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“This olive tree that prays to God, what did it do?”: On the BDS Campaign and Israel

February 23, 2016

On February 18, 2016, the Conservative Party of Canada proposed a parliamentary motion[i]:

That, given Canada and Israel share a long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations, the House reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.

The Liberals have said they will support it in a vote, which will be held on February 22, 2016.[ii] [Editor’s note: The proposed motion was passed on Feb. 22 by a vote of 229-51As a person with Jewish ancestry living in Canada, I felt compelled to respond, but my own words proved insufficient to the task. Instead, I have produced a collage of others’ words to craft a story, the collective impact of which far exceeds anything I could produce alone. All italics are direct quotations; the full list of sources is in the endnotes, and links to the original sources are provided where possible. Non-italicized parts are my own words (to the extent that anything is ever our own).

*          *         *

‘i’m not that kind of jew,’ she says. ‘ok,’ I said, ‘me neither.’

“Zionist” has become the hateful code word for “Jew”.[iii]

We are alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch…we are disgusted and outraged by Elie Wiesel’s abuse of our history in these pages to justify the unjustifiable: Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children. Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.[iv]

The rise of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities in academia begs for an effective strategy to prepare Jewish students to fight BDS on college campuses before they go to college. Getting Jewish teens to Israel en masse, combined with Israel advocacy training in local communities before they go to college, is the only shot we have to build an army of ‘boots on the ground’ on college campuses.[v]

It is especially painful for left-leaning Jewish-Israelis, because we believe so wholeheartedly that we already know about inequality, how bad it is and what should be done about it.[vi]

are we the Chosen People? to wit: ‘As a Jew, I have a responsibility to defend Israel – its Jewish demographic advantage, and its right to defend itself from Palestinian threats.’ ‘As a Jew, I have a responsibility to critique Israel and support Palestine, based on both Jewish values, and given what happened to us in the Shoah.’ two sides, same coin?

*          *         *

we arrived in Budapest at the same time the first significant number of refugees began to arrive from Syria. they were being denied trains to Vienna. we met at the youth centre of the European Commission. large red hearts adorned the sliding glass doors: “NO HATE.” the lies start there, and proliferate: the benevolent host, the uncivil refugee, the universal dream. history is not repeating itself, but it is rhyming.[vii] and when does our history begin? I have learned not to trust accounts of European barbarism that begin and end with Hitler.

if my kind and category was once subjected to the local nightmarish underside of the European dream, the nightmare it unleashed abroad on its Asian, American, and African colonies, I am now invited to be a full participant. I can partake in myths about origins in ancient Greece! I can make my claim on universal human rights! (they were declared in my memory, after all.) a universal human, my particularities now adequately contained.

‘it’s like you became Jewish again, just so you could critique Israel.’ ‘maybe I did.’

we were High Holy Day kind of Jews. non-maternal line Jews. non-Kosher. we are not the kind of Jews I imagine Israel wants. or maybe it wants whoever will claim it, to shore up the count? Israel does not speak for me, but if it’s going to say it does, then what to do? the paradox: you can only hear me say ‘Israel does not speak for me’ if you are trying to extend the claim that it does; without this, then I have no special place to speak. if I respond, have you successfully interpellated me, in spite of my protests? why should I have a special place to speak? I have no investment in Israel, and on top of that, I am a Bad Jew. yet I can say things that others cannot say, even though they should also be able to say them, unless we want to submit to the notion that to critique Israel is to be anti-Semitic. I have no claim to Israel, but if you’re going to claim it for me, I’ll try to repurpose that space you’ve created without my consent, to say something else: No.

