The BDS Debate In Our House

This post first appeared on The Jewish Pluralist website.
My husband and I met because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A progressive Israeli-American, he came to hear me give a presentation called “Eye-witness to the Intifada” in November 2001 and asked good questions. A few months later, we met at another Middle East peace event, talked for hours afterwards and have been together ever since.

While some may view us as an odd couple—a secular Israeli Jew and a religious Mennonite who works with a human rights organization in Palestine—we agree on the most fundamental issues at work in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. We believe that Palestinians and Israelis are entitled to the same human rights; no exceptions. We agree that the Israeli military occupation must end. We agree that Israeli leaders, supported by the U.S. Congress, have been most responsible for scuttling effective peace negotiations, but that most official Palestinian leaders have not done well by their people either.

Our arguments over points of disagreement never reach satisfactory conclusions, I think, because we are arguing from two different platforms. Israel was Michael’s home for fifteen years and he would still live there if family circumstances had not compelled him to return to the U.S. I, on the other hand, in addition to working in Palestine have worked with my human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), in Haiti, Chiapas, Mexico, Colombia, and with Indigenous communities in North America. So I view the situation in Palestine through the lens of a human rights observer, rather than as from the perspective of someone with ties to a homeland.

This reality colors our disagreement over the Boycott, Divestment, and BDS-Sticker2009Sanctions Movement. Although even in that area, we probably agree more than we disagree. Michael always boycotted items produced in settlements, and as someone who does socially responsible financial planning for a living, he would boycott the corporations that reinforce and profit from the military aspects of the Israeli occupation—e.g., Motorola, Raytheon, and Caterpillar—anyway. But when it comes to boycotting products made inside Israel proper, or boycotting Israeli cultural and academic enterprises, Michael is passionately opposed.

I do not match his passion in my disagreement. Those of us who work on the CPT’s Palestine team could not ourselves agree on an ardent support of the full spectrum of the BDS movement when we tried to write our own statement on the topic. But when Palestinian Christian partner organizations launched the Kairos document in 2009, asking the international community to support them by adopting BDS principles, we felt we had to stand with them. For decades, the international community has lectured Palestinians on using nonviolent resistance against the occupation. BDS is nonviolent resistance, and, as the document says, Palestinian Christians are not viewing it as an act of revenge, “but rather a serious action in order to reach a just and definitive peace.” Those are principles very much in keeping with the philosophy of CPT.

I have heard all the arguments against BDS. Why is Israel being singled out when human rights abuses are so much worse in [insert country]? Answer: Idi Amin’s regime killed exponentially more people in Uganda during the 1970s than the South African government killed in four decades of apartheid. Does that mean the international community should not have been in solidarity with South African anti-Apartheid activists?

BDS will only make Israelis more recalcitrant. Answer: How could Israel be more recalcitrant than it is now? The same argument was used for South Africa, and for a time the South African government did push back, but ultimately, practical people like DeKlerk recognized that Apartheid could not go on forever.

The academic cultural boycott alienates the very Israelis who are most supportive of ending the occupation. Answer: A. there is a distinction between boycotts of artists and academics who are officially representing the state of Israel, and academics and artists who happen to be Israeli. B. Presenting an attractive, cultured face helps mitigate the barbarity of the occupation. It was, in fact the boycott by sports teams and entertainers, that swung white public opinion against apartheid in South Africa more than the economic boycott.

Israel is nothing like South Africa. Answer: Every South African Israeli I know, every South African I have met who has come through Hebron has told me the checkpoints and treatment of Palestinians by soldiers and settlers eerily evoke to them the worst of Apartheid’s heyday.(1)

I can keep generating responses like these. I have used them in many conversations with Israeli and Jewish friends, and I see that I cause them pain when I do so, which I hate. But I have seen Palestinian friends brutalized by soldiers and settlers. I have seen them lose their land and their homes. I have seen Palestinians shot, spit on, and in general, treated worse than animals by the hideous tentacles of the Israeli military occupation. And since I began working in Hebron in 1995, the situation has only gotten worse; no amount of dialogue, solidarity outreach, or top level diplomacy has stopped the erosion of civil rights and human dignity for the people in the Hebron district and the rest of Palestine.

So ultimately, the decision for my colleagues and me to support the BDS movement is this: Palestinians have asked us to participate with them in this nonviolent struggle of last resort. Their lives and livelihoods are not worth more than Israeli or Jewish lives. But they ARE worth more than Israeli and Jewish feelings, even the feelings of those Israelis and Jews I love the most.

