Liberal Values and the BDS Movement


The inherent contradictions between American liberalism and support for Israeli policies are on a sudden, public, collision course. Until very recently, it was easy to identify as someone who cares for human rights and equality, while in practice avoiding forms of activism that impose any consequences for its actions on Israel. Those days may be drawing to a close.
Omar Barghouti’s recent op-ed in the Sunday New York Times, the ultimate prize in opinion piece placement, made a cogent, thorough, and, most importantly, principled argument for BDS based on the values of equality and fighting against oppression. Also taking a clear stance against anti-Semitism, his piece was a clarion call for support to the prototypical liberal readers of the New York Times. And, in fact the letters to the editor printed in response to his piece were overwhelmingly positive.
During the same period, two BDS-related campaigns were making headlines around the world. When Scarlett Johansson became the spokesperson for SodaStream, a company with its main factory in an Israeli settlement, the worldwide pressure resulted in her being forced to choose between being a spokesperson for Oxfam, a human rights organization, and her SodaStream gig. It seems that no one, not even A-list celebrities, can be considered humanitarians or human rights advocates any longer if they have anything at all to do with the settlements, which, of course, are illegal under international law.
Meanwhile, when the American Studies Association (ASA) passed a resolution endorsing a form of academic boycott against Israeli institutions in December, the backlash began to build, resulting in multiple states, as well as Congress, introducing legislation that would punish or condemn the ASA for its actions. The first bill, introduced in New York, was backed by Sheldon Silver, the power broker of the state legislature. It sailed through the Senate and was expected to pass within days. But a coalition quickly coalesced to fight the bill, with university faculty and administrators weighing in, culminating in a New York Times editorial that condemned the bill for its assault on political speech on campuses. The bill in its current form was withdrawn. Though a new version is slowly wending its way through the legislature, the lesson to be heeded is that it is no longer cost free for politicians to try to score political points by attacking critics of Israel while shredding free speech.
This is nothing short of a new reality. So it is not surprising that people who identify themselves as liberal, who have been willing to gently criticize Israel—but not to the point of endorsing any action that would compel it to change its behavior—are finding themselves tied in knots in trying to reconcile their values with their positions on Israel.
Critics of the BDS movement often use loaded language and fear-based appeals to rally opposition against BDS. Right here on Tikkun Daily, for example, Timothy Villareal’s post on Barghouti’s op-ed attributes thoughts to a nameless Palestinian to “prove” that the Palestinians want to “kick the Jews out”—without any acknowledgement of the over 700,000 Palestinians who were “kicked out” of Israel (i.e., became refugees during the Nakba)—including, perhaps, the anonymous man he has just quoted.
Villareal then goes on to accuse Barghouti of “craftily” using references to equality, universal human rights, and historic Jewish liberalism to hoodwink young idealists into supporting BDS.  The blatant appeal to the classic racist stereotype of Arabs who can’t be trusted is dusted off to dismiss the idea that the Palestinian-led campaign for BDS could be taken at face value, without any examination of the consistent application of these values in BDS campaigns worldwide.
He writes:

And yet, he craftily spells this out by tugging at the heartstrings of those who deeply sympathize with the right of Palestinian national self-determination, and broader Arab human rights and dignity.

