark 2004 International Court of Justice case that found that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory is illegal under international law. In addition to the large majority of the world’s countries, a wide range of legal experts and Israeli and international NGOs concur on the illegality of the occupation.
In this article we explore the growing Jewish support for both the BDS movement and other civil society boycott activities which advance the human rights goals of the movement. While not all of the individuals and organizations we mention actively support every aspect of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, they represent a multi-faceted approach to applying international pressure on Israel to abide by international law and human rights treaties.
In the United States where debate over the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is heavy and heated, Jewish Voice for Peace, a coalition of Zionists, anti-Zionists, and non-Zionists, states clearly that it aligns itself with the methods as well as “the aims of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee– ending the occupation, achieving equality for Palestinians now living in Israel, and recognizing Palestinian refugees’ right of return.” Others in the U.S. who support the full goals and strategy of the BDS campaign include, both Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Rabbi Brian Walt, from the Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rabbinical Council. New York-based group, Jews Say No!, founded by Jewish boycott, divestment and sanctions advocate Donna Nevel, also takes a stance in full support of the BDS call. Other organizations include American Jews for a Just Peace, Breaking the Law of Return and the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, which “unequivocally” supports the movement.Jewish-American scholar and LGBT activist, Sarah Schulman has publicly declared her support for the BDS cause by advocating for the implementation of the boycott in its entirety. Udi Aloni, Israeli-American filmmaker also promotes BDS and the full goals of campaign. Similarly Jeremiah Haber (the nom de plume of Charles H. Manekin), an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor dividing his time between Israel and the United States, backs BDS.
Elsewhere in North America, Canadian group Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) has resolved to support the BDS call and urges the Canadian government to disengage from “its one-sided and uncritical support for Israel”. Naomi Klein, Jewish-Canadian journalist and author has likewise added her full backing to the BDS movement.
The UK group, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods claims solidarity with “any individuals or organizations who share our anti-racist agenda in pursuing the non-violent goals of BDS”. European Jews for a Just Peace also shares this support for the methods and goals of the campaign.
Australia-based Jews Against the Occupation also actively promote the BDS movement. Sydney-based Jewish academic Peter Slezak supports the BDS call, as does Jewish-Australian journalist and author Antony Loewenstein, who is highly critical of attempts to label the nonviolent movement anti-Semitic. The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network echoes these sentiments, declaring that BDS is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-democratic and that the international body “stands firm” in support of the full BDS call.
Even within Israel, prominent individuals and organizations have pledged their support to the BDS movement and its vision of equality for Arab citizens of Israel, recognition of the Palestinian right of return, and ending the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. The prominent group of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, BOYCOTT!, offers support for the Palestinian BDS call from within the Jewish state. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Alternative Information Center likewise fully support the movement. Israeli Journalist, writer, and founder of the Alternative Information Center, Michel Warschawski, actively promotes BDS and has reiterated the call to Israelis to “boycott from within”. Rachel Giora, Israeli feminist and professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University has also responded to the BDS call in a letter addressed to her colleagues at the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, expressing full support for the movement. Other Jewish-Israeli academics in support of the campaign include historian and activist Ilan Pappé, anthropologist Uri Davis, political scientist Marcelo Svirsky, and anthropologist Jeff Halper.
The most widely adopted mode of targeted support for BDS from within Israel and by Jewish individuals and organizations worldwide is a boycott of the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem). This can include a boycott of products manufactured or grown within the settlements, or businesses and academic institutions located in settlements or actively supporting their perpetuation.
