Should a grass-roots movement to make peace in the Middle East focus on US pressure for region-wide peace including Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states -- or on boycotting/ divesting from Israel?
On March 4, 2010, I was interviewed on "Democracy Now!" -- a progressive nationally viewed TV news show hosted by Amy Goodman -- for a 15-minute debate with Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian-American professor. The topic: "BDS," short-hand for "Boycott, Divest, Sanctions" aimed against Israel.
Mr. Barghouti defined BDS as a boycott of all Israeli life, including universities, music, businesses, etc., aimed at ending not only the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, but also ending discrimination within Israel against its citizens of Palestinian origin, and enforcing the "right of return" for all Palestinian refugees into Israel..
It seems to me that Mr. Barghouti's version of the means and goals of BDS might depend on and would be likely to result in first demonizing and then dissolving Israel. (See below for why i think so.) I think that is an unethical goal, and therefore unachievable -- and if that were to become the goal and a totalistic version of BDS were to become the practice of those who seek a decent peace in the Middle East, it would prevent the achievement of what would be both ethical and possible -- a regional peace treaty encompassing Israel, a new Palestinian state, and all the Arab states.
I therefore support a very different strategy -- also a grass-roots American movement, but this one aimed to bring the US government to insist on ending the occupation, ending the state of war most Arab states still hold against Israel, and bringing about a just peace between Israel, Palestine, and all the other Arab states. (I can imagine a laser-beam tactic of boycotting specific enterprises most related to the occupation that would fit into this approach-- but that is not the totalistic strategy proposed by the BDS ""movement" and Mr. Barghouti. For details of a laser-beam tactic, see below.)
Indeed, Mr. Barghouti explicitly rejected ending the occupation as the principal goal of his version of BDS. He insisted the key issue is what he calls "the right of return." He made clear that his goal is resettling a million Palestinians -- not only real refugees from 1948 but their children & grandchildren -- to return to what is now Israel inside the Green Line (rather than to the Palestinian state, where of course they should be welcome).
But that result would shatter any possibility of Israel's having a special relationship with the Jewish people. To create such a state was why Israel came into existence. Dissolving it is so far from acceptable to Israelis that it means a No-Go on all negotiations. Mr. Barghouti said he has no objection to a "Jewish state," but that's meaningless under the conditions he proposed. His totalistic attack aimed at all aspects of Israeli society is integrally connected with a totalistic demand for dismantling the only purpose for Israel's existence.
This ethical failing is connected with the impossibility of getting a majority for this in the US public, and therefore any change in the crucial factor -- US government action. Or in Israeli society and policy.
I'm sorry that I didn’t say it as clearly as that on the program. (To see it, click here.)
Meanwhile, I have learned that during the next few weeks two major umbrella organizations of the official "established" Jewish institutional structures in America - the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs - are planning efforts to combat what they call "the delegitimization of Israel." BDS is one of their targets; the other is efforts to bring the Israeli government before the bar of international law.
I have a totally different strategy about that too. My way of preventing delegitimization of Israel would be to insist that the Israeli government stop acting in specific illegitimate ways. I will take up those specific points below.
During the interview and in the hours since, I have kept remembering an extraordinary story from the Book of Joshua.
In the story, Joshua, who has inherited leadership of the Israelite people after the death of Moses; who has led the people in crossing the Jordan; and who seems to have every reason to think God wants the Israelites to conquer the Land of Canaan, meets an awesome figure in full battle dress.
He calls out to this figure, "Are you for us or for our enemies?"
And the figure answers, "NO!"
Think for a moment about that "No!"
I hear it to mean, "I am not here to support either one of you in your war against each other, nor do I support the conflict itself." - And now the awesome figure continues in its own voice - " For I am a captain in the Army of YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life."
To the extent that in my life I can clumsily try to walk the path of serving only in God's Army, the Infinite Host of that One Whose breathing gives life to all beings -- I understand this to mean:
I am not to blindly support my own government -- or its enemies - when they clash in unjust conflict with each other. Not the US government when it attacks half a dozen Muslim countries, nor Al Qaeda when it attacks America. I am to hear instead the trumpet-blast of peace that is rooted in justice, the trumpet that awakens the troops of God's Own army.
I am not to give blind support to the government of Israel or those Americans (Jews or others) who bow to its policies - nor am I to support those who demonize Israeli society and try to bring disaster on its people.
Instead, I see my task as seeking to bring about an independent, God-centered vision of a just peace. I understand God's desire -- command -- to be ending the wars, not winning victories for either side over the other.
It is now clear that neither the divided government of Palestine nor the government of Israel can take the necessary steps to make peace. They are like two hostile adults, thrown in a room together after childhoods of terrible abuse. They take out their traumas on each other. Only an outsider can break into the cycle and help a different process emerge.
That requires focusing the power and influence of the United States to bring about a decent peace among the warring parties in the Middle East -- Israel, Palestine, all the other Arab states, and the US itself. Unlike the South African case, which BDS supporters often cite in support of the effectiveness of BDS, the US government - not private banks and companies - is the main economic support for the Israeli occupation.
For me, the notion of a two-state peace settlement means that the "right of return" for Palestinians should be exercised chiefly in and with the new Palestine, while Israel like all other sovereign states defines its own immigration policy; and the discrimination against Israeli Palestinians should be dealt with chiefly by Israelis in an atmosphere of peace, no longer dominated by fear of the Arab "enemy."
