Sunday, 12 April 2015

Boycotting from Within - a letter to the President of the Board of Deputies

Dear Vivian Wineman

I'm writing as a British Jew wanting to bring a dissenting Jewish perspective to the Board's fifty page denouncement of peaceful protest in support of human rights.

I very much doubt I will change your mind but I would like others reading this to understand the historical, political and moral flaws in your arguments. I also believe it is vital for the wider Jewish community, and the British public, to see that the Board's position does not reflect the considered viewpoint of all Jews in this country.

Just before Passover, our annual celebration of freedom and liberation, you published 'A Better Way than Boycotts' in which you set out the case against using boycotts, divestments or sanctions as a way to bring a resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

While attempting to sound reasonable and balanced, your document frames the debate in a way that deliberately obscures some very basic facts that the British Jewish establishment would do better to acknowledge.

You also take the memory of the Holocaust and perversely use it to delegitimise entirely legal, democratic and peaceful protest.

Meanwhile, your presentation of Israel's 'painful compromises' and 'generous offers' in pursuit of peace does not ring true to anyone who cares to read the historical record from both sides.

Your alternative actions to BDS, while worthwhile in themselves, will never sway an Israeli government content to manage rather than resolve the issue. Why should it, while the price it pays for its behaviour, politically and economically, is so minimal?

As a Jew I now feel that the best way to demonstrate my understanding of our Jewish religious heritage and our historical experience is by standing alongside the Palestinian people in their dispute with the State of Israel and in their call for boycott, sanctions and divestment.

In short - and borrowing a description used by Israeli Jews who share my understanding - I am boycotting from within.

In what follows I will explain why.

The missing truth

There is one fundamental fact that you fail to mention anywhere in your document. And without that  your claim to bring a balanced, rational and pro-peace viewpoint to the debate becomes highly questionable.

Nowhere across the fifty pages of 'A Better Way than Boycotts' do you once acknowledge that Israel continues to perpetrate an illegal occupation of the West Bank (now in its 48th year) or an illegal blockade of Gaza. It's an omission that demonstrates a bias you are quick to accuse others of holding. But without talking about this simple fact you cannot hope to make sense of the motivations that underpin the BDS campaign. 

Pointing out the illegality of Israel's position is not a leftist or jihadist or antisemitic act. The current status quo is viewed as breaking international law by the British government, the EU, the United States and just about every other country in the world. Is it really unworthy of mention?

You are right that Israel should not take sole blame for all that has happened, but your document paints a picture in which Israel has no blame whatsoever.

Instead you frame the debate as a dispute between Israel and a hostile neighbour.

But this is not the reality. Far from it.

Israel directly or indirectly controls the lives of more than 4 million Palestinians. This is in no way an argument between equals that can be resolved between themselves if only they were left alone to get on with it. This is an asymmetrical conflict where military power, political resources and, most glaringly, civilian casualties are not remotely even. Without this being understood, the case for boycott, divestment and sanctions will not make sense to the general reader. But I think you know this.

The democratic deficit

Contrary to the claim you make about supporters of BDS, I have no wish to deny Israel's right to exist. Nor would I deny the religious and cultural ties that Jews have to the land or their unbroken presence there.

But none of these strong connections to the land justify the denial of another people's rights, a people with equal, and in many ways stronger connections to the same land.

It is not the state itself that is illegitimate but its actions and laws certainly are.

On the West Bank Israel operates parallel and discriminatory judicial and policing systems. It applies strikingly different planning and house building regulations. It builds roads that only some people (Jewish Settlers) can use. It controls the movement of some people (Palestinians) but not others (Settlers). You may object to the use of the word 'apartheid' but what other label would you care to give it? 'Security' perhaps? That appears to be the catch-all justification for any amount of discrimination and oppression.

As for the boycott campaign wanting to force Israel's hand, you are absolutely right. And for good reason. So far no one else has succeeded in doing this. Not Obama, not Kerry, certainly not Cameron. Plenty of carrots from Western leaders, the encouragement you claim is essential for progress, but never any stick.

You present a picture of on-going peace talks and reconciliation that BDS will jeopardise by encouraging the international community to demonise Israel. But there is no peace process, there is no reconciliation happening. In fact the opposite in taking place. Israel just keeps stealing and building, building and stealing. As John Kerry discovered last year, an Israel that will not even halt Settlement construction for just a few months when establishing good will is paramount is hardly a willing partner for peace.

The two-state solution and other myths

You premise your whole position on the broad consensus among, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews in Britain and international governments that a two-state solution is the only fair way forward. I wish I could share your faith in the likelihood of this as an outcome.

After 25 years of diplomatic 'peace process' the two-state solution has failed to be delivered. Today it has become very clear to the whole world (but perhaps not to the Board of a Deputies) that the Israeli Prime Minister agrees with two states in theory but never in practice.

