I have this vivid memory burned into my mind from my college days—there was one day I walked into York University’s main rotunda, encountering a crowd throbbing with anger and rage. In the center of this near-violent mob was a hastily-constructed model of Israel’s so-called Apartheid wall. In front of it were students dressed as Israeli soldiers, signs on their backs reading “Born to Kill,” pointing toy guns at babies brought in by their hijab-wearing mothers for this sickening dramatization of the “real story” of what happens in the Occupation, in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper. This production was put on by a student group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, or SPHR for short.
I was quite bothered by the demonization of Israelis and the antagonism towards Jewish students on our enormous campus. I was angered when one of its active Arab members boasted he wouldn’t be happy until he was dancing on a tank in Jerusalem. And I was astounded that some of the heads of SPHR at York were intelligent Jewish students who preached lies and biased reads of data. But the part that got me most was that these folks who cared so much for Palestinian Human rights didn’t seem to really care about all terrible living conditions the Palestinians faced— they cared only about those caused by Israeli actions. SPHR wasn’t interested in a workable two-state solution for a Palestinian home; they were engaged entirely in Anti-Israel propaganda. SPHR with the excitement and energy that can only come from cheering college students on a bandwagon, sought nothing short than the end of Israel.
My college experience years ago was only the beginning. Here’s a recent excerpt from the Washington Post, from September 15:
“When [Iranian-Jewish student] Arielle Mokhtarzadeh arrived at University of California, Berkeley, to attend the annual Students of Color Conference, she had no way of knowing she would be leaving as a victim of anti-Semitism…. ‘Over the course of what was probably no longer than an hour, my history was denied, the murder of my people was justified, and a movement whose sole purpose is the destruction of the Jewish homeland was glorified. Statements were made justifying the ruthless murder of innocent Israeli civilians, blatantly denying Jewish indigeneity in the land, and denying the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered,’ she said. ‘Why anyone in their right mind would accept these slanders as truths baffles me. But they did. These statements, and others, were met with endless snaps and cheers.”
We, the Jewish people, are at war with an enemy who seeks to destroy us under the banner of Pro-Palestinian statehood. There are many organizations that legitimately seek Palestinian rights and two-states, but many of these Palestinian solidarity-type organizations that claim to seek justice are no more for co-existence than were last summer’s random stabbers hunting in the streets of Tel Aviv. This anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish war is being fought at all levels of society, and unfortunately, most of the unwitting soldiers in this fight, by virtue of their being Jewish and pursuing a higher education, are our college students. According to Tablet Magazine, just in the 2014-2015 academic year, the number of campuses with anti-Israel efforts grew by 31.2% and is now at 181. That is 181 university campuses with not pro-Palestinian but Anti-Israel activities taking place.
Arguably, the most successful effort of these current anti-Israel efforts is the BDS movement— or Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, a movement endorsed in this very nation, among others, by Presbyterian Church USA, Jill Stein (the Reform Jewish leader of the Green party), and the unfortunately highly necessary #BlackLivesMatter movement.
I know that many of us here this evening are staunch Zionists, and many of us are well aware of the malevolent nature of BDS, regardless of our politics and attitudes toward Israel. However, I believe this discussion to be necessary for all of us, because it is not enough to stand idly by and ignore what’s happening with BDS; they are too successful for that. Rather, we must arm ourselves with information to counter its effects: to defend Israel, delegitimize BDS, and offer appropriate avenues for critique of Israel.
Many who support BDS who are not naturally predisposed against the Jewish people do so because BDS holds itself as a legitimate movement simply seeking to bring justice and equality to Palestinians by putting economic pressure on Israel, in the way we might boycott any nation going down a path dangerous to another people. But, lest we think that it could be justifiable for a person, may even a Jew, to engage in such efforts as BDS, let me clarify a few points.
First and foremost, let it be stated for the record, BDS does not seek a two-state co-existence with the Jewish people. They make abundantly clear on their website that they are against the entire Zionist enterprise, which they label as colonialism and occupation. Yes, it is true that many Palestinians were forcibly displaced when Jews immigrated to the land of Israel. But, many of our detractors deny another truth: that Jews have also lived in the land of Israel for millenia, and have also been subject to discrimination and violence from Arab neighbors. One example of this kind of denial is currently at the south-eastern corner of the Temple Mount where Palestinians seek to destroy archeological evidence of a 2000-year-old Jewish presence, all the while blaming the Jews for the Palestinian’s tunneling close to Al Aqsa to make more space for their mosques. Our Temple mission to Israel two years ago volunteered in sorting through some of the very artifacts these Palestinians removed as tunneling refuse. And if this evidence isn’t enough, let’s look to the BDS writers. One pro-BDS author, Ahmed Moor, stated in 2010,“Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself.” And co-founder of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Omar Barghouti, said, “The current phase has all the emblematic properties of what may be considered the final chapter of the Zionist project. We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it, for Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.”
Most of the BDS higher-ups have no desire for two-states; they want the end of Israel, and one state, for Palestinians and Palestinians alone. As part of this refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, BDSers and their kind go to the point of denying that Jews actually have a national identity, implying that we as Jews are simply a religion not a people worthy of coming together in our own home, and not worthy of calling ourselves a civilization. By the way, that Jewish people are a civilization is not only a founding tenet of the State of Israel, it is the founding tenet of Reconstructionist Judaism.
A second issue with these movements: Not only are BDS and its like against Israel’s existence, they also spread lies and inaccuracies, rarely bothering to fact check their statements about Israel. This Apartheid Wall to which they so often refer exists not because Israel seeks to debase the Palestinians or restrict their movements for racial reasons– the wall, or security fence in most places, was put up because suicide bombers and other attackers were coming from the West Bank. And the wall works. When it was built, the number of bombings decreased. Claiming the wall that protects Israel’s citizens from bombers to be an apartheid wall completely ignores the reality that the country built the barrier to defend its citizens against actual threats. And, calling the barrier an Apartheid Wall also disrespects actual Apartheid and anyone who has suffered through it! Apartheid is a minority ruling over a majority through segregation and discrimination. Yes, Israelis are militarily occupying the West Bank and blockading Gaza. The situation is nowhere near perfect. But, Arabs living in the State of Israel who choose to be citizens have full, non-segregated democratic rights in Israeli society. So much so that there are Arab political parties in the K’nesset. The oppression in the West Bank can be linked to many factors, many unpalatable. An Apartheid segregationist racist desire is not one of them.
My third issue: BDS and its like hold Israelis and Palestinians to a double standard. Supporters of BDS rarely go after other nations that violate human rights much more seriously. Just look at the crackdowns and thousands of arrests in Turkey this summer. Where is the stand to boycott the Turkish government? And another double standard, in connection to Palestinian refugees. Did you know that there are two separate UN refugee resolutions that discuss issues such as who is a refugee, how might we support them, and whether they ought to be resettled? There’s one for Palestinians, and one for everyone else. Guess which one doesn’t explore resettlement, and defines all descendants of refugees as refugees themselves? Not the one for everyone else, which includes Jews forced out of Arab lands before 1948.
And last; in fighting for freedoms, these movements attack one of the very freedoms we in the free world hold dear. Academic freedom. BDS does not encourage free speech. It shuts it down. It demands that Israeli professors be barred from teaching anywhere else, and its supporters on college campuses drown out through shouting and ruckus any attempts of Jewish and Israeli speakers to offer ideas contrary to their thinking. What ever happened to the Western value of considering voices different from ours? Is this not a principle essential to a Western education? Perhaps BDS seeks to end debate with the Zionist enemy because if they actually engaged the opposing viewpoint, they would be unable to make their case effectively. And it would be clear that their influence is not only destroying good will towards Israel, it’s also destroying free speech on college campuses. Perhaps they even seek an end to free speech, just as we see in many of the Arab states, and what we would certainly see in a Hamas-run Palestine.
BDS, in seeking the end of a Jewish state, in selling lies as truth and disrespecting the suffering of others, in aggrandizing the holding of double standards, and in embracing the hypocrisy of fighting for human rights by ignoring those which get in the way, has not only declared war against the Jewish people; BDS is fighting against Western society. And they, with their successful propaganda, have recruited so many from within our society, and within our people, that they have turned us against ourselves. It is our duty, as Jews and as human beings who espouse human rights and good thinking, to bring down BDS and other anti-Israel movements.
We do so, not by shouting Israel-Rah-Rah-Rah from every roof top, but by taking the kernel of goodness in their work—the fighting for Palestinian rights—and building on it on our own terms, arguing for mutual acceptance of responsibility, mutual acknowledgements of rights to land and life, and mutual acceptance of the reality of the other.
On Rosh Hashanah, we hear the clarion call of the Shofar, calling us to action, to change ourselves for the better for the coming year. Rosh Hashanah is about the individual and his or her relationship with God, which could lead us to conclude that it is a time for focusing on ourselves. But you would conclude this incorrectly! This would make sense were we to observe Rosh Hashanah locked in a room by ourselves at home, but this is not what we do. We gather together! We support and encourage each other. And we offer each other critiques, from a place of love and community, to help all of us be the best we can be.
It is our job, as Jews, to critique when we know that another person can be better. Until Israel has been fully repaired and perfected, as lovers of Israel we must engage in loving criticism. In connection to the Palestinian issue alone, Israel has of late done little to push forward a two-state agenda and continues, in the face of all expected internationally-savvy behavior, to build settlements on Palestinian land. And while Israel certainly treats Arabs as full citizens and is for many liberal-minded Arabs the best country in the Middle East in which to live, discrimination at the person-to-person level remains common.
So let us criticize, but through avenues that fight for the perfection of the Zionist dream, and not its destruction. Fight for justice for Palestinians (and Israelis too) by supporting organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, the Israel Religious Action Center, and the New Israel Fund.
Let us criticize, but through engaging in loving, serious, and committed conversation. Let us read about and speak about Israeli-Palestinian issues with those who have different perspectives than we do, by stating our concerns but still insisting that the Jewish people have a right to live under their own rule in the land of their ancestors.
Criticism and critique are necessary for growth, but they must be done from a place of love and a place of respect for the rights of a people and nation to exist. Anti-Zionist hateful boycotting, I guarantee, will not bring peace. Honest and critical thinking, and genuine and respectful dialogue very well might.
Let us hold these values close, let us express ourselves in a way befitting God’s people, and let us work together to make the State of Israel all that it can and ought to be. May this year be the year where those who speak out for our destruction be quieted, and where voices of respect and truth prevail. And, perhaps, hoping against all odds, this might be the year that a two-state solution is found, and peace will reign supreme.
Im Tirtzu Ain Zo Agadah.
If we can will it, it is no dream.
Delivered on erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 (2016) at Temple Emanu-El of Edison