The Top Five Reasons Why BDS is Winning

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.

13 thoughts on “The Top Five Reasons Why BDS is Winning

  1. If the small group of US academics pushing for a ban on Israeli academics were subjected to a similar ban — forced to renounce their university to work in another country — they would be rightly outraged, regardless of the rationale. For them to advocate this for Israeli scholars is gross hypocrisy. Their demand for a very broad Palestinian right of return would amount to an end to the state of Israel. In general terms, they demand resolution of fundamental issues AS A PRECONDITION TO NEGOTIATIONS. In that respect, this effort should be regarded as anti-peace. It’s really that extreme and that misguided.

    1. Your arguments are pointless, bigoted , and devoid of any semblance of neutrality, fairness or reason.
      A) Never mind being subject to bans, US academics are so terrified of being labeled anti semitic that they dare not open their mouths about BDS.
      B) Right of return is basic for citizens of any free society. To deny this right to refugees and their descendants, based upon religion, is the grossest violation of human decency.
      C) Palestinians live under a state of siege, under blockade, and military occupation. The only fundamental issue is they be released from these barbaric conditions and be allowed to function with their full set of God-given human rights.
      D) The Palestinians have no planes, tanks, or high-tech weaponry of any kind.
      Their women and children have been massacred by a well-financed , highly advanced military on an ongoing basis for the past 60 years. How dare you call any attempt to support their right to freedom to be anti-peace?

  2. Seriously?! Support is growing for BDS, but substantive boycotts are essentially non-existent and your big victories are an individual’s decision, a small academic organization’s vote, and a mayor standing up for academic free speech even if he disagrees with the speakers?
    On your specific points:
    1) People with a conscience support BDS so people who don’t support BDS must not have a conscience?
    2) There has been a long history of activism and discussions that focus on human rights and they existed well before BDS, and these discussions and actions continue among many people who don’t support BDS. I don’t see how BDS is really relevant to this point at all.
    3) It’s worth nothing that you list Israel’s supporters as a monolithic group opposed to BDS so one cannot be an Israel supporter and support BDS. Saying the BDS movement is not welcoming to people supporting Israel is, ironically, similar the anti-Israel position that the BDS movement is accused of holding. I’m well aware that BDS support isn’t monolithic, but neither are Israel supporters. There are many well-reasoned criticisms of BDS that don’t rely on delegitimizing critics. The first that comes to mind regardng the ASA is:
    4) From what I’ve seen, the vigilance against anti-semitism within the BDS movement is highly overrated, but I guess a true believer is more comfortable looking the other way.
    5) Your siege/participation contrast only work if BDS is actually affecting Israel’s ability to do anything and there is little evidence it is… perhaps beyond a few music groups that may or may not be making political statements.
    More generally, you seem to be starting from a point where BDS is the only action that will actually result in change. The underlying assumption in this point is that other forms of social pressure and dialogue will not be effective at making the desired changes and whatever good happens must be due to BDS. Despite claiming that BDS is being margainalized, you marginalize anyone trying to improve life for all in Israel who doesn’t support BDS. This is a really weak position. Who knows if John Kerry’s current efforts will bear fruit, but, if they do, is that also a sign that BDS succeeded?

  3. JewGuevara, KFJ and many of the regulars hashed out the BDS debate circa 2009-2011. My takeaway was that BDS supporters who narrowly wish to target settlements are well intentioned but a small and group of naive fellow travelers within of a much larger, blood-stained movement, which draws for inspiration on the ’60-70s glory days of direct-action, marxist terrorism, and seeks to eliminate Israel as an expression of Jewish self-determination.
    This, by the way, was Norman Finkelstein’s conclusion as well.
    I also think it’s not helpful to the writer’s argument that all evidence to the contrary of the thesis is rejected. Eli is trying to present a fait acompli, the notion of a growing consensus in favor of BDS, without any evidence to support his claim. In fact, to take one case, the backlash against the ASA’s decision has been swift and massive, and it’s not over yet. Over 100 universities have now condemned the vote and dissociated themselves from its implications. American academia was caught sleeping facedown on the keyboard, yes, but its quickly sensitizing itself to the issue. For goodness sakes, even Oxford, in an environment much more hostile to Israel and Jewry, rejected BDS this year by a margin of 69 to 10.
    Finally, I’ll point out that when I started engaging in Israel advocacy circa 2005-7, when BDS efforts were no less vociferous than today, Israel’s entire GDP was around $180 Billion. Barely 5 years later, it’s expanded nearly 40% to almost $250 Billion (as of 2011).
    And… there’s that $1.2 Billion 20 year gas contract the Palestinians just signed with Nobel Energy/Delek group. For goodness sakes, even Abbas came out against BDS in South Africa.
    By what objective standard has BDS been winning?

  4. “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.”
    Ridiculous. If you want to put pressure on Israel to do something on I-P, support diplomatic efforts to settle regional conflicts e.g., in Iran. It is true that conservative political parties in Israel thrive on a siege mentality. But when Likudniks start naming North American College students *in Israel* as threats along with Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas, and other regional instability… Well, I’ll know they’re desperate. When Likudniks use the threat of BDS when they tour the US, know that it’s a cudgel to get liberal American Jews to go support their policies because of paranoia.
    If thinking people aren’t so easily manipulated by Bibi (ugh), we won’t be easily manipulated by someone who was probably “that guy” handing out the Labor Militant at a ritzy liberal arts college 10 years ago.
    If you want an end to the settlements (and I do), support M-E diplomacy that’s riskier than in past years. The complete Syrian tragedy is giving everyone a picture of what they really have to lose if they don’t talk. Don’t let Senator Schumer derail diplomacy with Iran, for example.

  5. The longer term success of the BDS movement lies in the fact that many who have long had an unquestioning support for Israel, myself included, have started to learn, read, observe, tour, and open their minds… and share their opinions and learning.
    JVP and JPRR are two such organizations using social media to get the word out and there are others.
    The release of government records of Nakba in the 80s, and the rise of alternative media and, now, the willingness of international observers and even Holocaust survivors to speak out against racism and ethnic cleansing 70+ years removed from the Holocaust is helping unlearn the lie of “A land without a people”.
    The acceptance by the current regime in DC of “A Jewish State” implies that the US must be “A Christian State”… something which harkens back to the 50s and 60s and makes many of us very uncomfortable.

  6. 1/ ‘Current regime in DC’. You mean there’s going to be a change? How exciting! Can I be dictator?
    BTW How come there are no blond dictators. Or female ones?
    2/ ‘JVP and JPRR are two such organizations using social media to get the word out there.’
    Easy to check
    The Israel Project-34646
    (BTW What’s wrong with JVP? They have a lot more supporters than JStreet yet JStreet gets all the attention.

  7. PR Lak. If I’m reading your comment correctly, it sounds like you have a goal of the destruction of the Jewish State.
    You also play with some of the same logical skips as the original writer. The government released records of its early history – and continues to release more – because it is the right thing to do, not because of BDS. Israelis and non-Israelis publicly speak about their history, advocate for change, and effect change on the ground without BDS. There is no doubt that, as we learn more about history and current events, opinions change. Still, that doesn’t make BDS an effective or ethical response. This might be why, despite increasing press, it has remained a fringe position.

  8. With a title like “the-top-five-reasons-why-bds-is-winning” I was expecting to see five reasons why bds is winning. But the article didn’t even offer one example! Not even an attempt. So lame.

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