How do we get to this point? The Obama Administration seems to believe, as a matter of rhetoric, in the regional peace settlement I have sketched. But rhetoric is not enough. The Arab League has offered to negotiate, with such a regional peace settlement as the goal. But the Israeli government will not end the occupation and make peace with Palestine, Syria, and other Arab states when met with US rhetoric alone. And so far, only some parts of Hamas seem willing to consider such a peace settlement.
The US government -- and only the US government - does have the power and influence to work with the Arab League and its proposal for a regional peace treaty; with the Palestinian leadership, including those elements of Hamas that have said that if the Palestinian people votes for a two-state solution, they will accept it; and above all with the government of Israel, whose military policy depends on US military aid.
Imagine the US saying that it will put half its military aid to Israel in escrow; that the money will be made available only to pay the costs of resettling the 400,000 Israelis who are now living in Palestinian land beyond the 1967 borders, and will be paid in one-fifth sums when (a) the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza is restricted to preventing only actual weapons from being imported into Gaza; and (b) chunks of 100,000 or so settlers at a time have left the West Bank and returned to Israel proper. (Present Israeli residents of the Old City of Jerusalem and any present Israeli settlers who agree to live fully under Palestinian law and sovereignty would be permitted to stay. If a new Palestinian government of national unity agreed to land swaps allowing some few Israeli settlements to become part of Israel while other Israeli land became part of Palestine, those settlers would also be permitted to stay.)
At the same time, the US government would offer aid to a new Palestine on condition that at least some Fatah and Hamas leaders join in a government of national unity, take major steps to prevent attacks on Israel, and agree to take part in a regional peace conference with the clear aim and commitment of making peace among Israel, all Arab states, and the nascent Palestine on approximately the pre-war 1967 boundaries.
And the US government would call for and use all its political, diplomatic, and economic clout to bring about a Middle East regional peace conference to accomplish exactly that result.
Why put in escrow only half, instead of all, US military aid to Israel? because ethically and in practical politics as well, the US needs to be absolutely clear that it is ready to ensure Israel's security while at the same time, and with the same level of commitment, ready to insist on the end of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the end of the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza.
This approach can only be taken by a US government if there is a strong public movement for it. So far as I can see, the only Americans who care enough about the Middle East, with enough passion and numbers to make a difference, are American Jews, Christians, and Muslims whose religio-ethnic identifications with the history and the peoples of that region are strong enough to move them into action - for war or for peace.
For the first time in decades, or ever, there is within the Jewish community not only an inchoate desire for a decent peace, but the organizational forms that are sufficiently independent of the Israeli government to pursue it.
For the first time ever, American Muslims are on the way to creating a coherent public voice on American foreign policy.
And for the first time in decades, some Protestant churches are willing to take on these questions in public, as they get less fearful of being labeled anti-Semitic when they criticize Israeli government policy.
So for the first time, it might be possible to put together a Jewish-Christian-Muslim coalition to work for strong insistence by the US government on a decent Middle East peace. Those who say it is hopeless to move the US government to such a policy because it has never behaved that way before, are forgetting there has never been a powerful coalition demanding that it act that way.
In the context and only in the context of such a coalition, it is conceivable that economic pressures could be aimed specifically and narrowly at the Occupation. For example, stockholder pressures on Caterpillar Tractor to prevent the use of its bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes, and refusals to buy products that are identifiably produced and sold by Israeli settlers on Palestinian land, could be combined with economic support for grass-roots fair-trade joint Israeli-Palestinian enterprises (like PeaceOil, an olive-oil import enterprise with exactly that commitment. See http://www.peaceoil.net
But this kind of activity is not what the present BDS movement is calling for. And even such a laser-beam economic pressure would only be worth the effort in the context of a multireligious and multicultural social movement initiated by local coalitions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and focused on changing the outlook of US Congressmembers and the President.
Meanwhile, what do I make of the plans of the two major Jewish "umbrella organizations" to combat what they call the "delegitimization of Israel"?
I agree there is a danger of Israel's delegitimization. . But it does not flow chiefly from the actions of non-governmental organizations that the present Israeli government is attacking. It flows in larger measure from some actions of the Israeli government itself.
I urge American Jewish organizations to prevent the delegitimization of Israel by urging the Israeli government to end those of its actions that are themselves illegitimate.
For instance, they should publicly urge both the Israeli government and the Hamas government of Gaza each to create at once a fully independent commission with full judicial powers to investigate all allegations that its own forces -- either Palestinian or Israeli -- committed war crimes before and during the Gaza invasion.
That is what the Goldstone Report called for. Only if either party failed to do this, said Judge Goldstone, should the International Criminal Court take up the case concerning that party. The evidence of war crimes is strong enough, and refusal to have an independent body investigate the claims is so illegitimate, that both governments are bound to be "delegitimized" if they refuse.
And these American Jewish bodies should urge the Israeli government to end at once the illegitimate blockade on the entry of civilian goods into Gaza; to freeze all settlements in the Palestinian areas, including East Jerusalem; to end all demolitions of Palestinian homes; and to meet with the Arab League to aim at a full regional peace settlement.
If the Israeli government took these steps, almost all efforts to "delegitimize" Israel would swiftly melt away.
If on the other hand, JCPA and the Conference of Presidents put their efforts into attacking NGO’s and other groups that are already under attack by the Israeli government and its allies, the result might very well be a descent into a McCarthyist blizzard of slanders and attacks. I know that many of the member groups and their leaders would abhor such a result; I hope you will act to reaffirm the desirability, not just the acceptability, of listening to a very wide variety of opinions.
And finally, I would ask both the national organizations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians -- and local grass-roots groups of people from the Abrahamic traditions:
Are you ready to come together not just for intellectual "dialogue" but for common action toward the peace our sisters, brothers, and cousins so desperately need?