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Zionists for BDS? Why not?

While counterintuitive, liberal Zionists may be best able to achieve their goal of a just peace by joining forces with the BDS movement. Both groups stand to benefit enormously.

By Ahmed Rizk

Graffiti on the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem promotes the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, June 17, 2014. BDS is a global nonviolent campaign to pressure Israel to end the occupation and respect Palestinian rights.

Graffiti on the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem promotes the BDS movement, June 17, 2014. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org).

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) is arguably one of the most significant developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Oslo Accords were signed nearly a quarter century ago. The Palestinian-led movement calls upon the international community to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until three demands are fulfilled: an end to the almost 50-year-long occupation of Palestine, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Needless to say, everything about BDS has been controversial from its inception.

Predictably, the most sustained opposition to the BDS movement has been from the State of Israel and its supporters abroad. One swath of the pro-Israel community, however, has been largely unaccounted for: so-called liberal Zionists, who support Israel but criticize its policies toward the Palestinians. While this group is ideologically diverse, what unites it is a basic belief in the justness of Zionism and a belief that Israel’s policies are what stand in the way of a just peace. Liberal Zionists have often criticized Israel strongly, especially in the aftermath of Israel’s assaults upon Gaza in the past decade.

For all that, excepting a few outliers, most liberal Zionists strongly oppose BDS, which they view as anti-Zionist, biased against Israel, and sometimes as fomenting anti-Semitism. In an oped in +972 Magazine earlier this week, however, Abe Silberstein argued that Liberal Zionists can adopt and adapt certain tactics of BDS, namely a targeted boycott only of settlements, without targeting or punishing Israel within its pre-1967 borders. But that is a minority position within a minority position.

While counterintuitive, liberal Zionists may be best able to achieve their goal of a just peace by joining forces with the BDS movement. Both groups stand to benefit enormously from such a collaboration. That said, the obstacles to such cooperation are formidable. Though BDS is a ‘big tent’ movement, admitting a diversity of viewpoints regarding the ideal situation in Israel/Palestine, the most prominent BDS advocates tend to support a one-state solution and are implacable foes of Zionism.

Moreover, the BDS movement, largely incapable of inflicting significant economic damage upon Israel, tends to focus its efforts on academic and cultural boycotts, which are divisive and have sometimes led to charges of anti-Semitism. For instance, in 2015, Matisyahu, a Jewish-American recording artist, was targeted for a BDS action when he was slated to play a music festival in Spain on the basis of his ideological support for Zionism. Valid or not, the combination of anti-Zionist ideology and an atmosphere that even appears to tolerate anti-Semitism at times has led most liberal Zionists to hold the BDS movement at arm’s length.

Things don’t have to be like this. In fact, many of the most objectionable features of the BDS movement would be ameliorated through the decisive intervention of liberal Zionists. And with the added weight of liberal Zionist voices, BDS could have a greater impact on those forces helping perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By providing an example of what a humane, tolerant Zionism looks like, liberal Zionists will be able to win hearts and minds, blunting the delegitimization of the State of Israel. Liberal Zionists and their allies within BDS would also be able to more effectively counter the toxic anti-Semitism that at times finds a breeding ground among BDS supporters, allowing pro-Palestinian voices to make a more effective appeal to the Jewish community and the world at large.

Finally, liberal Zionists would be able to contribute to the debate regarding the best way to achieve the goals of the BDS movement, positioning themselves to argue more effectively for the practicality and justice of a two-state solution.

The BDS movement, too, stands to gain quite a bit from allowing liberal Zionists into its ranks. The BDS movement’s victories are mostly of the symbolic variety. Whether the boycott of academic and cultural figures constitutes sound strategy is a question upon which reasonable people can disagree, but no one can deny that such measures aim to change the discourse around Israel/Palestine, not the material reality.

When BDS does manage to inflict tangible economic damage upon Israel, it is usually by convincing businesses to withdraw from the occupied territories, usually alighting to Israel proper — so-called Zionist BDS in effect, if not in intention. The participation of liberal Zionists in the larger BDS movement would put more weight behind these scattered economic victories and temper reliance upon the boycott of academics and cultural figures in raising awareness on the issue.

Most importantly, such a union would provide a unique opportunity for building solidarity between two communities who will have to live with one another, whatever the resolution to the conflict may be. Such solidarity may be almost impossible to build in Israel/Palestine in the short term, but organizing together against the occupation in the diaspora can jumpstart some of the more difficult conversations necessary for a coexistence that is more than mere tolerance.

Ahmed Rizk is a writer based in Washington, DC. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of his employers. Follow him on Twitter at @tiefeewigkeit.

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    1. Larry Derfner

      Amen! (From an outlier liberal Zionist)

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB


        Congratulations on the new book. Hope the tour goes well. Lots of meat to agree and disagree with in your analysis but I don’t want to hijack Ahmed’s thread.

        Reply to Comment
    2. JeffB


      It pretty much can’t happen. The argument that Liberal Zionists make is that only by giving up territory can Israel remain a Jewish democracy. RoR is thus rejected by liberal Zionism, since it undermines the whole point of territorial concessions. A secular democratic state (i.e. not Jewish) is another BDS demand that undermines liberal Zionism. BDS and Liberal Zionism want opposite things.

      There are liberals and even centrists who are opposed to many of the policies Bush-43 and Obama employed during the war on terror. That’s a far different position than supporting an Al-Qaeda victory in the war on terror. BDS supports Jewish defeat, not the reform of Jewish behavior in particular instances.

