Beinar­tiswrong:we­won’tbuild Is­rael’sfu­ture­by­boy­cottin­git­to­day

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - Mick Davis

Peter Beinart, a jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor who lec­tures at New York’s City Univer­sity, pro­voked con­tro­versy with his 2010 es­say “The Fail­ure of the Amer­i­can Jewish Es­tab­lish­ment” pub­lished in the New York Re­view of Books. In it, he ar­gued that there is a grow­ing gulf be­tween young, lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael and claimed that “morally, Amer­i­can Zion­ism is in a down­ward spi­ral”.

He has now fol­lowed the es­say with a full-length book on the sub­ject. “The Cri­sis of Zion­ism”, pub­lished last month, was in­tro­duced by Mr Beinart with an­other con­tro­ver­sial piece in the New York Times in which he called for a “Zion­ist BDS”.

“To Save Is­rael, Boy­cott the Set­tle­ments” in­cluded a sug­ges­tion that the West Bank be called “non-demo­cratic Is­rael”. “We should lobby to ex­clude set­tler-pro­duced goods from Amer­ica’s free-trade deal with Is­rael,” he wrote, adding that “it must be paired with an equally vig­or­ous em­brace of demo­cratic Is­rael”.

In this es­say, Mick Davis, chair­man of UJIA and of the Jewish Lead­er­ship Coun­cil’s Board of Trus­tees, dis­cusses Beinart’s book and its im­pact.

IN THE course of pro­mot­ing his new book, The Cri­sis of Zion­ism, Peter Beinart has ar­gued that Amer­i­can Jews should pro­mote a boy­cott of set­tler–pro­duced goods. He ap­pears to sug­gest that this should be pur­sued as some kind of communal pri­or­ity. Many will re­call that Peter and I were in “con­ver­sa­tion“when I made a few con­tro­ver­sial re­marks about the ap­proach of the cur­rent Is­raeli ad­min­is­tra­tion to­wards the peace process. But my cen­tral mes­sage that evening, one that I have de­vel­oped since then to­gether with other di­as­pora fig­ures at the Her­zliya Con­fer­ence, was that di­as­pora Jewry has a le­git­i­mate voice in the on­go­ing build­ing of the mod­ern State of Is­rael.

This in­cludes de­bate around the pur­suit of peace and a two-state so­lu­tion. I have al­ways made clear that my vi­sion of a ”Big Jewish Con­ver­sa­tion” be­tween the di­as­pora and our Is­raeli brethren is about a voice, not a vote or a veto, and that it is not the role of di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties to be­come in­volved in dis­cus­sions on mat­ters di­rectly re­lated to se­cu­rity and de­fence.

How­ever, Beinart has got this spec­tac­u­larly wrong. Peter’s re­cent con­tri­bu­tion is just not help­ful to any­one. It is ex­actly the kind of in­ter­ven­tion that will close down the po­ten­tial for a con­struc­tive Is­rael/di­as­pora di­a­logue be­fore it even be­gins.

Peter is a sin­cere Jew, a pas­sion­ate Zion­ist who is at odds with the cur­rent poli­cies of the gov­ern­ment of Is­rael. Some may agree with him but his po­si­tion as pub­lished in the New York Times is de­struc­tive and does not fa­cil­i­tate the ro­bust but uni­fy­ing con­ver­sa­tion that must take place across the Jewish world. The call for a boy­cott by a com­mit­ted Zion­ist, even if it is con­fined to set­tle­ment goods, le­git­imises the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions move­ment as a whole and is a sig­nif­i­cant move to­wards out­right boy­cott and iso­la­tion.

Those at the heart of the BDS move­ment, as re­cently ar­tic­u­lated by none other than one of its found­ing fa­thers, Omar Bargh­outi, see such tar­geted BDS pro­grammes as “a tac­tic lead­ing to the ul­ti­mate goal of boy­cotting all Is­raeli goods and ser­vices”. Is­rael does not merit that out­come and should not be put in that po­si­tion of risk.

