Friday, May 01, 2015

Have Another Thought

Maya Rosen and Joshua Leifer, two Jewish Princeton students who head the campus chapter of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives and supported the failed divestment vote at the University, have penned a column with their thoughts on the matter and their demands of the Jewish community.

There is a lot here that is frustrating -- try to follow their shifting logic on the role "consensus" should play in these sorts of debates -- but what is perhaps most aggravating is their disdain-verging-on-contempt for anyone who disagrees with divestment as a tactic. I've remarked before on the shared incentive the far-left and far-right have to portray Israel debates as being amongst two camps: If you don't support ZOA, you're an anti-Zionist monster. Or, if you don't support BDS, you're in the bag for the most irredentist wing of Likud. This column is a sterling example of the latter -- it goes so far as to say that the failure of Jews to support divestment hinders efforts to "decouple Judaism from right-wing Israeli policies", blaming Jews for ongoing anti-Semitic attitudes on campuses nationwide.

Of course, there are many reasons one could oppose divestment that have nothing to do with favoring right-wing Israeli policies, and are indeed endorsed by sharp critics of those policies. One might be concerned about the association with the global BDS movement, a train which seems to have no brakes. The BDS campaign at its best is cavalier about the validity of Jewish self-determination and liberation, and has often bled into blatant anti-Semitism (in the link above, BDS was the frame for urging the expulsion of all Jewish students from a South African university). Certainly, the tropes put forward in this column -- whereby Jews who oppose BDS are said to be beholden to a "conservative establishment" which insists that "all Jews support [all?] Israeli policies" -- don't exactly inspire confidence that this is a movement that actually respects that polyphonic character of the Jewish community. Or one might recognize that the same capacities which enable Israel to continue its occupation of the West Bank are those which enable it to protect itself from suicide bombers, and that the divestment campaign's studied refusal to recognize the entanglement suggests that they don't think Israel has any valid claim on security at all. Or perhaps they are just sick of the persistent demand to view Israel/Palestine as a quest to find bad guys to scold, and would rather a politics that sought to identify good guys and empower them to do more good.

The divestment advocates say that the debate demonstrated widespread desire amongst Princetonians to take a more proactive stand on this issue; that students hunger to do something to prod the situation in the Middle East closer to justice. And I bet that's true! The 53% which voted no may have various reasons why divestment is off the table, but that doesn't mean there is no proposal that wouldn't garner their support. And of the 47% that voted yes, I'm doubtful that all of them are "BDS or bust." They might have supported that resolution, but it's not the only resolution they'd support.

What we do know is that a majority of Princeton students oppose divestment, and that there is no likely scenario where divestment could be anything but bitterly divisive. So my question them is simple: What's your next thought? Are you seriously trying to say that a divestment resolution is the only arrow in your quiver? Even if you genuinely believe it "is the best way", even if you're absolutely certain that "political and economic pressure are our most effective nonviolent means" for effectuating change (maybe you can take a break and demand reinstatement of our Cuba sanctions), are they really your only thoughts on the matter? Is your only move, when Princetonians reject this particular strategy, to go back to the same well once more?

If divestment is a non-starter, what are some other thoughts we might have? The obvious answer is investment. Instead of cutting ties with the putative bad guys, try to forge new ones with the good guys. Instead of looking for bridges to burn, search for places where bridges are worth building. In Israel and Palestine right now, there are a great many civil society organizations who are committed to creating the conditions for Jewish and Palestinian freedom and self-determination. By far the best of these is OneVoice, a parallel Israeli and Palestinian project "that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward the two-state solution." It's based on the notion that the most important players and most powerful agents of change are the people of Israel and Palestine, the everyday folks who have no interest in dominating or subjugating the other, but just want to live in harmony with their neighbor and work together for a better future. What if Princeton partnered with OneVoice and lent its prestige and brainpower to the cause of democratic empowerment as a means of change (some of us have a sentimental preference for that sort of work over economic coercion).

Or what about TULIP -- Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine? TULIP's goal is to forge connections between Israeli and Palestinians unions as a means of building political momentum towards two states. There was a time when building solidarity amongst labor unions and the working class would have been the first thought of a group with a name like the "Alliance of Jewish Progressives". Alas, we live in different times, and so I guess now it takes some prodding. But again, call me sentimental, but I am a fan of the power of workers to unite around a common interest in economic empowerment, and recognizing that spending precious lives and resources on a fruitless conflict is antithetical to that cause.

What if Ms. Rosen and Mr. Leifer proposed a resolution centered on those parameters: identifying groups in Israel and Palestine that are working to change conditions on the ground such that both sides respect the legitimate national aspirations of the other, suggesting that Princeton should take official steps to partner with and otherwise support these groups, and urging that Princeton take greater steps to invite persons affiliated with those groups to the Princeton campus so that Princetonians could gain a first-hand perspective on their struggle and how they could help? How much of the vote do you think that resolution would get? 65%? 75%? It wouldn't be unanimous -- there are people who really do support right-wing Israeli policies, after all. And there are people who genuinely are "BDS or bust", because their end goal isn't a two-state solution or any solution at all that respects Jewish equality -- they're in the field to annihilate Israel outright.

But I don't think those sort of people are the majority of either the 53% or the 47%. A resolution like this could unify the Princeton campus around a strategy that breaks free from the tired "punish the evildoer" mold. It wouldn't be consistent with BDS fundamentalism -- no strategy which acknowledges that both Israelis and Palestinians have an indispensable contribution to a just resolution of the conflict would be -- but Ms. Rosen and Mr. Leifer claim not to be fundamentalists.

Whether they are or aren't is not something I pretend to know. I do know that Naomi Klein once claimed that BDS was "a tactic, not a dogma," and that this has proven to be one of her less-than-stunningly accurate pronouncements of the past decade. Everything we've seen from the BDS movement indicates that it cannot contemplate other strategies other than BDS; even amongst those adherents who don't sign on to the more maximalist parts of the agenda. BDS squeezes out any and all alternative strategies, but it is especially hostile to those which ask how we can help Israelis and Palestinians work together. For some reason, once people board this particular train, it does not even occur to them that there might be other routes to their goal.

I'm not asking Ms. Rosen or Mr. Leifer to denounce BDS (though of course I'd be happy if they did). All I'm asking is that they think one step further -- that they have another thought after divestment. Rather than assuming that Jews and non-Jews who oppose divestment are denouncing any measure that might further a just two-state solution, they should think a little harder about what other steps they might take that would unify their community and the Princeton community around a salutary goal. To that end, a resolution which specifically endorses organizations like OneVoice and urges Princeton to take additional steps to provide them with institutional support would be an easy winner that would build on the dialogue the first resolution sparked and unite proponents and opponents alike under a positive and constructive banner.

Anyway, it's a thought.

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