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Responding to Pro-BDS Zionists

By Ameinu Office

In a Washington Post op-ed (Oct. 23)  by Harvard and University of Chicago academics, Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl (pictured here) identify themselves as Zionists who endorse the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) strategy targeting Israel — “We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel.”  Although a JTA article notes that they don’t have a history of Zionist activism, this does not refute their argument, much of which progressive Zionists can agree with:

. . . Nearly half a century after the Six-Day War, Israel is settling into the apartheid-like regime against which many of its former leaders warned.  . . .

[And] it is the occupation itself that truly threatens Israel’s long-term security: Occupation forces Israel into asymmetric warfare that erodes its international standing, limits its ability to forge regional alliances against sectarian extremists and, crucially, remains the principal motive behind Palestinian violence.

Still, The Third Narrative disagrees with their prescribed remedy:

The only tools that could plausibly shape Israeli strategic calculations are a withdrawal of U.S. aid and diplomatic support, and boycotts of and divestitures from the Israeli economy. Boycotting only goods produced in settlements would not have sufficient impact to induce Israelis to rethink the status quo.

It is thus, reluctantly but resolutely, that we are refusing to travel to Israel, boycotting products produced there and calling on our universities to divest and our elected representatives to withdraw aid to Israel. Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process . . .

Elliott Abrams’ one-sided response in the Washington Post, blaming the problem entirely on Palestinian violence and rejectionism, does not help.  While it is true that the violence and hateful rhetoric of Hamas and other Palestinians have been essential to the current ascendency of rejectionist and annexationist forces in Israel, this is not a one-way street.  The failure of negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in 2007-08 was not simply a matter of the Palestinians rejecting Israeli proposals, as Abrams contends; both processes were actually cut short by Israel because of a complex of events.

Following Camp David, the sides met again in Taba, Egypt, Jan. 21-27, where significant progress was reported but talks were terminated because of the fast approaching Israeli election for prime minister, February 6.  And in 2009, Israel was diverted from completing negotiations with Abbas by two things: the decision to launch Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, which diverted Israel from continuing the negotiations, and Olmert’s shaky legal status over a corruption investigation that led to his resignation as prime minister and new elections.  The elections in 2001 and in 2009 both resulted in new governments headed by prime ministers resistant (to say the least) to the kind of solutions entertained by their predecessors.

This post provides a limited sampling (not in exact order and sometimes abridged) of the extensive discussion on the joint Alliance for Academic Freedom/Scholars for Israel & Palestine email list, reacting to the Levitsky-Weyl op-ed:

[T]he assessment that we are at a critical juncture, that the occupation threatens to be permanent, and Israel is truant from its original Zionist mission, all seem on the money.  But the giant leap to “therefore we must support boycott,” because this will bring external pressure to bear, strikes me as thoughtless.

Will support for boycott dislodge the right wing in Israel or fortify it?  Will it produce the incentives required by the state to draw back many of those settled in the West Bank?  Will it give succor and support to those, many in the universities and in cultural circles, who carry the burden of opposition to the occupation in Israel?  Does it produce anything that increases life chances for or changes conditions for Palestinians? …..Kenneth Waltzer, James Madison College, Michigan State University

[T]he boycott impulse has a certain logic that we are going to have to address.  Given the political situation in Israel, and its continuing direction, there is a point at which a majority of liberal American Jews are going to say yesh givul [there is a limit].  For some that has already happened, for others it is going to happen.  …Steven Lubet, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law

I completely agree … that a spot-on critique of Israeli policy does not mandate support for BDS — but implicit in that is a giant problem for us, i.e., the BDS’sers have a strategy and we don’t.  I was thinking of how to write an opposing piece and that fact dissuaded me.  I don’t think BDS will work, it will push Israelis further into their cocoon, it throws in our lot with people who are genuinely anti-Israel, it hurts the wrong people, etc., etc.  But what then, i.e., now?  Obama is still compensating Israel for the Iran deal; there is no stomach in Washington for pressuring Israel, and the “world community,” for various reasons, doesn’t seem able to do anything effective.  Of course, we and others are (rightly) agitating and building support, but there is no strategy on the Left for getting there — and deep skepticism about the efficacy of our own tactics.  BDS’ers have a deeply flawed strategy, but it is very much an uphill climb for us to fight something with nothing.Paul Scham, University of Maryland

The answer is the one that has most confronted Zionism throughout its history – the lack of an interlocutor on the other side.  We have no guarantee that even should Bibi shed his wolfskin and reveal a sheep underneath and offer everything to the PA that was offered at Camp David and Taba, it would be met with any reasonable response.–Nigel Paneth, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University

For all the many and continuing flaws (an understatement) of the Palestinians, today it is Israel that is primarily blocking any reasonable purpose.  To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.  That is an excuse for inaction.  It is, of course, correct and legitimate to criticize Abbas and other Palestinians, but they seem to be willing to accept a compromise Israel should be willing to accept, but won’t. There is a huge literature on Camp David, Taba, and Olmert -Abu Mazen making clear why they didn’t work, and it was not Palestinian unwillingness to accept compromises (though they certainly share the blame for their failures).–Paul Scham

That is undoubtedly true, Nigel, but can it be persuasive to young American liberals (Jewish or not)?  They say, “we have to do something.”  What do we say?Steven Lubet

. . .  A staged route to peace, with first steps unilaterally taken by Israelis, has long seemed to me a viable alternative [to “all-or-nothing negotiations” which have failed in the past]. Only after tangible progress is made and some trust created are final stage negotiations realistic.  The intransigence of the current Israeli government does not mean that advocating and agitating for such an alternative route is invalid.–Cary Nelson, University of Illinois

Click here for Part 2 . . .

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