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Notes of a BDS sceptic

BDS is a legitimate and peaceful course of action, and it certainly does not harm efforts to end the occupation. But does it help?

If there is any consensus regarding the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign to end the occupation of Palestine, it is that BDS is important. It is not surprising to hear this from supporters of the campaign, but if anything, its opponents are even more fervent in this belief. In order to stop BDS, they are willing to further erode the limited protections for freedom of speech, and contribute to the very isolation of Israel they are supposedly trying to fend off.

BDS is a good target for those who want to draw the conversation away from issues that really matter. Discussing this topic allows the defenders of Israel’s policies at home and abroad to paint the country as the perennial victim, forever teetering on the brink of delegitimization. Fostering this sense of vulnerability makes it easier to justify aggressive policies, and the deep neglect of every area of life except for the security apparatus.

Of course, if the BDS campaign never existed, the demagogues would find some other angle that would serve their purposes. The promoters of BDS certainly do not harm the efforts to end the occupation. And the means which they employ are the perfect example of a legitimate and non-violent campaign. The attempts to silence and malign the advocates of BDS are despicable.

Yet BDS is such a lightning rod precisely because of its ineffectiveness. Over the medium and long term, Israel’s external relations and its position in the world are rising, not declining. The prolonging of the occupation has actually benefited Israel in this domain. It gives it an important bargaining chip in a region perceived as critical for stability. Combined with the mirage of the “peace process”, it has allowed Israel to achieve enormous strides in its relationship with the European Union, which hopes to leverage this improvement in relations in order to gain a seat at the table, alongside the US.

Israel is much less popular among the broader publics of Europe, and is often severely criticized by intellectual elites. But this is nothing new, and it has so far proved to have no meaningful effect on policy or Israel’s interests.

In the short term, Netanyahu’s government, and the loony Knesset which supports it, have managed to harm Israel’s image, and damage the relationship with the US, its most important backer. But even this sour atmosphere seems to have extracted no tangible price; and it could easily change if a new government restores the empty rhetorical commitment to the “peace process”.

What about Joseph’s notion, in his excellent and thoughtful piece, that youth of Tel Aviv might be shaken out of their complacency if their favorite performers cancel their concerts? Or perhaps it is Israel’s scholars and researchers who would be stirred to action by refusals to cooperate from colleagues abroad?

It is easy to caricature these arguments, but they do have some merit. Many Israelis cherish the sense that they are a part of the advanced, modern, Western world. This is a major element of the country’s identity, and explains why every foreign criticism, however mild, is often amplified in the Israeli public’s consciousness. This is a certainly a tool to be used by those that wish to make Israel more democratic and promote Justice for Palestinians.

However, to be effective, those who use this tool must take account of other facets of Israel’s identity, as well as the hierarchical structure of our society. For Israel’s truly influential elites – political, economic, security and legal – what matters is what happens in their fields. And there, they enjoy increasing support. If they want to see a concert, they can hop on a plane without thinking twice about it. Below these elites, you will find many groups, which are almost eager to hear that Israel is isolated, disliked and criticized. Their sense of persecution is easily stoked by those who hold real power.

Many BDS supporters seek ways to challenge young people in Tel Aviv, because, well, many of them are young people in Tel Aviv, or can most easily identify with people in this group. A second best, for them, is to challenge academics, because, well, many of them are academics. But both of these groups have very little pull in Israeli politics. If BDS campaigners could affect economic or security interests, that might have a substantial effect. But, as mentioned above, the world is actually moving in the opposite direction.

Those who wish to end the occupation, and promote justice and democracy, need to look in more realistic directions. Part of this strategy would involve advocacy with decision makers abroad. These people are not going to boycott Israel or sanction it any time soon, the way things are going. But if they offer honest and full throated criticism, they can contribute to an internal change.

Ultimately, the main effort needs to be inside Israel, and, wherever it is focused, it needs to be about convincing and making coalitions. This is a tall order, indeed, but much less so than the prospect of bringing down the occupation through BDS activities. In the meantime, this campaign, while it is not harmful in itself, does draw away time, energy and hope that could be more effective when directed at other avenues of action.

