Category Archives: BDS

Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

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The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook –  but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.

First, some background:

The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.

Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:

The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.

We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.

Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals.  It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.

Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.

This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems.  And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.

Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.

I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience.  The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.

One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:

BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders.  The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.

This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.

This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)

As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.

From the BDS National Committee Website:

The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.

I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently?  Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.

I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.

As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.

Guest Post by Rabbi Brian Walt: Welcoming My Grandson, Micah Mandela

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In memory of Nelson Mandela, I offer you this breathtaking Yom Kippur sermon that was delivered three months ago by my dear friend Rabbi Brian Walt. Brian grew up in South Africa and his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle was a defining aspect of his own spiritual/political evolution. I can think of no better tribute to Mandela’s legacy than to share the words of this visionary rabbi, whose grandson now bears Mandela’s name.

In June, when Chana and Lincoln, my daughter and son-in-law, announced at the naming/covenant ceremony that the name of their second child would be Micah Mandela Ritter, I was deeply moved. I never imagined that I would be blessed with a grandchild named Mandela. I feel so blessed to be the zeyde (grandfather) of a child who carries the name of a moral hero of our time, a man who has been central to my own life and has inspired me in so many ways.

I grew up in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My family’s home was in Sea Point, a suburb that lies between the mountain and the ocean. Our home, number 14 Queens Road, was just a few houses from the ocean. If you looked up the road you could see the mountain; in the other direction, the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounded us was nothing less than spectacular: miles of oceanfront in both directions, lush vegetation, gorgeous flowers and the mountain in the background. In Habonim, my Zionist youth group, we sang, “We come from Cape Town, land of sea and mountain!” Yes, we lived in a spectacularly, beautiful place, “a land of sea and mountain” and much more.

Our family loved to go for walks on the beachfront. We would pass swimming pools, restaurants, playgrounds — all restricted to whites.  The only people of color allowed to live in our neighborhood were domestic servants who lived in separate servants quarters.  Blacks who worked in Sea Point lived in townships far from the city, came in during the day to work and had to carry a pass book confirming that they had a job in our area.

On clear days, we could see an island in the distance: Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many of his African National Congress comrades were imprisoned for decades. The gulf between our comfortable and glorious suburb and the prison island we could see with our own eyes was enormous. It seemed unbridgeable. That tragic gap reflected the gulf between the reality of most white South Africans and that of majority of the people who lived in South Africa.

At that time it was illegal to quote Mandela or to print a photograph of him. Merely mentioning his name could make one the subject of suspicion. White South Africa and the Western world, including the United States, considered him persona non grata. He was a “communist” and a “terrorist.” The United States never took Mandela off the terrorist list until 2008 and kept the ANC on the list but made it possible for the status to be waived at times.

It was clear that if there were to be peace in our country it would involve freeing Mandela from prison, legalizing the ANC, and entering into negotiations. When I was growing up this seemed beyond any possibility. We all feared that our country was on the road to a massive and bloody civil war.

Growing up in South Africa, a country with so much racial hatred and devastating poverty and suffering alongside extraordinary privilege and wealth, was very painful for me as a child.   But I also feel profoundly blessed to have grown up in a country with moral heroes like Nelson Mandela and so many others, people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a country that went through a miraculous transformation brought about by thousands of human beings all around the world who put their lives on the line for justice.

I believe that my grandson and all of us have much to learn from Nelson Mandela. And so tonight I want to share three of the many lessons I learned from this extraordinary man: first, about justice and moral vision; second, about compassion and forgiveness; and third, about hope, community and social change.

These lessons are directly relevant to us this day as we reflect on our lives, our own moral vision and issues of forgiveness and change.  Many of us are the beneficiaries of economic and racial privilege and live in a country with a history not so different from South Africa’s.

