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BDS's Jewish roots: A lesson for Hillel

In all other contexts, the Jewish people have demonstrated that we understand boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to be effective, non-violent tools for political change. So why do we deem them violent and illegitimate when it comes to Israel?

By Alice Mishkin

JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/ Activestills.org)

JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/ Activestills.org)

My introduction to divestment as a tool for activism came in 2005. I was a staff member at the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) from 2005-2006, during the peak of the movement. With the help of our board members who represented organizations like the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center, American Jewish World Service, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and many more, we led a nationwide campaign calling for divestment. The campaign called on our coalition members to support divestment from those who supported the Sudanese government. Our campaign targeted companies ranging from Fidelity and Berkshire-Hathway to PetroChina and Rolls Royce.

It was in the midst of this campaign that I found my connection to the Jewish community.

The Judaism I grew up with was not one of activism. But at SDC, Judaism was activism and activism was Judaism. I learned about Abraham Joshua Heschel. I learned the scope of Jewish involvement in divestment from South Africa. I put together activist toolkits on divestment to send to synagogues, Hillels and day schools. I organized rabbis to get their congregations involved in our campaign. I learned from some of the biggest Jewish activists of our time just how deeply activism was entrenched in the texts and histories of the Jewish people.

I’ve since worked for American Jewish World Service, spent a year in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a Dorot Fellow, and completed my Masters in social work with a certificate in Jewish communal leadership. My life has become about learning how Judaism and activism intersect. I’ve studied the history of movements marked by disproportionate Jewish participation– Civil Rights, divestment against South Africa and Sudan, feminism. These are movements where Jews have been among the leaders.

These are also movements that have shown the power of non-violent activism – including calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions. But when it comes to Israel, to Palestine, the American Jewish community is denouncing these forms of non-violent resistance.

At the University of Michigan, where I am currently situated, our Hillel is known for its openness to a plethora of Jewish voices. Yet in the past few weeks, Hillel has worked actively to shut down a resolution calling for an investigation into four multi-national companies involved in the Occupation. Initially, they sent out an email articulating their reasons for supporting the Central Student Government’s refusal to allow a resolution to be voted on about divestment from Israel. After a weeklong sit in by student activists, Central Student Government reversed the decision and eventually voted against the resolution. Hillel argued that BDS shuts down dialogue and is not an effective means to achieve a resolution to this conflict. They claim that that BDS privileges a one-sided view, yet they do not acknowledge how one view already dominates the discourse on this campus.

The prevailing power structure on this campus weighs heavily against Palestinians. There are 6,000 Jewish students on campus, representing 18 percent of the student body. Hillel hosts a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow on staff who, by their own claim, worked to first shut down a vote on this resolution, and then to secure an anti-BDS vote. We have a top Judaic studies department that hosts a Schusterman visiting Israeli scholar each year. In the face of academic boycotts, the president of the university promoted its many joint efforts with Israel.

Given my pathway into Judaism – the call of Deuteronomy to pursue justice – I find myself at a loss when I listen to the Jewish communal rhetoric surrounding the BDS movement.  I understand the fears. Having spent years studying the Holocaust, the rise of Zionism, and generational trauma, the temptation to hear “boycott Israel” as “boycott Jews” is not lost on me.

It is important for us to distinguish these two terms, though. This is not a Nazi call to boycott Jewish businesses in Germany. This is a call of a people who are living under a violent occupation, a people who are stateless and living in displacement. Their call is to boycott the government that is violently perpetuating statelessness upon them. If any people can empathize with the pathos of statelessness, it is the Jews.

In all other contexts, the Jewish people have demonstrated that we understand boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to be effective, non-violent tools for political change. Yet in the face of the BDS movement, we call it ineffective, illegitimate, and even violent.

It’s been two weeks since the BDS movement gripped the University of Michigan campus. How long will it take our Jewish community to recognize BDS for what it is – not a divisive movement intent on destroying the state of Israel, but a non-violent call for peace and justice?

Alice Mishkin lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is an alum of the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, from which she holds a certificate in Jewish communal leadership, and is a former Dorot fellow. 

Related:
What BDS and the Israeli government have in common
Why did progressive U.S. Jewish groups oppose divestment?
How a Jewish Agency fellow becomes a one-state activist
Campus divestment reveals cracks within the American Jewish establishment

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    COMMENTS

    1. BOOZ

      Sorry Alice, you are trading falsehoods on several counts:

      1- I am not calling shouting down dissenters or calling them names ( “apartheid” , “racist”….) or heckling performing artists, or denying Israeli academics the right to participate in research programs, (irrespective of their personal opinions on occupation) or even challenging shoppers who have Jaffa citrus or Israeli humus in their carts a non-violent movement.

