Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


Boycotting Hits the Mainstream

‘Forward’ and J Street folks debate tactics with lefties

Print Email

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.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Andrew says:

Having been present last night, this account seems to be missing a significant number of details, and contrasts with my own impression of the debate.

Since a critique of the “pro-BDS” folks is presented, I guess I’ll at a minimum critique the “anti-BDS” folks (who said they supported selective boycott of occupation & settlements?). Those who were “anti-BDS” seemed to only be against the idea of supporting the Palestinian-led BDS Movement (with a capital M).

Notably at one point, an unprepared J.J. Goldberg explicitly stated that he hadn’t been aware of the “Right of Return” demand within the 3 demands that Israel adhere to international law & respect human rights in order to end the campaign of BDS against it. Why anyone would show up to a debate on a topic without reading the most rudimentary document on the topic is baffling. Also worth mentioning, when a confused Shapira was referencing Goldberg’s comments on South African Apartheid (though he seemed to refrain from using the word Apartheid to describe it?), he mentioned not being sure whether Goldberg had said he had or had not supported sanctions against South Africa, then continued to his point. In response, Goldberg said he was insulted by the insinuation that he wouldn’t have supported them and asked Shapira something like “Do you still beat your wife?” and then continued “Do you support Hamas suicide bombings?” to try to draw an analogy to Shapira’s confusion. Goldberg also made a previously unannounced early departure before questions could be asked leaving the audience disappointed.

In the end, no single coherent argument, other than that BDS on a larger scale is ineffective, was made. No evidence was provided as to why BDS was ineffective, it was mostly just stated. When prompted with the question of what other tactics can be used and/or are effective, virtually no concrete response was given.

I’m out of space, so I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for informing your readers Marissa!

esthermiriam says:

Bernard Avishai joins the debate, in his blog and/or, for
those who prefer, in The Nation’s July 5 issue.
Too long for a Reply here, but worth considering.

I’ve learn a few excellent stuff here. Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how a lot attempt you set to make this type of fantastic informative website.

Hmm i think this is nice post. I hope this is just begin of your writing. If you want you can check my blog as well. Of course if you want.

I’ve said that least 3207660 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

hello les gens j’aime bien ce post mais l’ immobilier est mon probleme.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Boycotting Hits the Mainstream

‘Forward’ and J Street folks debate tactics with lefties

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview