Occupation Is the Issue; BDS Is a Distraction

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published November 17, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
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In case you haven’t noticed, the sky is falling.

Yes, again. This time it’s the imminent danger of the Global BDS movement. BDS: Boycott, divestment, sanctions. Soon, we’re told, very soon, Israel will be crippled, its economy in ruins, its legitimacy destroyed. Accordingly, a mobilization to oppose the Global BDS movement is now the highest priority of the pro-Israel community.

In fact, the sky is not falling. The Global BDS does, indeed, intend Israel ill, is eager to destroy Israel if it can. But it has experienced only paltry and sporadic success since its formal inception in 2005, and has now the character of an occasional shower rather than a monsoon. The sky is not falling.

It suits the Israel advocacy community to sound the alarm whenever Israel’s legitimacy is questioned, no matter how feeble the challenge. Its rebuttal of choice is to denounce the motives of the BDS people, revealing them to be bent on Israel’s destruction rather than merely on a change in its policies — and to insist on a full right of return for all Palestinian refugees.

That argument is doomed not because it is faulty but because it falls on deaf ears.

How so? Here’s Tom Friedman, on a recent Israeli television program cited by Bradley Burston in his Haaretz column: “You are losing the American people. Not to dislike, not to opposition; they are fed up, fed up with the Palestinians … fed up with the Mideast in general. But they’re also fed up with Israel. … All we’re asking is just test — go all the way to test whether you have a real partner. And you say ‘No, first pay me — let Pollard out of jail, have Abu Mazen sing Hatikva in perfect Yiddish, and then we’ll think about testing.’ It rubs a lot of people the wrong way.”

Or read Peter Beinart: “[The] obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967 — strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.”

Broadcast as often as you like, shout the message as loud as you can — but if the intended audience isn’t listening, you can easily end up like Meg Whitman, spending $143 million to become governor of California and losing by double digits. Israel has become, to many of those the Israel advocacy agencies now seek to persuade, either too complicated or, simply, a bore, a place where nothing ever changes and whose government cannot stop whining.

Well, maybe that’s good news. At least they are not paying attention to BDS, either, hence not available to Israel’s avowed enemies.

But among those who may, whether intentionally or inadvertently, hear the indictments of the BDS people, some residual concern for the safety of the Jewish state may be aroused. It is for them, then, that the strongest argument against BDS must be broadcast.

What is that argument? It was made compellingly and more elaborately last week at a Brooklyn panel on BDS by Kathleen Peratis (an attorney who also happens to be a director of the Forward Association, which publishes the Forward): Opposition to BDS is a diversion, as BDS itself is a diversion. The issue — no, THE ISSUE — is the Occupation. It is the occupation that lies at the very heart of the effort to delegitimize Israel, and it is on the Occupation that those who care even a smidgen for Israel’s safety should be spending their time and energy opposing. When the Occupation goes away, Global BDS will simply fizzle. Until the Occupation goes away, Global BDS will claim the high moral ground. Hence: Negotiations, compromise.

But instead of focusing on the core issue, we now invest our time and money in seeing to it that this Boston suburb or that Portland food co-op does not endorse BDS. How? As an organization called Stand With Us puts it, “The BDS campaign is working hard to brand Israel. We must now work to brand the BDS movement as deceptive and destructive.” And we have a new and coordinated effort that includes the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, with initial funding in the millions of dollars, with roughly the same goal: Denounce BDS. Once again (yawn), Israel as embattled victim.

That familiar story line may be more convenient than full-throated support for a two-state solution, but at three minutes to midnight, it’s not convenience that should determine our course. BDS? Remember to take your umbrella. Occupation? To the barricades!

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