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On Resistance: BDS and Israel’s Declining Support Among Diaspora Jews

Photo by Kate Ausburn | CC BY 2.0

Like its predecessor movement decades ago in South Africa, assessing the success of BDS against Israel today necessarily rubs up against the tension between Israeli hasbara (propaganda) and its reality as an effective organizing tool against it throughout the world.

Though Israel has repeatedly claimed BDS has proven to be a failed venture, it’s a contention very much in desperate search of fact. Indeed, one need only look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that Israel has spent in various anti-BDS efforts to discern that its impact is not just productive, but poses a dynamic threat to the status quo ante of the state.

Why else would it continue to invest such large, indeed, increasing amounts of money against a movement that it asserts has had no cognizable impact upon its policies or its future?

To be sure, Israel has spent vast sums of money on anti-BDS lobbyists and publicity and on a veritable army of social media trolls used to promote fantasy as desperate push back against the truthful and appealing fact laden argument and results of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

It has expanded its use of public relations and law firms throughout the world in an effort to silence the movement through attacks on academic freedom, faculty and students and by legislative fiat designed to criminalize, sanction and otherwise deter persons or groups that engage in support for the BDS effort.

To the extent that pro Israeli lobbyists such as AIPAC have been able to purchase some state and federal anti-BDS legislative enactments in the United States, ultimately they will prove to be, of no moment, costly pyrrhic victories as courts strike them down as unconstitutional infringement upon free speech and association.

Further evidence of BDS achievement can be found through Israel’s dramatic increase in the use of travel and immigration bans to sanitize and control the debate over its domestic agenda.

Of late, thousands of Jews involved in the worldwide BDS movement have been banned from traveling to Israel. This unprecedented step demonstrates Israel fears BDS as a powerful global movement which could sway its domestic policy debate if activist Jews were permitted to enter the state. Ultimately, suppression of contentious ideas is the best evidence that the message itself is one the censor’s pen fears most.

In other ways Israel’s well-founded fear of BDS is conspicuous. Thus, while its machinery of censorship has long hidden behind the talisman of national security to control the publication of so-called military activity, it has expanded exponentially to now include information about the growth and efficacy of the BDS movement worldwide.

Indeed, attempts to silence the discussion of BDS success have become increasingly widespread in the massive world of social media. Whether by “voluntary” compliance of social networks or through legislative enactments of the Knesset, here, too, Israel seeks to downplay the achievement of BDS at, literally, the very moment it expands its assault upon it.

It takes little observation to see the palpable disconnect between Israel’s bullish claims that BDS poses no challenge to the course of its domestic strategy and the marked reality it sees as the mounting voice of BDS becomes a dramatic threat to those very policies.

Israel’s desperate, knee-jerk response to a purely peaceful international boycott speaks powerfully about its success in exposing not just the tailored and false Israeli narrative, but its significant impact on various aspects of its society including economic, social and political norms.

As so much the arsonist pouring gasoline on the flames while shouting fire, fire, fire, Israel’s attempt to silence internal political discourse and debate over the rights and freedom of Palestinians by seeking to curb those Jews who choose to partake in it, is destined to fail.

In point of fact, ultimately, it will only serve to expand opposition to Israeli policies among growing numbers of so-called Diaspora Jews who historically have served as a blind rubber stamp to its agenda.

If the BDS movement presents any weakness to date, it is that some of its advocates have conflated participation in geo-political support for a boycott effort with personal empowerment to seek to define, at times dictate, the nature of resistance on the ground, in occupied Palestine.

Thus, some movements and individual activists, particularly among Jewish supporters have used the BDS platform to argue that resistance to Israeli oppression in Palestine must necessarily be limited to individual acts of non-violence or peaceful mass protest alone.

In deigning to “legitimatize” and promote one form of resistance, to the exclusion of  all others, advocates of such politically correct dogma subvert, indeed weaken, the core intent of BDS- namely that of an international movement designed to pressure Israel, as an adjunct to resistance in Palestine, as determined and defined solely by Palestinians themselves.