Reasons for why a narrow settlement boycott is preferred over a broader BDS include that international law is less ambiguous regarding the illegality of settlements (as compared to the BDS goals of the right of return, or legal equality in Israel) and that it is easier to consistently boycott settlements (rather than boycott broader Israeli or international organizations involved in abuses of Palestinian human rights). However even among Zionists who still support legally mandated disadvantage for Israel’s non-Jewish ethno-religious groups (required for Israel to be fixed as a “Jewish state”), the settlement boycott is gaining ground. As noted above, a recent survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute appears to show a growing tension within the international Jewish community regarding the idea that Israel can be both fundamentally Jewish and a democracy. Zionist boycott supporters typically differ from other boycott supporters in that they contend that even with the legally entrenched dominance of one etho-religious group (ie Jews) the state of Israel is still able to function as a “democracy”. These groups typically argue that the realization of the third goal of the BDS movement, the Palestinian right of return, would spell an end to the demographic and political dominance of Jews in Israel. For similar reasons they are also less supportive of the BDS movement’s goal of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. These Zionist groups call for a more narrow boycott, of Israel’s Illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), in line with the first goal of the BDS movement. The rationale generally advanced by Zionists is that it is only with the end of the occupation of Palestinian territory that Israel can preserve both its Jewish and ostensibly “democratic” character.
Notably, in 2006 the Israeli peace activism group headed by Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, published “a list of several hundred products made in areas beyond the Green Line. The list, comprised of many food products, also included businesses operating in the Golan Heights.” In the face of the 2011 Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott passed by the Knesset, the group stated that it could no longer afford to continue publishing the list, for fear of the threat of lawsuits. The law would allow for lawsuits to be filed -without any proof of damages- against those who promote boycott tactics against people associated with the state of Israel or any “area under its control”. Gush Shalom appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court to rule the law as unconstitutional, and was joined by several other notable minority rights groups, including The Civil Rights Association, Yesh Din, Adalah, the Women’s Coalition for Peace, The Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, Knesset member Ahmed Tibi and The Arab Monitoring Committee. Israeli peace group Peace Now has published a similar list of settlement products and likewise calls for a boycott of the settlements. Israeli politician, Zahava Gal-On, head of the Meretz opposition party, has also publically declared that she boycotts the settlements in her own purchases and hopes that a boycott campaign on settlement goods would encourage Israelis to think critically about the “economic cost of the Occupation.” There are signs that the boycott of settlements among Israelis, has begun to cause manufacturers and producers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to “encounter obstacles” marketing goods “not just overseas, also in Tel Aviv”.
Support for a settlement boycott is also building among U.S. Jews. Distinguished Jewish-American jurist Richard Falk, as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, has recently formally recommended that UN member states and businesses and civil society impose sanctions and boycotts against Israeli settlements and international corporations supporting the occupation of Palestinian territory. Back in 2011, the American Liberal Zionist organization Partners for Progressive Israel (then Meretz U.S.A) issued a call to American Jews to boycott West Bank settlement goods through their campaign: “Buy Israel – Don’t buy Settlements”. Americans for Peace Now, describing themselves as a pro-Israel, pro-peace, American Jewish organization,echo this support. Similarly, even other Zionists, who ostensibly oppose the broader BDS campaign, do support a boycott of the settlements. Well-known American Liberal Zionist Peter Beinart for instance has repeatedly written in support of a settlements boycott in order to “save Israel”. Beinart advocates a targeted approach to boycotting West Bank settlements. Addressing American Jews, Beinart declared: “We should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel. We should push to end Internal Revenue Service policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to settler charities. Every time an American newspaper calls Israel a democracy, we should urge it to include the caveat: only within the green line”. Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of the influential liberal pro-Israel lobby group, J-Street also recently announced that if the BDS campaign were restricted to a boycott of the settlements J-Street would support it. Similarly, National President of Ameinu Kenneth Bob has declared that while he does not support the BDS movement he is “extremely sympathetic to the settlement boycott approach”. The New Israel Fund, through a statement their Vice President of Public Affairs from Naomi Paiss, has also shown support for the same type of targeted approach, stressing that “boycotting settlements is not anti-Israel”. After a visit to the West Bank, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann issued a statement reversing her initial opposition to the settlement boycott and claiming solidarity with Israeli rabbis who also support a boycott of settlement goods. Jewish-American political scientist and activist Norman Finkelstein supports an economic boycott of Israel in order to compel Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory (also see the start of an interview with Finkelstein posted here). Prominent linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky has also publicly spoken out in support of BDS as a tactic, saying: “There is an interesting mythology that I have opposed the BDS movement. In reality, as explained over and over, I not only support it but was actively involved long before the ‘movement’ took shape…” Chomsky specifically supports boycott and divestment from companies that operate in the occupied Palestinian territories and also promotes forms of academic and military boycott.
