Politics is a matter of the heart, which is why the BDS social movement is important

Posted: 10 May 2010 09:21 AM PDT

A couple of months ago I asked Mike Desch to do a piece on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for The American Conservative.

My sense of the movement was little more than impressionistic: I knew of the campaigns to bar Israeli films from being shown at festivals; of efforts to force universities to divest from companies involved in the occupation; of local initiatives to protest stores that sold products manufactured in the occupied territories as “made in Israel.”

I had mixed feelings about some of these, enthusiasm for others. But clearly BDS was succeeding in educating and mobilizing people, clearly a necessary first step for changing the Israeli/Palestinian status quo.

I wanted TAC’s piece to be a realistic assessment, not cheerleading.  Desch, an international relations scholar at Notre Dame, has long been attuned to the injustice in the region. But he is a realist, not an activist. He produced a smart essay laying out the reasons why he felt BDS would not accomplish very much.

I urge readers of this site to read it: it rests on a different platform of presuppositions than the debate here between Jerry Haber and Ahmed Moor, but is probably closer to current mainstream of American opinion than either of them. My own reaction was that for the first time I didn’t agree with Mike’s assessment of an issue.

I concur with Desch that BDS is probably not going to succeed in engendering the kind of economic sanctions that will force Israel to change course. He gives a compelling overview of when sanctions might work, when they don’t (political scientists who have studied the matter historically conclude that they seldom do, and hardly ever when they target the core system of a particular regime).

Even in the propitious case of South Africa, sanctions were a secondary or tertiary factor in bringing down the apartheid. I think he is correct to  conclude that Israel’s major trade partners –Europe and the United States—are not going to impose economic sanctions on Israel: Europe is too divided, and given the political culture of the United States, such a turnabout is virtually unimaginable.

So, he concludes, BDS is something of a waste of energy: better to concentrate on changing the US government’s policy on the Mideast.  David Petraeus’s bleak assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian impact on American security considerations—emphasized by Joe Biden when he was in Jerusalem—is the argument most likely to succeed.

This assessment  may be true so far as it goes. What it misses is the potential of a social movement to educate, to force people off the fence, and to eventually mobilize a critical mass that views the question in a new light. The American South was eventually transformed by actions which began as educative, symbolic protests.

A few dozen black students getting themselves arrested at a lunch counter could hardly change much.  But they could set a thousand times their number on the path of reading and thinking about segregation, eventually producing a national consensus to end it.  Israel’s system of occupation law is different, but certainly more restrictive and brutal than George Wallace’s Alabama.

But Israel is dependent on American indifference to the occupation as the South was on Northern readiness to content itself with lip-service exhortations about equality under the law. But active protests forced more and more people to realize lip service wasn’t enough.

I’m not sure how Mike views the recent divestment battle at UC Berkeley, where the student government came up just short of the super majority needed to overturn the president’s veto of a divestment measure. In my view, the campaign was anything but a failure. How many people on campus did the debate reach?

How  many considered, perhaps for the first time, what the Israeli occupation means and what is America’s role in subsidizing it? The raw number might still be relatively small—but I would feel safe betting it’s ten times those that existed before the divestment campaign.  Multiply that by every campus where a divestment initiative takes place and BDS has created an educated cadre of activists that will be influential for years to come.

To a great extent politics –including foreign policy– is a matter of the heart. Sad to say, realist assessments of American interests in the Middle East have seldom governed American policies; Eisenhower’s presidency may have been the only time they came close.

This explains why the divestment campaign is so unsettling  to Israel’s government: it targets Israeli policies on a moral level, and it is on moral level that Americans will one day change their minds. BDS brazenly pushes a competing narrative about Zionism: not a “land without people for a people without land” but a state built on ethnic cleansing and apartheid. One doesn’t have to accept this analysis hook line and sinker;  nor does one have to accept all the positions of BDS. One can (as I do) continue to believe that a fair two-state solution is the most just outcome that has any chance of being accomplished in this generation. BDS campaigns, to the extent that they concentrate energy and passion on the issue, can’t help but open up minds for all the arguments, including nuanced and realist ones, about where America’s national interests lie.