And what happens when Settlement building has been so rampant that no amount of 'land swaps' will compensate for it or allow the creation of a contiguous and defendable piece of land worthy of being called an autonomous state?

You quote the Israeli politician Yair Lapid, the then Finance Minister, talking in 2014 about the Kerry negotiations:If this peace process wont work, we should start again and again... Never, never, never give up. I would rather cite a more impressive Jewish thinker, Albert Einstein, who said:  "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results".

You call supporters of BDS well meaning but "extremely naive". I think that description better fits your position.

There is no two-state peace process. However, there already is an emerging one-state reality. The only question is will it be democratic or, as now, will it not. 

Your faith in the two-state solution would carry more conviction if you had once in the last 25 years urged the State of Israel to recognise international law, halt settlement construction and accept that Jerusalem should and could be shared. But you did not.

(Less than) Generous offers

The truth is, we are no longer looking at two competing national liberation movements. Israel 'won' a long time ago. But the victory has always been hollow and year by year it has destroyed the ideal (perhaps contradictory from the start) of a Jewish and democratic state.

Worse still, it has led to the violent death of many thousands of Palestinian civilians, most recently more than 500 children in Gaza last summer. Yet you, the Jewish leadership of Britain, insist on emphasising the need for Israeli, not Palestinian, security. It is a topsy turvy way of seeing the world and not one that I or many other British Jews wish to endorse.

You talk about Israel's long history of making 'painful concessions' and 'generous offers' in pursuit of peace. The Palestinian's ability to negotiate has indeed been flawed but not because of a failure to make significant compromises.

The PLO gave up 78% of its historic claims 25 years ago. Ever since, the Palestinians have struggled to get a just agreement on the remaining 22%. Hamas, despite its ridiculous and antisemitic charter, also recognises the 1967 Israeli borders. All of its negotiating positions have been based on that fundamental stance. While Israel has made peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan (existing sovereign states) it is yet to recognise that the Palestinians have a legitimate right to a state that controls its own borders and airspace or that has contiguous defendable land. You know all of this but again fail to consider it relevant information.

The misuse of the Holocaust and antisemitism

You argue against BDS on the grounds of sensitivity to Jewish history and the likelihood of boycotts becoming antisemitic in nature.

The BDS campaign does not target Jews for being Jews as was the case in Nazi Germany. BDS targets trade with the State of Israel until the state changes its policies and recognises its legal obligations towards the Palestinians. There is all the difference in the world between these two situations.

But if BDS supporters find it difficult to make the distinction between Jews and the State of Israel it's hardly surprising. Every Israeli Prime Minister enjoys speaking as if they were our international leader. Our communal organisations, like the Board, refuse to offer an ounce of criticism towards Israel and our synagogues offer weekly prayers for the State of Israel and its defence forces. Why wouldn't BDS campaigners draw the conclusion that Judaism, Jews and Zionism are all one and the same?

Over the last 70 years we have merged our ancient faith with a very modern political nationalist project to the point where most Jews accept the State of Israel as a seamless continuum of all our beliefs and traditions. You have contributed greatly to this situation but have left yourself no room and no words to unscramble it.

However, if BDS actions insult, bully, abuse or physically attack Jews, just because they are Jews, that must be called out, condemned and punished according to the law. But it does not change the merits of bringing pressure on the State of Israel through economic protest.

It does us no good to view our current challenges always through the prism of the Holocaust. For the first time in many centuries Jews have considerable power over another people. Around the world Jews have benefitted and thrived from open and democratic societies. We are no longer an oppressed, vulnerable people. We need to adjust to our new reality and to the responsibilities power and influence brings.

Using our own past suffering to trump the present suffering of another people gets us nowhere. Yet you are willing to use Jewish sensitivities to cancel out support for the Palestinians. It is not a good equation.

I, and a growing number of Jews worldwide, believe that the experience of the Holocaust ought to take us in a very different direction than the one you are choosing for us. And how odd that we thrive in liberal open democracies but you insist in defending the narrow and flawed democracy we have created for ourselves in Israel.

Increasing desperation

You document gathers together every possible objection to the BDS strategy and stacks up the arguments against it in ways that look increasingly desperate.

Israel brings high-tech advances to Britain
We import important medicines from Israel
Boycotts would harm the Palestinians

Are you seriously suggesting that other makers of medicines and high-tech equipment are unavailable to Britain? As for harming the Palestinians, I suggest you speak to a few to discover if they think BDS is good or bad for them in the long term. I'm confident of the answer you will receive.

You then go on to examine the academic and cultural aspects of the boycott campaign. I'm not going to attempt to counter all of your arguments here except to say that universities are complicit in the in-going occupation in multiple ways through military funded research projects. Meanwhile, Israeli artists that are happy to perform in segregated settlement venues should be shown that this is not considered acceptable.

