Just this month, the student government at a campus in my home state of Indiana, Indianapolis University, voted to divest from Israel. This joins one of 23 BDS campaigns this year on campuses across the country, and dozens over the past few years.
Outside observers, and even lay-activists on either side, would be forgiven for thinking the BDS movement is gaining steam. And BDS wants you to think that this is due to the inherent justness of their cause. But in reality, BDS is actually losing ground, and there’s good reason. A closer look at its three-pronged strategy and true aims leads to the undeniable conclusion that rather than bringing peace and an independent Palestinian state closer to reality, BDS only pushes it further away.
What is BDS?
BDS is a civic movement calling to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, ostensibly due to its policies and continued occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Started in 2005 by a consortium of radical Palestinian and far-left activists, BDS has especially been active on American college campuses, mainly through an organization called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and lately through a fringe but growing Jewish group called JVP – Jewish Voice for Peace and its collegiate arm. Beyond the campus this includes still a very limited but growing number of religious, professional and civic organizations in the United States (and Europe), such as United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, United Electrical Workers’ Union, the Asian-American Studies Association and the American Studies Association. Next might be the American Anthropological Association.
The BDS Movement maintains that Israel is singularly at fault for the absence of a Palestinian state today, as it continues to profit from this situation. If only enough people were to stand up to Israel and exact a price – economic, cultural, political, academic or other – Israel would follow in South Africa’s steps and change its ways.
Billing itself as “non-violent”, “pro-peace”, and the champion of the downtrodden Palestinians who only seek to live in peace and independence, the BDS movement has succeeded in convincing a frustrated many who seek peace and a two-state solution to join its ranks.
The truth about BDS: Aims and strategy
Here’s the odd part. According to the logic by which heated debates operate (think abortion, taxes, education, gun control, global warming, etc.) one would then assume that opposite this group is a pro-Israel camp in favor of continued occupation and Israel’s current policies. Yet the vast majority of pro-Israel groups in the US, and most Israelis, also promote peace and favor a two-state solution with a Palestinian State alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. (The occupation of Gaza ended in 2005.)
So, how can it be that on one side of the debate you have those arguing for peace and ending the occupation, and on the other side, those also wanting peace and ending the occupation? If there is no argument, what’s going on here?
For decades, those radicals who called for Israel’s demise were marginalized to the fringes of any serious policy debate. Yet in recent years, they have grown more sophisticated, organized, aggressive and better at taking advantage of the complex realities on the ground. And, in realizing that this true goal has a very low glass ceiling of popular support, they worked to rebrand themselves as the only non-violent, peaceful and just path to Palestinian independence.
The BDS movement has done this through a three-pronged strategy of psychological warfare with legal, cultural and economic arms. The first part rests on a Marxist-inspired revisionist history. Based on a pseudo-intellectual platform developed by far-left academics, the intellectual war against Israel started in the worlds of the “posts” – post colonialism, post modernism, post capitalism, etc. And the main generators of the BDS movement add to this by reporting the news through entirely biased and often false recalling of events, built on multiple layers of revisionism or at least taking events completely out of context. This is deep delegitimization of Israel and its entire narrative.
The second part involves anti-normalization and silencing any sort of debate, critical thinking or opposing view-points. That is why Israeli speakers are sometimes shouted down, even if they are pro-peace and liberal, and even if they are speaking on topics far removed from the Palestinian conflict. We saw this in Texas, Minnesota, London and more. It creates a sense that any part of Israel is unacceptable, illegitimate and off-limits. But this also includes using political manipulation and procedural maneuvering to make sure the cards are stacked, opposition is caught off-guard and no fair trial is given.
And this is what happened in Indianapolis. The SJP activists manipulated the student senate system so the vote came before 3 of the 4 scheduled educational sessions took place and speakers could be heard. And during the vote, anti-BDS speakers were not given ample time to make their case. Similar stories abound, such as scheduling votes around or on Jewish holidays, so fewer Jewish students can vote, or stacking pro-BDS students in student government with this sole purpose in mind. Even pro-BDS activists who call the movement out for intellectual disingenuousness for not simply saying they want the destruction of Israel, like Dr. Norman Finkelstein, are bullied and ostracized by the movement.
