Twenty-five years ago, I was an opinion columnist for my university’s student newspaper, and as a senior majoring in International Relations, I had a lot of views on how to solve the world’s problems. In one column, I authored a peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that the conflict had been raging in fits and starts since the founding of Israel in 1947, and even before, did not deter me from thinking that I had the answer. The similarity of my plan to numerous other failed peace plans gave me not a doubt that the formula for peace in Palestine was at hand.
My proposal was to hand back the territories Israel occupied in the course of the 1967 war when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan all sought to extinguish its existence. A large portion of this land was, and still remains, the West Bank. The Gaza strip, still occupied in 1990, was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 2005 and then overrun by Hamas in 2007. Mine was a 20 year plan, with the land being ceded back to the Palestinians in three, increasingly large, chunks. There would be a 10 year interval between each handover of land in order to give entities like the P.L.O. and related terrorist organizations an incentive to stop attacking Israel. The intervals would also give Israel a chance to see whether handovers would actually lead to peace, and give Israel the ability to stop the transfers should terrorism continue.
Today we search for peace as earnestly as we did in 1990. The issues are basically the same, although the violence is deadlier and the stakes are even higher now with Iran inching ever closer to nuclear capability. Indeed, I remember reading an analysis of the conflict, written in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, which suggested a land-for-peace deal. That deal still eludes us.
In 2015, our church is considering joining the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement as a means of pressuring Israel to treat the people of the occupied territories better and to advance the prospects for peace in Palestine. As much as I share these goals, I also share some of the misgivings voiced by a recent letter sent to our congregation by two of our Jewish neighbors who called BDS a “very destructive approach” and an “anti-Semitic issue.”
The letter writers point out, accurately, that the BDS approach is “truly one sided, giving no responsibility to anyone other than Israel for the conflicts. It does not validate any rights for Israel to exist . . .” Casting Israel as the oppressor against defenseless adversaries and condemning Israel as an “apartheid state,” while capturing some of the current reality, ignores the historical context of this conflict.
While we may think of Israel as some kind of military juggernaut, it was upon its founding a weak nation, surrounded, and vastly out-numbered by its enemies. Upon the founding of the state of Israel in 1947, its neighbors immediately attacked. These included the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, plus Palestinian Arabs and fighters from other countries. Israel did not have a national army, nor did it have the arms, tanks, or other weapons that its enemies had. Only some of Israel’s soldiers even had rifles. Against the longest of odds, Israel survived.
In the ensuing years, it was the state policy of the five countries who had attacked in 1947 to destroy Israel. In 1967, Egypt, Jordan and Syria were determined to fight again, with Egypt’s Nasser kicking UN peacekeeping troops out of the Sinai peninsula so he could mass his troops against the border with Israel. Israel prevailed again, achieving a sweeping and improbable victory despite being outnumbered and outgunned. It was in this war that it occupied the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
In 1973, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan attacked on Yom Kippur, and in doing so, achieved a level of surprise against Israel’s mostly citizen army (most of the Israeli army consisted of reserves, like national guard troops in the United States). For a time, it looked like Egypt and its allies would succeed where they had failed in the past. Israel, however, managed to stop the the offensive and regained the advantage, at which point the United States and the Soviet Union stepped in to stop the fighting.
Since these conventional wars by nation-states, the objective of the destruction of Israel has been pursued by terrorist organizations like the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and these organizations have been supported by countries like Iran and Syria. To this day, terrorist attacks are a fact of life in Israel. Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and suicide bombers on buses are the sorts of events which barely warrant a mention in our newspapers in the United States.
There is much more to this history than what I have recounted here, but I am afraid that even the broadest outlines of this ongoing conflict are unknown to many Americans. What seems indisputable from 1947 until today is that there are a large number of people in the Middle East who do not accept Israel’s existence. Indeed, there are over 30 countries which do not recognize Israel, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Beyond these actual governments, there are countless terror groups that find Israel’s existence to be an anathema. This includes Hamas, which functions as a quasi-government over the Gaza Strip.
When we in America seek to prod along the peace process, as I so ineffectually did in a campus newspaper 25 years ago, we tend to think of it as a bargaining process with the deal being “land for peace.” But this is not two neighbors arguing about a boundary line. Israel must deal with countries and groups whose final objective is not the West Bank, but all of Israel. Trying to complete a deal with a multitude of neighbors who not only want to adjust boundary lines, but fundamentally want you out of the neighborhood altogether (or better yet, dead) is as confounding as untying the Gordian knot.
Israel holds on to the West Bank because it is a necessary bargaining chip. Land-for-peace worked in the Camp David accords whereby Israel gave back the Sinai for recognition and peace with Egypt. While that bargain has not been achieved with the Palestinians or with Syria, it is hard to imagine how peace could be achieved without some kind of quid pro quo.
That is not the only reason Israel holds onto the West Bank. It has established settlements, with the obvious intent of expanding the territory of Israel, of establishing facts on the ground that will tilt an eventual settlement in Israel’s favor. This settlement growth has been consistently opposed by multiple U.S. administrations as unhelpful to the peace process.
In this context, it is impossible for me to see Israel as the sole villain, which seems to be the assumption behind the BDS movement. To be fair, we must recognize that Israel is still a besieged country. Imagine if we in Longmeadow were to receive rockets launched from Windsor Locks, Hartford, and New Haven. Imagine if missiles were also to hit us from the north and if car bombs and suicide bombs were to detonate regularly on our public transportation and at our shopping malls. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to feel safe.
If we, as outsiders, seek to encourage peace, surely our voices and our efforts must be directed at least as much toward the terror groups which launch the rockets and missiles and which set off the bombs (and the countries that support those terror groups) as toward Israel. To do anything less must seem anomalous to the people in our community, people like the letter writers I mentioned earlier, who care about Israel.
The letter writers also pose a good question on why we take up this cause and stay comparatively silent when it comes to the behavior of Israel’s avowed enemies or of repressive regimes like North Korea and China. What is it about our politics that causes us to focus on the sins of Israel in the West Bank while we utter not a peep about the concentration camps, the mass starvation, and collective punishment visited upon the people of North Korea?
There is a final aspect of BDS that seems deeply inappropriate to me, and that is the comparison of Israel to the white government of South Africa under apartheid. The BDS movement against Israel is explicitly modeled on the successful BDS regime against South Africa in the 1980s. Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the South Africa regime were meant to signal that the government was illegitimate. The fact, for example, that South African athletes could not compete in the Olympics was a statement that South Africa, as it was then constituted, was a pariah state, not fit to be part of the community of nations.
These measures against South Africa made sense because its government was illegitimate. It was undemocratic, racist at its core and in its manifestations, and quite simply, not worthy of being called the government of South Africa. Eventually, these BDS measures had some effect on ruling white South Africans who became tired of being despised outcasts.
Israel does not stand on the same footing as the white South African state. BDS measures do more than just inflict economic pain to change governmental policy, they undermine the legitimacy of Israel itself. To seek to de-legitimize Israel in the same way as the apartheid government in South Africa is to undermine the foundation of Israel’s democratic system, which, for all its flaws, is a remarkable achievement in a neighborhood of autocratic regimes and reactionary theocracies.
For the First Church of Longmeadow, or for the U.C.C. generally, to endorse the BDS movement against Israel, we would be doing more than making a polite, politically correct, nod to oppressed people. Taking on BDS is to make a resounding judgment against Israel that strips away the nuance, moral ambiguity, and historical context of this conflict. We should think deeply and tread lightly as we enter this thicket.