No civil society group in the United States has undergone as much censorious repression as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — better known simply as BDS — and the most radical critic of Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank. Twenty-eight states have passed “anti-boycott” legislation condemning BDS. Israel has published a “blacklist” of groups whose members will be denied entry into the country. With an air of paranoia, mainstream Jewish and Zionist organisations have condemned BDS. And why not? It helps justify their existence.
Campus after campus has made BDS unwelcome, although it is true that support for the movement has grown among young student radicals, and it has prompted offshoots and allied groupings in Europe. However, it is also true that BDS has made little headway in American political life. Perhaps 35 out of 435 members of Congress supported a tepid resolution in defence of Palestinian Human Rights, but the House of Representatives also passed a resolution condemning BDS overwhelmingly. What’s more, there was strong bipartisan support for President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and for a “peace plan” that any sane Palestinian would find unacceptable. Meanwhile, punishment for criticising Israel on US campuses occurs so often that the Centre for Constitutional Rights has spoken caustically about a “Palestinian exception” to free speech. Needless to say, Trump has described BDS as a terrorist organisation.
A number of my very close friends are supporters of BDS, and I trust their intelligence and integrity implicitly. The majority of BDS supporters are neither anti-Semites nor self-hating Jews, but rather radicals seeking justice for a colonised people denied the right of national self-determination. Their outraged backing for the Palestinians is, in principle, no different than what rebels of an earlier time extended to the North Vietnamese against the United States or the Algerians against France. Initially, those white critics supporting people of colour against Western imperialism were a minority; ultimately, of course, that changed. BDS is hoping for more of the same.
Existing alongside these radicals of goodwill, almost inevitably there are blatant ant-Semites involved in the BDS movement who speak about driving the Jews into the sea, abolishing Israel and possible deportations. They actually get more press coverage than they deserve and it is true that too many excuses are still being made on their behalf.
Moreover, there are reasons why the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah keeps its distance from BDS; only Hamas offers it ideological support. For better or worse, Israel remains Palestine’s primary economic partner while Egypt as well as Jordan, which have peace treaties with Israel, have little use for BDS.
I am not a member of BDS, nor is my co-director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue, Eric Gozlan. That decision is rooted in our principles and interests.
BDS calls upon Israel to retreat beyond its 1967 borders; provide equal rights for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians; acknowledge the right of return; knock down the odious border controls; and essentially allow for free intercourse between Arabs and Israelis. On the question of one-state or two, BDS is coy; it has no objection to an Israeli state, but not on Palestinian land. BDS thus draws the distinction between Jews and Zionists as if that helps explain the future treatment of Israeli citizens who might be Jews and Zionists, or neither, or one of the two. It is also not clear whether the right of return is meant as a symbolic demand or a practical one; symbolically, and legitimately, it calls for compensating the Palestinian community, not individuals. As a practical political demand, however, BDS has offered no ideas about how to repatriate millions of individuals into a new state with what will surely prove to be a fragile economy. Given the bureaucratic problems associated with constituting a unified state, the lack of trust or empathy between Israelis and Palestinians, the transformation of Jews from a majority into a minority, and the lack of clarity concerning the government that the Palestinians wish to introduce, there is little serious incentive for either side to support the BDS agenda.
Admittedly, these are mostly long-term strategic considerations, but the short-term tactics of BDS are also problematic. Just as the Zionist right wing ignores Palestinian interests, BDS ignores Israeli security issues and has no constructive ideas about what to do with the hundreds of thousands of mostly reactionary settlers or the orthodox part of the Jewish community that together might well take up arms against the Israeli government in the face of any transformative political project. Without support from Ramallah, moreover, BDS would leave Israel in the position of having to negotiate with two partners thus projecting the self-defeating prospect not of one state, or two states, but three.