The third part involves attacking Israel on as many fronts as possible. In the US, we see this mainly on campus BDS votes; in Europe, we see this in corporate board rooms, planning tables for cultural events and more. Think in the manner of a “reputation consultant”, a political campaign or a trial lawyer. The sheer fact that Israel, more than any other country, must stand “trial” and face these aggressive, inflammatory and divisive accusations and campaigns against it leaves a subtle but long-lasting impression on public opinion. It almost doesn’t matter to BDS if a vote passes a student legislature – not one university board has ever accepted a student decision to boycott or divest from Israel. The very theater of it all does enough to stain Israel’s reputation and at least get the undecided majority thinking that some of this may be true. During the 2015-2016 academic year, 9 BDS initiatives failed so far, while only 4 succeeded (3 more succeeded in a watered down form, and 2 were tabled; 4 more remain active).
And this ratio of 2 BDS fails to 1 success is pretty consistent over the past few years, even while overall numbers are actually on the decline. In fact, far more key individuals, groups, organizations, states, countries, municipalities and the like are coming out and pro-actively rejecting BDS. All this is accompanied by an incessant and highly exaggerated claim that the “tipping point” is near. In this manner, the illusion of success helps convince the undecided that there’s something real happening and they should join, which is why BDS is willing to cheat to gain an additional victory here or there.
Why this matters
The effect of all this has been a blurring of the border between the extreme “anti-Israel” crowd which lies at the heart of this movement, and the more moderate “critical of Israel” crowd which sometimes lends its support. But make no mistake. Despite appropriating a human rights jargon, those behind the BDS movement do not care for peace or a two-state solution. Their goal is to bring about the end of Israel, but they are willing to do so in a peaceful manner if possible.
For example, Professor Marjorie Cohn, a leading JVP activist, articulating this position in the Huffington Post, described the official goals of BDS, also reflected on the BDS website: “The call for BDS specified that “these non-violent punitive measures” should last until Israel fully complies with international law by (1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the barrier wall; (2) recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
While these may sound like reasonable and legitimate demands, it’s worthwhile to look at them in an accurate political and historical context. Forget that Israel is no colonizer nor were the lands of Israel ever really “Arab”, at least not since the 11th century (they were, of course, originally Jewish, then Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, then for a time Arab, Christian, Ottoman, British, then Jewish and again for a short time Arab – Jordanian mind you – before reverting to Jewish hands). Forget that the “barrier wall” was built after three years during which hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombers killed over 1000 Israelis and maimed thousands more. Forget that Arab citizens of Israel already have full equality. Granted, there is unofficial discrimination, but that is certainly not the stuff of boycotts. But it’s the last demand that is truly revealing – which calls for a repatriation of Palestinian refugees – now in the 3rd and 4th generation – to Israel.
This demand is loosely concealed code for the end of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state and the end of Zionism (not a dirty word – but simply Jewish political self-determination). And, most importantly, just throwing out the term “international law” doesn’t make it so. In fact, mentioning UN resolution 194 is intellectually disingenuous, as it is non-binding, while UN Security Council (ie. “binding”) Resolution 242 is conveniently ignored. 242 calls for the purposefully ambiguous “just resolution to the refugee problem”.
Even if the official BDS platform is cloaked in a thin layer of ambiguity, one need not look further than leading figures in the movement to see its true aims. Thus Omar Barghouti, founder of PACBI (the umbrella organization behind BDS) is on record as rejecting Jewish peoplehood and connection to Israel. Barghouti is also noted as saying, “A Jewish state in Palestine in any shape or form cannot but contravene the basic rights of the indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically…. we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No… rational Palestinian… will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”
Those who support a two-state solution and BDS simultaneously, apologize this away by rationalizing that BDS is officially ambiguous on the future of Israel, and they can work together in the meantime to pressure Israel to end the post-1967 occupation. Even more pushing this awkward marriage express their exasperation with Israel’s government, who refuses to relinquish the occupation, and cite BDS as the only non-violent and pro-active strategy that can pressure Israel to act in the right direction.