      Moreover the war with BDS helps legitimize liberal Zionist critique to the audience they want to reach, Jews further to the right. The whole point of J-Street is to get Jews not to backlash against politicians who support a Democratic mainstream position regarding a 2 state solution. The whole point of IfNotNow is a moral call to the Jewish mainstream to create an ethical stand regarding Israel. By adopting BDS, sure the liberal Zionists might be effective in making Palestine solidarity organizations less harsh towards Israel but they would also cut themselves off from any access to the Jewish mainstream. They would have openly sided with the enemy.

      I’ll give you a terrific example, in the other direction When I was a kid the Jewish community was unified against Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism (often conflating the two) as being immoral and not part of Judaism. At last week’s BDS conference one of the lead speakers (Jay Sekulow) was a leader of Jews for Jesus who was involved in anti-BDS activism. The fact that he would be invited and applauded by a mainstream Jewish audience shows how the BDS movement has allowed for unity on a variety of other fronts that wouldn’t be possible. That benefits the less controversial liberal Zionist movement even more.

      The Zionist project is the #1 project of world Jewry. It is hard to even imagine a Judaism surviving the fall of Israel. BDS demands are simply irreconcilable with Jewish interests. Liberal Zionists are patriots. They may be mistaken in some of their political view but they aren’t evil. Jew who want to hard break with the Jewish community religiously and politically so as to join with the enemies of the Jewish people and work for the destruction of the Jewish have Jewish Voice for Peace. Liberal Zionists are members of other organizations because they don’t share those goals.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Abe Silberstein

      I agree with JeffB’s comment.

      However, I’ll add that if Ahmed Rizk’s views represented the mainstream of the BDS movement, it would be quite difficult for a liberal or leftist Zionist to oppose it. I can’t support a total boycott of Israel myself, but I would likely adopt a more neutral stance on the issue. This, alas, is not the case–––and I don’t imagine a few liberal Zionists joining the BDS Movement would change much.

      Reply to Comment
    4. carmen

      “It is hard to even imagine a Judaism surviving the fall of Israel.” Judaism survived and thrived without the existence of the zionist state.

      “BDS demands are simply irreconcilable with Jewish interests.” Jewish interests or the interest of some jews who are zionists? BDS demands are completely in step with jewish VALUES; but what’s more important? Zionist interests and jewish values are 2 very different things and the constant conflation of the 2 bears a lot of responsibility for very real antisemitism, not the reflexive slander being used by the right whenever the zionist state is called out for its racist, xenophobic treatment of non-jews.

      “Liberal Zionists are patriots.” Liberal what are patriots? Liberal and zionist don’t belong in the same sentence, you’re one or the other and can’t be both. One cannot be a liberal klansman, a liberal republican, a liberal dictator or kinda pregnant, you see? Slapping ‘liberal’ in front of something that is inherently racist, an ideology that promotes a religious ethnosupremacist state (and no, israel is not a democracy) doesn’t make it a kinder, gentler religious ethnosupremacist state.

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB


        — One cannot be a … a liberal republican
        Of course you can. Close to 1% of the USA population are self described liberal Republicans. The actual numbers are much higher. Those are people who support a low tax and lightly regulated economy, tend to focus heavily on business interests and often belong to the realistic school of foreign policy. They are liberal on social policy. Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford’s Vice President, was head of the Liberal Republicans both before and during his time in office. Willian Weld who was also running for Vice President this very election is also a liberal republican. And of course going back President Eisenhower was a liberal Republican. Arguably and somewhat tongue in cheek so was President Obama.

        — israel is not a democracy

        Israel has elections that matter. The way leadership is chosen is by voting.

        BTW I could give some pretty good examples of liberal dictators and liberal members of the Redeemer party (the party that came into power via. Klan resistance to the occupation of the south) but those would take us too far afield.

        And now…

        — Jewish interests interest of some jews who are zionists?

        The majority of Jewish people live in the Zionist state. Virtually every major Jewish institution is Zionist, either practice in principle or both. Jews are overwhelmingly Zionist. The Jewish religion has always had Zionists aspects and those in current practice are emphasized. The Zionist project is the #1 objective of the Jewish religion. At a fairly rapid pace, Judaism is transforming from a global religion to the state church of a small state along with affiliated institutions in other countries which serve expats and those closely connected to them.

        They are the same thing. The fact that there are some tiny minority of Jews who object to Zionism does not create a distinction. The USA is fighting the war on terror. There are a minority of Americans who belong to Al Qaeda and ISIS that doesn’t change what USA policy is or what American interests are. Every individual does not get a veto over group interests.

        — Judaism survived and thrived without the existence of the zionist state.

        Not the Judaism that exists today. Judaism has already changed considerably. Moreover, history doesn’t move backwards. The Judaism that existed during the Greek occupation could have in theory undergone minor revisions after the Roman destruction of Judaea. We could have had something like a slightly more evolved version of the sacrificial cult as today’s Judaism. But of course that’s not what happened at all instead there were a few centuries of rapid evolution of various sects and then an entirely different religion emerged that replaced the sacrificial cult and had very little in common with it.

        Judaism didn’t survive the last time. It wouldn’t survive this time either.

        Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          Zionism is antisemitic. It’s leaders are doing everything they can to kill judaism and replace it with this man-made doctrime that is an abomination.

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB


            “A man made doctrine”? Dude you are a leftist. If you want to argue from the standpoint of the divine authorship of Torah then we’ll have a very different argument about Zionism. Otherwise both 19th century and 21st century Judaism are man made doctrines.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            A woman who is probably not a Jew gives us lessons of Judaism. However, her arguments are so ridiculous that I wonder if Carmen is not an agent provocateur.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            You’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a shit about what you think, about anything. And I wasn’t talking to you at all.

            Reply to Comment