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Penalizing BDS Is Un-American

The Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement has made waves in recent years, mobilizing grassroots anger over the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Movement’s one-sided approach and unbalanced politics should be blatantly unappealing to those who seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict that addresses the needs of both peoples.

Even as it fights for the rights of the Palestinians, the BDS Movement fails to acknowledge the parallel rights and interests of Israelis. It promotes the end of the state of Israel without putting forward support for an actual viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It fails tactically as well when it doesn’t distinguish between opposition to the existence of the state of Israel and opposition to policies and actions by both sides which fuel the conflict.

Ironically, the BDS Movement and Israel’s far-right settlers both end up arguing to erase the Green Line and the legal and policy distinctions it embodies between Israel and the territory it has controlled since 1967.

To counter the BDS Movement, overzealous opponents – from the Israeli government to Jewish communal leaders and American elected officials – are pursuing precisely the wrong strategy. Rather than looking to defeat the arguments of the Movement, they seek to silence it by passing laws that would penalize and criminalize its supporters.

Indeed, as communal leaders gather in Los Angeles this week for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, they’ll be discussing how to promote this type of legislation across the country.

They should realize that stifling freedom of speech and penalizing critics of Israel is not simply un-American — it’s deeply ineffective.

Over the past few weeks we’ve seen these heavy-handed pieces of legislation play out in disturbing ways. In Dickinson, Texas, applicants for federal flood relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey found that, to be eligible, they had to officially affirm that they do not boycott Israel – the result of a Texas anti-BDS law passed earlier this year.

In Wichita, Kansas, a local math teacher was denied a new teaching role by the state after she refused to sign a declaration that she does not boycott Israel. Now she’s the plaintiff in the ACLU’s federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Kansas’ anti-BDS law.

Far from undermining BDS advocates, these laws garner the BDS Movement sympathy from liberal and progressive audiences who may support Israel but are critical of its government – and believe that the free speech protections of the First Amendment must not be trampled.

Having passed over two dozen anti-BDS bills at the state level, their sights are now set on pushing federal legislation, in the form of the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act.”

Such proposals only further alienate progressive audiences – a huge mistake given that research shows they are precisely the critical battleground in the BDS debate.

A joint study released this year by the Anti-Defamation League and the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute found that the BDS Movement primarily aims to build support among a “long tail” of “soft critics” of Israeli policy. These are people who, according to the study, are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, but “do not share the vision or fundamental motivations of the delegitimizers.”

An effective strategy to oppose BDS would respect and acknowledge the serious concerns of this audience. It would articulate a pro-Israel, anti-occupation platform. It would reaffirm the necessity and justice of states for both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples and seriously hold accountable those who move us away from that goal – including the current, far-right Israeli government.

Most important, it would recognize a core component of both American democracy and the Jewish tradition: that we listen to, and argue with, those with whom we disagree.

BDS opponents in this country are mistakenly taking their cues from Israel’s right-wing politicians and others cracking down on democratic rights around the world by proposing to penalize criticism of Israel, the occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Instead, if mainstream communal leaders and lawmakers want an effective strategy to defeat the BDS Movement, perhaps they should take a cue from one of the greatest Zionists of all, Justice Louis Brandeis, who famously advised that the best way to counter speech one doesn’t like is “more speech, not enforced silence.”

In this case, the only sure way to defeat the Global BDS Movement and secure Israel’s future is with a strategy built around ending occupation and achieving a two-state solution.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group.


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