Culture, Israel, Justice, Politics

My Problem With BDS

Growing up in Israel, I joined a lot of organizations: Youth Against Racism, Hashomer Hatza’ir, Reut Sadaka, and maybe one or two groups even further to the left. I attended Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and Meretz Youth weekend seminars, a kind of experience I’ve never seen in the US, not even when I was a college student. At these seminars, high school students would listen to Members of Knesset, well known professors and journalists, professional youth educators and others as they dissected Israel’s social issues.
During this entire formative period, regardless of where you stood in the left wing spectrum, certain things were true:

  • Our side was in favor of dialogue with the Palestinians, while right wing Israelis were racists who denied the Palestinians essential humanity, let along their human and national rights.
  • Our side addressed a combination of moral elements and enlightened self-interest. The occupation might be wrong, but it is also suicidal.
  • Our side drew inspiration from Western values that flowed from the enlightenment. Rationality, skepticism, a slight fear of the mob, an emphasis on individual identity over collective identity.
  • Our side was focused on liberating Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) from the burden of having to represent anything else other than who we were. In other words, even the hard core Zionists were often in favor of ‘post Zionist’ measures like removing religion from identity cards, affirming the validity of the Palestinian narrative, and de-mythologizing the founding of Israel.

I was part of the lucky minority of Israel Jews that interacted with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories on a regular basis. They represented a fairly diverse range of opinions and backgrounds, though less from among the poor and seriously religious, a bit more from the upper and middle classes, the Christians, and those from larger cities and villages. At a certain point, my identity as an Israeli changed into one that wholeheartedly embraced the reality of Israel: one fifth Palestinian, one fifth Russian, inclusive of countless racial, ethnic and religious minorities, with a tragic mix of conflicting impulses. Together, we were Israeli, and deserved to be truly equal for all our sakes.
If only the left could organize more successfully! If we had just a bit more electoral power, a bit more leverage, then a government would come into power and start the transition – undoubtedly lengthy – into a real democracy, side by side with Palestinians. You know – our friends from all the summer camps. We resisted the right wing with all our might, but we never looked at their voters in our midst as irrelevant. There were often just like us, but with views we opposed. Someday they’d understand how logical our approach was, what a wonderful future lay in store for a smaller Israel, side by side with a free Palestine.
My problem with the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement is that it treats the entire field of democratic contention in Israel as so much wasted breath. Was all that effort I put into inviting Jews to meet Palestinians for the first time just wasted? Were all those weekend seminars and visits to Arab villages, the West Bank and Gaza for nothing? All the time spent passing out election flyers and poll watching – just wasted effort? What about the months I spent in military prison as a refusenik?
I spent years arguing that the basic conflict in Israel and the Middle East generally was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between supporters of the ‘democratic camp’ and ‘the right.’ My democratic camp included Palestinians, and even better, I was included when they were talking about the ‘democratic camp’ in Arabic, to to Palestinian audiences.
When Gush Shalom inaugurated the age of BDS by calling for a boycott of settlement products in 1997, I was there, happily participating and promoting. This was a boycott strategy that respected the lines of demarcation I had come to believe in: me, the Israeli left and the Palestinians seeking statehood on one side, the settlers and their allies on the other. It always did feel like a shame that more Palestinian organizations didn’t join in that effort; but it made some sense. They were state building; we were fighting the occupation.
I realize I’m not linking to quotes here. But listening to the stream of pro-BDS statements on twitter, email lists I subscribe to and blogs I visit, what I hear is the abandonment of the Israeli public as a site of struggle. Why bother? If the goal is unrelenting international pressure designed to bend Israel to the will if its critics, then the left in Israel is reduced to the status of impotent cheerleader. Dear world: we have failed – do our job for us. Bend our elected leaders to your will.
And if the BDS strategy succeeds, will the Israeli left be in any kind of leadership position compared to today? Of course not. We’ll be reviled as the servants of foreign enemies. Victorious foreign enemies. Unlike in South Africa, Israeli left wing Jews will not become part of the ruling, post colonial infrastructure in a multiracial party, as left wing whites were within the ANC. We’ll be ‘Jews’ to the Palestinians, and ‘Arab lovers’ to the Jews.
If the BDS strategy fails, it will have strengthened the most backward elements in Israeli society, giving more and more prominence to the least democratic politicians. It will have played a role in the unraveling of the protections that did exist, for Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab. As Uri Avnery wrote: “Anyone who understands this must be interested in a worldwide protest that does not push the Israeli population into the arms of the settlers, but, on the contrary, isolates the settlers and turns the general (Israeli) public against them.”
I can’t find it in me to denounce BDS in general. Or to give it a blanket endorsement. Mostly, it just fills me with sadness to see how irrelevant my generation of peace-fighters turned out to be. My ideology has always been about fighting ‘for the people.’ My people too. Even as a small political minority, our vision was explicitly for everyone. The BDS vision is for the Palestinians – not the Israeli Jews. The solidarity movement they have built is for the Palestinians – not  the ‘democratic camp’ of my youth that included me as well. Maybe it’s better strategy in some objective sense. But it feels to me like a retreat to a place of hopelessness.

