On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Earlier this year, a letter was read aloud to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania as they waited to hear a talk by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. The auditorium was filled to capacity and the mood was grim. UPenn president and political theorist Amy Gutmann was unable to attend the event, so a proxy was called in to read her prepared statement welcoming professor Dershowitz and, more importantly, explaining the university’s position vis-à-vis a particular conference occurring on campus at that very moment:

It is important that you all know that we have been unambiguous in repudiating the positions that are espoused by those sponsoring that conference. They run counter to our principles, our ideals and importantly, our actions.

It was a stern reaction to a controversy that had unfolded at Penn for weeks, provoking heated debates in the pages of the university newspaper and dividing students and faculty alike into opposing camps. Not all responses were quite as diplomatic as Gutmann’s guarded statement. One professor explicitly compared the organizers to Nazis, expressing outrage that a “genocidal” group was allowed to convene at all.

What could have prompted such vitriol? What was this awful conference? Were neo-fascists visiting UPenn? 

It was nothing quite so dramatic. UPenn played reluctant host to the national Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) conference, which hosts a range of discussions centered on the tactic of BDS as a means of combating Israel’s forty-five-year occupation of Palestinian territory. It was the second national BDS conference to be held in the United States (the first occurred 2009). Despite the controversial reception, it took place without incident—though debates over the conference continue at UPenn even now, two months later.

The Global BDS Movement has steadily risen in prominence over the last few years. Like other controversial developments in the world of pro-Palestinian activism—among others, “Israeli Apartheid Week” and the media-generating “Freedom Flotillas”—advocates of BDS argue that various forms of boycott are an effective and nonviolent way of pressuring Israel into compliance with international law. Critics counter that a comprehensive boycott unfairly targets Israel for special criticism and is therefore either hypocritical or downright anti-Semitic.

In this essay, I take it for granted that Israel’s behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories is characterized by extreme violence and racism, defining qualities of all military occupations. We may or not agree as to the particular details of a desirable settlement, but for those of us uninfluenced by either dogmatic messianism or unrepentant sadism, the occupation must come to an end sooner or later. As activists and scholars who take an interest in human rights, we should be willing to consider the ethical and strategic desirability of all forms of resistance. No discussion should be off-limits.

Unfortunately, reactions to BDS, like so much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been largely of two kinds: unquestioning support or unquestioning rejection. While my own political sensibilities have been enormously influenced through contact with the Palestinian struggle, and while I come from a position of solidarity with that struggle, my responsibilities as a scholar prevent me from accepting simple dichotomies. To put it bluntly, the dynamics of scholarship are very different from the politically expedient sloganeering of any social movement. This essay is my attempt, for better or for worse, to reflect upon the emergence of BDS and to establish the basis of my own support for the tactic as a scholar with strong political commitments. While I do not necessarily agree with every action undertaken by BDS activists, my tactical concerns arise in the context of solidarity.

 

* * *

To begin with, it’s crucial to distinguish BDS as a tactic from BDS as a set of demands linked to a specific organization. As a tactic, BDS is not especially original, nor was it always as controversial as its most recent incarnation has been. Besides those coming from Palestinians in the occupied territories, one of the earliest calls for a focused boycott of Israeli settlements came from within Israel itself. As early as 1988, amidst the first Palestinian uprising, the radical, anti-Zionist Israeli party Matzpen organized an internal boycott of settlement products. The party also encouraged Israelis to avoid visiting the occupied territories, to withdraw their children from the “racist” Israeli school system, to refuse military service, and “to protest every act of violence and injustice committed by the Israeli regime in the occupied territories.” This early call for a boycott never really caught on among Israeli activists, despite widespread suspicion of the settler movement. Israeli historian Reuven Kaminer attributes this failure either to “the lack of any previous use of the boycott technique” or to “the simple fact that it was hard to dramatize the idea as there were no prominent articles of consumption involved.”

