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With Love and Sadness: Why Social Democrats USA Should Endorse BDS

Lawrence Bush
September 3, 2017


JEWISH CURRENTS has published several articles, pro and con, discussing the resolution passed several weeks ago at the Democratic Socialists of America’s national convention in Chicago, endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. A week later, Social Democrats USA held its national convention in Philadelphia, where a resolution was submitted that endorsed the BDS movement.
However, this resolution differed significantly from that of DSA’s: It was written by two long-time activists with Jewish Currents, from an explicitly Democratic Zionist viewpoint, motivated by both Ahavat Yisrael – love of Israel – and sadness that it had to come to this.
Social Democrats USA has been unique on the Left in explicitly defending the existence and security of the State of Israel. In fact, under the former leadership, and in front groups such as the Youth Committee for Peace in the Middle East, the emphasis was on attacking the anti-Israel positions of other Left organizations. What criticisms were made of the Israeli government, even under the pro-West Bank settlement positions of various Likud governments were minor, along with a general distrust that a Palestinian leadership would arise that would seek a real peace with Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was viewed as an explicitly anti-Israel terrorist organization. In essence, SDUSA was aligned with the right-wing of the Israeli Labor Party. Only in September 1993, after the Israeli Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Agreement with the PLO, did the SD change its position on the PLO. However, the National Office began its slow disintegration after 1994; thus any evolution in the old leadership’s position after Oslo broke down in 2000 and criticisms of subsequent Israeli governments are unknown.
Accordingly, we are unconditional advocates of Israel’s right to exist, and that our support does not depend on its being “nice” in order to deserve our defense. But that doesn’t mean that we are never uncritical of its governmental policies. We oppose the settlements policy of the right-wing Likud government. We support Israeli democratic ideals and those who work for them. Whenever those ideals are compromised, we will vigorously protest because we are pro-Israel. Sometimes, being pro-Israel means being critical of the policies of its government. Rather our slogan is Israel is here to stay and also Israel must be saved. But at times, we could add, Israel must be saved from itself, if we believe that some governmental policy or action that it is engaged in would be detrimental to establishing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc.

AFTER THE NATIONAL OFFICE CLOSED and the subsequent reorganization of the SD by the remaining active members and one surviving Local, we still felt that it was necessary in our new Statement of Principles to have a plank stating unequivocally “WE DEFEND THE RIGHT OF ISRAEL TO EXIST.” That statement affirmed our complete commitment to the continued existence of a Jewish state of Israel, countered arguments that Israel is fundamentally racist or imperialist, and challenged the left to return to a support and understanding of Israel it maintained until 1967.
Since that statement was written in 2008, the political situation, and the fate of democracy itself, has greatly deteriorated after 50 years of occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Rather the slogan, Israel must be saved from itself, is becoming more and more the relevant cry for those of us on the Left who care for the survival and security of Israel. Palestinian citizens of Israel have had their rights to vote threatened and their Knesset members threatened with expulsion. There have also been calls in Israel’s parliament to drop Arabic as being one of the official languages of the nation. Freedom of the press and the right to dissent has been attacked by the Israeli government. Representatives of American Zionist organizations such as the New Israel Fund, who oppose the occupation, have had travel restrictions placed on them coming to Israel, as have Jews who merely support a limited boycott of goods that are produced in Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
The collapse of the Oslo Agreement in 2000 has led to more restrictions on the Palestinians who live under occupation, along with continued expansion of Jewish settlements, making it almost impossible to envision a viable Palestinian state, next to Israel, needed to achieve the goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More and more, it is become clear the present right-wing Israeli government’s true aim is a Jewish-dominated one-state solution, without any national rights for the Palestinians. All of this is occurring while US material and political support is at its highest level in history.
This has led Middle East analyst Nathan Thrall in his new book The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine to conclude that “the United States has consistently sheltered Israel from accountability for its policies in the West Bank by putting up a facade of opposition to settlements that in practice is a bulwark against more significant pressure to dismantle them.” Therefore he argues only coercion by the United States, such as cutting economic and military aid to Israel and UN sanctions can pressure the Israeli government to change its intransigent position, or the citizens of Israel to elect a new government which would negotiate, in good faith with the Palestinians a successful and just two-state solution of the crisis.

WE THE SOCIAL DEMOCRATS have always been both a friend of Israel and honest in our criticism. It is in the same spirit that we now move to consider the current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. We have been skeptical and suspicious of the motives behind the organizers of BDS. We know the difference between criticism and anti-Semitism. We have been wary of engaging, much less endorsing the BDS movement and have turned to other less coercive methods of pressuring Israel, including boycotting products that were made on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Nevertheless, all similar efforts short of BDS have failed thus far, and the crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is only getting worse, with no peaceful solution in sight.
Therefore, we, as members of Social Democrats USA, as lifelong Democratic Zionists, children of Holocaust resistors and survivors, urge Social Democrats USA to formally vote at this National Convention to critically support BDS from a Democratic Zionist, Social Democratic / Democratic Socialist standpoint. There is simply no alternative. We ask our fellow members & friends who would disagree with the SD giving critical support to BDS, what are the alternatives that other Comrades would support, in place of BDS, since nothing else has worked thus far to move the Israel government to agree to a just resolution to the crisis between Israel and Palestine?
You can see the full text of the resolution here.


​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.