The era of Iran is over; the age of BDS begins
How the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is changing organized American Jewish life.
By Peter Beinart | Jun. 4, 2015 | 3:06 PM | 12
The news that Sheldon Adelson will this weekend host a secret conference for Jewish groups aimed at countering the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is yet more evidence that “pro-Israel” activism in the United States is entering a new phase. The Iran era is ending. We are entering the age of BDS.
The Iran era started in the mid-1990s. During the cold war, American Jewish groups had defended Israel primarily against Arab regimes and the PLO. The most famous episode in AIPAC’s history had been its 1981 struggle against the Reagan administration’s bid to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia.
But in 1993, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and began negotiating with it as part of the Oslo peace process. The following year, Jordan made peace too. With most Arab regimes at least tacitly supporting Oslo, Yitzhak Rabin argued that Iran—which supported rejectionist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad—constituted the new threat. In 1994, according to Argentine prosecutors, Iran and Hezbollah blew up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, thus further linking the Islamic Republic to anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish terrorism. The prospect of Tehran developing a nuclear weapon made it all the more sinister.
American Jewish groups, suddenly deprived of their traditional Arab and PLO enemies, gladly followed Rabin’s suggestion that they focus on Iran instead. In his indispensable book about Iranian-Israeli relations, “Treacherous Alliance,” Trita Parsi quotes Shai Feldman, an Israeli foreign policy expert now at Brandeis University, as explaining that “AIPAC made Iran a major issue since they didn’t have any other issue to champion. The U.S. was in favor of the peace process, so what would they push for?”
The Iran era reached its apex during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose Holocaust denial and rhetorical aggression helped American Jewish groups portray Iran as a regime plotting genocide against Israel. But since 2013, Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rohani, has made Iran appear less menacing. And in Barack Obama, he has found a partner eager to end the long-standing U.S.-Iranian cold war. That effort could still fail.
But given the two leaders’ determination, it is more likely that they will strike a deal, which Benjamin Netanyahu and the Republican Congress will prove unable to torpedo. Already, Israeli security experts are talking about using Israel’s acquiescence to a nuclear agreement to win new military guarantees from the United States. And if Israel does eventually acquiesce, even tacitly and sullenly, the two-decade era in which Iran dominated “pro-Israel” activism in the United States will end.
Enter BDS. If American Jewish groups began focusing on the Iranian threat once the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was born, BDS is growing in large measure because the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has died. For six years, Netanyahu has publicly rejected the idea of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with land swaps. Most Palestinians have lost any faith that negotiations with Israel can bring them a state anytime soon. And Mahmoud Abbas’ failure to end the occupation, or stand for election, has wrecked his legitimacy among Palestinian activists.
The BDS movement has entered this breach. It offers Palestinian activists a way to bypass their divided, corrupt, ineffectual politicians by taking the struggle against Israel into their own hands. Its three planks — an end to Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the return of Palestinian refugees—offers something for each of the three main Palestinian populations (those in the occupied territories, those inside Israel proper and refugees) and thus unites a divided people. As a nonviolent movement that speaks in the language of human rights and international law rather than Islamic theology, the movement also attracts progressive allies who would never join a movement defined by suicide bombings and the Hamas charter.
Already, BDS is changing the landscape of organized American Jewish life. First, it is making Washington less important, which may make AIPAC less important. AIPAC’s power rests on the relations between its members and members of Congress. But the BDS movement bypasses Congress in favor of universities, liberal Christian groups and trade unions, where it can gain a more sympathetic ear. The response has been a gold rush among American Jewish groups seeking to lead the anti-BDS charge. In 2010, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs created the Israel Action Network to combat Israel’s “delegitimization.” As the Forward notes, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have all recently “set up operations geared at students” largely to do the same thing. In Washington, AIPAC still dominates. But in these new arenas where the BDS struggle will be fought, AIPAC is just one Jewish group among many.
The second consequence of the rise of BDS will be to increase the prominence of Jewish Voices for Peace. Right now, many establishment-minded American Jews don’t know what JVP is. In their mind, J Street still represents American Jewry’s left flank. But as the only significant American Jewish group to support BDS, Jewish Voices for Peace will grow in prominence as the movement itself does. Already, non-Jewish BDS activists cite JVP as evidence that American Jews do not monolithically oppose their cause. The more that mainstream American Jews hear this, the more enraged at JVP they will become. How exactly that rage will express itself, I don’t know. But as JVP grows, its battles with the American Jewish establishment will make those of J Street look tame.
Finally, BDS will spark a growing debate among American Jews about Zionism itself. American Jews are used to thinking of Palestinians as residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (By using the phrase “Arab Israelis,” American Jews even delude themselves that the Arabs living inside the 1967 lines are not really Palestinian.) But many of the Palestinians active in BDS live in the West or hail from Israel proper or both. That means that for them personally, the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the rights of Palestinian refugees are at least as important as the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza doesn’t threaten its character as a Jewish state. To the contrary, it may help preserve it, which is why many centrist American Jews support the two-state solution. But as the BDS movement grows more prominent, it will spark more debate about Palestinian citizens and Palestinians refugees, both subjects that expose the tension between Israel’s democratic character and its policies — in immigration and public life — that privilege Jews.
Inside the American Jewish establishment, the first response to the BDS movement’s challenge to Zionism has been to cry anti-Semitism. But that response conceals a dirty little secret: that many “pro-Israel” activists haven’t thought much about the tension between Jewish statehood and liberal democracy, and thus don’t really know how to justify Zionism to an audience of skeptical, progressive non-Jews.
Justifying Zionism to liberals is not an impossible task. But neither is it intellectually or morally simple. And it will require establishment-minded American Jews to defend principles they have long taken for granted. Of all the BDS movement’s consequences for American Jews, that may prove the most significant of all.