BDS was calculated to serve as an international movement to pressure from the outside an otherwise intransigent Israeli state and body politic. To some, however, it has apparently evolved to provide “entitlement” as full and equal partners in a decision-making process that is not theirs to partake in let alone to decide.

As with all international human rights movements and struggles, this disconnect is not one beyond repair.  Ultimately, it will be overcome as the BDS movement continues to grow and mature.

Diaspora Jews

Today, there are twice as many Jews living in New York City than in any city of Israel. As a whole, there are more Jews who live outside of Israel than within it.

Historically, almost all the world’s Jewry has supported Israel as so much a rite of passage from childhood when, beginning long ago, parents and grandparents spoke with glowing praise of a Jewish state built of principled hard work… anchored by democratic ideal.

It was a lie. A grand, perverse lie; one passed with success, in silence, among Diaspora Jews who knew nothing but families and lives built largely of tradition and belief, insulated and isolated from the appalling reality of a far-off Israeli state ripped from the age-old land and history that was, and remains, Palestine.

If truth is the ultimate linchpin of freedom, for some, calculated falsehood has proven to be an accomplished segue between manipulated historical fact and unworthy political survival. Nowhere is that more manifestly apparent, or proven, than it has been with regard to the grand sale of Israel.

In this tale, Israel provides to Jews the hope of a place to one day visit or live, to spend time and passage with those of “shared belief” or, in times of need, to find refuge from a seeming repetitive, cruel history that has sought to punish them in many places… for little more than being Jews.

Born in a time where tailored controlled verse was so much the rule and technology of the day, for decades Zionists successfully sold the narrative of an enlightened state under siege; a small, idealistic pond surrounded by an enormous voracious sea of enemies hell-bent on its destruction.

For children in Hebrew schools throughout the world, be they from the most orthodox of families to those who embraced Reform Judaism to others anchored somewhere in between, the idea of an unbreakable birth-bond between them and Israel became the driving primer of each day.

At yearly festivals, prayers sought to connect today’s families with Jews of a distant millennium together with those who live an essentially state-defined life of Judaism in Israel, one far removed from the theological underpinning of its birth.

From these Zionist sacraments, it was expected, indeed, became the almost preordained norm, that Jews outside of Israel were obligated to lend their obedient voice and moral and financial support to a state most knew nothing about other than the carefully crafted message passed down from generation to generation.

Wars came and went with Israeli figures elevated to iconic stature built from little more than body counts meted out by them, and their minion, upon largely defenseless civilians.

Over time, with doublespeak in the lead, no outrage proved beyond the pale. A brutal occupation became a necessary, but tempered, security step; apartheid a misunderstood gesture to enable Jews and Palestinians to pursue and strengthen their unique identities and faith, among themselves, in safety; embargoes of food, medicine and water a minimal construct to prevent the introduction of weapons of terror. And so it goes, on and on and on. An institutional state of successful rewrite that has long controlled the storyline that defined it.

As with all myth, sooner or later reality swallows a sculpted sale… be it of the moment, the person or the state. In this case, for Diaspora Jews, a reckoning with painful truth was to come…  and now grows, day by day, in particular among a generation of millennials weaned from dutiful support for a mythical place and time that did not, and does not, exist.

For a generation of Jews born against the pall of the atrocities of Deir Yassin and a hundred other ravaged, age-old Palestinian villages, the Hollywood classic “Exodus” proved to be a quixotic lure.  After all, who could withstand the good looks and charisma of Paul Newman or Sal Mineo.

For them, the desperate flight from the strangle of genocide to the welcome and safe arms of their own “homeland” was a tale that echoed throughout Jewish communities of the day with scant second thought or challenge. To do so was rank heresy.

