Liberal Values and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement

By Rebecca Vilkomerson

The inherent contradictions between American liberalism and support for Israeli policies are on a sudden, public, collision course. Until very recently, it was easy to identify as someone who cares for human rights and equality, while in practice avoiding forms of activism that impose any consequences for its actions on Israel. Those days may be drawing to a close.

Omar Barghouti’s recent op-ed in the Sunday New York Times, the ultimate prize in opinion piece placement, made a cogent, thorough, and, most importantly, principled argument for BDS based on the values of equality and fighting against oppression. Also taking a clear stance against anti-Semitism, his piece was a clarion call for support to the prototypical liberal readers of the New York Times. And, in fact the letters to the editor printed in response to his piece were overwhelmingly positive.

During the same period, two BDS-related campaigns were making headlines around the world. When Scarlett Johansson became the spokesperson for SodaStream, a company with its main factory in an Israeli settlement, the worldwide pressure resulted in her being forced to choose between being a spokesperson for Oxfam, a human rights organization, and her SodaStream gig. It seems that no one, not even A-list celebrities, can be considered humanitarians or human rights advocates any longer if they have anything at all to do with the settlements, which, of course, are illegal under international law.

Meanwhile, when the American Studies Association (ASA) passed a resolution endorsing a form of academic boycott against Israeli institutions in December, the backlash began to build, resulting in multiple states, as well as Congress, introducing legislation that would punish or condemn the ASA for its actions. The first bill, introduced in New York, was backed by Sheldon Silver, the power broker of the state legislature. It sailed through the Senate and was expected to pass within days. But a coalition quickly coalesced to fight the bill, with university faculty and administrators weighing in, culminating in a New York Times editorial that condemned the bill for its assault on political speech on campuses. The bill in its current form was withdrawn. Though a new version is slowly wending its way through the legislature, the lesson to be heeded is that it is no longer cost free for politicians to try to score political points by attacking critics of Israel while shredding free speech.

This is nothing short of a new reality. So it is not surprising that people who identify themselves as liberal, who have been willing to gently criticize Israel—but not to the point of endorsing any action that would compel it to change its behavior—are finding themselves tied in knots in trying to reconcile their values with their positions on Israel.

Critics of the BDS movement often use loaded language and fear-based appeals to rally opposition against BDS. Right here on Tikkun Daily, for example, Timothy Villareal’s post on Barghouti’s op-ed attributes thoughts to a nameless Palestinian to “prove” that the Palestinians want to “kick the Jews out”—without any acknowledgement of the over 700,000 Palestinians who were “kicked out” of Israel (i.e., became refugees during the Nakba)—including, perhaps, the anonymous man he has just quoted.

Villareal then goes on to accuse Barghouti of “craftily” using references to equality, universal human rights, and historic Jewish liberalism to hoodwink young idealists into supporting BDS.  The blatant appeal to the classic racist stereotype of Arabs who can’t be trusted is dusted off to dismiss the idea that the Palestinian-led campaign for BDS could be taken at face value, without any examination of the consistent application of these values in BDS campaigns worldwide.

He writes:
And yet, he craftily spells this out by tugging at the heartstrings of those who deeply sympathize with the right of Palestinian national self-determination, and broader Arab human rights and dignity.

Roger Cohen expanded on the same theme in a recent column in the New York Times. Stating baldly that “I do not trust the BDS movement,” he goes on to say that “this is the hidden agenda of BDS, its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise, and suffocate.”

Besides the not so subtle recourse, again, to evoking common racist tropes about Arabs, there is one big problem with this statement: there is nothing hidden about the BDS movement’s agenda. The goals of BDS, just as Cohen recounts them, hew closely to the fundamental principles of the liberal world view: human rights, equality, and international law. But to acknowledge the legitimacy of these demands would also demand an accounting of how these universally recognized rights square with the privilege and power accorded to Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians.

Rather than wrestle honestly with the contradiction of his values and the instinct to give in to his fears, Cohen goes on the attack. As a way to prove the distance from the current BDS movement to the movement against Apartheid, Cohen quotes Diana Shaw Clark (who according to a quick google search is best known as a fundraising “bundler” for Obama) as saying, “People affiliated with divestment in South Africa had no agenda but the liberation and enfranchisement of an oppressed minority.” No matter that leading veterans of the anti-apartheid movement have embraced the Palestinian BDS movement, noting the similarity of their struggles. More important is the glaring myopia of this statement, not recognizing that the elements and goals of the two struggles are exactly the same.

This creates a conundrum for authors like Cohen, and the vast swath of American Jews who share his views. As a self-described liberal, his fundamental values should be the full equality and liberty of all people. To acknowledge that these are the core goals of the BDS movement should—and hopefully someday will—compel him to join it. But for the moment, his fears of Jewish loss of privilege and control lead him instead to take refuge in vague accusations of anti-Semitism and deceit.

The time has come for liberals with integrity to grapple with the core questions that the BDS movement raises. This is doubly true for Jewish liberals for whom these questions are often the most clouded by emotion and history. Is it possible for Israel to be “Jewish and Democratic” when already over 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian? Can Jewish self-determination legitimately be built on the denial of Palestinian human rights? As a people who have experienced over and over the trauma of refugee-hood and longing for homeland, how can we possibly deny the validity of the right of return for Palestinians? And which do we value more: our fears or our respect for the universality of rights for all people? Perhaps the panic we’re seeing from authors like Villareal and Cohen is because both inside and outside the Jewish community, more and more people are prioritizing rights for all without conflating such rights with the destruction of Israel.

Rebecca Vilkomerson is the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace (www.jvp.org).

Originally published on the Tikkun Daily Blog