Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Boycott Debate: No Longer Taboo in Progressive Pro-Israel Circles

Here's a detailed analysis of current boycott discourse from more than one angle. It discusses one of our member groups, Jewish Voice for Peace, whose director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, recently spoke on a panel devoted to the boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) movement, at the annual conference of J-Street, which generally opposes BDS.


Dov Waxman and Mairav Zonszein
March 29, 2011

TO BOYCOTT or not to boycott? That is the question that growing numbers of American Jews on the left wing of the pro-Israel community have reluctantly and uneasily begun to ask themselves in recent months. After initially categorically rejecting the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (or BDS, as it has become known)—a movement launched in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups that's now a global campaign—progressive pro-Israel groups and individuals are now starting to reconsider and revise their position. They are not—at least not yet—embracing BDS, but they are for the first time giving it serious consideration and debating it merits.

The clearest sign yet of this new willingness to discuss what was previously off-limits occurred during a recent conference organized by J Street, the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby group. Holding its second annual conference in the cavernous Washington Convention Center (also the site of the yearly conference of AIPAC, J Street's much larger and richer rival), J Street included a panel session entitled "Who is Afraid of the BDS?" Among the speakers was Rebecca Vilkomerson, the director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization that advocates the boycott of companies that profit from the Israeli occupation and has been labeled by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top ten anti-Israel groups in the United States. Her inclusion was noteworthy in itself, but what made the panel even more remarkable was the fact that it was conducted in a calm, reasonable manner, free of diatribes and invectives. In other words, it was completely different from the way in which discussions of BDS usually take place in the American-Jewish community. Instead of assailing the legitimacy of BDS in principle, the discussion focused on the efficacy of BDS—can it help promote an end to the Israeli occupation and a two-state solution? The large audience that packed the room (people were even queuing outside to get in) listened calmly and intently and asked the panel earnest questions.

To hold a rational and civil debate on a topic that until now has been hugely inflammatory for American Jews and Israelis is quite an achievement for J Street. Even more commendable is the fact that it took place despite fierce criticism of J Street for including JVP—an organization that is shunned and vilified by the mainstream American-Jewish community— in its program. Contrary to the accusations of its critics, by allowing BDS to be debated at its conference, J Street did not embrace these controversial tactics (it continues to oppose BDS). Rather, J Street has asserted that BDS is a subject that cannot and should not be ignored by the American-Jewish community. By upholding the values of freedom of speech and inclusive dialogue, J Street is insisting that grappling with the pros and cons of BDS does not in itself delegitimize Israel or deem one to be an anti-Zionist. As such, J Street is helping to break the BDS taboo in the American-Jewish community in general and among progressive pro-Israel activists in particular.

ARTICLE CONTINUES...