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Why the AJDS are right to support a limited boycott

September 1, 2010 – 9:50 am148 Comments

Stand up. Dissent is Patriotic.

By Larry Stillman

I’d like to argue the moral case for supporting a selective boycott of products from the Occupied West Bank. I take the view that it is illegally held territory in which its prior and current non-Jewish inhabitants (Palestinians, whatever their citizenship) live under a form of military rule and control system which completely privileges Jewish settlers and Israeli businesses and abuses human rights.

There are a number of ways to approach the problem of the occupation and the denial of the right of self-determination from a moral point of view.

This first is a universal human rights approach, reflected in UN principles and international law which is opposed to such things as military occupation or land seizures, of the denial of affective legal remedies against oppression, and second, from the position within the Jewish tradition.

Second, the Jewish social justice view can be summarized as the principle of Tikkun Olam derived from the Mishnah, which is the struggle to repair or install righteousness in the world, as well inspirational mottos like “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” (Justice, Justice you shall persue”, Devarim 16:20). This also relates to the concept of ethical mitzvot, for both religious and non-religious Jews alike; obligations to make the world a better place, including challenging authority, which traditional Judaism appears reluctant to do. Unfortunately, this tradition barely exists in Australia, with attempts to stomp out dissent on issues relating to Israel going back many decades.

In the US, where I lived for many years, there is a tradition of speaking out and being pro-active for the greater good by rabbis and ordinary people alike, because sometimes, speaking out, even in a symbolic way brings about change. Here are some examples of people (sorry, all middle-aged men) who have supported dissent, including boycotts:

  • Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, has written for many years about the need to combine a inclusive spiritual dimension into both everyday life and social justice from an inclusive approach. His first major book, Surplus Powerlessness (1986), had a strong influence on my own thinking about contemporary forms of social justice at that time.
  • Rabbi Samuel Korff of the Boston Beit Din developed halachic rulings to support boycotts to support the rights of underpaid farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s.  He was also responsible for the denunciation of Jewish slumlords in Boston.
  • Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who is revered by many Christians and Jews in the US his activity in the Civil Rights movement in the US, was close to Martin Luther King, and he supported the boycott movement of segregated facilities in the South, along with many other Jews. He also opposed the war in Vietnam.
  • More recently, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, has supported the establishment of a Mosque at ‘Ground Zero’ in New York, and he has also taken a strong stand on Israeli politics.  Waskow has been active in the Reconstructionist movement for decades.
  • Saul Alinksy, who came from an Orthodox background, developed powerful and highly influential organizing techniques including non-violent grass-roots community action and boycotts.
  • Other American Jews have been active in many other causes including the labour movement and anti-racism movement.

Returning to the current excoriation of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society for suggesting the most modest form of boycott—against products from the West Bank. I suggest that people in AJDS who are supporting a limited boycott are coming out of the moral position and tradition I have outlined and are no one’s stooges, nor exploitable by extremists.

AJDS has been dumped in with the ‘deligitimizers’ by the so-called official leadership even though AJDS has indicated its disagreement with many elements of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign and the positions it takes within the Green Line. Thus, those who have seen the countless of posts by me in Facebook of late know that I have been vigilant in attacking anti-Israel extremists, whose views are Judeophobic, and AJDS on its website and elsewhere, has clearly distanced itself from extreme positions.

I do not endorse a BDS position that crudely blocks economic, social and cultural exchange between Israel and the rest of the world.  Tactically, the BDS is engaging in erroneous tactics, creating a gulf with the Jewish community. The position that AJDS supports is a far cry from some of the rhetoric and actions taken (not always with the nicest of motives) by the BDS Movement, including a number other Jewish organizations that support a full boycott.  I hope that supporters of BDS ask us why we have taken our position, and I will argue the case. To claim that the moral position we take threatens Israel, or that it delegitimizes the country or that we are mates with crass anti-Semites is an insult to the intelligence of thinking people who care about the future of Israel.

Furthermore, the tactic of Jewish community ‘leaders’ that claim that proponents of boycotts are no more than ‘delegitimizers’ is in fact a way of turning attention away from the Occupation—that is, what is causing the problem in the first case: the Occupation itself and Israel’s consistent behaviour of playing for time at the expense of others’ liberty.

I care deeply about the future security of Israel, but I know that its future cannot be linked to a continuation of 43 of its 60 years as an occupier and thief of another’s birthright.  Saying that putting a ‘Made in Israel’ label on something from the West Bank is morally wrong and asserting that we should not buy such products is the right thing to do.

Larry Stillman is a member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Executive, but is expressing his own and not anyone else’s opinion.

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