Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

Why I support B.D.S. and the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian and Methodist Church

Posted by rabbibrian on April 3, 2012

A few weeks ago I was engaged in an email conversation with some rabbinic colleagues about the Presbyterian Church and B.D.S.  The questions was asked: “Why does the Presbyterian church care about B.D.S. against Israel?  Why not China?”

I wrote the following response:

There are many reasons why the Presbyterian church supports the Palestinian call for B.D.S. some of which have been eloquently articulated in the email conversation today.  What I need to remember is that B.D.S. is not a Presbyterian initiative, it is a nonviolent Palestinian initiative to end the Occupation.   It is the Palestinians who have singled out Israel for B.D.S, very appropriately, as Israel is the occupying power for the past four decades.  It is also incredibly inspiring that their strategy to achieve justice is nonviolent and that they have appealed for support from others.  We all understand why the Palestinians have not focussed on terrible and unjust human rights violations in China, or in the U.S. for that matter!  They have a very pressing issue much closer to home: the Occupation.

Now the question is why we, or the Presbyterians, would choose to join the Palestinian call.

I support their call because I support the struggle of oppressed peoples for justice.  As a person of privilege, I regard it is a religious obligation to be in solidarity with those struggling for justice.  It is my responsibility to support those who are struggling for justice and to support their efforts.

So why here and not China, or Tibet, or Sudan, or America?

Why I choose to focus my energies here is that I feel a direct responsibility as an American and as a Jew for the oppression of the Palestinian people.  I identify as a Jew and I live in America.  As a Jew,  it is a state that claims to be acting in my name that has oppressed the Palestinians for decades.  As an American, it is my country that is funding, arming, supporting, defending Israeli oppression.  As a rabbi, it is my community and it’s rabbinic and lay leadership that is a (the?) major player in ensuring the unquestioning support of the American government for Israeli policy.  For all these reasons I have a direct responsibility to challenge those who support the oppression of the Palestinian people.   Silence is complicity with those committing the  injustice.

No people with privilege and power, starting with Pharaoh, and probably even before Pharaoh, have given up power without facing some cost.  B.D.S., hopefully will inflict a cost to Israel for continuing the Occupation.  Without anything to lose, there is no reason in the world why the Israeli government will end the Occupation.   The support of the American Jewish community (including, maybe especially, liberal Jews) and the American government ensures that there is no cost to the homes that are demolished, to the suffering of the thousands of administrative detainees, to the stealing of land, the daily humiliation and many other scandalous injustices that happen everyday.   B.D.S. offers some counter force to the overwhelming power of the State of Israel.

Many of you know me and of my experience growing up in South Africa.  The international campaign against Apartheid played a very important role in ending Apartheid.  As a kid it was painful to live in a country that was a pariah in the world. Yet, as a person who abhorred Apartheid, I supported the international campaign against Apartheid wholeheartedly.  I was grateful that there were people in the world who were standing up for a just South Africa as it was only with justice that there would be security for me as a white child.  I also knew that there was no chance that the powerful Apartheid government with its army would voluntarily end the oppression of Black South Africans.  I would like to believe that Israel will voluntarily begin to dismantle the systemic discrimination against Palestinians, but I know there is no chance that it will be the first entity in human history to relinquish unjust power voluntarily.

Lastly, it is difficult for me as a Jew who has many Israeli friends and many positive connections to Israel and to Jewish culture to support B.D.S.  I choose to be in solidarity with the Palestinian call despite these feelings, as it is the only effective nonviolent way to end the horror that is unfolding in Israel/Palestine.  I see nothing else that in any way empowers me as an American and a Jew to challenge the injustice in Israel. When I was a kid I thought I would be more secure in a democratic, just South Africa.  I think this is true here as well.  In the long run, I will be more secure as a Jew and as human being when there is justice for the Palestinians.

As regards why the Presbyterians have taken this on others have already pointed to several compelling reasons: Palestinian Christians, their connection to Israel and I am sure there are many others.  I attended the launch of the Kairos document calling for B..D.S. which took place in a Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem!   While the reasons of the Presbyterians are interesting, much more interesting is why we feel compelled to take this on.

