On Saturday night I attended a performance by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I see a lot of modern dance and can honestly say the Batsheva dancers do things I have never seen before: gravity-defying back bends, lightning-fast transitions from squats to leaps, astounding feats of balance. One dancer somehow managed to locomote across the stage using only her butt cheeks (trust me).
What I didn’t see was anything overtly political or even narrative, unless you count the upstage wall from which the dancers leapt into space at the performance’s close. Israelis, wall. It has to be a message, right?
For the movement that wants to boycott all things Israeli, it really doesn’t matter what an Israeli cultural institution says or does. At last Wednesday’s performance, around 50 members of the BDS movement picketed outside BAM. They carried signs reading “Don’t dance with apartheid” and “Batsheva, out of step with justice.” Their protest was part of a campaign to brand Israel as a pariah state.
According to the most radical elements in the BDS movement, nothing Israeli is safe: not its academics lecturing abroad, not its products on grocery shelves, and not a troupe of dancers who, according to The New York Times, have inspired imitators “across the globe.”
Ironically, almost any society’s arts community probably represents its most liberal members, and I’m willing to bet Batsheva’s most ardent audience at home believes the conflict is preventing Israel from reaching its potential as a Jewish democracy. Such nuances are lost on the BDS movement. For them, Israeli artists may be the most troubling export of all, in that they demonstrate that Israelis are enjoying a rich and defiant cultural life despite the violence and worldwide derision.
The most doctrinaire BDSers repel me because they refuse to support a two-state solution. Instead they support the return of Palestinians to “all lands” claimed by Israel since 1948. “Moderates” in the movement — like the Princeton University professors who wrote a petition asking that the university divest from companies doing business in lands occupied by Israel.– talk of peace and security but invariably put all the blame and responsibility on Israel.
The tendency to single out Israel is also suspicious. The list of countries with bitter ethnic conflicts and troubling human rights records — starting with the big ones like China, Russia, and, I don’t know, every Muslim country — is long and getting longer, and you seldom see boycotts aimed at any of them.
BDS has its attractions, however, even to some Jews on the Left. Supporters of a two-state solution are frustrated with Israeli hard-liners, and even some mainstream Jewish organizations, normally loath to criticize Israel, have signaled that plans to build Jewish homes in largely Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem are making a tense situation worse. The logic of economic and cultural sanctions is seductive: Perhaps a little external pressure on Israel, via the products and performers it sends abroad, could cause its leaders to soften, or its voters to replace them with more accommodating politicians.
The BDS debate has thus divided Princeton students and campus groups. The Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton sent an email urging pro-Israel students and faculty to “take the best, positive strategic approach to defeat this action.” In response, 36 Jewish students signed their own open letter to CJL and Hillel International, objecting that CJL assumed Jewish students were of one mind on the issue.
J Street U Princeton, meanwhile, reiterated that it opposes the BDS movement, but urged CJL to condemn “Israeli policies that perpetuate conflict and injustice” with the same force that it denounced BDS.
Such debate is healthy, especially on an elite campus, and not a sign of an “unsafe” or “hostile” atmosphere, which is how too many Jewish groups describe colleges where pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups disagree. “The University is a place for the free discussion of ideas,” wrote the 36 students in their open letter. “[E]ven if we disagree with those ideas, discussing them and reading about them does not make us “unsafe.”
In the end, however, BDS is a terrible idea — not just for Israel, but for the Palestinians. Demonstrations against an Israeli dance company in Brooklyn tell Palestinian nationalists that they have supporters abroad, but paint an exaggerated picture. Divestment efforts have failed at virtually every campus where they’ve been tried, and support for Israel among the American public and politicians remains strong.
Instead, BDS lulls Palestinians into thinking that time and momentum are on their side. Israelis have made peace — with Egypt, with Jordan — when Arab leaders are willing to make bold conciliatory gestures that directly address Israeli fears. As Lawrence Wright demonstrates in 13 Days in September, his minute-by-minute account of the Camp David talks, even a Revisionist like Begin couldn’t swim against the political tide whipped up by Sadat’s brave, even suicidal, visit to Jerusalem.
BDS sends Palestinians exactly the opposite message: Don’t give up your maximalist dreams — Israel will collapse under the weight of negative world opinion. In fact, it tells them, you can continue to charge Israel with “genocide” and dispatch the occasional terrorist — none of that will matter as long as we can keep the dancers out of Brooklyn and keep Caterpillar from doing business with the IDF.
I understand the impatience of young Jews on the Left, who don’t understand why Israel, as the military superpower in its region and with its record for technological and cultural brilliance, cannot undo the burden of governing millions of non-Jewish non-citizens. Today’s college students were barely bar mitzva age during the Second Intifada, which effectively buried the Oslo process and disillusioned even the most idealistic Israeli. The message they’ve gotten over the last decade is that Israel is fed up with pursuing peace and prefers a flawed status quo to the unknowns that would replace it. Too often, that message comes from the Prime Minister’s office and major Jewish organizations.
As for the morality of boycotts, maybe they heard stories about Soviet Jewry activists who protested the Bolshoi Ballet, or the pro-Israel group that recently urged students to boycott professors who support the boycott Israel movement.
But BDS is the wrong channel for their frustration. It makes common cause with those who don’t support a two-state solution. It places all the burden of change on the Israelis. And it turns Palestinians into passive victims, as opposed to political players who — if and when they are ready — have the agency to convince an Israeli majority that they are ready to make peace.
BDS, in short, is out of step with reality.