Lesson #1:  A moral vision of justice

The Torah commands us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” The prophets of our tradition call us to justice. “Let justice well up like water,” says Amos. “You know what God has commanded you,” says Micah, “to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.” The prophetic tradition which is the core of Reform Judaism and much of liberal Judaism puts justice at the center of our religious vision.

Nelson Mandela, although he is not religious, is in the line of the prophetic tradition. His life was devoted to justice and guided by a clear moral vision of a democratic country, a non — racist South Africa, where all people would enjoy equality, dignity and justice. In 1963, when I was 11 years old, Mandela was convicted along with 10 of his comrades, five of whom were Jewish, in the Rivonia Trial, which ended with Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment.

In a moving statement at the trial he articulated this moral vision. First, he described the injustices Africans suffered and what they deserve.

Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettos.

African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the reserves. And then he articulated the most important demand:

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela’s vision of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunities” was not only Mandela’s personal vision; it was the vision of a broad movement that was articulated in the Freedom Charter.  In 1955 the African National Congress sent 50,000 volunteers out into the countryside to ask people what freedoms they wanted. Based on this, they drafted the Freedom Charter, which was then adopted by the multiracial South African Congress Alliance.

The Charter began:

We the People of South Africa declare for our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” The document includes demands for basic human rights (many of which are still not part of the moral vision of the United States): a forty – hour week, equal pay for equal work, a national minimum wage, free compulsory universal and equal education for all children, universal health care.

The document is so inspiring. Most of it, except for the clauses that deal with nationalizing industry or redistributing land, was incorporated into South Africa’s extraordinary constitution in 1996.  Mandela’s vision was not based in any religious tradition, but it is consonant with the central core values of all religion as we understand it: that each and every human being is a child of God entitled to dignity, equality and justice.

Mandela pursued this moral vision relentlessly and at enormous personal cost. When he was offered a deal that would free him but would not guarantee voting rights, he chose to remain in prison and did not emerge until that most basic demand was met.

Mandela’s dedicated commitment to justice was integrated with a profound compassion for all people, even his enemies. This is evident in his unrelenting commitment to a non-racial democracy but also in his greatness of spirit and the forgiveness with which he approached his white oppressors. This is best exemplified in two stories about his relationships to those his enemies and those who supported him.

Lesson #2: Compassion and Forgiveness

In his inauguration address as president of the new South Africa, Mandela urged South Africans to forgive one another and to move beyond the hatred of the past. He declared:

The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.

He called on South Africans to work toward a country in which “all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, sure of the inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

On that inauguration day, one of the guests of honor who received a personal invitation from the new president was a man by the name of James Gregory, one of Mandela’s jailers on Robben Island. Gregory worked there for nine years, from 1967 till 1976. When he was transferred to Cape Town, he continued to censor the letters of inmates on the island. Later he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison, and when Mandela and four other A.N.C.leaders were transferred there, Gregory was assigned to Mandela.

Gregory talks about his extraordinary relationship with Mr. Mandela during this period of time:

When he was alone I used to go and sit with him in his cell for hours at a time. We spoke about everything – his family, my family. But never politics and never trying to convince me of his views.

He always called me Mr Gregory and I addressed him as Nelson. When visitors came I would address him as Mr Mandela. After he was released he phoned me here at home and I said, “Hello, Mr Mandela,” and he said, “Where does this mister suddenly come from? You call me Nelson as you always did.”  He now calls me James.

When Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1993 James Gregory received a white card to ‘W/O Gregory’. In neat, rounded handwriting, it said: “The wonderful hours we spent together during the last two decades end today. But you will always be in my thoughts.”

In explaining the reason for the invitation to Gregory and two other former prison wardens , Mandela said, “I invited them to come because I wanted them to share in the joys that have emanated around this day. Because in a way they have also contributed.”

What extraordinary forgiveness! To forgive those who have served as your jailers. What a powerful story for this day of forgiveness when each of us is called to ask for and grant forgiveness.

Can we forgive those who have hurt us? Will we?

