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Thoughts About Israel, BDS and Our Jewish Community

APN is happy to present this guest post by Rabbi David J. Cooper. This essay was written for the newsletter of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont area of California. The Jewish community of the Bay Area has recently undergone several contentious interludes in regard to Israel/Palestine issues in particular a polarizing uproar concerning the showing of a film about Rachel Corrie at the local Jewish Film Festival, the promulgation of a policy by the San Francisco Jewish Federation which withholds its funding from any organization that sponsors or cosponsors an event with an organization that supports BDS, and a hotly contested resolution to support BDS in the senate of the Associated Students of the University of California (Berkeley).

Kehilla was the first synagogue to pass a resolution favoring two states and did so 24 years ago. The synagogue considers it a principle of its Jewish spirituality to identify with its Israeli cousins, and at the same time to take heed of the aspirations and fears of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Its position on this indicates that taking such heed is not only of spiritual but of pragmatic importance in the world of real politic.
Rabbi Cooper tells us that he had not read the APN position before writing the following essay. He would agree with the kind of "hardball" efforts advocated by APN and also agrees that investment strategies should be pursued which are designed to enhance peace and cooperation, and also which target ending the occupation rather than attacking Israel.

As time runs out on an equitable two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, a series of phenomena emerge in this state of quiet crisis. Because of the place where I sit as a rabbi--in a synagogue dedicated to empathizing with both Israelis and Palestinians--and also because of the intersections upon which I sit within the Jewish and the progressive communities, I find that I have a unique post on which to perch and watch the unfolding. I will not claim that this perch-point provides me with a superior perspective, but I think I should at least share what I see and where it leads me. In doing so, I am not enunciating a "Kehilla synagogue position," nevertheless, Kehilla does provide me with that perch and allows me to speak, even if only in my own name.

It is a time when there are deep conflicting feelings in the Jewish community and beyond: emotions and thoughts that give rise to conflicts between individuals and groups and even conflicting feelings within the souls of individual people.

BDS & J Street
For many who have long been frustrated by Israeli maneuvers that maintain the occupation of the West Bank and the isolation of Gaza, the sense that time is running out is translated by some into a sense that strategies need to be escalated to non-violently force the hand of the Israeli government to enable Palestinian autonomy. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement ("BDS") is one reflection of this strategic/tactical approach.
Meanwhile, others who have never before felt that they should question the actions of the Israeli government, have come to feel that a solution to the impasse can no longer be left to the Israelis or Palestinians and that some sort of outside pressure and/or forceful guidance is going to be necessary to bring about a peaceful solution for Israel and Palestine. Such forceful guidance is sought from the Obama administration which will need the backing of American Jews and others committed to Israel's safety, but who also believe that US pressure is a necessity. The rapid growth of J Street in the last two years reflects this approach.

Fueling all of this is the sense that a point of no return is rapidly approaching. The Netanyahu government's pursuit of continued settlement and infrastructural development for Israeli Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is interpreted as intent to stay put in the territory. That some Palestinian militants have responded to the blockade of Gaza by shooting missiles at civilian towns in Israel, has led many to believe that allowing Palestinian autonomy will result in more war rather than peace. There are alternative conclusions to be drawn from these circumstances, but at least we can see that there is--on the one hand--a growing mistrust that the Israeli government sincerely wants a real two-state solution, and--on the other--a mistrust that two states will satisfy the Palestinians.

That there is a multiplicity of approaches within the Jewish community to Israel has also given rise to different ways of dealing with this multiplicity. In rabbinical circles lately, there has been a reexamination of the ways that mainstream synagogues and Jewish institutions have handled divisions about Israel in the community. One old strategy was to present only one position as the synagogue's position. The other old strategy was to have everyone remain silent about Israel to avoid arguments. Both of these strategies were in the interest of maintaining congregational cohesiveness.

Respectful Dialogue or Not
Of late, many rabbis have been finding that these strategies are problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they fail to maintain the desired cohesiveness. So now these rabbis are considering approaches that further the idea of "respectful dialogue," that embrace the idea that we can differ about Israel and Palestine and nevertheless be in community together and pray together, and that the articulation of our differences can actually further cohesiveness and trust.

But others in the community feel that in the face of increased criticisms of Israel one voice (with some wiggle room) is the only legitimate voice to be expressed in the community. In this view, narrowing what is acknowledged as legitimate will theoretically end the "disunity" of the Jewish community. People with strong financial clout tried to persuade the S.F. Jewish Federation to adopt policies that would disallow its funding from any organization that could be construed as disparaging Israel or that provided an opportunity within its activities to hear what could be interpreted as such disparagement. In response, Federation came up with a compromise policy that while not quite as draconian as the initial proposal--and while claiming that it affirmed dialogue--nevertheless passed a resolution to withhold Federation funds from any organization when it cosponsors events with any group that supports BDS or that is regarded as disparaging the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. I joined as a signatory on a full-page ad in the national Jewish weekly, The Forward, expressing the signers' disagreement with the Federation policy. I did so because I see the policy as a restraint on open discussion - just at the time when dialogue is most needed in the Jewish community. I am already seeing that the policy is inhibiting people who are working in Jewish institutions.

