Thoughts about the peace train - part two...

NOTE:  For the next week, I am going to post my thoughts, reflections, concerns as well as an alternative action to the current BDS strategy of boycotting, divesting and sanctioning all of Israel in pursuit of Palestinian justice Not only does the BDS shotgun approach denigrate the whole of Israeli society rather than focus upon the ugly actions within the Occupied Territories, I believe the movement's ambiguous goals can all too easily be manipulated to advance genuinely antisemitic objectives.  Further, as a Christian contemplative, I have been persuaded that a bold people-to-people strategy - along with prayer, creative economic incentives and real political pressure directed towards US legislators - introduces effective, albeit costly nonviolent strategies geared towards long-term change rather than symbolic actions that create the illusion of righteousness without significant results. Let me state at the outset, however, that I don't pretend to have a monopoly upon wisdom. I also recognize that people of good will are likely to disagree with my conclusions. I welcome your insights but ask that you share them in the spirit and tone of peace and respect.(This is part two of a six part series.)

Concerns about BDS
In 2009 a broad coalition of Palestinian Churches issued Kairos Palestine (http://www. This document invites people of faith to boycott, divest and work towards sanctions against Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands. It is a bold and faith-filled attempt to give shape and form to some of the political despair within the faith communities on the ground in Palestine. Concurrently it is a vibrant testimony to the deep hope that God’s will shall be done on earth as it is already being done in heaven – even in the occupied territories – and a lament. Since its release, Kairos Palestine has garnered support from the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church USA. My own colleagues in the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ will consider sponsoring a BDS resolution in the spirit of Kairos Palestine in June 2015.

As a matter of conscience, I support and respect those who are led by study, prayer, analysis and experience to participate in the Kairos Palestine BDS action. The anguish and suffering of the Palestinian people is agonizing and must be addressed justly. Further, the safety and security of ordinary Israelis must become normative, too; acts of terrorism – whether bombs, rockets or knives - must never be accepted as part of the price of doing business. The reality on the ground for everyone is excruciating and morally untenable.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that healing or wholeness for either Palestine or Israel will be advanced through BDS. Rather, my faith and politics suggest that a strategic and sustained engagement with both peoples – in concert with careful political agitation in the United States, creative experiments with a variety of NGOs and fervent prayer – is a more resourceful response to the current stalemate. My emerging “Yusuf Islam/Peace Train sensibilities” suggest that BDS is more a desperate act of anguish and frustration without clearly stated goals than a creative course of compassion. As Bradley Burston recently wrote in Haaretz (May 27, 2015): “What does BDS want from Israel?”

I'm not asking for much. And I am certainly not asking out of antagonism. I'm just asking for clear goals. And straight talk. I want to know if BDS wants to encourage two states - for example, by concentrating on supporting labeling of products from the West Bank and East Jerusalem – or if the goal is a one-state Palestine.

For me, the BDS  movement’s ambiguous and slippery strategy that blames all of Israeli society for the horrors and degradation of the Occupied Territories not only inhibits the work of cultural cooperation between these two peoples and their external partners, but also reinforces the political and social isolation in Israel and Palestine that is part of the current problem. Without a doubt, the continuing colonization of Palestine must be challenged. The expansion of Israeli settlements and the ever growing appropriation of Palestinian homes and land must be challenged. Full social, economic and political equality for Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel must become an essential part of the social contract in a democratic Israel. And the safety and dignity of every Palestinian person must become codified and honored by all wielding power throughout the region.

Simultaneously, Palestine and its allies must affirm Israel’s right to exist in safety and peace. This is a requisite not just for the emasculated Fatah contingent in the West Bank, but also for the belligerent partisans of Hamas in Gaza. Israeli security is an indispensable ingredient in this equation – and is too often dismissed or denigrated in the quest for authentic Palestinian sovereignty.

As a musician – and person of faith – I resonate with Paul Simon’s conviction that artists must never be treated as if they work for governments. When taken to task in the 1980s by the African National Congress for violating their cultural and economic embargo of the apartheid regime of South Africa, Simon replied: “I was invited by South African artists to join them. Do I need to ask the ANC for their permission? That’s the kind of government you want to be? People who check our lyrics and fuck the artists like all other types of governments have done in the past? No way!” Simon refused to be co-opted – and in time “Graceland” became the artistic and human face of the fight against apartheid for the world. (NOTE: at the time, the ANC responded to Simon’s artistic freedom by temporarily placing him on an assassination hit list!) I consider Simon to be right: creative people of conscience and compassion need constructive ways to collaborate with their artistic allies, not well-intentioned but ideological rigidity mediated by political segregationists of any brand.
Another reason I do not support BDS involves the complex context and history of this conflict. Despite surface level parallels, the state of affairs between Palestine and Israel is not equivalent to that of apartheid in South Africa.  Not that there aren’t forces already at work in both camps eager to foment increased racial hatred and oppression. But Jimmy Carter’s analysis notwithstanding, I do not see these conflicts as analogous. In Israel, the Palestinian Arab population – 1,658,000 or 20% – has political rights secured by citizenship. No racial laws exist that prohibit Palestinians from Israel’s beaches, places of employment or the political process. Increasingly, a vibrant Arab presence in the Knesset articulates the needs of a neglected minority. During the March 2015 elections, there was a 10% increase in Palestinian voter turnout and 13 delegates united as the Joint Arab List took office.

