The following is an edited transcript of a webinar on “BDS: An In-Depth Conversation” that Partners for Progressive Israel hosted on 26 March 2019. A recording of this conversation is available here.
Jeremy Ben-Ami: President, J Street
Lara Friedman: President, Foundation for Middle East Peace
Todd Gitlin (moderator): Professor, Columbia University
Todd: I want to ask Lara to start by giving us a summary of some of the so-called anti-BDS legislation, that’s cropped up both on the state level and in Congress.
Lara: Over the past four or five years, we have seen a burst of legislation related to BDS. When I say related to BDS, I want to be clear; a lot of this legislation, if not most of it, in terms of what it actually seeks to do, is more about conflating boycotts of Israel with boycotts of settlements and seeking to stop the second.
I hone in on a problem here, because sometimes we weren’t talking about this, we’re talking about the free speech piece of it. Sometimes, we’re talking about the conflation and support of settlements piece of it. These are two problems that coexist, but they’re different. The legislation really started in earnest (at the) end of 2015 after the EU adopted its differentiation policy, which was this policy which said that, “This is Israel. This is settlements. We support Israel, and we will do everything we can to expand trade with Israel,” yadda, yadda, yadda, but settlements are not part of Israel, (they are) against international law, and everyone should differentiate their treatment of Israel and settlements.
We merely started to see legislation introduced. We saw it at the state level., I think it’s a total now of 26 states.
Virtually, all (such legislation) specifically says, “For the purposes of the law, boycotting Israel includes boycotting settlements.” The way states do this is one kind of legislation that says, we’ll divest from companies that boycott Israel or settlements.
Another kind of legislation is the kind that says, “You cannot enjoy the benefit of a state contract as a business, as an individual contractor, unless you sign away your right to boycott Israel and settlements,” which is almost a textbook definition of an unconstitutional condition. In effect, you’re giving up your constitutional right to compete to these things in order to be able to compete. That’s at the state level.
At the federal level, we have two pieces of legislation (that) do different and equally problematic things. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act seeks to effectively criminalize US businesses boycotting Israel or settlements The backers of this bill say, “This is nothing new. This is just an extension of the anti-boycott legislation in the ‘70s. BDS is the new Arab League boycott of Israel.”
What that ignores is the fact that the Arab League boycott of Israel was what is called a coercive boycott, a secondary boycott, where the Arab Leagues said, “We boycott Israel, and you can’t do business with us unless you also boycott Israel.” (This) Legislation was written back in the ‘70s to prevent American companies from being forced to join the Arab League army, compelled in order to do business against Israel. BDS isn’t coercive. BDS is a choice. On top of that is the legislation that is pending in Congress, The Israeli-Anti-Boycott act, which hasn’t been reintroduced yet this year but it certainly will be; it actually is aimed at settlements, squarely. It says that US companies will be committing a crime. Initially, it was punishable for up to 20 years in jail and it’s $20 million in fines, and now it’s just the fines not the jail, but you’re committing a crime if you choose to make this a political choice, to differentiate between Israel and settlements.
The other piece of legislation is the Combating BDS Act, which is legislation that was attached to the first thing they did in the Senate this year. It passed the Senate, very controversial. That is essentially an effort by Congress to give political cover, in a sense a green light, and incentivizes states to pass the laws that two federal courts have already found to be unconstitutional.
Where we are today in the current policy conference, AIPAC has, in my view, made not a retreat but a tactical shift, and is pushing for a very broad anti-BDS, non-binding resolution. Basically, saying to people, “Well, you can’t complain that it hurts free speech, it’s non-binding.”
Once this non-binding resolution is passed with a very, very large majority on both sides, it will then be a hook to say, “Well, if you think BDS is so bad, you’re a hypocrite if you won’t support binding legislation to stop it.” Also, to say that any member of Congress who supports BDS, any candidate who supports BDS, all of those people are radioactive.
Todd: Lara, what’s the politics of this? Who is promoting these measures and who’s opposing them? Where do we stand?
