by Robert Cohen
Republished from Writing from the Edge by permission of the author
Dear Jonathan Sacks
Stop telling lies about BDS
Your video animation, designed to make the moral and political case against this year’s Israel Apartheid Weeks on campuses around the world, is a skilful piece of deceit that needs urgent challenge from all who support human rights.
I’ve always admired your writing on Judaism and I recommend your books to others. Except where you talk about Israel, at which point you appear to abandon your learning and your ethical values.
You’re hardly the only rabbi who does this. But most of them don’t have your worldwide reputation, status and audience. When you say something on an important topic like boycotts many will be listening and they will take your position to be the authentic, intelligent and trustworthy voice of Judaism.
That’s exactly why it’s so important to challenge the deliberate distortions and misrepresentations you’re making.
Opening frame of Sacks's video
Your website says the video sets out to explain what “lies beneath the BDS campaign, why it is so dangerous, and why Jews, humanitarians of all faiths and of none, and all those who value a free society, must stand up against it.”
- Rabbi Sacks endorses religious crimes in video against BDS: Michael Lesher
Well, I’m one Jew, among many, who wants to stand up for BDS not against it. I do so because I am a Jew and a humanitarian and because I value a free society. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the dangers to both Jews and Palestinians come from your attitudes rather than mine and the other Jews, Christians, Muslims and secularists who support BDS. We are the ones who believe in equal rights for all who call the Holy Land home. I’m far from convinced that you do.
I’ve reproduced the transcript of your video below and added my own commentary to explain to the many students on campus who may watch it, why it’s you that have got BDS so dangerously wrong.
Transcript of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks anti-BDS video
Rabbi Sacks: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel is dangerously wrong, because beneath the surface it is an attempt to delegitimise Israel as a prelude to its elimination.
No Jonathan, BDS does not want to delegitimise Israel or eliminate it. It does want to make it a better and fairer nation. Your attack on a peaceful form of solidarity and protest is like claiming the civil rights movement in America was wrong because it dared to ask for constitutional change in how America governed itself. Or characterising the boycotts against South African apartheid as attempts to wipe South Africa off the face of the Earth. You’re playing a game of deliberate misrepresentation in order to delegitimise a perfectly reasonable and peaceful protest. Your motivation is to eliminate growing criticism against Israel.
Instead of looking ‘beneath the surface’ of BDS you should be concentrating on the facts on the ground in Israel/Palestine. I can’t believe you’re unaware of the daily oppression of Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank, or the economic crisis caused by the siege of Gaza, and neither can you have missed the laws and institutional discrimination that exists against Palestinians in Israel itself.
Rabbi Sacks: No Jew, and no humanitarian can stand by and see that happen.
But you Jonathan are standing by while a physical and moral catastrophe is taking place but you have no comment to make beyond pretending it isn’t happening.
You refuse to acknowledge that the State of Israel has the slightest responsibility for what has become of the Palestinian people. Despite your great learning and erudition, you appear to be in a state of ethical denial.
I might have some small sympathy for your arguments against BDS if you would once utter a line of criticism against the actions on the West Bank of successive Israeli governments. I’m thinking about Settlement expansion, water appropriation, house demolitions, parallel judicial systems, child arrests and incarceration, indefinite detention without charge, etc. But I’ve heard nothing from you on any of this. So how can I take you seriously as a moral voice in this debate?
Rabbi Sacks: Besides which, it will harm the very people it seeks to help, prolong the situation it seeks to end, and lead to wrongs in the name of rights.
Lots of clever inversions Jonathan, but you’re going to have to spell this out for me. How exactly does a campaign to bring pressure on an illegal occupier harm the occupied? Can you, with all of your studies, point to a moment in history when the side with power gave it up willingly without outside or internal pressure? It never happens and you know it.
After 25 years of ‘peace process’ diplomacy why would anyone think that a softly, softly strategy for peace has worked? In fact, under the ‘myth of peace process’ things have only been allowed to get worse. So don’t try and fool people that you have the monopoly on the way to resolve this.
Rabbi Sacks: I support the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own, and the right of Palestinian children to a future of dignity and hope.
Really? I don’t think you’ve ever been truly serious about two States. Remember, we’re talking about a real, not a fake, Palestinian State. And everyone knows what that has to look like. A compromise over East Jerusalem; acknowledgement of Israeli culpability in creating Palestinian refugees with a programme of restitution; mutually agreed land swaps (if enough such land can now be found) and security for both peoples, which can’t mean a totally demilitarised Palestine and an Israel armed to the teeth.
But I’ve never heard you publicly talk about any of this. When have you ever strenuously made the the case for what needs to happen? How powerful would it have been if Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had ever come right out and said “Jerusalem must be a shared capital city”. Your lip-service to two States has lacked all conviction. If you believed in it you should have argued for it, with passion, a long time ago. But it’s far too late now.
