The Arab Spring has challenged Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern civil societies. We’ve seen insatiable demand for democracy in a region that most analysts had written off as politically passive or hopelessly brainwashed by authoritarianism and misogyny. We’ve seen formalized instruction and training on how to engage in nonviolent protest. Tablet & Pen and Out of It , two recently released works of literature, both written before the Arab Spring, introduce Westerners to an array of fictional characters and real people who exemplify the creativity, agency, and diversity that have always been present in the Middle East but have received scant attention in Western media.
During a plenary session at last week’s third annual J Street conference, Raleb Majadele, a Palestinian Israeli member of the Knesset from the Labor party, may have broken an Israeli law. Responding to a question about whether he supports boycotts against Israeli settlements, Majadele said first that he was “against all boycotts in principle.” This prompted a round of applause from a minority of the more than 2,000 people in the audience. But a few sentences later, Majadele switched course and described settlement-only boycott in a positive light, describing it as “a pin-pointed boycott against the obstacle for peace.” A much larger portion of the audience then erupted in applause. (It remains to be seen whether Majadele will be prosecuted for this statement, as a new Israeli law makes it illegal for Israeli citizens to promote boycott against Israel or Israeli settlements.)
The notion of boycotting Israeli settlements was raised frequently throughout the plenary sessions and workshops of the three-day conference—and often to hearty applause. Peter Beinart, author of a recent New York Times op-ed that coined the phrase “Zionist boycott” (i.e., a pro-Israel boycott aimed at saving “democratic Israel” from its “undemocratic,” peace-destroying settlements) was a featured speaker and launched his book, The Crisis of Zionism, at the conference.
Why would the Union for Reform Judaism give a right-wing Jewish leader a prominent platform from which to make hurtful, dehumanizing, and simplistic comments about Palestinian “culture”? Does inviting such a speaker honor the Reform movement’s history of moral certitude against injustice and discrimination?