This is a guest post by Eli Ungar-Sargon, a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker and new media producer. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his documentary film, A People Without a Land and is co-hosting the new podcast series Four Cubits.
In many ways, 2013 was a breakthrough year for the BDS movement. High-profile individuals like Stephen Hawking heeded the call, efforts to shut down a BDS event in Brooklyn College backfired in a dramatic and public fashion, and the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to join the academic boycott. Here are the top five reasons why the BDS movement is winning.
1) BDS is a non-violent way that ordinary people who care about Israel-Palestine can make a difference.
The spectacular twenty year failure of the so-called peace process has created an enormous amount of frustration in people who care about Israel/Palestine. The ineptitude of the United States, the silence of the EU, the impotence of the UN and the impunity with which Israel continues to make life worse for the Palestinians have all contributed to this frustration. The BDS movement is a morally sound way for ordinary people to do something. By putting non-violent but effective pressure on the State of Israel, BDS offers people of conscience a way to participate in a moral struggle to restore Palestinian rights.
2) The BDS call marks a shift away from a discourse of nationalism towards a discourse of human rights.
Perhaps the most brilliant part of the BDS call is its refusal to endorse any particular political solution. By remaining agnostic on the one-state/two-state debate, the BDS movement is able to both create alliances and maintain a laser-like focus on the rights of the Palestinian people. Tactically, this means that people who think there should be two-states can participate in the movement alongside their one-state fellows. Ideologically, when liberal-minded people compare the rights-based first principles of the BDS movement to the ethnonationalist first principles of Israel and its defenders, the former are much more appealing.
3) Israel and its supporters think that they have a PR problem, when in reality they have a human rights problem.
The stratagems employed by the Israeli government and its supporters against the BDS movement can be summed up as follows: Delegitimize the critics and change the subject. The tactic of delegitimizing the critics yields a mantra-like repetition of the double-standard argument: “Why are you singling out Israel? There are so many other countries in the world with worse human rights records!” This criticism only makes sense as an interpretation of motive, the obvious implication being an unstated and pernicious prejudice on the part of BDS supporters. The problem, of course, is that this rhetoric amounts to little more than a thinly-veiled ad-hominem attack. People have all sorts of motivations for caring about, or advocating for one cause over others. Some of these motivations are rational and some of them are irrational. What none of us do is sort through all of the possible causes in the world, come up with a scale for which is most morally pressing, and work on them in order. Human beings are simply not built that way. Now if one of the irrational motivations behind BDS support in a particular instance is prejudice against Jews, that’s a problem and it must be brought to light. But absent any evidence of such prejudice, the double-standard argument falls flat.
The tactic of changing the subject has yielded the ham-handed efforts we have seen over the past few years to re-brand Israel as a gay-friendly, environmentally-friendly, incubator of hi-tech innovation. This too is not particularly persuasive. Israel could invent a renewable energy source to replace fossil fuels and people of conscience would still have a problem with the fact that the state denies Palestinians their basic rights.
4) The leaders of the BDS movement are vigilant and disciplined when it comes to the matter of antisemitism.
Whenever the leaders of the movement get a whiff of antisemitism, whether at a rally, or with would-be solidarity activists, they are quick to call it out and condemn it. This both makes the job of delegitimizing their advocacy more difficult and it also creates a stark contrast with their pro-Israel attackers some of whom have made alliances with racist Islamaphobes.
5) Despite being a regional superpower, the State of Israel and its citizens are incredibly susceptible to pressure from the United States and Europe.
As an embattled settler-colonialist society, Israel is subject to two opposing forces. The first is a deeply pathological siege mentality. This manifests as the belief that no matter how they behave towards the Palestinians, the whole world will always and irrationally be against them. But more powerful than the siege mentality is a deep desire to be a part of the world. In this way, Israel likes to think of itself as existing socially and culturally somewhere in-between Europe and the United States.
It’s true that BDS operates on both of these forces. That is, it does in a way feed Israel’s siege mentality in so far as many Israelis believe that they are being unfairly targeted. But it also plays against Israel’s desire to be a normal citizen of the world. If I am correct in asserting that Israel’s desire for inclusion is stronger than its siege mentality, then the net effect of BDS pressure will be that Israelis start to feel isolated from the world and this isolation will in turn force them to reconsider their policies towards the Palestinians. I believe we are already seeing signs of this pressure begin to take effect.
While 2013 marked an important year for the BDS movement, the subject is still toxic in many Jewish circles. My hope for the new year is that Jews around the world will decide to have a substantive conversation about Israel-Palestine in general and about BDS in particular. After all, it is our moral responsibility as human beings to do everything we can to bring an end to the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.