Matzpen may have been the earliest, but it was by no means the only Israeli group to call for a boycott. The more radical elements of the Israeli peace movement repeatedly made such calls during the years of the first Intifada. Most prominently, the peace group Gush Shalom called on western governments to rewrite their trade policy with Israel to specifically exclude products manufactured in the occupied territories. For most western countries (especially the United States) a boycott was out of the question. Once again, the move fizzled out, but it was widely regarded among the Israeli left as a legitimate form of protest against the occupation. Israeli Jews supported a boycott targeting other Jews. A precedent had been set.

Boycotts organized by Palestinians date back to the British mandate era. In 1933, a conference of Palestinian activists calling themselves the Non-cooperation Congress, voted in favor of a boycott of British and Zionist products. Internal political strife prevented implementation of the boycott, but it set the tone for later initiatives against British and Zionist products during the Great Revolt of 1936-39. During a six-month economic boycott of British products, for instance, Palestinians channeled the American revolutionaries by demanding “no taxation without representation.”

The most visible and well-known Palestinian efforts at nonviolent resistance occurred during the first Intifada (1987-1993). The tremendous outburst of grassroots political activity surprised the exiled Palestinian leadership as much as it did the Israeli military. In addition to the widespread use of general strikes and other forms of creative nonviolence, Palestinians organized boycotts of Israeli products. This is not to say that the Intifada was entirely nonviolent, but the most serious acts of violence that occurred were never central to the movement. Mary Elizabeth King writes that over 90 percent of the appeals made to the Palestinian population by the Unified Intifada Command in the first eighteen months of the of the uprising “called for classic nonviolent methods, such as strikes, demonstrations, marches, the withholding of taxes, and the boycotting of Israeli products.” As we know, the Israeli army reacted to this with a great deal of violence, but despite international outrage over the heavy-handed response, no major initiative advocating an international boycott got off the ground.

Only after 2000, amidst the shocking carnage of the second Intifada, came the earliest calls for a comprehensive international boycott of Israel. Most of the statements to this effect were relatively short-lived; they passed around international activist networks and university campuses before fading into obscurity. Two events were of critical importance in contributing to the sudden animus for an international boycott: the 2002 Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp and the 2004 construction of the West Bank Barrier, especially after the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion condemning the barrier as a violation of international law. With the United States blocking any attempt at the United Nations to address the situation, the world was quickly growing impatient. A boycott promised activists a way of circumventing conventional international policy channels by pressuring Israel directly.

Numerous international peace organizations began calling for an end to military ties with Israel, a suspension of arms contracts, and support for Israeli conscientious objectors. For the first time, Israeli, French, and British scholars joined their Palestinian colleagues in calling for an academic and cultural boycott in addition to the less controversial economic boycott. Advocates of these initiatives drew explicitly on the use of similar measures against South Africa during the international struggle against apartheid.

From a tactical perspective, the South African connection was important to establish if the attempt at isolating Israel was to gain mainstream acceptance. Among many others, John Dugard, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestine, has described the situation in the West Bank as “a regime of prolonged occupation with features of colonialism and apartheid.” It should be stressed that the comparison to apartheid is not hyperbole. Apartheid is an international legal category. Under the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the crime of apartheid is defined as crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” This sounds familiar to anyone with experience in the occupied territories. To list just a few of the oppressive conditions in the occupied territories:

  • Two separate legal codes in the occupied territories—domestic Israeli law for settlers, martial law for Palestinians.
  • Economic incentives and military support for the 600,000 Israeli settlers (over 10% of Israel’s Jewish population) now living the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Many settlements are built on privately owned Palestinian land expropriated by the state without compensation.
  • The construction of settler highways, bypass roads, and tunnels in the West Bank designed to provide Jewish settlers with freedom of movement while encircling and dividing Palestinian communities. According to B’Tselem, 170 km of these roads are either off-limits to Palestinians altogether or highly restricted.
  • The construction of a 760 km wall reaching deep inside Palestinian territory, effectively annexing large swathes of Palestinian land by setting the de facto border. In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion finding the West Bank barrier in violation international law, both for its presence inside Palestinian territory and for the clear demographic effect it was likely to have by forcing many Palestinians to leave their homes.
  • The implementation of discriminatory policies in East Jerusalem aimed at changing the demographic character of the city, including the forcible eviction of Palestinian families. The current United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestine, Richard Falk, has likened these evictions to ethnic cleansing.
  • The strict regulation of Palestinian freedom of movement through a Kafkaesque permit regime.

