Despair Is Driving Me Towards BDS

A year ago I would have condemned any boycott of Israel, not least on my own Princeton campus. But now, despite my reluctance and reservations, I can’t reject it out of hand.

Reuters

Lately it has been hard for me to be an Israeli. At home in Israel, peace seems more distant than ever before. Here at Princeton, I have been drawn into the debate about boycotts against my country and who is to blame for the summer’s Gaza conflict.

This summer I watched the place I call home go up in flames, rockets, and bombs. It was agonizing. For the first time I had friends and peers who were drafted as soldiers to Gaza. And for the first time in my adult memory the Palestinian casualty rate rose so high it could no longer be ignored.

When I returned to Israel in early August, my friends were broken. Those who had believed in peace no longer did. Residents of the south had spent the whole summer paralyzed, living in fear. Famous Israelis who had condemned or even mourned the loss of innocent Palestinian life were ostracized. There was real, complicated pain. I was afraid of returning to Princeton, where students often have shouting matches sparked by buzzwords rather than a thoughtful dialogue where both narratives are fairly considered and the pain on both sides is truly acknowledged.

I did come back to Princeton. At the start of the semester, the campus seemed almost numb, but recently there has been a sharp rise in tensions. When a number of important professors placed an advertisement for a very moderate version of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) in The Daily Princetonian, within hours many friends and acquaintances had already asked for my opinion of the BDS movement.

I didn’t know what to tell them. A year ago I would have condemned it on the spot, but now I was, and am, not so sure. The moderate version of BDS being discussed here is limited to divesting from companies that directly assist the occupation, not a blanket boycott of Israeli products and markets. Nor does it endorse the closing of academic channels that could stop important debate and punish one of the most liberal sectors of Israeli society.

In the first week of November,the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) created a memorial for the casualties of the Gaza war outside our campus center. They individually planted over two thousand flags, Palestinian and Israeli, to commemorate each life lost. Last time the PCP held a vigil for Gaza victims in the same spot, Israeli lives and suffering had been ignored. So this time I was impressed. Passing students were asked to write to a family who had lost a child. Such sensitivity and compassion during these hard times moved me deeply. Yet the night after its installation, the memorial was trampled on and vandalized.

Someone I knew from childhood died fighting in Gaza this summer. Seeing a flag destroyed that represented his life hurt me, an Israeli, a human being. And I do not even know who the vandal was.

So if you ask me what my opinion is on BDS, I’ll say: Seeing BDS come to campus saddens me deeply. But it’s no longer because I strongly disagree with it. What drives me to despair is the fact that my country has reached such a level of injustice that it might be necessary to take so drastic a measure to actually change something. That our political and military leadership seems to avoid at all costs the just solution: The end of the occupation, and the peace, security, and self-determination of all peoples between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Even more so, my despair comes from knowing how many people died, suffered, and feared this summer. The loss of homes and of hope.

I want change. I am tired of people dying. But BDS is not to be decided upon lightly, and there are legitimate arguments for and against.

One convincing argument against the movement is its placing of all of the blame and responsibility on Israel to reach a solution. This past year saw long diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and they failed unequivocally. Urging diplomatic negotiations because they’re “fairer” for both sides makes no sense. Both governments bear blame, but Israel is the actor more accepted by the international community, recognized as an independent nation with a modern army and extensive support and aid from the United States. Realistically, Israel is the one with much more power to make a change.

Some people fear BDS because they think it will be harmful to Israel. I answer that most of Israel’s current policies regarding Palestinians harm Israel because they harm humanity. If we fear anti-Semitism, let us be just, and our strong allies will support us. I suspect that others fear BDS because they are afraid it might actually work. Which makes it all the more promising.

This is what I ask of you. If you see a Palestinian flag, do not stomp on it because it is Palestinian. If you meet an Israeli or a Jew, do not judge them on Israel’s actions. Some of my greatest moments of despair are when I hesitate to share that I am Israeli for fear of being judged on the spot by my nationality and by my government. And if you hear about BDS, do not immediately disqualify it because it is harsh on Israel. Nor should you immediately support it without considering the wide-reaching and serious consequences.

I have by no means run the full gamut of important considerations. I do not know if BDS is the answer. But if commercial sanctions effectively pressure the Israeli government and show them that the injustice must end, potentially leading to commitment to a peaceful resolution, then who am I to stand in the way? 

Maya Wahrman is from Jerusalem, and grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. She is an undergraduate in the History Department of Princeton University, where she also studies Arabic and Creative Writing. She has interned at various non-profit organizations in Jaffa, including an Arab-Jewish welfare nursery school, the Open Clinic at Physicians for Human Rights, Israel, and the Mesila Refugee Organization.