14 thoughts on “My Problem With BDS

  1. For a shiksa seeing to understand this issue better, can you please explain what BDS stands for, or link to something which has more information? I can Google it, certainly, but then I’m subjected to what Google thinks I should know, rather than what you think is an appropriate explanation of what the movement stands for.

  2. What a horrible title for a secondary posting, Jews for Sarah Palin! Don’t you dare recruit me ‘against’ anyone.

  3. So very well said.
    This is why I also cannot be moved to support BDS as a movement — solidarity does not belong to ethnic groups as a whole and without exception. It is shared with anyone dispossessed and disenfranchised. And that camp, as you point out, straddles the often meaningless distinctions made of race, language, religion, and origin.

  4. I am impressed that this piece was published on Jewschool. Bravo to Charles for highlighting one of the most important aspects of the BDS campaign – it’s essential failure to achieve the requisite result. As I wrote before:
    The people who once advocated BDS as an attempt to make Israel a more open, pluralistic and liberal country, by their estimation, have now managed to fail, miserably and in the most counter-productive fashion imaginable. Perversely, if not predictably, their actions contributed to an inverse outcome than the one they sought.
    I concede that individuals like KFJ, steeped in the issues, can advocate a nuanced, “soft” BDS, targeting this settlement or that company. However, to the mass of people who join the campaign, nuance is not a high calling. The overall message is one of irreverent sanction and pressure, directed not against one company or one Jewish community on some hilltop, but of Israel as a whole. BDS conditions its supporters for confrontation, in time eroding eroding nuance and formulating ideological rigidity in the interest of achieving its objectives.
    As I’ve pointed out in the past, and as numerous commentators have mentioned, the failure of the “soft” BDS approach, purely against the settlements, often drives individuals into total BDS, which was at first universally rejected. The grounds for that initial rejection of total BDS, however, are quickly forgotten in the heat of battle – the friction of confrontation first elicited by “soft” BDS. Boycotting just the settlements, the “soft” BDS, is a gateway drug for broader and deeper anti-Israel sentiment. “Soft” BDS proponents feed the beast, unwittingly, perhaps, but no less than had they planned it from the beginning.
    As I pointed out in a previous discussion, focusing on this or that point about the new Boycott Law misses the forest for the trees. BDS is interpreted by large sections of Israeli society as nothing less than one front in a war of aggression to exterminate the state and its people, all of them. How else to explain that left-wing kibbutzniks near Gaza are now an important plank for the growth of Yisrael Beteinu, or that Kadima’s legislators first proposed the Boycott Law to begin with?
    Isolating one form of pressure and violence from another is becoming untenable – Palestinian rockets today, Turkish flotillas tomorrow, British boycotts of Israeli academics the day after, Egyptian pipeline explosions and threats to end the peace treaty the day after that, Iranian nuclear development, UN Resolutions, war crimes commissions, UNESCO’s defilement of Jewish history, growing Hezbollah armaments, and on and on it goes. The carefully scalpeled nuance of “soft” BDS proponents is but one drop in the deluge.
    The pressure building on Israel’s citizens is not specific, it is general, targeting all communities. It should not be surprising to careful observers of the Jewish state that elements within Israel’s society, a growing plurality, are responding in kind, not with a white flag, but with a defiant fist. For those who care about the state and its people, that thrown fist should not be a gauntlet eliciting the will to subdue, but a cry for help, requiring the empathy of a friend.

  5. Thank you Victor. Of course, I disagree with most of what you write here and want to be careful not to end up as an unwilling recruit to the anti-BDS movement. Boycott is not the same as rocket fire. Israel is criminalizing any kind of serious dissent, whether it uses violence or not.
    This reminds of the precarious role of the anti-anti-Communists of the 50s….

