The Accidental BDSer

I recently had the unsettling experience of accidentally falling into the shoes of a practitioner of BDS.

Allow me to explain.

I joined a synagogue for the first time when I moved into my new hometown and, after a few years of getting to know the place, I took part in and now co-chair the temple’s Israel Action Committee (IAC). And despite my own strong views on the Middle East conflict, the committee’s work continues to be centered on opening up dialog within the temple community that takes into account the many differing opinions one would expect to find at a large synagogue of nearly 800 families.

Earlier this summer, our rabbi was contacted by a local pro-Israel organization about sponsorship for a major event they were having in the area and he, in turn, contacted me as head of the IAC to discuss whether or not we should participate. I informed him that it would be a good event to support, providing input as someone on the advisory board of the organization putting on the event who would also be speaking at the conference under discussion.

After agreeing that the temple should support the event, I informed the group that our synagogue was onboard, after which both I and our rabbi went on our own much-needed summer holidays. It was only after I got back that I discovered I had made a major blunder: failing to take a step I now know is required for such a sponsorship: getting approval for such a move by the temple’s board of directors.

While this was an innocent and rectifiable mistake (the board accepted my mea culpa and agreed to continue to support the event), it occurred to me that I had accidentally done what BDSers routinely do purposefully: maneuver an institution to take a stand without adequate communication and buy in.

At the end of the day, the temple board did have their say (in my presentation I informed them that if they wished we be taken off the sponsorship list, I would personally take responsibility to make this happen immediately). But their deliberations were highly compressed and decision made with the added pressure that our temple was already listed as an event sponsor. While I appreciate that they decided to move forward, I continue to feel awful for putting the organization into such a predicament.

Why the guilt (other than the usual genetic disposition of my people towards this emotion)? Well if you think about it, the thing I’ve railed most against here at Divest This is the manipulation of civic organizations by those trying to leverage them for their own narrow political purposes. There are an infinite number of ways that activists such can show our support for the Jewish state, but my particular interest in fighting BDS (which hovers somewhere between hobby and obsession) is derived from how much suffering I’ve seen when institutions such as Somerville, MA, the Presbyterian Church and other organization’s endure when BDS is snuck in via the back door.

The notion that fellow temple members would wake up to discover that their synagogue was sponsoring something they did not support, and that the decision to do so was made under less-than-ideal circumstances appalled me. Especially so since this type of truncated process (done not innocently but purposefully) is at the heart of the BDS project.

How many stories have you read here about BDSers maneuvering behind the scenes to get resolutions passed that would stuff their words into the mouth of an unsuspecting organization? How many tales of manipulation, moral blackmail and outright fraud have I presented which ended up with community citizens, church members or co-op shoppers waking up to discover that they were now unwilling members of a global propaganda campaign to smear Israel as an “Apartheid State?”

Now my failing was accidental and fixable, and the outcome positive (support for an important program) vs. negative (getting an institution to condemn my political enemies for me). But it did reinforce for me just how vulnerable our civic institutions can be to manipulation, a humbling but important experience that only redoubles my commitment to ensure that the precious civic ecosystem that undergirds our society be protected from those who would manipulate it for their own narrow and often-wicked ends.

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15 Responses to The Accidental BDSer

  1. Anonymous September 1, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    Dear Jon you live in a bubble. Since the founding of Israel in 1948 every US administration AND the US Congress have provided unconditional (some would argue reckless and irresponsible) support to Israel. Israel now receives over $3 billion (equivalent to nearly $20 per man woman & child living in the US) per year from the US. Israel is armed to the teeth with the greatest and latest high tech weaponry. Israel not only occupies the WB but has built illegal settlements on these occupied territories. Every time the UN passes a resolution condemning israel's rogue behavior, it is vetoed by the US.

    And the palestinians? They have none of the above. For many years they resorted to violence and terrorism out of frustration and helplessness that resulted in more oppression and settlements. The BDS movement is a small albeit growing movement that is rooted in the idea that a. Violence will never solve the problem b. Israel will never change unless and until it feels it's current policies are not acceptable to the international community.

    And you blog about being co-chair of some pro Israel committee in your temple and how you feel guilty about not adequately notifying your board about an upcoming event and relate your “accidental failings” to the vulnerability of other civic organizations to the evils of the BDS movement.

    Give me a break will you?