While on­go­ing set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity ap­pears in­con­sist- ent with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s own dec­la­ra­tion of sup­port for two states for two peo­ples and his re­cent in­di­ca­tion in the Knes­set of the likely final-sta­tus borders, set­tle­ments are not a Tro­jan horse de­signed per­ma­nently to emas­cu­late a Pales­tinian state, as Peter sug­gests. Like many in our com­mu­nity, I am far from be­ing a fan of the set­tle­ment-build­ing en­ter­prise. How­ever, as I re­cently said to Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, it is a tac­ti­cal er­ror to place op­po­si­tion to set­tle­ment build­ing at the heart of the dis­course. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s fo­cus on this ef­fec­tively stalled the peace process for two years.

The “Big Con­ver­sa­tion” that I seek is one where we are free, and have a duty, to en­gage where we per­ceive that the ac­tions or in­ac­tion of the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Is­rael are not con­sis­tent with Jewish val­ues and the pur­suit of peace. The Big Con­ver­sa­tion I seek is one which is open and di­rect, where we are heard and where our con­tri­bu­tion is re­spected.

Equally, I en­vis­age a con­ver­sa­tion in which we see more frank, open and di­rect en­gage­ment with our com­mu­nity from the lead­er­ship of Is­rael. Dele­git­imi­sa­tion and the BDS move­ment strike at Is­rael from our back yard. We stand ready and pre­pared to take on the duty of fight­ing them. I have en­sured that this is a core pri­or­ity for communal re­sources. It must fol­low from this that we are also a hub for this Big Jewish Con­ver­sa­tion and a fo­cal point for many of its com­po­nents.

We must also speak among our­selves about our­selves. When we doubt the com­mit­ment of peo­ple who both love and yet wres­tle with Is­rael we fuel a cor­ro­sive process that threat­ens to de­mo­ti­vate and drive away some of its most ef­fec­tive al­lies and friends, ul­ti­mately driv­ing a wedge be­tween many di­as­pora Jews and the Jewish state. In other words, we do the dele­git­imis­ers’ job for them.

But it is not just about ad­vo­cacy and pol­i­tics. These con­cerns must be recog­nised and wel­comed if we are to main­tain the in­tegrity of a peo­ple rooted in an an­cient, im­mutable set of val­ues that we first brought to the com­mu­nity of na­tions. These anx­i­eties stem from the ten­sion be­tween an in­nate de­sire to de­fend Is­rael and the Jewish peo­ple, while at the same time play­ing a full and ac­tive role in the in­ter­nal Jewish con­ver­sa­tion and de­bate about the best way to pro­mote peace.

As Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to the UK has of­ten said, we need to move away from the model of clas­si­cal mu­sic to that of jazz. We must ac­com­mo­date dif­fer­ent voices, dif­fer­ent forms of ac­tivism. It fol­lows that we must also cre­ate the space for re­spect­ful dis­cus­sion of the is­sues.

I was in Is­rael re­cently and I sensed that fear of nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion in Iran, re­gional in­sta­bil­ity, a dis­af­fected mid­dle class and a stalled and mori­bund peace process are threat­en­ing to de­stroy hope and are har­bin­gers of de­spair. Most Is­raelis still har­bour a deep long­ing and a de­sire for a two-state so­lu­tion but many (of­ten for dif­fer­ent rea­sons) now feel there is lit­tle chance of achiev­ing it.

MANY IN the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity also feel that it is un­re­al­is­tic to be­lieve that peace talks are pos­si­ble at this time. The trust deficit is too great and any re­al­is­tic US fa­cil­i­ta­tion re­mains a pipe dream un­til the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions run their course. It must also be recog­nised that the Pales­tinian lead­er­ship in Ra­mal­lah dis­plays lit­tle in­ter­est in en­gag­ing with Ne­tanyahu. This is a tragedy: two peo­ples’ fu­tures are be­ing mort­gaged as the costs of in­ac­tion build.

But as I write this piece it seems to me that we are al­low­ing the real and fright­en­ing ex­is­ten­tial threat of a nu­clear Iran to crowd out the com­pelling re­quire­ment that we ad­vance the agenda of peace. If we do not, Is­rael will grad­u­ally be­come iso­lated. Con­sider the trac­tion that the Pales­tine Sol­i­dar­ity Cam­paign, whose con­stituents spew out an­ti­semitic pro­pa­ganda, has achieved with the Trade Union move­ment, and the brand­ing of Is­rael last year as a “pariah state” by Tower Ham­lets coun­cil.