*          *         *

I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had over the years with Jewish defenders of the State of Israel whose position is entirely fair and eminently reasonable—so long as you forget that there are actual Palestinians living there. People I love and respect mount air-tight arguments and make genuinely moving cases to me about the Jewish need for a refuge from persecution; about the desire to live somewhere—anywhere, say some—where they are not a minority; about the stirring feeling of hearing Hebrew spoken in the street; about the longing to feel at home. About wanting to be a teenager who loves her hair. All of this I hear, and think, yes, of course, how could anyone not understand and empathize with that? But all of these heartfelt and legitimate claims rest upon a simple omission: the Palestinians. For these claims to obtain their intended force, we have to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t there—or that they don’t exist.[viii]

maybe the project of Israel was an attempt to address a wound that went horribly awry. maybe what some Jews feel as a genuine connection to the land of the nation-state now called Israel is a twisted manifestation of trying to heal the pain of separation. I will not adjudicate the historical veracity of this claimed connection, but I will observe that, in an attempt to heal this wound, settlers created many others (right out of the colonial playbook) in an attempt to affirm felt entanglement with the land, denial of entanglement with those who live(d) there, and with the olive trees they burn(ed). they misidentify ownership of land as affirmation of connection. they created a State and mobilized Capital to suture a cutting, because they forgot that States and Capital require cutting for their creation and maintenance. but: claims of immunity, because of earlier wounds.

The idea that a forcible dispossession of others might rightfully compensate for having been forcibly dispossessed follows no legitimate ethical or legal line or reasoning.[ix] 

while the women were still in transit camps in Ethiopia they were sometimes intimidated or threatened into taking the injection. “They told us they are inoculations,” said one of the women interviewed. “They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn’t want to.”[x]

“We have to take all the Bedouin and get them out of the desert a bit and bring them closer to a normal state from the perspective of legislation, life expectancy, education and livelihood,” Shamir said. “Perhaps we could even deal with the phenomenon of multiple wives to reduce the birthrate and raise the standard of living.”[xi]

The Jewish people were persecuted for thousands of years. How can we not be happy for them, knowing they have found a place where they will always feel at home?[xii]

And no sound-bite, no sound-bite I come up with, no matter how good my English gets, no sound-bite, no sound-bite, no sound-bite, no sound-bite will bring them back to life.[xiii]

*          *         *

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, in essence, a conflict over territory…Realization of the Zionist dream necessarily involved displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs who lived there and owned most of the land…Although religion plays a role in defining the identities of the parties to the conflict, and for some Jews, in justifying their claims to the land, the conflict is not, fundamentally, a religious conflict.[xiv] 

Insofar as the U.S. is also a settler colonial regime whose very essence and protocols are racial-military domination, it shares with Israel, in an extraordinarily visceral way, this tendency violently to insist on its right to exist and on the rightness of its existence no matter what forms that existence takes, no matter how much the everyday life of the state contradicts its stated principles.[xv]

Samia Halaby Working on For Niihau from Palestine 1985

“For Niihau from Palestine” (1985), a mural dedicated to “the liberation of the original Hawaiians.”

My turn to state an equation: colonization = ‘thing-ification.’[xvi]

Catastrophe is precisely not a chain of events where something happens in the past leads to something in the future. Under conditions of catastrophe, there is only one catastrophe, and it keeps on happening, ‘keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage’ in a present time that is the time of reiterated destruction.[xvii]

What if your neighborhood was a giant prison?[xviii]

 The overriding assumption at work in these colonial frontier logics is that Indigenous peoples and Canadians inhabit separate realities. The inherent intention is to deny relationality.[xix]  

Physical geographic segregation is a potent metaphor for the multiple sites of separation and oppositions generated by the state, but which are also sustained in the very knowledge frameworks we deploy and in the contradictory practices of living the oppositions we enforce.[xx]

I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?[xxi]

olive tree

Still shot from the film 5 Broken Cameras.

Certain regimes of the universal prove to be limited.[xxii] only certain ones? here’s the thing about the universal: it’s only legible against the particular, which is its constitutive paradox. it cannot exist apart that with which it is already in relation, that which it is not but also cannot be without. the minute I say, here is the universal, I have already announced what and who matters, and what and who does not; the initial violence, the basis of all further relations, which also require a denial of those relations. and no translation, radical interpretation, or reappropriation will change that.