  2. Jon September 1, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Like most BDSers, you seem to dwell in your own bubble, one that is based on your own invented history (where, for example, high levels of US aid and support for Israel that didn’t begin until the 1970s are projected backwards to the founding of the state in 1948). Within you bubble, the Palestinians exist only as pristine victims, responsible for nothing, with decades of terrorism and bombings that have all but doomed the hope for peace passed off as the only choice for the frustrated and helpless (lucky for India that Gandhi found other options).

    Finally, in your bubble, the Middle East consists of no one but evil Israelis and innocent Palestinians. The other 20+ countries in the region that have participated in or fueled war for decades don’t enter your conversation. And understandably so, since your cause is only on the map (as opposed to the suffering of Kurds, Tibetans and others) is because you are allied with many of the wealthiest (and most repressive) countries in the world.

    But putting your bubble aside, isn’t it the BDSers who continually pass off seemingly trivial decisions by unknown organizations (such as an obscure food co-op taking Israeli crackers off the shelves) as having overwhelming, monumental significance? So are you now telling me that all of these efforts are worth nothing more than a back-of-the-hand “give me a break” dismissal?

    This piece is a personal story that highlights a theme that’s been important to me since I began following the BDS story: how BDS is used to exploit and corrupt elements of civic society. I don’t expect everyone to see the relevance, just as I don’t expect everyone reading this blog to agree with me in all matters. But it’s been my experience that such small stories can have wider implications, just as those who claim to be fighting for universal values like “Justice” and “Human Rights” often use those lofty goals as a smokescreen for their petty personal political vendettas. Nothing I’ve seen in my 5-6 years of battling against BDS (including your commentary) changes my mind on that matter.

  3. Fred September 1, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Jon, when the Palestinians resort to terrorism they are branded as violent extremists (just a friendly reminder that at least 2 Israeli PMs, repeat PMs Shamir and Begin were terrorists). When the Palestinians use the non violent approach of BDS, they are branded as evil manipulators.

    Could it be that you simply don't like Arabs and Palestinians just as the whites didn't like and continue to not like the blacks here in America?

  4. Jon September 1, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    Given how quickly a BDSer will strike an indignant pose whenever the subject of anti-Semitism is raised (and even when it’s not) it’s amazing how itchy your trigger finger is with regard to accusing your opponents of racism. Could it be that the accusation routinely thrown at Israel’s defenders (that all of our arguments, no matter how legitimate, are really just empty accusations of anti-Semitism designed to shut up our enemies) is really a description of BDSers of their own behavior vis-à-vis “the R word”? Could be!

    All that aside, there is a whole host of things the Palestinians could do other than blow people up on busses/lob missiles into schoolyards (i.e., military activity) and BDS activities (i.e., propaganda activity) – military and propaganda both being components of a militant strategy.

    They could, for example, teach their young that peace between Arabs and Jews is in everyone’s interest. They could accept peace deals that give them 95%+ of what they claim to want (rather than reject anything that does not give them 100% with no compromises). They could follow the teachings of Gandhi and King, rather than those of Arafat and Haj Amin al-Husseini ( with regard to actually seeking peace (rather than killing fellow Palestinians who actually want peace).

    Pointing out that they have not done any of these things simply states facts which remain true even if you try to drown them out (at least within your own head) by calling anyone who brings them up a bigot.

  5. occupynomo September 1, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    Israel's occupation and settlement enterprise is at the root of this conflict. An increasing number of progressive Israelis are expressing the detrimental effects of the illegal and immoral settlements.

    I have been saying for years that Israel's choices are indeed limited: 1. one state for all and the Jewish majority is gone 2. 2 viable states and 3. Status quo of apartheid, occupation and settlements. The only viable option, 2 states, cannot coexist with the settlement enterprise.

  6. Jon September 1, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    You neglected to begin your comment with the critical phrase “In my opinion…”

    No doubt, your opinion that “The Occupation” (you forgot to put it in capitals) is the root of all misery in the region is shared by many with whom you surround yourself.

    But in my opinion, the misery of the region (especially the misery of the Palestinians) is derived almost entirely from the dysfunctional politics of the region, including among the Palestinians themselves, politics that has caused them to waste billions of dollars and two generations in an attempt to hold out for victory, rather than find a way to live in peace under the two-state framework you describe (one that’s been possible for decades, the minute all involved have truly made the commitment to peace).

