Australian Jewish Group Slammed for Urging Boycott of West Bank Settlement Goods

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Australian Jewish groups have blasted a left-wing Jewish organization in Melbourne for launching an online campaign that supports the boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank, triggering calls for the group to be disaffiliated from the community's leading body.

The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) launched its website “Don’t Buy Settlement Products” on March 26, prompting the Zionist Federation of Australia to brand it “immoral” and the chief Jewish body in Victoria to label it “repugnant.”

Nina Bassat, president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, which comprises more than 50 Jewish organizations in Australia’s largest Jewish community, said delegates may be asked to vote on whether to disaffiliate the progressive Jewish organization.

“The JCCV totally repudiates the AJDS campaign,” she said in a statement. “Whilst the JCCV recognizes that its affiliates have the right to formulate their own policies, this campaign is repugnant to the long-standing policies of the JCCV and indeed to those of the majority of our community.”

The affiliation of the AJDS will be raised at the upcoming executive meeting later this month, Bassat told Haaretz, and they may recommend voting on the issue at the plenum in June. “The discussion is not about whether AJDS has freedom of speech – they continue to have it; we’re not trying to quell them," Bassat said. "They can say whatever they like, but can they say it inside the tent and ask for our imprimatur?"

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry also weighed in last week, calling for the Jewish Democratic Society to be barred. “The AJDS should not remain a part of the JCCV while it pursues policies that are so fundamentally at odds with those of the JCCV and the ECAJ,” Executive Director Peter Wertheim said in a statement.

Philip Chester, the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, and Sam Tatarka, president of the Zionist Council of Victoria, jointly added: “The Zionist movement in Australia is appalled by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society's campaign.

“The idea that a Jewish organization that purports to be a part of our community supports [even a part of] the insidious campaign of delegitimization being waged by Israel's enemies is not only repugnant and immoral but unfathomable.”

However, Dr. Jordy Silverstein, a Melbourne-based academic and AJDS executive member, rejected the notion that the group's campaign is either immoral or repugnant. "The campaign was formed in order to contribute to a much-needed conversation in the Victorian Jewish community about the role that settlements play," she told Haaretz.

“Jewish cultures have long been formulated around the importance of discussion and debate, and we firmly believe that this campaign contributes to, and fosters, that kind of open debate.”

She added: “The idea of not buying settlement products has become quite mainstream around the world, as people increasingly see a problem with the occupation.”

As for the calls for AJDS to be banned from the peak body, Silverstein said, “We are deeply saddened that there are people within the JCCV who want to disaffiliate AJDS.

“This kind of communal gate-keeping doesn't help us to create a more inclusive, politically pluralistic community.”

Critics seeking to disaffiliate the AJDS are expected to cite the council's policy on Israel, which “affirms Victorian Jewry's strong and enduring solidarity with Israel and her people.”

The Facebook generation wants to engage, but differently

The AJDS, which was admitted as an affiliate in 1993, has previously clashed with the umbrella body on numerous occasions, most recently when some of its members protested against the Jewish National Fund’s Green Sunday campaign. In 2010, the JCCV denounced the AJDS, after it passed a resolution supporting “selected boycott, divestment and sanctions actions designed to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation.”

The blogosphere was rife with debate last week, with the online Jewish magazine Galus Australis posting almost 100 comments, spanning the spectrum of views, during Passover.

“The AJDS has more in common with the Palestinian cause than that of Israel – it is truly the enemy within, and does not warrant the formal recognition that JCCV membership affords it,” wrote commenter Alan Freedman.

Another woman, Mandi Katz, disagreed: “Many Israelis do not buy products produced across the Green Line. Dissent makes us uncomfortable. It’s convenient and sometimes politically popular to silence it, but excluding the AJDS will do more harm than good.”

Sam Salcman, another reader who weighed in, countered: “By joining the ranks of the BDS movement AJDS is advertently joining the ranks not of those who … advocate a single state. That is the purpose of the BDS movement – to eliminate Israel.”

But Larry Stillman, an AJDS member, told Haaretz: “We are much more akin to internal critics in Israel, or the positions taken by Meretz or its international affiliates or other organizations on the left in Israel.”

Jordy Silverstein is one of several younger leaders of the Jewish democrats, with a new executive committee of eight people appointed in February, five of whom are women and three of them aged 30 or below.

“The youth are taking over,” Stillman said. “It appears that the campaign has generated a lot of attention from younger Facebook users – this is indicative of a trend for wanting engagement, but not in the traditional way, he said. “Their experience of Israel is that they haven't been told the truth.”

A screen grab of the AJDS website supporting a boycott of products from the settlements.Credit: Screen shot
Nina Bassat, president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.Credit: Courtesy
Dr. Jordy Silverstein, an executive member of AJDS.Credit: Courtesy