Sunday, March 6, 2011

Forgive them, for they know not what they do? Amherst Church Dips Its Toes Into the Chilling Waters of BDS

(or: The Hummus War Hits Hampshire County)

In my last post, I referred to Jon Haber’s likening of the anti-Israel “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement to a vampire because, no matter how many times it was defeated and apparently lifeless, it rose again to wreak more havoc. However, he also used the analogy earlier and in another sense:
Legend (or at least Bram Stoker) posits that a vampire can only enter someone's home if he or she is invited across the threshold. There could be no metaphor more apt for the divest-from-Israel campaigns that have proliferated among schools, unions, cities and churches in the US and Europe over the last four years.
Either small, unrepresentative groups of activists invite BDS into their organization, or outside activists join only in order to infiltrate it. The key to the strategy, as he and others have pointed out, is the “halo effect,” which allows puny groups of extremists to “punch above their political weight.” The strident clamors of a fringe group, which would otherwise go unnoticed, acquire gravitas and urgency when issued under the auspices of a respected organization. By the time the majority of the membership wakes up and sees the carnage, it is too late. The organization is left wounded and debilitated, and the vampire moves on to its next victim.

It appears that we are witnessing this here in Amherst.

Like many religious institutions, Grace Episcopal Church seeks to implement its spiritual and moral values in the world. It helps the poor in our area (most recently, through extraordinarily generous—and insufficiently publicized—support for the new homeless shelter). it provides assistance in Haiti and Liberia and other areas of the world threatened by poverty, strife, and natural disaster. It also struggles to find the proper response to the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict. Two years ago, the admirable clergy and concerned members of the congregation convened a series of community educational workshops and dialogue sessions on interfaith relations and the Middle East, in hopes of finding better ways for all of us to talk honestly yet respectfully about what were referred to as “difficult” subjects. I helped to organize and took part in the events. As chance would have it, winter 2008-9 saw the outbreak of full-scale warfare between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, which made our task considerably more difficult but at the same time brought home its urgency.(12, 3)

The situation is further complicated because (as elsewhere) the various committees and parish organizations do not necessarily speak for the church as a whole. Thus, for example, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF)—most of whose members, incidentally, stayed away from our dialogue sessions—has been very active in support of the Palestinian cause (as is of course its right). Notably, it has strong ties to Sabeel, which it describes as “a Palestinian Christian liberation theology organization” in Jerusalem. EPF members see this as a nonviolent means of supporting their brethren in the Anglican Communion, by “working to bring peace and justice to the Holy Land.”  For most outside observers, and Jewish groups, in particular, however, it is supporting an organization that, clothing its views in ambiguous or disingenous formal statements, in practice seeks to delegitimize Israel, coquettishly flirts with justifying terrorist violence, and in so doing, moreover and most disturbingly, draws upon the most reprehensible anti-Judaic and antisemitic stereotypes in the Christian tradition. Unsurprisingly Sabeel is a strong supporter of BDS.  (1, 2)

I was therefore dismayed—but not at all surprised—to see the following announcement from Grace Episcopal Church.

In the case of American Jews for a Just Peace (rule of thumb: the bigger-sounding the name, the smaller the membership), we are dealing with a group that is beyond marginal: a fragment that fell off the end of the fringe. They’re not even remotely representative of the American Jewish left, which is both robust and diverse.

One need but check out AJJP’s website. In fact, one wonders why EPF did not. Or—more disturbing possibility—maybe it did, and found nothing amiss. Nihil obstat.

As in the case of Sabeel, whose efforts AJJP supports, the affirmations of the desire for interfaith work and a “just” peace (another tip-off; does anyone advocate an “unjust” peace?), and language about “right of return” and rights for “all” in “historic Palestine” sound innocuous enough to the uninformed, but are in fact code words that anyone with even a passing familiarity with the political landscape can decipher in an instant.