Besides the conditions themselves, the apartheid analogy gained further credibility as respected South African figures like archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils began using the term to describe conditions in the Palestinian territories. By 2006, when Jimmy Carter published his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, the debate had gone mainstream. Naturally, many people strongly object to the apartheid analogy, arguing that because Israelis and Palestinians do not properly constitute “racial” groups as outlined in the Rome Statute, the situation cannot be apartheid. This is semantic. Such arguments do nothing to assuage concerns over the undeniably brutal policies applied by Israel, if not on a racial basis, then according to another equally constructed category: the nation. If anything is certain, the apartheid analogy has at least made significant gains in the discourse. Even a conservative publication like the Economist now regularly prints that for Israel to hold onto the occupied territories indefinitely without granting political rights to those living there means becoming an apartheid state.

While activists made gains in the international debate, the conditions on the ground grew dramatically worse, settlement construction continued apace, and peace talks were nowhere in sight. The Bush administration openly characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just another front in the Global War in Terror, thereby giving Israel free rein to suppress Palestinian militancy with ever more draconian measures and without a commitment to negotiations. The result was a humanitarian catastrophe, driven by waves of escalating bloodshed. Against this political backdrop came a fresh call for boycotting Israel—one that would make BDS a truly global initiative for the first time.

* * *

 

In the summer of 2005, 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations signed a statement condemning Israel’s longstanding occupation and expropriation of Palestinian territory. To pressure Israel into compliance with international law, the groups encouraged “broad boycotts” and “divestment initiatives similar to those applied to South Africa during the apartheid era.” As before, the statement emphasized the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as well as with the virtues of nonviolence. Three goals were outlined:

  1. An end to Israel’s “colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the [West Bank] Wall.”
  2. Israeli recognition of “the fundamental rights of the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and,
  3. Promotion of “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

This call was soon taken up by activist organizations around the world, all coalescing under the general term: the Global BDS Movement. BDS steadily gradually mainstream acceptance, especially following Israel’s 2008/09 attacks on Gaza, which left approximately 1,400 Palestinians dead, and the killing of nine “Freedom Flotilla” activists in international waters by Israeli commandos in late May 2010. The face-value appeal of nonviolent, consumer-driven activism undeniably contributed to the tactic’s newfound popularity.

Broadly speaking, the Global BDS Movement encourages three forms of boycott: economic, academic and cultural. The economic boycott discourages consumers and corporations from either purchasing Israeli products or investing in companies with ties to the occupation. Two of the most popular targets have been Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are commonly used for house demolitions in the occupied territories, and Motorola, which provides the Israeli army with communications technology.

Other major targets of the economic boycott have been Sabra hummus (the company has ties to the IDF), Ahava beauty products (produced in the West Bank), and Israeli diamond tycoon Lev Leviev (who invests in the construction of West Bank settlements). BDS activists have targeted individuals and companies with business ties to Israel’s occupation, using a variety of creative techniques aimed at bringing attention to these unsavoury connections. To mention one CUNY-relevant development, Adalah-NY and Jewish Voice for Peace have recently teamed up with student and faculty activists to take on financial services giant TIAA-CREF, which manages the retirement plans of most CUNY faculty. The campaign aims to pressure TIAA-CREF into divesting from companies profiting from the occupation.