…it will not do to say that the demand is preontological and thus prior to any and all language.[xxiii] but why not? why can’t we imagine the possibility of relationships outside of recognition, and of responsibility before will? this does not mean that get to we deny our place in historical relations, the structural positions we inhabit. but there may also be a wound without origin except the lie of separation. denial of inseparability is maintained through borders and domination and exploitation. denial or not, it simply is, and not only between humans but also all other living beings. we and flesh and earth entangled, more and less than one.[xxiv] the question then becomes: what would it take to affirm this, rather than efface it? according to Moten, we would have to relinquish normative conceptions of subjecthood, citizenship, ownership, and security, and that’s what makes this hard.[xxv]

*          *         *

…decolonization is a process that has to do with working ourselves out of ways of thinking, feeling, and desiring that keep us stuck. A part of that work is realizing that we don’t have to want or need the toxic (for lack of a better term) things that we have learned to depend on…on a fundamental level the process of decolonization requires that we are undone and unmoored by the idea of living in a way that requires mass death (in its various forms) in exchange for other’s self-actualization. By become undone, I mean it really has to fuck us up in our core and make us relentless about seeking out and making alternatives possible.[xxvi]

why do we keep wanting things that hurt other people? and what exactly are we so afraid of? insufficiency, uncertainty, discomfort, vulnerability, unassimilable difference, losing our exceptionalism, and that we will have to give it all back (yes, all of it). maybe we want another world but we want to control how it is created and everything about what it looks like. undoubtedly, criticality and caution and accountability need to accompany this work; there are significant risks involved – most of all, the deepening of already violent relations. so you say you are seeking The End of the World as we know it.[xxvii] if the World is empire and we are made in the World then undoing empire means undoing ourselves, too. and to really be undone, there can be no guarantees,[xxviii] no charters.[xxix]

My question is: why does policy not change? What does this situation teach us about the connection between intellectual radicalism, conscientious investigative journalism in an era of Internet explosion, and policy? I believe this situation, with its uneven balance of legitimized violence and extra-state organization of violence, is or should be a lesson for us to rethink how to intervene. What are the chances for democracy with the state gone and no global governance? We do not need such a teaching text. But Israel-Palestine has become that for us, rather than a call for a continuation of earlier techniques of what we think of as intervention in global policy. I have no answer here, but I have delayed so long in writing a word because intellectual and gendered politics show me no way; and being counted no longer seems to suffice. I attend carefully to produced analysis and commentary. I join whenever I can. And yet I have no answer.[xxx]

Perhaps coexistence projects would fare better if they had as their single and guiding aim the undoing of Israeli colonial power and military force.[xxxi] 

We kept digging more and more, with bare hands, with cracked fingernails. We dug so deep, so far, that we canceled out the blockade and the borders and the definitions of the upper world. We dug underneath all of that rubbish, and then we kept digging along the length and breadth of the land whose refugees we are. We returned to it, deep down in the earth. We realized a subterranean right of return.[xxxii]

When virtuality guides our imaging of political existence, then the only significant demand is Reconstruction: the end of state-capital is the demand for the restoration of total value expropriated through the violent appropriated of the productive capacity of native lands and slave labor.[xxxiii]  

*          *         *

‘I’m for a two-state solution.’ ‘I’m for a bi-national state.’ ‘I’m for no state at all.’

I am as Active as any Concerned Academic over the Politics of Palestine…I add these words because the previous title ‘To Explain My Silence’, was no more than a subject-line in a private e-mail sent to Amin Husain because of my silence not over Palestine, but over the American Studies intervention in BDS, even on which issue I have engaged in a good deal of e-mail activism, simply not gone forward to contribute to Tidal. The title, misunderstood, has generated accusations of alibi-seeking by an engaged intellectual, a friend.[xxxiv]

…an apology to Palestinians for the fact that, in the end, the boycott might very well do more for me than it does for you, precisely in its allowing me to be in solidarity with you and with the richness, impossibly developed in dispossession and deprivation as payment of a debt that was never promised and never owed, that also comprises Palestinian social life. Please allow me to augment my apology with an expression of gratitude for the chance that your call for solidarity, which is itself an act of solidarity, provides.[xxxv]


The author is an untenured junior scholar who laments the chilling climate for critique that requires their anonymity. Their work examines the power of colonial illusions and exceptionalisms that enable people to justify things like this: ‘Israel has a right to defend itself, but Palestine does not.’