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    1. Miki

      Roi, much the same arguments you make were also made during the years of South African apartheid about the supposed ineffectiveness and wrong headness of the boycott campaign against Sth African apartheid. History has shown that it was those who opposed and those who were critical and skeptical of the Boycott campaign who got it wrong, not the supporters and advocates of boycott.

      In saying BDS is not effective because Israel has managed to increase its relationship with the European Union, you reveal that you not only don’t understand how social change comes about, but you also don’t understand how the BDS movement works.

      While Israel still has “solid” support from world governments and the EU, support for Israel is eroding amongst ordinary people. Historically governments and institutions have only shied away from suppporting those repressive and oppressive regimes they have supported is when ordinary people are able to build a strong mass movement for change which puts pressure on those in power(the Egyptian revolution is a perfect example of this). BDS is aimed at educating and winning the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens in order to build a mass movement for change.

      Despite your claims, BDS is about convincing (educating) and building coalitions. However, this educating and building of coaltions is based on the political needs of the oppressed (ie. the Palestinians), rather than the needs of the oppressor (the Zionist state and Israeli society).

      Reply to Comment
    2. Roi Maor

      The boycott on South Africa was indeed effective, but only because it was combined with international isolation.

      Internal social change does come about in the way you describe. However, the goal of the BDS movement is to change *foreign* policy.

      Just look at the massive demonstrations against the war in Iraq, to no avail. Elites control foreign policy.

      The revolution in Egypt is a case in point. Mubarak fell not because he was boycotted from abroad, but because his people rebelled. That is also the only hope for change in Israel and Palestine.

      BDS comes at the expense of convincing people and building coalitions, because it limits its audience in advance. It cannot mobilize people who oppose Israel’s policies, but will not go so far as to boycott it; and it certainly misses all but a tiny minority in Israel itself.

      I do agree that the campaign against the occupation must heed the needs of the oppressed. However, when it comes to tactics, rather than goals, I think I can still form an independent opinion.

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    3. MAHDI


      Thank you for this interesting piece. I do wonder what you mean by “efforts to end the occupation?” Which “efforts” are you referring to?

      While I agree that a lot of the focus needs to be put inside Israel, to change Israeli society’s “numbness” to racism and discrimination, you are missing an important aspect of BDS that in a way has nothing to do with Israeli society. BDS has also acted as a mechanism for Palestinian activists to connect with International activists and organizations, thus creating a wide and diverse network of people. Because many BDS initiatives are enacted by individuals (ie. the people) it is a standpoint, a political empowerment mechanism, that has won the hearts of many activists from all walks of life. It is something that Human Rights activists, Civil Rights activists, Queer activists (to name a few) can identify with. It allows them to learn, expand their knowledge, make new friends and even visit Palestine (through Ben Gurion airport, as undercover “pilgrims” or what not). This network is expanding dramatically and gaining momentum. If anything, that is the ultimate goal of BDS.

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    4. Miki

      Hi Roi, thanks for your response. While you are correct to say that “the boycott on South Africa was indeed effective, but only because itwas combined with international isolation”, you ignore the fact that it took decades to build up that international support.

      The boycott campaign against the South African apartheid regime began in the 1950s, when the African National Congress issued a call. It took between 20 and 30 years before it started to gain significant international support.

      In contrast, the Palestinian initiated BDS campaign against Israel in just 5 years has been able to gain much more international support in much shorter time. For example, A report which appeared in Ynet today notes that according to the European Friends of Israel,that activities calling for the boycott of Israel took place in almost every European nation over the past year.

      Given this, I would argue that you are factually wrong to say that the Palestinian initiated BDS movement has been ineffective -instead,it has actually been much more effective. In a much shorter time than the South African campaign, the Palestinian BDS movement has been able to build international grassroots support, as well as support from a range of local governments,businesses and many trade unions.