BDS has not only managed to unify a wide range of activists but to intensify their mobilization. In doing so, it has consistently placed itself at the center of controversy. Every week it seems a new BDS-inspired action unfolds. No matter how these incidents end, they nearly always generate a great deal of media coverage. Most recently, Brooklyn’s Park Slope Coop voted down a proposal to hold a referendum on whether or not to boycott Israeli products in their store. Although the initiative failed, Israel treated the incident as a matter of national importance, dispatching its Information and Diaspora Minister to Brooklyn ahead of the vote. The incident received serious attention from the national print and television media, popular television hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert picked up the story, and even Mayor Bloomberg weighed in, making the unhinged claim that BDS activists “want Israel to be torn apart and everybody to be massacred.”

More contentious than the economic boycott, the cultural boycott grabs headlines periodically whenever a major international music act announces its unwillingness to perform in Israel. Since 2006, this list includes the Pixies, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Carlos Santana, Roger Waters, Pete Seeger, Cat Power, Jason Moran, and Gorillaz. Of course, this is only one aspect of the cultural boycott. Most of the drama actually occurs at the level of funding, with careful distinction made between individual Israeli artists and Israeli cultural institutions. Hence, under most interpretations of the cultural boycott, participation in film festivals or art exhibitions funded in part by the Israeli state are not kosher (so to speak), while individual, independently funded collaboration with Israeli artists is perfectly fine.

Advocates of the cultural boycott often stress the uses Israel makes of the arts to improve its image abroad. This is hardly a secret. During the second Intifada, the Israeli cultural ministry began working with public relations professionals to draft a re-branding strategy. The Brand Israel Group conducts studies and develops strategies aimed at transforming Israel’s international image from one of violence and occupation, to one characterized by more positive associations (“fun and creative”, “gay friendly”, “modern,” etc.). With this goal in mind, the Israeli government generously funds a range of cultural projects, essentially using artists as cultural ambassadors.

Finally, the academic boycott seeks to isolate Israeli universities perceived as complicit in perpetuating Israel’s occupation. Again, the model for an academic boycott comes from South Africa and the international boycott against its universities during the apartheid era. Many Israeli universities have educational programs physically located in the occupied territories as well as longstanding financial ties to the settlements. Proponents of the academic boycott argue that Israeli universities, being predominantly state-financed, are implicated in the same structure of funding and research as the Israeli army. In practice, an academic boycott means a rejection of funding or formal affiliation with Israeli universities or research institutes; refusing to referee journals based in Israel; and avoiding conferences held in Israel or sponsored by the Israeli state.

The academic boycott initially gained acceptance among pockets of British, French, Israeli, and Palestinian scholars, but came to the United States following Israel’s 2008/09 attack on Gaza. The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has since been endorsed by over 600 scholars including Judith Butler, Hamid Dabashi, George Saliba, Angela Davis, Amy Kaplan, and Ella Shohat among others  (CUNY signatories include Ammiel Alcalay, Moustafa Bayoumi, Anthony Alessandrini, Maivan Clech Lam, Ashley Dawson, Premilla Nadasen, Rupal Oza, Marilyn Hacker, Andrea Khalil, Laurence Kirby, Sarah Schulman, and Saadia Toor). The late Israeli linguist Tanya Reinhart—a student of Noam Chomsky—consistently made some of the most eloquent defenses of an academic boycott:

The traditional spirit of the academy, no matter how much of it is preserved in daily practice, is that intellectual responsibility includes the safeguarding of moral principles. The international academic community has the full right to decide that it does not support institutions of societies which divert blatantly from such principles.

Advocates of an academic boycott are often careful to distinguish between individuals and institutions. For example, according to most interpretations, appearing on a panel at an international conference with a colleague based in Israel would not be a violation of the academic boycott.

Any consideration of an academic freedom is certain to raise the specter of academic freedom. Responding to growing support for the academic boycott of Israeli universities, the American Association of University Professors stated its “principled opposition” to “selective academic boycotts that entail an ideological litmus test,” and urged academics to “seek alternative means, less inimical to the principle of academic freedom, to pursue their concerns.” Israeli academic Neve Gordon, who has called Israel an “apartheid state,” and supports the economic boycott, hesitates on the question of an academic boycott:

To fight the anti-intellectual atmosphere within Israel, local academics need as much support as they can get from their colleagues abroad. A boycott will only weaken the elements within Israeli society that are struggling against the assault on the universities, and in this way will inadvertently help those who want to gain control over one of the last havens of free speech in the country.