Alan Brigish, a friend of mine who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and who also grew up in South Africa, tells another extraordinary story about Mandela. His father, Harry Brigish, gave Mandela a job as a law clerk in 1947 .

In 1999, Mandela’s final year as president, Alan took his dad to the doctor who told him that the President had asked him about his father and wanted to see him. Alan immediately called Mandela’s and left a message that he was Harry Brigish’s son and that he had been told the president wanted to see him. He wanted to let him know that Harry would love to see him.

A day later, six cars arrived at the apartment block and Mandela came over for a cup of tea. Alan’s mom asked the president what he was going to do now that his term of office was over. “I am going to be doing much the same as what I am doing now. I am going to find the people who helped me and meet with them to thank them personally and I am going to find the people who hurt me and meet with them and forgive them face to face.” What compassion! What humility! What menshlichkeit!

Do we have the same capacity to thank those who have loved and helped us and to forgive those who have hurt us. Will we do so?

Lesson # 3. Hope and Change

Growing up in South Africa, it was hard to imagine any future other than a massive civil and racial war in which thousands of people would be killed. And yet the determined resistance of millions of South Africans and people around the world made possible what seemed impossible. The apartheid government, facing mounting pressure from the resistance inside the country and from those around the world engaged in Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment, decided to free Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the resistance and to negotiate with them. The relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa was nothing short of miraculous and it is a source of great hope for all who seek social change. Social change takes a long time and demands huge devotion, courage and many sacrifices, but it is possible. Mandela and the movement he led always held to their moral vision and their belief that change could and would happen.

What we can learn is that change is possible when people join together in movements to make change. There is an extraordinary seven-part documentary made by Connie Fields, “Have You Heard From Johannesburg”, that describes how actions in the country and around the world engaged in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against South Africa  made that happen.

In July, my sister Yda, a fabric artist who lives in Johannesburg, gave me a shirt she had designed with a quote from Mandela. It reads: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”

A Blessing for Micah Mandela:

And so, my dear Micah Mandela: the man after whom you are named is a winner, a dreamer who never gave up. I hope carrying his name brings you blessings in your life: the blessing of living your life according to a moral vision of justice, your heart filled with compassion for all people, always offering forgiveness. A life of hope, that you always know deep in your heart that people joining together can make a difference in the world. I hope you find your particular way of joining with others to make our world a more just and decent place, and the blessing of honoring the prophetic voices of your Jewish legacy, your own prophetic voice and the prophetic voices in your world.

Always remember the Jewish prophetic legacy that you have received as a gift. Remember what the prophet Micah taught us all. It is not complicated. You know what God desires of you: Act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.

This is my blessing to you and to all your buddies, the next generation who will inherit this world.

And so my dear friends, this is my blessing to you as well. May we always follow a vision of justice, justice that is integrated with compassion and forgiveness, and may we join together in this place with others in the world who are devoted to creating a more just and democratic and peace-loving United States and a just and peaceful world.   May we forgive those who have hurt us and thank those who have helped us.  May we have compassion for those we perceive to be “enemies.”

As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.

Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.

And let us add: May God bless us all.

May we all be sealed for a sweet, joyous and healthy New Year.

Firebrand Rabbi Looks “Vanilla”

Vanilla-Ice-Cream-ice-cream-34732705-1528-2307Headline from a just-published feature about me and my activism from the Jewish Forward:

Brant Rosen looks every bit like a plain vanilla suburban Chicago rabbi. He doubles as a firebrand critic of Israel — and his congregation has stood by him through thick and thin.

“Plain vanilla” – my kids got a kick out of that one…
Click here to read the entire article.

“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course.  In the meantime here’s a taste:

JVP Rabbis Call Out: “Open Hillel!”

I’ve just returned from an inspiring sojourn at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting in Berkeley, CA (you can read more about the event here.) While I was there, I took the opportunity to film a few of my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council voicing their support for the Open Hillel campaign (a recent and very important student-run initiative about which I blogged not too long ago.)

