Beating the Bullies

On February 27th, a US judge judge threw out a lawsuit against a food co-op that had decided to boycott Israeli goods. The cooperative is in Olympia, Washington, the hometown of Palestine solidarity activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.

As someone who does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, I hail this as a great victory. Doesn’t make sense? Oh, but it does.

Let’s step back from the Israel-Palestine issue for a moment. There are few actions that ordinary citizens can take to address what they believe are injustices being committed in other countries. Demonstrations are one. Encouraging their fellow citizens not to buy imports or contribute economically to the offending country is another.

These are recognized and legitimate tactics, even if one does not agree with the activists’ views. Yet somehow, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, such measures are allegedly beyond the pale, and even, in the most absurd accusations, constitute anti-Semitism.

There’s a really simple way to address a food co-op that refuses to sell Israeli goods. If your cause is just, boycott the co-op, or simply publicize its policy, in the belief that most people will disagree with it.

But that wouldn’t work here, and not only because of the specific community in question. Even if few US citizens would support a boycott of Israeli goods, a great many more, if they understood the reality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its siege on the Gaza Strip, would support the statement that food co-op was making.

So, since they can’t win their case in the local arena of public discourse, supporters of Israeli policies (who cannot be called pro-Israel because they are working against a normal future for Israel) try to use the advantages they do have, and that generally comes down to resources. In this case, money.

They filed what is known as a SLAPP suit, whose purpose is not to win a court case, but to place such a financial burden on the defendant that they will be forced to abandon whatever behavior the SLAPP suit is directed at. In other words, it’s a means of censoring and bullying others into silence because they don’t have enough money.

That’s just not a tactic one needs to pursue if they have right on their side.

Let’s look at another example. Alan Dershowitz, who has openly called for Israel to bulldoze entire towns in response to terrorist attacks, is on the warpath against MJ Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. He is incensed that Rosenberg has pointed out the very obvious fact that, when it comes to foreign policy matters involving Israel, some people are basing their views of US policy on what is best for Israel.

I have known MJ Rosenberg for years. MJ is as Jewish a guy as you’ll ever meet, and you should see his face when he talks about how much he loves Tel Aviv. He has been to Israel many times and has a lot to say about the positive aspects of that country.

But MJ, who once worked for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is also disgusted by the tribalism that has infected the Jewish community, and he’s very concerned about the pressure being brought on the Obama Administration to attack Iran when it is plainly not in America’s interest to do so. The case being made involves not US, but Israeli worries (which do not, outside of fear-mongering, include the fear that Iran would be willing to face nuclear attack itself in order to nuke Israel, an act which would, kill as many Palestinians as Israelis, and would put some of Islam’s holiest sites at serious risk.)

Dershowitz, who could learn a lot about being a Jew and a mensch from Rosenberg, is trying to rally momentum to have MJ fired, not by bringing a scintilla of evidence contradicting MJ’s claims or arguing his views, but by hurling baseless accusations of anti-Semitism.

It’s another example of the sort of tactics employed when one cannot win the argument on its merits.

As with Dershowitz’s invective, the attempts to bully the BDS movement into silence with similar accusations, and lawsuits, only shows the bankruptcy of supporters of the Israeli right.

One does not have to agree with the BDS movement to appreciate that. I, myself, have long supported boycotts of settlement products and efforts to get foreign investments out of those settlements. I would also be pleased to see the international community, especially the United Nations, penalize Israel for its ongoing settlement activity, an action which, if taken years ago, might well have allowed us to avoid the hopeless impasse Israel and the Palestinians are at now. So there you have B, D and S.

My experiences with the BDS movement, however, were not comfortable. I found myself in disagreement with much of the analysis I heard. I do not believe it is tactically wise to try to rally boycotts of products made in Israel proper. I oppose any action that might imply that Israel, within its pre-1967 borders, cannot exist in peace with its neighbors and cannot resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, however many states it takes to accomplish that.

I am just as comfortable arguing that view with anti-Zionists as I am with Zionists who believe all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea must be “made Jewish.”

