Jay Michaelson’s Journey

I am usually of mixed mind with regard to sympathizing with those who were once part of (or even continue to support) this or that BDS activity who feel they must speak their mind about what they perceive to be the “movement’s” shortcomings.

On the one hand, you’ve got kooks like Norman Finkelstein who is too unpredictable to ever be seen as an ally, even if he has provided prime quotes regarding the cult-like nature of his former BDS buddies.  But then you’ve got those naïve individuals who were lured by the BDS sirens telling them they could partake in a political struggle of unquestionable evil (the Israeli brute) vs. undistilled virtue (the Palestinian victim).

We’ve been visited in the comments section by a few people who fall into this latter category, but the most vivid example of this type of BDS “turncoat” I remember was a young woman who joined the Somerville Divestment Project when it was doing its thing to my home city in 2004.  By 2005, however, she had abandoned the group, disgusted by the brutal and ruthless politics she saw taking place amongst the leadership (including the organization’s founder importing radicals from across the state into the group to ensure he would win all the votes), and shocked that she could be part of an organization that couldn’t decide if terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians should be considered immoral or not.

Between these two stands Jay Michaelson whose recent Forward article, entitled When the Right is Right About the Left, caused a stir this week.  More sophisticated than the “loose change” making up the rank-and-file of most college Students for Justice in Palestine campaigns, but less of a nut than Finkelstein, Michaelson first made a splash a couple of years back when he published a piece lamenting that Israel’s behavior was making him question the decades of devotion he had supposedly shown the Jewish state his whole life.

Truth be told, these types of “scales were lifted from my eyes/I haven’t left Zionism, Zionism left me” arguments have tended to leave me cold.

No doubt some people are sincerely and accurately describing their personal political journey.  But, more often than not, the people who embrace this storyline simply grew up in a run-of-the-mill Jewish household where support for and pride in Israel was taken for granted (similar to the way Irishmen and Italians identify with the old country without a second thought).

But by turning this unremarkable environment into an “Israel-Right-Or-Wrong” enclave that they escaped from only through their own courage and open mindedness, they get to make their arguments against the Jewish state not just “AsaJew” but “AsaFormerZionist.”

But even if we take Michaelson at his word regarding whatever conflict is going on between his past and current selves, he seems to be missing the actual conflict going on between his progressive and Zionist souls.

Because the boycotters tend to present their arguments entirely in the language of progressive values (to the point of insisting that the defining virtue for progressives is a full embrace of their political project), the notion that liberalism and Zionism are in conflict is often taken as a given.

But far from Israel’s behavior posing difficult choices for someone with progressive values, it is actually certain people’s weak grasp of what those values require that make them vulnerable to the pressures generated not by the Israelis/Jews, but by the war waged against them.

In any normal world, Israel would be held up as an example of how these progressive values can be built into a nation’s makeup.  Whether you’re talking about women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom, freedom of the press and speech, national healthcare or any of the subjects progressives claim as their moral lodestones, Israel has demonstrated that these freedoms and benefits can be embraced and implemented at a national level, even by a country that has been under siege since birth.

This obviously does not mean that Israel is perfect in each and every one of these regards.  But one does not measure these values by complaining about how far short a country has fallen in trying to create heaven on earth.  Rather, these are relative values which can only have meaning when compared to other real-world societies.

And in this case, the real-world societies that Israel’s detractors insist be given more of a fair shake than they current receive are built around values in direct opposition to everything progressives are supposed to believe.  Look over Palestinian society (in either the West Bank or Gaza) and take your pick: repression of women and gays, religious intolerance and state-sponsored fanaticism, jailed dissidents and journalists, politics based around strong men and clan loyalty, and an economy primarily designed to support corrupt oligarchies.

In his latest piece, Michaelson talks a great deal about BDS as it relates to the gay community he strongly supports.

Gay rights is one of those touchstone points since no other issue better demonstrates the yawning chasm between Israel and its rivals with regard to one of the top-priority items on the agenda of every progressive organization (including religious institutions like the Presbyterian Church).

This is why BDS defenders created the fake phenomena of “pinkwashing,” in order to make the conversation about something else (Israel allegedly exploiting its sexual freedom to cover up its wicked crimes) rather than the contrast between Israel and its neighbors on an issue so vital to progressives.

To his credit, Michelson lashes out against those who throw out the pinkwashing accusation, and makes other damning statements that will no doubt be considered blasphemous by soon-to-be former friends from “the movement.”

