On November 11, an event entitled "Jewish Perspectives on the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions Movement" was held at the Church of Gethsemane in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It featured four speakers, all of whom self-identify as Jewish, debating the effectiveness of the BDS campaign in the struggle for resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Rather than post a review of the event, which I attended, and which Rob Buchanan covered in his Mondoweiss overview of the panel discussion, I have limited my reactions to a number of truly erroneous, and thereby substantially revealing, comments made by both anti-BDS participants Kathleen Peratis and Gil Kulick during their presentations and in the subsequent Q&A.
Although both Peratis and Kulick made sure to distance their own comments from the officially advocated policies of J Street, it was clear that their own beliefs echo those of the organization exactly. Whereas both Jewish Voice for Peace's Rebecca Vilkomerson and Adalah's Hannah Mermelstein approach the Israel/Palestine issue as one of righting an historic injustice that continues unabated in violation of basic human rights and international law, both Peratis and Kulick view a Jewish state of Israel as historic triumph, legitimate in its concept and inception. To them, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the dispossession, displacement, and disenfranchisement of an indigenous people from their homeland at gunpoint by a colonial settler movement is not worthy of scrutiny or reevaluation, let alone redress and compensation.
It should first be pointed out that Vilkomerson is married to an Israeli and spent years living in Israel and Mermelstein has lived in Ramallah. To my knowledge, neither Peratis nor Kulick have ever lived in Israel. Still, during the panel discussion, Peratis stated proudly that she had been visiting Israel at least two times per year for the past few decades. She did not tell the crowd how many times, during those trips, she had traveled to occupied Palestine and asked real, live Palestinians (the worst kind by IDF standards) what they wanted or how they felt. The best guess is zero.
During his opening remarks, Kulick, who dramatically rolled his eyes whenever Vilkomerson or Mermelstein mentioned the importance and necessity of justice and human rights during their own presentations, revealed his contempt for reconciliation, coexistence, equality, well-established international law, and democracy because the implementation of such goals would implicitly negate the ethno-religious nature of Israel and the institutionalized superiority of its Jewish citizens. Kulick stated that the true goal of the BDS movement is not to simply end the occupation but rather to, in his own words, "perniciously...bring about the collapse of the Zionist enterprise."
Kulick made his position abundantly clear early on, declaring, "The reality is that anything other than a two-state solution means the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state, which to me is totally unacceptable,” and proceeded to dismissively call a "secular democratic state" the "objective of those Palestinians who would like to see the state of Israel disappear."
The fear of losing Jewish power and privilege in Israel, in deference to full human rights as argued by Vilkomerson and Mermelstein, was an unfathomable suggestion for Kulick. The reason, however, Kulick gave for why this "idealistic" solution (as Buchanan described it) is unattainable and unrealistic was instructive.
"If we don’t bring an end to the occupation, through a negotiated two-state solution in the near future, we will end up with one state," Kulick said, "but it won’t be the state that many of you envision, because I am certain that Israeli Jews and most American Jews will never give up Israel's Jewish identity in favor of a phantom secular democratic state, an imaginary one with an Arab majority and with perfect equality for all of its citizens."
Possibly the most revealing statement made all evening, Kulick here perfectly summarizes the deepest deficiencies of the so-called "progressive Zionist" community. According to his statement, the real reason why coexistence and equality are unachievable in Israel is because the Jewish communities both there and here won't freely or peacefully relinquish their own political and religious dominance in historic Palestine. In essence, Kulick is arguing that secular democracy is unappealing to Jews, in general, when they cannot be guaranteed authority over their fellow citizens and cannot systematically discriminate against them.
What seemed to be missing from this analysis - and was never addressed that evening by the panelists or anyone else - is the fact that human rights and international law should not be (and are not) left up to the discretion of a ruling ethnosupremacist class, no matter how much military aid or diplomatic cover they receive from the United States or how many nuclear weapons they have stockpiled. Left up to their own devices and racist whim, white South Africans would have never dismantled apartheid and voluntarily accepted blacks as their equals. This is clear from numerous public research polls from the 1980s and early 90s, which found that, even as the sun was setting on the barely four-decade-old apartheid enterprise (legally established in 1948, the same year Israel unilaterally declared statehood), whites diligently clung to their devotion to racial, cultural, and political superiority.
Ali Abunimah tells us that a March 1986 poll found that 83% of whites said they would opt for continued white domination of the government if they had the choice, while a 1990 nationwide survey of Afrikaner whites found just 2.2% were willing to accept a "universal franchise with majority rule." Furthermore, "a 1988 academic survey of more than 400 white politicians, business and media leaders, top civil servants, academics and clergy found that just 4.8% were prepared to accept a unitary state with a universal voting franchise and two-thirds considered such an outcome 'unacceptable.'"
Similarly, this past summer, Hanan Porat, one of the iconic founders of the ultra right-wing, messianic settler movement Gush Emunim, dismissed the idea of a single democratic state, declaring, "There is no point in threatening us with the idea of a state of all its citizens." Even Yossi Beilin, a former leader of the ultra-dovish Meretz party and an architect of Oslo, speaking for the Zionist left in Israel and seemingly for people like Peratis and Kulick as well, called a one-state solution “nonsense,” adding, “I’m not interested in living in a state that isn’t Jewish.”
As we heard earlier, the unacceptability of a secular democracy has once again been echoed by Gil Kulick. I doubt Kulick would be proud to find himself in such company, but his own views and words are to blame. Nevertheless, justice doesn't come about because the unjust suddenly decide to act morally or abide by international law on their own accord. South Africa didn't cease to exist when apartheid ended. And just as South Africa was forced to change its national, institutional, and political character in order to become a more just and equitable nation for all its citizens, so too will Israel.
Kulick went on to explain his fear that the BDS campaign to compel Israel to adhere to its international obligations will eventually create the "apartheid state that many of Israel’s opponents claim, falsely, I believe, that Israel has already become." One wonders if these so-called "opponents" include Ha'aretz columnist and editor Zvi Bar'el, journalist and poet Yitzhak Laor, and former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, all of whom have already noted the current existence of Israeli apartheid as a reality, not merely a future possibility. While Kulick did indeed note the "early signs of creeping, quasi-fascism" seen recently in Israeli politics and culture, he argued that the BDS campaign will accelerate those efforts, rather than mitigate them.
Throughout the evening, both Kulick and Peratis stated their beliefs that only the United States government and American Jews can affect real change in Israel and Palestine. Though this idea is unquestionably rooted in truth, it side-steps another very important question. What role should Palestinians themselves play in the struggle for their own self-determination? While Vilkomerson and Mermelstein spoke of their position of acting in solidarity with the Palestinian call for BDS - rather than dictating to the victims of Zionism and Israeli oppression what tactics to employ - Peratis and Kulick unsurprisingly held the view that the Palestinians should simply stay quiet, compliant, and unresistant until the American, Israeli, and Jewish grown-ups decided what's best for them.
When discussing possible solutions to the current Israeli/Palestinian impasse, Kulick suggested a return to the proposals of the 2000 Clinton "I would grab a rifle and get in the trench and fight and die for Israel" Parameters, 2002 Nusseibeh-Ayalon agreement, and the 2003 Geneva Accords, which would effectively declare the Nakba a Zionist fait accompli (the historic equivalent of a homicide detective shrugging and turning his back on a crime scene) and pretending that a wholly demilitarized Palestinian state - existing on 42% of the 80% of the 22% of 100% of their original homeland - is a viable expression of nationhood. In terms of Israel's actual legal obligations regarding the Palestinian right of return, Kulick said this: "The right of return will have to be exercised within the Palestinian state…and I think everyone understands that."
Who "everyone" is was never fully addressed by Kulick or his anti-BDS co-panelist, Kathleen Peratis, who stated during her presentation that the Palestinian Authority would "settle" for relinquishing the right of return. What both Peratis and Kulick, who also referred repeatedly to the concessions made by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, failed to either point out or understand is that neither Abbas nor Fayyad have any popular political mandate from the Palestinian people. Whereas both Vilkomerson and Mermelstein spoke of the BDS movement as a non-violent consensus of Palestinian civil society, supported by over 170 Palestinian organizations and encompassing not only the aspirations of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, but also Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the Diaspora, Peratis and Kulick held firm to the idea floated by the United States and Israel that Abbas and Fayyad somehow actually speak on behalf of the Palestinian people as a whole and can somehow legally and officially bargain away their inalienable human rights and their rights as enshrined in international law.
What should have been pointed out by either the other panelists or the audience is that Abbas is no longer the elected president of the PA, his four-year term having expired on January 24, 2009. Though theoretically appointed to an open-ended, extended presidency at the behest of the PLO's Central Council, Abbas actually serves at the pleasure of the United States and Israel. Additionally, "prime minister" Fayyad was unilaterally appointed by Abbas as a replacement for the democratically-elected Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in 2007, despite not having any legal authority to do so and in spite of the fact that Fayyad's own political party garnered a mere 2.41% of the vote in the 2006 elections, the least of any of the six parties running. Fayyad even resigned his appointed post in March 2009 only to be reinstated by Abbas two months later.
The right of return is not a bargaining chip to be bartered away by the US-approved Palestinian leadership. It is affirmed repeatedly in international law, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13.2) to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 (Articles 44, 46, and 49) and is deemed an inalienable and individual right meaning that it is impossible for any governing or official body to abrogate or deny this right on behalf of an entire people. Furthermore, as the mere act of "expulsion" is illegal, the right to return after a forced displacement is self-evident.
The 1948 UN General Resolution 194 specifically applies the right of return to the Palestinian refugees. Paragraph 11 states "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."
This resolution has been reaffirmed practically every year since its adoption with near unanimity. While it is true that while General Assembly resolutions are "non-binding," unlike Security Council resolutions, Israel's admission to the UN as a member state (Resolution 273) was conditioned on the explicit acceptance and implementation of Resolution 194 and its stipulations. Consequently, Israel is bound, as a condition of membership in the UN, to implement 194 and to facilitate the return of the Palestinian refugees. Everyday it refuses to do this - which is everyday over the past 62+ years - it has been in violation of its own UN membership and international law.
It is disheartening, to say the least, that Kathleen Peratis, who is a lawyer, demonstrates so little knowledge of or concern for these basic elements of international law. At one point during the panel discussion, Peratis also falsely claimed that Israel's "legitimacy" as a state is verified by the international mandate of United Nations General Resolution 181. Yet, not only was UNGR 181 a non-binding resolution and accepted with a vote of 33 to 13 (with 10 abstentions) only after extensive bullying by both the US and Russia, but it was also merely a recommendation - not an affirmation or creation of anything - that required the approval of both Jewish Zionist and Palestinian Arab for it to be implemented. As the resolution was understandably rejected by the Palestinian representatives (and only begrudgingly accepted by the Zionists as a jumping off point for continued colonial expansion), it has absolutely no legal authority and by no means legitimizes Israel's subsequent unilateral declaration of independence in 1948.
That this age-old piece of long-debunked hasbara was presented in the course of the BDS debate was as startling as it was unsettling. In fact, Peratis' repetition of Zionist talking points was a surprising aspect of the entire evening. As a board member of J Street, Human Rights Watch, and The Forward magazine, one would hope she would have a better understanding of both history and human rights.
The most important issue of the entire night, however, was that of "what does a democratic and Jewish state look like to you?" Vilkomerson's and Mermelstein's disinterest in defending any state that assumes an institutionalized and official ethnic identity as a matter of righteous pride and demands political acceptance as such from the very people discriminated against and displaced as a result of that very acceptance was met incredulously by both Kulick and Peratis all evening long.
When Peratis was asked by Mermelstein what a "democratic, Jewish state" actually looks like, she responded:
So far, so good, even though the "democratic, Jewish state" that Peratis says she supports has never, ever existed and could never exist since a country can not simultaneously be both "Jewish" and "democratic." Nevertheless, she continued with what wound up being the single strangest statement of the night:
The sheer weirdness of this statement aside, it's difficult to know where to begin addressing its myriad false premises, equivalencies, and bizarre implications.
Firstly, the concept itself is taken directly from Chaim Weizmann. While in Versailles in early 1919, Weizmann was asked about his understanding of the "Jewish national home" referred to by Balfour Declaration and replied, according to Israeli historian Tom Segev, that Palestine "should be Jewish in the same way that France is French and England is English."
Similarly, Weizmann repeated this same aspiration in an address to the English Zionist Federation in September 1919, declaring,
This exact Zionist intention was even addressed by the British government itself three years later, in order to officially and authoritatively establish what was meant by the Balfour Declaration. The White Paper of 1922 stated,
The British government also noted that the previous year, the Zionist Congress, the supreme governing body of the Zionist Organization, affirmed a resolution expressing "the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development."
"Common home"? Sounds like the prescription for a secular democratic state to me!
Furthermore, in response to Weizmann's "French as France, English as England" comments, Secretary of State for India and the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu argued that Judaism was a universal faith, distinct from nationality, stated that in the era of the modern nation-State the Jewish people did not constitute a nation, and questioned the legitimacy of any organization or movement that presumed to speak on behalf of all Jews worldwide.
In a memorandum submitted to the British Cabinet the same month as the Balfour Declaration, he described Zionism as "a mischievous political creed," wrote that the Zionist project was "anti-Semitic" and warned that the implementation of the Declaration would "prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world." His letter continued, presciently:
"When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe...
