SAN FRANCISCO – J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami vowed that the dovish organization will never advocate boycotting Israel, but warned Israelis that "a real and serious threat" of boycotts, divestment and sanctions is headed their way.
Ben-Ami was speaking to J Street's national summit during a Sunday round-table discussion of leaders of prominent left-leaning American Jewish organizations.
The discussion focused on possible directions Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, Ameinu and J Street could choose in the wake of the recent collapse of the peace process.
The failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Mideast diplomatic offensive has placed liberal pro-Israel groups in uncharted political territory. BDS activists have attacked J Street and other organizations for fighting church, campus and cultural efforts to boycott and divest from Israel.
Right-wing activists, meanwhile, charge that J Street covertly supports BDS, a claim Ben-Ami's group flatly denies.
"Some will say that you have to go toward the path of BDS, that you have to go toward boycotts, divestment and sanctions, and negative punishment that raises the cost, that drives home that this [continued Israeli occupation] is a path that has consequences," Ben-Ami said.
"That's not the path for J Street. That's never going to be the path that we go down," he continued. "We believe that there's a better way to talk to friends and family than to wield the big stick and bash people over the head. We have to talk with them (Israelis) out of love and out of concern, and we have to bring our message in a way that will really resonate."
The BDS movement is gaining ground, particularly in Europe, Ben-Ami acknowledged, adding that "one of the things that we can say, as part of our 'alarm clock,' as part of our 'wake-up call' to our family and friends in Israel, is that 'This tide is coming. This wave is coming,' that 'This is going to gain steam, and patience is running out, and this is the kind of thing that's going to come. We're not going to be a part of it, but look at the horizon, and look what's coming your way.'
"It's very, very important for us to be part of that warning, and be part of that alarm that is telling people that it is gaining some traction, and it is starting to be a place where there's a real and serious threat coming."
While all the organizations represented at the summit voiced clear opposition to the BDS movement and outlined alternative forms of peace and social activism, the leaders of Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the New Israel Fund (NIF) expressed backing for specific boycotts directed at settlements and their commercial products.
"We spend a lot of time out speaking against BDS against Israel, in synagogues and on campuses and forth," Americans for Peace Now President Debra DeLee said, "but we joined Peace Now in Israel in a campaign to boycott settlement products."
APN also urges governments to differentiate between "support for Israel proper, and support for the occupation – to differentiate between Israel proper and the occupied territories," she said. In APN's view, the focused boycott offers an alternative to BDS actions which target Israel as a whole.
"We also believe that if you believe that settlements are the problem, you should not be investing your money in (them)."
According to DeLee, BDS is likely to gain momentum. "People are so frustrated with the occupation and the continued isolation of Israel around the world.
"As things continue to get worse, the BDS movement is going to continue to rise. It's a challenge for us to be able to continue to explain the difference: That we do not and will not support BDS against Israel, but we believe that there is a place to boycott, to refuse to support financially, economically, for governments to do trade and other agreements, with the occupied territories and the occupation."
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, said "We have all seen the BDS question become the great monster" in the American Jewish community. Jewish communal leaders, he said, have "bought the party line about BDS being the greatest enemy of the Jewish people since Amalek."
NIF supports its Israeli grantee organizations who call for, support, or participate in boycotts on settlement products, and who are fighting the widely criticized 2011 Boycott Law, which green-lights civil lawsuits intended to curb all boycott-related activities, including verbal statements which may be construed as advocating any such activities.
Peace Now in Israel, with the support of APN, has also taken on the Boycott Law, openly and defying it by creating a Facebook page titled "Sue Me, I'm Boycotting Settlement Products."
Sokatch said that it has proven tough to make clear the distinction between BDS, whose actions are directed by and large at Israel, and the NIF and APN positions favoring boycotts of settlement goods.
"The nuance that Debra and APN are trying to thread a needle with in this country, and that we stand for in Israel, is very, very difficult, at a time when some in the establishment have labeled Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions as the bogeyman."
National President Kenneth Bob of Ameinu, which does not support boycotts, said that while he is personally "extremely sympathetic to the settlement boycott approach, and have my own shopping choices, as they say, I have to say that I think that it's ineffective for our work in moving the dial, particularly in the American Jewish community."
Referring to debate over the distinction between BDS and boycotts of settlement products, Bob said "Trying to have that conversation in the American Jewish community is very, very difficult, and we've come to the conclusion, and I've personally come to the conclusion, that it's actually not the most effective way of having impact here."
Noting a wide range of nonboycott, Israel-oriented projects which the four organizations are pursuing, Bob cited a slogan of J Street's campus arm: Invest, Don't Divest.
"Whatever that means to all of us, what should we be investing in, whether it's civil society in Israel or in peace movement supporters in this country, there's a lot that we can recommend that people do, that doesn't include the negative. And I think, in terms of winning hearts and minds in the American Jewish community, it's the right approach."
J Street's Ben-Ami, responding to the question "Why not boycott Israel?" said "The reason is that the BDS movement hasn't been able to make the distinction that Debra's making. The BDS movement basically has as part of its generic rhetoric, that there really isn't justice and a right of the Jewish people to a nation state of their own.
"The premise of J Street is that there is a right and there's justice in a nation-state for the Palestinian people, but there's also justice and right to a nation-state of the Jewish people. And unless the broader BDS movement is able to swallow that, and to start to talk about the right of both peoples to nations of their own, then anything that we do that is seen to be backing up that movement, is unfortunately cutting at the very heart of one of the basic principles of J Street."
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