It was news when the American Studies Association adopted a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It was news when a major American religious denomination once again considered a divestment of companies that operate in Israel.
The reaction of the Jewish community in the United States wasn’t news. For the most part, our reaction was predictable.
There is no question in my mind about it: we should support Israel and oppose all of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (“BDS”) proposals.
What we shouldn’t do is denounce all such talk as anti-Jewish. Many of us criticize Israel ourselves.
We shouldn’t ignore it, either. The underlying goal of the BDS movement is to deny legitimacy to the State of Israel. Using criticisms that have some validity, it tried to influence people who mean well and whose concerns about the living conditions of Palestinians are genuine.
The model appears to be the divestment movement against South Africa in the 1970s. The situations, however, are not equivalent or even parallel.
First: the government of Israel is elected by all the citizens of Israel, including Arab Muslims and Christians. (About one million Arabs are citizens of Israel.) Non-Jewish citizens of Israel can and do hold seats in the Knesset. South Africa had a white government in which black citizens had no role and few rights.
Second: South Africa enforced discrimination based on race and made it paramount in everything. There was even a government panel that could “change” a person’s race in official records. Israel supports a parallel Arab school system that has considerable autonomy, and protects the religious rights of non-Jews.
This does not mean that we should be willfully oblivious to human-rights issues or to the hardships that residents of the Palestinian Authority and Gaza encounter. Nor does it mean that Protestant denominations concerned about the conditions under which Arab Christians live should be willfully oblivious to the safety of Israelis.
For example, it is undeniable that security checkpoints can pose severe inconvenience. It should be obvious, however, that the inconvenience could be reduced if the risk of suicide attacks inside Israel were less.
Security checkpoints especially affect residents of the P.A. who work in Israel, so it should be equally obvious that any economic boycott of Israel would affect them along with Israelis.
And it should be obvious that denouncing critics of Israel as anti-Jewish is neither right nor productive. Here’s what Jerry Silverman (Jewish Federations of North America) and Rabbi Steve Gutow (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) suggest as our response to proponents of boycotts, divestment, or sanctions:
One principle that guides this work is that we should understand our audiences. And when we speak with others, we should do so with a respect for the sensitivities of that constituency so that our important messages are authentically heard. Whether on a campus, in a church or speaking with an LGBT group, we should always be clear that we stand as partners, sharing the goal of a future with peace and security — not one of conflict and BDS.
Experience and research demonstrate that what works best with these audiences—mostly made up of political and religious progressives — is not an all-good-vs.-all-bad characterization of Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, a more nuanced narrative is the one that is likely to defeat the one-sided and hostile stance of those seeking to delegitimize Israel.
This means honestly conveying the situation’s complexity, expressing empathy for suffering on both sides (without implying moral equivalency) and offering a constructive pathway to helping the parties move toward peace and reconciliation based on two states for two peoples.