When People Are Occupied

Right now, my inbox is full of many more emails than I would like about Israel and Palestine.
As part of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, I am part of a campaign to “Open Hillel” by convincing Hillel International to allow co-sponsorships with groups that advocate for boycotts of, divestment from, or sanctions on the state of Israel and the occupied territories. Hillel, which is funded by American Jewish donors like Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, currently has “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” that explicitly exclude any speakers and organizations that advocate for BDS, whether Jewish or not. In advocating for this rule to be changed so that groups like mine can co-sponsor events with pro-Palestine groups on campuses, I have learned how strong a negative reaction BDS inspires for many American Jews—even those who strongly hope for a just, two-state solution.
At the same time, the Israel Defense Force and Hamas in Gaza are engaged in a deadly exchange of blows, as Israel fires bombs and Hamas rockets. Although I am hopeful about the recent ceasefire, in the past eight days of conflict, around 150 people, including dozens of children, have died in Gaza. Meanwhile, three Israelis have also died and dozens have been wounded, including in a bus bombing in Tel Aviv earlier today. Not even the most idealistic would believe that this ceasefire means the end of violence.
In the past week, American Jewish organizations—like CJP—have led an outcry against Hamas’s persistent rocket fire. I receive email updates asking me to support the three million Israelis protecting themselves in bomb shelters from Palestinian violence. But at the same time, my American Jewish friends write emails telling me how unthinkable it would be for a campus Jewish organization to engage with those advocating for BDS. Often, the same Jews vocally condemn violent Palestinian resistance and speak out against BDS—while asserting that Palestinians have the right to their own state.
This week, at rallies in solidarity with Gaza across the world, Palestinians and Jews alike shouted, “when people are occupied, resistance is justified!” Although the Gaza Strip is not formally under military occupation any more, Israel effectively controls the movement of the 1.7 million residents of Gaza and the goods that can enter or leave the blockaded region. While I don’t think that violence is ever justified, it’s unreasonable to expect Palestinians living under occupation and blockade to simply sit and accept mistreatment by Israel as fate. The participation of Palestinians in violent resistance through Hamas is not right. But it is, unfortunately, not incomprehensible—especially when even large-scale non-violent resistance cannot make the international community pay attention to the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza.
If peace-loving American Jews ever want to see a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have to listen to Palestinian voices. And right now, Palestinians and their allies all across the world are calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.
Many American and Israeli Jews recoil from the idea of boycotting Israel. They assert that calls for BDS are anti-Israel, racist, and anti-Semitic. Yet a boycott on goods produced in Jewish settlements and by organizations or companies that support or condone the occupation is gaining ground as both a symbolic and practical way of sanctioning Israel’s abusive actions—especially among Jewish allies to Palestinians, from liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart to peace-loving Jews like Jewish Voice for Peace.
Of course, the Palestinian call for international BDS is not the only form of Palestinian non-violent resistance. Those concerned about justice for Palestinians should also acknowledge, engage with, and support Palestinian actions like protests against the Wall that currently separates many Palestinians from their families and land. Israeli and US resistance to Palestinian President Mahmous Abbas’s appeal for UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state is also discouraging.
Many who object to BDS argue that neither a boycott of the settlements, nor divestment from companies that profit from the occupation, nor a cultural boycott of Israeli musicians who don’t speak against the occupation will actually help end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. But the efficacy of BDS is an entirely different topic of discussion—a discussion that will never happen if pro-peace Jews continue shutting down all conversations about Palestinian non-violent protest with cries of anti-Semitism.
Liberal American Jews cannot simply sit and wait for a peace deal to be negotiated while condemning all forms of Palestinian resistance. Those (like me) who are saddened by Palestinian support for violent resistance in Gaza must come to terms with the fact that when people are occupied, they will resist, in some way. If American Jews really want to advocate for a Palestinian state, we must start by supporting instead of condemning those forms of protest that are consistent with our non-violent ideology.

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