And in regard to China, America and other countries where there are injustices, I feel compelled to act as well but I must say that this struggle feels like mine in a deeper way.


9 Responses to “Why I support B.D.S. and the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian and Methodist Church”

  1. Kol Hakavod, Brian, for saying out loud what needs to be said. The issue of demanding unjust power be relinquished is an incredibly apt and sacred message with Pesach just around the corner. Obviously it is enormously painful for Jews to realize that they have become Pharaoh – but facing this pain honestly and unflinchingly is the only way to for a just, safe and viable future for all who live on the land. Thank you for your courageous leadership – please know there are many of us in the Jewish community who stand with you as you stand with the Palestinian call for BDS.

  2. carolehope said

    Thank you so much for stepping forward in this way, Brian. No need to repeat what Rabbi Brant said above – yes, yes, yes. Your courage provides inspiration, supports courage in others. We had a very well attended vigil here in Syracuse on Palestinian Land Day (Friday). Having stood at that same intersection for years in the ’90’s, vigiling with our local Women in Black, I was moved to tears by the shift in the energy we received from passing motorists. A friendly honk way back then was a rare and memorable event. On Friday there was a very steady stream of honk, honk, honk!! It was actually quite amazing to feel that perhaps change is in the air.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks Carole for your kind comment. Slowly but surely the truth about the Occupation is coming out, changing the discourse in America. I share your sense of hope and change.

  3. While I appreciate the courageous intent of this post, I question the likely effectiveness of the B.D.S. movement in ending the Occupation. Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s objections to B.D.S. ring true to me- B.D.S. seems to de-legitimize all of Israeli society, by calling for a blanket boycott and divestment of all Israeli goods. Waskow favors a more targeted boycotting- which is focused on those elements of Israeli society that profit from the Occupation, specifically, the settlers and specific companies (like Caterpillar) that obviously cause harm– by selling bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes. If the greater good of Palestinian freedom were to be the result of some losses to decent Israeli businesses, it might be worth those losses. But, because so many Jews and supporters of Israel around the world perceive B.D.S. as an attack on the legitimacy of the Israeli state as a whole, B.D.S. seems more likely to catalyze greater rigidity and resistance to a just peace. Like Rabbi Waskow, I don’t believe B.D.S. aims directly enough to achieve its goals.

    The US government is the primary source of the funding that keeps the Occupation in place. Despite President Obama’s lip-service to stopping new settlements on Palestinian land, the US has not taken any action to let Netanyahu and the Israeli government know that the US will follow through on the President’s nice words about creating a Palestinian state. Until the US makes clear that there are consequences to Israel– that US military aid will be cut, or deferred, until Israel’s government stops obstructing any hope of a peace agreement- we are not likely to see a workable peace settlement.

    How do we get the US government to change its policies and become tougher on Israel? Not easy. The power over appropriations to Israel is in the US Congress, and the House is currently controlled by narrow-minded right-wing fools. Come November, that could change, if all of us are more vocal participants in the political process.

    If every American citizen who supports justice for Palestinians were to do everything they could to communicate clearly to every candidate for Congress that we cannot support any candidate who continues to vote for funding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and follow through on our statements, some interesting things might happen.

    Some of the more progressive Democrats might actually have the courage to speak out about voting against funding the Occupation. Green party candidates might get most of our votes for President and Congressional seats where they are running candidates. If we bring up the Occupation as being hurtful to everyone- Palestinians, Israelis and Americans- at every candidates’ forum all across the US, it’s possible that the way the politicians and media talk about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict could change.

    Every strategy to achieve justice in Israel/Palestine is a long shot. I don’t expect my words to change your mind about B.D.S. Sustained political advocacy in the current reality of corporate media skewing all so-called news to favor their corporate owners can be extremely frustrating. Personal actions (like boycotts) feel like they might be a way to exert what power we have. They do demonstrate support to the Palestinians. I just encourage supporters of B.D.S. to speak and act clearly for justice and to do what we can to influence the people who have the power to end the Occupation. Sadly, those people are primarily members of the US Congress.

