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How Palestinian Israelis Humiliated The BDS Movement

It’s been several days since Israeli politician Ayman Odeh made the historic announcement that he, as the leader of the Arab bloc in the Knesset, would recommend Benny Gantz as Prime Minister. It was a stunning development, after decades of Arab parties boycotting the recommendation process. And many American Jews were quick to notice the historic event, and its significance when it comes to the place of Arabs in Israeli society.

But on the anti-Zionist left, there was absolute silence: Nothing in Jewish Currents. No comment from the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. Radio silence from the anti-occupation and non-Zionist group IfNotNow.

A Palestinian politician decides to lend support to a Zionist party led by a former IDF general, and not a peep about it from the anti-Zionist left. It seemed like everyone who supports the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS, had simply missed the historic episode.

Then again, can you blame them? Ayman Odeh just poked all of them in the eye.

The BDS movement has three items on its agenda: ending the occupation in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza; securing equality for Israel’s Arab citizens, and ensuring the right of return for all refugees of 1948 and their descendants. In other words, it supports the end of the Jewish state. And its method for achieving this goal is to make Israel and its supporters into pariahs.

The first rule of BDS is never talk to Zionists — not if they’re liberal, not if they’re conservative, and not if they’re something in between. It’s why you are unlikely to see Linda Sarsour debating Jonathan Greenblatt at NYU. It’s why Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson doesn’t host Yossi Klein Halevi for a panel discussion on anti-Semitism (instead, she discusses the issue with — you guessed it — Linda Sarsour. And it’s why Students for Justice in Palestine never ask questions at college symposia featuring Israeli speakers; they just block the door or try to shut down the event.

According to the unwritten rules of BDS, there can be no conversation because co-existence is forbidden. To co-exist is to normalize, and to normalize is to condone.

Enter Ayman Odeh.

Odeh doesn’t seem to have any difficulties in demanding normalization. In last week’s election, an overwhelming number of the country’s Arab voters responded to his call for engagement, which was in essence a call for co-existence. Arab Israelis went to the polls in unexpectedly high numbers as a direct result of Odeh saying he would consider joining a Gantz-led government. Arab voter turnout jumped from a meager 49% in April to over 60% in September, thanks to Odeh’s stated willingness to play a more active role in government.

Odeh also reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution, which nearly all Palestinians in Israel support.

This commitment to two states for two peoples, coupled with his newfound eagerness to engage in Israeli politics, put Odeh at odds with the BDS movement. Or, more accurately, it puts the BDS movement at odds with the very oppressed group they purport to represent. The leaders of the BDS movement do not believe in the solution the UN called for in 1947, and do not believe a Palestinian state can live peacefully beside an Israeli one. BDS organizers have claimed since the beginning that Zionism is no better than racism, and Israel is an illegitimate settler-colonial state. The problem of the Palestinians, according to the movement, can only be solved by undoing Israel’s founding in 1948 and establishing a single Arab-majority state, from the river to the sea.

And yet, Palestinians on the front lines of the conflict in Israel have gone to the polls, and what they have voted for violates the core principles of BDS.

Odeh, of course, had no intention of humiliating the movement when he made his gesture to Gantz; American anti-Zionists could scarcely have been on his mind at all. Odeh is a politician and a pragmatist. He wanted to send a clear message to Netanyahu, and to Israel’s Zionist parties, that Palestinians can’t be ignored.

As he wrote in an oped in the New York Times perfectly timed to his announcement endorsing Gantz, “Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens.”

Perhaps more importantly, Odeh was sending a guardedly optimistic message to the people of Israel, one that involved an alternative vision of Israeli politics and the future of the conflict, reconciling Zionist ideals with the concept of a state for all its people.

It was romantic and courageous act, if not a perfectly realistic one. It privileged hope over experience: Maybe marriage is still possible. And it signified a true commitment to equality and safety for Jews and Arabs in Israel.

To American supporters of BDS, Odeh’s gambit should be a wake-up call. It should tell them what the movement’s critics have long argued: There’s a profound disconnect between the BDS movement here and those actually working to promote Palestinian rights and self-determination on the ground there.

And while it’s true that many Palestinians, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, support BDS and its anti-normalization policy, traveling around Israel and the West Bank, I’ve discovered how ambivalent that support is. Day to day, most Palestinians spend their energy faulting Israelis for being insufficiently cooperative, particularly in their efforts to build a strong Palestinian economy and develop effective governing institutions, efforts that the Israeli government is often trying to block. On a day-to-day basis, Palestinians want more normalization not less, and they view Israeli recalcitrance as the problem.

It’s undeniable that demanding the dissolution of the Jewish state, against the wishes of the majority in that state, can only mean its violent overthrow, something BDS’s leaders don’t seem too invested in hiding. “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine,” Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS and its current leader, has said. “I, for one, support euthanasia.”

Sadly, in my experience, most American supporters of BDS don’t even know its true positions. They think they are opposing the occupation.

For Americans who are serious about ending the Occupation, there are many productive ways to pursue that goal, and many groups to support, including existing Israeli political parties, leftwing NGOs like Breaking the Silence and Peace Now, bridge-building organizations like Combatants for Peace and Roots, even Two States, One Homeland, just to name a few.

None espouse solutions that will lead to a bloody war costing the lives of millions.

And this week, we learned that the majority of Arab Israelis are pushing for the peaceful solution, too. No wonder there’s radio silence from the far left.

Mark Horowitz is a contributing writer at Tablet magazine. Follow him on Twitter @markhorowitz.


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