Gaza comes to the Berkshires, August 2015

I just completed two events in Western Mass, one at Café Palestina in Great Barrington and another at a private home in Montague. In total almost 50 people, ranging from Jewish Palestine solidarity activists to a Buddhist nun to a college student just back from the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, heard my powerpoint presentation on my March trip to Gaza, Eyewitness Report: From Disaster to Resilience. The audiences were receptive, engaged, curious, and sometimes emotionally stunned at the level of humanitarian catastrophe and trauma and the profound resilience of many of the war survivors. People wanted to know what they could do and we reviewed staying educated, monitoring the mainstream media, contacting social media, radio, TV, and written media through calls and letters to call attention to both inaccuracies and the frequent lack of context in which stories are presented.

We discussed the boycott, divestment, sanction movement and how to counter the accusation that BDS is anti-Semitic. I stressed that the strategy of BDS overtly opposes all racism including anti-Semitism, and is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, not of Jews as Jews. I talked about the importance of framing, of keeping Jews as a people sharing a religion, culture, history, etc., separate from Zionism, a national movement (with a variety of philosophies), from Israel the country. We talked about the criticism that BDS delegitimizes Israel and will change the “Jewish character of the state.” I noted that countries do not have some God- (or otherwise)-given legitimacy, Ecuador or Germany or Japan do not have legitimacy a priori. Countries exist for a complex combination of reasons related to wars and treaties and aspiration and resources, etc. Thus I would say that it is a fact that Israel exists as a country, but the real question is what kind of country will it be. The policies of occupation and repeated attacks on Gaza and racist laws towards Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are the issues that really “delegitimize” Israel and destroy its reputation as a country. So when people worry that Israel will have to change, the answer is yes, of course, that is the point, that is what all of this political organizing is about.

The eternal “Jewish character” of state is also a troubling fantasy. Maintaining a Jewish majority in ’48 Israel (ie within the Green Line) is magical thinking due to demographic realities, unless Jewish Israelis are willing to transfer or otherwise remove their Christian and Muslim citizen-neighbors. Also, the current reality is that the Israeli government already controls Israel ’48 and the occupied territories, from the River to the Sea, so at this point the split is really close to 50:50 and the Jewish leadership will soon be holding power over a non-Jewish majority, not exactly the pinnacle of democracy.

It is also unclear to me what “the Jewish character” actually means. Israeli foreign policy, citizenship laws, mass incarceration of Palestinian men, destroying olive trees, price tag attacks by right wing settlers, etc., etc., does not seem particularly Jewish to me. So, it is important to tease apart the language of discourse and to be honest about the full complicated painful picture.

We also had a vigorous conversation about the long term consequences of post Nazi Holocaust Jewish cultural PTSD and feelings of permanent victimization, the impact of colonialism in the Middle East, factionalism and tribalism in the Arab world, and US support for reactionary regimes. One man commented that this was the best combination of rational intelligence and passion that he had ever heard.