Terms of engagement
It’s always a relief when The New York Times publishes an op-ed that energizes the pro-Israel community for all the right reasons. Stephen Marche, a columnist at Esquire, earned high praise this week for a Times essay exposing the hypocrisy of those who are calling for a boycott of an Israeli troupe’s performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe theater during the London Olympiad.
And yet I’m not convinced his argument is the home run opponents of the anti-Israel boycott think it is.
Marche notes how Israel is being singled out for censure by the protesters. “The other theater companies involved in the Globe’s program — whether from China, Zimbabwe, or the United States — are simply not subject to the same scrutiny of their nation’s politics,” he writes. “No one would think of boycotting the English theater because Britain had been involved in the bloody occupation of two countries in recent memory. That would be absurd. Yet it is not absurd when it comes to Israel.”
Double standards are doubly obscene, but does the concept apply in this case? Why should a pro-Palestinian activist necessarily be interested in China or Zimbabwe? If the boycott were being organized by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, the hypocrisy charge would stick. But the group in question, Boycott From Within, says it was founded “by Israeli activists.” They are entitled to their narrow interest the same way that, l’havdil, the Soviet Jewry movement focused on Soviet immigration policy and not apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the South.
And while it may be absurd to boycott an English theater because Britain had been involved in bloody occupations, would it be “absurd” for a Tibetan group to call for a boycott of a Chinese troupe? Would we be applauding an op-ed that condemned a Tibetan group’s call for an anti-Chinese boycott?
Because I do think the anti-Israel boycotts are odious, I’d welcome a rebuttal to what I’ve written above.
In the meantime, I consider this the strongest charge against the BDS movement: Its followers are not out to remedy injustice or bring about a workable solution for all peoples. They are anti-Zionists who are struggling to first delegitimize, then ultimately dismantle, Israel.
When an Israeli leader like Ehud Barak invokes “apartheid,” he means that he worries that Israel will be in permanent control of a population that can’t vote or control its own destiny. When BDS activists use the term, they mean they want the solution that followed apartheid — one state, where the disenfranchised population is given all rights of citizenship in a single nation, in this case extending from the “river to the sea.”
Indeed, Boycott From Within calls for “putting an end to Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and for the right of “Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
The phrase “all Arab lands,” combined with the endorsement of the Right of Return, is the tip-off. The BDS movement’s definition of justice for the Palestinians is the dissolution of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, their goal is not to pressure Israel on negotiations, but to delegitimize it in the eyes of the world.
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Charges of double standards and hypocrisy were also leveled after the Goldstone commission issued its one-sided report on the Gaza war. But the most effective dissection of the report refrained from attacking the authors in personal or political terms. Instead, in his November 2009 piece in The New Republic, Moshe Halbertal carefully and devastatingly demonstrated the way the authors failed on their own terms — that is, they didn’t deal with fundamental questions about proportionality, self-defense, and asymmetrical warfare. The report offered “no help in sorting out the real issues,” wrote Halbertal, namely, “What methods can Israel — and other countries in similar situations — legitimately apply in the defense of their citizens?”
Halbertal, a law professor at NYU and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, was in New Jersey last week to expand on this theme. A coauthor of the Israel Defense Forces’ code of ethics, Halbertal laid out its principles before an invited audience of rabbis, communal workers, and philanthropists. What is ethical, Halbertal asked, when the other side wears no uniform, recognizes no “front,” and wages “a war of all against all and everywhere”?
Halbertal’s talk was in service of the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Project (iEngage for short). Its goal is to “respond to growing feelings of disenchantment and disinterest toward Israel among an ever-increasing number of Jews worldwide.” Its tools aren’t propaganda, guilt-trips, or feel-good stories about Israel. Rather, it hopes to address “core questions pertaining to the necessity and significance of the Jewish national enterprise.” Instead of wondering “why do they hate us,” iEngage faculty like Tal Becker are asking, “[I]n what way can it be said that Israel’s policies or its society reflect Jewish values or aspirations?”
I have been a fan of the Hartman Institute for years, and I expect a conversation that is both realistic and inspiring — in fact, one that is inspiring because it confronts the real challenges and dilemmas facing Israel and its supporters.
You can follow the dialogue at www.iengage.org.il.