September 20, 2019

The black swan of UNSCR 2334

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2334 against the settlements is a “black swan.” Everything about it should have been expected, but its effect is potentially transformative, not only for Israel but also for American Jewry and for any of its key institutions — such as Federations, Hillels, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), AJC, the Anti-Defamation League, Conference of Presidents, Birthright and the Israeli American Council — which are struggling to straddle the elusive “center” of the Jewish community. It will soon create a massive challenge of learning and leadership. 

In the world of strategy, a “black swan” is a metaphor for an occurrence, which creates a significant setback that should have been anticipated, but could be understood only in retrospect. In other words, the surprise that comes with a black swan is not caused by a lack of information, but by an inability to understand and effectively respond to a fundamental change in the strategic landscape, which suddenly exposes long-held mindsets and strategies as irrelevant. 

So, what makes UNSCR 2334 a black swan? After all, it can be conveniently framed as just another nasty resolution by the biased United Nations, made possible by the personal dislike between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Furthermore, the incoming Donald Trump administration seems intent on returning to steadfast support for Israel. Hence, not much to worry about. 

Well, the answer is that UNSCR 2334 is a black swan because it elevated the “targeted boycotts” approach, which has been focusing on the settlements, into the leading strategy of the anti-Israel movement and the defining challenge for the pro-Israel movement. As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said clearly in an interview to the Israeli press: “This was a resolution against the settlements. Not against Israel.”

The logic of this new strategy is simple: while attempts to delegitimize and boycott all of Israel led to the coalescing of the pro-Israel movement and to a significant backlash against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, focusing on the settlements creates the opposite effect. The “targeted boycotts” strategy thrives on the seamline between those who view settlements as integral to Israel and hold any resolution or boycott against them as an act against Israel itself, on the one hand, and those who distinguish between the fundamental legitimacy of Israel-proper, within the pre-1967 lines, and the unsettled status of the settlements in the West Bank, on the other hand. Therefore, the latter group does not necessarily hold such acts against the settlements to be acts against Israel. In fact, for some, when coupled with support for Israel and for the principle of two-states-for-two-peoples, criticizing and boycotting the settlements can be acts of legitimization toward Zionism and the State of Israel. 

These dynamics were clear to those in the Palestinian Authority who crafted UNSCR 2334. Its language allows many in Israel and within the Jewish world to take a stand-off position with regard to this resolution, and even support it. Careful read of the text could be understood to include a tacit recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People, albeit within the June 4, 1967 lines including West Jerusalem. Furthermore, the wording of the resolution does not preclude further territorial arrangements that would address Israel’s claims to the Western Wall and within East Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. 

Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu was correct to observe that members of the left-wing in Israel supported the same resolution as did Hamas. This is quite remarkable, and demonstrates the capability of targeted boycotts to drive a wedge within Israeli society between hawks and doves, between Israel and many of its current supporters and through Diaspora Jewish communities. 

A black-swan event is always met with a denial of its true nature and an aggressive more-of-the-same response. This was also the case with regards to UNSCR 2334: the hostility of the UN was highlighted and the likelihood of tangible legal and economic sanctions against Israel was dismissed. The resolution was framed as undermining the peace process, while the settlements were equated with communities within Israel-proper, rejecting any relevant distinction between Judea and Samaria and pre-67 Israel. Then, action included strong condemnations; threats against the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations; and diplomatic sanctions against Senegal or the UK. Finally, there is the comfort of the coming Trump Administration. President-Elect Trump himself reaffirmed the wishful thinking that this was a singular event by tweeting: “things will be different after January 20.” While all of above may be true, but also only a part of a much more powerful dynamics. 

One may ask: where is the drama if legal measures and boycotts against Israel will continue to be blocked? Why should American Jews worry if the relations between the Israeli Premiership and American Presidency are likely to improve? Well, the answer is that the world of the pro-Israel movement looks great when looking top-down, but quite alarming when looking bottom-up.  

In fact, we may be looking at the making of a perfect storm coming toward the American-Jewish community due to the confluence of a few powerful dynamics. First, there is the polarization of general American society. The astonishing electoral victory granted Mr. Trump and the Republican Party control over the Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives and, presumably, the Supreme Court. In other words, America’s top-down will be conservative and Republican. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the backlash of liberals and Democrats in America will be bottom-up, and emanate from large cities and many campuses that will become hotbeds of resistance to the Trump administration. Jews will play a central role in this dynamics building on their prominent role in liberal America, particularly on campuses and in the mainstream media, and their concentration in its large cities.

The second factor is that the Trump administration seems to be closely aligning with the current government of Israel, likely to endorse its positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the settlements. Against this backdrop, the likely expansion of the targeted boycotts approach among groups that are opposed to or critical of Israel may turn the stature of the settlements into a defining issue within American politics for Jews and non-Jews.  

For the organized Jewish community and its key institutions, this situation is explosively dangerous. Among liberal Jews, two compounding deep frustrations – with the Trump Administration and with the current political situation in Israel – may begin to play off each other. This feedback loop may brew a tsunami that will transform the discourse around the settlements from the field of politics to the field of ethics and from right-vs-left to right-vs-wrong. Such a perfect storm can disrupt any Jewish organization, which is struggling to be inclusive. In other words, the logic of “yes to Israel; no to Settlements” may eventually challenge every pro-Israel group, every mission that travels to Israel, every grant that is being made in Israel and every map that is being hung on every wall of every Israel-loving school. 

What should be the response and what is the adaptation that must take place now in order to contain the threat? There are few key principles: First, a credible and consistent commitment of the Government of Israel to ending the control over the Palestinian population has always been essential for successfully containing the delegitimization of Israel. It is now more crucial than ever before in order to help the American Jewish community weather the storm. 

Second, the definition delegitimization of Israel must be narrowed to mean a singular negation of the right of the State of Israel to exist and of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. In other words, those institutions that would like to continue to be politically diverse must contend not only with the idea that criticism of Israel does not necessarily amount to delegitimization, but also with the understanding that targeted boycotts of settlements should be seen as delegitimization only when they reflect a rejection of the right of Israel to exist. As difficult as this may be for some, preserving the integrity of key community institutions would require this kind of tolerance. In fact, the broad-tent approach, which calls for embracing the diversity of the pro-Israel movement as an asset in the effort to strengthen Israel’s legitimacy, is now crucially important.  

Third, making the “progressive case for Israel” has also become more acute . This requires developing the language and capabilities to engage progressive groups with a message that will keep them away from the anti-Israel movement. It also requires urgently strengthening the strategic alliances and partnerships with key demographic groups in the United States that tend to be liberal and therefore may slip down the path of criticism of and action against Israel. 

Finally, the unique role of Jewish peoplehood organizations must be acknowledged. This refers primarily to Federations, Hillel centers, Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs) and Jewish Community Centers, which were established with the aim of serving the entire Jewish community across its diversity in non-political areas such as education, welfare and community relations. These organizations face a serious challenge, where political debates may compromise their ability to serve their non-political mission. Hence, protecting them requires de-politicizing their board rooms. Failing to do so may weaken the key Jewish institutions and compromise the vitality of the entire community. 

It has long been established that the battle for Israel’s fundamental legitimacy has turned into a struggle between the pro-Israel and the anti-Israel networks and movements that are seeking to outperform each other. UNSCR 2334 may have redefined the challenge facing the pro-Israel community. Now it is our turn to step up, but this will require some hard choices and leadership.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Group, a Tel Aviv-based social impact group, and the author of “Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.”