    I fully respect that you are entitled to your opinion as to who is right and who is wrong in the Middle East (just as I am entitled to mine). With regard to BDS (the subject of this site), I agree to not demand that every civic organization in the land accept my opinion as official policy. Now if the BDSers simply took the same pledge, then there would no longer be a need for Divest This.

  7. Anonymous September 1, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    Don't sweat it. Yom Kippur is coming and everyone will have to forgive you.


  8. Anonymous September 1, 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    Boycott of Theater in Israeli Settlement Grows

  9. Anonymous September 1, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    Readers Discuss Wikipedia Editing Course That Aims for ‘Balanced and Zionist’ Entries

  10. DrMike September 2, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    “Israel's occupation and settlement enterprise is at the root of this conflict.”
    then why did the Palestinians start a civil war against the Jews in Palestine in 1947? and why did Egypt and Syria provoke war in 1967 when the Jewish population of Gaza and the West Bank was exactly zero (if you don't count the few Samaritans as Jews)?
    More specifically, the Palestinian position, reflected in the BDS founding documents, insists not only on an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines, but also on Israel being forced to accept an influx of 5 million great grandchildren of refugees from the 1947-8 war. That's not my opinion, that's what THEY say.

    unfortunately, the above historical facts make it appear that the existence of a Jewish state of Israel is at the root of the conflict. I wish that it WAS just about the occupation and the settlements– in that case, it could have been settled long ago.

  11. Occupynomo September 2, 2010 at 4:25 am #

    Dr Mike is this a joke?
    1. When the state of Israel was created in 1948 about 750,000 palestinians were forced out of their homes.

    2. Israel was the first to attack in the 1967 war.

    3. The Arab population in the WB in 1967 was approximately 700,000; Gaza was about 300,000

    Still haven't explained why Israel has built settlements in the WB, and why they have been growing for decades. Just for the fun of it or maybe because “the land was there and we decided to build on it” ? Why Dr Mike?

  12. Jon September 2, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    I believe Mike was simply pointing out that in 1948 (when five Arab armies attacked Isreal to murder it at birth) and 1967 (when Egypt massed troops on the Israeli border and Jordan and Syria put its military under joint command with Egypt to begin what the Egyptian leadership promised to be a war of annihalation) there were not settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

    While one can argue about the cause of each of these conflicts, you cannot claim that Israeli's presence in the West Bank and Gaza (which was the RESULT of these wars) can also have been their CAUSE. Even in partisan environments, the past still comes before the present.

  13. Occupynomo September 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    Jon Even if all you have said is true (I disagree with you) there would be justification for occupation but no justification for the moving in of civilians in occupied territories and the building of settlements in defiance of international laws to which Israel is a signatory.

  14. Jon September 2, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Just as we have (I hope politely) agreed to disagree on who is responsible for the crisis and tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict (since each of us has a strong set of opinions based on our own interpretation of conflicting information), so too you cannot simply present accusations that Israeli is violating international law as a closed case.

    While this is not necessarily the place for a general debate on the Middle East, I am providing you with links to writing I’ve done in the past regarding the specifics of the legal matters your comment brings up in a general way.

    These pieces were written in the context of a local ballot initiative dealing with the Right of Return, so you’ll need to get part way through the first before a discussion of relevant legal and historical matters begins. But skipping to the upshot, your accusation that Israel is in violation of the international law must be put into the category of opinion rather than unquestionable fact.

  15. Dusty September 10, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    The Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel attacks participants in the Ariel Boycott: Its just not good enough. Boycott ALL of Israel. ALL OF IT.

    “While we welcome acts of protest against any manifestation of Israel’s regime of colonialism and apartheid, we believe that these acts must be both morally consistent and anchored in international law and universal human rights. First, we believe that the exclusive focus on settlement institutions ignores and obscures the complicity of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions in upholding the system of colonial control and apartheid under which Palestinians suffer. PACBI believes there is firm evidence of the collusion of the Israeli academic and cultural establishment with the major oppressive organs of the Israeli state. Focusing solely on obviously complicit institutions, such as cultural centers in a West Bank colony, serves to shield mainstream Israeli institutions from opprobrium or, ultimately, from the growing global boycott movement that consistently targets all complicit institutions.”

    Yep. All nations have flaws. All nations make mistakes. But only Israel, alone in the family of nations has committed acts so egregious that she deserves this kind of response.

    Don't you ever try and claim “Its about the occupation” ever again. Its about Israel's very existence

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