Among the Jewish Diaspora in Australia, Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at Sydney University has written in favor of a targeted boycott approach focused on the Jewish-only settlements. What’s more, The Australian Jewish Democratic Society “has become the first Australian community-affiliated Jewish organization to adopt the view that some boycotts of Israel may indeed be justified.” The group supports “selected BDS actions designed to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation, blockade and settlement on Palestinian lands lying outside of the June 1967 Israeli borders.” The organization resolves to boycott settlement products as well as “specific academics openly supportive of the Occupation”.
Support for BDS methods also takes the form of refusal to perform in the Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. In 2010, over 50 Israeli actors, directors, and playwrights released a statement declaring that they would not perform at the new theatre in Ariel, Israel’s fourth largest settlement, or in any other settlement. In a show of support for that petition over 150 Israeli academics and university faculty from across Israel released their own open letter, vowing to likewise engage in a cultural and academic boycott of the settlements. The Israeli academics declared: “We will not take part in any kind of cultural activity beyond the Green Line, take part in discussions and seminars, or lecture in any kind of academic setting in these settlements.” Signatories include Zeev Sternhell, Anat Biletzki, Shlomo Sand, Neve Gordon, Oren Yiftachel, among others. The declaration was also supported by several prominent Israeli authors, A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Sami Michael. A letter drafted by the authors, as well as by well-known Israeli memorial sculptor and Israel Prize laureate, Dani Karavan, expresses further solidarity with the actor’s boycott. Theodore Bikel, a Jewish American actor, has also been vocal in the settlement boycott also joined a separate petition for the boycott of the settlements, signed by over 150 Israeli entertainment professionals.
Another aspect of the BDS movement is the boycott of Israeli academic institutions: specifically, the withdrawal of support from Israeli academic institutions complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and the violation of Palestinian human rights. This movement draws on a growing body of evidence detailing academic institutions support for the occupation of Palestinian territory and violation of human rights (including education rights) through a variety of military and public relations oriented research and training activities. One such in-depth report was released by the Israeli Alternative Information Center in 2009. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was launched in 2004 to challenge the unethical policies of these institutions. However boycotts of Israeli academic institutions to promote Palestinian human rights also predate the PACBI call. In April 2002 a call “for a European Boycott of Research and Cultural Links with Israel” was signed by around 700 Europe-based academics, ten of which are Israeli academics from various universities. More recently, in 2013 in response to the PACBI call a group of Israeli, Palestinian and other oral historians and academics from Europe, South Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas issued an international call for the boycott of the “International Oral History Conference” organized by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In February this year, an international Jewish group, Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, published a list of signatories endorsing and supporting the American Studies Association academic boycott. Israeli and international Jews have likewise joined the boycott of the 2014 Cinema and TV Studies Conference held at Tel Aviv University. Jewish-American academic, Colin Dayan has also written in support of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as has Malcolm Levitt, professor at Southampton University and a fellow of the Royal Society in the UK. Levitt as well as Noam Chomsky joined a group of academics who successfully lobbied physicist Stephen Hawking to boycott the IsraeliPresidential Conference held in Jerusalem last year.
A number of Jewish and Israeli academics and organizations support BDS activities in forms other than the academic boycott (such as through a settlement boycott, support on the grounds of free speech, or in support of the full BDS Call), signifying that there other forms of boycott activity at play within the academic world. Two instances of this last year were Kings College and the University of Southampton in the UK dropping their contracts with security firm G4S, in response to the British security firm’s role in supporting the Israeli occupation and abuse of human rights.
