On the evening of May 25, I was one of perhaps a minyan of Jews who attended the Product Issues Committee meeting of the Central Coop’s Madison Market. A little over a week later, on the afternoon of June 3, I was one of a rather larger delegation of Jews quickly mustered to the UW’s “Red Square” to offer a “pro-Israel” presence at a rally against Israel’s policies in Gaza.
Needless to say, it was a busy and not very pleasant week.
As you know, the relatively minor issue of a commercial boycott of Israeli imports was buried in the journalistic storm that met Israel’s effort to foil the “Freedom Flotilla” that sought to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza. But, as the saying goes: “All politics is local.” In that spirit I hope that, instead of reading yet another rehearsal of “I say-you say” fallout of the boarding of the Mavi Marmara, you’ll bear with a few reflections on the evening I spent at the co-op’s board meeting.
It seemed like “a tale of two minyans.” One came hoping to speak out against the proposed boycott of Israeli foods. But our bare minyan was outnumbered by what appeared to be a counter-minyan — members of a group called Jewish Voice for Peace who believe a boycott of Israel is an appropriate Jewish expression of “solidarity” with the Palestinian people in their “sixty-two year struggle against the Israeli apartheid State” guilty not only of “war crimes,” but even of “crimes against the environment.” You can consult their website at www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org for the details.
Ultimately, as you probably read in these pages, the board declined action on the boycott proposal after about three and a half hours of labored discussion and debate. In light of the events of May 31 and its aftermath, however, I have no doubt that the pro-boycott camp would have carried the evening. I imagine that even now they are counting heads for another effort in which the attack on the Mavi Marmara will be the primary point of discussion.
Despite their apparent defeat in this particular battle, then, Jews like those in Jewish Voice for Peace and other “progressive” Jewish groups who vilify Israel are not about to fold up their tents and go away. At least for the foreseeable future they are a permanent part of the American Jewish political landscape. We’ll be seeing more of them at pro-Israel venues, reminding bystanders that not all Jews are “Zionists”; they will be prominent in pro-Palestinian events, explaining that “Jewish values” compel them to struggle with “the oppressed” for “justice.” I saw no evidence of their presence that afternoon in Red Square, but I’m sure they’ll be back soon.
Many of them spoke to the boycott issue at the co-op’s meeting. Invariably they prefaced their comments by identifying themselves as members of Jewish Voice for Peace or members of the Jewish community. I was impressed at the deeply felt passion of many of those who spoke. Most were clearly torn between their identification with the Jewish progressive tradition, which has always included a Zionist component, and the contemporary discourse of the left, which is increasingly strident in its anti-Zionist tone.
Perhaps that is why most of the pro-boycott Jewish speakers took pains to argue that anti-Semitism plays no role in the movement to boycott Israel.
“The charge of anti-Semitism is simply a strategy to silence criticism of Israel,” said one.
Another pointed out that “since so many of us who support the boycott are Jewish, how can the boycott movement be anti-Semitic?”
A young Israeli in attendance even rose to say that “I love my country, and out of love I must resist its repression of human rights.”
Since each speaker had only a minute to say his or her piece, and since as a professor I can’t say anything in fewer than 50-minute increments, I bit my tongue throughout the evening. But were I to have a quiet word with the supporters of the boycott, this is what I might argue:
Let’s say that one can distinguish, in theory, between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. In the pre-State of Israel era, Jewish anti-Zionism was simply principled opposition to a social-political experiment that had no precedent in Jewish history. Why risk pouring resources into a project whose potential for success was questionable, even as the costs of its likely failure were more than obvious at the time?
But since 1948 the game has changed. Zionism succeeded in its immediate goal of creating a viable Jewish civilization in the land of Israel. Anti-Zionism is today focused upon that existing Jewish State. Most importantly, it has its main base not among Jews, but among a variety of loosely aligned groups who see the Jewish State not as a flawed human construction or a contradiction to Jewish faith, but as the epicenter of evil in the universe.
The anti-Zionism that flows from the capitols of Islam, untold jihadist Web sites, the pamphlets of the European “left,” and American white supremacist conventicles, among others, draws heavily and intentionally on the classic anti-Semitic slanders that framed the Jewish people as a threat to any civilization that harbored them. It justifies the annihilation of Israel and all “Zionists” along with it. In its conspiratorial view of Jewish history and in its portrayal of Israel as a “cancer,” it is virtually indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.
In these circumstances, the anti-Israel polemics offered by Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish groups reveals at the very least a reckless disregard for Jewish life and safety. By delegitimizing Israel’s very grounds for existence, failing to recognize the human achievements of the Jewish State under conditions of extreme stress, and denying its record of contributions to the human community, the Jewish “boycott Israel” movement gives comfort and support to those who would gladly annihilate not only Israel’s Jews, but Jews in general.
So is this Jewish boycott movement tainted with anti-Semitism? To the extent that it aligns itself with those who hold a rabid and unreflective hatred of all things Jewish, I’d have to say yes. What I wonder is: What sort of “Jewish values” justify getting cozy with such a hevrah?