Your championing of academic freedom might sound admirable if you had not recently expended so much effort to stop an academic conference on Israel taking place at Southampton University. Why does every discussion of Palestinian human rights have to be labeled an anti-Israel hate fest?

Your alternatives to BDS

At the end of the document you make a positive call to support charities and NGOs working to build understanding between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

I would support this too. Groups such as The Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) and the Parents Circle are doing excellent and important work and we should highlight them and give them financial help.

However, it is entirely disingenuous to suggest that this alone will be sufficient to change the dynamics of the conflict. While these organisations are doing good, they cannot influence the current asymmetrical conflict or the unwillingness of Western leaders to apply the same sanctions they impose on other nations that break international law.

You want to offer individuals, churches, local authorities, trade unions etc a different way of demonstrating their concern for the Palestinians, one that will do less harm to the public's perception of Israel. But the conflict has not arisen because people need to get to know each other better (although that will certainly help long-term reconciliation). The conflict has not arisen because there is insufficient bridge building between communities. The conflict has become one of human rights. Who has them and who does not.

Boycotting from within

Our relationship to the Palestinian people is the greatest issue the Jewish people and Judaism itself face in this century.  And we are currently making a spectacular mess of it. Your document is just one more example of that.

What Israel needed most from the Jewish community over the past decades was a critical voice willing to speak privately and publicly about the direction Israel was taking. But instead we provided them with apologists and cheerleaders or at very best complicit silence.

In the past, Palestinian tactics to bring attention to their cause have been rightly condemned. Murder, hijackings and suicide bombings were never legitimate routes to justice.

But BDS is very different. At last there is a movement aimed at bringing awareness and understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people that is non-violent and that can shift the perception that all Palestinians are nothing more than antisemitic terrorists. But still you insist on denying them even this legitimate tactic to bring some balance to the conflict.

The actions of the State of Israel are dividing Jewish families and Jewish communities while making all us more vulnerable to antisemitic attacks. But it is the Palestinians that are suffering far more than any of us.

I have chosen where I wish to stand and have come to my conclusions out of respect for the beliefs and traditions I was raised by and the history of the Jews that I have studied.

I find myself having to boycott from within because so many from my own community have chosen narrow tribal values over simple universal humanity. That can change if we place ourselves on the side of justice and peace that our tradition has always taught are the foundations of our true freedom.

Our own liberation is now only possible in partnership with the Palestinian people. BDS provides that partnership.

Yours sincerely

Robert Cohen


  1. This is excellent Robert. I hope Vivian Wineman responds and you will publish his response. Does the attention that you have given this indicate that you think there is a need for dialogue between Jews who support BDS and those who do not?

    1. Judith, thanks for your comment. Yes, absolutely there is the need for an open and honest debate within the Jewish community about this issue. For many, even among those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, BDS is a 'red line' they feel unable to cross.

    2. I agree this document is excellent. For none Jew such as myself it helps to get a better understanding. I would suggest that non Jews should be allowed to participate in the discussion as well, particularly when you have the Foreign Minister of Australia suggesting that it is antisemetic to support BDS.

  2. Robert, I have usually commented via Mondoweiss, and did in fact first pick this post up there too. However, although engaged in some issues connected with our NHS, etc., and the general election I felt it right to echo the comments on MW that your piece is to be applauded. As an old anti-apartheid and racial equality activist from the 1960's, those of us who wish to persue nonviolent routes to justice know that BDS is the only way.

    At that time, it happens I was also a Christian zionist, but about 30 yrs ago my understanding of the Tanakh and the teachings of Jesus and Paul changed to the position as exemplfied later by our friend Stephen Sizer. I find it hard to understand why the prophet Isaiah's teaching in Ch56 v 3-8 and particularly Ezekial's teaching in ch47 v21- 23 are not heeded by so many Jewish leaders. (Particularly in Israel and US) - and certain Christians too!

    I realise that your letter was addressing a particular statement by the BoD and not everything or event can be referenced, but I wonder if anyone in the Jewish establisment noticed that there was a very high powered conference of Independent Jewish Voices at Birkbeck University of London a month ago.

    Anyway Robert, you are a blessing!

  3. Thanks so much, Robert! This letter needs MUCH wider circulation. Have you tried getting it published in the mainstream or other press? I have Jewish heritage too and visit the West Bank every year. I know exactly what you are talking about. Do Israel's inhuman, callous and racist actions towards Palestinians honestly reflect the only lessons they've learned from our terrible history during the past 2,000 years?

  4. Beautiful letter. MW should republish.

  5. I hope you will share more articles soon.

  6. I agree with all the positive comments above about your letter, Robert. I have been a Palestinian Solidarity Campaigner in London for several years now , arguing and discussing the issue with the public through a PSC market stall as well as with bloggers online. Your letter crystallises excellently so many of my thoughts and feelings on the issue. Thanks.