In theory, the first purpose of boycotts is to cause people to think. To discover or reconsider an issue.
In theory, the first purpose of the Anti-Defamation League is the same. To cause people to discover, to rethink, to become aware of and combat bigotry, within themselves as well as in others.
This week a boycott campaign caused me to rethink boycotts against Israel. And a campaign by the Anti-Defamation League caused me to rethink the Anti-Defamation League.
The boycott was the decision by the Olympia, Washington Food Co-op, to remove Israeli products from the shelves of its two stores.
In a move as courageous as it was overdue, the co-op also featured and published online a pamphlet strongly opposing manifestations of anti-Semitism in leftist movements.
"Unfortunately," the co-op's blog observed, "anti-Semitic statements have abounded in a lot of the 'support' that the co-op has received in regard to the Israeli-products' boycott."
The Olympia Food Co-op has taken an important step in distinguishing between opposition to the policies of Israel on the one hand, and anti-Jewish hatred on the other.
It has also worked to identify and distance Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry from the wider discussion of boycotts and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Which makes it all the more curious that when longtime ADL National Director Abraham Foxman chose to publicly oppose the construction of a mosque and Muslim cultural center near the Ground Zero site, his rationale was troubling, to say the least:
Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational, Foxman, himself a survivor, told The New York Times.
"Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, 'Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.'"
There is something at once refreshing and destructive about Foxman's words. Refreshing, in the sense that this sounds like unfiltered honesty. Destructive, in the sense that this is precisely the rationale under which many on the left have justified or excused non-progressive, at times overtly bigoted, statements and actions by militant Palestinians.
It is high time to strike bigotry of all forms – by both sides - from the debate over the Mideast conflict.
It is time, as well, for the Jewish community as a whole to relate differently to those in their midst who have a serious difference of opinion with Israel.
In this regard, it is time for the Jewish community to engage those who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, rather than effectively excommunicating them.
Perhaps what is most profoundly needed is for those who care about the Mideast equation to genuinely say what they think, and to abandon the time-honored codes in which each side attacks the other.
Allow me to begin.
I fully recognize as valid the opinions of those who oppose the idea of a specifically Jewish state. I would only ask that they be honest and open about it.
If you think a Jewish state is a bad idea, an institution that should be disbanded, I believe that it is the honest thing – honest to yourself, before all else - to come out and say so.
As a supporter of the idea of a truly democratic Jewish state alongside an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, what I cannot accept is the idea that formally Muslim states are acceptable, where a Jewish state is not.
In the past I have been vociferous in opposing boycotts. I now realize that it was not the boycott per se that caused me rage, but the tolerance for a double standard that said "While others – including our own United States – commit war crimes, engage in oppression, and have a long history of subjugating, disenfranchising and dehumanizing minorities, Israel will be our sole target."
Something else angered me as well - not the fact that some of the people who advocated boycotting Israel were actually against the idea of having a state of Israel, but the fact that for tactical reasons, they refused to come out and say so.
I remain opposed to boycotts, Olympia's included, first because I oppose collective punishment of all kinds, whether practiced by Israel against Gazans, or by progressives against Israelis as a whole. I also believe that boycotts against Israel tend to be self-defeating and play into the hands of the right.
But I want to thank the Olympia Food Co-op for going an important step. Something extremely valuable is happening there. Something truly radical. An awareness that people who are truly in favor of social justice must take a stand against bigotry, no matter the target.
The mayor of New York has set an example in this regard, saying of the mosque and its critics, What is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us?
It's a lesson that Abraham Foxman needs to relearn.
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