Liberal Zionists struggle with brutal Israeli realities

Some, like editors of the Australian Jewish News, simply don’t see themselves as liberal at all and prefer to blindly back Israeli policies because they perceive their role as Diaspora Jews to be robots without thought. That’s what Zionism has done to my people. Witness a recent editorial on BDS:

The hostile mob arrayed outside a Max Brenner shop in downtown Melbourne last Friday carried ominous historical echoes. Some 100 demonstrators shouting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” reportedly frightened shoppers and their children, and charges have been laid after police officers were injured in scuffles.

Make no mistake, this was not just a right of assembly, or even a pernicious boycott of a shop whose alleged crime, according to Australia’s encroaching Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is that its parent company stocks Israeli soldiers’ backpacks with its chocolate products.

Last week’s boycott and a similar one against a Max Brenner shop in Sydney last month were, as anyone who appreciates the significance of the chant and the underlying ethos of the global BDS movement, attacks on the very existence of the State of Israel.

As for the impact on Australian Jewry, the BDS troublemakers must surely … understand the resonance of their boycotts, so painfully similar to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in Germany and Austria at the onset of the Holocaust.

Further, one must wonder whether the decision to stage both the Sydney and Melbourne protests on Shabbat was a strategic one to ensure a minimal Jewish presence on the ground.

Which brings us to the vexed question of a Jewish response. There is considerable debate within the community as to what kind of reaction is appropriate. Nobody but our foes wants to see the spectacle of two groups of warring protesters involved in heated clashes in a retail precinct. But if there is no response on-site, there surely needs to be one in another place at another time – perhaps a positive rally, explaining Israel’s case, coupled with an education campaign through the media.

While our community’s state and national roof bodies are to be applauded for their strenuous efforts behind the scenes to protect Israel’s interests, the increasing frequency of the BDS protests and the publicity they are receiving means their significance … can no longer be downplayed as far as ordinary members of the community are concerned.

There is a grassroots appetite for a grassroots response and we should seek a way to harness that in a positive and constructive manner, so all members of the community feel satisfied they are doing their bit, rather than simply watching the anti-Israel drama unfold passively and powerlessly from the sidelines.

Others, like the Jewish Forward in the US, actually use their brains and feel distinctly uncomfortable with the current direction of Israel and its anti-democratic ways. Its latest editorial:

We could get in trouble for this. Not in New York City, where this editorial is being written, because legitimate comment is protected under the First Amendment. But our editorials, along with many other stories and columns in the Forward, also appear every Sunday in the English edition of the Haaretz newspaper in Israel. And now, with a new anti-boycott law approved by the Knesset and due to take effect in less than 90 days, the boundaries of free speech and legitimate expression have grown unpredictably and suffocatingly tight.

So, for example, if we say something like: We can understand why reasonable people could advocate a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank because those settlements are deemed illegal under international law and because a boycott is a peaceful way of expressing a moral concern — well, if we say something like that, we could be sued and held liable in civil court. And that court could award financial recompense to the plaintiff not according to actual damage done to his income if, for instance, we suggested that people refrain from buying his oranges or his facial cream, but according to what he thinks he might lose in the future.

Unpack this for a moment. We didn’t boycott, we just expressed sympathy in a way that could be seen as advocacy without taking the leap from speech to action. We didn’t target a product manufactured in Tel Aviv or Hadera or within the undisputed borders of Israel, or in any way seek to delegitimize the state. We surely didn’t advocate violence or express a destructive opinion about Israel or its government and leaders.

We simply said that promoting a boycott of goods from the occupied West Bank could be a legitimate form of political protest by those who love Israel and therefore wish to see her survive as a democratic Jewish state with borders that allow for a viable Palestinian state next door.

But it could get us in trouble.

Which is why we have stricken the potentially offending words. Just in case.

It may be that when the Israeli Supreme Court hears the inevitable legal challenge to the anti-boycott law, it will rule it unconstitutional and prove, again, that a democratic system of checks and balances exists in the Israeli polity. It may be that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who stayed away from the impassioned Knesset debate on the bill, even though it was sponsored by a member of his own party — will signal his displeasure and work to get it repealed.

This, however, may all be wishful thinking. The Israeli government has to answer to its own people before it answers to Diaspora Jews, and the inability of a weak political opposition and a tepid public response to stop this disturbing new law could mean that it is actually what Israel wants. It may think putting limits on free speech and outlawing calls for boycott are the best way to counter its growing diplomatic isolation. After all, Israel is not the only country in its neighborhood to use drastic measures to curtail political protest, and the prospect of a civil case for damages contained in this new law is far more palatable than the punishments meted out by ruthless leaders elsewhere in the region.

Yet, comparing Israel to its struggling neighbors sets such a low standard of democratic performance that it hardly seems worth the trouble. The threat of “delegitimization” — real in some instances, overblown in many others — should be countered with forceful, positive action to solve real problems, not silence them. No attempt to threaten or censor can hide the fact that, for 44 years, Israel has ruled another people with its own legitimate, national aspirations, and it is in everyone’s interests, including those of the United States, to negotiate an end to this impasse.

The fear and frustration that prompted this new law are to be acknowledged, but they cannot justify such a dangerous move. Some boycotts are ruthless and discriminatory, true, but in other circumstances, a boycott can be a legitimate use of non-violent protest to achieve a worthy goal. A boycott of West Bank products could fall into the first category. It could also be seen as a noble attempt to effect change.

But we can’t say that.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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