For these reasons, BDS is a substantial net plus. As an embryonic movement it has already managed to engage thousands of people. It gives those who seek actively to oppose injustice a focused outlet for their energies. By challenging Israel on moral grounds, it targets the occupation at its most vulnerable point.
Israel’s military is dominant, and a frightened US Congress may sign on to AIPAC-drafted resolutions forever. But Israel remains vulnerable precisely because its occupation of the West Bank, its blockade on Gaza and its system of checkpoints and bureaucratic ethnic cleansing are profoundly contrary to America’s values.
The BDS campaigns have, with bluntness and passion, begun to force this basic fact into the American conversation. My largest regret about the movement is that it didn’t start twenty years ago.

Goldstone helped end apartheid; Israel helped prop it up

Posted: 10 May 2010 09:03 AM PDT

Lately Israel lobbyists (including Jeff Goldberg with gusto and, more queasily, Jonathan Chait) have been attacking Richard Goldstone because he was a judge in Apartheid South Africa, responsible for many death sentences. At Foreign Policy, here is Sasha Polakow-Kuransky, author of a new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, on Israel’s close friendship with Apartheid South Africa, pointing out the hypocrisy of this line of attack, which by the way is aimed at one thing, justifying the killing of hundreds of civilians in Gaza as all in a day’s work:

Goldstone’s apartheid-era judicial rulings are undoubtedly a blot on his record, but his critics never mention the crucial part he played in shepherding South Africa through its democratic transition and warding off violent threats to a peaceful transfer of power-a role that led Nelson Mandela to embrace him and appoint him to the country’s highest court.
More importantly, Ayalon’s and [Reuben] Rivlin’s moralism conveniently ignores Israel’s history of arming the apartheid regime from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. By serving as South Africa’s primary and most reliable arms supplier during a period of violent internal repression and external aggression, Israel’s government did far more to aid the apartheid regime than Goldstone ever did…
[Netanyahu] categorically denied Israel’s extensive military and trade ties with South Africa, calling charges of lucrative arms sales “flat nonsense” and accusing his critics of trying “to defame Israel.”
In fact, Israel was profiting handsomely from selling weapons to Pretoria at the time. Writing in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman estimated that the two countries did $400-$800 million of business in the arms sector in 1986. According to declassified South African documents, the figure was likely even greater: a single contract for modernization of South African fighter jets in the mid-1980s amounted to “approximately $2 billion,” and total arms sales in 1988-one year after Israel imposed sanctions against the apartheid regime-exceeded $1.5 billion.
As the former head of the South African Air Force Jan van Loggerenberg told me bluntly: “Israel was probably our only avenue in the 1980s.”
Declassified South African arms procurement figures (which exclude lucrative cooperative ventures and shared financing arrangements) reveal the full extent of Netanyahu’s lie. The “independent IMF figures” he cited (which excluded diamonds and arms) suggested trade was a minuscule $100 million dollars annually.
It was actually between five to ten times that amount-depending on the year-making the apartheid regime Israel’s second or third largest trading partner after the United States.

