BDS, Springsteen, and Heresies of the anti-Israel U.S. Left

Let them come. Let them come in droves. Let artists like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt bring Israelis who need to hear it, a message of social justice and freedom for Palestinians.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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In this Tuesday, March 15, 2016 file photo, Bruce Springsteen, center, performs with Nils Lofgren, left, and Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band during their concert at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
In this Tuesday, March 15, 2016 file photo, Bruce Springsteen, center, performs with Nils Lofgren, left, and Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band during their concert at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.Credit: Chris Pizzello, AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

This time it's personal. In fact, where it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict and the people who care about it, it's personal every single time.

On Monday, guitarist and actor Steve Van Zandt, long a musical partner of Bruce Springsteen, exchanged views with a number of Twitter users. One discussion began over the decision last month by Springsteen and his E Street Band to cancel a show in North Carolina in protest over the state's controversial "bathroom" law and its anti-LGBT provisions.

Before long, however, respondents turned the discussion to boycotting Israel and demands that Springsteen and the band do so as well. Where in the past, musicians have chosen safety in ambiguity when assaying the minefield of the BDS movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, Van Zandt's response was as direct and unmistakable as his guitar work: "You and the other boycotters are politically ignorant, obnoxious idiots. Israel is one of our two friends in the Middle East. In addition to the fact that a boycott in that case would accomplish nothing. Go get educated."

Told by BDS activist Peter Feld, a writer for the pro-BDS website Mondoweiss, that "Israel totally meets" the definition of apartheid under international law, "2 sets of laws for 2 ethnicities. Just what you boycotted in the 80s." Van Zandt responded: "Trust me I am at least as aware of most of the injustices around the world as you are. One solution does not fit all." The situation in Israel and Palestine is much more complicated than the South African model, he added.

To which one Twitter respondent wrote "What you mean to say is you don't give a shit about the people oppressed by Israel. Be honest."

I don't believe that for a second. 

I have seen artists come to Israel and deliver powerful, focused calls for democracy, for diplomacy, for co-existence, for a shared peaceful future. I have seen artists come to Israel and support the many NGOs chipping away at the mechanisms of occupation, and searching for new solutions.

Let them come. Let them come in droves. Let artists like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt bring Israelis who need to hear it, a message of social justice and freedom for Palestinians.

I do not accept that Israelis are constitutionally incapable of listening to reason. I do not accept that Israelis are all alike, all of them stonehearted, all of them hateful, all of them worthy of being hated.

I don't believe in racism. Even when it comes from the left.

I don't believe that collective punishment works. At all. Not when we in Israel practice it, and not in the form of BDS.

I don't believe in the religion of BDS, which holds that it is the One True Way, the only way to fight occupation and injustice. 

I've had it up to here with the bludgeoning, exclusivist tactics of BDS activists, who attack with immediate and snarkily supremacist condescension any suggestion that there might be other ways to fight occupation.

I've had it with the My Way or the Highway assumptions that anyone, even a leftist, who questions BDS – or even simply asks for clarification of its artfully ambiguous goals, or criticizes its methods, or the quality of its leadership - is obviously either a racist, a blockhead, a despicable Zionist, or, worst of all, most dismissible of all, not leftist enough.

I've had it with the way that BDS supporters, with a peculiar middle school glee, exalt any gains as the Second Coming, while conveniently ignoring or justifying away any setbacks. 

And one other thing. I've had it with the assumption that BDS supporters assiduously identify and condemn and root out elements of anti-Semitism from their ranks and the statements of their supporters.

You needn't look farther than Mondoweiss, one of the flagship platforms of the BDS movement. Its founder and co-editor, Philip Weiss, is a leading exponent of what he explicitly and proudly calls anti-zionism. 

On Saturday, Weiss, approvingly summarizing recent remarks by journalist Seymour Hersh, wrote the following: "So to be clear: were it not for the role of Jewish money in the American political process, there would have been a peace settlement before now in Israel and Palestine. And that's a 'forbidden statement.'"

I do not believe for a moment that Philip Weiss, who is Jewish, is anti-Semitic. But I believe that at a time when leftists across the sea are being forced – correctly – to re-examine statements they have made in the light of perceived or outright anti-Semitism, the exclusively pro-Palestinian left in North America needs to do so as well.

As a start, they might take a look at an extraordinary piece by British writer Sam Kriss, "How to criticize Israel without being a dick."

Among his recommendations: "For the love of God, stop talking about Hitler ... the Holocaust was a monstrous, shattering cataclysm, a memory that's still incredibly painful for millions of people, an evil far, far greater than anything Israel has done since, and it should not be instrumentalized to score an argumentative point."

Another worthwhile and refreshingly wide-ranging reference is a blogpost titled "How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic."

Let me leave you with one more thought, and one more tweet. The tweet is from Ali Abunimah, of the pro-BDS Electronic Intifada website, responding to a February article in which I suggested that the American left's answer to authentic anti-Semitism by a leftist critic of Israel was a tepid silence.

"The U.S. settler in Palestine @bradleyburston knows very well I condemn all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish bigotry, including Zionism."

The thought, as enunciated last week by Jonathan Freedland, and others is this: Just as men don't have the right to decide for women what offends them, nor whites for blacks, nor non-Muslims regarding Islamophobia, non-Jews have no business deciding for Jews – even a racist blockhead lib zio U.S. settler in Palestine – what is and what is not anti-Semitism.

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