Roger Cohen expanded on the same theme in a recent column in the New York Times. Stating baldly that “I do not trust the BDS movement,” he goes on to say that “this is the hidden agenda of BDS, its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise, and suffocate.”
Besides the not so subtle recourse, again, to evoking common racist tropes about Arabs, there is one big problem with this statement: there is nothing hidden about the BDS movement’s agenda. The goals of BDS, just as Cohen recounts them, hew closely to the fundamental principles of the liberal world view: human rights, equality, and international law. But to acknowledge the legitimacy of these demands would also demand an accounting of how these universally recognized rights square with the privilege and power accorded to Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians.
Rather than wrestle honestly with the contradiction of his values and the instinct to give in to his fears, Cohen goes on the attack. As a way to prove the distance from the current BDS movement to the movement against Apartheid, Cohen quotes Diana Shaw Clark (who according to a quick google search is best known as a fundraising “bundler” for Obama) as saying, “People affiliated with divestment in South Africa had no agenda but the liberation and enfranchisement of an oppressed minority.” No matter that leading veterans of the anti-apartheid movement have embraced the Palestinian BDS movement, noting the similarity of their struggles. More important is the glaring myopia of this statement, not recognizing that the elements and goals of the two struggles are exactly the same.
This creates a conundrum for authors like Cohen, and the vast swath of American Jews who share his views. As a self-described liberal, his fundamental values should be the full equality and liberty of all people. To acknowledge that these are the core goals of the BDS movement should—and hopefully someday will—compel him to join it. But for the moment, his fears of Jewish loss of privilege and control lead him instead to take refuge in vague accusations of anti-Semitism and deceit.
The time has come for liberals with integrity to grapple with the core questions that the BDS movement raises. This is doubly true for Jewish liberals for whom these questions are often the most clouded by emotion and history. Is it possible for Israel to be “Jewish and Democratic” when already over 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian? Can Jewish self-determination legitimately be built on the denial of Palestinian human rights? As a people who have experienced over and over the trauma of refugee-hood and longing for homeland, how can we possibly deny the validity of the right of return for Palestinians? And which do we value more: our fears or our respect for the universality of rights for all people? Perhaps the panic we’re seeing from authors like Villareal and Cohen is because both inside and outside the Jewish community, more and more people are prioritizing rights for all without conflating such rights with the destruction of Israel.
Rebecca Vilkomerson is the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace (

0 thoughts on “Liberal Values and the BDS Movement

  1. Thank you for your clarification of the importance of human rights, democracy & international civil law concerning these matters in the Holyland & throughout Planet Earth.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful overview of the tension between our fears and our liberal ideals. I have always been inspired by the Jewish prophetic tradition and the many Jewish friends who exemplify those values. At the same time I have struggled to understand the contradiction between their expressed liberalism on domestic issues and an ultra-conservative position when it comes to the rights of Palestinians. But it is essential to keep this conversation going. Thank you for your contribution.

  3. Wow –the clear message from this piece is that you can only be a “liberal with integrity” if you buy on to the BDS vision. Problem is, as even Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, is that BDS supporters dance around the real issue, as this piece does in its final paragraph.
    You all don’t want Israel to exist as a Jewish state, but you are not honest enough to say that, because you know that the minute you say how you truly feel you will be completely dismissed by everyone except the few who are on the insignificant fringes of the political spectrum. So instead, you dance around it — in Fox News fashion — with rhetoric like that found in the final paragraph.
    BDSers don’t want Israel. They think they are being clever by not being forthcoming about this point, but they are only clever in their own cult. They fool no one. Their supporters, like those in Jewish Voice for Peace, will therefore never be a part of the solution, because they won’t deal honestly with their hideous objective.

  4. Thank you, Rebecca for your penetrating analysis. Lauren’s response is sadly yet another example of the paranoia Rebecca identifies in Roger Cohen’s article. Lauren, there’s no hidden agenda here: we stand for equality, and a state that caves in to Jewish privilege is not a Jewish state.

  5. Lauren, not every BDS supporter is a one stater and even if they were: what is so hideous about a state that is Jewish in character and culture but guarantees equality for all it citizens regardless of ethnicity (on more than just paper)? Why is this an inherently threatening resolution?

    • DS and Jeremy, stop playing games. You know full well that the BDS campaign seeks a full right of return to Israel for all of the Palestinians. That return — for the refugees, their descendants, and their descendants’ descendants… — would mean Israel is no longer a Jewish state. If you want to have a serious debate about the BDS objectives, you need to be up front and honest about what you are seeking. And Jeremy, it is not simply “Roger Cohen paranoia.” Even Norman Finkelstein admits that BDS is dishonest about its objective and that its members and supporters act like a cult.
      Jeremy and DS, your comments are excellent examples of BDS dishonesty. The only paranoia here is that of the BDS supporters; they are afraid to be forthright and honest in discussing their objective. They are afraid that if they are too forthcoming they will turn off the liberals whose support they are trying to cultivate. But, with their poorly hidden dishonesty, they have already turned off progressive organizations like J Street, Ameinu, and New Israel Fund.
      If you want to be taken seriously, you might start by being honest.

      • Lauren,
        are you honestly saying that Palestinians should not have a right to return?
        Just as with any country, natives should be allowed to return.
        Ironic because the bulk of ‘Jews’ living in Israel have some distant frail abginous connection to those tribes that lived in that region historically.

  6. Abe, I do not support the BDS goal of a “return” to Israel that ends Israel as a Jewish state. But a “return” to a viable Palestinian state created as part of a two-state solution? Absolutely.
    Unfortunately, BDS and their dishonest supporters (like JVP) think they can gain more traction by dancing around the issue and not being honest and straightforward with their objective, because they know full well that it is a total non-starter. But they fool know one. As Norman Finkelstein said, they think they are clever, but they are only clever in their cult.

    • Lauren,
      And does your 2-state solution include a return to at least the 1967 borders (if not the 1948 borders), with the dismantling of the illegal Jewish settlements & a return of Palestinian portions of Jerusalem that have been incorporated by Israel? Have you been consistently voicing your opposition to all of these illegal occupations? If not, then your dishonesty is even greater than what you accuse BDS of.

  7. For over 30 years I have favored a negotiated 2-state solution, based on ’67 borders with mutually agreed land swaps and dismantling of settlements as required per the agreement. I have opposed the settlements during this period. See, unlike the dishonest BDS supporters, I am not afraid to be direct and straightforward.

  8. The BDS Movement is valid except for the demand for the “right of return.” Israel cannot accept an agreement with the Palestinians that would allow for millions of Palestinians to move across the Green Line, because then Israel as a Jewish homeland would no longer exist. Just as the Palestinians would dishonor the Palestinian people by accepting an agreement without their capital city in East Jerusalem, Israelis cannot agree to a nation along the 1967 borders that is not majority Jewish. Unfortunately, right wing forces will probably preclude any type of agreement, and sadly, it looks like a future Israel will be a war zone without borders.

  9. We have a failure to communicate. When BDS supporters talk about Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state, their understanding of this phrase is the same as that of the current extreme right – wing nationalist political leadership of Israel. Liberal American Jews do not believe that the current Israeli leadership is wedded to the Revisionist ideology and vision of a state that puts Jewish “national” power and interests above the rights of non-Jews. They do not understand that the Israeli political leadership does not share their basic Jewish values. Indeed, they still find it difficult to believe that Israel is an Occupying power that oppress the Occupied population. The problem is to help American Jews find the language to talk about Israel in a way that does not assume that “Israel” and the Israeli political leadership shares our Jewish values or even our vision of a desireable future for ourselves.

  10. We liberals in the USA live in occupied territory that was stolen from its original inhabits. We benefit from a society that was fueled by slavery and inequality. Sop, let’s just pick on Israel….the one and only jewish state. Israel is a liberal state–one that should appeal to all liberals as well. It is certainly the most liberal in the middle east and when it comes to fundamental respect for liberal values and human rights, it vastly outshines nearly every country in the world despite the enormous pressures placed upon it by decades of hostile neighbors sworn to its destruction–neighbors whose records on human rights and liberalism is horrible Israel’s Arab citizens are much more free than in any Arab country in many respects, yet somehow liberals seems to see Israel as a paragon of evil and illiberal values. It makes no sense. People who want secularism, humanism, environmentalism, support scientific and technological progress, universal education, health care, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights–in other words–liberals have made Israel their whipping boy. That is the big question–how is it that liberals have come to paint Israel in such a negative light and almost solely condemn it above all other states ? Why ask how to reconcile liberal Jewish values with Israel when the question is why do those espousing such liberal value hate Israel so much? Where is the liberal outcry over Syria? Tibet? Or any other place? Only Israel attracts so much outright disdain. A real liberal, open and tolerant person would not be averse to this self critique these questions demand. When Israel is understood and respected in an honest and intelligent manner–with its faults and shortcomings, then we can move on. Now–once that is settled, shall we get on to figuring out about the Palestinians in the territories and how to handle that in a liberal manner? One might begin by reading Ruth Wisse’s “If I am not for myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” but it does not take a book. It takes an honest and open mind to understand the hypocrisy here.

  11. hello every one,
    all the bds members depress from there life have are such faggots and small in the pants.
    you need to start appreciate the life and play football in your free time, no spend your time on shit.
    happy Sabbath for anyone.

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