Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Put Allies at Odds

July 5, 2012

by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami

As a long-time advocate for peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am pained that frustration over failure to achieve a just and lasting peace has led allies in the struggle to end up at odds over tactics like boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

Two years ago, the organization I head, J Street, was honored with an invitation to speak at a breakfast hosted by a Presbyterian Church (USA) peacemaking group – a long-time ally in the struggle for Middle East peace. But we attended with heavy hearts.

A PCUSA committee had just offered an alarming and problematic Middle East study report referencing J Street as a source of inspiration. We explained then, and have reiterated ever since, that, in our view, the one-sided, extreme rhetoric that accompanies the Global BDS Movement makes a mutually agreeable solution more difficult to achieve, not less. Thankfully, at that time, the Church heard our arguments and rejected the divestment resolutions.

Now, two years later, PCUSA is poised again to consider divestment this week at its General Assembly. As an activist, as an ally, and as someone to whom the future of Israel and Palestine matters enormously, I’m hoping they will once again avoid this unproductive path.

As the Presbyterian Church knows, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been clear for decades: the establishment of two states, living side by side in peace and security; a mutually acceptable resolution of the refugee issue; and a shared Jerusalem. For years, the PCUSA has supported a two-state solution on this basis.

I would say to the Church’s leaders as they again consider joining forces with the BDS Movement, that the Movement’s rhetoric and tactics are not only a distraction, but a genuine threat to conflict resolution. Even the limited divestment approach under consideration by PCUSA falls under the rubric of larger BDS efforts to place blame entirely on one side of the conflict. Such an approach encourages not reconciliation, but polarization. Further, too many in and around the BDS movement refuse to acknowledge either the legitimacy of Israel or the right of the Jewish people as well as the Palestinian people to a state.

Pro-peace, pro-Israel advocacy has gained traction in the American Jewish community by embracing the mutuality inherent in the two-state solution. We reject a zero-sum approach, which says that to be pro-Israel means one must be anti-Palestinian – or vice-versa. We seek a win-win solution.

We want to see Israel thrive as a Jewish homeland and a democracy, and we want to see a Palestinian state established, because Palestinians deserve to live in dignity in their own state too.

Thus, the Jewish pro-peace, pro-Israel community calls for an end to settlement expansion, the promotion of human rights, securing Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy, and establishing a thriving Palestine. We call for bold American and international diplomatic initiatives, starting with a push to define mutually-agreed borders.

But turning to tactics like BDS deepens divisions and fails to promote reconciliation.

I understand that frustration is rising over diplomatic stagnation, and I know that advocates for peace are attracted to tactics like BDS that create the impression of action. But, to date, pursuit of these tactics has promoted little more than debate and division – and done nothing to facilitate movement toward reconciliation.

Advocates for peace and two states are fighting an uphill and increasingly urgent battle. Just as the opportunity to achieve a two-state peace grows narrower, the debate over BDS is sapping the resources of those working for peace by creating new and deep divisions among those who should be allies working together for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

If PCUSA disregards the voices of its Jewish allies in the quest for a two-state solution and votes to support divestment, it won’t bring a just peace any closer. It will merely lose the good will of many American Jews and further dissipate the energies we so desperately need to apply to the task at hand.

At base we share a common goal: To see the establishment of a two-state resolution of the conflict. Everything we do needs to be geared toward that goal. Several American Christian organizations have made the choice to continue the fight for two states by advocating for bold American leadership in achieving a two-state solution on Capitol Hill and embracing positive steps including economic development, programs that foster reconciliation, and other constructive work, for the shared benefit of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

I call on PCUSA to do likewise – to not move away from its natural allies, but to stick with us. Reject divestment, and embrace full-on pursuit of the diplomatic efforts necessary to create genuine and lasting peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.