BDS Supporters Can’t Decide on What the Endgame Is

The settlement boycotters have to speak up more clearly and forcefully, with more liberal Zionist organizations jumping aboard.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

On the heels of new semantic murkiness about what is and is not Israeli occupation, one could be forgiven for being a tad confused about how to oppose whatever-it-is-we-should-now-call-it.

Last week, the Presbyterian Church-USA narrowly defeated an Israel-related divestment resolution. The resolution targeted three companies whose products, as the organization sees it, facilitate Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Both J Street and Americans for Peace Now had vocally opposed the resolution.

But what seemed to be partly lost in the kerfuffle was the fact that the very next day, PC-USA endorsed a boycott of settlement products.

Beneath all the rhetoric about whether the peace camp acted nobly or not is the fact that boycott of settlement products remains an important arrow in the quiver of liberal Zionist organizations and their supporters. But it is not yet endorsed by all such organizations, nor is its call always as forthright as it could be when it is endorsed.

Much of this has to do with the uncomfortable position settlement boycotters find themselves in in the current political landscape.

First came BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) in 2005 by activists who announced they were heeding a call by Palestinian civil society. Israel advocates predictably responded to counter the so-called “delegitimation.” When the Knesset ruled last summer that Israelis who call for settlement boycotts would be financially liable even without proof of damages, Peace Now jumped on board with a boycott of their own, but one that would target settlement products only. Eight months later, Peter Beinart echoed this call which he, perhaps imprudently but certainly not unreasonably, dubbed “Zionist BDS.”

But now, most liberal Zionist groups are running scared from anything associated with those three little letters for what one peace activist I recently spoke to calls the “gevalt” factor. BDS -- whether blanket or targeted -- just doesn’t sound good to most Jewish ears.

One only has to read the tortured musings on the Americans for Peace Now website to understand the rhetorical challenge posed by forcefully issuing a call for settlement boycott under the shadow of BDS.

Under a heading called “boycotting and divestment,” APN’s website says this:

“APN believes that boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel are misguided and counterproductive.” But it concludes by suggesting that supporters engage in “efforts [among other things] aimed at highlighting the point of origin of products originating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank or Golan Heights, to permit people to make informed choices in their purchasing and consumption.”

A few days after the PC-USA votes, APN President and CEO Debra DeLee issued another extremely nuanced reflection: she “appreciated PC-USA’s decision to vote against divestment.” But, she added, “What we failed to acknowledge in our statement were PC-USA's efforts to craft a narrowly focused, carefully targeted approach to divestment. The organization was searching - as are we all - for a way to promote a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

J Street won’t publicly touch even a settlement boycott, despite its stated commitment to a two-state solution.

If the BDS folks have anything on their side, it’s a punchy acronym that signals unwavering commitment. When I hear BDS, I think Bold, Direct, Straight-Talking.

Except for one, teeny, tiny thing.

BDS’ers can’t seem to decide on what the endgame is. You’ll hear many BDS’ers say that they are leaving political arrangements up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves to decide. Many are one-staters. But Tikkun blogger David Harris-Gershon recently “came out in favor of BDS” while also supporting a two-state solution.

But the BDS campaign entails three well-known endgame pillars which are clearly spelled out for anyone to consult. The third one, the return of refugees, would mean the end of Israel as we know it. Even the most liberal segments of Israel cannot be expected to give up its core identity of being a Jewish state.

So in their tactics BDS’ers do possess straight-talk (what Israelis, through their dugri speech, have traditionally had on their side), though their endgame is muddled when it’s not simply out of touch. Proponents of BDS need to be reminded that until they clearly acknowledge that there are two sides whose respective ethno-national physical, social and identity needs must be met in this tiny sliver of land, those three little letters will continue to be felt by most Israelis and their supporters as Blatant Delegitimation Salvos.

For their part, in being unequivocal about two states and an end to the occupation, the liberal Zionists indeed possess both a pragmatic and empathetic endgame, though their tactics sometimes don’t rise above a whisper. The settlement boycotters should speak up more clearly and forcefully, with more liberal Zionist organizations jumping aboard. Those liberal Zionist organizations who still bristle at the idea of publicly calling for a settlement boycott need to identify another easily digestible and consistent action through which supporters can clearly, urgently, and unequivocally signal their commitment to two states. Otherwise those seeking moral clarity in their aims may simply drift away.

**Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov **

A Belgian demonstrator displays a sign reading "Boycott Israel, racist state"Credit: Reuters

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