Here ’em testify!  From top to bottom, Rabbis Brian Walt, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, Margaret Holub, David Bauer and Alissa Wise:

My “Wrestling” Interview with Just World Books

mikeClick here to listen to a podcast interview I did with Just World Books last February.

In this podcast, Rabbi Brant Rosen, author of ‘Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity,’ shared his reflections on his book and how it has impacted his understanding of “what to do” with his beliefs and convictions as well as provided his insights about the effects of Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza flotilla incident, and other Israeli actions on both the views of young American Jews and the Arab Spring. He also offers his opinion on what President Obama should do in his second term about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Open Hillel, Open Debate and Open Minds

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Last November, Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance prepared to sponsor “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation.” One week before it was set to take place at Harvard Hillel, Hillel decided to pull the plug on the program. Why? Because Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor.

In defense of its position, Harvard Hillel cited the guidelines of Hillel International that state Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.” And since the Harvard PSC promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions, this was enough for Hillel to kibosh a program sponsored by a Jewish student group.

If this sounds vaguely like deja vu to you, that’s because back in March 2011, Brandeis University Hillel refused to allow student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to affiliate under its umbrella, citing the very same guidelines. Then senior Lev Hirschorn commented at the time:

We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table, but there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable.

As open debate and discussion have been indelible aspects of Jewish culture from time immemorial these attempts at muzzling students’ voices are particularly egregious. Hillel International’s guidelines (which are not obligatory for local Hillels) essentially ensure that there will be no honest and open Jewish conversations about Israel on campuses across the country. They will most certainly exclude growing Jewish student groups such as JVP – and they will also prevent Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, since almost all Palestinian campus groups support BDS.

Trust me on this: this has everything to do with the Jewish establishment’s fear of letting young Jews think for themselves on the subject of Israel. Not convinced? Just read this recent piece in the Washington Jewish Week, in which Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (chairperson of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinical Council) offered up this choice observation:

I think it is important to begin to help prepare our children for what they are going to encounter on college campuses in regard to pro-Palestinian groups, the anti-Israel groups on Israel and radical fringe groups like Jewish Voices for Peace.

These are not J Street. Our kids are relatively sheltered, and they go to college and are confronted with hostility and misinformation. I want them to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the historical justification for the existence of the state of Israel.

Well that certainly says it all. We need to protect our poor, vulnerable, non-critically thinking young people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians.  Since we can’t trust college students to think for themselves, we must “equip” them with what we deem to be the acceptable historical Jewish opinions on Israel. This profoundly patronizing, pseudo mind-controlling approach to Jewish outreach explains why the Jewish establishment is fast making itself irrelevant to young people – and why it feels compelled to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to send college students on all expenses paid Birthright junkets and free trips to the National AIPAC Convention.

Please join me in advocating for a Jewish student community that respects a plurality of Jewish student voices on Israel/Palestine. Please sign this petition by Open Hillel, a coalition of students that seek to change the “standards of partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines and encourages local campus Hillels to adopt policies that “allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”

From the Open Hillel website:

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.

Sure doesn’t sound like the words of “sheltered,” “unequipped” young people to me…

Rabbi Margaret Holub Explores Life During and After Apartheid

Jsmalltown jews4My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub (who recently joined me as co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council) has just traveled to South Africa to spend the next six weeks in Cape Town. It’s her second sojourn there and in addition to reconnecting with old friends, she’ll be spending her time interviewing clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church about their life during and after the fall of apartheid.

The DRC is the Afrikaans-speaking church which was famous – or notorious – for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990s.  The Church has come a long way since then – their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness and have made moves to integrate their churches.

As a self-described rabbi “edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Margaret is particularly interested in learning more about the experience of white South African clergy:

What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC?  What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end?  Did they feel cornered?  Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings?  Did they  feel like they had to defend them even so?  Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses?  What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history?  Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice…  I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.

The quote above came from Margaret’s blog, “Summer in Winter,” in which she promises to faithfully chronicle her experiences on this amazing trip. I plan to follow her adventures faithfully and recommend that you do too!

Interfaith Coalition Launches Boycott of SodaStream

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Since my previous post on the SodaStream boycott, I’ve received a number of questions regarding which specific campaign/s to support. While there have been a number of great local actions around the country, I’m happy to announce that a new interfaith coalition has just launched a national boycott effort that includes a petition as well as a spoof ad contest. I hope you will join me in signing on to this important campaign.

For more information on SodaStream, here is an excellent point by point response to the claims made by the company, courtesy of Stop SodaStream – Italy:

1. “SodaStream is headquartered in Tel Aviv, Israel, and manufactures its products in 12 production plants distributed in many countries, including factories in China (2), Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Netherlands, the US and two in Israel, one of which is Mishor Adumim … “

Even if there were hundreds of “production facilities” all over the world, it would not change the fact that the factory in Mishor Adumim is built on land stolen from the Palestinians and thus violates human rights and international law.

In any event, Sodastream’s annual report clearly demonstrates that the factory in Mishor Adumim is also the company’s main production facilities:

  • At 15,256 m2, the plant is four times larger than the headquarters in Tel Aviv, and eight times that of the other Israeli plant at Ashkelon, which produces only flavors for soft drinks.
  • The plant in China produces only “certain components”.
  • The “production facilities” in Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the Netherlands and the USA are mere sales and marketing offices and refill stations for CO2 cylinders.

Source: Sodastream International Ltd. Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2010, “Manufacturing and Production,” p. 37 and “Facilities,” p. 40.

2. “… where approximately 160 Palestinians receive full social and health services in accordance with, and exceeding, Israeli law, including pension contributions and insurance. Labor law in Israel requires an employer to pay wages and contributions 4 times higher than those required by the Palestinian Authority. If you consider that, on average, each employee is responsible for 10 Palestinian dependents, considering the rate of unemployment in the Palestinian Authority (estimated at 30%), the company provides food and shelter to 1,600 people. In addition, SodaStream also provides benefits that include: daily hot meals, clothing, transportation and overtime pay for up to 200% as required by Israeli law. “

The fact that a company such as SodaStream, which profits from the Israeli occupation regime, considers itself a benefactor of the Palestinians is downright bizarre. Even if working conditions for the Palestinians at the Mishor Adumim factory were as described (something that has been proven false in the past by the Israeli organization Kav LaOved), the fact remains that, as subjects an occupation regime, these workers do not enjoy civil rights (including the right of workers to organize) and are under constant threat of having their permits to work in the settlement revoked by the company at any moment.

Palestinian workers often have no choice but to work in the settlements, with high unemployment rates that are a direct result of the Israeli occupation. The 2011 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report explicitly links the decline in Palestinian agricultural and industrial sectors and the dire humanitarian conditions with Israeli government policies, in particular the confiscation of land and natural resources, restrictions on movement of people and goods, and isolation from international markets. Only a colonial mindset could claim to provide jobs to the very same people whose land and freedom have been stolen.

Sources:
– Kav LaOved, “Palestinian Workers in Israeli West Bank Settlements – 2009”; “Employees at Soda Club fired without wages (follow up report)”
Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the occupied Palestinian territory

3. “Among the 700 employees at the Mishor Adumim factory are Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Russians, Ethiopians, Bedouins, and Americans. In SodaStream’s view, this is a splendid example of peaceful coexistence that will lead to economic prosperity on which everyone benefits. The company regularly celebrates the holidays of all and has fostered cultural exchange.”

To speak of “peaceful coexistence” between people who do not have equal rights and equal social, economic and political opportunities is absurd. Among Sodastream employees, there is a marked difference between the conditions of the occupiers and those who suffer under occupation. For example, just as in Apartheid South Africa the black majority was allowed to enter areas reserved for whites only in order to work, so do the Palestinians depend on the occupying power for work permits.