Kagan appointment shows, Jews are the new WASPs

Posted: 10 May 2010 08:01 AM PDT

“Behind the law are people’s stories,” Barack Obama said today in nominating Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court opening. He bragged on her bringing diversity and being the grandchild of immigrants, but didn’t mention that she’s Jewish. Already today two reporters on National Public Radio, both Jewish (I think), did.
Nina Totenberg and Ari Shapiro said there will be no Protestants on the Court when John Paul Stevens leaves. Assuming Kagan gets in, there will be three Jews (all appointed by liberal Democratic presidents), and several Catholics.
The Kagan appointment means that we have entered a period in which Jews are equal members, if not actually predominant members, of the American Establishment. Obama’s two closest political advisers are Jewish, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, and are said to be his foreign-policy braintrust.
The economy is supervised to a large degree by Jewish appointees, Larry Summers and Fed Reserve Board chair Paul Bernanke (Time’s man of the year last year, a selection overseen by Rick Stengel, the Time magazine editor, who is also Jewish).
Recently a Jewish friend in the media said, “We’re the new WASPs,” referring to the patrician class that used to represent the elite in American society.
How did this happen and what does it mean?
Elena Kagan’s parents’ generation experienced anti-Semitism in seeking position, but her generation experienced no such discrimination. We exploded on to the scene in the 1970s, in the age of the “meritocracy,” when test scores increasingly determined precedence.
We had certain cultural advantages for the globalized meritocracy. Jewish culture favors scholarship, close families, and abstention from alcohol. The traditional basis of advancement, attachment to the land, meant little in the new age of American professionalism. Kagan’s parents were both bookish, her mother a teacher, her father a lawyer. She said today that her brothers are also public school teachers.
“Theirs was a religion oriented to continuous contact with texts: a culture of handling books, reding them, and reflecting on their messages.,” Jerry Muller writes in Capitalism and the Jews. “Jews came from a culture that favored the nonviolent resolution of conflict, and that valued intellectual over physical prowess. All this was a recipe for what economists call ‘cultural capital.'”
Muller also says that as an afflicted minority, Jews learned to look out for one another.
This was once a recipe for disaster. In the late 19th century, Jewish prevalence among the professions and real-estate ownership in the big central European cities of Vienna, Berlin, Prague and Budapest led to an anti-semitic reaction. Muller notes that half of Hungarian doctors, lawyers and journalists were Jewish before World War I (including, originally, Theodor Herzl).
People don’t talk about Jewish achievement because they fear that doing so will breed anti-Semitic reaction. I grew up hearing that Jewish prevalence in the U.S. professions was just what it was in Europe before the Holocaust. But this is not actually true: Today in the U.S., Jewish prominence exceeds the Jewish presence in Europe, because today we are leaders in many fields, we are granted governing powers. Elena Kagan was the dean of Harvard Law School. She was succeeded by another Jewish woman.
This is a glorious Jewish and American moment. Never before in history have Jews been so included, so trusted, as we are in the U.S. People know this and accept it. Americans like Jews in powerful positions. How else do you explain the number of Jewish senators, from places like Wisconsin, Oregon, and Minnesota?
What are the consequences of this achievement? Well, for one thing, it will not last. We are now the models, and Jewish cultural gifts are transferrable. Others can cultivate habits of study. Jews are wealthy by and large–the wealthiest American group by religion, far outstripping Episcopalians--and wealth and gumption don’t mix.
This moment is sure to transform Jewish life, too. No longer can Jews tell themselves, as my parents told me, that we are outsiders. We’re principals in American society. We cannot claim the traditional privileges of a minority, to look out for one another. We have great responsibility for the whole society.
So this moment is going to change Jewish identity forever. It was always asserted by parochial Jews that Jews could not fully assimilate into western societies; we were not wanted. This is simply not the case any more.
The Kagan moment spells not just the end of anti-Semitism, but the end of Jewish responses to it, including the Israel lobby. Muller ends his book by suggesting that Jews should be Zionists, because Zionism was a natural nationalistic response to western nationalism that left no place for Jews. But Muller is a historian, and that is a historical judgment.
That moment is over. Jews are fully empowered in the most powerful country in the world. It’s time to get our heads around that fact. We have reached our rendezvous with destiny, and this means coming to terms as equals with the people whom Jews in rising have most dispossessed, Palestinians.