Lara: The politics are interesting. Starting at the federal level, a lot of folks are seeing this as a purely partisan, Trump-era thing. I think it’s really important to note that this started under Obama. The legislation which was essentially the gateway drug to this addiction was passed under Obama. It was two pieces of major trade legislation; one called the TPA Bill, Trade Promotion Act, and the other one, the Customs Bill. These were two signature pieces that Obama wanted.
Senator Cardin, Senator Portman, AIPAC, and others got into that legislation language which said, “For the purposes of US trade negotiations, it is a top priority to get our trade partners to not discriminate against Israel, which includes boycotts or special trade restrictions.”
That legislation defined boycotts of Israel as applying to Israel and territories under Israel’s control. That became law twice under Obama, in a bipartisan way. Cardin first introduced the IABA, Israel Anti-Boycott Act under Obama.
This has been building for a while. It, obviously, is becoming very partisan now. The pro-Israeli Right, sensing an opportunity, (now see) BDS as the richest vein that can be mined politically to fracture progressive unity and to undermine Democratic candidates. So far, I would say they’re not wrong. Until progressives come up with an answer for that, they’re just going to continue to hemorrhage.
Todd: Jeremy, as you look around the country, you’ve seen BDS coming up in our national politics and local politics, election campaigns, run-ups to election campaigns, our constituents chiming in on this, one way or the other–what do you see?
Jeremy: BDS itself has become an extraordinarily political issue. What’s so fascinating is that the actual Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is having practically no impact whatsoever, on the actual situation in Israel or the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
When you go to Israel and you experience the vibrant economy and all the growth that’s going on, you realize that this movement has had zero actual impact there. Here, it is front and center in the politics of the moment. It’s almost as if you’re living in another universe, that this is so front and center, and fracturing American politics, when the real discussion that needs to be had by those of us who care about Israel, is about the occupation and is about how to end the occupation, and about what policies are good for the United States. We’re being distracted from that by having an argument about BDS.
Yes, it is a very big political issue, but it is not a very relevant one, I believe, to the actual content of the work that matters to groups like J Street, PPI, or The Foundation for Middle East Peace, because we actually are trying to work towards a resolution of the conflict and towards finding a way out of occupation, and we’re spending all our time talking about BDS.
Todd: Would you say there’s a distraction going on? Who are the distractors?
Jeremy: I think it’s placed in the hands of both sides of the poles of the debate. I think for a lot of the more conservative politically organizations, it’s very, very helpful to have some form of an adversary or an enemy, or something to be working against. The BDS movement is a very useful tool and useful foil for defense organizations that raise money, and put together large conferences, and gather people to defend Israel from attack. Building up the fear of the BDS movement is a useful tool for organizations on the right.
Of course, for organizations on the left, it’s a very, very useful way to get a conversation started about these issues in the United States, particularly if you then get attacked as the right wing is doing to the BDS movement, and your civil liberties are under attack, then liberals say, “Wait a minute. Why are these anti-free speech right wingers attacking people who just want to use boycotts to end oppression? Isn’t that what we did with South Africa? Isn’t that what we did in the South to defeat Jim Crow?”
Suddenly, you have a whole influx of support for the BDS movement from well-meaning liberals, who don’t really understand what was the BDS charter, and what are the fundamental principles on which it was founded. It’s really in the interest of both the left and the right to have the argument be about BDS. I think they are both just feeding off each other, unfortunately.
Todd: You raised the analogy to South Africa, that is to say, you noted that some people say, “Well, it was right to do this boycott with respect to South Africa, not here.” What’s the difference?
Jeremy: I think that one of the key differences is what we’re pointing tois this differentiation issue. When people are boycotting an entire regime, as in South Africa, and going after the entirety of the system, that is different from the question here, which is, what is Israel itself doing in the territories? Israel is a functioning democracy. It’s imperfect, like so many democracies, including our own, but it is a different problem. You have a military occupation of territory won in a war, and you have the subjugation of people who lived in that territory to military rule for 50 years.
