BDS is a long term project with radically transformative potential
I’m grateful to Jerry Haber for taking the time to engage me on the role of ‘liberal’ Zionists in the BDS movement. Sometimes my tone borders on truculence, which is really just impatience. I’m impatient for ‘liberal’ Zionists to discard the ‘Zionist’ and become regular liberals like the rest of us. I think these are people who know better, but cling to notions of racial dominance in an ill-got geographical space for a variety of reasons.
I’ve written before I don’t really believe that liberal Zionists exist. Very quickly; liberal means we’re all equal, and Zionist means we’re not. It’s a contradiction in terms that I believe is irreconcilable. For instance, Avigdor Lieberman would like to see an end to the occupation. Is Avigdor Lieberman a liberal Zionist? Why not? Lieberman talks about ‘population swaps’ whose intent is to preserve the Jewish character of the state. Is that what liberal Zionists find so odious? How do liberal Zionists seek to preserve the Jewish character of the Jewish state if not through supranational gerrymandering or more ethnic cleansing? This is not a rhetorical question. How do liberal Zionists intend to hold on to their Jewish state?
Haber writes that “civil equality of Palestinian Arabs in Israel may entail the end of the Jewish state, but many people, Jews and Palestinians, don’t think that it does.” I’d like to respectfully correct the misconceptions of any Jews and Palestinians who do not think that granting civil equality to Palestinian Israelis means the end of the Jewish state. Today, in the Jewish democracy, 1 out of every 5 citizens is not Jewish. In a truly equal society, any one of those people can hold a senior governmental post. What happens to ‘Jewish self-determination’ when the prime minister of Israel is a woman named Diana Buttu? In America, the proportion of black to non-black people is less than that of Palestinian Israeli to Jewish Israeli. Yet, white Americans and others elected a black man. That’s because the principle of ‘white self-determination’ is a discredited orthodoxy in American civil discourse. That’s because it’s racist.
Furthermore, Haber writes that “Palestinian Israeli leaders… do not oppose the existence of a Jewish ethnic state.” I take issue with this characterization of Palestinian Israeli leaders’ views. Azmi Bishara has repeatedly called for an Israel that does not discriminate or privilege one race over another. MK Ahmed Tibi has also described the Jewish state as “democratic towards Jews, and Jewish towards Arabs.”
But I’m avoiding the meat of the thing; do I want so-called liberal Zionists to join in our BDS efforts? If not, why? The BDS movement seeks to enact “non-violent punitive measures” to induce Israel into:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
Ok fine. So BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state. But can’t I see the value in reaching across the aisle, so to speak? The movement may be burgeoning but remains too small. Why shouldn’t we indulge in ad hoc partnerships to get things done? Richard Silverstein, Richard Goldstone, and many other self-proclaimed Zionists have done an immeasurably positive amount of work in skinning the Zionist cat (That’s a deliberate analogy. I don’t kid myself about how difficult it must be for a Jewish person to criticize the Zionist state), shouldn’t they be asked to join the BDS movement?
To be sure, I’m not dogmatically against cooperating with people whose views I find objectionable. If it came down to it, I’d be happy to work with the racist up the street to get the city to fix a neighborhood pothole.
Likewise, I’d work with a liberal Zionist to break the Zionist siege of Gaza, whose people really have no use for protracted ideological jockeying. There is an immediacy there that demands action from any quarter.
But I view the BDS movement as a long-term project with radically transformative potential. I believe that the ultimate success of the BDS movement will be coincident with the ultimate success of the Palestinian enfranchisement and equal rights movement. In other words, BDS is not another step on the way to the final showdown; BDS is The Final Showdown.
This belief grows directly from the conviction that nothing resembling the ‘two-state solution’ will ever come into being. Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself. That’s because, as Yair Wallach writes, “The occupation appears increasingly as a de-facto permanent feature of the Israeli system of government, rather than as a set of temporary policies and security measures. And inevitably, the occupation involves the disenfranchisement and denial of collective political rights for the Palestinians.”
Therefore the success of the BDS movement is tied directly to our success in humanizing Palestinians and discrediting Zionism as a legitimate way of regarding the world.
With that holistic long-term view of BDS in mind, it becomes easy for me to say to that hypothetical Berkeley student senator, “We’ve waited a long time for our rights, we can wait until you’ve grown sufficiently as a human being to recognize our equal humanity before you cast that vote.” I have a robust faith in the humanity of the Jewish people (and people everywhere). I do not think we will have to wait very long for many of them to unlearn the Zionism which disfigures it.
We Palestinians have compromised on our fundamental rights and humanity repeatedly to gain political favor or a modicum of statehood. The most important lesson we can draw from Oslo is that Zionism does not permit many Zionists to act in good faith. Despite themselves, they are obsessively engaged in counting babies. Take the recent Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations. The Bradley Burstons of the world tell us that they demonstrate to prevent the unthinkable from happening. ‘If Jews have a right to properties they relinquished in 1948 in East Jerusalem, then Palestinians have a right to properties they relinquished in 1948! We cannot set the precedent!!’ Is this liberal Zionism? What’s so liberal about it?
The chief hallmark of intelligence is the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes. We cannot engage in expedient coalition-building now for a few short-term gains. We will end up sacrificing a clear moral compass in the long-run, which is bad for everyone. That’s how we ended up where we are after the Oslo farce.
There is the view that liberal Zionists are fence-sitters – nearly there, but not quite – and we ought to undertake to bring them into the fold. One day, imperceptibly, they will find that they no longer hew to a vision of a racially-pure (or Jewish majority) Israel.
When I was in college in the United States, I was frequently approached by well-intentioned Zionists who would invite me to ‘dialogue’ meetings and the like. I always refused because it was clear that these people sought, on some level, to absolve themselves of their Zionist guilt. It may have been tied to the Nakba, or the occupation, or the realization that I couldn’t participate in studying abroad in Tel Aviv, or any number of things.
Would I be doing these people a favor by joining them in holding hands and ameliorating some of the psychological tension that results when basically good people hold racist views? Or am I permitting them to persist in their destructively dichotomous state of mind by helping them put off the moment of crisis for just a bit longer? Personally, I felt more comfortable confronting their racism head on. Maybe if we apply force to the mind of a liberal Zionist, something will snap: “I can’t believe it. But he’s right. Palestinians are people, too. And they ought to be able to live in Jaffa just like me!”
Truthfully, I don’t know with any certainty how we should approach the fence sitters. It probably has something to do with an individual’s temperament, and whether she responds to blatant contradictions or hand-holding. I do know that I’m temperamentally unsuited to hand-holding.
But I’d like to acknowledge that these people may one day be friends and allies, and eventually, compatriots. So here’s a direct plea:
Discard your Zionism. Learn to animate your humanity with an immutable, plangent belief in the fundamental equality of all people. Learn to see the other as an extension of your human, not Jewish, self. Learn to stop worrying, and love the demographic bomb.