A Bad Trick

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2015

You have all seen it before. The magician, dressed in a sharp tuxedo, reaches his hand into the black top hat. The one that he just showed us had nothing in it. He pulls his hand out, and what does he have in it? A cute, fluffy bunny with a pink nose. And we ooh and aaah. Now, we know consciously that the bunny does not really live in the hat. There is no bunny bed nor a bunny refrigerator stocked with bright orange carrots. But we still get drawn into the magic trick. You see, during the trick, the magician used one of his most powerful tools, deception, to make us believe that the hat always contained the rabbit. Deception is one of the keys to magic.

The movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel is performing such a trick. Not a positive one, though. It is using interpretation and deception to gain adherents and support. Though it claims to be simply about human rights, it is engaged in a slight of hand trick to conceal its true motives: the end of Israel as a Jewish state. It claims to be about one thing but is really about another.

The movement describes itself as global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. According to their website, BDS is a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice. Numerous musicians have participated in boycotting Israel, including Roger Waters and Annie Lennox. Activities in America have included academic boycotts of Israel and demonstrations against Israel on college campuses around the country.

On one level, the BDS has not accomplished much on college campuses. The resolutions it has presented to school government bodies have often failed. It has had little influence on how particular colleges invest their funds. On the other hand, the movement has been successful in pulling in people concerning this issue and may be having an influence on future community leaders with its efforts to delegitimize and condemn the State of Israel.

The movement that is appearing on college campuses compares Israel to South Africa and connects Zionism to the doctrine of ultra-right Afrikaners who helped sustain Apartheid. It speaks in terms of human rights principles and views itself in the legacy of anti-Apartheid boycotts from decades ago.

However, as Cary Nelson points out, the leaders of the movement want the Palestinians to control all of the land in the area. Now, some participants in the movement may think that the references made by these leaders to “Palestinian land” are only to the West Bank, and this may make them feel better about the movement. But this is not the goal. Some recent pro-BDS books, written by such leaders as Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, do state that the goal is the dissolution of the Jewish state.

The crux of the issue revolves around the movement’s call for a Right of Return for Palestinians, by which Palestinians outside of Israel would be able to come back to prior land holdings. The problem with this idea is that there are clearly more Arab Palestinians than Israeli Jews. In practice, this would mean the end of the Jewish state. It is a demographic poison pill. Nelson, in his critique of the political philosophy of Judith Butler, points out that, although Butler and other spokespeople for the movement have unequivocally supported this Right of Return, they argue that there is no official position and people who sign onto petitions or support the movement in other ways can adopt their own positions.

This amounts to a bait and switch technique, as people are pulled in by a call for justice, but end up taking part in a movement whose advocacy pushes a more radical agenda. One that would stop Israel from being a Jewish state.

But things get worse. Nelson mentions that Butler says that the movement looks to “use established means to achieve its goals.” However, she never states what these legal mechanisms are, and we can be left wondering what legal mechanisms can be used for dissolving a state. Furthermore, talking about “established legal means” may resonate with some US audiences, but there is no real route here. Israelis are not going to simply give up their country. Butler also assumes that the process of change would not involve violence, but how do we know that? Nelson makes the point that what Butler suggests is so impractical that the movement does not really offer hope for Palestinians.

The other part of the bait and switch is that the current movement packages itself as something kind of new, that it is only ten years old. But Paul Berman suggests that there have been previous boycotts against Israel going all the way back to Zionist settlements. He explains that there were three previous phases of the argument for boycotting Israel before the current one, including one that basically took a supernatural approach saying that Jews were an evil threat to the world. Organizers of the current boycott try to differentiate themselves from past boycotters, whose motivations were so clearly ugly, by saying their boycott is only partial. However, they do not agree on what is and what is not being boycotted. Are they boycotting only products made outside of 1967 borders? Are they boycotting institutions, but not individuals? The lack of clarity is telling.

We often hear about what is happening on college campuses, but the bigger threat and impact is on an international level. European governments are using diplomatic pressure to enforce boycotts against Israeli companies. We see this occurring in Sweden, Denmark, France, and even the U.K. Israel is being treated differently than other countries in an effort to stigmatize and isolate Israel.