That’s a different problem than it was in South Africa. Also, the economies and the economic situations are completely different. The tactical choices that are available for the BDS movement are not able to bring the kind of pressure on the Israeli economy that would actually bring them to start thinking about a different policy. It’s tactically inefficient. It’s a different system. It’s just not a comparable situation.
Todd: Would it be fair to say that the BDS movement is a case of symbolic politics?
Jeremy: It’s symbolic, but I think it’s really important to note what the BDS movement actually is calling for. I believe very, very deeply in the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in the land of Israel. I’m a Zionist. I believe in that at my core. The BDS movement doesn’t acknowledge the right of the Jewish people to be free in their own land. It recognizes the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people but not of the Jewish people.
I think that this is really important to introduce into the conversation, that when people are engaging in the BDS movement as a way of trying to make some of their policy unhappiness known about what’s going on with settlements or what is going on with the occupation more broadly, they’re buying into a movement that is driven by a charter and a set of principles that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and is not interested in a two-state solution.
It doesn’t make the differentiation between the justice of the State of Israel’s existence, with all its imperfection, and the injustice of the occupation that happens over the Green Line. What does happen is that notion that, “Boycotts sound like they were effective and other places, so why not try it here?” is attractive to critics of Israeli policy, and people buy in then to a movement that actually, most likely, they wouldn’t agree with a lot of its underlying principles.
Todd: One more question about the local reactions, Jeremy. Not so long ago, the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council passed a resolution declaring that any of its member organizations supporting the BDS movement could be expelled. How prevalent do you find this kind of effort to control who gets to count as a Jewish organization?
Jeremy: This is very prevalent. That exact conversation is going on all over the country now. Sometimes it’s in a Jewish Community Relations Council and at the city level. Sometimes it might be on a college campus with regard to Hillel and who’s welcome at the Hillel. Sometimes synagogues have arguments over who can be brought in as a speaker, and whether rabbi’s politics on something are acceptable and their contract deserves to be removed. Over and over again, Jewish film festivals, book festivals, all the rest of it, there’s a constant debate about what are the particular viewpoints that put someone outside of the tent. I think this is extraordinarily dangerous.
The Jewish community is a very wide-ranging community. There are folks on the right, who are absolutely, to my mind, off the chart in terms of their viewpoints. Some of them are now, in fact, running for the Knesset and follow Meir Kahane, and talk about expulsion of Arabs from the State of Israel. Then there are folks all over in the left who are anti-Zionist and believe that the concept of Israel was a mistake, but they’re all Jews.
As a vibrant, healthy Jewish community, we need to recognize that as repulsive as we might find some of the views on one end of that argument or the other, and anywhere in between, our community will be a lot stronger if we find a way to have a healthy conversation, and a healthy debate and a robust debate, that keeps all of those people in the Jewish communal tent, as opposed to beginning to have a litmus test based on people’s views.
Where you see that lead is what I think you saw a lot at the AIPAC conference this week, which is this notion that, if you start to be critical of Israeli policy, not only are you not welcome in the tent, but you then are labeled as anti-Israel because you disagree on a matter of policy with the government of Israel, you’re called anti-Israel. Then, it’s not a long road from being anti-Israel to being anti-Semitic.
You saw it with President Trump, who in the course of 60 seconds, started talking about how the Democrats are wrong on Israel, then they are anti-Israel, and then by the end of his remarks, he was already calling the Democratic Party anti-Jewish. These are broad brushes, that I think it’s a huge mistake for our own Jewish communal leadership and institutions to buy into, conflating people who are highly critical of what’s going on in Israel with those who are anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic.
Lara: My experience in this country is that most people are not signing on to the BDS movement, checking the boxes, I agree, but what they’re saying is, “I have lost all hope with anything I’m doing influencing this Israeli government. This seems like, at least, a way I can vote with my feet, vote with my wallet, and take a stand.”
I don’t personally advocate boycotting Israel, but I will start with the distinction between calling for a boycott of Israel and a boycott of settlements. The settlements are a product of the Israeli government, they are supported by Israeli policy, they are funded by the Israeli taxpayer. It’s a distinction, which I encourage people to make because I think it’s a more effective tactic, if your goal is not simply to vent your spleen and show your anger, and not achieve anything.