BDS as Non-Violent Resistance
As all this is happening, we also see the BDS movement ratcheting up.  Those favoring a BDS strategy have different motivations. Some are motivated to have Israel feel pressured to move toward a two-state solution and end the occupation lest it devolve into an apartheid state. Others express their identification of Israel as an already existing apartheid state and thus the aim of boycotting and sanctioning Israel for them is to end its specifically Jewish character and subject it to a single-state solution with a one-person one-vote solution as in South Africa. The thing to note is that BDS is a non-violent campaign of resistance initiated by the Palestinians themselves--most of whom still favor a two-state solution. Many in the Jewish community have long expressed that the Palestinian movement should renounce violence and develop non-violent strategies of resistance. That is why I support many of the non-violent Palestinian actions to reroute or stop the separation barrier or wall being built through their land. BDS is also a non-violent strategy and I cannot fault Palestinians in the territories for hoping that the BDS strategy might be effective in ending the occupation.
Nevertheless, I believe that the BDS campaign is a mistaken strategy at this time, even though I respect many of the people who favor it and I believe that many people are engaging in the campaign with Israel's best interest at heart as well the Palestinians'.
Pressuring Netanyahu is Pro-Israel
I'll explain why I am opposed to the use of this tactic at this time. As I have said, it is my belief, that I share with J Street, that this is an immensely important moment for the U.S. administration to pressure Israel and the Palestinians and that without such pressure, guidance and support these parties will never be able to reach any kind of comprehensive solution. Forces like AIPAC are opposed to U.S. pressure on the Israeli government and they endeavor to portray such efforts as anti-Israel and an affront to the Jewish people, especially the Jewish voters in the U.S. The Obama administration and also members of congress need to be able to show that a very large part of the Jewish community supports his efforts to push Israel, and that these efforts--despite Netanyahu's opposition to them--are in fact pro-Israel.

The BDS campaign is not framed by its main proponents as anything that can be readily interpreted as a "friend of Israel" activity. Thus, many who have finally come around to support U.S. pressure on Israel--for Israel's own sake--cannot stand behind a campaign that has elements of antagonism to Israel itself rather than taking a position in opposition to or critical of the policies and practices of its government. I believe that AIPAC and forces to its right benefit from the BDS campaign because they can now conflate and confuse activity critical of Israeli policy (including the president's anti-settlement positions) with antagonism to Israel. That is why J Street had to be so clear in its opposition to BDS. The BDS campaign, although it has succeeded in informing some people about the abuses of the occupation, has sidetracked much of the forward movement of Jewish support for effective U.S. action to pressure Israel. This movement has taken decades to build and had just begun to show its effectiveness. Hopefully that effectiveness will continue to build, but the BDS campaign has been a hindrance and not an enabler in this effort.

Driving a Wedge where it Counts
In any mobilization campaign, the tactics and strategies chosen will drive a wedge between people. This is to be expected and is not in itself negative. However, the tools chosen should drive a wedge between sides that appropriately correspond to the issues raised. The divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa divided between people who favored international pressure against apartheid on the one side, and those who thought South Africa should be left alone on the other. The BDS campaign however drives a divider between people who actually agree that Israel needs to be pressured. Ironically, it ends up putting J Street and AIPAC on the same side in regard to BDS when they are so opposite each other on the issue of pressuring Netanyahu.

Many BDS supporters consider the South Africa divestment movement as having succeeded by branding the Botha/De Klerk government as a pariah and that this pushed the end of apartheid. I agree. But I don't believe that branding Israel as a pariah state will open it up or its Jewish citizens to end the occupation. Jews have been so long branded a pariah people that such labeling has lost all credibility and only raises the sense that such branding can only be an indication of anti-semitic animus which has, in fact, popped up among some BDS supporters.

Pro-Israel/Pro-Palestine Despite Israelis & Palestinians
It is an especially uncomfortable time to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. Despite what many Israelis may feel, the best way I can be pro-Israel right now is to favor American pressure on Israel to seriously negotiate for a Palestinian state and to end the occupation. And despite what many Palestinians may feel, the best way for me to be pro-Palestine right now is to favor a J Street approach rather than that of BDS.

I stand opposed to the Federation policy of defunding any speech that can be interpreted as delegitimizing Israel, but I also am opposed to the BDS policy of boycotting Israeli academicians and cultural workers. Closing our ears can only close our minds at the very moment when creativity and dialogue are so very necessary.