Last night, around 200 people packed into an un-air-conditioned room in Manhattan and did something possibly unprecedented within the organized American Jewish community: Had a serious, civil, public debate about the prospect of applying BDS—or boycott, divestment, and sanctions—tactics against Israel. There was an unpolished, church-basement feel to the event (partly because it was literally held in a church basement) that I haven’t often encountered within the community. Thing is, according to the event’s organizers, every synagogue and Jewish community center they approached turned them down.
No one on the panel—including the anti-BDSers, former Forward newspaper editor J.J. Goldberg and Kathleen Peratis, a J Street board member and onetime New Israel Fund vice president—felt uncomfortable asserting that after decades of administering an occupation, Israel has basically gone rogue. But this underlying assumption is treated in much of the Jewish world as an apostasy, which is why Goldberg and Peratis were by far the more mesmerizing side of the debate to watch. J Street, in particular, has been answering to critics from the right since its birth; in fact, that’s why it was born at all. (This evening, in a lovely bit of symmetry, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami will be debating a different Goldberg—that would be Atlantic writer and Tablet Magazine contributing editor Jeffrey—who will, presumably, be sitting to Ben-Ami’s right.) But there are plenty of Jews, and Jewish organizations, to the left of J Street as well, albeit ones who are usually left out, and sometimes explicitly blacklisted, from talking to anyone in the community beyond themselves. Watching Goldberg and Peratis reorient themselves to define their positions when challenged from that, other side was fascinating and a bit vertiginous.
Goldberg and Peratis differentiated sharply between Israel-the-occupier, which they condemned—Peratis said she even supported boycotting products made in the settlements—and Israel-the-Jewish-state, even if this latter thing, which they support, is corroded, they said, by the former.
Their pro-BDS opponents—led by Hannah Mermelstein, a member of the pro-BDS group Adalah New York, and Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli-air-force-pilot-turned-left-wing-activist (and, from a show of hands, representing more than half the audience)—convincingly laid out the problem and, perhaps, illusion of the distinction between Israel-the-occupier and Israel-the-Jewish-state.
One of the smartest ripostes to the anti-BDS team came from a young Palestinian man in the audience (apparently one of a few non-Jews present) who asked Peratis why she’d agree to boycott the settlements themselves but not the government that supports them. In response, Peratis stumbled back to her main talking point, which was that the BDS movement wanted to boycott, divest from, and sanction such a large and unwieldy list of things that it would never be effective.
In a less effective tack, the pro-BDSers argued that Israel’s Jewishness and its mistreatment of Palestinians were inextricably linked—a familiar argument in leftist discourse, but one that painted them into a radical corner from which it was more difficult to make pragmatic arguments in support of their cause.
At one point, Shapira asked Goldberg whether he would support BDS if the occupation was still in place in 10 years, or if Israel “killed 14,000 Palestinians.” It was a mean, counterfactual question, and Goldberg could have ignored it. Instead, he said, “Then I would consider my life’s work a failure.”
By high school debate team standards, I’d say Goldberg and Peratis—who were, incidentally, a generation older than their opponents—won the argument: They were elegant, composed, consistent, and, perhaps most to the point, stayed on the topic of tactics rather than getting lost in the ideological mission creep that often hobbles the left. But in a different sense, their opponents won before the debate even started by getting mainstream Jewish community figures to engage them in a church basement at all.
An audience member named Meredith Tax put it best: “A meeting like this hasn’t happened in my presence since before I was born,” she said, to cheers and laughter from the crowd. Tax, it turned out, was born in 1942.