      You are correct to say that in Egypt Mubarak fell because his people rebelled and built a mass movement (which is basically the point, I was making, it was only by building a mass movement that we are able to exert power on governments etc). The Palestinians are also attempting to build a mass movement, both in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and internationally. The Unifed Palestinian Call for BDS has broad support within Palestine(with more than 170 organisations signing on to the initial call in 2005) Since that time, support has grown in the OPT and internationally.

      As for the “goals” of BDS – if you re-read the objectives and the demands of the Palestinian Unified Call for BDS the goal of BDS is to win national liberation, self-determination and human rights for the Palestinian people, not merely to “change foreign policy”. (see: http://bdsmovement.net/?q=node/52 )

      The Palestinian BDS campaign seeks to advance the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and national liberation, which is why it states the following:

      “These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

      1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the 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 homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

      For me, what is problematic about your skepticism is that you seem to actively ignore the fact that BDS is in fact a Palestinian initiated campaign and that its political framework is based on the needs of the oppressed (ie. the Palestinians). Instead, you discuss BDS not only as if the Palestinians have nothing to do with its origin but you also completely ignore the political framework for the campaign they have initiated.

      While you have, of course, the right to form an “independent opinion” and argue against BDS as a tactic, I would argue that you should actually do this by engaging with the political framework and demands set out by the Unified Palestinian Call for BDS rather than ignoring them as you have effectively done in your article.

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    5. Roi Maor

      Mahdi – I am referring to general efforts against occupation. There are many activities beyond the BDS movement. This is also relevant to your second point – there are other, more effective ways to mobilize people. And ultimately, this is a tool – the goal is to end the occupation.

      Miki – SA never enjoyed the support or standing that Israel has right now. The first call for embargo on SA was made by the UN Security Council in 1961, and the embargo was made mandatory in 1977, 29 years after apartheid was proclaimed. The occupation has been going on for 44 years, and the Security Council finds it hard even to rhetorically condemn the settlements.

      The measure of the BDS movement’s success is not grass roots support in Europe, but its effect on Israel’s policy. For reasons I clearly articulated, I do not think this will happen, even if grass roots support expands far beyond its current scope.

      In my article, I specified that I have no argument in principle with the BDS movement. The fact that it is supported and initiated by the Palestinians, is therefore not relevant to the argument I was trying to make.

      Perhaps I am wrong, but the way I understand it, BDS is perceived by Palestinians as a tool to change Israel’s policy by exerting external pressure. The ultimate goal is to end the occupation, and I have no disagreement with that goal. I just think there are more effective ways to pursue it.

      Reply to Comment
    6. MAHDI

      ROI, while I understand the point that you are making I think that you need to widen the lens with which you are analyzing the BDS movement and the conflict it is dealing with.

      Yes, -one- of my goals is to end the occupation. That said, as a Palestinian, I am forced to look at other elements that are as grave as the occupation. Let me name a few (not in any particular order). First, there are Palestinians living in refugee camps and in the Diaspora, who have rights, and who have to be put into the equation. Second there are internal strives within the Palestinian Territories, between the people and the un-democratic patriarchal and violent Palestinian Authority (funded by the West), between seculars and fundamentalists, between Fateh and Hamas, that have to be added to the equation. Finally there are Palestinians who never left their villages in 1948 Palestine and who are now paying a high price and being used as ‘bait’ in Israeli government efforts to get rid of them (think recent Palestine Papers).
      All of these examples constitute an integral part of the “Question of Palestine” and all of these issues have to be dealt with in order for the conflict to come to an end. Ending the occupation is most definitely not the ultimate goal. It is the very minimum that is required -prior to- a situation where Palestinians and Israelis can ‘negotiate’ in any way, on relatively fairer terms.
      So given all of this, the BDS movement’s scope becomes much larger. It is not only about educating people and pressuring Israel to change its discourse but it is about reconnecting the Diaspora (many BDS movements in the US, Europe, Australia and where have you are entirely or partially led by Diaspora Palestinians), creating a social-political network and mobilizing people in the right direction. Will it end the occupation? No.
      Is it an important and legitimate step of self-organization, self-reflection and mobilization for Palestinians, and their supporters? Absolutely.

