This month, the union of graduate students at the University of California voted to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. This marked the first time that the membership of a major American union voted to endorse BDS. I am a member of the union, which represents about 13,000 student-workers, and I fought the resolution, writing in opposition. But as I campaigned, I also came to realize a bitter truth: BDS will only gain strength, unless U.S. Jews provide another path to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Mainstream Jews typically attribute anti-Israel activism to a mix of anti-Semitism and misinformation, and so they prescribe condemnations and better public relations. But Jew-hatred and stupidity are age-old sins, and so they do not explain what change occurred that lead my union to vote for BDS. Thus, the basic question remains: Why is BDS gaining strength?
Progressives value freedom, democracy, and equality, and they see an Israeli regime in the West Bank that looks like Jim Crow South or apartheid South Africa: unequal voting rights, judicial systems, access to government funds and more.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, progressive Jews told a good story about how to end that situation. Political, international negotiations would create a Palestinian state, and our job was to support the peace process. But that plan collapsed. Since the second intifada, negotiations have led nowhere. Netanyahu does not look as if he wants a deal, and Abbas is very weak. Moreover, Americans have heard for more than a decade about how Camp David failed (a central right-wing talking point), and they concluded that negotiations are going nowhere. A Palestinian state seems like a remote dream and, meanwhile, settlements grow unabated.
Increasingly, progressives see the situation less as a national conflict and more as a human rights struggle. BDS offers an analysis of the problem and a strategy for change. Now that the old, peace-process paradigm has collapsed, progressive Americans see BDS as the only plausible path to ending the occupation.
Even Jews who disagree – both right-wingers who think there is no occupation and liberal two-staters – need to understand this point. BDS is compelling because it offers a solution. Many Jewish institutions support a two-state solution, but fail to present a clear strategy for achieving one. They do not exert pressure on the Israeli government, and they talk constantly about Palestinian intransigence. Regardless of what one thinks of this analysis on a level of morality, on a practical level it means they expect the current situation to continue indefinitely. By contrast, BDS activists point to apartheid South Africa, which citizen activists gradually turned into a pariah state, bringing about the collapse of an immoral regime.
That is why typical anti-BDS strategies will fail. You cannot convince progressives that Palestinians are responsible for their own suffering. That looks like victim-blaming, a standard conservative tactic in domestic debates about, say, police violence and rape culture. And when the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs claims that BDS’s “true goal is the elimination of Israel and the end of Jewish self-determination,” progressives compare Israel’s strength to the Palestinians’ weakness and make this claim sound crazy.
Accusing BDS proponents of anti-Semitism backfires. No doubt, there are anti-Semites in the BDS movement. But I have good friends – including Jews – who support BDS and who also care about the Jewish people. When the Jewish community invokes anti-Semitism in attempts to delegitimize BDS, it just forfeits its own credibility.
In fact, “Israel advocacy” that lacks nuance feeds anti-Israel radicalism. By fiercely attacking all critics of the occupation – even two-state Zionists – the Jewish community pushes critics of right-wing Israeli politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett into the arms of BDS. The Princeton Hillel angered its own students when it campaigned to defeat a non-BDS, occupation-focused boycott. I wrote an article against BDS, and commenters called me a “kapo” for mentioning the occupation. J Street doesn’t support any boycotts or divestments, yet right-wing Jewish critics made a movie to demonize it for supposedly threatening America’s relationship with Israel.
Progressives notice. Why take a nuanced, moderate stance, if you will still be smeared and attacked? Balancing Zionism and progressivism is hard enough without Jewish institutions declaring war on liberal Zionists. After years of right-wing gatekeeping within the Jewish community, we should not be surprised that progressives think the choice is BDS or Bibi.
If Jews want to avoid future BDS victories, we have to offer an alternative plan for ending the occupation. We should do so on our own, Zionist terms, insisting on a two-state solution and a secure Israel. As an American Jew, I favor selective divestments aimed at the West Bank, investing in progressive elements in Israeli society, and political lobbying in Washington D.C. – but I am open to better ideas.
Alternatively, you can write off progressive America, claim we are a bunch of anti-Semites who know nothing about the conflict, and demonize anyone who talks about the occupation. You can smear J Street and the New Israel Fund, and you can go to war with Jon Stewart, The New York Times, and the Presbyterians. Just don’t be surprised when the next union votes for BDS.
Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.