As soon as it was clear that the pro-Israel forces opposed to the forum on boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) held at Brooklyn College on 7 February had badly overreached, and that their crude invective and histrionic behavior was alienating broad sectors of mainstream intelligentsia, liberal Zionist writers and activists injected what seemed like a much more sensible narrative into the debate.
Presenting themselves as progressive advocates of academic freedom, the pro-Israel liberals pushed back against the zealots who demanded Brooklyn College’s political science department withdraw its sponsorship from the BDS forum. At the same time, however, they warned political fellow travelers against falling for the appeal of BDS, characterizing the movement as dangerously radical, and potentially destructive to Jewish life.
An editorial published in Tablet Magazine by the pro-Israel writer Yair Rosenberg typified the liberal line against BDS. After issuing his token support for the Brooklyn College political science department’s “right” to sponsor the BDS panel, Rosenberg lashed into the progressive MSNBC host Chris Hayes and The New York Times editorial board for supposedly “whitewashing the movement’s radicalism” (“New York Times, MSNBC whitewash BDS,” 6 February 2013).
Hayes and the Times had erred, Rosenberg argued, by failing to acknowledge that the BDS movement not only seeks to end Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land, but that it also calls for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to land forcibly expropriated from them by the State of Israel. According to Rosenberg, the right of return is a “radical goal” because it “denies the Jewish right to self-determination.”
What does “the Jewish right to self-determination” mean, and from where did Jews (whom Rosenberg conflates with Israelis) receive such a right? Was it guaranteed by a binding international legal treaty? Or was it derived from the Torah, the holy book that the self-declared messianist and Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion described as his “blueprint” for building the Jewish state?
Rosenberg did not explain. All readers needed to know, according to Rosenberg, was that this right necessitates the establishment of two states though a “peace accord” so sensible he did not need to provide details of what it might look like, or how it could be implemented.
In another recent attack on BDS, published at Newsweek’s liberal Zionist online forum, Open Zion, a Canada-based associate political science professor and analyst for Freedom House named Mira Sucharov reinforced Rosenberg’s argument. Like Rosenberg, Sucharov condemned BDS advocates for not respecting “Israel’s desire to maintain its core Jewish identity.” And like her counterpart, she failed to provide a scintilla of detail about the implications of such an endeavor.
Sucharov went on to denounce the BDS movement’s “demand that the Jewish nation give up national self-determination,” piling meaningless language atop subjective terminology (“Why BDS isn’t compatible with two states,” 8 February 2013).
The Nation columnist and Brooklyn College professor of English Eric Alterman produced what was probably the sharpest attack on BDS in the past week. Hammering on the allegation that BDS advocates rely on deception to mask their radical goals, Alterman likened them in an editorial for The Daily Beast to the American Communist Party cadres who campaigned during the 1940s as earnest progressives while secretly taking cues from Stalin’s Politburo.
According to Alterman, the real agenda of BDS — an “intellectual masquerade,” he called it — is to force Jewish Israelis to “commit suicide” by “forfeit[ing] their commitment to their history, their national identity and their understanding of Jewish history” (“Brooklyn College and the BDS debate,” 7 February 2013).
Leaving aside the gross distortions leveled by Rosenberg, Sucharov and Alterman, it is instructive to note what they omitted.
While each writer ignored the clearly articulated guidelines of the Palestinian-led BDS movement, along with the scholarship on how such tenets could be implemented, either in the framework of two states or a bi-national arrangement, they accused the BDS movement of deliberately obscuring its real goals.
At no point, however, did any of the liberal Zionists who weighed in on the debate about Brooklyn College’s BDS panel attempt to explain in any explicit fashion what it was that they wanted.
Liberal Zionist critics of BDS proclaim their passionate commitment to two states, or at least, to the established proposals for partition that have emerged through the US-led peace process, but few are willing to provide details. And even fewer have attempted to explore what the established proposals for two states will mean for the Palestinians who would have to live with its consequences.
How do they get away with such reticence on a core issue of contention while simultaneously blasting their opponents for deception and ambiguity?
Detached from reality
Perhaps the pablum of “two states for two peoples” has become so entrenched in mainstream discourse that progressive Zionist supporters see little need to explain what it actually means in practice. There is also the possibility that their rigorous, all-consuming academic and intellectual pursuits in North America have left them with little time to experience the daily reality in occupied Palestine, relegating them to a superficial, detached relationship with the situation that they invariably describe as “complicated.”