This past fall, AJJP  promoted, second on its web page, right after “health and human rights,” the (rather pretentiously named) “International Israeli Apartheid Short film contest.” (1, 2) I guess you won’t be seeing Natalie Portman there, and not only because that shiny new Oscar means she’ll be busier than ever. (1, 2) In case you still don’t get AJJP’s point, it arrogantly rewrites the liturgies for the holiest season of the Jewish calendar to include a plea for forgiveness for “apartheid,” and “for conspiring to erase a people from history and eject it from the land, for the knowing and intentional dispossession of three quarters of a million native Palestinians.” (I’m sorry, that’s just really bad history: whatever one thinks of those tragic and complicated circumstances, no one “conspired” to do any such thing.) The verbose and clumsily worded prayer goes so far as to apologize for atrocities that never took place, such as “Jenin.” Even Palestinian sources now admit that their death toll in the fighting there in 2002 was barely 50 (the majority of them combatants), and not the “massacre” of 500 or even 3000 civilians that initial reports so wildly and confidently claimed and continue to be so widely disseminated. Better safe than sorry, though. Or rather: better sorry than accurate (it just feels so much better).

Not surprisingly, then, AJJP calls for cessation of US aid to Israel and pledges to “Recognize the importance of boycott, divestment and sanctions work and support the right of our members to engage in that work.” Let’s be clear: That’s an endorsement of a blanket boycott of everything Israeli. Let’s be equally clear: That puts it beyond the pale.

Incidentally, that's one reason that AJJP can speak of interfaith work: Most Jewish groups have shunned it, so it is reduced to trotting out its hobbyhorse at unsuspecting church gatherings.

What the EPF, living in its spiritual-activist bubble, evidently does not understand is that BDS is a red line:  the dividing line between those of a wide variety of political views whose aim is reconciliation between two peoples and two states living side by side in peace and those whose aim is to demonize and destroy the one existing state on the contested territory. J Street, the (in some quarters still controversial) organization that claims to speak for a reinvigorated Jewish center-left that is both "pro-Israel and pro-peace," unreservedly condemns BDS. Even Meretz USA, an advocacy group for “Israeli Civil Rights and Peace” with ties to Israel's classical hard socialist tradition (and about as far left as you can get without disappearing off the radar screen), which recently and controversially accepted the principle of boycotting products from Israeli settlements, nonetheless firmly and unambiguously condemns boycotts of Israel, proper. The American Task Force on Palestine, the leading Palestinian advocacy group in the United States, likewise rejects BDS. Senior Research Fellow Hussein Ibish has dismissed the one-state solution as an illusion. Writing with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic (who has served in the Israel Defense Forces), he recently affirmed that it was both wrong and unproductive to seek the delegitimization of Israel, a United Nations member state. And Senior Fellow and Advocacy Director Ghait al-Omari,a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and participant in peace negotiations with Israel, says, "You can be a pro-Palestine advocate without being anti-Israel."

That all these solidly "progressive" groups are against BDS should indicate just how extremist and marginal its advocates are. As Stalin (another man of impeccable leftist credentials) liked to say: Clear, one would think.

It says something about the psychology of AJJP (and the relation between the size of its membership and that of its ego) that its pride was hurt when it failed to make the Anti-Defamation League’s list of top ten anti-Israel groups, which, by the way, includes both Sabeel and Students for Justice in Palestine. (I've seen the actual letter of complaint, co-signed by the Grace Church guest speaker; a real piece of work.)

Ironically, just a few days before the Amherst event, South African human rights activist and Judge Richard Goldstone, who has been harshly critical of Israel’s military policies in Gaza during "Operation Cast Lead" (which is why the BDS people love him so much), declared that Israel was not an apartheid state and suffered from being judged by a double standard. He rejected the idea of sanctions. (1, 2) Ironic, too, that soon afterward, the great Italian literary theorist and novelist Umberto Eco, visiting the Jerusalem Book Fair, called cultural boycotts of Israel “absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist.” Whoops.

