Why rabbis like me oppose Israel’s ban on BDS activists


For an alternative view, see Anne Herzberg’s op-ed, “Objections to Israel’s BDS law are overwrought and hypocritical.”

MADISON, Wis. (JTA) — In March, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that denies entry to foreigners who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS.

At the time, the law felt so insidious because it introduced a political litmus test designed to exclude those who object to Israel’s policies. It served to stifle legitimate political debate. But it was all so theoretical.

Until last month, that is, when Rabbi Alissa Shira Wise, who was part of an interfaith delegation that had planned to meet with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, was banned at Washington’s Dulles Airport. I was stunned.

After speaking with a few colleagues who shared my alarm, we decided to craft a rabbinic letter that would oppose Israel’s travel ban. We were concerned, however, that we would not be able to convince even 50 rabbis to sign it. We thought that too many rabbis would not publicly stand with Rabbi Wise, the deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, because of her support for the BDS movement. We thought it was a professional risk that too many rabbis, even if they did agree with the letter, would choose not to take.

Our colleagues proved us wrong: Over 230 rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students have now signed on, and the list continues to grow. The signers are diverse in their perspectives: Some are adamantly opposed to the BDS movement, others advocate boycotting and divesting from the settlements only, and some support BDS in full. We are united, however, in our belief that banning Rabbi Wise from entering Israel “desecrates our vision of a diverse Jewish community that holds multiple perspectives.”

For me, the issue is not about Rabbi Wise herself, nor is it about the BDS movement. While the image of a rabbi being prevented from boarding an airplane to Israel is disturbing, and the Jewish community’s hysteria about the BDS movement is frustrating, the incident reflects something even more distressing: the suppression of dissent in our community.

For a community that prides itself on a tradition that honors varied and opposing ideas and upholds a strong commitment to debate, I am disgusted by its refusal to tolerate divergent voices.

From Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership that prohibit students in any local Hillel from inviting speakers who are sympathetic to the BDS movement, to the refusal of Jewish community centers to host speakers, musicians or actors who advocate BDS, to the organizations that condone or even fund right-wing organizations like the AMCHA Initiative, which maintains a blacklist of professors who support boycotting Israel, our community is shunning a growing percentage of Jews who are increasingly questioning the Israeli government’s policies, along with its official version of history.

This goes beyond supporting BDS, as became apparent when the Jewish National Fund of Canada pulled out of a Yom Haatzmaut event that featured left-wing Israeli musician Achinoam Nini, who opposes BDS but supports the human rights organization B’Tselem. Or when J Street U, which advocates a two-state solution and opposes BDS, is denied space at the Center for Jewish Life in Princeton for an exhibit by an Israeli NGO critical of Israel. Those who express criticism of Israel in any way are increasingly being targeted as anti-Israel and pushed away from our communal institutions.

We need not support the BDS movement to recognize that these institutions are succumbing to leaders and donors who uphold and promote a very narrow version of acceptable discourse in our community. Israel’s travel ban is just one component of this curtailing of debate in our community. Rabbis from across the movements have declared forcefully that even if they disagree with the goals of the BDS movement, they still see boycott as a legitimate tactic with a long history of creating justice for marginalized communities.

As I watch a generational shift occurring in our communities, with increasing numbers of young Jews appalled by Israel’s harsh policies toward the Palestinian people, I have noted how many of them are baffled by the larger community’s unwillingness even to discuss nonviolent approaches to create social change. They read about Palestinian suffering in Gaza, with extreme water and electricity shortages, malnutrition and starvation, and preventable illnesses killing residents because they cannot get adequate medical care due to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and are horrified. But they won’t be silenced. They are speaking up, and older Jews are beginning to listen.

Our rabbinic letter opened with a quote from Pirkei Avot: “A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.” Whether we support boycott is a controversy for the sake of heaven. It is a controversy that could lead to vigorous discussion and deep self-reflection about the obligation of American Jews to speak out against Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian people.

Over 230 rabbis have spoken out in favor of this debate. It’s time for the rest of our community to follow.

(Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin, is the author of “Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”)

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