There are myriad factors influencing their curious behavior, but none is more salient than the inherent contradiction between liberalism and Zionism.
Like the right-wing Likudniks they claim to abhor, liberal Zionists are staunchly committed to the maintenance of an ethnically exclusivist Jewish state. They will fight any political campaign (BDS) or natural trend (Arab babies) that threatens to upend the Jewish demographic majority inside Israel, wherever its borders are.
That is why they claim that BDS, with its call for Palestinian equality and the right of return, will “destroy Israel.” And it is why they are so passionate about reigniting the US-led peace process. From their perspective, the establishment of two states would provide the most effective bulwark against the non-Jewish “demographic threat.”
In the words of Yossi Beilin, the liberal Israeli politician credited as the godfather of the Oslo accords, the two-state solution under the guidelines of Oslo is “the only way to save the Jewish state from an Arab majority” (Tikva Honig-Parnass, Between the Lines, p. 97).
Every major proposal for two states — even the supposedly progressive Geneva accords — has included measures to combat the presence and proliferation of the non-Jewish population inside a Jewish state. These have included separation barriers, Bantustan-style cantons ruled by unelected strongmen, annexing the major settlement blocs that sever Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, and instituting a program of de facto population transfer described in anodyne terms as “land swaps.”
During the Annapolis track of Bush-era Road Map negotiations, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni proposed transferring the populations of entire Arab villages inside Israel into the hands of the Palestinian Authority in order to help resolve Israel’s demographic problems (“Livni: A lawyer against Law?,” The Palestine Papers, Al Jazeera English, 24 January 2011).
A more recent plan conceived by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and promoted by the progressive Zionist writer Bernard Avishai in The New York Times called for linking Gaza to the West Bank through a 25-mile underground tunnel, tacitly designating Palestinians as untouchable Morlocks who must be hidden from the view of the enlightened Israeli public (“A plan for peace that still could be,” 7 February 2011).
Even the most acute liberal Zionist mind would struggle to sell a progressive peer on the logic of advocating for an immigrant-friendly, multicultural society in the United States while simultaneously defending a colonialist ethnocracy in a far away, Middle Eastern country that offers them the right of “return” on the basis of their supposed kinship with Early Bronze Era desert nomads.
This may be exactly what US-based liberal Zionists are doing, but for obvious reasons, they must find ways of concealing their agenda, either through strategic reticence, or by masking their extreme positions in flowery, essentially meaningless language.
Not a pretty picture
To be sure, a few major US-based liberal Zionists have been willing to sketch out the broad outlines of the kind of two-state solution they might support. It is not a pretty picture.
Peter Beinart, the editor of Open Zion, recently joined with Harvard University professor of law Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken proponent of torture and the collective punishment of Palestinians, to call for Israel to “divide the West Bank into three chunks” (“The conversation Israel and Palestine needs to have,” 3 December 2012).
And Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the “pro-peace” J Street lobbying outfit, insists that the separation wall and major settlement blocs must be permanent features of the landscape of Israel-Palestine. A future Palestinian state should have no control over its borders or airspace, according to Ben-Ami (“A voice in the wilderness,” America Magazine, 2 April 2012).
Is unilaterally deciding how Palestinians will be controlled and dominated what liberal Zionists mean by “Jewish self-determination?”
Questions like this are not easy to answer, which may be why leading liberal Zionists stringently avoid engaging in forums where their onerous proposals might be placed under tough scrutiny.
Beinart has staged collegial debates with Dershowitz and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a political hardliner who has suggested a new wave of ethnic cleansing to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority, but he has never met a figure like Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel founding member Omar Barghouti on the same stage.
Ben-Ami, for his part, has openly stated his preference for keeping discussions about BDS “within the Jewish community,” refusing a request to debate a Palestinian like Barghouti (“J Street’s Ben Ami: “Our discussion” on BDS should stay “within the Jewish community”,” MaxBlumenthal.com, 15 April 2011).
What are they afraid of? Do liberal Zionists have something to hide? If not, they should end the intellectual masquerade and bring their real agenda out into the open for all to see. Then we will know who the radicals are.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.