Indeed, whatever my philosophical and tactical disagreements with the BDS groups I have had contact with, they are following a call from Palestinian civil society that was specifically intended as a way to combat the occupation using non-violent means. This what the Israeli right wants to criminalize.

But how else does one defend the indefensible? The Israeli occupation is about to reach its 45th birthday. In its early years, Israel could talk about credible threats from its neighbors, but this has not been the case in decades. It points to rockets from Gaza, which almost never cause any property damage, and even more rarely cause injuries.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have not had the rights so many of us take for granted since well before 1967; but since that year, it has been due to Israel’s withholding those rights.

In Europe, supporters of the status quo, or worse, are in the distinct minority. In the US, there is, with each passing year, a greater realization that holding millions of people without rights without rights and freedom when there is no credible military threat cannot be justified.

So defenders of these policies, like those who brought the SLAPP suit, and Alan Dershowitz, have to fall back on smear campaigns and bullying.

Because the occupation can’t be justified. The proof is in the inability of its defenders to debate, in fair and open forums, even those whose position in support of a free Palestine includes planks that many observers would disagree with.

The resort to bullying has been going on for a long time. However, it’s becoming a more prominent tool as Israeli policies become harder and harder to defend due to their duration and their increasingly radical character.

It’s time for a legitimate pro-Israel movement—which would include being anti-occupation, anti-war with Iran and, yes, also clear support for the rights of the Palestinian people – to replace these bullies. It’s not about Zionism or Palestinian nationalism, nor about BDS nor about settlement expansion.

It’s about a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s about everyone having their rights respected equally, be they Jew, Muslim, Christian, Arab, or Westerner. That’s what the bullies oppose. They just can’t do it openly.

Photograph courtesy of the US Embassy Tel Aviv. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I appreciate your point that a truly pro-Israel movement start with being anti-occupation, anti-war with Iran and inextricably linked to securing basic rights of the Palestinian people. This is a point that is often lost in the noise of the far right that has monopolised the platform of political discussion within Israel.

    Where I disagree with you sharply, is on the question of a BDS movement that extends to products made within Israel proper. The impetus of such a movement would be to put political, cultural and above all economic pressure on Israel to reconsider its racist policies towards not only the Palestinians, but also towards amongst others, the Arab Israelis, the 1948 refugees, the Bedouins of the Negev, Jews of African origin, and of course people who live within the area of greater Jerusalem. This racism is codified within the legal and state apparatus and to me it seems naive to leave the subject of “Israel proper” unproblematised. Where would Jerusalem fall under this interpretation of the BDS movement? and what about the palestinians that must travel into Israel to make their living because the occupation of the territories has prevented the growth of a functional economy?

    A truly pro-Israel movement would start with a BDS movement that targetted all aspects of Israeli occupation, and would therefore acknowledge that its origin lies within the state of Israel proper. And for me, a truly pro-Israel movement would end with a single, multi-ethnic state in historic palestine that defended the rights of all its citizens – Jewish, Arab, or otherwise – without structurally privileging any one group over any other.

