Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Jay Michaelson's Journey

Jay Michaelson's Journey

I am usually of mixed mind with regard to sympathizing with those who were once part of (or even continue to support) this or that BDS activity who feel they must speak their mind about what they perceive to be the “movement’s” shortcomings. 

On the one hand, you’ve got kooks like Norman Finkelstein who is too unpredictable to ever be seen as an ally, even if he has provided prime quotes regarding the cult-like nature of his former BDS buddies.  But then you’ve got those na├»ve individuals who were lured by the BDS sirens telling them they could partake in a political struggle of unquestionable evil (the Israeli brute) vs. undistilled virtue (the Palestinian victim).

We’ve been visited in the comments section by a few people who fall into this latter category, but the most vivid example of this type of BDS “turncoat” I remember was a young woman who joined the Somerville Divestment Project when it was doing its thing to my home city in 2004.  By 2005, however, she had abandoned the group, disgusted by the brutal and ruthless politics she saw taking place amongst the leadership (including the organization’s founder importing radicals from across the state into the group to ensure he would win all the votes), and shocked that she could be part of an organization that couldn’t decide if terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians should be considered immoral or not.

Between these two stands Jay Michaelson whose recent Forward article, entitled When the Right is Right About the Left, caused a stir this week.  More sophisticated than the “loose change” making up the rank-and-file of most college Students for Justice in Palestine campaigns, but less of a nut than Finkelstein, Michaelson first made a splash a couple of years back when he published a piece lamenting that Israel’s behavior was making him question the decades of devotion he had supposedly shown the Jewish state his whole life. 

Truth be told, these types of “scales were lifted from my eyes/I haven’t left Zionism, Zionism left me” arguments have tended to leave me cold. 

No doubt some people are sincerely and accurately describing their personal political journey.  But, more often than not, the people who embrace this storyline simply grew up in a run-of-the-mill Jewish household where support for and pride in Israel was taken for granted (similar to the way Irishmen and Italians identify with the old country without a second thought). 

But by turning this unremarkable environment into an “Israel-Right-Or-Wrong” enclave that they escaped from only through their own courage and open mindedness, they get to make their arguments against the Jewish state not just “AsaJew” but “AsaFormerZionist.”

But even if we take Michaelson at his word regarding whatever conflict is going on between his past and current selves, he seems to be missing the actual conflict going on between his progressive and Zionist souls.

Because the boycotters tend to present their arguments entirely in the language of progressive values (to the point of insisting that the defining virtue for progressives is a full embrace of their political project), the notion that liberalism and Zionism are in conflict is often taken as a given.

But far from Israel’s behavior posing difficult choices for someone with progressive values, it is actually certain people’s weak grasp of what those values require that make them vulnerable to the pressures generated not by the Israelis/Jews, but by the war waged against them.

In any normal world, Israel would be held up as an example of how these progressive values can be built into a nation’s makeup.  Whether you’re talking about women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom, freedom of the press and speech, national healthcare or any of the subjects progressives claim as their moral lodestones, Israel has demonstrated that these freedoms and benefits can be embraced and implemented at a national level, even by a country that has been under siege since birth.

This obviously does not mean that Israel is perfect in each and every one of these regards.  But one does not measure these values by complaining about how far short a country has fallen in trying to create heaven on earth.  Rather, these are relative values which can only have meaning when compared to other real-world societies.

And in this case, the real-world societies that Israel’s detractors insist be given more of a fair shake than they current receive are built around values in direct opposition to everything progressives are supposed to believe.  Look over Palestinian society (in either the West Bank or Gaza) and take your pick: repression of women and gays, religious intolerance and state-sponsored fanaticism, jailed dissidents and journalists, politics based around strong men and clan loyalty, and an economy primarily designed to support corrupt oligarchies. 

In his latest piece, Michaelson talks a great deal about BDS as it relates to the gay community he strongly supports. 

Gay rights is one of those touchstone points since no other issue better demonstrates the yawning chasm between Israel and its rivals with regard to one of the top-priority items on the agenda of every progressive organization (including religious institutions like the Presbyterian Church).

This is why BDS defenders created the fake phenomena of “pinkwashing,” in order to make the conversation about something else (Israel allegedly exploiting its sexual freedom to cover up its wicked crimes) rather than the contrast between Israel and its neighbors on an issue so vital to progressives.

To his credit, Michelson lashes out against those who throw out the pinkwashing accusation, and makes other damning statements that will no doubt be considered blasphemous by soon-to-be former friends from “the movement.”

But the question arises as to why someone as thoughtful as Michaelson has taken so long to realize what anyone with eyes can see with regard to the true nature of BDS, and even then can’t bring himself to embrace Israel as a flawed country that still represents his values far more than the nation the BDSers would like to take its place.

Next time, I’ll try to answer that question.