Sadly, the embrace of a loopy and meretricious group such as AJJP is just the sort of thing that one has come to expect of the mainline Protestant churches, where, it sometimes seems, the only remaining orthodoxy is political correctness. Grace Church is, after all, a place where activist parishioners sought to remove passages from the Hebrew Bible from the  lectionary (schedule of scriptural readings) on the grounds that they are allegedly  too “violent” and might provoke hostility against Arabs. You know: for example, that nasty story about Pharaoh and Egyptian slavery and Plagues and drowned charioteers. (Oddly, African-American churches and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. have seen the Exodus story as a source of inspiration rather than racism.) The clergy quite properly rebuffed such demands. Interestingly, anti-Judaic passages in the Gospels provoke no such handwringing among the activists. And not just the more subtle stuff. No, not even the congregational responsive cry of “Crucify him!” at Eastertide. Perhaps, though, one should not judge too harshly: after all, the Pope’s book on that subject had not yet appeared.

And so, when I saw the announcement of the AJJP event, I figured it was just more of the same: regrettable but typical.

But wait! as they say on the late-night infomercials: there’s more.

It wasn’t until the day of the event that I saw that the situation was still worse. The following item, sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, appeared in the Hampshire College daily announcements:

So, the great hummus war had hit Hampshire County. That's right: hummus.

The context in brief: The BDS movement, having failed to secure divestment among universities and major corporations, has now refocused its efforts on smaller entities and actions, such as product boycotts— from couscous to cosmetics (1, 2, 3, 4).  Unable to force the sell-off of stocks that support Israel, it seeks to force "de-shelving" of stocks of Israeli products in stores (video here).  It’s a YouTube revolution, which is to say: one consisting of empty actions without either concept or consequences. In any case, those efforts usually backfire. (1, 2)

BDS therefore now targets both big retailers and small, guileless local sellers, such as co-operatives. It finally won (sort of) at a co-op in Olympia, Washington, though only by manipulation and at a considerable price. It now seems to be trying the same thing in the Amherst-Northampton area, presumably seeking a pendant to the faux-divestment episode here at Hampshire back in 2009.

Yes, the hummus boycott. In one case, BDS targets Sabra, an American firm, because one of the many charitable activities of its Israeli corporate parent involves donations for the soldiers of the Golani Brigade, one of the major infantry units of the Israel Defense Forces. It’s the equivalent of targeting an American food company for sending “care packages” to the troops of the 101st Airborne or Tenth Mountain Division. The sin of Tribe hummus's parent company is similar symbolic support for troops, and in addition, for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), one of the most venerable israeli institutions, involved in the purchase of land and management of natural resources.  To be sure, there are some genuine controversies involving the JNF, such as its  involvement in the (to most outside observers) senseless repeated demolition of a legally "unrecognized" Bedouin village. (1, 2) However, BDS activists all too gladly seize upon and exploit such unfortunate controversies for their own purposes. Their main animus derives quite simply from the organization's historic role in building "the foundations of a Jewish state" in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine, and then developing the land and infrastructure after independence.

AJJP and its allies have even tried to browbeat venerable leftwing folk singer and activist Pete Seeger into self-criticism and repudiation of his recent cooperation with the Arava Institute—the leading Middle Eastern environmental studies program, which brings together Arab and Israeli students and experts—simply because it has ties to the JNF. It was like a moment from some Stalinist show trial—which, come to think of it, should have been quite familiar to him. It's now become yet another case of "he said-she said." The BDS forces were quick to announce that they had won Seeger to their cause, and he was only slightly less quick (after all, he is 91) to say that they hadn't gotten it quite right.  And, as always, the controversy over BDS itself—rather than the putative issue behind it—became the main story.  (As Pete used to sing, "When will they ever learn?")

None of the controversies over the JNF seemed to bother the Egyptians, Jordanians, Turks, South Africans, and Nigerians who recently participated in one of its events at the United Nations Forum on Forests. For most of the world, as for most Israelis, the JNF is a respected NGO registered with the UN and a pioneer in sustainability and environmental efforts such as reforestation. The organization should be able to face up to legitimate criticism—even serious radical criticism—but frankly, making it out to be the latter-day incarnation of the Reichskommissariat für die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums (1, 2), as BDS is wont to do, serves no one, and certainly not the cause of intelligent and productive debate.