Earlier this year human rights group Amnesty International published a report that recommended an international military boycott of Israel, citing the country’s “use of excessive force in the West Bank”. The conclusions of this report (and similar research efforts) lay out the rationale for the military boycott of Israel. One example of this is the movement within Israel in opposition to the military draft. In March of 2014, The Israeli youth group, Conscientious Objectors of the Occupation, released an open letter addressed to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu “declaring their refusal of compulsory service in the Israeli military” because of their opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Another boycott movement within the military sphere is the call for the disinvestment of international companies and organizations that are part of the Israeli military-industrial-complex (such as the efforts by Kings College and the University of Southampton noted above). This military boycott is often included within broader BDS policies. The Australian Jewish Democratic Society statement of support for targeted boycotts for example also advocates for “divestment from military Research and Development (R&D) and boycott of industrial/military activities unrelated to Israel’s defense and security.” Noam Chomsky has also called for an end to U.S. and other international military aid to Israel.
The status of the anti-boycott law opposed by Gush Shalom and other human rights groups in Israel is, as alluded to above, currently in legal in limbo through a challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court. Israeli human rights groups argue that the Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott aims to limit Israeli and Palestinian freedom of expression by threatening monetary sanctions on anyone who expressed support for the boycott of any Israeli organization or individual. Similar attempts to combat boycotts through legislation are also being made in the U.S.. In 2014 in a wave of right-wing reaction against the BDS movement several bills were proposed within state legislatures aimed at prohibiting academic institutions and individuals from engaging in boycotts of Israel. Following this a new flood of support has emerged both from within Israel as well as from Jewish supporters outside of Israel, advocating for the right of free speech in the face of these anti-BDS bills. The New Israel Fund, a U.S.-based group calling for social justice and equality for all Israelis, shows explicit support for the freedom of speech regarding BDS: “The New Israel Fund is committed to strengthening democracy in Israel, supports freedom of speech and promotes non-violent means of expression of belief and conscience. We oppose any attempt to criminalize the legitimate expression of support for any non-violent strategy or tactic, including those we do not ourselves support.” As noted above the New Israel Fund supports of boycott of the settlements, and they oppose the settlements outright, and as a matter of policy. Naomi Paiss, Vice President of Public Affairs for the New Israel Fund has also stated that her organization “will not disqualify organizations for funding if they support the boycott of settlement goods because we see it as entirely consistent with our opposition to the occupation, our defense of Israeli democracy and our support for a two-state solution.”
Elsewhere, in a letter opposing political censorship, over 150 U.S.-based academics, spearheaded by Jewish academic Judith Butler, and Rashid Khalidi, signed a statement condemning the “accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS.” Calling on support from cultural and educational institutions to uphold and support “the principles of free expression”, the authors point out that “as non-violent instruments to effect political change, boycotts cannot be outlawed without trampling on a constitutionally protected right to political speech.” Even Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, “pro-Israel” lobby organizations such as Israel-based NGO Monitor, and most of the mainstream press in Israel have stated they oppose efforts to stamp out BDS through the courts. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and other senior Jewish leaders in Australia have made clear they oppose attempts to suppress BDS through litigation, which they view as counter-productive. Elsewhere in Australia other pro-Israel organizations the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council have also refused to support anti-BDS efforts through the courts..
The growing support from Jews internationally for the BDS call and the boycott of Israel shows that the landscape of the debate around BDS and broader peace process in Israel-Palestine is shifting. Increasingly the question is no longer whether or not to boycott, but rather to what extent do we boycott? The emerging local and international constituency of Israeli Jews and the Jewish Diaspora, and their adoption and promotion of a range of methods that fall within the scope of the BDS campaign is significant. On the surface, this wide-ranging support of course reminds us of how non-sensical and futile it is to deploy classic anti-Semitic imagery in an attempt to delegitimize what is a growing international movement for human rights and legal equality. At a deeper level, however, this growing Jewish support is an indication that the spirit of the boycott call reflects a truly democratic vision that is shared by Jews internationally, a call that wants to see the preservation, not the demise, of a democratic Israel, an Israel that fairly represents all of its citizens, regardless of race or religion. Ignoring these efforts by Jewish organizations and individuals to promote democracy, human rights and a just peace in the Middle East is a dangerous mistake. Clearly in conflicts such as Israel-Palestine, governments don’t always have all the answers: free speech and open criticism of government policy is critical. Given the lack of success of official diplomacy in the region we should be encouraging, not dismissing, these growing local and international efforts.