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Do Pete Seeger and the BDS Folks Believe All of Israel Is ‘Occupied’?

Posted on March 2 2011 1:06 pm
Hannah Sternberg is a writer and video editor in Washington, DC. Her first novel, Queens of All the Earth, will be released this June by Bancroft Press. Learn more at
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Legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger is officially on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions wagon.

According to a press release issued by the Israel Committee Against House Demolition, the singer objects to the Jewish National Fund’s perfidious program to plant trees in the desert. Yes, you read that correctly. The ICAHD press release states that Seeger grew concerned when he learned that “the JNF is notorious for planting forests to hide Palestinian villages demolished by Israel in order to seize their land.”

(Interestingly, in the U.S. this happens all the time under the terms “eminent domain,” “wilderness reclamation,” and “EPA regulation.” Here it’s lauded by liberal environmentalists as Earth-friendly. When it happens in Israel, it’s vilified by liberal environmentalists as colonialist and racist. This should give some perspective on the intelligence of either claim.)

The ICAHD’s publicists claim Seeger thought the environmentalism discussion panels and rallies he participated in (partly funded by JNR) were “apolitical.” The press release indicates a sense of betrayal or disappointment to discover the Jewish National Fund’s long support of Zionism. The press release notes that JNF has been involved in “dispossessing” Palestinians since 1901…meaning he considers the perfectly legal and voluntary sale of land to Zionist Jews by the resident peoples of the area in the early twentieth century to be just as much an “occupation” as the military occupation of hostile areas following the Six-Day War, the latter of which is what BDS purports to object to, to avoid criticism that they’re merely hateful of Jews.

What Seeger’s making clear here is that he objects to Israel’s very right to exist, aside from the complex international legal ambiguities surrounding the occupied territories, Gaza and the West Bank. According to Seeger’s logic, any Jew in Israel is an occupier, whether he’s building a new home on the West Bank or whether he lives on a communal farm that was purchased inarguably lawfully from a Palestinian a hundred years ago. Even more pernicious are his methods used to support such a view, which follow the typical BDS pattern:

1) Isolate yourself from the debate. Avoid civil, fair discussion with the other side by claiming they haven’t provided a neutral forum for debate (this is what he’s doing by boycotting JNF events — not simply discouraging contributions to JNF itself). Remember the 2009 Toronto Film Festival?

2) Delegitimize the opposition. This flows naturally from the first step. It’s another layer of insulation from the debate: if one accepts the premise that the other side is inescapably corrupted by special interests or undemocratic influences, it makes perfect sense to claim it’s beneath one to engage them in debate. This is done in a variety of ways.

Some are simple: Israel’s enemies like to complain that supporters of Israel are oversensitive, needlessly crying “anti-Semitism!” whenever someone criticizes an Israeli policy. On the contrary, there is ample evidence of the vibrant criticism and debate of Israeli politics within the worldwide community of Israel supporters. The “criticism” that Israel’s enemies refer to, however, is nothing less than a full frontal attack on Israel’s right to exist. By conflating it with more reasoned criticism and debate of the nation’s policies, Israel’s enemies hope to simultaneously legitimize this attack while neutralizing the opposition. A good analogy is that a person can criticize specific American policies without being anti-American; but a person who claims America ought to be comprehensively annihilated is by definition anti-American. And yet Israel’s enemies claim the situation is actually the reverse: that people who approach Israel’s complex problems within the framework of Israel’s statehood are bigots, while people who beg for the annihilation of all the Jews in Palestine have a legitimate place in the debate and ought not to be called bigots.

Other methods are far more pernicious. Claims that Zionism is simply a tool of Western Islamophobia; that Zionism is racist, and support for a Jewish homeland therefore has no place in civilized debate; and that Israel’s supporters are all puppets of a secretive and undemocratic “Israel lobby” or “Zionist conspiracy” are all common methods of “winning” the debate by throwing the other side out of the forum.

3) Fabricate and distort the evidence to portray Israelis as inhuman monsters. Once one has isolated oneself from the debate, and delegitimized the opposition, this is both easy and inviting. Any passionate and creative person knows the temptation of being carried away by the power of one’s description of events, while losing sight of accuracy and accountability. But once the first two steps are complete, accuracy and accountability are obsolete. Once already fueled by the a priori conviction that Israel has no right to exist, evidence is simply putty in a talented artist’s hands. It doesn’t matter what it is; only what it can be made into.

At the end of a process like this, even Pete Seeger can get upset at people for planting trees.

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