The activists, I hasten to add, have not forgotten the universities: it's just that the target of BDS rage has shifted from the board room to the lunch room.  There, too, however, the assault against the horrendous hummus—for remember that's what this is all about—has met with multiple rebuffs:  at Princeton (1, 2) and De Paul Universities, for example. As Thane Rosenbaum observes,"You know the delegitimization campaign targeting Israel has reached new heights of absurdity when the rallying cry against the Jewish state is now being waged with the help of the chickpea."

* * *

It's hard to imagine any political action more absurd than the hummus boycott—except perhaps the conviction among church activists that this is a cause worthy of the energy and moral stature of their institution.

The Hampshire and Facebook announcements were interesting for two reasons:

First, they showed that the EPF concealed the true nature of the event that it was holding: a promotion of boycotts against Israel, no more, no less. That’s what was behind the innocent-sounding phrase, “a long-time activist. . . will talk about her work.” And moreover, it was to be not an abstract discussion, but a training session:  "initiating planning for how to carry out the boycott in our area."

Second, they showed that the EPF neglected to identify the sponsors.  The Grace Church announcement referred to the “Middle East Peace Coalition” (bad enough, as it is associated with Sabeel and other unsavory groups) but failed to mention “Philadelphia BDS” and the “Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine.” Students for Justice in Palestine, who both promoted and enthusiastically attended the Grace Church event, overlap with the “Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine” (whose founders are their mentors). These are—need we remind anyone—the very groups that caused chaos and outrage when they disrupted the talk by an Israeli speaker at Hampshire College earlier in the month.

In a sense, this is not really even about Grace Church, which is merely symptomatic of a much more widespread problem.

I have gone into such detail here in order to illustrate a simple but fundamental point:

It is easy to see an announcement for an event about a "Movement for Peace and Justice in Israel/Palestine" sponsored by a "Peace Fellowship" and a "Peace Coalition" and then to decide to attend.  Who could be against peace and justice? Once there, it is easy to wax indignant when told of policies that amount to "apartheid" and ethnic cleansing, dispossession and massacre. Who would not be be outraged? It is so simple when everything is presented as black-and-white.

It is far more difficult to take the time and effort to look behind the rhetoric and inform oneself of the full range of facts and the complexities of a situation characterized by shades of gray.

The churches face a difficult task: they are devoted to the cure of souls, ministering to the poor and afflicted, and making people whole in a fallen world. They generally strive to be neutral in political conflicts, and to stake out a general moral stance rather than taking sides in a partisan manner. However, an abstract moral fervor, lacking a foundation of historical and political understanding, is a rather shaky edifice on which to build a policy.

I feel most sorry for the goodhearted parishioners of Grace Church who innocently attended a noble-sounding event, not realizing that, when they were being asked to boycott Israeli products, they were being sold a bill of goods.

Let’s recap:

An organization associated with the church is caught officially and disingenuously promoting BDS.

 Forgive them, for they know not what they do?
The activists know exactly what they are doing.

The question is: what does the church think it is doing?

• Does the EPF, through single-minded pursuit of its own goals, really want to jeopardize not just the prospects for interfaith dialogue—which it has hereby greatly damaged—but also the reputation of the church itself?

• Does Grace Church really want to be associated with groups that have brought hatred and intimidation to one of the town’s three institutions of higher learning?

• Does Grace Church really want to be held responsible for targeting local businesses with boycotts?

Grace Church has now allowed the BDS vampire into its precincts. We do not know whether that was by accident or design.

All we do know is that it was a very grave mistake.


Isidora said...

Thank you for such a well-written and informative analysis!

able seaman said...

"All we do know is that it was a very grave mistake."

But with so much at stake, it must pierce your your heart.

Great article. Happened here in Vancouver too, when a CATHEDRAL allowed itself to be used by slimy terrorist supporter George Galloway.

Check out the mindless pally vamps,here with their strident SLANDEROUS 'protest':

An eye opener said...

BDS was never about "changing" anything. It was and is all about besmirch and vilify Israel as supposedly the bad guy. It is why it has adopted the vile unfair terminology, (including that apartheid slur initiated in Oct.1961 by pro Nazi Arab A. Shukairy), portraying racist Arab Islamic genocidal warriors (using its own population as human shields) as the "victim" and pluralistic Democratic multi colour Israel as negative.