  2. I also (like NADZV) disagree with you as regards BDS which is directed at products from within Israel “proper.”
    First of all there seem to be two versions of BDS being variously advocated. Some confusion ensues because “BDS” is the acronym employed in reference to both versions. There is BDS which narrowly targets entities directly benefiting from the occupation and BDS (I’ll call it “deep” BDS here) which is directed against Israel as a whole, including its commercial, cultural, and educational sectors.
    Your opposition to BDS (I’m trying to imagine why!) seems primarily based on your observation or impression that BDS directed at all things Israeli – at least on the part of some of its advocates – is actually an attempt to delegitimize the existence of the State of Israel per se (?).
    I think this position is one similar to those voiced by Chomsky and Finkelstein. They (one &/or the other) make the points that there is a strong basis in international law and an established international consensus that: The Israeli occupation and control of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank is illegal; the Israeli settlements are illegal; and the wall/separation barrier is illegal. They also point out that Israel – by virtue of firmly established recognition in International law – has a right to exist. And they finally point out that though the “right of return” for Palestinians has a sound legal basis, the realization of the “right” beyond the actual return of “symbolic” small numbers and equitable compensation (financial awards and resettlement – when desired – in 3rd countries) has no support in the court of international opinion and zero chance of acceptance (ever!) by Israel.
    It is therefore maintained that “deep” BDS – which targets Israel as a whole – inevitably suggests the destruction of Israel, something for which there is neither a basis in International Law or in the prevailing international consensus. This is true, however, only if realization of the “right of return” – as the actual return to within the ’67 borders of Israel of the families and descendants as well as the actual survivors of the 700,000 plus Nakba refugees – is an advocated and perceived cornerstone of BDS advocacy. Such perception is, it unfortunately seems to me, as much the result of right-wing Zionist fear propaganda as any actual presence of such demand amongst a very large percentage of deep BDS advocates.
    Keeping the target of BDS restricted to non-state entities which directly support or benefit from the occupation will most likely not create the type of economic pinch needed to significantly threaten Israel’s continuing expansion of the settlement enterprise and the apartheid policies which support it. Thus, the most that can be reasonably expected to ensue from this more limited version of BDS is additional public education and the opportunity for some institutions (religious denominations, universities, etc) to feel “clean” and to “bear witness.” But this also begs the question (through ostensible denial) of the seamless web which connects various aspects of Israel’s continuing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – from the Nakba, through the settlements and web of control over the Palestinian territories, to the racist and discriminatory policies which continue unabated against Israeli Palestinians
    “Deep” BDS is the only type of BDS which suggests the eventual possibility – through enough pain for Israel and Israelis – to precipitate realizations and actions on Israel’s part which might yet rescue a viable two state solution. Rejecting this because some barnacles of anti-semitism are found in the same room or because some who wish to eliminate Israel tie deep BDS to the demand of nothing less than full literal realization of the “right of return” is to capitulate to fear and forego one of the few effective tools that might be available for salvaging any solution in the near future based on international law and bettering the lives of Palestinians who are alive today.
    Provoking such fear has been the continuous tactic of the “Israel – Right or Wrong” crowd that has always sought to portray legitimate criticism of Israel and legitimate tactics to precipitate change as rooted in immoral and unfair agendas which target the “destruction” of Israel. Though you, Mitchell, defend deep BDS as legal, you seem to suggest the accusations of dominant immoral or unfair agendas on the part of BDS advocates are accurate. If this is not the case, pls explain why you oppose deep BDS.

  3. George, I’ve written extensively on this question.

    I’ll also point out some unwarranted assumptions on your part. In no way do I suggest what you call “deep BDS” is immoral or unfair. I point out that I do not support the movement. There are many things I think are perfectly moral and fair that I do not support.
    My lack of support is not based on the BDS movement being anything other than what it says it is. However, I have spent years within the BDS movement. Unlike Chomsky or Finkelstein, I have been inside the closed meetings of groups strategizing on BDS, I know many leaders of prominent BDS groups personally. I don’r agree with all their goals, though in many cases, i support their activism. Again, not opposition, but lack of support, and that is not a small difference. But it is certainly not about any hidden agendas on the part of BDS groups.
    BDS is a movement, one which I do not comfortable in. But most of all, BDS is a tactic. One I have never believed was going to be effective unless used very judiciously. I have no doubt that friends and fellow travelers of mine, many of whom are very active in the BDS movement, have a different analysis–indeed, I speak to them daily, so i know they do. But in my view, BDS has been more of a propaganda tool for the occupation than a tactic to advance Palestinian rights. I’ll let my article linked above speak for itself, and you may have the last word on this in this space, because favoring or not favoring BDS was not the point of this article we are commenting on here. My only purpose in mentioning my lack of support for BDS (aside from the fact that if I hadn’t every reader would have simply assumed I supported it simply based on the fact that I want the movement to have every opportunity to air its views because I believe in healthy debate and in activists pursuing what they truly believe is right and just) was to emphasize the point that one need not agree with what is being said in order to believe the view should be aired without censorship or bullying.

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