The question of an academic boycott is not an easy one. One’s position rests largely on how broadly one interprets the scope of the academic boycott and the ease with which a distinction can be made between individuals and institutions. It may not always be clear and easy to do, but in practice, this kind of discretion is exercised by anyone involved with any kind of activist movement. Critical faculties are not surrendered at the door.

Besides the existence of Israeli academic programs physically based in the occupied territories and close collaboration between the universities and the military, Israel also heavily restricts Palestinian higher education and academic freedom. The IDF frequently harasses Palestinian students and professors—and because universities tend to be hotbeds of political activism, the Israeli army frequently shuts Palestinian campuses for extended periods of time. Moreover, Palestinian universities are often targeted during aerial assaults, Palestinian scholarship winners are commonly denied permission to study abroad, and so-called closure policies severely restrict freedom of movement. However you look at it, military occupation is a toxic environment for the academic freedom of Palestinian students and faculty. To quote Tanya Reinhart, “The first step in promoting dialogue would be to remove Israeli tanks from the gates of Palestinian universities.”

* * *

One of the most significant indications of BDS’s growing influence is the shifting tone of debate in the American-Jewish community. Until recently, the reaction to BDS form this quarter has been one of absolute and unqualified rejection. Jews do not boycott other Jews, period. This sentiment was certainly on full display at UPenn earlier this year, but there are signs that the taboo surrounding the issue in the American-Jewish community may be eroding. J-Street, a liberal Zionist interest group that strongly opposes BDS, has nonetheless remained steadfast in its support for an open discussion of the tactic in the Jewish community. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have attempted to foster a wider debate on BDS among American Jews. They reject the commonly held perception that BDS is inherently anti-Semitic. Last month, the Grad Center’s own Peter Beinart published an op-ed in the New York Times calling on American Jews to boycott West Bank settlements—a kind of “Zionist BDS,” as he described it—while rejecting with equal rigor the comprehensive boycott advocated by the Global BDS Movement. To boycott anything in Israel other than the settlements, he argued, “invites ambiguity about the boycott’s ultimate goal—whether it seeks to end Israel’s occupation or Israel’s existence.”

Beinart previously caused a stir when, in an earlier article published in the New York Review of Books, he argued that Israel’s increasingly illiberal, racist behavior was unappealing to the liberal politics of young American Jews. This kind of criticism signifies an important discursive shift because the argument is framed in explicitly Zionist terms. Indeed, Beinart underscores nearly everything he writes by asserting his belief in Zionism, albeit a more liberal, democratic version than what he sees taking hold in Israel. “If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself.” The argument is uncomplicated: American Jews should boycott the West Bank settlements as a way of saving Israel and Zionism from itself.

In a similar vein, CUNY political science professor Dov Waxman and American-Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein co-authored an earlier article for Dissent, in which they advocate “a selective boycott against settlement products, not Israeli products or people in general.” This conclusion is qualified by their recognition that even such a limited boycott is likely to be difficult for many Jews. Like Beinart, Waxman and Zonszein reject a comprehensive boycott as one-sided, “morally simplistic,” and tactically shortsighted.

The belief that the Global BDS Movement seeks to destroy the Jewish character of Israel through its support for the right to return is widespread, not only among Zionists, but even among those critical of Zionism. Indeed, some of the most reliable American-Jewish critics of Israeli policy have expressed disapproval, not of BDS per se, but of the stated goals now commonly associated with the tactic. Norman Finkelstein, for instance, dropped a bombshell earlier this year by comparing BDS to a cult. Calling it “a lot of silliness, childishness and leftist posturing,” he accused BDS activists of dishonesty regarding their intentions:

I have no problem with the boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, all of that nonviolent civil disobedience like the flotillas, legal weapons like the attempt at universal jurisdiction. I think the means are right, but the goal will never fly. You want to say you’re agnostic on Israel? … You want to promote one state? Fine, that’s your right, but then don’t pretend you’re trying to enforce the law. You want to selectively enforce the law. … We have to be honest and I loathe the disingenuousness. They don’t want Israel.