There are other troubling elements of the movement. Cary Nelson explains that BDS tries to package itself as being connected to other progressive causes. Its leaders suggest that a person cannot be anti-racist unless he or she is anti-Zionist. This claim makes little sense though in light of clearly progressive elements of Israeli society, including its free press and support of women’s rights.

Other moral problems can be seen in the ways that movement conducts its advocacy. Advocates argue that their rights are being violated or suppressed when someone basically disagrees with them. Also, the movement refuses to mention certain topics no matter what: Palestinian violence, legitimacy to the granting of a state to Jews, the fate of Jews in an Arab dominated state, or the role of anti-Semitism in society.

Now, the question is often asked if the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. Not everyone in the movement is anti-Semitic; that is just not factually true. However, when you start to compare statements made in the movement to classic anti-Semitism, questions can be raised. Mitchell Cohen suggests that if a few phrases in statements of classical anti-Semitism are altered, you get motifs of anti-Zionism popular in the left and parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds. For example, people have made the insinuation that Jews cannot fit properly into a society, that they are foreign and kind of sinister. Now, it is insinuated that Zionists are improper implants in the Middle East and that Western imperialism created the Zionist state. It has been said that Jews always claim that they are victims, but they really have great power that they use behind the scenes. Now, it is said that the “Zionists” complain that they are victims, but they really possess great power, particularly financially, that they use manipulatively. All one has to do is look at “Zionist” influence and control of Washington D.C.

So, we have a movement that essentially does not accurately present what it is about, and can be considered anti-Semitic from different angles. Like a magician does, the movement uses deception to help accomplish it’s goals.

But, it is possible at times to see through deception. It is possible to ruin a magic trick. All you have to do is throw off the magician. Charlatans are sometimes exposed. And their tricks are revealed.

Samuel M. Edelman and Carol F.S. Edelman (no relation) suggest a couple of strategies that can be used against BDS efforts. The first is to demonstrate how much the statements of the movement resemble propaganda, full of half-truths, fallacies of argument, and appeals directly to emotion. This strategy can help generate a negative response to BDS activities. The second is to focus on more positive, though realistic, messages about Israel. We need to be intentional in thinking about with what we want to leave our audiences when discussing Israel.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin suggests two ways to counter what seems an unwillingness of university administrators in keep their faculty supporting BDS in check. The first is to exert public pressure by publishing and circulating who these academics are and what BDS and other anti-Semitic activities are occurring. Eventually, enough outrage will motivate university administrators to act. The second way is through legal pressure. When faculty, students, or administrators break state or federal law through their actions or statements, they may be countered by legal action, or at least threat of legal action. There are university policies and state and federal law that could be used to counter an anti-Semitic boycott of Israel, such as university policies against political indoctrination and laws that prohibit public funds from being used for purposes outside the educational mission of a university.

For further discussion on local efforts to combat this problem, please do not hesitate to speak with Mark Finkelstein of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

In the years ahead, we are going to have to continue to confront this threat, along with others, to Israel, our homeland. May we have the strength to continue to expose the trick the BDS movement attempts to perform again and again. It claims to simply represent an effort to improve the living conditions of Palestinians, while actually being a movement, at times laced with anti-Semitism, to end Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

One question we have not addressed deeply enough tonight is: why do ordinary students and other people join this movement, besides their exposure to the bait and switch technique performed by the movement? How is it connected to how Israel and Jews in general and portrayed by others? This question will be our topic for tomorrow morning.

Speaker: Rabbi Edelman-Blank

Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank has been the rabbi of Tifereth Israel Synagogue since 2009. He received his Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Previously, Rabbi Edelman-Blank graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. His eclectic experience includes interning at Burbank Temple Emanu El in Burbank, California, directing youth programs at Congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assisting with research in the field of psychology at Boston University, serving in AmeriCorps and an array of community service. His passions lie in community development and making Torah meaningful in our daily lives.