October 23, 2019

A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS

By Janet Freedman

The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.

FreedmanWhen I am determining how to work in solidarity with those who are seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I start with a question.

Do you think that the state of Israel should continue to exist?

My support for any action on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is predicated on knowing that those involved are committed to the continued existence of the state of Israel.

I am equally committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The divide between the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis has deepened to the point of despair on both sides and throughout the world.

When I read the BDS resolution proposed for endorsement by the NWSA, and the supporting FAQs, I am deeply offended. The material in support of the resolution states:

“What is really anti-Semitic is to define all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”  

I am angry to have my Judaism defined for me and to be told by NWSA what is “really anti-Semitic.”

While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA, which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,” the theme of two recent conferences.

But, in spite of this proposed resolution, there has been little dialogue about Israel and Palestine. I am aware and saddened that the zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history, or a respect for the accuracy of the information brought to their advocacy.  Although I have read a good deal about Zionism and about the countries and political struggles in the Middle East, this has not yielded clarity, but an acknowledgement of myriad complexities and contradictions.

I feel it is important to bring knowledge, understanding and careful reflection to every action, and that it is particularly important to learn from people who are affected by the conflict every day – the Israelis and Palestinians whose familial, spiritual, economic and political pasts, presents and futures are involved. Tourists, and even those who regularly spend some periods of time living in the area cannot speak from the personal experience of Israelis or Palestinians.  From my relatively secure environment in the United States I can only imagine the terror that affects them.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.  It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies. Terms such as “imperialism,” “colonizing” and other tropes distort actual history.  The rhetoric turns a complex issue into a two-sided one that erases many narratives. It equates supporting BDS resolutions with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine while placing those who question that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.  Organizing efforts have become ends in themselves, unintentionally – and sometimes intentionally – based on the spreading of rumors and misinformation to the detriment of the people who are actually involved in the daily struggle. It is anti-Semitic. I would ask those who villainize Israel while insisting they do not hate Jews to consider Audre Lorde’s words: “I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.”

Jews recently celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the ending of the last reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle, and invites Jews to rejoice in the source of their religious identity. I remember the time as a young child when my father and other males in the synagogue marched around the sanctuary taking turns holding the holy scrolls close to their hearts. Israel had just become a state and much of the world – including the progressive community – rejoiced with our congregation. Last month I celebrated the holiday once again. We formed a circle; now women and children as well as men held the hand-lettered sacred scroll, slowly unfurled to reveal the ancient texts that underscore the Jewish values of Torah, avodah (prayer and service to the community) and gemilut chassidim (acts of loving kindness).

My granddaughter, soon to be a bat mitzvah, joined other children also marking that milestone this year. They stood before the portion they will read on their special day and summarized their parts of the stories that shaped my life and values, the Jewish commitment to social justice – and my granddaughter’s legacy. It is the story that took the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I am inspired by my tradition, but know that a complex history followed the events recorded in the Torah that have brought us to the present, very difficult moment.

Like other religious and political communities, the Jewish community includes fundamentalists and extremists, but it is diverse and inclusive, too. It is not always easy, but I can bring a progressive voice to Jewish settings. I can find personal affirmation, a welcoming community with whom to pray in my own way, and to express and be respected for my efforts to be progressive, feminist, pro Israel/pro Palestine/pro peace and to acknowledge and explore commitments and contradictions with other Jews.

I cannot allow the words of this resolution and these FAQs to tell me whether a “good” Jew is one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity or to imply that if I do not, I do not deserve to be heard, to be seen, perhaps even to live.

I am not among those who feel that they can be Jewish without supporting the existence of the state of Israel. I know too many people who would have no home without that home.

I am shocked and offended that an academic organization that prides itself on “difficult dialogue” would adopt any sort of boycott of ideas.

We can do better than this. We must do better than this. If we do not the search for justice will devolve into a call for vengeance.

I hope you will join me in opposing the endorsement of the BDS resolution.

Dr. Janet Freedman is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice.

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