Monday, June 21, 2021

What the Israeli-American Food Truck Fiasco Tells Us About (Some) BDSers

Briefly following up on the saga of the Israel-American food truck, and in particular JVP Swarthmore's position that expelling the truck from an immigrant food festival is a righteous example of BDS in action, I want to return to something I wrote a few years back about none other than Natalie Portman. In 2018, Portman refuses to travel to accept her award of the Genesis Prize in Israel because doing so would involve sharing a platform with Bibi Netanyahu. At the same time, she emphatically rejected that she was endorsing BDS, and affirmed her commitment to continue engaging with other Israeli voices and institutions.

Many pro-BDS persons nonetheless insisted that Portman -- her own avowals notwithstanding -- was in fact engaging in BDS. So (part of) my column was trying to explain why it mattered that Portman was so insistent that she was not doing so. Here's what I wrote:
It is one thing to say that a particular politician or a specific company stands beyond the pale, such that they cannot be productively engaged with until they alter their behavior. But when it is every politician, every company, every university, every artist, every film - at that point the message communicated becomes something different. 
The (well, a) problem with BDS, as a movement, is not that there is something intrinsically objectionable to not wanting to share a stage with Bibi or not purchasing a Sodastream. 
The problem is that BDS does not just cover Bibi or Sodastream. It covers the Anti-Defamation League and Jerusalem Open House and A Wider Bridge. It covers Moshe Halbertal and David Grossman and Ami Ayalon. It covers Tel Aviv University and it covers random middle schoolers who have questions about horses
It covers every Israeli company and every company that does business in Israel; it covers every Israeli movie, every Israeli actor, and every Israeli theater production.

(I didn't include perhaps the most incredible example I've seen in this ilk: complaints that a newspaper quiz that had a question about Israel's national bird was in breach of the BDS: "This includes any reference to their wildlife." But I digress.) 

Time and again BDS has shown itself to be a train that has no brakes. Vagaries about targeting "institutions, not individuals" - often only honored in the breach regardless - serve as no limit when any every institution is found guilty and any affiliation is implicating. 
Crossed with cousins like "anti-normalization" and "pinkwashing," BDS becomes a systemic and inescapable net ensnaring and excluding Israelis indiscriminately. Too often, it stretches even further and simply serves to exclude Jews-qua-Jews - anywhere, everywhere, in toto.

What's striking about the Moshava Philly fiasco is how it gives lie to so many of the purported limiting constructions of BDS that are meant to explain how it isn't simple antisemitism, xenophobia, or national origin discrimination.

  • Some argue that BDS doesn't target Israelis-qua-Israelis, only organizations which have specific ties to problematic Israeli policies and are personally implicated in wrongdoing. But nobody is arguing that Moshava Philly has such ties -- its sin is simply that it serves the food of its own proprietors.
  • Some argue that BDS is justified against all Israeli firms insofar as, by being in Israel, they are inherently acting as occupiers of Palestinian land. But Moshava Philly is, as the name suggests, in Philadelphia -- in turns out that even when Israeli Jews come to the, ahem, "real promised land" the taint still follows. It is its Israeli origin, not where it sits or does business in, that generates the contagion.
  • Some argue that BDS doesn't object to Jewish presence in modern-day Israel per se, only that which is attributable to the "Zionist invasion" (see PLO charter Art. 6). Yet the term "Moshava" refers to villages the earliest of which were established prior to the First Aliyah by a mix of immigrants and persons who were already living in the Old Yishuv. This makes it all the more striking to witness the word "Moshava", literally "village",  being re-translated to mean "settlement" or "colony" in order to present Moshava Philly as some avatar of colonization -- an ordinary word made sinister by judicious leveraging of its exotic foreignness (we've seen this before). It turns out that when push comes to shove, the projects of pre-Zionist Jews in Eretz Yisrael are going to be portrayed as foreign, colonial impositions too -- because it's Jewish existence, not policy or practice, that ultimately is sufficient to earn the label of invasion.
  • Some argue that "Israel" doesn't have a right to exist because only people, not states, have a right to exist. But here we see the view that the entire existence of an Israeli peoplehood -- even purely as culture -- is viewed as corrupt, tainted thievery, hence why the mere existence of "Israeli" food is presented as an affront. The problem, it turns out, is Israelis existing -- anywhere, anyhow, in any context. (I think even JDA would consider this antisemitic, though as always the question is whether any of its backers will actually stand up and apply the document to the case).

One thing I've said before about BDS is that, like other social movements, it will moderate as it mainstreams. People who endorse some forms of boycotts, divestments, or sanctions are a diverse group, and not all of them have any interest in these fundamentalist applications. It is wrong to say that anyone who says they won't buy wine from a West Bank settlement also necessarily endorses barring Israeli immigrant food trucks.

But we should be clear that there is a contingent -- and not a trivial one either -- that does intend to ride the train all the way to the end. For them, the train really has no brakes. And for them, their vision of BDS really is one that is incompatible with Jewish equality -- whether in Israel or abroad. We should be clear-eyed about who they are, and what they represent.

No comments: