SermonsU.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cutural Boycott of Israel

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.

Alicia Keys, if you’re going to play Israel, at least show this video when you sing “Girl on Fire”

Dear Alicia Keys,

This week, you will be giving a concert in Israel, in spite of pleas that you respect an academic/cultural boycott, observed by people like Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Elvis Costello, Roger Waters and Stephen Hawking because of the military occupation of Palestine that Israel shows no intention of ending.

Since you have made this decision, I have another suggestion.

Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of New Mexico, put together an amazing video* of young Palestinian women resisting the Israeli military occupation set to your song, “Girl on Fire.” In its soulful opening strains, a young Palestinian woman with a Palestinian flag runs up the back of a huge water cannon truck used to disperse crowds at demonstrations. Then for the rest of your song we see young Palestinian women “on fire” as they protest the confiscation of their land, destruction of their farms, restrictions of their movement, and general assaults on their dignity. They do not back down even when soldiers beat them, pepper spray them, throw them to the ground or threaten them with weapons. Some of your lyrics, in fact, are hauntingly evocative of what we see the young women dealing with in the video.

When you sing “Girl on Fire,” this week, Ms. Keys, you could show these girls and young women to your audience. You could dedicate that song to all Palestinian and Israeli women who are struggling to end the forty-six-year-long Israeli military occupation of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian girls study on the street in Hebron because soldiers will not let them access their school.

Palestinian girls study on the street in Hebron because soldiers will not let them access their school.

You have said, “Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.” These are laudable sentiments. But I think if you witnessed—as I have during my work as a human rights advocate for the last eighteen years in the West Bank—the utter contempt with which Israeli soldiers and settlers treat Palestinian women, children and men, I think your position would be more nuanced. If you explored the information put out by Palestinian and Israeli peace and human rights organizations I think you will begin to see that the only road to the peace that you say is the spirit of your show lies in ending this brutal occupation. If you want to unify Israelis and Palestinians, showing this video footage may be the only small way you can do so, since the majority of the Palestinians featured in that video live under Israeli military occupation and their movements are severely restricted to a limited geographical area. The Israeli military would never give them permits to see your show.

Ms. Keys, most artists never have the privilege of having their songs taken up by popular culture to support a freedom struggle. You could contribute to the soundtrack of a liberation movement. Or you, like most of your Israeli audience, can continue to behave as though the Palestinian girls, teenagers and women in that video are not suffering, are not having their human rights violated, are not worth being seen.

Your call.


Kathleen Kern

*Your people forced Youtube to take it down, even though they appeared to have no objections to parodies or other amateur performances of the song. I found it on Facebook and here.