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The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and public discourse

May 14, 2019 at 2:22 pm

Protesters gathered in front of the Israeli Embassy in central London, in support of Gaza’s Great March of Return in London, UK on 30 March 2018 [Palestinian Forum in Britain]

Much of the public discourse on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in Canada is superficial, shallow and entirely strategic. When Canadian parliamentarians debated a motion on BDS in February 2016, the discussion was no more than an exercise in the parroting of talking points that have been directed against the campaign ever since its emergence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These talking points are all too familiar for anyone who has taken just a cursory look at the public discourse around BDS: it is allegedly anti-Semitic, hurts Palestinians and unfairly targets Israel, to mention the more prominent claims. I will briefly address some of these issues in this article, but suffice to say that all have been addressed and critiqued substantively by world-renowned academics and leading public intellectuals (for example, see Lim’s edited collection The Case for Sanctions Against Israel, published in 2012). Such talking points do not hold much, if any, substantive merit; rather, they must be seen for what they are; when viewed together, these talking points constitute a strategic discursive attack on BDS.

The famous twentieth century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer taught us that there are two kinds of dialogue. First, there is what he calls an “authentic” dialogue, where participants engage in an honest and open discussion over a subject matter, losing their own desires and interests in their collective effort to understand the subject matter itself by delving into its many dimensions, exploring its depths and illuminating the implications of our understanding of the subject matter.

Then there is what he calls an “inauthentic” dialogue, where participants are not interested in following the subject matter itself; rather, they are simply interested in winning the argument so as to serve their own desires and interests.

Unfortunately, the discourse on BDS has been predominantly inauthentic. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly do not begrudge those who seek to win the debate and assert their strategic interests on the political landscape. Pro-Israel advocates and supporters certainly have the right to do just that. And to be clear, the Canadian state is strategically aligned with Israel politically and economically, which explains why Canadian parliamentarians are advancing talking points that align with Israel’s strategic interests and enhance Israel’s efforts to defeat BDS. Again, it is the right of Canadians, and their representatives, whose own political and economic interests are aligned with the interests of the Israeli state, to assert themselves as such.

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What I am calling for, though, is honesty. Let us not pretend that this discussion is at all concerned with Palestinian human rights, freedom and liberation. It is not. The Canadian Parliament passed with ease the motion condemning BDS and its supporters by a vote of 229-51. The motion did not introduce any legal repercussions for those taking part in BDS groups and activities, but we should not be tempted here to think that this is a “light” reaction, typical of Canada’s “moderation” in foreign affairs. The condemnation of BDS sent a clear signal, not just to Canadian supporters of BDS, but also to Palestinian civil society: the Canadian government is not interested in engaging with what Palestinian civil society has to say about the plight of the Palestinian people and, most importantly, their aspirations.

As far as the Canadian Parliament is concerned, Palestinians are entitled only to education, jobs and healthcare. For the majority of Canadian parliamentarians — mostly Liberal and Conservative MPs — these basic needs constitute their understanding of Palestinian human rights, and thus they favour the “two-state” solution, which will create not a Palestinian state in the full sense of an independent nation-state, but rather a Palestinian administrative structure whose responsibility would be to provide those basic needs, in addition to policing the Palestinian resistance against Israel. Any Palestinian campaign that articulates the Palestinian people’s aspiration toward a free and liberated social and political life is deemed within the discursive space of Canadian politics as dangerous and beyond the scope of what is accepted as a “legitimate” assertion of Palestinian rights.

BDS is not just asking for basic services like education and jobs. It operates on twin foundations: rights for all Palestinians regardless of where they are in the world, and the necessity of targeting the Israeli state precisely because it prohibits the realisation of Palestinian rights to freedom and liberty. These foundations were established by a Palestinian leadership, the BDS National Committee (BNC), which was formed in 2007. Any BDS group must follow those basic foundations. However, BDS is also a transnational campaign that encourages its transnational offshoots to operate autonomously once they have adhered to the basic foundations. The reasoning here is simple; each group knows best the context in which it operates, and should therefore develop its own tactics and strategies to advance the foundational goals of BDS.

Poster to call singer Madonna to cancel her show at the upcoming Eurovision contest on18 May, 2019, in Tel Aviv, Israel [London Palestine Action/Facebook]

The BDS campaign insistence on addressing the Palestinian issue in a comprehensive manner, addressing Palestinian refugees and the question of their return, is what has drawn the hostile reaction against it and the predominance of an inauthentic dialogue and the question of Palestinian rights.

There are two interrelated talking points that are most commonly used to counter BDS in an inauthentic dialogue: the charge of anti-Semitism and the unfair targeting of Israel.

The argument goes something like this: there are many oppressive and violent regimes in the world, so why is BDS targeting Israel above all the others? The answer promoted within inauthentic dialogue is that BDS targets Israel only because it is a Jewish state, and this is then presented as the proof of the BDS campaign’s “anti-Semitism”. This has, in fact, been a very effective discursive technique, which many on the political right and the centre, as well as some on the political left, find convincing. But if we are to engage in an authentic dialogue, we can see a different understanding. The BDS campaign emerged in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; it was articulated, developed and launched by Palestinian civil society. So why would Palestinians living under Israeli occupation launch a campaign against oppression in other parts of the world when they are barely able to survive the oppressive structures under which they live? Only when BDS is viewed as a “Western” affair taking place within “Western” spaces, does the question of “why Israel?” become puzzling and even convincing. Palestinians did not simply choose Israel because it is a Jewish state; they target Israel because Israel is the state that continuously targets Palestinians. It really is not that complicated.

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It is certainly possible for BDS to engage in an inauthentic dialogue with pro-Israel advocates when it is attacked. But I think it is more fruitful to instead place BDS firmly in authentic dialogue. This could very well be a naïve stance, but I cannot see another way forward beyond a slanging match.

What might an authentic dialogue look like? One of the core principles of BDS is anti-racism; as a result, BDS in Canada (and I think this applies to the US and Britain as well) should address the question of anti-Semitism that is part and parcel of the space in which the campaign operates. Anti-Semitism is real, alive, very dangerous still and even growing and spreading. Is it possible that some of the people who support BDS in Canada (and anywhere else), especially online, hold anti-Semitic views? Of course it is possible. BDS organisers and groups should, therefore, remain vigilant and strive to expel such people from their groups, whether they are digital supporters or are physically present at BDS events. We can and should have more meaningful conversations over anti-Semitism as well as the nature of the Palestinian resistance against Israel, which is rooted in the displacement and suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state.

I do not know what the future holds for BDS as a campaign, but I do know that it is but the latest manifestation of a kind of Palestinian resistance that will never cease. If BDS is defeated, then history suggests that another campaign or activity will take its place. Regardless of what Israel, the USA, Britain, Canada or the rest of the world desires, a Palestinian resistance that seeks to address the suffering of the Palestinian people in a comprehensive manner will not move into the dustbin of history. It will continue to appear and reappear until justice is achieved. The sooner everyone realises and accepts this, the sooner we can engage in an authentic dialogue over Palestinian rights, and properly address the aspirations of all of the people in Palestine/Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.