      2-BDS in its present form has a hidden agenda you seem to be wilfully ignoring : it is not about Palestinian statelessness, it is just an attempt at pulling down Israeli statehood, even for the sake of a “night shelter ( re Nahman Syrkin).

      To be honest, I might have considered for myself a boycott of anything pridiced beyond the Green Line-that is, if I could have expressed it in a movement the goals of which would have been clearly defined .

      But joining forces with those who by their own admittance are “agnostic” about the existence of a Jewish democratic state is repulsive to me.

      Therefore, it will be without me and against me.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Rehmat

      Alice, by admitting that you’re a staff member of the notorious “Save Darfur Coalition”, I have to agree with American Jewish activist Jeff Blankfort, who says most of Jewish activists within BDS are the “Gatekeeper” of Zionism.

      Save Darfur was an anti-Muslim established by over 15 American Zionist Jewish group – and it helped illegal Jewish settlements with $50 million.

      http://rehmat1.com/2010/03/29/save-darfur-funds-israeli-settlements/

      Reply to Comment
      • GilGamesh

        The same Jeffrey Blankfort that was kicked off Mondoweiss for being a holocaust denier?

        Reply to Comment
      • Deborah

        Alice’s reasoning is solid. And her courage is to be commended.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Great reasoning if you make a whole bunch of false claims as Alice has.

          Reply to Comment
      • Deborah

        I just donated to +972 magazine based on the publication of this article. I urge others to do the same.

        Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Hahaha. This is hilarious. This is your idea of “education”? Clearly a government-sponsored propaganda campaign (it has Bibi’s name written all over it).

        C’mon dude – try a little harder!

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Um, no, actually a civilian reporter who lived in a town where the BDS movement (before it was called that) tried to sneak an anti-Israel ruling by the town’s council. He then undertook it upon himself to learn what he could about the movement and is a very articulate, intelligent and knowledgeable reporter of BDS.

          I strongly encourage you to read his mini-booklet (the second link) and also to read his site regularly. You’ll learn quite a bit.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Danny

      BDS has definitely taken root, and, while still in its infancy, is a movement that is growing in strength on a daily basis. The day will come when supporting BDS will seem as clear and natural as was supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Israel is living on borrowed time, and it knows it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bar

        Foreign investment in Israel increased by 14% last year.

        Sorry.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          It took the South African anti-apartheid movement 45 years to convince people around the world to support it.

          Have patience my son, your time will come.

          Reply to Comment
          • Corey

            Yes, Danny, but the boycott against S.A. was based on combatting true oppression, unlike the BDS movement which is based on a pack of lies and is designed for no other reason than to bring about the eventual destruction of the only Jewish-based nation in the world. Nice try.

            Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            Sorry Corey, but as a Zionist who supports the BDS movement, you’re the one spouting Likudnik lies.

            Be Gurio had the right idea when he fired on the Altalena – it’s only a pity he didn’t finish the job.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            A Zionist that supports a program of destroying the Jewish State. Yeah, ok.

            Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Israel was never supposed to be a Jewish state (in the sense of privileging its Jewish citizens over Gentiles in every walk of life), but a democratic state of all its citizens in the homeland of the Jewish people.

            Israel deviated from this course when Ben Gurion opposed the creation of a constitution. The BDS movement is Israel’s best hope of getting back to where it was supposed to go.

            Sio who is the real Zionist here, Kolumn9? Maybe you should change your name to “Fifth Column”

            Reply to Comment
          • sheldon

            how can a porn addicted scum ever be a person to advocate for Israel
            go back to watching porn and leave Israel to the grown ups

            Reply to Comment
          • Corey

            Goldmarx – The only one spouting lies here is you. Or should I call you Goldmarxist. “Israel was never supposed to be a Jewish state (in the sense of privileging its Jewish citizens over Gentiles in every walk of life)”. Israel is not looking to privilege its Jewish citizens, unlike the many Catholic-based societies (in Europe and South America, for example) where religion is mandatory in school curricula, for instance, although I hear no objection from anyone (certainly not you) to that. Nor do I hear a peep out of you about the many muslim countries, where being non-muslim could end up costing you your life (go talk to the Copts in Egypt and Christians elsewhere; let’s not even mention being Jewish), where sham elections are held so they can call themselves democracies. No, Israel needs to be accepted by the arabs as the Jewish state not so that anyone can be treated as a second class citizen but rather so that those other countries can acknowledge once and for all that the Land of Israel is a country where Jews can live freely and where arabs have no claim to driving the Jews into the sea. It’s one of the most vital acknowledgements to enable peace to be reached. And finally, as to your question of “what other effective non-violent options for the palestinians are there?”, they have many. How about – prioritize their desires and show a willingness to compromise of SOME of their ever-increasing, unreasonable demands (since they have NEVER, EVER conceded ANYTHING in all of the years of the conflict, not even the most basic element of accepting Israel’s right to exist). How about – teaching their children tolerance and love instead of hatred and barbarism. (Ever see what’s taught in their war factories – oops, I meant schools.) How about – stop rewarding murderers and use that (quite significant aid) money to better the lives of palestinian civilians. And finally – how about working to assimilate some of those people who THE ARAB SOCIETIES maintain in squalor in refugee camps so that they can be used as political pawns, assimilated like has happened with every other group of refugees in the history of mankind. (Hey, shit-for-brains, those people who listened to the arab war machine and left in ’48 hoping to return after the Jews were driven into the sea gave up their right to the land; no idiotic right of return should EVER be granted to those vermin and certainly not to their descendants.)

