There’s going to come a time in the not-so-distant future that the news of a food cooperative or some company deciding to boycott Israel isn’t going to make the front page of the JTNews.
And if the past year is any indication, these events aren’t going to lose front-page status because the issue is going to disappear. It’s going to be because it happens so often, the issue is going to be become routine. Oh, look, there goes another one.
So what do we do about this? The first thing we need to do is understand that people on the different sides of this issue are not speaking the same language.
Earlier this summer Ethan Felson, director of domestic concerns of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, an umbrella group for Jewish public policy organizations, spoke at a conference I attended about boycotts against Israel.
“We are excellent at coming up with the self-resonating messages,” he said. “We know what they need to hear. And we are very, very good at writing that letter to the editor and showing it to our spouse and saying, ‘Doesn’t that work?’ and then hearing exactly what we want to hear, not necessarily knowing that the person who reads it might be looking for something different.”
It says something when letters I see in the Seattle Times defending Israel exemplify that and do nothing to further the argument in Israel’s favor.
Where many of us see the existence of a Jewish homeland as something embedded in our DNA, plenty of others, even in religious communities, see a nation with the upper hand hell-bent on keeping an underdog in its place. There’s generally not context attached to the images, but there’s a growing consensus, even among Jews — especially among Jews — that what Israel is doing with the Palestinians needs to change.
That probably explains why the organizations promoting BDS — that now-ubiquitous acronym of boycott, divestment and sanctions — are so quick to point out the Jews in their midst.
Felson suggests finding common ground with people on the other side of this issue: Peace, personal stories, shared values, and giving context by moving the conversation from occupation to terrorism. In essence, acknowledging the concern about the offense while justifying the defense. But the effort of personal contact might not be enough. People have to be willing to listen.
Let’s think about local efforts at BDS and how, until last month, they had been unsuccessful. This is important, because it isn’t a story of right over might, as one would hope. It’s a story of procedure undoing passion.
But make no mistake: People who feel a sense of attachment to Israel are starting to see ourselves on the losing end of this battle.
Consider what was probably the biggest local effort thus far, Initiative 97. That effort in 2008 would have forced the City of Seattle’s retirement board to divest from some companies that do business with Israel. Caterpillar, the heavy equipment company that sells its products to the Israeli Defense Forces, was on that list, “which is quite remarkable because Caterpillar operates under U.S. anti-boycott laws,” Felson noted. “Caterpillar can’t not sell to Israel. And so they chastise Caterpillar for operating within the law.”
I-97 was thrown out due to a jurisdictional issue.
Then there’s the Central Co-op boycott resolution, which never even made it to a vote before the board tossed it out — because the phone calls and e-mails to the store had gotten so voluminous the issue had begun to get in the way of what the co-op is first and foremost supposed to be doing: Selling food.
But here’s the common thread: When these efforts, and the many others like it, failed, it was because of procedural mistakes or unnecessary burdens on business. Just because the boycott failed does not mean the people who ended the effort agree with Israel’s behavior.
And when the co-op board was getting annoyed about this issue, it became immediately clear that their annoyance wasn’t with the people supporting the boycott.
A month ago, in Minnesota, Israel supporters got (another) reprieve when language in a resolution presented to attendees at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church would have recommended sanctions and divestment against Israel. The recommendations were made by a committee that accused Israel of apartheid tactics and would have asked the U.S. to withhold funding “as a means of pressuring Israel,” according to a report by the JTA news service.
This is, I don’t have to remind you, a mainline American Christian church, with tens of millions of members and churches on almost as many corners as Starbucks.
That brings us to Olympia. Last month, when the board there voted almost unanimously to take the handful of Israeli products they have off their shelves, the BDS supporters finally got a victory.
As small as the Olympia Food Co-op is, the echo from the first domino finally falling reverberated around the world.
The co-op is holding a meeting next week to discuss the issue — kind of the backward way of doing things — and the way this democratic organization so proudly stifled an open discussion before the vote runs counter to cooperative principles established nearly 80 years ago. The conditions set for repeal are, as one opponent of the decision put it, a complete “dissolution of Israel’s Jewish character.”
Between the hard lines drawn on both sides will be, I hope, the glimmer of understanding about why boycotting an entire country, as opposed to a corporation, for example, is such a bad idea: It’s futile to pressure a government, which is looking at more than the bottom line, to change its ways because a store 10,000 miles away is refusing to sell bulk couscous. Not to mention that doing so doesn’t solve any problems.
For Israeli officials, Felson said, “divestment is another fly in the ointment. They’re used to Israel being criticized.”
But the BDS movement is growing, and both sides are doing so much “educating” that it really is getting harder and harder to know who exactly is telling the truth, and what one nugget of fact means when taken in a greater context. Most of us just don’t have the time or inclination to parse out each detail and figure out how exactly to combat what doesn’t sound quite right, though we just don’t know why. And then we scratch our heads when yet another co-operative, that bastion of progressive capitalism and democracy, decides to banish from its shelves the products from a capitalist, democratic country.
So the question for us American Jews is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to continue to play defense and merely monitor the situation or are we going to get in front of it — not with “educational materials” and historical facts, but with engagement and attempts to move the conversation forward? A slap on the wrist in the form of a boycott does just the opposite. But the continual black eyes Israel is receiving in the press are beginning to take its toll, and a large number of us are beginning to lose patience.