But the question arises as to why someone as thoughtful as Michaelson has taken so long to realize what anyone with eyes can see with regard to the true nature of BDS, and even then can’t bring himself to embrace Israel as a flawed country that still represents his values far more than the nation the BDSers would like to take its place.

Next time, I’ll try to answer that question.

8 thoughts on “Jay Michaelson’s Journey”

  1. Thanks for your comments on Michaelson. I was also left scratching my head after reading his article. Why does working with other people for LGBT rights mean that he has to support their other political agendas, in this case BDS, if he in fact opposes BDS? That seems like a weak argument on his part for his support of BDS, even in the limited form he seemed to support it. Does he outsource his political thinking to his allies on other subjects? It seems like a very immature position – and also one that he took more out of fear of what people would think of him than a principled stance.

    1. Unfortunately, most people outsource their political opinions. Not just about Israel, but about everything.

      It's as if you cannot buy your opinions a la carte, but as a packaged dinner.


    1. That is not a good response at all. In fact, it sidesteps one of Michaelson's most important charges.

      JVP and others are too cute by half about their endgame. I have seen it over and over in my interactions with them. It is, in fact, one of their major moral failings and why I decided I simply cannot take them seriously or afford them an ounce of respect. I have seen the very same individuals advocate a one state outcome while in certain contexts and then claim to want a two state “peace” while in front of a different audience or on a different blog. Also, I have seen them deliberately fuzz their position on the so-called “right of return” depending on what audience they think they are with.

      The charge that JVP hides it's endgame simply cannot be sidestepped by saying 'well, there is a diversity of opinion within JVP.' There is a diversity of opinion within individuals, depending on who they think they're talking to, and that is not ok.

    2. Knowing what the 'Magnes Zionist' is all about (that's the nom de web for Mr. Haber's site), it's not only unsurprising that he's pissed off to have someone he thought was in his corner point out the many ways his ultra-Left, panting-for-1-state acolytles are hypocrites and idiots, it's not interesting. If anything, JVP is LESS principled on these matters than Haber is, since he's always stuck to his useless guns, and they've had the entire Yasser Arafat thing going on as Fizziks accurately poited out (since the late and unlamented leader would be sort of supportive of peace in English, and called for death of Israelis in Arabic). If you want to put lipstick on a pig, find someone who wears it better than Haber does.

    3. I'm less critical of Michaelson's piece than both of you (and Jon) seem to be. The Magnes Zionist post entirely misses the point that Fizziks makes– that JVP tries (indeed a la Arafat) to talk out of both sides of its collective mouth. Those of us in the Bay Area are quite familiar with their gyrations on this. Yet they have a long and public track record of siding with many BDS initiatives, promoting and co-sponsoring despicable events (such as Sabeel conferences) that spill over into overt anti-Semitism, and not once– at least not in the past 8 years– publicly making any statement supportive of the right of the Jewish people to a state within any borders. It's as if I was “agnostic” about LGBT marriage rights, but always was signing on to anti-marriage initiatives, showing up at events opposed to same-sex marriage, and so on, yet never doing the same on the other side of the question.

      None of this is new, either. Jon and I first “met” on the Muzzlewatch comment boards where they kept trying to insist that they weren't promoting (or at least tolerating) hate speech against Jews and Israel until they finally had to shut down their comment board out of embarrassment.

      JVP has added its name to BDS campaigns that oppose Israel's existence entirely (see here http://www.bluetruth.net/2010/01/jewish-voice-for-peace-and-afsc.html), JVP's Rebecca Vilkomerson has stated that JVP is a part of the global BDS movement.

      But back to Michaelson– it's long since past time that someone on the far left called out JVP and other “peace” groups about their Arafat-like behavior. (We could create a neologism: “Arafatizing” but it sounds vaguely like some type of chemical process). Funny, for a group that claims to stand for “open debate” they are not only unwilling to publicly defend their desired endgame, they are also– at least in the Bay Area– unwilling to engage in debate about BDS. I've offered them a sit-down, moderated by a reporter for our local Jewish paper with the transcript to be published by them. They responded the same way that Mahmoud Abbas has to the idea of negotiations with Israel.

  2. I don't know… what struck me most about Michaelson's commentary was his inability to see the connection between anti-Semitism, the hatred of Israel and the failure of the peace process. I think his article made it pretty clear that Israel's opponents are interested in eliminating Israel not peace.

  3. Irony: Isn't “Loose Change” the name of that infamous truther video on Youtube? I wonder if the people who made it knew exactly the context when they named it that.

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