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Is the opposition to anti-BDS legislation really anti-Zionist?

Kenneth Levin’s article in the Feb. 21issue of The Jewish World argues that there is a lengthy tradition of anti-Zionist Jews. According to Levin, they claim noble motives, but in fact they seek to ingratiate themselves with anti-Semitic Gentiles, thereby betraying the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. Levin draws a straight line from the Haskalah of the 18th Century through the Reform Movement in the U.S., JCRCs, the Israeli left, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), J Street, the National Israel Fund, Hillel, the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to Jewish day and after school programs in the U.S. All these are, according to Levin, tainted by an anti-Zionism that is motivated by a desire to appease anti-Semitic Gentiles and abandon the vast majority of Jews.

There is much to discuss in Levin’s lengthy article, the latest incarnation of an argument he has made repeatedly for years. I will focus on Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions (BDS). There are two issues: the BDS movement itself and legislation to penalize and criminalize the BDS movement.

As to BDS itself, J Street opposes the Global BDS Movement, because it does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state and does not support a two-state solution. J Street takes no position on specific movements that explicitly support Israel’s right to exist, support the two-state solution and focus only on the occupation. This is consistent with the beliefs that a majority of American Jews hold: a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel requires an end to the occupation and a peacefully negotiated, two-state solution.

As to anti-BDS legislation, the ADL and J Street oppose anti-BDS legislation because it violates the right of free speech by punishing citizens for the expression of their views. According to Levin, “it requires logical contortions to twist (BDS) into a free speech issue.” Levin is wrong. In NAACP v Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982) the Supreme Court held that support for or participation in a boycott that is for a political purpose is protected by the First Amendment. “Through exercise of their First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, association, and petition, rather than through riot or revolution, petitioners sought to bring about political, social and economic change…. While States have broad power to regulate economic activities, there is no comparable right to prohibit peaceful political activity such as that found in the boycott in this case” (pp.458-59). There are ins and outs in applying the Court’s  reasoning to a specific boycott — is it truly for a political purpose? Is the state merely expressing an opinion or actually suppressing free speech?— but almost certainly the anti-BDS laws are unconstitutional. So far, of the many attempts to outlaw BDS three have got to court, and in two cases the laws have been thrown out as unconstitutional. So all these efforts to criminalize BDS will fail and are a huge waste of effort. They are worse than a waste, because they weaken free speech and will hand a win to BDS advocates in court.

I am sorry to see the cause of Israel sullied by this anti-democratic project. If our case is strong, why not make it? Why turn to the government to punish people because they disagree with us? In any case it baffles me that people uphold the right to spend money but deny the right to not spend money to support or oppose political causes.    

J Street also opposes anti-BDS legislation because it blurs the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. The legislation always applies to “Israel and the Israeli-controlled territories.” Including the occupation in protections for Israel contradicts long-standing U.S. policy to work towards giving Israel clear, strong and secure borders so that it may have a sustainable Jewish and democratic future.

Finally, anti-BDS legislation elevates and over-estimates the power of a protest movement that has failed to make a dent in Israel’s robust economy.

We can sense in Levin’s article deep feelings of frustration and anger toward those who disagree with him and a deep sense of betrayal. For those who see hope for a two-state solution battered week after week, the frustration is familiar. They are not betraying fellow Jews; they seek an end to the occupation and the establishment of a two-state solution, precisely because they care about a Jewish and democratic Israel.

While there are deep disagreements, it does no cause and no community any good to deny the decency of those with whom we disagree. Remember that while the Houses of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on practically everything, they agreed that it was fine for the Houses to intermarry.

                                                                                                                            Jack Alexander




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