Israel has no sympathy for BDS, and even Meretz, a genuinely left-wing party, rejects it. Perhaps this is because there is even a lack of clarity about the meaning of “boycott”, “divestment” and “sanctions”. Depending on who one asks, “boycott” and “divestment” are meant to target companies with direct ties to the Israeli occupation; all companies doing business with Israel, but not universities; all corporations and all universities but not progressive academics and artists; or all of the above. Furthermore, anyone with even a cursory knowledge about sanctions knows that they mostly have an impact on working people, the poor, and the most vulnerable. There is also no reason why Israel – as against a litany of far more repressive and genocidal states – should alone be the subject of boycott, divestment, and sanctions.
BDS has put no meaningful proposals on the table, but its existence has pressured other, sometimes liberal and Zionist organisations like J-Street, to endorse boycotting and divesting from companies that are engaged actively in the occupation of Palestine. That is a genuine contribution. Raising awareness about the conflict among the young is another. And presenting the radical Palestinian standpoint is still another. However, the movement’s critics acknowledge none of this. They know it all, there is nothing to be learned, so shut down BDS, and liberal principles be damned.
It is high time for both sides to show a little humility. Engage in symbolic protests if you like, turn your backs on speakers, or even walk out of an assembly; but protest against their ideas (and tackle them seriously) not their right to speak.
Kant knew that freedom of speech is the foundation for all other political freedoms. And there is that famous line attributed (falsely) to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The hysteria surrounding BDS in the US and now in Europe is deplorable. The far-right can do what it wishes, but when liberals, socialists and people of the left start mimicking its calls for censorship and the denial of free assembly, things never turn out well. Israel has not divulged which groups supporting BDS have been banned, and this, my friends, is a dangerous precedent.
Censoring the far left has traditionally been the first step on the road to censoring others. The self-righteous critics of BDS generally surrender to the paranoia, intolerance, and extremism that they otherwise denounce. Of course, similar criticisms apply to those in BDS who ignore the enlightenment values upon which their project should be based. Such attitudes lead only to political practices that increase the visibility, publicity, and martyr-like status of their target. When Jews proclaim support for Trump or France’s Marine Le Pen, because such leaders are “good for the Jews” or because of the venom they spout against Arabs and people of colour generally, these opportunists are not being “realistic” or “pragmatic”. They are just being short-sighted in swallowing ideological nonsense, abandoning their principles, isolating Israel still further, and fomenting anti-Semitic resentment, while forgetting that their new right-wing allies can (and probably will) change policies in the blink of an eye.
No less than the folks in BDS, the movement’s reactionary critics also lack a positive vision for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian concerns simply don’t matter to them. By implicitly or explicitly endorsing Israeli settlement expansion, balkanising the West Bank, and boycotting Gaza, their stubborn arrogance contributes to a politics of stasis that has become ever more odious and frustrating.
It’s almost as if BDS and its right-wing critics have become mirror images of one another: les extremes se touchent. Supporters of BDS seem congenitally incapable of admitting that Palestinian leaders ever made a mistake. Palestinians are victims pure and simple; memories of the brutal Palestinian expulsion from their lands, pride and honour prevented their leaders from adapting tactics and demands to an ever-greater imbalance of power, and all this while their future state began to shrink and turn from a viable into a non-contiguous entity.
As for the right-wing critics of BDS, the situation is no different: lack of peace is always the fault of the Palestinians; atrocities committed against them during the expulsion from the new state of Israel were not really that bad, not compared to what the Jews suffered in the Holocaust; and Biblical claims to Judea and Samaria justify any Israeli use of excessive force and any of its imperialist ambitions. Like Israel, for whom it claims to speak, the extremist right is also a victim, actually a greater victim, though very few are still alive who ever experienced a concentration camp; only necessity has forced these victims into the role of conquerors.
Intransigence and self-righteousness have led both BDS and its reactionary critics to consider anything except uncritical support as what communists used to call an “objective apology” for the enemy. Dialogue has broken down and political positions have hardened on both sides. Hope and humanist sentiments are about all that remain for the reasonable. But there are also intelligent activists with goodwill on both sides of the barricades, and perhaps there is something simmering beneath the verbiage: ideas to rekindle negotiations, reformulate demands, change tactics and actually contribute to the prospects for peace that are growing dimmer by the day.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.