  6. Charles,
    You’re in luck, as I am not interested in recruiting you towards any objective. Certainly, should I choose to do so in the future, you will not so easily resist my charms.
    What I find interesting is that we come from such different perspectives, yet arrive at similar conclusions. What I’m trying to get through in my comments is that focusing on the Boycott Law, specifically, misses the larger point. A plurality of Israeli society is trying to tell us something about how it sees the world. Yes, we can call them names and gloat at their “self-delegitimization”, as some here have done. We can push them further and further against a wall, make them into the monster we want them to be, and then punish them for it. You write:
    If the BDS strategy fails, it will have strengthened the most backward elements in Israeli society, giving more and more prominence to the least democratic politicians. It will have played a role in the unraveling of the protections that did exist, for Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab.
    Don’t think for a second that the editors of EI or the heads of ISM aren’t thrilled at the prospect of this outcome. Long convinced of Israel’s unique evil, they are certainly proud that can contribute to a provocation that elicits a response which unmasks what they believe to be the true, violent, fascistic nature of Israel’s people. To them, the failure of BDS is, itself, a brilliant achievement. If BDS can force Israel’s surrender along the ’67 lines that’s one, one step towards their final objective of dissolving the state. And if BDS fails, and Israeli society resists and fights back, however imperfectly? Even better, this demonstrates the true fascism of Israel’s people.
    However, for those of us who care about the country and its people, we should be listening to what the plurality of Israelis are trying to tell us. KFJ can scream to the high heavens that “soft” BDS is perfectly nuanced. To many Israelis, he’s just another voice, if not exactly clamoring for their destruction, then perfectly ambivalent about the real challenges and fears they face.
    BDS is not the right way to impact Israeli policies, which in any case have been clearly in support of the very objectives BDS says it aims for. Charles, I noticed you didn’t mention a few historical points in your post – Camp David, Disengagement, Annapolis. BDS ignores the very real concerns of Israelis, based on these experiences, and the very explicit unwillingness of Palestinian leaders to cross some basic lines, to recognize the Jewish national right to sovereignty, to stop deluding their people about “return”.
    The BDS agenda is in tunnel-vision, trying to force the hand of one party in a bilateral conflict which both parties are responsible for prolonging, and which can only be resolved by negotiations. There is no element of Israel’s political system which is or has been against the two state vision for nearly two decades. BDS willfully blinds itself to large dimensions of the conflict, but Israel’s people can not do so, for they bear the consequences. This is why BDS is a sure slope towards confrontation with Israel. It discourages Palestinian moderation, without which the conflict will never be resolved, and then punishes the Israelis for it, without context, without understanding, without compassion.
    And, KFJ, please pardon my repeated reference to you as a representative of a certain set of beliefs, and a symbol of the professional, liberal, young Jewish activist “class”. I will discontinue doing so if it bothers you.

  7. “The BDS vision is for the Palestinians – not the Israeli Jews. The solidarity movement they have built is for the Palestinians – not the ‘democratic camp’ of my youth that included me as well. Maybe it’s better strategy in some objective sense. But it feels to me like a retreat to a place of hopelessness.”
    Wait, is this really your problem with BDS? Because it’s for Palestinians and not Israeli Jews? To set everything else about BDS aside for now, don’t you think there is just a bit of a problem with going up to an oppressed/colonized people and basically saying, “so this movement you’ve started…why can’t you make this more about ME?” You’re right, it absolutely is not about you. But of course, a movement which dares to not be about you is a “retreat to a place of hopelessness.”

  8. Alyssa, it’s a fair point. Why wouldn’t the movement for Palestinian liberation be about Palestinian liberation? But I’m putting out there that this isn’t the only way to define the issue for others, including Israelis. For non-Palestinian audiences, it is also a peace movement, a reconciliation movement, an movement to transform Israeli society. There was a time when ‘solidarity’ included strong support for these other things; but there has been a retreat from all those movements but one – the one for Palestinian liberation.
    As a progressive Israeli, I’ve got mixed feelings about this. As an activist I have doubts about the efficacy of that strategy. I don’t see Israel is simply a settler colonial society, but as a subject for liberation.

  9. Alyssa- I think perspectives that support “one-side” of the conflict are doomed to maintain conflict… What the dialogue sorely lacks are the initiatives that recognize our futures bound together and make space for the real needs of both sides. Anyone pushing for just one side is not gonna bring us more peace… we need to deeply imbibe that our future is together and act from there. Otherwise we diss and alert the defensivenesses of both.. It’s fine being an activist from the other side of the world and abstracting it into two sides (one right/one wrong etc) .. but we know life ain’t like that. my age-old request from any activist about this issue is: “Do you admit the there are two sides to this?”

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