Furthermore, the Jahalin Bedouin, who had already been driven from their lands in the Negev in the 1950s, were then expelled from the very area where the Sodastream has its factory.

Sources:
– Kav LaOved, “Palestinian Workers in Israeli West Bank Settlements – 2009”;
– Human Rights Watch, Separate and Unequal, “Jahalin Bedouin and Ma’ale Adumim”

4. “As you know, Sodastream recently decided not to expand the factory at Mishor Adumim, but rather to build one inside the Green Line. The construction is already underway, as decided by the Board of Directors.”

Committing to not to expand an illegal activity, which according to the company website, Sodastream has been carrying out since 1996, counts for very little. The fact remains that the main production facilities are located in an illegal Israeli settlement in violation of international law.

Source: Sodastream web site, History of the Sodastream Group

5. “SodaStream does not currently benefit from low rents and could rent other facilities in the uncontested territories of Israel for much less. The same applies to incentives, the company enjoys the same tax incentives as any other industrial area of Israel, regardless of whether it is located in the disputed territories or not.”

Sodastream’s annual report lists among its “risk factors” the possibility, due to negative publicity and boycotts, of having “to transfer a significant portion of manufacturing activities to a location outside of the West Bank” that would “limit certain of the tax benefits for which we are currently eligible”.

In fact, according to the web site for the Mishor Adomim Industrial Park, it is designated as “Development Zone ‘A'”, which enjoys the highest tax incentives from the Israeli state.

And finally, the Palestinian territories are occupied, not “disputed”, as recognized by the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, among others.

Sources:
Sodastream International Ltd. Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2010, “Risks related to our Location in Israel,” p. 17
– Adumim Industrial Park, Business Benefits
– International Court of Justice: Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory; International Committee of the Red Cross; Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention: Declaration,

6. “With regards to Coop Sweden, yes it is true that on July 19 they decided to suspend sales of these products, however it is also true that, after a brief investigation, they then decided to put them back on the shelves.”

Swedish activists inform us that COOP Sweden claims to have the results of an investigation that justify, in their view, the marketing of Sodastream products. COOP Sweden has refused, however, to share the report with the Swedish activists. If Sodastream would like to provide us with the report, we would be happy to comment on it.

7. “SodaStream is also under tight control by the Office for Environmental Protection of Israel, leading to surprise inspections, and the company adheres to the highest environmental standards.”

It is well known that Israeli and international companies consider Israeli laws on environmental protection inapplicable with regard to factories in the occupied West Bank. According to 2009 report by the Israeli organization B’Tselem, Israel does not enforce environmental laws in the settlements and industrial areas in the occupied West Bank.

As for surprise inspections, according to Bloomberg Businessweek and the Corporate Watch website, the Sodastream Factory in Mishor Adumim is “the most heavily protected in the area, with multilevel electric fencing protecting its perimeters and cameras monitoring everything going on outside of them.”

Sources:
– B’Tselem, “Foul Play: Neglect of wastewater treatment in the West Bank
– Corporate Watch, “Occupation Industries: The Israeli industrial zones
– Bloomberg Businessweek, “EU Eyes Exports from Israeli Settlements

8. “Following the publication of false reports, the company also decided to host visits and inspections, in particular social audits, including the internationally accepted BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) audit, with the conclusion that they no corrective actions are necessary.”

Clearly, an auditing organization that certifies a factory located in the occupied Palestinian territories has no credibility whatsoever.

The Stop Sodastream campaign will continue to challenge the deceptions of Sodastream, organizing initiatives to reveal the truth that the company wants to hides and promoting a boycott of its products.

