(Editors Note: This is a transcript of a talk by Sheldon Ranz at the November 19 2016, SDUSA Conference that was held in Buffalo, N.Y. Sheldon opinion on the BDS movement is controversial, and other SD members are critical of the BDS movement. Nevertheless, as a life-long activist in the Zionist movement. who is devoted to the survival of the State of Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority, and the son of two survivors of the Holocaust, we believed that Sheldon’s unique viewpoints deserved to be heard at the forum and appear here on our blog, and open to comments and debate.)
As I thank you, Social Democrats – USA, for hosting me at your Buffalo, NY conference, I must confess to having been a life-long fan of the New York Giants, so please be gentle with me.
It is a common feature of media accounts of the Israel-Palestine conflict to reference the BDS movement. Increasing numbers of US student bodies have endorsed it; so have the Connecticut branch of the AFL-CIO and the United Electrical Workers Union. While Bernie Sanders has not endorsed it, two of his delegates to the Democratic Party platform committee, John Abourezk and Cornel West, are outspoken advocates of BDS. So what is BDS?
It is an acronym for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. The movement promoting this originates from the mainstream of Palestinian society. In 2005, over 170 Palestinian non-governmental groups formed the BDS National Committee to promote the boycott of Israel, divestment from Israel and international sanctions against Israel. Inspired by a similar campaign against apartheid South Africa, the now-global BDS movement calls for Israel to meet its obligations under international law by complying with these three demands:
1. Ending the occupation of surrounding Arab lands that began with the Six Day War of 1967,
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens to full equality, and
3. Instituting and promoting a Palestinian Right of Return that allows Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and property in Israel in accordance with UN resolutions.
In its campaign, BDS targets companies that have contracts with the Israeli military or with any other outlet of the Israeli government, including the settlements in the West Bank, and advocates boycotts of academics affiliated with Israeli state institutions. The tactics used are non-violent and have numerous successes to its credit. In 2015 alone, the BDS movement achieved the following:
Barclays Bank divested from Elbit Systems, an Israeli military company.
French corporate giant Veolia sold off all of its Israeli businesses, capping a seven-year boycott led by BDS.
The European Union introduced labelling of products from West Bank settlements.
The UN issued a report concluding that direct foreign investment into Israel in 2014 fell by 46% from the previous year.
Sodastream, whose spokesperson was the actress Scarlett Johansson, shut down its West bank operations and relocated to Israel’s Negev Desert.
By contrast, a smaller, less organized tendency among those whose views fall within the dovish part of the Israeli spectrum to boycott only products made in West Bank settlements has not produced a single known success.
As a result of BDS’s string of victories, Israel is in full-panic mode. The current regime of Benjamin Netanyahu passed a law making advocacy of BDS in Israel a crime and persuaded Governor Cuomo to issue an executive order forbidding New York State from doing business with any company that complies with BDS. Ditto with Jerry Brown in California.
So, can Zionists support BDS? That question needs to be answered first with another question – what kind of Zionists? From an institutional framework, there are two kinds of Zionism: State Zionism and Democratic Zionism. Democratic Zionism posits that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens, period. State Zionism is the doctrine that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and the state of all of its Jewish citizens who are to enjoy a wide range of privileges over its Gentile citizens. No State Zionists in their right mind would endorse the demands of BDS.
But Democratic Zionists? That’s a different story! Let’s look at the three demands of BDS from a Democratic Zionist perspective:
Demand #1 calls for an end to the 1967 occupation, a long-standing goal of Israel’s Peace Now movement and Left Zionist opposition. Check!
Demand #2 calls for Israel to live up to the words of its own Declaration of Independence:
“…THE STATE OF ISRAEL…will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants…it will ensure complete equality (emphasis mine) of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…WE APPEAL…to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions…
At this point, enter Albert Einstein! In 1978, at the behest of my father, Holocaust survivor John Ranz, I and five other children of Holocaust survivors formed The Generation After, an organization dedicated in part to introducing a class analysis of the roots of the Holocaust into the mainstream of American Jewish life. One of its Honorary Presidents was Dr. Otto Nathan. He was the executor of Albert Einstein’s literary estate as well as his close friend. One day, I asked him why Einstein turned down an offer to become President of Israel once its then-President, Chaim Weizmann, stepped down. I didn’t quite believe the official explanation, that he wasn’t equipped to handle the diplomatic amenities or presiding over ceremonies. I mean, he was a genius, so what’s the big deal?
Dr. Nathan said that while that was true, it was far from the whole truth. Einstein, he said, had deep misgivings about the direction Israel was taking under David Ben-Gurion. He objected to Israel siding with the West during the Cold War, wishing it had joined the Non-Aligned Movement. And he was also upset with the inequality Israel imposed on its Arab citizens from the very beginning. The Arabs were subjected to military rule; their movements restricted; they were deemed a security risk. Einstein did not want to be associated with any of that, so he politely said no to the Presidency.
After Israel imposed this military rule, it rolled out other laws discriminating against its Arab, indeed, against all of its Gentile inhabitants. Today, there are around fifty such laws; one of the most odious is the law, enshrined by the Jewish National Fund, barring Gentiles from owning land. Looking at these laws as one package led the Black Lives Matter movement to characterize not just the occupied West Bank but Israel as a whole as an apartheid state. Well, whatever label you use, these laws clearly undermine democracy and promote bigotry, so next to BDS Demand #2, place a check.
Demand #3 appears to be the “tricky one”, since, on first glance, it plays into fears that it mandates Israel allowing a flood of Palestinian refugees that would turn Israel’s Jewish majority into a minority. Not only is this highly unlikely, since Jews have not flooded Israel under the Jewish Law of Return, but the demand’s wording only deals with the principle of the Right of Return and does not concern itself with its actual implementation. More importantly, Israel owes recompense to its Arab citizens who were victimized by false promises of equality, and this should include repatriation of some of their displaced relatives from the Palestinian Diaspora. So, a check goes next to #3, and that is how, as a Democratic Zionist, I can support BDS.
Why is BDS especially important right now? Look at the current direction of Israel. In 2014, its government launched an unprovoked attack on the Gaza Strip. This resulted in the deaths of over 1800 Palestinian civilians, including 500 children. As a lifelong Zionist, this is not easy for me to say, but it needs to be said: this is the first time in Israel’s history that it committed mass murder.
Around this time, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked posed on her Facebook account a call for even more killings of Palestinians. She cited approvingly these words from her late mentor, a leader of the West Bank settlers and an advisor to Netanyahu: “The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war…What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy?…They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there…There is nothing more just, and nothing more efficient.” The day after she posted these words on Facebook, six Israeli Jewish teenagers lynched a Palestinian teenager, Muhammed Khudair.
Shaked is the current face of Israel. She will be the face of Israel in the future if the BDS movement does not succeed. I believe that the most effective way to help this movement is to do so as Democratic Zionists. You do not have to be Jewish to support Democratic Zionism. As American taxpayers, you should be appalled that billions of our tax dollars are being sent every year to Israel, whose government is saying and doing all these terrible things.
As a secular Jew, I pray that the BDS movement succeeds, because if it does not, then this most right-wing government in Israeli history, joined with this most right-wing government in American history, will plunge the entire Middle East into a regional apocalypse. BDS is Israel’s last best hope for becoming the kind of country that Albert Einstein would have wanted to be President of!