For those of us who came of age later, during the militant days of the US civil rights and anti war movements, the journey from obedient cheer to unbridled challenge proved to be an essential leap of faith that moved many from complacency to confrontation. For some Jews of the time, the ring of challenge necessarily meant a de nova look at long settled misconceptions about just what Israel was, indeed, had always been. It was not a pretty picture.

For more than a few, it set in motion a life-long examination that often stumbled for want of fresh eyes or reliable information. Decades away from cell phones, YouTube, the internet, and alternative news sources, we were largely driven by information cast by but a hand full of structured reports within acceptable margins controlled by a few major media outlets.

Indeed, when it came to Israel, ours was not a generation moved by the reality of bombings, assassinations or collective punishment that unfolded in virtual time for all to see. To the contrary, we were force-fed the dreamy tempt of socialist kibbutzim bringing forth life from a barren desert… only later to learn that its sanded base was but a thin windblown veneer over the rubble of destroyed Palestinian villages and the skeletal remains of children.

Lest there be any failed memory or fidelity on our part, once a year, tens of thousands of    Holocaust survivors appear at memorials in Israel for those left behind, only later to be returned to the darkness of their own abject poverty.   And who can forget the grandmotherly smile of Prime Minister Golda Meir wrapped in her apron preparing blintzes for guests only later to proclaim, “there is no such thing as a Palestinian…[it’s] not as though there was a Palestinian people… and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them… they did not exist.”

Today, the Jewish community in the United States is very different from the one that I was reared in.  Generations have come and gone where the prettied-up narrative has long since been replaced by the reality of an open and honest examination, especially among young American Jews, of a state built of brazen land theft and ethnic cleansing; one maintained by occupation and apartheid punctuated by very public, periodic bursts of mindless death and destruction.

In the internet age, it is simply no longer possible to suppress or recast the horror of Palestinian life under the brutal control of an Israeli state that has long since held itself out as beyond the reach of international or humanitarian law in its drive to cleanse Palestine of its entire indigenous population. Today, this reality moves a generation of young Diaspora Jews in ways over fundamental human rights and social justice long ignored or rationalized away by their parents and grandparents.

Whether it’s the reality of Jewish picnickers overlooking Gaza and applauding with the blast of each phosphorous bomb exploding on civilians below, the death of infants for want of energy for incubators, mass incarceration of Palestinian children without formal charge or trial, the murder of defenseless unarmed demonstrators, rampaging “settlers” screaming death to Arabs or elected Palestinian “Israelis” ejected from the Knesset for daring to challenge the political rampage of  its Jewish majority, the daily nightmare that is Palestine increasingly resonates with anger and resistance among millennial Jews who shout, “not in our name.”

For decades Israel came to depend upon Diaspora Jews for political, economic and moral support that was provided without question or challenge as so much primordial identification.  Those days are gone. In demonstrations, meeting halls, academia, and through alliances with other social justice groups, a new generation of informed and outraged Jews has, at long last, rejected the notion of a Jewish state built on the back of endless Palestinian suffering and injustice. Indeed, more than a few challenge the very legitimacy of the state of Israel.

The idea of unconditional support for an authoritarian Jewish state has lost its long secure place as increasing numbers of millennial Jews see, and rightly so, silence as willing complicity.

The closure of Gaza is now more than a decade old as millions are held hostage, daily, to a cruel and systematic attack on their very existence. The occupation is more than fifty years old. Throughout Palestine, not a day passes without a new and very public Israeli outrage.

For Diaspora Jews, the battle against ruthless Israeli hegemony will neither be easy nor painless. At times, it will echo with the determined and peaceful call of BDS. Some will be drawn to the barricade of militant resistance and, perhaps, pay a terrible price for that step. Still, others will preach to the uncertain through prose or poetry that resonates with the sweet lyric of freedom.

Resistance demands determined diversity. It is long. It is hard. It is costly. For eleven million stateless Palestinians there is no alternative until justice be had.

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Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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