Finkelstein’s intellectual mentor, Noam Chomsky, has also consistently voiced suspicion of the movement’s perceived objectives, if not its tactics:

It’s pretty obvious what [demanding the right of return] will do. It’s a gift to U.S. and Israeli hardliners. They know perfectly well that there’s not going to be an implementation of the right to return. … They just use it as a weapon to discredit the entire movement and it’s happened over and over incidentally. So yes, if you really hate the Palestinians, [BDS] is a good step, because it’s going to harm them. It’s already happened. … Should we take steps, which we have every reason to believe are going to harm the Palestinians? I don’t think so, but if people feel like doing that, then OK. Just join AIPAC and do it straight out.

Besides rejecting the academic and cultural boycott on principle, Chomsky stresses that he’s generally sympathetic to economic boycott initiatives for reasons of solidarity. However, he is quick to point out that the campaign leveled against South Africa came very late in the struggle, at a time when international policy was already shifting decisively in opposition to the apartheid regime. Hence, the influence of a South African boycott was not at all apparent.

* * *

Edward Said argued that few intellectual responsibilities are more important than staking out a position and not shying away from controversy. As academics and intellectuals, we have the resources to look deeper than most and we should not be afraid to constantly interrogate the positions we take. Anyone with political and intellectual commitments to Israel/Palestine should be clear about where they stand on BDS. Political activism always carries with it certain methodological risks for the scholar. Academia is characterized by its attention to nuance, while popular politics is less subtle. Establishing countless degrees of difference does nothing to advance mass mobilization. Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” may be an apt characterization of leftist politics generally, but it is certainly not an effective way to build a social movement.

With this in mind, I do not hesitate to support BDS, while retaining my right to disagree with particular targets of the boycott on a case-to-case basis. Any objections I may have are waged in solidarity and at the level of tactics, driven by the desire to see grassroots activism succeed in breaking the Middle-East deadlock. This is a crucial distinction to make because the liberal Zionist attempt at disaggregating Israel from its settlements necessarily leads to a position of support for the status quo.

Many critics of the Global BDS Movement, especially liberal Zionists, argue that the movement fails to make a distinction between (legitimate) Israel and the (illegitimate) settlements, opting instead to wage a campaign against Israeli society collectively. This is true. BDS makes no such distinction in its literature because the attempt to do so falls flat in practice. The Israeli state is deeply implicated in the settlement project, conferring upon it legal status and encouraging its expansion through tax incentives and military protection. Israel’s finance minister recently reported that state assistance to settlements rose “significantly” during the construction freeze. In his view, the state had to “compensate” the settlements for economic problems they were experiencing. In another telling case, the Knesset passed a bill last summer criminalizing any public call for a boycott against Israel and its settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz called the law, “politically opportunistic and anti-democratic.” The New York Times derided it as “not befitting a democracy” and even staunchly anti-BDS groups like the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, and the Zionist Organization of America expressed concern over the anti-democratic implications of the anti-boycott law. All of this simply underscores the degree to which the Israeli state is inseparable from its settlements. Indeed, the recursive political and economic interaction between the two renders a selective boycott meaningless in practice—though it may sound very reasonable.

Some also argue that BDS is unfair. Why not target other countries with egregious human rights abuses? Why only Israel? In practice, many people do already engage in a wide variety of political activities, including consumer activism, without the need for the formal demands or organizational direction provided by the Global BDS Movement. In most cases, these individuals are highly informed activists, careful to avoid not only Israeli hummus, but also Saudi dates, Ecuadorian flowers, and cocoa from the Ivory Coast. But this is really a red herring argument. Why should it matter if BDS activists target Israel or not? Does it make their claims any more or less valid? If anything, those who claim Israel should be able to perpetuate its occupation without suffering the consequences are the ones who would apply a special standard.