If progressives do not understand that they are signing on to an anti-progressive agenda, both on Israel and more broadly on US civil liberties, it’s almost too late already. I don’t know what it will require for them to realize it. We have a Jewish owner of a newspaper in Arkansas, whose newspaper may go bankrupt, because he’s taking a stand and refusing to sign on the dotted line, that he will not ever boycott Israel or boycott settlements, as a condition for doing business with the state. That has led to all sorts of backlash, and it’s in court.
At what point do we stand up and say, “This is an abuse of concern for Israel?” This isn’t concern for Israel. This is concern for settlements, for greater Israel, for an illiberal agenda, which says, “Political free speech that’s critical, things we don’t like, we want to ban it.” That’s not the Jewish progressive values I was raised with.
Todd: Can we talk a bit more about what the Israeli government is doing, vis-à-vis, these initiatives in the US, in the states and in the federal government? To what extent can you see these initiatives drawing inspiration from Israel’s own anti-boycott law? Is the Israeli government to your knowledge directly involved in promoting these sorts of legislative initiatives?
Jeremy: Yes. This is very clear strategy that is emanating from the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. They are, I believe, building up the BDS movement in order to have a fight over taking it down.
This is a movement that’s having zero actual impact on the world. It’s having no impact at all on the ground in Israel. It is exerting no pressure at all on Israel’s economy, on the settlements. In fact, wineries are happy on the West Bank to be on the list of settlement products, because then people know who want to support it, where to go, and where to buy.
This is not about the actual impact of the boycotts, it is about creating a fight over enemies of the State of Israel, and turning people who are critics of its policies into anti-Israel “Boogie” people.
If you want to be progressive about Israel, let’s not argue about BDS. Let’s not argue what the folks who are perpetuating the settlement enterprise want to argue about. They want to argue with BDS. They want to argue about whether its critics are anti-Semites. They want to deflect from what’s actually happening on the West Bank. Are Palestinian villages being demolished? Are lands being confiscated? Are the settlements expanding? Is freedom of movement constrained? Is there undrinkable water in Gaza? Is there not enough power?
These are the issues that people don’t want to be discussing, so they’d rather be discussing whether or not Airbnb is anti-Israel, or Ilhan Omar is anti-Semitic, but they don’t want to be discussing, what does it say about the Jewish people in the state of the Jewish people? Those are just cut off-mark. That is not what the Ministry of Strategic Affairs would like to be discussing, so its strategy is to make BDS the conversation and not the occupation. Progressives should make the conversation about the occupation and not about BDS.
Todd: It would be fair to say that there’s a weird alliance between the Netanyahu government and the BDS movement?
Jeremy: Exactly. I think the only people who have a real interest in this being the discussion are the folks on the far right, who need something to distract people to argue about, and then the people on the left who build up their movement in the BDS world around this argument, but it isn’t actually doing anything to move us toward the end of the occupation or the end of the conflict.
Lara: What’s happening with the way BDS is being weaponized; you look at the progressive political base and you look at the progressive candidates out there, and this is being weaponized to enormous effect against black and brown candidates, black and brown members of Congress. People say to me, “How did this play in the last election cycle?” It’s amazing to me how few people know that Stacey Abrams, in her primary campaign, was up against another house member, very progressive woman. Wonderful, two very good candidates: one a Jewish American, one a Black American.
The issue that was used in that primary to differentiate between them and to attack Stacey Abrams was BDS. Not because she supports BDS but because she voted against one of these state laws because of the free speech issue. We were forced to watch the spectacle of this remarkable candidate, who is a remarkable future leader of the Democratic Party perhaps. She posted an article on Medium before the election essentially laying out her “I love Israel bono” fides, “Please, please, please, please, please don’t hold it against me that I support free speech.”