Rabbi Sack: But the BDS campaign will achieve neither of these things. Let me explain why. Human rights are the rights we have because we are human. They are universal or they are nothing.
Agreed, what’s not to like?
Rabbi Sacks: So the test of any movement in support of human rights is: is it really universal, or is it a matter of rights for some but not for others.
You’re leading your listeners to a falsely constructed presentation, creating a straw man to set fire to. This doesn’t do your intellect justice.
Rabbi Sacks: If the BDS movement were really about human rights, its supporters would be protesting the breakdown of human rights in countries across the Middle East, in Africa and around the world. They would be demonstrating against the barbarism of ISIS. They would be campaigning against the abuse of human rights by Hamas in Gaza.
How exactly do you know that BDS supporters are not also active in other human rights campaigns around the world? And if you really cared about human rights why aren’t you shouting from the synagogue roof tops for Israel’s leaders to wake up and see the destruction of Palestinian lives?. Did the prophets of Ancient Israel direct their wrath against the surrounding regional empires of their day or did they turn their heat against the iniquities of their own people and rulers? We all know the answer. They were the original ‘self-hating Jews’. It looks like speaking truth to your own side, one of Judaism’s greatest ethical gifts to the world, is no longer considered legitimate.
But let’s talk about Christians and Muslims and secularists who also support BDS. At what point would it be fair and reasonable for them to get round to talking about Israel? How far down the list of world iniquity do they need to go before it’s okay to mention Israel? Is this like having to find the cure for cancer before we’re allowed to tackle heart disease?
And while you’re counting down the list of rogue states, let me know how an economic boycott of Hamas or ISIS is meant to work? And have you not noticed that the international community is already sanctioning Syria and other abusers of human rights.
BDS is a tactic, it’s not a religion. It’s applied where it can have some impact either commercially or through opening up an honest debate or raising understanding of a situation. BDS was set up to focus on Israel/Palestine, you can’t criticise it for choosing to do just that.
Rabbi Sacks: Any nation can be held to account at the bar of human rights, but in a world awash with human rights abuses, to focus on one nation only – and that, the only effective democracy in the Middle East – looks less like a campaign for human rights than a campaign against Israel’s very right to be.
See my previous point. As for the only democracy in the Middle East, 50 years into an occupation, surely Israel must be seen as a partial or failing democracy.
But let me just make sure I’ve understood the full implications of what you are saying about the need for equal application of human rights? Are you willing to give Palestinians the same ‘right of return’ afforded to Jews? Can Palestinians have the same house building rights as Settlers? Can everyone on the West Bank travel freely and use the same roads?
Again, BDS is a campaign for fairness and equality. It is not against Israel’s ‘right to be’ but it is against Israel’s right to discriminate.
Rabbi Sacks: It is in fact the latest chapter in a sustained attempt to do just that. In 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel’s enemies tried to destroy it militarily, by war, and they failed. Beginning in 1973 with the Arab boycott, they tried to destroy it economically, and they failed. In 1975 with the notorious “Zionism is racism” motion in the United Nations, they tried to destroy it politically, and they failed. From 1994 to 2002, by a campaign of suicide bombings, they tried to destroy it psychologically, and they failed. Now, through the BDS campaign, they are trying to delegitimate it morally. This too will fail, but it is serious.
Jonathan, thanks for the history lesson but it’s terribly one-sided. You’ve missed out the entire pre-1948 conflict between Jews and Palestinians as Zionism embarked on its project of national return, which to Palestinians looked and felt like Settler Colonialism. And you have nothing to say about the Nakba of 1947-49 which saw 750,000 Palestinians forced from their homes (by Jewish not Arab forces) and never allowed to return.
Rabbi Sacks: It is based on a vicious lie: that Israel is a colonial presence in the Middle East. It is nothing of the kind.
Jonathan, I can recommend some books for you. They’re all by Jewish Israeli historians who’ve examined the archives in Jerusalem, London and Washington. To flatly insist that Zionism had no colonial character to its behaviours and endeavours is absurd to claim this late on in proceedings. You really need to keep up with the standard literature. Your ‘vicious lie’ accusation is itself a lie.
Rabbi Sacks: The Jewish connection with the land of Israel goes back roughly twice as long as the history of Christianity, three times as long as the history of Islam.
Personally, I’d never deny a strong Jewish connection to the land. But none of that justifies creating a nation state through the inevitable dispossession of an indigenous people. But I suspect you are hinting at a religious argument here, without coming out too strongly in favour of the Divine Promise idea which you know will not play well with your young secular target audience for this piece.
Rabbi Sacks: Jews are the only nation in history ever to have established a nation state in the land, and the only nation never to lacked a presence there.