[i] Opposition Motion – Israel (18 February, 2016). Parliament of Canada. Retrieved from:

[ii] O’Malley, K. (18 February, 2016). Israel boycott debate to dominate House agenda. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from:

[iii] Kent, P. in Opposition Motion – Israel (18 February, 2016). Parliament of Canada. Retrieved from:

[iv] (no author) (23 August, 2014). Holocaust survivors condemn Israel for ‘Gaza Massacre,’ Call for boycott. Haaretz. Retrieved from

[v] Lappin, R. I. (19 February, 2016). Birthright Israel should fun teen trips to Israel immediately. The algemeiner. Retrieved from:

[vi] Winegar, J. (17 November, 2015). It’s not the end of the world, it’s a necessary challenge to our cosmology: Reflections of an Israeli anthropologist. Savage Minds. Retrieved from:

[vii] Fraser, G. (25 January, 2016). Wristbands and red doors for refugees: history is not repeating itself, but it is rhyming. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

[viii] Robin, C. (5 February, 2014). Jewfrows in Palestine. Jacobin. Retrieved from:

[ix] Butler, J. (2012). Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press. (p. 15)

[x] Nesher, T. (27 January, 2013). Israel admits Ethiopian women were given birth control shots. Haaretz. Retrieved from:

[xi] Sidler, S. (29 September, 2014). Minister: Israel looking for ways to lower Bedoin birthrate. Haaretz. Retrieved from:

[xii] Dion, S in Opposition Motion – Israel (18 February, 2016). Parliament of Canada. Retrieved from:

[xiii] Ziadah, R. (11 December, 2011). We teach life, Sir. [spoken word poem] Retrieved from:

[xiv] Institute for Middle East Understanding. (7 November, 2005). What is the Palestinian conflict really about?

[xv] Moten. F. (7 November, 2009). The new international of insurgent feeling. Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. Retrieved from:

[xvi] Césaire, A. (2000). Discourse on colonialism, trans J. Pickham. New York: Monthly Review Press. Retrieved from:

[xvii] Butler, J. (2012). Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press. (pp. 223-224)

[xviii] Sieradski, D. (2014). What if your neighborhood was a giant prison? Retrieved from:

[xix] Donald, D., Glanfield, F., & Sterenberg, G. (2012). Living ethically within conflicts of colonial authority and relationality. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 10(1), 53-76. (p. 54) Retrieved from:

[xx] Alexander, M. J. (2005). Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Durham: Duke University Press. (p. 5) Retrieved from:

[xxi] Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & black study. (p. 10). Retrieved from:

[xxii] Butler, J. (2012). Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press. (p. 23)

[xxiii] Butler, J. (2012). Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press. (p. 19)

[xxiv] Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & black study. (p. 95). Retrieved from:

[xxv] Moten, F. (2014). Performance and Blackness [Video file]. Retrieved from

[xxvi] King, T. L. (2015). Interview with Dr. Tiffany Lethabo King. Feral feminisms. Retrieved from:

[xxvii] Silva, D. F. D. (2014). Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The quest(ion) of Blackness toward the End of the World. The Black Scholar, 44(2), 81-97. (p. 84).

[xxviii] Hall, S. (1996). The problem of ideology: Marxism without Guarantees. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10(2), 28-44.

[xxix] Lorde, A. (1984). The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Retrieved from:

[xxx] Spivak, G. C. (7 February, 2015). I am as Active as any Concerned Academic over the Politics of Palestine. Tidal. Retrieved from:

[xxxi] Butler, J. (2012). Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press. (p. 217)

[xxxii] Zuabi, A. N. (4 August, 2014). The underground ghetto city of Gaza. Haaretz. Retrieved from:

[xxxiii] Silva, D. F. D. (2014). Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The quest(ion) of Blackness toward the End of the World. The Black Scholar, 44(2), 81-97. (p. 94)

[xxxiv] Spivak, G. C. (7 February, 2015). I am as active as any concerned academic over the politics of Palestine. Tidal. Retrieved from:

[xxxv] Moten. F. (7 November, 2009). The new international of insurgent feeling. Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. Retrieved from:



One Comment leave one →
  1. Katyusha permalink
    February 23, 2016 12:18 pm

    Thank you for this; I have always wondered why others don’t see the similarities!

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