      At the end of the day, theoretically speaking, all of these different ‘camps’ (Palestinian resistance, Global BDS movement, Israeli anti-occupation / pro-civil pro-human rights groups) need to eventually work together.

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    7. Ex Israeli

      What is “effectiveness” in this case?
      I doubt the intention was/is to change the Israelis.
      As I see it the intention is to declare: we DON’T support these crimes and we wish our governments will start to listen to us a little more and listen to the Israelis a little less (well MUCH MUCH less if possible).

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    8. Roi Maor

      Mahdi – all the issues and goals you mention are important and worthwhile. But if that is the purpose, I do not see why BDS specifically is the most effective means to achieve it, rather than general mobilization and advocacy actions.

      Ex Israeli- if that is the way some people perceive the BDS movement, quite frankly, I find it disturbing. Turning this issue to be about the declarations of westerners, and the cleansing of their conscience, is upside down. My aim is to end the suffering of Palestinians, and that is the only measure of effectiveness I care about. Changing Israeli policy is the way to achieve that, because it is this country’s policies that are causing Pal suffering.

      If BDS activists really are sitting there, saying to themselves “the whole point of this thing is to declare that OUR hands are clean”, that is a shame. But I know too many activists to think that this is the typical way of thinking in the movement. I think most of them care about promoting actual change to Palestinians (and believe, wrongly IMHO, that BDS is the best way to achieve that), and not about clearing their conscience.

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    9. I don’t believe that the BDS activities are able to bring any positive fruits. Apartheid State, when applied to Israel, sounds great in terms of marketing but I guess does not have much to do with the reality – just as SA of the past and Israel do not have much in common. I’m not a specialist in SA history, but did the white majority suffer from the victim complex, was it in an endless survival war with the surrounding majority? I suggest that the reaction would be just the opposite and aimed against the self proclaimed saviors.
      I’ve got to know about the above mentioned organization just a few days ago, when I was forwarded a letter, in which they called to boycott the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. This was followed by an online correspondence with one Ofer, and left a really unpleasant after taste. This Festival is a beautiful event, which features not only concerts of top international artists, but also master classes, which attract students from Israel and from abroad. Not by chance it was placed in Eilat – bringing culture to inhabitants of the remote sea resort was among the founder’s aims. It took years to create this event, and a lot of human effort, and vision.
      As much I can judge from conversation with the BDS activist, he not only has slightest idea of cultural tradition and cultural life (I’m not speaking of darbukkah parties Friday night in Tel Aviv), but also has no respect to other people’s work and values. The result of the boycott is dubious. But to destroy a cultural institution – or to disrupt a concert – is very easy. There also was quite a few hypocrisy in the BDS letter, like “Palestinians are banned by law from attending the festival.” (quoting from memory). OK, do you mean checkpoints? In the same way they are banned from shopping in our supermarkets, let’s boycott them, too.
      The bill suggesting NIS 30.000 fines sounds scary, but is it against freedom of speech? The BDS activists are calling and are actually acting themselves.
      The same goes to scientific research, too – many of Academia people are much hated leftists, and they will be among its first victims.
      In one word – I’m not a skeptic, but a strong opponent of BDS. I see them as infantile self absorbed activists of a worst revolutionary type.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Sorry, it was of course white minority, not majority in SA

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    11. BDS Helps Israel

      It tells people which products they can buy that are made in Israel (like your ocmputer chips, many of your drugs).

      It tells people which stores to patronize.

      It telsl voters whom not to support.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Palestinian rights will only be achieved once Israeli public opinion is changed. The problem with BDS is that it is aimed at Israeli society in general, as opposed to the settlements themselves or companies that facilitate the occupation. This only feeds into Israeli panonia (tho it is worth remembering that even paroinoids have real enemies). It would be much more effective to target the boycott so that the difference between green line Israel and the occupied territories is emphasized rather than diminished.

      Reply to Comment