(1). Michael and I watched a PBS special on the 25th Anniversary of Paul indexSimon’s Graceland album. During its production, Simon went to South Africa at the time of the Cultural Boycott and used prominent black South African musicians in the recording of his album, which caused a huge debate. Some, including founder of Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo, argued he should be boycotted, while others argued he was providing employment for and celebrating black musicians. The special included a segment with Simon and Tambo cordially discussing the boycott. Dali Tambo still believed Simon should have been boycotted, but they hugged at the end of the conversation. My takeaway? We won’t know ultimately about the effectiveness of BDS in Israel and Palestine until we have some hindsight. Michael’s takeaway? Boycotting Simon was a ridiculous idea then, and it’s still a ridiculous idea.

My Mennonite World Review column on Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Below is my July column for the Mennonite World Review. My organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and I did not attend the Mennonite Convention in Phoenix this year to be in solidarity with Latin@ Mennonites who were observing the boycott on Arizona because of its racist immigration laws.

An old sheriff in town
By Kathleen Kern Christian Peacemaker Teams

In May, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow handed down a 142-page ruling that concluded Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s policy of detaining people who looked Latino violated the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Snow noted Arpaio routinely violated federal law and the constitutional rights of Latinos in his county — of which Phoenix is the county seat — and blatantly violated terms of a prior court order that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office stop engaging in immigration-related enforcement operations. It said the sheriff’s office had institutionalized the consideration of race in law enforcement decision-making, tried to hide the discriminatory nature of officers’ actions and showed an overall lack of professionalism in determining whether they could legally do what they wanted in spite of court orders.

Arpaio (in car) and Lombardi

Arpaio (in car) and Lombardi

Those who accuse Arpaio of racial profiling are using a sanitized term for a man who, in 2009, allowed his picture to be taken with neo-Nazi Vito Lombardi and gave the organizers of a neo-Nazi counterdemonstration intelligence on a pro-civil rights march that would be passing them soon.

In 2007, in an interview with Lou Dobbs on CNN, he said a comparison with the Ku Klux Klan was an honor.

Racial profiling is not the only controversy surrounding Arpaio and his office. He has been investigated for unconstitutional jail conditions, improper clearance of cases and failure to investigate sex crimes — especially the molestation of undocumented immigrants’ children, election law violations, targeting political enemies with criminal investigations, misuse of funds, a staged assassination plot and lack of cooperation with the Department of Justice.

Arpaio said he is going to appeal Snow’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which means Maricopa County taxpayers will be spending more money in defense of this man and his policies. Yet, last November, the people of Maricopa County re-elected Arpaio for the fifth time.

I wrote this column before a group of Mennonite Church USA youth from Ohio visited Arpaio with the intention of engaging him in dialogue and instead became used by him as a propaganda tool when he posted their picture with him on the Internet. I understand that the youth went to the meeting without the knowledge or approval of MC USA or the convention planners.

Mennonite Youth from Phoenix Convention with Joe Arpaio (center)

But Arpaio and the laws in Arizona that make Latino Mennonites unsafe there are why Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church, or IMH) asked that the church observe a boycott of Arizona. I truly believe convention organizers made the decision to hold the convention there prayerfully. I believe the decision wasn’t easy. I know we can point at Arpaio and say, “We’re not like him” and dismiss him as a bully and a clown.

But the fact is, the convention was in an Arizona county that re-elected him five times, and most attendees will never have to worry about the consequences of being visible there.

They chose to leave their Mennonite brothers and sisters who would be targeted by Arpaio and his deputies behind. And they ended up with a photo of their (mostly white) youth smiling with one of the most outspokenly racist sheriffs in the U.S. (For a more detailed analysis of this event, see this reflection by Marty Troyer) I hope that some day true reconciliation between IMH and MCUSA for that decision will occur — the sort of reconciliation that will prevent other decisions like it in the future. But I and other Mennonite brothers and sisters like me will always remember why we did not go to Phoenix.

Kathleen Kern, of Rochester, N.Y., serves with Christian Peacemaker Teams.

It gets better

Well, I finally threw in the towel after foaming at the mouth too long over not being able to remove a permalink on the front page that directed people to my first novel instead of Because the Angels, the novel I’m currently trying to promote on Kindle.  Many thanks to Aldo Argaman, my husband Michael’s oldest son for creating a much more manageable site.

I do want to learn how to use social media, but I’d much rather write stories full of humor and pathos that transform the world.  Haven’t done that yet either—at least not the second part, but I’m just saying it would be more rewarding than figuring out permalinks.

I find that I’m in an interesting space literarily.  I’ve basically been playing with the plot and characters of my current novel (see previous posting), since 2009.  And now that it’s out to readers, I still have a lot to do—revisions based on readers’ comments, research on literary agents, submissions to novel contests, but in my downtimes, when I have insomnia, when I’m sitting through something boring, I no longer have a novel in my head to work on.

Maybe I’ll use that time for some spiritual development.  I’m going out to Los Angeles in a couple weeks to help an Iranian Jewish friend who was a dissident under the regimes of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic write her memoirs and that might give my brain some downtime mental yo-yo work to do.  But I suspect I should probably just embrace the space.