By far, the most intellectually plausible critique of BDS centers on its support for the right of return. The conflation of BDS as a tactic with this one very specific demand in the 2005 statement warrants special attention. Besides the language guaranteeing repatriation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right of return for Palestinian refugees to the lands from which they were expelled in 1948 is enshrined in Article 11 of United Nations Resolution 194:

[T]he refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property …

As we know, the 1948 refugees have neither been allowed to return to their former land, nor has compensation been offered for their exodus. Instead, most Zionists reject the right of return as a nonstarter. They insist that allowing large numbers of Palestinian refugees to return would eliminate Israel’s Jewish majority and thereby undermine the Jewish character of the state. This demographic concern also explains Israel’s refusal to grant political rights to the nearly three million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The basic assumption that Palestinians constitute a “demographic threat” substantially undermines Zionism’s liberal pretenses. For the sake of the argument, let’s set aside the concerns provoked by this racist logic and accept it as a given that Israel needs to maintain Jewish ethnic dominance by stonewalling the right of return for Palestinians. Even if you strongly believe this, it’s very likely that a compromise will be reached on the refugee question in future negotiations. Until that time, UN Resolution 194 remains one of the Palestinians’ strongest claims under international law. Why should they be expected to surrender it as a prerequisite to negotiations, as liberal Zionists seem to expect? It should hardly be surprising that BDS has emphasized the right of return. They know it’s a powerful moral claim, one of the forms of leverage the Palestinians bring to the table.

Unfortunately, all of this focus on what BDS does or does not stand for obscures the most significant point: the Global BDS Movement is broader and more diverse than the specific call made in 2005. Much like Occupy Wall Street, BDS has now become an umbrella movement encompassing many different kinds of activists with diverse objectives. Some resolutely support an economic boycott, yet balk at the academic and cultural boycotts. Others support all forms of boycott, yet specify conditions (I count myself among this group). Some advocate a one-state solution, others a two-state solution, while many more view BDS simply as a means of pressuring Israel to the table in hopes of finally ending the wretched occupation once and for all. And yes, heterogeneity means that there is inevitably also a minority of activists whose endorsement for BDS is fueled by anti-Semitism. To acknowledge as much does nothing to discredit the wider movement because the basic injustice of the occupation remains unresolved.

BDS aims to empower individuals where states have failed. There is nothing radical about it; it is an inherently liberal form of activism. It attempts to correct for the shortcomings of the international community through direct, consumer-oriented reformism. It harbors no illusions about smashing capital (it embraces consumer power); it does not propose armed struggle (it advocates nonviolence); it does not argue for wiping Israel off the map (it wants Israel to abandon a racially exclusive Zionism). It’s very easy to point out that social movements reduce the complexities of political questions to simple, moral dichotomies. We can argue endlessly that a comprehensive boycott is an imperfect tactic and that it’s not “fair” to Israel, but this pushes in the wrong direction. Such a strategy essentially tells the victims of oppression to “slow down;” “don’t push so hard;” “your efforts might backfire.” Against such hesitations, BDS doesn’t ask—it confronts. It confronts Israel and the international community with a single assertion, powerful in its simplicity, yet deep with principle: forty-five years of occupation is long enough.

The article originally appeared in May 2012 edition of the Grad Center Advocate.

2 thoughts on “On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

  1. This is a thoughtful analysis of the many facets of the BDS movement. Being a human rights agitator for some time, I am sickened by my impotence and the daily costs born by the Palestinians in the face of that impotence. Parsing the fine points of the BDS movement is important at the organizational level, perhaps, but it seems terribly removed from the never-ending, crushing occupation that controls all movement, restricts exports and economic development, steals land and burns olive trees, and sows despair along with its ethnic cleansing. Israel, the country, is a racist construct that should have never been recognized by the international community. Period. Once the morality of settlements and occupation are confronted, it follows that the whole edifice on which Israel is constructed will also fall under scrutiny. Zionists can never truly be “liberals” for they defend the indefensible.

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