    Thanks for your continuing courage and leadership and thoughtfulness in working for justice.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks, Will for your comment. I always learn from you. Jewish Voice for Peace supports targeted divestment and I am part of the JVP Rabbinical council that supports the targeted divestment proposals of the Methodist and Presbyterian Church and has initiated a nationwide campaign urging TIAA CREF to divest from companies that profit from the Occupation. I urge you and others who may oppose a more general call for B.D.S. to support this and other targeted divestment actions.

      Where I disagree with Rabbi Waskow is that he has chosen to became a public opponent of those who advocate broader B.D.S. It became the “Waskow vs. Barghouti” show on Democracy Now. While I respect (not agree with) personal judgement that a more general B.D.S. will not be effective, I strongly oppose attacks on those who do engage in these actions. Why attack fellow activists? Why oppose a strategy called for by the oppressed?

      Let those who take on targeted actions focus their energy on those actions, while others may take on wider B.D.S. actions. Why is it necessary to attack our allies, who in good conscience, are responding to a bold and urgent Palestinian call for nonviolent action to end the Occupation?

      • I can’t answer for Rabbi Waskow. I wonder why he chose to participate in that debate format. Was it Amy Goodman’s idea to have the debate? It was a friendly and respectful debate– a disagreement about strategy.

        J Street condemns the B.D.S. movement with greater force, saying the movement “rejects Israel’s role as a national home for Jewish people” and provides “a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism”. Groups to the right attack BDS with far greater venom.

        What’s got them all so upset and angry? I wonder if this polarizing can somehow become beneficial to the Palestinian cause- and lead to greater understanding of the human rights issues involved, and bring Israeli leaders closer to recognizing the value of attempting a win-win end to the Occupation that brings about a two-state solution?

  4. carolehope said

    I saw Rabbi Waskow’s debate on Democracy Now, and it reinforced my belief that the Jewish reluctance to fully support BDS is a more emotional than rational position. I have great respect for Rabbi Waskow, but his argument against BDS was not at all persuasive. I don’t think that there is really a persuasive argument for a realistic 2 state solution either, given the current configuration of settlements, but yet most progressive Jews still cling to an idea that could have been a reality decades ago – but hardly now.

    I think it is very difficult to embrace BDS because of its association with the concept of apartheid. It is such a derogatory and negative term, horrified as we were by the racist policies of the South African government. We were willing to boycott and divest then – but so difficult to use the same words and the same tactics in relationship to our own people!

    There are very difficult issues to be faced regarding what the political and military policies of Israel are, and the results they have wrought. Although as people living in the US we hold primary responsibility for influencing our own government in its support of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, it is not the US that is the occupier, it is Israel.

    Just as most of what the US government does is “not in my name,” the actions of the Israeli government are “not in my name,” and not in the name of many Israeli’s and Jews around the world. I think it is absolutely crucial that we remain clear in understanding the separation between any given people (US or Israeli), and the actions and policies of a government that does not truly represent them.

    Although theoretically the US Congress could stop US funding for the Occupation, our electoral system and predominant right wing politics are not going to allow that to happen any time soon. It is not a viable strategy, in my opinion, to try to vote out the “bad guys,” when all of the “guys” are funded through the same corporate interests. BDS is a non-violent, grass roots direct action that has worked before because it directly hits the corporate pocketbook. I think its a great idea.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks so much for your clarity and especially for the distinction between any given people and their government. I agree the U.S. government doesn’t speak in my name just as the Israeli government doesn’t speak in the name of many Israelis and Jews. We all need to take responsibility and speak out when our government acts in ways that are immoral but we do not act against Israelis or Americans. We act against the immoral policies of the government. Many opponents of B.D.S. fear it is an attack on Israelis, it is a strategy to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies.

  5. aviv1978 said

    I have a couple of questions for you Rabbi:
    1. Do you support a 2 state solution?
    2. If so, How can you support a campaign that contradicts this solution and advocates for the destruction of the state of Israel?

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