Panel discussion takes on pressing issue: BDS

Many people are opposed to boycotts against Israel. So what do you do when you’re not happy about some of the policies of the Israeli government? You talk about it.

That was the theme of a June 22 event in Tiburon that gave people the opportunity to listen, learn and dialogue about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“We are Jews and we like to talk about our problems,” said Andy David, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve never heard a topic [regarding Israeli policy] debated here that I haven’t heard in Israel.”

Moderator Rabbi Susan Leider (from left) and panelists Andy David, Eran Kaplan and Marc Levine at Kol Shofar in Tiburon on June 22 photo/abra cohen

An audience of more than 100 turned out at Congregation Kol Shofar for the two-hour Sunday morning panel discussion. Congregation Rabbi Susan Leider served as moderator. The panelists were Andy David, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest; Eran Kaplan, professor of Israel studies at San Francisco State University; and state Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-North Bay), a member of the recently created California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

The event was part of Kol Shofar’s Bridges to Israel Speakers Series, which aims to promote respectful dialogue on issues pertaining to Israel. The discussion  was open to the community.

Each panelist spoke from an anti-BDS position, which drew a bit of criticism afterwards.

“BDS is an issue and it’s a painful one,” said attendee Steven Fierberg of Greenbrae. “But none of the speakers today represented it as a major problem on campus or society in general.”

“I liked the talk, but I think it would have been excellent to have a reasonable person who supports BDS on the panel as well,” said Novato resident Marty Zelin, a retired Tufts University professor who called himself “pro-Israel.”

Kol Shofar member Phyllis Berger said the talk “reinforced my views,” but she didn’t think “it convinced anyone who was for BDS” to switch their viewpoint.

The main tenets of the BDS movement are boycotting Israeli goods, divesting from companies that do business with Israel, and not doing business in Israel or with Israeli institutions in order to protest Israeli policies, largely in regard to the Palestinian territories.

Before opening up the floor to audience members, Leider prompted the panelists to discuss BDS in relation to their specific fields.

Kaplan, the professor, framed Israeli boycotts in a historical context.

“This specific boycott is a Palestinian movement that started in 2005,” he said. “People who were unhappy with the second intifada shifted away from terrorism and towards boycotts.”

He said while the San Francisco State campus is “ground zero” in regard to a sometimes anti-Israel atmosphere, he also stressed that the BDS movement isn’t widely well-known, even there.

He cited an example: When he gave a questionnaire to his students recently, Kaplan said many didn’t know what BDS was. “In reality, [the BDS] movement hasn’t made it everywhere.”

David, the consul general, was quick to point out that not all Palestinians stand behind the BDS movement, and that includes prominent politicians.

“[Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas has actually said that BDS is not good for the cause,” he said.  “In fact, he believes it’s hurting it.”

Levine talked about BDS mostly from the perspective of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. He said it’s much more productive to engage with Israel — for example, through the business and technology memo of understanding that was signed in March by Gov. Jerry Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In addition, he said, the caucus serves another important purpose.

“It acts as a firewall, so that [California legislators] can come talk to us when they hear about things like BDS” in their districts, Levine said.

Abra Cohen