Once this la­bel has stuck, it is im­pos­si­ble to re­move from the dis­course around Is­rael, no mat­ter how per­ni­cious and false our en­e­mies’ claims are. Is­rael has al­ways en­joyed most sup­port when it is mov­ing for­ward on peace; and this is what Is­rael must do now. So, if talks on a com­pre­hen­sive set­tle­ment are im­pos­si­ble, then, as many have asked, why not try some­thing else?

Firstly, in­stead of be­ing thwarted by the lack of trust, try and build it. Some of those close to the process, and sym­pa­thetic to Is­rael con­cerns, have sug­gested that Is­rael’s cab­i­net could ini­ti­ate di­rect meet­ings with the cab­i­net of Pales­tinian Prime Min­is­ter, Salam Fayyad. Not to talk about “peace” but to dis­cuss is­sues of mu­tual in­ter­est such as water, en­ergy, in­fra­struc­ture, trans­port, en­vi­ron­ment and eco­nomic co-op­er­a­tion. Trust is built by in­ter­ac­tion, mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion. It takes time but, if there is move­ment to­wards that goal, more time to achieve it is cre­ated.

Se­condly, why not talk sep­a­rately about the var­i­ous el­e­ments of a deal and re­sist the temp­ta­tion to in­ter­link agree­ment in one area with an­other. Seek so­lu­tions dis­creetly and then pack­age them to­gether when there is suf­fi­cient trust to achieve a com­pre­hen­sive so­lu­tion.

The borders of Is­rael and Pales­tine can’t be far from agree­ment. Is­rael’s se­cu­rity needs matched against the re­quire­ments of a sov­er­eign Pales­tine can­not be far from ra­tio­nal res­o­lu­tion. How­ever, the com­plex­i­ties of the final sta­tus of Jerusalem can­not and should not be min­imised, nor for that mat­ter should our rights to our an­cient cap­i­tal where we en­throned our Kings and built our Tem­ple.

THIRDLY, THE PA should im­me­di­ately halt its “uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence” ac­tiv­i­ties and, rather, con­cen­trate its en­er­gies on pre­par­ing its peo­ple for peace with a per­ma­nent state of Is­rael — the na­tion state of the Jewish peo­ple. Some­thing that no Pales­tinian lead­er­ship has pre­vi­ously had the courage to do. Here, I guess “power” must speak truth to the “peo­ple” and fi­nally con­front the fact that hold­ing on to the “right of re­turn” is an ob­sta­cle to peace. The Pales­tinian refugees may have le­git­i­mate griev­ances but these can­not be re­solved in the state of Is­rael.

Fourthly, Is­rael should demon­stra­tively pre­pare the ground for the re­lo­ca­tion of those “set­tlers” who do not live in the set­tle­ment blocs that are ul­ti­mately in­cor­po­rated into Is­rael. A mean­ing­ful fi­nan­cial pack­age to in­cen­tivise re­set­tle­ment in Is­rael should be put in place now.

This, to­gether with a ma­jor pro­gramme of hous­ing con­struc­tion in the Galil and Negev, would boost Is­rael’s econ­omy, with in­vest­ment in and strength­en­ing of these vi­tal regions and sig­nal Is­rael’s strate­gic in­ten­tions.

Mo­men­tum can be re-es­tab­lished and while this hap­pens we in the Jewish di­as­pora will still have our role to play. The Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity must nur­ture the “spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” be­tween their coun­try and Is­rael be­cause it may well be called upon quite soon.

We in the United King­dom, the nexus of the BDS move­ment and so-called hub of the as­sault upon Is­rael’s le­git­i­macy, must re­main stead­fast sup­port­ers and ad­vo­cates of Is­rael’s le­git­i­mate rights as the na­tion state of the Jewish peo­ple.

We must fight Is­rael’s en­e­mies in the knowl­edge that, as we do so, Is­rael pur­sues peace in prac­ti­cal and prag­matic ways. We can use that mo­men­tum to re­build coali­tions of sup­port for our beloved land. With mo­men­tum, progress is pos­si­ble and once again, in the eyes of the world, Is­rael will be the party with the plan, the player pro­mot­ing peace. Mo­men­tum will al­ways trump de­spair.

Mick Davis is UJIA chair­man

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