I will admit that groups like JVP and the BDS movement have clever branding that preys upon today’s 140-character Twitter generation with a short attention span (of which I am a part). Putting the words “for peace” right in your organization’s name implies that you are “for peace” while others are inherently, not. Or the BDS movement, billing itself as “non-violent”, implies benign aspirations. Gandhi and MLK were non-violent after all.
Dilemmas and alternatives
This skewed world-view that scapegoats Israel and romanticizes the Palestinians leads to a similarly skewed and simplistic solution. And it is this message has met some success in recruiting moderate progressives on campuses and beyond. The majority of these are not anti-Semitic nor do they hate Israel. This group even includes some liberal Jews and Israelis who truly desire peace and a two-state solution, and adopt BDS out of frustration with Israel’s right-wing government, and desperation for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. And to be fair, the current right-wing, populist and paranoid government has managed to frustrate many, as it speaks the language of the far right and the pragmatic center regarding two-states with equal fluency. A clear Israeli policy on this issue would go a long way to clarify matters.
The problem for pro-peace Israelis and pro-Israel activists (the majority), is that when we look at the demands of the BDS movement; or an anti-Israel demonstration and see signs justifying or glorifying terror, charging Israel with war crimes for acts of clear self-defense, or equate Israel to Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa; when Israeli speakers – liberal or conservative – are aggressively silenced on campuses; or when Israeli universities, who house the most pro-peace segments of Israeli society, as well as thousands of Arab students, are targeted for BDS; to whom are we to listen?
As history has shown, Israelis will take risks for peace, but only when we feel secure. That is why a movement intended to ultimately destroy Israel, with many of its backers actually calling for that, is counter-productive to peace and forces Israelis to recoil.
Conversely, this course of action and maximalist rhetoric creates problems for more pragmatic Palestinians. If the international community is seen to be taking up the Palestinian cause with positions far more radical and less compromising than even those of the PLO negotiators during the previous peace-talks, why compromise at all? Why not let BDs activists in the US and Europe do the heavy work of pressuring Israel for them, and then show up and reap the benefits.
It should be clear, BDS is not gaining ground, as its proponents and even many pro-Israel activists would have you believe. And the simple reason is that most realize that conflicts are complex, and blame cannot be placed on one side. And despite their best efforts to rewrite history and the news, and subsequently manipulate public discourse to believe this, a great too many will not buy it, at least instinctively. This opposite trend is reflected, among other things, in a string of states in the US (six so far with more in various stages) passing anti-BDS legislation, as well as clear rejections of BDS on the national level in Washington, but also London, Brussels (The EU), and the city of Paris. Beyond that, far more artists and public figures are making a point of coming to Israel or standing by Israel, rather than against, and rejecting the false choice BDS places before them. And this is not because they don’t believe the Palestinians deserve independence. Rather, they understand that the vision BDS pushes forward does this at the expense of Israel’s equally just vision for independence that it achieved not long ago, and that ultimately, the two visions must coexist in order to succeed.
So don’t be fooled. BDS is not the answer, certainly not if the question is “how to achieve peace?”. It will only bring more divisiveness and hatred, and perpetuate conflict by strengthening radical positions on both sides. A better approach takes into consideration real Israeli security concerns and denounces those calling and acting for Israel’s destruction, while at the same time making clear that the status quo cannot be tolerated in the long-term. Only by constructively engaging both sides and fostering an atmosphere of compromise, reconciliation and dialogue will the Palestinian leadership realize that the only way to achieve independence is when Israelis feel secure enough and they are not taking foolish risks for a fleeting and one-sided peace.
This article was originally published in The Times of Israel