Debating settlement boycotts at J Street conference (HA´ARETZ NEWS) By Natasha Mozgovaya / Blog 03/26/12)
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Left-wingers are accused often of being naive and mostly talking a
lot, because their aspirations are often incompatible with reality,
at least in the short term. Aaron Weinberg, a Brandeis student with
whom I met at last year´s J Street conference, is well aware of this
stereotype - and ready to confront it this year. "I can tell that I
did a lot this year," says Weinberg. "I started a J Street branch at
our campus at the beginning of the year, and through community
organizing, one-on-one meetings, the Brandeis delegation to the
conference is one of the biggest: 20 people. It shows there is a
great appetite for J Street views, and we are changing the dialogue
on campus; we are making it depolarized."
Weinberg says the Jewish community should embrace nuances, and that,
yes, it can still love the imperfect Israel, exactly as Weinberg
does. "I love Israel deeply, I am committed to the Zionist project -
I just don´t like the occupation of the Palestinian land", he says.
Weinberg goes on to add that he feels "incredibly at home" at the
conference, and - as uncomfortable as he felt last year over the
lobby´s decision to call for the Obama administration not to veto the
UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli settlements -
this year, he is proud. J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami clarified he
admires Peter Beinart, but rejects his calls to boycott settlements.
Beinart himself, who on Sunday night presented his book, "Crisis of
Zionism", explained that he called to boycott settlements because of
the need to challenge the threat of the one-state solution, also
saying that he doesn´t think donations to the West Bank settlements
should be easy. He even gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a
chance to absolve himself, saying he doesn´t believe the Israeli
prime-minister is a "hopeless case". "He just hasn´t had the epiphany
that (Former Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert had yet."
Olmert is due to speak at the J Street Gala on Monday night (some
unfriendly people have wondered what this says of his relations with
AIPAC). But his brother, Dr. Josef Olmert, who is currently teaching
at the University of South Carolina, was so angry at Beinart over
a "New York Times" op-ed that he offered to come to Washington to
debate against him at a forum. But he didn´t make it to the J Street
"Beinart’s article and his book clearly require a response, even if
it is doubtful whether free-speech , good – hearted liberals like him
are even interested in a debate, as they believe in a boycott of
hundreds of thousands of settlers", Joseph Olmert told Haaretz. "It´s
collective punishment, and I was under the impression that peace-
lovers hate collective punishments. Well, apparently only against
Palestinians," he said.
Josef Olmert wondered where a proper settlement boycott ends. "What
is the case with those who believe in the right of Jews to live in
their historic homeland, while they themselves still live inside the
Green Line borders?" he asked. "Are they not more dangerous than the
settlers themselves, for this is their political support which brings
pro-settler governments to power in Jerusalem? And what about those
who vote for these governments even if settlements are not
necessarily their main agenda? Do not they deserve to be boycotted by
virtue of their political blindness?"
"And last, but not least," Joseph Olmert continued, "What about
those, like me, who believe that Jews have a right to live in Judea
and Samaria - but also believe, as painfully as it is, that most of
these territories will have to be under Palestinian control, if and
when the latter will be ready to compromise on ‘’just’’ 95% of the
disputed lands? Should not we be boycotted for the sin of using
Biblical names, thus cultivating, though inadvertently, support for
the settlers? Boycott, Beinart should know, is something that you
know how it starts; you never know how it ends." He went on to say
that that Political Scientist and Activist Norman Finkelstein called
upon the organizers of the BDS campaign to "say the truth: that it is
their goal to destroy Israel, not just to boycott it."
Another question Joseph Olmert had for Beinart was regarding how
effective the boycott would really be. "Take the Arizona example,"
said Olmert. "Governor Jan Brewer was reelected in 2010 with a
landslide. Her voters were not impressed with the boycott."
(During my last visit to the West Bank, some business owners boasted
their sales skyrocketed since the calls to boycott their products).
Some J Street conference participants do support the idea of a
settlements boycott. Jacob Silverman, a student at UC San-Diego, is
still trying to figure out what he thinks about it. I meet him near
the J Street U merchandise , which included T-Shirts with "I [heart]
two states." He isn’t wearing one of those, but does have a black
yarmulke on his head - certainly not typical for this conference.
"It´s important to put pressure on the settlements enterprise," says
Silverman. "That´s also what the Palestinians at the conference said.
I do believe that economic pressure is a way to fight occupation. But
I am still trying to figure this out, and there is always room for
conversation and disagreements. That´s how we have healthy Judaism."
Silverman comes from a Conservative background and became more
involved in Judaism at college. He admits his political positions are
not necessarily typical for the Orthodox movement, but that his
religious and political views "developed quite independently," of one
another. However, Silverman sees no contradiction between the values
in Torah and his support for a Jewish state alongside Palestinian
"The peace prospect this year is compromised", he says. "But this is
the place where people have real conversations about Israel. It´s not
restricted, like in many others. And for me it´s very exciting."
Michael Biton, mayor of Yerucham, who told the audience at the
opening plenary Saturday night that he is proud to be a J Street´s
partner, told Haaretz he hesitated when he got an invitation to
attend the conference. "Peace is not terribly popular in Israel now,"
said Biton. "This organization was heavily delegitimized in Israel.
But one needs to come here and to see all these young people,
involved and highly motivated, that want to act for peace, - you
understand they were just looking for moderate home. If J Street
existed when (Former Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin was prime
minister, no one would dare to delegitimize it, and it would back the
peace process with serious grassroots support. Basically they say the
same as Netanyahu: a two state solution. The trick is how to get
Biton says the biggest danger for J Street is getting involved with
people that hold extreme views. "J Street is in a much better
position this year. It used to be presented as extreme, but it
becomes mainstream. That said, I don´t like the idea of boycott. This
lobby needs to be moderate. Those who do not agree that Israel needs
to be Jewish and Zionist shouldn´t be at the pro-Israeli
organization, period. As for the settlements - leave this issue to
the actual negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians".
Of course, there was this inevitable question of Israel as a wedge
issue at the Presidential elections of 2012, discussed at one of the
panels. Jim Gerstein, partner at the GBA Strategies firm, said only
about 15% of Jews might vote on the issue of Israel - although they
are "really vocal ones." As for support for Israel, he said, "for
candidates, the threshold is so low they have no difficulty passing
And finally for this second day of the conference, I personally was
curious how Stav Shafir, one of the leaders of the Israeli social
protests of 2011, felt about J Street´s reaction to her speech
dedicated to Israel´s domestic troubles. Are the U.S. Jews really
interested in hearing about the Bedouin villages and cottage cheese?
What sort of support did she come to ask for?
"First of all, we came to tell our story", she told me, after
speaking at three synagogues, several panels and before making her
way to TribeFest, Nevada, San Fransisco, and more. "Because it´s
rarely told here. Netanyahu comes here to tell about the successful
economy and blooming democracy in Israel. We want to get people out
of this box. It was hard for us to find time for this visit, we
rejected many invitations from abroad, because in Israel we are
spending 20 hours a day meeting people, getting to every possible
corner; we are obsessed with this idea that if we don´t take
advantage of this awakening, in several years it might be too late to
change the direction of this country. And here, there is a community
that is concerned about Israel too. And people here in the U.S. are
excited to see the young generation in Israel getting involved - and
at J Street, you see the young American Jews that are getting
involved. And you know what we hear from people we meet in the
U.S.? "We feel we have the same problems"." (© Copyright 2012
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