We saw this in Florida where you had a really good candidate for governor there who essentially was attacked, not because he supports BDS or is in any way inclined to say he does, but because he’s supported by Dream Defenders, which is a grassroots vibrant movement which does support BDS. It was argued that because he’s supported by Dream Defenders, which is now being attacked by rival organizations who are saying that because of its support for BDS, it should be brought up on charges by the Department of Justice.
My point is you’re talking about two really good candidates, both of whom are African American, where BDS was the chosen tool to try to undermine them and Jewish progressives by not being able to stand up and say, “Listen, whether we support BDS or not, we will not allow this to happen. There has to be space here to disagree on this and to disagree legitimately”. This is peaceful. This is legal. This is something people have used– Boycotts and calling for boycotts is not new. The idea that it’s okay on everything but Israel, progressives are there. They are poisoning the well for candidates and very strongly for candidates who are black and brown. That’s unconscionable.
Jeremy: I think the good news is that when you look at the vote in the Senate on S1 and you look at the people who were thinking of running for president, at the end of the day, first of all, the Democratic caucus split 50/50, and we were able to convince half of the Democrats to vote against this legislation basically on these grounds. Of the people running for president, all but one voted against it. The folks who are not in the Senate right now, many of them came out against it as well.
I do think that the understanding that this is the wrong fight to be having and the right place to be as a Democrat, as a progressive on politics generally is to support the right to boycott, even if you disagree with the principles of some of the elements of the movement. I do think we’re winning on that fight in the progressive movement.
Todd: How do you perceive the evangelical Christian right support for anti-BDS laws?”
Jeremy: This brings you back to the politics of Israel in the moment. It is very critical to understand that for the Netanyahu world, for the right of center, let’s say the David Friedman style of pro-Israel politics, the Evangelical community is the absolute key political base from which to work in the generations to come. Their understanding is correct, which is that there are 60 million Evangelical Christians as opposed to 6 million Jews. 80% to 90% of the evangelicals agree with the right wing, and 70% to 80% of the Jews disagree with the right wing.
They’re going to find a better political base in that part of the country, and it is now becoming an issue that is like choice. It is like guns. It is not necessarily a rational policy debate about how do you resolve a conflict. It is more of a question of faith and belief. Are you part of our faith structure and world view or not?
This week the settlers are in town for AIPAC. They’re having their big reception at the Evangelical Bible Museum. It’s not for nothing that they’re having their big reception there. They are more comfortable surrounded by Evangelicals who are praying every day for Jews to die in a pool of fire than they are with progressives who care about Israel being a democratic state.
If you really want to end this conflict and stop the bloodshed and stop the violence and stop the debate about BDS, then let’s start talking about how we get to an actual viable end of conflict resolution.
Lara: One of the things that makes me feel it’s getting better is I’m finally– I have been shouting hair on fire for five years about the legislation, about the conflation, and I couldn’t get anyone to care. I have articles and tables of data, and it feels like we have reached a tipping point where people are waking up and they’re recognizing whether it’s because you care about human rights, international law, civil liberties if folks don’t wake up now, it’s going to be too late. I feel like we actually are having that tipping point, and a conversation like this is a sign of that. That does give me a little bit of optimism, and for that, I thank you.
Jeremy: I think that it is just so vital for pro-Israel advocates to recognize how late in the game we are to save the State of Israel. The notion that the greatest problem that we have as a freshman Muslim woman legislator from Minnesota who has a few ill-advised tweets that that somehow is the thing that we need to be rallying about and around and against when the very core of what it means to be a state of the Jewish people is being eroded in front of our eyes.
I ask people to look in the mirror and ask themselves, what is the true threat to having a vibrant, safe, stable, secure Jewish and democratic Israel that is there for your children and your grandchildren and is accepted around the world. The only way that that is ever going to happen is to end this occupation, to ensure that there is a state for the Palestinian people, and to do everything we can to make sure that state is a success so that the neighborhood can grow and the neighborhood can change.
That’s what our agenda has to be. Instead of fighting the silly fight over tweets and a silly fight against a few folks on college campuses and in food co-ops who want to boycott humus and wine. I just think people have to take a real look in the mirror and check their priorities about what’s important to fight for.