These are the salad days for the BDS crowd. Their cause has gotten some traction with American academics. It is all the rage in Europe. And now, even Secretary of State Kerry has said that BDS is a force to be reckoned with. Cue the balloons, BDS has officially arrived and in a huge way. It’s bigger than, oh I don’t know, it is bigger than Hollywood. Don’t just take my word for it; ask Scarlett Johansson.
For those of you who live in a bubble and are wondering exactly what BDS is, it stands for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” and its target is none other than Israel. There are two points that are packed into that one statement. First, that peaceniks all over the globe are now increasingly advocating the strategy of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israeli goods, services and/or institutions. And second, that Israel is being singled out as the one and only one jurisdiction that warrants such treatment.
BDS makes me sick. But I do recognize that the strength of this movement stems in large part from the failures of the Israeli government and the tunnel-vision of the Jewish people. That realization sickens me even more.
BDS has an official website: http://www.bdsmovement.net/ At its top, you will find the words that must be the rallying cry for the movement -- “freedom justice equality.” Below that, at least at times, you might find the lovely face of Ms. Johansson, together with a snide message mocking her for her support of an Israeli company. Maintained by the so-called “Palestinian BDS National Committee,” the website goes on to set forth in detail precisely what is meant by the B, the D and the S. The boycott “targets products and companies (Israeli and international) that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions [which] directly contribute to maintaining, defending or whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians as Israel deliberately tries to boost its image internationally through academic and cultural collaborations". Divestment, the website adds, "means targeting corporations complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights and ensuring that the likes of the university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance such companies". Finally, sanctions are said to be "an essential part of demonstrating disapproval for a countries [sic] actions. Israel's membership of various diplomatic and economic forums provides both an unmerited veneer of respectability and material support for its crimes."
Sorry, I couldn’t resist sticking in that “sic.” Call it the whimper of a petty Jew. But I have bigger issues here than the BDS leadership’s command of the English language. In fact, I have multiple concerns about this movement.
To begin, consider what it means to single out Israel as the one place in the world that is worthy of targeting. Or, perhaps I should say, consider Israel’s abuses in relation to all of the other countries that are NOT being singled out as part of this movement. One need not go any further than Israel’s own neighborhood to find the absurdity of such disparate treatment. Israeli’s neighbors include countries that sanction religious discrimination, grotesque abuse against women, and even international terrorism. But are they the object of BDS wrath? Not as far as I can tell.
Back in the day, organizations that would target Jewish institutions for unique sanctions would at least have the courtesy to use the word “Jewish” in describing the focus of their enmity. Now, however, they have learned to hide that word and to replace it with “Zionist” or “Israeli.” But given that Israel is hardly at the top of the international list of abusers and yet is increasingly rising to the top of the world’s pariahs, one cannot help but wonder how much of the success of BDS stems from good old-fashioned anti-Semitism.
If nothing else, the enthusiasm of the European Left in embracing this movement, while remaining uninterested in similarly sanctioning other nations, is ironic. Seventy years ago (and many times before that), their right-wing ancestors were inappropriately singling out the Jewish people for their targeting, whereas now it is the left-wingers’ turn. Perhaps instead of punishing the economy of a familiar foe, however, the Europeans might ask themselves what they can do to support the economy of the Palestinians. For that would surely advance the interests of peace and prosperity without fostering the type of divisiveness and mistrust that has cemented the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the decades.