So now you’re switching from religion to political science. But I think you know that nation states, as we understand them today, are a relatively recent (18th century European) idea. Also, we Jews were never the only presence on the land and for a rather large chunk of our ‘Jewish connection’, a couple of thousand years in fact, we were the minority.
If formal nation statehood is your criteria for rightful possession of the land then I guess you won’t have much sympathy for Native American, or Aboriginal or Maori people either. Like the Palestinians, they just didn’t get their nation state act together in time. But at least America, Australia and New Zealand treat all their citizens equally.
Rabbi Sacks: And because Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, and the only state whose very right to exist has been constantly challenged, the campaign against it is recognisably the latest mutation of the world’s oldest hate: antisemitism.
I have to say Jonathan, I’m getting mighty tired if this ‘mutation’ trope you’ve been peddling for years now. I agree that some critics of Israel and Zionism are antisemitic but you then use this to dismiss all and any criticism of Israel. Once you invoke antisemitism you are hoping that it’s ‘game over’. But I’m afraid there really is a case to answer when it comes to the historic and still on-going dispossession of the Palestinian people. If you could just acknowledge that we could all move forward a bit.
Rabbi Sacks: BDS will fail because when people seek to end a conflict by focusing on only one party to that conflict, they don’t end it. They perpetuate it.
By using words like ‘conflict’ and ‘one party’ you give the impression that this is a dispute between equals when in reality it’s no such thing. It’s not ‘them and us’ or ‘half a dozen of one and six of the other’. It’s about who has power and who does not. Who is oppressing and who is resisting. I’ve not noticed that the Palestinian people are occupying Israeli land. Although I guess some religious Settlers would disagree with me.
Rabbi Sacks: There could have been a Palestinian state in 1947 with the United Nations vote for partition; in 1948 when the modern state of Israel was born; in 1967 after the Six Day War; in 2000 at Camp David; 2001 at Taba; in 2007 under Ehud Olmert; and since. In each case Israel said yes, offering land in exchange for peace, but the Palestinian leadership said no.
Again, you need to read some better historians. But just to focus on 1947, why would the Palestinians have ever accepted a plan that gave them less than half the land when they were two thirds of the population?
Rabbi Sacks: And even when Israel unilaterally withdrew from territory such as South Lebanon in 2000 and the Gaza Strip in 2005, the space was immediately filled by terrorist organisations – Hezbollah and Hamas – dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
Because none of these ‘withdraws’ addressed the fundamentals of the situation.
Rabbi Sacks: Simply put, the BDS campaign will delay, defer, and endanger the very chance of a Palestinian state, prolonging the suffering it seeks to end.
And what precisely do you think will speed things up? More of the same never ending, never achieving ‘peace process’?
Rabbi Sacks: This is because it misrepresents the conflict as a zero-sum game: either Israel wins and the Palestinians lose, or the Palestinians win and Israel loses.
No, with BDS both sides will need to compromise but ultimately both sides will secure their future, together.
Rabbi Sacks: But the conflict is not a zero-sum game. From war and violence, both sides lose. From peace and security, both sides win.
But whose peace and whose security are you really talking about? And as I said before, framing it as a conflict between equals is a gross misrepresentation of what’s happening.
Rabbi Sacks: If we really care about the rights of Palestinians, then we must care about those of Israelis likewise. Rights are universal or they are nothing, and if they are merely a concealed form of hate, then they become not rights but wrongs.
I absolutely agree, Jonathan. Why do you think BDS campaigners don’t agree with you? I’ve been saying consistently in blogs and talks that saying ‘Palestine must be free’ cannot mean it’s free of Jews. Jews have human rights too. Even Israeli Settlers, even those Israeli politicians who deny that Palestinian identity even exists or that talk of ‘vermin’, even those Israelis who incite murder against Palestinians. They too have rights. But not the right to discriminate against others.
Rabbi Sacks: Any movement for human rights, or peace, or justice, must be fair to all sides; recognise the rights of all sides; seek the agreement of all sides; and win the trust of all sides.
Again, you are correct in an academic sense but this is not a classroom lecture about the history of political ideas. In Israel/Palestine, one side has power, and the other does not. On the West Bank, one side is the occupier and the other side is resisting that occupation, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently. Not that the Israeli government makes much distinction about forms of protest. I’m not sure you do either.
Rabbi Sacks: The BDS campaign, which seeks to intimidate and silence the other side, fails these tests; which is why all who care for our shared humanity must find another and better way.
I think if anyone has got down this far in my commentary they will already understand who I think is doing the ‘intimidation’ and the ‘silencing’. Jonathan, stop attempting to slander human rights campaigners, stop denying the truth of the matter, and stop lying about BDS