I am not, nor have I ever been, a supporter of the BDS movement, which aims to protest Israel’s settlement policies through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions directed against the state of Israel as a whole or, at very least, against the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Depending upon one’s political perspective the West Bank is also called Judea and Samaria or the Occupied Territories. To set the record straight, J Street – the pro-Israel, pro-peace national Jewish organization to which I have belonged since its inception in November 2007 – does not currently support BDS, nor has it ever supported the BDS movement.
Despite my antipathy to the BDS movement, which sees only the negative and none of the many positive attributes of Israel, I am disturbed by a 2016 anti-BDS cartoon by the American political cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen that appeared recently in my inbox.
Kirschen (b. 1938), who has been living in Israel since 1971, has been contributing “Dry Bones” to The Jerusalem Post since 1973. This particular cartoon is titled “THE BOYCOTT CROWD.” At the top of the single panel, set against a yellow background, are the words, “THOSE WHO CONTROL THE PRESENT CONTROL THE PAST, AND THOSE WHO CONTROL THE PAST CONTROL THE FUTURE.”
The bulk of the cartoon is filled with anti-Israel placards, presumably representing the views of the boycott crowd, the BDS supporters: “Israel is an Apartheid State.” “There never was a Jewish Temple.” “Israelis are Nazis.” “Jesus was a Palestinian.” “Israel occupies Palestinian land.” In addition, there is a wordless placard proclaiming a six-pointed star=a swastika. Three of the six signs are held by bug-eyed men, who have the appearance of idiots. At the cartoon’s very bottom, also set against a yellow background, are words of warning: DON’T LET THEM (that is, the BDS crowd) CONTROL THE PRESENT.
What disturbs me about the text of this particular Dry Bones is that all of the statements on the placards are deemed to be equally untrue. Almost all fair-minded individuals would condemn equating Israelis with Nazis and the Magen David, the Jewish Star, with the swastika as not only anti-Israel but also anti-Semitic. Moreover, only the historically oblivious would hold that there never was a Jewish temple; as a matter of provable historical fact, there were actually not one but two temples in Jerusalem during Biblical times.
But the other statements lead to possible conclusions that are a bit murkier. While I object to defining Israel as an apartheid state, I do fear that it could become an apartheid state if the Netanyahu government continues to pursue what amounts to a one-state solution, where separate laws would of necessity govern Jewish and Palestinian citizens in order for Israel to preserve its Jewish identity.
As for the statement that Jesus was a Palestinian, I have no idea what this assertion, ripped out of historical context, is supposed to mean. When Jesus was alive, he lived and taught as a Jew in what is today both the state of Israel and the West Bank. Such an observation casts a negative light on neither Israel nor its critics among the boycott crowd.
Finally, it seems to me that the words, “Israel occupies Palestinian land,” are objectively true. While I happen to feel that this continuing occupation is not in Israel’s long-term interest, I do realize that many, if not most, Israelis argue that the occupation, however unfortunate, is necessary for security purposes. On the other hand, many of Israel’s top military and security personnel, in marked contrast to the Netanyahu administration, view the settlements as a major, if not the major, obstacle to peace.
My problem, then, with Kirschen’s cartoon is not that he expresses anti-BDS sentiments but rather that he has been so slipshod with his text. Calling Israelis Nazis is morally indefensible; stating that the Israelis are occupying Palestinian land falls into an entirely different category of discourse. Some BDS supporters are both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic and are therefore unwilling and incapable of engaging in dialogue with pro-Israel individuals. Nevertheless, many in the boycott crowd hold more nuanced positions to which we supporters of Israel should be prepared to respond in a thoughtful manner. As has been frequently stated, we do not need to make peace with our friends; we need to make peace with our enemies.
On Friday, April 20 – 5 Iyar on our Hebrew calendar – the state of Israel celebrated its 70th birthday, Yom ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. I was almost 4 when Israel was born on May 14, 1948. During my lifetime, I have had the privilege of witnessing the birth of a nation against all odds – not an ideal nation that could exist only in Y’mot Ha-mashiach, in Messianic days, but a real nation, warts and all. For 70 years, Israel has struggled, however imperfectly, to live up to the civic virtues proclaimed in its Declaration of Independence, which echo the moral values expressed by our Biblical prophets:
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture…”
The state of Israel’s future success is dependent upon its ability to live up to the ideals of its founding document.
James B. Rosenberg is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.