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Israeli peace activists in Berlin divided over support for BDS

Participants of a pro-Israel counter demonstration hold up Israeli flags at the annual al-Quds Day rally in Berlin, July 2 2016
Polina Garaev/i24news
'How can I rise against the livelihood of my parents? This expectation is paradoxical,' says one activist

Earlier this month, Jewish organizations in Berlin voicing criticism about the planned anti-Israel Al Quds Day demonstration received support from an unlikely source: Berlin's BDS group. The group normally calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, made a public announcement slamming the demo organizers for “recreating anti-Semitic stereotypes” in their accusations against Zionism.

While some in the pro-Palestinian scene reacted with shock and even anger, for many activists this came as no surprise, considering the group's close ties with Jewish and Israeli BDS activists in the German capital.

“We have a great relationship with the Berlin group,” Boaz, an Israeli BDS activist explained to i24news. “We see each other at demonstrations, we meet at political events.”

Polina Garaev/i24news

Overall, he estimates that there are about a hundred Israelis BDS supporters active in Berlin, many of them part of the organization Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Near East.

“There are many contradictions involved in being a left-wing non-Zionist Israeli,” admitted Boaz, “but I think that especially in Germany it’s clear that there's a limit to the extent one is willing to support his own country and when he should rise against it - also because of its history and also because there are so many political exiles from Iran and Turkey here that support international pressure on their government. But for us Israelis it's difficult to separate between the people and the state establishments.”

The BDS movement, he stressed, doesn't expect Israelis living in Israel to boycott their own government institutions or products made in the country, but those who have left the country could be a potential target audience.

“There is a special importance to having Israelis in the BDS campaign,” stated the activist. ”First, because the goal of the campaign is to pressure the Israeli public, so it's important to explain to them what is this pressure and what are the demands. And second, because by joining the Palestinian call for a boycott and showing solidarity, they can help change a pretty dominant discourse in the Palestinian society that opposes Jews or Israelis, whoever they might be.”

How can I boycott my parents' livelihood?

Recruitment of Israelis in Berlin isn't one of the stated goals of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace. Nevertheless, recently the organization held a gathering for Hebrew speakers, meant to “counter disinformation” and address misconceptions regarding the movement. The participants, about 20 young Israelis, skeptical but sympathetic to the cause, confronted the activists with some tough questions.

“If the boycott is successful, people will lose their jobs, their homes – the individual will be hurt the most,” stated a woman in the audience. “I come from a kibbutz, my parents are farmers. How can I rise against the livelihood of my parents? This expectation is a bit paradoxical.”

Others wondered whether this strategy is simply counterproductive. “The Zionist ideology is based on the idea that the gentiles are coming for us and Zionism is the only solution for the Jewish people, in order to avoid destruction,” argued one of them. “So if you convince the world to join forces and boycott Israel, aren't you just inflaming those emotions and strengthening the Israeli resistance?”

Polina Garaev/i24news

One of the organizers explained the group’s point of view: “Zionism has promised us a place in this world, but in the end the place where we are most likely to die due to being Jewish is Israel,” she noted in response. “One can join the BDS campaign out of solidarity with the Palestinian stance or, as I did, out of concern for Israeli society. There is so much anxiety, so much self-destruction.”

“Israelis already pay a price,” she answered, addressing the question of personal cost. ”But change doesn't come without paying a price, without pain and giving up things. I personally wasn't a BDS supporter until Cast Lead [the 2008 IDF operation in the Gaza Strip]. After I saw 98% of the Jewish population support it, and those numbers repeating themselves since, I realized there's a limit to our ability to influence that public opinion just by talking.”

“I think it's clear that as long as there's an occupation, there will be resistance to the occupation,” stated another organizer, “so it's a matter of what kind of resistance we are willing to support. What led me to BDS is the thought that this form of resistance is better than other forms, because I don't want to die and I don't what my family to die.”

But what is currently promoting the BDS campaign most of all, he suggested, is the Israeli government. “The BDS became in the last year or two the new existential threat. Iran is no longer it, so the Jewish institutions, the NGOs and the government that were fighting Iran, needed to find a new threat. Before people had no idea what the BDS is, but now it's suddenly a movement and the support in the US, for example, have never been greater. I'm hoping it will backfire.”

Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.

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