A New Litmus Test on Israel


Just as a litmus test determines where a chemical is on the spectrum from acidic to alkaline, many American Jews seek to label perspectives on a scale from ‘pro’ to ‘anti’ Israel. Jewish reactions to the divestment resolution passed at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) show that it’s time for the Jewish community to recalibrate its litmus test on Israel.

The 2014 Presbyterian General Assembly (US)

Credit: Creative Commons.

The feature resolution at the General Assembly, approved after hours of consideration by a narrow 50.6% majority, was number 04-04, “On Supporting Middle East Peacemaking”. The resolution’s key operative paragraph called for the PCUSA’s divestment from three corporations – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola – on the grounds that they provide products and services that reinforce Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories beyond the 1967 Green Line.
As expected, the resolution’s passage was met by angry reaction from many in the American Jewish mainstream, who claim that the decision had now aligned the Church with the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a loose network of groups around the world that, by and large, can arguably be labeled ‘anti-Israel’: Global BDS groups, as a rule, assign blame exclusively to Israel, imply that Israel was ‘born in sin’, and remain suspiciously reticent to specify if the end-goal they seek allows for Israel’s continued existence.
The PCUSA resolution, on the other hand, contained some not-so-anti-Israel messages that couldn’t have gone down well with much of the BDS movement (its cries of victory, notwithstanding). After its preamble metes out blame to both sides of the conflict, Resolution 04-04, “reaffirm[s] Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders,” expresses support for the two-state solution, and takes pains to state that the Church’s action, “is not to be construed … as divestment from the State of Israel, or an … endorsement of the Global BDS movement.”
So should the PCUSA resolution be considered ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-‘ Israel? In relation to a hypothetical litmus point of ‘Israel-neutral’, where would this resolution be found?
In the world of chemistry, litmus paper is known to degrade over time, and when it does, the results it produces can be inexact or misleading. Is it possible that the Jewish community’s litmus test on Israel is now losing its validity? In other words, can someone’s location on the pro/anti-Israel spectrum still be accurately measured by the tools and tactics one uses?
A few examples are instructive: In 1997, well before the Global BDS movement was born, Israel’s Gush Shalom, founded by peace activist Uri Avnery, pioneered the concept of a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements as part of its strategy for preserving the two-state solution. Several years ago, avowed Zionist organizations such as Americans for Peace Now and Partners for Progressive Israel resurrected Gush Shalom’s initiative, as did author Peter Beinart, who coined the term “Zionist BDS“.
Last summer, the European Union demonstrated similarly that the tool of sanctions could be applied selectively, issuing guidelines that require EU grants and prizes to be used solely within Israel’s sovereign 1967 borders, thereby prohibiting their diversion to activities in occupied territory. The new policy of the EU, which has maintained a most-favored-nation agreement with Israel for the past two decades, was publicly supported by Zehava Galon, chair of Israel’s Zionist pro-two-state Meretz party.
Now the Presbyterian Church (USA), after approving a targeted boycott of settlements at its 2012 General Assembly, has passed a resolution that uses divestment selectively while supporting Israel’s legitimacy and making sure to draw a thick impermeable line between itself and the BDS movement’s dubious agenda.
The American Jewish mainstream rightly envisions an Israel that is able to maintain both its Jewish character and its democratic principles over the long term. But with the Obama administration’s peace diplomacy in shambles, the occupation closing in on five full decades, and the two-state solution in danger, isn’t it time to adopt a new litmus test? With an emboldened Israeli right-wing promoting policies that would eliminate any chance of Israel remaining a Jewish and democratic state, shouldn’t the relevant test be one that focuses on the ends we desire for Israel rather than the different means we might employ to get there?
To date, unfortunately, the American Jewish community remains much more concerned by groups on the left side of the pro-Israel spectrum – even those, such as J Street, that eschew a Zionist BDS strategy – than by the pro-settlement, pro-annexation groups on its right edge, whose plan for Israel is far more perilous than any settlement boycott could ever be.
The pro-Israel community does need to remain vigilant so that the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions remains focused on the occupation that began in 1967, and is not exploited to delegitimize Israel itself. We must watch out for a potential ‘slippery slope’. But the clear, and much more present, danger to Israel comes not from groups that seek to sustain the Green Line and the possibility of partition, but from those who wish to wipe these out, and who, in so doing, doom the country to choose – in the not-too-distant future – between its democracy and Jewish majority.
The American Jewish mainstream, in short, needs a fresh litmus test, one that turns us ‘blue’ in the presence of any ally of the two-state solution, and solid ‘red’ when we come into contact with those whose aim is to undermine this fundamental Zionist imperative.
Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political analyst and columnist. Until recently he directed the non-profit Partners for Progressive Israel, and for many years served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.

8 thoughts on “A New Litmus Test on Israel

    • It worries me when a Jew asks for support from a non-Jew. As when the State of Israel asks for billions of dollars from the US.

  1. The statement that the BDS movement puts the blame entirely on Israel is false. The writer should cite specifics on this rather than just make a general statement.
    One BDS group that focuses on peace and justice is “THE WESTERN CAROLINIANS PEACE AND JUSTICE FOR THE MIDDLE EAST. Check them out.

    • Ed, BDS explicitly demands an unlimited right of return that, by its terms, would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Please do not spew nonsence suggestions that the BDS movement seeks balance and justice. It’s simply not so.

  2. The current government of Israel is pursuing apartheid policies and stands on apartheid principles. As in South Africa, the proven successful solution is BDS. The vehemence of its opposition speaks to its efficacy.

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