In his acclaimed, Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, British writer Howard Jacobson named a phenomenon which has become familiar to all of us engaged against the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. It is the phenomenon of select Jews speaking out against Israel as “ASHamed Jews,” who seek to distance themselves from Israeli actions against Palestinians and to imagine through their heartfelt public displays that they are participating in the creation of a better, more peaceful, post-occupation world.
These progressive Jews, in the United States mostly aligned with Jewish Voice for Peace, openly lend themselves to the passage of campus motions to boycott Israel and to efforts in the liberal Protestant churches to enact divestment from companies supplying Israel. People like this have been ubiquitous in the news and in person in the current struggle over divestment at the 221st Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit.
Thus Rabbi Margaret Holub, who co-chairs the rabbinical council for Jewish Voice for Peace, writes in the Forward that she “will be joining a rainbow of allies within and outside the PC-USA at their General Assembly in Detroit this week to support their overture for selective divestment.” Rabbi Holub calls on Jews to see Presbyterian divestment as “a form of tochechah,” a rebuke (see Leviticus) from our neighbors in the American religious landscape, “calling us to task for a cruel policy that brings pain to their own brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community and to all who live under Israeli occupation.”
Thus Rabbi Alissa Wise, who is director of organizing for Jewish Voice for Peace, and who offered the Jewish prayer on Sunday June 15 to help kick off the Assembly, announced her satisfaction on June 17 with a victory in the Middle East Committee that voted strongly in favor of the divestment motion that narrowly passed in the full Assembly’s vote on Friday. Rabbi Wise was active in the failed effort pushing disinvestment at the Assembly two years ago, and is one of the signers of an open letter to the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches this year embracing divestment. The letter maintains — surely overstates — that such Jewish activists speak for a growing current of opinion among American Jews “to end our silence over Israel’s oppressive occupation of Palestine,” and to support nonviolent popular resistance against Israeli actions.
Thus Rae Abileah, a Jewish social change activist from San Francisco and the descendant of an Israeli, has sent pictures of Palestinian graffiti painted on the security wall in Israel by Palestinian youths from the Aida refugee camp to the assembly to help influence the vote for divestment.
Even before the assembly, such individuals were moving full throttle to press for divestment. Rabbi Brant Rosen, head of a Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Illinois, wrote in February strongly advocating divestment and took to task Jewish organizations that presumed to speak for the Jewish community and were, in his words, “intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they (sic) attempt to forge their (sic) ethical investment strategy in good faith.” This week, on June 16, Rosen was the keynote speaker at a dinner in Detroit of the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), where he told the guests that while he once believed in the liberal narrative of the Zionist state and thought some Israeli actions were mere “blemishes” on a “noble national project,” he had now the deepest of doubts about Israel, Zionism, and a Jewish state. He felt at home now only in the Palestinian solidarity movement.
A video of Rosen hawking divestment in Detroit was circulating on the internet throughout the week sponsored by Just Foreign Policy, whose policy director Robert Naiman highlighted how Jewish Voice for Peace was effectively “contesting representations of the Jewish community” at the assembly. Naiman was in Detroit to “help lift up the voices calling on Presbyterians to divest…” So too were videos that were made with numerous other Jews in Jewish Voice for Peace, including Mariah Ella Mason from Pennsylvania and Sandra Korn from North Carolina.
Now these spokespersons for disinvestment are hardly the exaggerated fictional figures that Howard Jacobson skewered in his novel, the kind who might be found singing “We are all Hezbollah” on a picket line snaking past the Israeli Embassy. Most of these good folks press persistently for nonviolent action and fail to go so far as to offer anything like an open apology for Israel’s basic existence — although it is true their unspoken agenda surely is the pie-in-the-sky one-state solution. But like Jacobson’s “ASHamed Jews,” these people parade their Jewishness as a badge of legitimacy to help delegitimize statements made by more established community spokesperson and to proffer the “it’s okay, not to worry” sign to Christians, signaling interfaith permission to criticize Jews and the Jewish state. Margaret Holub dresses it up as a sacred duty. They are enablers and certifiers, Jewish notaries offering affidavits, declarations, and statements that what the BDS movement seeks and does is consonant too with Jewish values.
“Every other Wednesday, except for festivals and High Holy-days,” Jacobson wrote, “an anti-Zionist group called ASHamed Jews meets in an upstairs room in the Groucho Club in Soho to dissociate itself from Israel, urge the boycotting of Israeli goods, and otherwise demonstrate a humanity in which they consider Jews who are not ASHamed to be deficient.” So too these militants from Jewish Voice for Peace, who by their deeds show life imitating art, act out the dynamics Jacobson identified, offering a brighter version of Jewish humanity to others, one opposed to occupation and even opposed to Jewish self-defense. No Motorola communications equipment and no Caterpillar tractors for you!
What is the gambit in pressing for boycott and divestment? What do such progressives truly seek? Jacobson wrote knowingly how, for some Jews, Israel is a figure of speech, a pretext for setting loose emotions that may originate somewhere else. I know of few liberal Zionists who don’t oppose continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, who do not fail to yearn strongly for the end of occupation. But the bulk of these progressive Jews recognize that peace can only be made by two national movements reaching toward an accommodation. They are critical of the Israeli government and many of its actions; they oppose settlements and house demolitions and land takeovers and harsh mistreatment at checkpoints. But they are critical too of the Palestinian movement and its actions against human rights, and they understand the new unity government, integrating Hamas, to be a sad Halloween tactic. Among such progressives, however, only a brazen few say that all in Israel/Palestine is completely Israel’s fault or offer keynotes stating that they feel comfortable and unashamed only in the company of the Palestinian solidarity movement.