This past December, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, made headlines with a gesture meant to “combat BDS.” He sent a gift basket to the White House full of Israeli goods from the West Bank settlements and the Golan Heights. In addition to flouting U.S. policy governing product labeling, the ambassador’s act showcased why the Israeli government is losing the fight against anti-Israel sentiment in America.
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Israeli representatives like Dermer have routinely ignored progressives’ concerns about Israel’s policies in the West Bank by refusing to differentiate between Israeli settlements and Israel proper. This is one of the reasons that we were intrigued by the decision by Israel’s Minister for Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, to engage J Street in its anti-BDS efforts. Until this outreach gesture, the Israeli government has failed to create space for a progressive strategy to fighting boycotts – meaning one that opposes the occupation and strongly supports the two-state solution. This refusal has narrowed the pro-Israel camp.
As a rising senior at Berkeley, I have seen the consequences of the pro-Israel camp taking a more hawkish approach on my own campus. In the fall of 2014, student leaders at Berkeley called for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, holding protests in support of a broad anti-Israel, pro-BDS agenda.
During student government debates over the matter, dozens of Palestinian students offered testimonies regarding their experiences living under Israeli occupation. They told stories of how their homes were demolished, their families evicted and their lives uprooted. The room was emotionally charged, filled with speechless and heartbroken observers. Those testimonies demanded some sort of reckoning and acknowledgement – even if one disagreed with their political conclusions.
What happened next though was all too familiar. Traditional pro-Israel groups responded with literal silence. They held up Israeli books bound with caution tape, rightfully protesting the impact of an academic boycott, but missing the opportunity to show their understanding of the complexity of the issue and the underlying cause of the Palestinian students’ testimonies. This could have been a moment for the pro-Israel community to demonstrate its commitment to Israel’s democratic future, by taking responsibility for the ongoing occupation. But instead they were silent. The reaction from the pro-Palestinian students – and, more interestingly, the unaligned students in the room – was confusion and anger. That night, the pro-Israel community got smaller.
But progressive pro-Israel activists offer a different voice, actively challenging BDS by calling for a two-state solution and an end to the occupation – and we’ve been successful. Recently, at Vassar College, one of the most left-wing schools in the country, a BDS resolution was defeated. J Street U was the only voice at Vassar that could credibly demonstrate an opposition to the occupation and offer an alternative means to challenge its expansion. We were thereby able to provide a progressive alternative to social justice-minded students – pulling support away from BDS. And while that is a positive step towards defeating the BDS movement, we’ll just be putting out fires until there is real effort from the Israeli government towards a two-state solution.
A recent Israeli-sponsored anti-BDS conference at the UN exemplified the more typical tendency to ignore the long-term challenges of occupation. Progressive pro-Israel voices were absent. Support for BDS was equated with anti-Semitism – and not viewed as in any way motivated by legitimate frustration about the ongoing occupation.
One of the speakers, Republican strategist Frank Luntz, encouraged attendees to “focus on language to the left”... and to express concern for Palestinians when defending Israel. But Luntz’s messaging tips missed the point: those who care about Palestinian grievances do not want to hear just sympathy. They need to hear that concrete steps are being taken to uphold Palestinian rights and to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli government is beginning to recognize the importance of engaging progressive voices. Erdan’s recent meeting with J Street’s Israel director to discuss collaboration around anti-BDS efforts was the first time that Netanyahu’s government has engaged with progressives like J Street. While this one small step is encouraging, the Israeli government simultaneously acts to neutralize any benefit to be gained by that effort: just this Sunday, the Israeli government approved a $20 million increase in settlement funding.
BDS will not be solved by a war of words that co-opts progressive talking points. It will only be defeated once Israel gets serious about curbing settlement expansion and ending the occupation. Progressive organizations will also not act as PR fig leaves for a government that serially refuses to demonstrate these commitments.
Israeli and Jewish communal leaders have an opportunity to change course. But that will mean taking leadership on a two-state solution, in addition to engaging with progressive student voices like ours.
That’s why we have invited Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, to attend J Street U’s Summer Leadership Institute in Washington, DC this August. If Ambassador Dermer, and others in the government, are truly invested in creating alternatives to BDS, listening to what we have to say – even if they disagree – is an important first step.
Sonia Brinn is the J Street U Northwest Regional Co-Chair and a rising senior at UC Berkeley.