"It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history...I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled."
Peratis, in her description of what an ideal democratic and Jewish state is, somehow associates (just like Weizmann did) a religious or cultural identity with a national one. The correct association to make in that case would be that "Israel should be as Israeli as France is French." This would affirm that all citizens of Israel (regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or cultural tradition) are equal citizens, just as French, British, or American citizens are. "Frenchness," which Peratis apparently misunderstands, is not based on ethnicity, it's based on nationality. Neither France nor England nor the United States has a declared ethnicity. To do so would be blatantly discriminatory, plus, what would an ethnic American actually look like? Are French Jews or Arabs ethnically French? What about black or latino Brits, are they ethnically English? How would Peratis respond if Germany declared (again) that "Germany should be as Aryan as France is French"? Would she not see the false equivalency and wholesale racism in such a statement? Oh, and also, "Jewish" is not a nationality, "Israeli" is.
Also, how can Peratis possibly suggest that a declared Jewish ethnicity in Israel would "be available to everybody"? Ethnicity can't really be chosen as the term itself refers to a group of people with common ancestry and, more loosely, shared culture. How would Peratis propose that Palestinian Arabs, who are both Muslim and Christian and represent 20% of Israeli citizens, have a state-sanctioned Jewish ethnicity made available to them? What would it mean when, inevitably, Palestinians passed on this particular opportunity of ethnic redefinition?
Judaism can, of course, be chosen as a religion, but nothing else. This suggestion by Peratis is especially odd considering that she herself was born into a Greek Orthodox family and converted to Judaism when she married. Does Peratis actually believe that, upon conversion, she became ethnically Jewish?
The concept of a Jewish State, as proscribed by Zionism, is, by definition, discriminatory. A Jewish majority and Jewish identity is meant to affirm and maintain Jewish supremacy and sovereignty over the nation. In December 1947, David Ben-Gurion made this clear when he declared in the wake of the passing of UNGR 181, and anticipating the ethnic cleansing that was to follow, "Only a state with at least 80% Jews is a viable and stable state."
Over six decades later in May 2009, Michael Oren, writing in Commentary the same month he was appointed Israel's ambassador to the United States, addressed this very issue:
As a result, as I'm sure both Kulick and Peratis would concur, the maintenance of a Jewish state relies on managing the demography of its inhabitants in order to ensure that Jews remain an overwhelming majority. Clearly, for this to work, a single state for all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine would mean that Jewish Israelis would have to consider themselves equal to all other citizens and they can't have that! Other options would include forced expulsion of more Palestinians from Israel and cutting child pensions to reduce Palestinian birth rates (this fits the 1948 UN definition of genocide, by the way).
The prevailing view advocated by both Kulick and Peratis was that Israel must be saved from itself in order to become the ideal ethnocracy it was supposed to founded as. The struggle, as they see it, is one for reputation and perception, rather than for justice and human rights. End the occupation, create a demilitarized Palestinian state of non-contiguous Bantustans surrounded by the Israeli military, dust your hands off and pretend that justice has been served, they seemed to advocate. But don't even start trying to argue that Israel as an ethnocratic colonial enterprise may not be worth defending. That's far too much for these progressive, liberal, peace-loving J Streeters to bear.
As the saying goes, "After the Allies overran Germany you couldn’t find anybody who supported Nazism. It’s the same thing in South Africa. You can’t find anyone who supported apartheid."
It will surely follow that once equality, full human rights, and much needed social justice comes to Israel/Palestine – when all people, regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity are treated as equals under the law – we will once again struggle to find anyone willing to admit they supported the discriminatory nature and explicitly racist policies of Zionism. Unfortunately for Kulick and Peratis, at least we’ll know where they stood.
November 22, 2010 - Mondoweiss has posted correspondence between Kathleen Peratis and BDS event attendee/fellow lawyer, David Samel. Samel's letter is eloquent and truthful. In response, Peratis writes incredulously and arrogantly, completely ignoring Samel's actual points and fabricating ridiculous strawmen which she attacks with righteous indignation.
Again, her aggressive propaganda, offensive views and defensive tone is instructive. Remember, she's supposed to be one of the progressive ones. Shameful.
November 24, 2010 - Mondoweiss has also published edited sections of the above article in two separate posts. A great many thanks to Adam Horowitz for doing this. The links are below.
Do liberal zionists think that international law should be ignored because Israel will never adhere to it? (11.23.10)
The Palestinian right of return is not for the US, Israel, or Israel’s supporters, to bargain away (11.24.10)