            So endeth the lesson. Case closed.

            Reply to Comment
        • Felix Reichert

          Could’ve increased by 20% or 25%. Sorry.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Rehmat

      “What has hap­pened to Amer­i­can Judaism has com­pletely cor­rupted its reli­gious nature. What we are wit­ness­ing today – syn­a­gogues fly­ing Israeli flags, pro­grams urg­ing Amer­i­can Jews to emi­grate to Israel ‘their real home­land,’ – is a form of idol­a­try mak­ing the sov­er­eign state of Israel the object of wor­ship rather than G-d,” said Allan Brownfeld, adding “It is also my view that Zion­ism is a sub­ver­sive enterprise.”

      http://rehmat1.com/2014/04/04/how-does-jewish-lobby-influence-congress/

      Reply to Comment
    5. Yuval

      You are a great writer, and it is sad that you choose the wrong side. I am from israel, and despite of you claim, I do think that “we understand boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to be effective, non-violent tools for political change.” I am against it because for BDS it used wrongly. As you know very well the violence in this land is two sides, and the only way to solve it is for the two sides to understand that the other sides has rights. As ling as so many of the arabs refuse to see me as human being there will be no solution. The big debate between us is: I think there are two sides to be blame and you think there is one.

      Reply to Comment
      • goldmarx

        OK, Yuval, so how should BDS “use it” rightly? I am a Zionist, a Jew and a supporter of the BDS movement, and so tell me – what other effective non-violent options for the Palestinians are there?

        Israeli peaceniks have whined for decades about wanting Palestinians to be like Gandhi and be non-violent. Well, guess what? You got your wish! Be careful what you wish for…

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          That’s an easy question. The alternative the Palestinians have is to negotiate seriously and come to terms.

          Israel has offered them 95% of Judea and Samaria and 100% of Gaza; all of Arab Jerusalem plus their holy sites (or an internationalized arrangement); establishing a reparations fund worth tens of billions of dollars; and statehood.

          They should negotiate in good faith and end the conflict. That’s what you should be doing, pressuring them, not the Israelis who have made the offers.

          Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            Israel has not negotiated in good faith, constantly expanding settlements during ‘negotiations’ and reneging on prisoner releases.

            Israel suddenly adds a new condition – that the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that no other country has done or is asked to do.

            The settlers are a racist, violent bunch that need to be evacuated from the Occupied Territories so that they can not sabotage a peace agreement.

            Any Israeli government offer of 95% – in this context – is nothing more than an accounting trick.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            “Israel has not negotiated in good faith, constantly expanding settlements during ‘negotiations’ and reneging on prisoner releases.”

            Excuse me, but Israel has negotiated in good faith not just this time, but on 3 previous occasions, two of which rendered official offers and one an unofficial offer. In all those talks, Israel modified its positions and softened them. In all of those talks the Palestinians did not budge on any positions.

            “Israel suddenly adds a new condition – that the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that no other country has done or is asked to do.”

            So what? This is why you boycott a country? Anyway, you’re wrong, the condition has been around since early Oslo and certainly during peace talks between Barak and Arafat.

            “The settlers are a racist, violent bunch that need to be evacuated from the Occupied Territories so that they can not sabotage a peace agreement.”

            Some settlers are racist and violent. Most are far from racist and violent. Some Palestinians are anti-Semitic and violent. Most are far from racist and violent.

            What the hell does this have to do with boycotting a country?

            “Any Israeli government offer of 95% – in this context – is nothing more than an accounting trick.”

            Um, actually, it offered more than 95% because it’s 100% of Gaza, 95% of Judea and Samaria PLUS land swaps from within Israel. In Olmert’s offer, the swaps were on a 1:1 ratio. Since you have no response to the fact that the Palestinians are getting virtually everything they claim they want, you call it an “accounting trick.”

            Forgive me, but if these are your grounds for supporting BDS, you do not have a leg on which to stand.

            Reply to Comment
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