For Jewish BDS Supporters, Personal Morality Trumps Jewish Solidarity

When you boycott Israel, or reject the ideology on which it was founded, you are estranging yourself from much of the Jewish world.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative.
A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative.Credit: Gili Getz
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

It’s a sign of the shifting American debate over Israel. Liberal Zionists like myself—who oppose Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but support the concept of a democratic Jewish state—are spending more of our time arguing not with the Zionist right, but with the anti-Zionist left. That’s fine. Argument is a proud American Jewish tradition. Excommunication is not.

Last week, I inadvertently provoked such an argument by writing about the way young American Jews who reject Zionism and/or support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (not everyone who supports the latter opposes the former) define being Jewish. My argument was that for pro-BDS Jews, “being Jewish is not about the bonds of peoplehood. It’s about standing with the oppressed.” That displeased Ben Lorber, campus coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS. He accused me of suggesting “that pro-BDS and anti-Zionist Jews like me have checked our Jewishness at BDS’s door” and “that we are leftists before we are Jews.” That wasn’t my point. I don’t think left-wing Jews check their Jewishness when they embrace BDS. To the contrary, in my experience, most see their embrace of BDS as an expression of their Jewishness. That’s why many join Jewish Voice for Peace. They don’t want to boycott Israel or challenge Zionism simply as deracinated believers in human rights or as allies of the Palestinian cause. They want to speak as Jews.

My point wasn’t about the strength of Jewish identity among pro-BDS Jews. It was about the nature of that identity. Jewish identity contains different elements. Judaism, as both a religion and a culture, has ritual and ethical traditions. Jews are also a people composed of individuals who interpret those traditions in widely varying ways. As a result, Judaism as individual imperative and Judaism as peoplehood sometimes conflict. If a Jew won’t eat in another Jew’s home because the latter does not keep kosher, she is prioritizing her interpretation of Jewish dietary laws over communal solidarity. If a Jew finds Jonathan Pollard’s behavior morally reprehensible, yet supports freeing him from jail because he does not want to see a fellow Jew suffer, he is prioritizing the bonds of peoplehood over his interpretation of Jewish ethics.

For the American Jewish establishment, peoplehood comes first. Groups like AIPAC may cloak their support for Israel in moral language. They may praise Israeli democracy and claim that, in some way, it represents an outgrowth of the Jewish ethical tradition. But that’s not what drives AIPAC. If it did, AIPAC would be genuinely troubled by the lack of democracy in the West Bank. AIPAC supports Israel because it believes Jews should protect other Jews. American Jewry failed that test during the Holocaust and AIPAC is determined to never fail it again.

Pro-BDS and anti-Zionist Jews, by contrast, prioritize Jewish ethics, as they interpret them, over Jewish solidarity. To be sure, they themselves are often excluded — in my view, wrongly — from Jewish communal spaces. But they are excluded for taking positions that rupture the bonds of peoplehood. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. It contains close to 40 percent of the Jews on earth. When you boycott Israel, or reject the ideology on which it was founded, you are estranging yourself from much of the Jewish world.

That doesn’t mean pro-BDS and anti-Zionist Jews wish Israeli Jews harm. To the contrary, they believe their actions will ultimately produce more justice, more security and more peace for everyone who lives between the river and the sea. But punishing Israeli Jews in a bid to make them change their destructive and self-destructive behavior is a bit like calling the cops on your violent, drug-addicted brother when the rest of the family wants to look the other way. You may mean well. Ultimately, your family may even thank you for your actions. But in the meantime, by prioritizing your own sense of right and wrong over family loyalty, you are estranging yourself.

The analogy is no accident. As philosophers like Rabbi David Hartman and sociologists like Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen have noted, the metaphor of family looms large in Jewish identity. According to the Torah, the children of Israel were an actual family before they entered Egypt and emerged as a people. We commonly refer to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as our forefathers and foremothers. And just as Jewish commentators emphasize the costs of disunity within Abraham and Sarah’s family, so they emphasize the costs of disunity within the Jewish people. On Friday night, Jewish parents ask God to make their sons like Efraim and Menashe, in part because they were the first two Jewish brothers to get along. The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of intra-Jewish strife.

Lorber argues that many pro-BDS Jews “build our own Jewish communities,” and that’s surely true. But the whole point of peoplehood—like family—is that it’s not entirely yours to build. You are born into it. Therein lies the tension: between the desire to be true to one’s beliefs and the desire to stay connected to people to whom one is linked by birth but who don’t share those beliefs.

Lorber denies that such tensions exist. Suggesting that there is any friction between “the bonds of Jewish peoplehood” and “solidarity with the oppressed,” he argues, is “false and shameful.” I wish it was. But if one accepts that peoplehood involves bonds with the actually existing Jews of today—rather than the imaginary Jews of one’s desires—the friction is all too real.

I experience it in my own life. After I proposed that American Jews buy products from only Israel proper, and not from settlements in the West Bank, a man at my shul who had studied in a West Bank yeshiva told me that he found it difficult to share a religious community with me. I was saddened, but there wasn’t much I could say. By doing what I believed was right, I had cut myself off from other Jews. Now he was doing the same to me.

Pro-BDS Jews have every right to follow their conscience. But they can’t have it both ways. They are prioritizing Jewish morality, as they understand it, over Jewish unity. And as much as they might wish, those are not the same thing.

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