by Omar Barghouti, a leader of the international movement to boycott Israel
Open Letter to Rabbi Doug Kahn
Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council
It has recently come to my attention that pending the advice of a working group of which you were a member, the Jewish Community Federation has chosen to itself boycott groups advocating a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) program targeting Israel. As one of the founding members of the global BDS campaign, I cannot but note the irony of your use of boycott as a tool to suppress views that support the boycott against Israel. I can only conclude that you do approve of the efficacy and appropriateness of boycotts, as a non-violent form of activism and a catalyst for change, but condemn them when the change they set out to achieve is related to ending Israel”s occupation as well as its grave violations of international law and Palestinian rights.
For years, Palestinian civil society has been advocating the tool of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, as a means of challenging Israel”s impunity and redressing the wrongs done to the Palestinian people by the violent and oppressive Israeli policies and actions. Wouldn”t you agree, given you in-principle embrace of boycotts, that this effective, non-violent form of struggle is far superior, morally speaking, to the “tactics” of white phosphorous, Walls, siege, forced displacement and apartheid?
However, while we may agree on the methods, I think there we hold sharply conflicting views about who the targets of a boycott should be and what violations of human rights would necessitate such methods. The Jewish Community Federation has chosen to flex its boycotting muscle to intimidate and muzzle dissenters and to suppress free speech by cutting off funds to (and negate the acceptability of) progressive Jewish activists and intellectuals who dare to believe that the Jewish community in the US is not a monolithic herd, and who put their commitment to human rights and their moral consistency obligations ahead of any perceived “tribal” allegiances. Through its sweeping threats, the JCF is in fact attempting to stifle the richly diverse views of Jewish Americans that seek to challenge, via BDS-related tactics, the legitimacy of Israel”s occupation and its egregious infringements of international law and human rights.
Is there any reasonable argument that can justify your position in support of a boycott against a documentary about a brave young human rights activist called Rachel, who was crushed to death by a bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home? Isn”t it more appropriate, ethically speaking, to call for divestment from the company that manufactures this bulldozer knowing well its use in violations of international law? Isn”t the state that uses such bulldozers, among other means, on a regular basis to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes and impose other egregious forms of collective punishment against millions of Palestinian civilians a more worthy target for boycott?
Those such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, and many leading international cultural figures, academics, trade unions, NGOs and social movement actors who endorse the Palestinian civil society advocated BDS campaign believe that boycotts ought to be used not to suppress those who reveal the truth and stand up to injustice and oppression but, on the contrary, to end oppression and impunity. Boycotts ought to be used to bring about just peace, security and equal rights for all human beings irrespective of their identities.
Perhaps we can discuss the merits of our respective positions by engaging in a public debate, another hallmark of civil society. Though friends and colleagues in the Bay Area have searched long and hard, they have had such difficulty finding someone willing to debate whether boycotting Israel is justified or not. I turn to you because I see that you at least in principle agree on the appropriateness of boycott as a tactic. A debate, by definition, will allow both sides to be equally expressed without any a priori bias towards one position or the other. One possible title for this debate can be: BDS is counterproductive to the pursuit of just peace in the Middle East. Obviously, your side would defend the motion, while I would oppose it.
There is a room reserved at UC Berkeley”s Law School this Wednesday night, March 3rd at 6:30 If you agree, this will be a good chance to have a civil, mutually-respectful debate before the public. If you cannot make it, I hope that you can suggest a colleague of yours who can participate in such a debate to explain your Federation”s position.
If this is agreeable to you, colleagues in the Bay Area can get in touch with you or those you suggest to iron out the details.