A litmus test for the American Jewish left

I hesitate to critique BDS, but there is still something in the campaign that troubles me — a sense that some on the left are inadvertently using boycott as a tool with which to sort through, measure, and reject other progressive voices.

By Penina Eilberg-Schwartz

Protesters hold signs calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) during a Washington, D.C., protest against Israel’s offensive on Gaza, August 2, 2014. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
Protesters hold signs calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) during a Washington, D.C., protest against Israel’s offensive on Gaza, August 2, 2014. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinians living in Israel are all too familiar with litmus tests, most of which boil down to the question of Israel’s “right to exist.”

In its politics, most brazenly suggested in the 2014 nation-state bill which suggested to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel demands that Palestinians in Israel both recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a movement and, ultimately, accept the violence and dispossession it led to.

While Palestinians face the greatest danger of failing the litmus test–which one can fail by the simple fact of being Palestinian–Jews in America also find themselves caught in these mechanisms of testing and counter-testing.

In the Bay Area, grantees of the San Francisco Jewish Federation may not hold public events with organizations that consider Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) a legitimate movement. This policy bars public panel events with speakers from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a vocal advocate for selective boycotting of companies profiting from the occupation.

If you agree with certain forms of boycott, you’ve failed the test. And if you want to be seen as legitimate by the institutional Jewish community in the Bay Area, this is a test you must pass.

However, there is also another side to this dynamic.

In some radical spaces, to only partially support the movement or to feel ambivalent about academic boycott is seen as a kind of betrayal. If you are not pro-BDS, you are subject to scorn.

Those with the loudest voices in these spaces seem to view anyone using other strategies to fight the occupation as dissembling traitors who co-opt progressive language while supporting the status quo.

This is a relevant critique for some kinds of work–certain dialogue projects have legitimately been called into question in this way–but we have to be careful about concluding that there’s only one correct way to participate in a struggle.

I hesitate to critique BDS. In mainstream Jewish spaces, especially where the movement has been so broadly demonized, I feel protective of BDS’ legitimacy and voice.

But there’s still something in the campaign that troubles me, a sense that some on the left are inadvertently using BDS as a tool with which to sort through, measure, and reject other progressive voices.

BDS isn’t trying to change minds, nor should it. It’s trying to mobilize people who already believe that the occupation must be stopped and offer them a collective action that could force Israel’s hand.

I think we need this movement desperately. But just as the civil rights movement needed (and still needs) both Black Power and civil disobedience, I think it’s true that we need other things alongside BDS, namely, strategic individuals and organizations trying to change minds.

We should ask ourselves: What does it mean, exactly, that the tests we create on the left use the same determining factors as the litmus tests of the right? If we privilege the opposite answers, but use the same questions?

Locke wrote about an implicit agreement we are asked to make with the countries in which we live. Along the same lines, you could argue that every community must have litmus tests, that they are an essential tool for creating boundaries without which communities would not exist.

What marks the difference, of course, is who has the guns. If the litmus tests that are most dangerous are the ones backed by the most force, we might decide to forgive the litmus tests of the left.

We hope that the movements for freedom we are building now will define the realities of the future. But if the only difference between the two kinds of tests is the mechanism of power that lies behind them, the only reason the litmus tests of the left aren’t dangerous yet is because we don’t have power yet.

But we want that to change, and when it does, we don’t want to have built a reality based on tests, or one that looks anything like the one we were trying to fight.

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a writer and activist based out of the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Reform Judaism, The Rumpus, This Recording, Neutrons Protons, and sparkle + blink. She is currently working on a book of literary non-fiction about the life of Combatants For Peace co-founder Sulaiman Khatib.

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