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Why We Liberal Zionists Need BDS – Even If We Oppose It

This week, Israel placed twenty far-left groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and CodePink, on a “blacklist.” Leaders of groups that support the boycott against Israel will no longer be allowed into its borders.

This is bad news, no doubt about it. Strong democracies welcome dissent, from citizens and foreigners alike. Only insecure, authoritarian regimes fear foreign critics.

Nor is it any excuse that JVP and others support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Boycotting the boycotters only strengthens the hard left’s vision of itself as existing in a camp diametrically opposed to Israel, undermining any case for dialogue or engagement between the progressive world and Israel. All that seems to me to be fairly obvious, and a backlash against the ban has been swift and near universal in the liberal Zionist camp.

But liberal Zionists like me, who believe in the State of Israel’s right to exist but not its right to occupy millions of Palestinians, should be worried about this boycott for a more basic, practical reason as well. As much as we might hate to admit it, the center-left depends upon the radical left, in more ways than one.

J Street may not like JVP, but J Street needs JVP.

The symbiosis between the radical and moderate left is not obvious. In its statement against the blacklist, J Street started by affirming that it “strongly opposes the Global BDS Movement,” and it has even collaborated with the Netanyahu government to fight the boycott.

On the other side, if you spend time reading pro-BDS media like the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, you might think that the major middle-east conflict was between anti-Zionists and liberal Zionists; the hard left is often more venomous about liberal two-staters, who (they say) are not just racist colonizers, but also hypocrites and liars.

But BDS needs the center-left. BDS’s demands are extreme, radical, and fringe. Realistically, they should dream of growing strong enough that we in the center-left can co-opt them, ultimately granting them half of what they want.

And the truth is that liberal Zionists need the radicals to our left just as much.

Why? Three reasons.

First, liberal Zionists legitimize themselves in the Jewish world by attacking and being attacked by the far left. When I worked at a liberal Zionist blog, I was overjoyed to be attacked from the Left. I would file the articles away, to produce when accused of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism by someone to my right. How can I be an anti-Semite when the far-left sees me as the apotheosis of Zionism?

Conversely, when I once lumped J Street and JVP together in an op-ed, I received angry emails from a staffer at J Street; the organization positions itself as “moderate” and “mainstream” precisely by marginalizing those to its left.

Without that left flank, liberal Zionists would have a tougher time defending ourselves from attacks from the right and delineating ourselves as legitimate critics of Israel who also believe in its right to exist. After all, to be able to say, “We’re not like them,” there has to be a “them.”

Second, and relatedly, liberal Zionists need BDS to thrive because we currently have no other leverage over Israel. Both the American and Israeli governments are run by right-wing nationalists. The Palestinians are weak and divided, Europe is largely disengaged, the Arab world is selling out the Palestinians, the peace process has stalled, terrorism is contained, and the Israeli economy is flourishing.

In short, there are few reasons for Israelis or their government to listen to progressive critiques, to consider shifting course, or to question the occupation. For many centrists and right-wingers, fear of the boycott is the only reason they have to pay attention to their critics on the left. The point is not that J Street wanted to collaborate with Netanyahu’s government, it’s that Netanyahu’s government would even meet with J Street.

BDS is still quite weak. But its mere existence terrifies Israel (hence the blacklist), and liberal Zionists can use it as a bogeyman to force concessions. “The only way for Israel to effectively confront and defeat” BDS, J Street has said, “is by pursuing and reaching a two-state peace agreement that resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and brings an end to over fifty years of occupation.”

Listen to us, that is — or else.

Finally, the center-left needs BDS because we need non-Jews to achieve our goals. Jewish Israelis are largely apathetic about the occupation, and understandably so; it barely affects their lives. Many American Jews are hawkish on Israel, and that’s not to mention evangelical Christians, who are solidly right-wing and far outnumber Jews. Both in America and worldwide, liberal Zionism thus needs progressive and radical non-Jews to be its allies.

But liberal Zionism is an ideology of compromise and nuance. It cannot possibly appeal to a non-Jew, since it is based on delicately balancing Jewish nationalism and Left universalism. We can no more expect non-Jews to be liberal Zionists than we can expect them to be modern Orthodox. Both paradoxical conjunctions reflect attempts to synthesize inconsistent heritages; almost no one would arrive at either position starting from the outside.

If liberal Zionists want non-Jewish allies in ending the occupation, we must accept they likely won’t share our love of falafel, nostalgia for kibbutzim, or our tears during Hatikvah. The non-Jewish left, realistically, will support the Palestinian call for BDS and advocate for full equality between Palestinians and Jews. If liberal Zionists spurn such a left, we spurn the only allies we have.

Now, our dependence on BDS places liberal Zionists in a funny position. We rely upon people who hate our guts and call us self-deluding racists. We publicly denounce and decry boycotts (as I have), even as we secretly know that were it not for the boycotts, it’d be us on the blacklist.

We must hope that progressive America adopts an ideology that is anathema to us, because it’s the only hope we have of convincing Israelis to change course. But that’s okay. Politics isn’t about moral purity or cohesion; it’s about locating and strengthening the forces at your disposal. The center-left needs to think carefully about its relation to the radical left, if we are to have any chance of ending the occupation.

Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

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