Finkelstein evening was filled with uplift

Posted: 10 May 2010 06:31 AM PDT

I think there was more to Norman Finkelstein’s appearance at the Griffin than your earlier post conveyed. It was a coming together of four individuals to give a multi-faceted picture of what Palestine means to them. The first speaker, Jody McIntyre is a young, handicapped British journalist who spoke of his personal experience in Gaza and the West Bank, where he lived with Palestinian families and became very close with a Palestinian teenager, also in a wheel chair.
Jody’s talk was very moving. While he was talking a video showed him in Gaza in January 2009. Norman made a most effective case for Gaza being a “crime” not a “war”. He provided the background for Jody’s narrative, and many reasons for Shadia’s anger. Shadia Mansour is known as the “first Lady of Arabic hip hop”, young, beautiful, Palestinian and angry. Then Lowkey, a talented artist, brought art and activism into one space. Nancy Leigh, the group’s manager is …Mother Earth.
It was an uplifting evening, personal, artistic and very informative. It showed on peoples’ faces and in their responses : Free Free…PALESTINE ..peace signs and swaying arms. You would have loved it.

‘60 Minutes’ piece hints that Palestinian conditions endanger Americans

Posted: 09 May 2010 07:15 PM PDT

The Petraeus view that Israel’s policies endanger Americans is gaining traction. Tonight on “60 Minutes,” Steve Kroft’s piece on homegrown terrorism in the wake of the Times Square case included an interview with Phillip Mudd, till recently the domestic terrorism expert in the FBI’s intelligence leadership.

“What we’re facing here is not an episodic series of terrorist events. What we’re facing is a group of people who see themselves as revolutionaries,” Phillip Mudd said.
[T]hey see themselves as part of global movement that is being facilitated by the Internet.
“The Internet often is not the initial spark, but it helps them go down a path,” he explained.
Asked what they are seeing on the web, Mudd said, “They’re seeing images, for example, of children and women in places like Palestine and Iraq, they’re seeing sermons of people who explain in simple, compelling, and some cases magnetic terms why it’s important that they join the jihad. They’re seeing images, and messages that confirm a path that they’re already thinking of taking.”

Interestingly, Scott Pelley followed with a piece on Hillary Clinton and asked, “I wonder if there’s anything about U.S. foreign policy that needs to change in your estimation to put more pressure on these terrorist groups where they live…?”
The usual bromide followed. How about seeking action on the Goldstone Report, which called for investigation/prosecution of Israeli officials responsible for the deaths of scores of women and children in Gaza? As Phillip Mudd knows, people all over the world know about this, and know that our country is covering for war crimes.

Desch: Bloom misses the historical shift re anti-Semitism

Posted: 09 May 2010 02:17 PM PDT

Harold Bloom’s review of the new Anthony Julius book on Antisemitism in England in the New York Times book Review is a landmark in the increasing absurdity of the whole concept of anti-Semitism.
To conflate classical anti-Semitism, which was based on the notion that Jews could never be a part of gentile society so they needed to convert, get out, or in the most extreme manifestations be eliminated, with criticism of the actions of the Jewish state and their unquestioning defense by supporters of Israel around the world, misses the major shift.
The latter is all about asking Israel and its supporters to be full members of international society by abiding by common standards of decency internationally and domestically to recognize that conflating the interests of your country with that of another is likely to cause problems.
In other words, classical anti-Semitism was about making Jews the perpetual “other.” Contemporary critiques of Israel and the Israel lobby are motivated in most cases by wanting Jews not to be the “other.” This is, in my view, a huge change which should not go unrecognized. The fact that it does, demonstrates how far the debate, even among otherwise very smart people, has deteriorated.

Israeli children rally against the killings

Posted: 09 May 2010 10:10 AM PDT

of baby seals. Canadian embassy, Tel Aviv. (h/t Max Blumenthal)


  1. Just seen your 27-05-11 interview on BBC and am full of admiration for someone who can make every word matter. Thank goodness we have people like yourself thinking and arguing about important world matters. All strength to you.
    Terry Brown

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