Another problem with the BDS movement is the effect that it is having on the Palestinians. For that region to know peace, both sides need to accept responsibility for making compromises. That requires some degree of willingness to accept a share of the blame. What BDS does, however, is to shift the Palestinians’ focus away from what they can do to compromise and instead single out the Israelis as the one and only wrongdoers in this conflict. According to the conventional narrative of the left, the Palestinians are doing all we can reasonably ask them to do simply by forbearing from violence; it is the Israelis who must make the other compromises. Talk about a toxic message to deliver to the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Thanks in part to the advocates of BDS, Palestinians can feel free to see themselves simply as resistance fighters whose goals are nothing more than “freedom justice equality.” Consider that the proponents of BDS don’t stop at singling out the abuses of the Israeli government but also wax eloquent about the inherent imperialist and discriminatory nature of Zionism. The result is to encourage Palestinians to see their conflict with the Israeli Jews as a simple good-versus-evil struggle. The Palestinians’ job is to see themselves as Gandhis – avoiding violence, but remaining resolute in a struggle against western imperialism. Just as the English had no legitimate claim to India, the Jews are being portrayed as having no legitimate claim to Palestine (or Israel). And the Palestinians are told that it is just a matter of time before the colonialist Jews will either leave the area, as the English left India, or at least recognize like the whites in South Africa that they are not entitled to control a state in a continent that does not belong to them. (Conveniently, BDS advocates, in their rush to compare the Zionist movement with South Africa, Colonialist England, or Nazi Germany, love to ignore centuries of Jewish history, in which the Jews found themselves tossed around like a football, ghettoized, or simply slaughtered, all the while pining for nothing more than to live in peace in their traditional holy land.)
To be fair, some BDS proponents acknowledge concerns with boycotting Israel in its entirety and prefer instead to confine their BDS advocacy to those companies, institutions and individuals that support Jewish activity in the West Bank. As someone who despises Israel’s decision to build settlements in that area, I do appreciate the distinction between such limited BDS and the whole-hog variety. But that doesn’t require me to support limited-BDS. The fact is that I find neither justice nor expediency in singling out the Israelis for economic sanctions, as if they have a monopoly on human rights abuses. Just look at the Palestinian regime in Gaza – the lovable group known as Hamas. Are they not corrupt? Do they not practice discrimination against women? Do they not engage in violence against innocent people, including international acts of violence? And yet does it make any sense to punish the economy of Gaza? Of course not.
I recognize that BDS, as a general principle, has its place in the international arena. In the 1980s, while a student at Harvard, I actively worked for my university to divest its holdings from South Africa, and I have never regretted those efforts. Similarly, I do not underestimate the right-wing turn in Israeli politics during the years after the Oslo framework broke down, and especially after Israel gave up its settlements in the Gaza Strip. Clearly, there is a fragment of the Israeli population that has been turning blind eyes to the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people, and BDS represents a way to confront that complacency that is strongly preferable to the alternative of physical violence. Still, BDS is the lazy man’s way of dealing with the problem. There are better, more affirmative ways of supporting these two besieged peoples, ways that foster peace without widening the chasms and building mistrust, which is the greatest enemy in all the Middle East.
What we need to do first and foremost is to celebrate the legitimate aspirations of both peoples. This entails recognizing the Jewish claim to autonomy known as “Zionism” and the Palestinian claim to autonomy known as “Palestinian Nationalism.” What we fight must be limited to that which stands in the way of either of those aspirations (rather than that which ignores one set of aspirations and demonizes extreme forms of the other). Supporting Palestinian Statehood in the United Nations, something the United States did not do, would have been appropriate in my view. We must also support the efforts of NGOs to bring increased prosperity to places like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – and there is where the Europeans might want to get off their judgmental butts and lend a hand.
I have no qualms about being critical with respect to the conduct of either people. And indeed, I have often said publicly that the Settlements can be categorically criticized in the strongest possible terms, though I am no more enamored of the radio silence among the Palestinian community when it comes to recognizing the legitimate right of the Jewish people to self-determination and a peace of oith in their native Israel. Neither side came into this conflict in 2014 with totally clean hands, and both sides had better grapple with that reality. BDS places all the blame on one side, at least implicitly. In that regard, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Make no mistake; were it not for the selfishness and/or religious extremism of a small fraction of the Jewish people, Israel would not be settling the West Bank. And were it not for those God-forsaken Settlements, there would be no BDS. But that does not excuse the Left from advocating BDS and attempting to turn the Jewish State into an international pariah. Personally, I don’t think you have to be an anti-Semite to be an anti-Zionist or a BDS advocate. But those anti-Zionists who hate anti-Semitism might want to think long and hard about the logic of their position. What they are trying today – singling out the Jewish people for punishment -- has been tried many times in our world’s history. Each time, “freedom, justice and equality” has been a casualty. Why should this time be any different?