Further, there is the growing awareness within parts of the Israeli government that the whole nation has changed. President Reuven Rivilin's recent speech to the Herzliya Conference is a case in point: "The nation of Israel that we used to know no longer exists."

Israel is fast becoming a tribal state composed of four groups — secular Jews, religious Zionist Jews (also called national religious), ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews and Arabs, all of them fearful, hostile to one another and even to members of their own group. “Today, the first grade classes are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim,” Rivlin noted. He said the demographic processes that these numbers represent have “created a ‘new Israeli order"... in which there is no longer a clear majority, nor clear minority groups” and consisting of “four principal ‘tribes,’ essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.” (Haaretz, June 11, 2015.)

He then cut deeper into the reality of this moment in time:  a new social contract for a vastly divided Israel must be created. It must guarantee equality and equity for Jew and Arab, secular and religious and everyone in-between. There used to be a time, Rivilin, observed when "the Israeli Defense Forces served as a central tool for fashioning the Israeli character.

In the military, Israeli society would confront itself, would consolidate and shape itself
morally, socially and in many ways economically... now that  over half the population — most Arabs, most Haredi Jews and a growing number of secular Jews — does not serve in the military, this is no longer the case. Israelis will meet for the first time, if at all, only in the workplace…” The time has come for Israelis to abandon the accepted view of a majority and minorities, and move to a new concept of partnership between the various population sectors” resting on what he called “four pillars:

1. A sense of security for each sector, so that it is confident that joining the partnership “does not require giving up basic elements of their identity”
2. Shared responsibility for Israeli society and the state
3. Equity and equality
4. The creation of a shared Israeli character.
Additionally, despite an almost schizophrenic public persona when it comes to equality, peace-making with Palestine and advancing human rights throughout Israeli society, the new right-wing education ministry in the Netenyahu coalition, Naftali Bennett, reaffirmed a five year commitment to give Arab preschools priority funding. The Haaretz journalist,   , wrote: 
 Bennett’s choice to help Arab-Israeli children, even at the expense of Jewish children in the state-religious system, is truly praiseworthy. The support of the Union of Local Authorities for the plan – even though its implementation will come at the expense of governments in well-to-do locales – is also welcome. If we continue down this path, with the national interest trumping political and personal interests, we may be able to start fixing some of the country’s serious problems. ( .premium-1.660399?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook)

My point is simple: not all of Israeli society is to blame for the ugly and destructive impasse that
has squelched peace and a Palestinian homeland. Yes, there is a legacy of discrimination and tension within Israel when it comes to Arab Palestinian citizens. Sadly, there are unfair and degrading restrictions on some forms of travel for Palestinians within the state of Israel. The various check-points between Palestine and Israel are onerous and degrading. Regrettably there are places within the Occupied Territories that remain physically unsafe for Jews to travel into, too. In this young and emerging democracy, very real problems remain unresolved.

The broad condemnation of Israel by the  BDS movement, however, not only refuses to celebrate the very real democracy within Israel (the only authentic democracy in that region), but also seeks a one size fits all solution for Palestinian suffering. This univocal analysis both diminishes what is healthy and hopeful while forsaking incremental possibilities for peace.  A focused and strategic way of articulating the goals of supporting Palestinian civil and national rights might be stated like this:

The international boycott weapon should be aimed in a careful and focused way against the occupation and the settlements. Of course, some people will find it hard to clearly differentiate between the “territories” and “Israel,” when the institutional, economic and cultural connections between the occupying State of Israel and its colonialist enterprise in the post-1967 territories are unequivocal. But whether it’s a naïve question, or one that winks at annexation, the answer is that is certainly possible. The Israeli organizations and institutions and companies that operate in sovereign Israeli territory that is recognized under international law should not be subjected to a boycott, even if they have branches in the occupied territories, just as there should be no thought of boycotting foreign countries and institutions that have cooperation and economic or cultural ties with the settlements.

Like the institutions and businesses inside Israel, they should be continually called upon to join a boycott of the occupation and settlement project. An effort should be made to persuade them to cut off all ties with the international criminal enterprise that is enslaving the Palestinian people contrary to “the law of nations” and gnawing away at the existential infrastructure of the State of Israel, which arose and continues to exist thanks to that same “law of nations.” As for organizations, institutions and companies that operate from within the military-messianic colonialist enterprise – these should be subject to a comprehensive and uncompromising economic and cultural boycott. This must continue until the settlement enterprise disappears off the face of the earth – either by evacuation of all the settlements, or by territorial exchange and agreed-upon borders between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, or whether – and this is the most desirable solution – by having the settlers who wish to do so remain in and become citizens of the Palestinian state with the approval of the sovereign Palestinian entity. For after all, this small piece of land between the Jordan River and the sea is cherished by both peoples, by Palestinians and Jews both. 

Anything less is a case when the perfect has become the enemy of the good.

(part three of this essay will deepen my critique of the selective historical narrative the BDS movement uses to advance sympathy - and why such dishonesty cannot be endorsed.)


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