By Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace
Ken Stern, a specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) authored an op-ed piece in the JTA a couple of weeks back entitled BDS Campaign may be Failing but its Effort to Delegitimize Israel Remains Dangerous that was filled with cherry-picked facts, twisted half-truths, and half-told tales.
My own attention was drawn to the article because Stern refers, as evidence of the moral corruption of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, to the fact that the American Free Press (AFP), a despicable anti-Semitic and racist website, ran an interview with me earlier this month. The logic seemed to be that my consent to be interviewed, and the rather standard appreciation I expressed to the interviewer, was proof that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic at its core.
At first I gave Mr. Stern the benefit of the doubt—he couldn’t have known that the interviewer had approached me under false pretenses, that I was horrified and sickened to be featured without my consent on the AFP website, and that I had already been trying for days to get the interview removed, to no avail. But when I approached him with these facts, backed up by documentation, he told me, and later the JTA editors, that he would not remove that section of the article.
To be clear: for Mr. Stern and the AJC, scoring political points is apparently more important than their integrity or the simple truth.
Given my intimate knowledge of Stern’s approach to writing, a closer look at the column seemed worthwhile.
The first part of Stern’s thesis is that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is failing, and that the movement’s only actual success in the U.S. is the Olympia Co-op Israeli products boycott.
This is odd, since just in the last few months, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches have endorsed the boycott of settlement products. The Friends Fiduciary Committee divested $900,000 from Caterpillar in the spring, and, as Stern notes, MSCI, the leading indexer of socially responsible companies, delisted Caterpillar, at least in part because of the way its equipment is used in the Occupied Territories .
His description of this decision as “meaningless” seems willfully inaccurate, given this decision marks the first time that a financial services company has recognized that a company’s activities in Palestine are an element of how it is judged as a socially responsible investment company. Stern did not bother to add that as a result TIAA-CREF divested its Social Choice Funds of $72 million in Caterpillar stock, the largest divestment victory to date, one that TIAA-CREF CEO Roger Fergeson attributed at TIAA-CREF’s shareholder meeting in July at least in part to the work of divestment activists including Jewish Voice for Peace.
Stern claims that the comparison to BDS efforts to end apartheid in South Africa are specious, yet on August 22nd it was announced that South Africa has decided to label products made beyond the Green Line as “made in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” the first step toward state sanctions of those products. As described in Ha’aretz, this decision is garnering a lot of attention in Israel, in recognition of the parallels with sanctions imposed on South Africa by Israel in 1987 at the end of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa began calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions internationally in protest of the apartheid regimes from as early as 1959. While most people who remember BDS actions against South Africa are thinking of the 1980’s, right before Apartheid fell, the reality is that this decisive moment in the anti-apartheid struggle came after decades of hard organizing, with victories coming slowly. It is a mistake for BDS opponents to think that because the pace of victories is not yet akin to the 1980’s that the movement is failing. To the contrary, it seems to be progressing in the case of Palestine and Israel much faster than against South Africa.
The second part of Stern’s thesis is that the BDS movement seeks the end of Israel. To look at just one example in his column, he attacks Kairos U.S.A, a Christian group that calls for solidarity with Palestinian non-violent campaigners, as well as Israelis and others who support them, for saying that Jews do not have “an exclusive or preeminent right to the Holy Land,” but rather a right “to create a vibrant Jewish culture in historic Palestine.”
Let’s look at that statement more closely. It seems that unless the Jewish people are acknowledged as having the exclusive right to the land, then they are considered beyond the pale. But what about the 20% of the Israeli population that is not Jewish? What about the over 5 million indigenous Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem combined? In Ken Stern’s world, are you anti-Israel and anti-Semitic if you don’t buy into a vision of an ethnocratic state where one people have more value and more rights than any other?
Last week, we saw the natural end result of this kind of thinking. A gang of teenagers in the center of Jerusalem attempted to lynch some young Palestinians. Hundreds, including a policeman, watched and did nothing. One of the suspects, after he was arrested, said as far as he was concerned, that the victim could die, because, “he is an Arab.”
This is not the Israel that any of us can be proud of. The Israel that I was proud to be a part of when I lived there included the Israeli activists who put their very lives on the line to protest the policies being pursued in their names, who in the process created a glimpse of what the future of Israel and Palestine could look like if it were based on mutual support and cooperation, rather than fear and extremism.
Just as activists who support Palestinians who nonviolently fight against the Wall do not seek an end to Israel’s existence, the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa did not seek an end to South Africa’s existence. It sought freedom, dignity, and equality for all its citizens, regardless of race.
My own children hold Israeli citizenship. I would like them to have the option to live in an Israel that offers the same—freedom, dignity and equality, regardless of ethnicity or religion–the same values that I grew up with as an American. That is not about the end of Israel, but a vision for justice that all of us can be proud to say we’ve played a role in encouraging.
—-Rebecca Vilkomerson, firstname.lastname@example.org