Why I’m Boycotting SodaStream

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Israel’s settlement juggernaut continues at full speed, creating apartheid conditions on the occupied West Bank while making a mockery of any hope of a two state solution. Since no nation or institution seems willing to hold Israel accountable, it seems to me the least any concerned citizen can do is to refuse to patronize companies that directly profit from this brutal and unjust occupation.

At the moment, Exhibit A is SodaStream – a company that produces home carbonating devices. Promoting its product as eco-friendly, SodaStream is sold in 39 countries in 35,000 stores worldwide, including Macy’s, Bed Bath and Beyond, Bloomingdale’s, Sears, and Kmart.

It is also manufactured in the Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim.

A bit of history: Mishor Adumim is the industrial park section of Ma’aleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank.  The land for both of these settlements originally belonged to the Palestinian towns of Abu Dis, Azarya, Atur, Issauya, Han El Akhmar, Anata and Nebbi Mussa, but was expropriated by Israel in the 1970s.  Today, Ma’aleh and Mishor Adumim are a key part of the Israeli government’s plan to create Jewish facts on the ground around Arab East Jerusalem.

The SodaStream boycott is a particularly instructive action since the company actively promotes itself as an environmentally concerned enterprise. This is a tactic known as “greenwashing” – a cynical attempt to hide behind liberal environmental values in order to divert attention away from egregious violations of human rights. On this subject, I was profoundly saddened to read a post today by Rabbi Jason Miller, who sang the environmental praises of SodaStream and encouraged folks support Israel (and celebrate the Jewish festival of Tu B’shvat) by buying their product.

And what about the fact that the company says its product is “Made in Israel”, yet is based in the West Bank? By way of answer, Rabbi Miller approvingly quoted the company CEO Daniel Birnbaum, who he claims is “a strong proponent of human rights”:

(Birnbaum) said that thanks to SodaStream thousands of local Palestinians in Mishor Adumim have good paying jobs. Those workers, he explains, would not be able to support their families without their jobs in SodaStream’s manufacturing plant.

Wow. My jaw nearly hit the floor when I read that one. I’m not sure that resorting to a colonial “white man’s burden” argument is the surest way to defend entrepreneurial activity in occupied territory.

It’s also patently untrue. I strongly recommend this report by “Who Profits” for an important and in-depth expose of SodaStream, including the manner in which it exploits Palestinian laborers who come from the villages surrounding Mishor Adumim.

Jordan Ash, writing in the Twin Cities Daily Planet has also recently addressed this issue:

As with the Maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexican border, the high unemployment rate means that many Palestinians are forced to try to earn a living through jobs in the settlements, despite the low pay and harsh working conditions.

Palestinian workers in the settlements do not enjoy the full protection of Israeli labor laws.   They must get special permits and security clearance just to be able to enter these factories.   Involvement in a labor dispute constitutes a security risk and can result in the loss of not only a worker’s current job but their ability to work in settlements in the future.   Thus, many Palestinian workers do not demand their legal employment rights due to fear of losing their work permit.

At the SodaStream factory, when workers protested that they were being paid less than half of the minimum wage and were forced to work 12 hour days, they were fired. On another occasion, when workers who were fired and were still owed a month’s wages went to the factory to request their pay, SodaStream had them removed from the factory and banned from the entire industrial park.

As with all business in the illegal settlements, SodaStream pays taxes to Israel, not to the Palestinian Authority.  The municipal taxes that SodaStream pays are used exclusively to support the growth and development of the settlement through things such as roads, education, and sewage treatment.

While I certainly don’t have any illusions that this boycott will bring the Israeli economy to their knees, I do believe it provides us with the means to take a public moral stand against the injustices Israel is committing in the occupied West Bank – and to stand in solidarity with those whose lives are impacted by this oppression.

It is a particularly timely action since the company has spent $3.8 million on a 30-second spot during next month’s Super Bowl. Apparently the commercial advocates “setting the bubbles free”. Those concerned with human rights should know that freedom for real, living breathing human beings is what is truly at stake here.