September 22, 2018

Me, Nancy Kricorian and BDS

Spring means new buds on the trees, rhubarb at the farmers markets and Israel Apartheid Week on college campuses.

I’ve long wanted to use Israel Apartheid Week as an excuse to speak to a thoughtful proponent of BDS, if only to better understand the movement’s growing popularity. But the ones I’ve come across are often the doppelgangers of their most virulent opponents — sputtering with rage and party-line thinking.

Then I heard from Nancy Kricorian.

Nancy didn’t know she was contacting me. I received a PR email from a group called Code Pink. After a seven-year campaign of protest and boycotts against Ahava, Code Pink pressured the Dead Sea cosmetics company to move its factory from a West Bank location to inside Israel’s pre-Six Day War borders.

For further information, the press release read, “Contact Nancy Kricorian.”

The name stopped me short. Thirty years ago, I knew a Nancy Kricorian at Dartmouth College. She was talented and sensitive, with long, dark hair and a lovely aquiline nose — a fellow ethnic on a campus that was then WASP Central. We read each other’s poems. We went to the same rallies against South African apartheid. Nancy opened my eyes to the Armenian genocide — and in doing so to the very idea that genocide in modern times was not just a Jewish issue. Could it be her?

“I am indeed your classmate,” Nancy emailed me from her home in New York after I reached out to her. “I’ve been the campaign manager for this effort since its inception in 2009, so I can answer almost any question you might have about it.”

We decided to talk via email. 

First, I needed to fill in the last 30 years. After Dartmouth, Nancy went on to get her MFA at Columbia University, published well-received volumes of poetry, then several novels. She married James Schamus, a screenwriter (“Ice Storm”) and producer (“Brokeback Mountain”). Together they raised two children. 

My first question was the one that baffles even those people eager to end the occupation of the West Bank, for the sake of both the Palestinians and Israel: Why single out Israel? What about Syria, North Korea or Saudi Arabia? 

“The fact that the United States government currently gives Israel over $3 billion in military aid a year means that as a U.S. taxpayer, I am underwriting the Caterpillar militarized bulldozers that are demolishing Palestinian homes,” Nancy responded. She added, “As a U.S. citizen, U.S. support for and complicity in Israel’s gross violations of international law and abridgment of Palestinian human rights makes justice for Palestine a personal issue for me.”

I asked her who funds the BDS movement. I could almost hear her familiar laugh through the computer.

“Who pays for what?” she wrote. “The poster board? The felt-tipped pens? Pretty much everyone here is a volunteer. We do this because we care about equality and justice.” 

But what I really don’t get about BDS, I wrote back, is what the end game is. When we fought apartheid, the prize was clear: democracy in South Africa. But what does the BDS movement want? 

That’s when Nancy referred me to a website that lists the demands: BDS will go on until Israel “ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantles the Wall, recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. Resolution 194.”

That was dispiriting, I told Nancy. The demand that all Palestinians be able to return to Israel would mean the end of Israel, in a way that the apartheid movement never sought the end of South Africa. As for the metric of “full equality” for Arab Israelis — who’s to judge when that has happened? There isn’t “full equality” in the U.S. BDS demands went beyond the United Nations, beyond even what Palestinian negotiators over the years have been willing to accept.  

I realized my questions for Nancy were getting argumentative, like when I asked whether she would support a boycott of Armenia over its illegal occupation of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. After all, which of us fellow ethnics has completely clean hands? So I wasn’t surprised when the next email came. 

“I’m afraid that your arguments don’t convince me any more than mine seem to have an impact on your thinking. I believe you are well intentioned,” she wrote, “and I hope you believe that I am well intentioned, but as each thinks the other’s ideas are wrong-headed, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to continue the back and forth.”

But before Nancy signed off, she wrote this: “I have found that as an organizer if I’m working with people who are promoting what I think are ineffective or even bad ideas, the best way to right the course of our efforts is to propose to them a BETTER idea. Do you have another strategy to suggest? And that is not a rhetorical question.” 

Israel and the organized Jewish community are justified in fighting BDS — it is not just anti-occupation, it’s anti-Israel. But young people who don’t accept this conflict’s endless violence and injustice are searching for a way to be not just against BDS, but for a just peace. 

It’s a really good question, Nancy. And the Jewish community needs to answer it.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism and @RobEshman.