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Is BDS the only pro-Israel option left?

Why the Israeli state will have to unmoor from its Zionist foundations

June 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

Just a year ago, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement was no more than a minor irritant in the eyes of the majority of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders. The boycott of settlement products — with a value of $30 million per year in a GDP of $36 billion — while politically worrisome, was limited. The Knesset and the country’s National Science Foundation both released studies declaring the academic boycott’s impact marginal, and the number of artists refusing to play Israel remained manageably small.

What a difference a year makes. Today BDS is described as an existential threat to Israel; its potential cost is estimated at upward of $5 billion per year. Entire ministries are being tasked with combating it. The self-described “richest Jew in the world,” casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has convinced other wealthy pro-Israel Jews to commit upward of $50 million to setting up programs on college campuses to aggressively fight it.

There are four reasons the “noise” — as Fitch Ratings financial analyst Paul Gamble described it for The Jewish Week — of BDS became a roar. First, the occupation of the West Bank has become so concentrated that it can no longer be dissolved into a larger narrative of a modern, Western Israel. Israel’s matrix of control is so dense that it is simply impossible to hide from the occupation or pretend it doesn’t exist.

Second, with the demise of the Oslo Accord, the motivation behind half a century of occupation is now clear: It was never about security. If it had been, Israel could have maintained a purely military occupation to this day and remained within the boundaries of international law. But with well over half a million settlers, hundreds of settlements and outposts and annexation the stated policy of most of the government, the discourse of security no longer fools anyone. It’s not about safety. It’s about settlement.

The third issue is the Gaza war. Israel can claim all it wants that the war was purely defensive and even exonerate itself for the killing of women and children. But to the rest of the world (including many Israelis and Diaspora Jews), the level of carnage it unleashed — more than 2,100 Palestinian dead, more than 10,000 seriously injured, swaths of Gaza looking like Dresden in World War II Germany or Aleppo in Syria today — was unmistakably disproportionate. The violence has amplified the Palestinian narrative of being the primary victims of the broader occupation and legitimized the increasing number of Jewish Israelis who are loudly questioning the official Israeli narrative of the war and the occupation writ large.

Fourth, the attitude among the Jewish Diaspora, especially in the United States, has similarly evolved. Twenty years ago, when Tikkun magazine editor Rabbi Michael Lerner warned fellow Jews about the idolatry of “settler Judaism” he was a voice in the wilderness. Today leading voices of the new American Jewish generation such as Peter Beinart openly call for boycotting settler products, and the fastest-growing Jewish organization in America is the explicitly BDS-supporting Jewish Voices for Peace.

Taking a pro-Israel position will, at some point in the near future, no longer be defined by supporting the Israeli state in its current form.

While some mainstream Jewish leaders are lobbying U.S. state legislatures to outlaw support for BDS and portraying BDS as a wedge issue dividing Jews from other minority groups, interfaith alliances keep growing stronger as more American Jews educate themselves about and even witness firsthand the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

All of which leads to a profound question: Is support for BDS today a legitimate or even pro-Israel position? 

So-called pro-Israel leaders routinely conflate not just Zionism with Judaism — which enables them to argue that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism — but also Zionism with the state of Israel. But the more the reality of Israel/Palestine is understood to have departed from the vision of an equally Jewish and democratic, law-abiding state, the harder it will be for Israeli and Diaspora and Jewish leaders to claim that BDS is delegitimizing Israel or that the movement is inherently anti-Semitic. As Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy so well explained it, when you understand how deep the “sins of the occupation” are, BDS suddenly seems like a “light punishment.”

Taking a pro-Israel position will, at some point in the near future, no longer be defined by supporting the Israeli state in its current form — that is, as a Zionist state. The more the reality of Zionism is understood as defined by occupation, chauvinism and injustice rather than the liberal vision with which it has long (if often erroneously) equated, the more Jews as well as non-Jews will support — and even demand — the creation of a very different Israeli state, especially as Israeli society increasingly fractures along ethnic, religious and class lines.

In word and deed, Israeli and Diaspora leaders have become, albeit inadvertently, the best salespeople not just for BDS but also for the creation of a new and truly post-Zionist political order in Israel/Palestine — one that finally resolves the often violent tension between atavistic exclusivism and liberal and humanistic values.

Regardless of how manageable the occupation remains as it nears its 50th year, in order to survive long term, the Israeli state will have to unmoor from its Zionist foundations and restructure its relationship with the millions of people who live under its jurisdiction and control. The alternative is an increasingly fundamentalist, xenophobic and outlaw state that will alienate Jewish and non-Jewish supporters far more than would a post-Zionist and even post-Jewish Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian political system that gives full recognition and rights to Palestinians while remaining grounded in the humanistic elements of Zionist ideology and Jewish ethics.

However fitfully it occurs, encouraging Jews and Palestinians to transcend narrow ideologies, create solidarities and support full and equal rights for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine, from the river to the sea, will likely be among the most lasting legacies of BDS.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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