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What BDS and the Israeli government have in common

Few of the people accused of boycotting Israel actually advocate or adhere to the central demands of the Palestinian boycott call. Ironically, those same people may be in the best position to help end the occupation.

By Ran Greenstein

JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/ Activestills.org)

[Illustrative photo] JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/ Activestills.org)

Opposition to the BDS movement has become a crucial test of loyalty to the pro-Israel cause in the U.S. Jewish community in recent months. It has not replaced the Iranian nuclear program as the most prominent cause for alarm raised by the Israel lobby and its allies, but it is moving in that direction.

Naturally enough, this heightened publicity is being celebrated by BDS activists as proof that their campaign is working effectively, and that they do indeed constitute a major problem for the Israeli government and its supporters. What better demonstration of your success than the fear of your opponents?

On the face of it this seems a bit curious. There is a big discrepancy between the achievements of the movement so far and the attention it has been getting. Without wishing to underestimate the impact of the campaign, it has been endorsed by student societies on a dozen university campuses in the U.S. and Europe, and by a couple of academic associations. Most of these expressions of support have focused only on the first of the three goals of the movement: to oppose the 1967 occupation, support the right of return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and advocate full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rarely has any high-profile group or body come out in support of all three goals combined.

If this is the case indeed, how can we explain the hysteria that has engulfed sections of the hasbara apparatus, in Israel and overseas, as expressed in speeches, legislation and expressions of outrage? To understand the issue we have to make a distinction between two types of BDS, which have been conflated in public discourse.

The first type is the BDS movement as embodied in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). It is centered on the three goals outlined above and it regards them as package deal necessary to dismantle the Israeli system of colonial control. Obviously, the BDS movement has never denied the importance of fighting the 1967 occupation as a central goal in its own right. But, it has emphasized the need to go beyond it in order to challenge the structure of the Israeli state and all its policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, and not merely those related to the occupation. From that perspective, a focus on opposing the 1967 occupation is not wrong in itself, but can be problematic if it comes at the expense of the two other goals.

The second type is a less organized and coordinated campaign, which includes many disparate initiatives ranging from boycotts of settlement products to severing commercial relations with Israeli companies that provide services to settlements and their residents, or are involved in maintaining the occupation, or simply operate in and from the occupied territories. Generally this campaign is meant to apply pressure from the outside on the Israeli state and its agencies in order to force them to change their policies vis-à-vis the 1967 territories and their residents.

The argument presented here is that while the first type of BDS represents a minor nuisance for the Israeli state, the second type is a major threat to its policies. Conflating the two and hyping the danger of the first type is in the interest of both the current Israeli government and the BDS movement. How is that possible?

Let us discuss the Israeli reaction first. When we look at the forces in Israel which highlight the danger of the BDS movement, the hard-right and settlers lead the way. They do that because they wish to disguise the major cause for the current wave of criticism of Israel, the 1967 occupation and in particular the settlements. Their goal is to show that calls for boycotts and sanctions stem not from specific Israeli policies but from opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel (or its existence as a ‘Jewish state’), which itself stems from anti-Semitism or simply from hatred of Israel, regardless of its policies.

By focusing on the BDS movement and its three combined goals, and thus erasing the specific nature of the campaign against the occupation, Netanyahu wishes to bolster his position that a withdrawal from the occupied territories will not solve the conflict, and that criticizing the settlement project as an obstacle to peace is misguided. Paradoxically, the BDS movement shares a similar approach, albeit from an opposite moral perspective: it agrees that putting an end to the occupation is not enough and that other steps must be taken, which amount to the abolition of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel (though not abolition of the State itself). It claims credit for all external pressure on Israel, regardless of its specific focus.

In contrast, centrist forces in Israel – including much of the professional diplomatic apparatus – are aware that recent efforts in Europe to apply pressure on Israel stem primarily from opposition to the occupation, not opposition to the state itself. These efforts can cause enormous economic damage to Israel through withdrawal of investment, cancellation of scientific projects, termination of joint economic ventures, conditioning funding on change of policies, and other such steps. To be condemned by a student or academic association is one thing; to face boycott by major global economic actors is quite another.

These centrist forces wish to make a clear distinction between the supposedly benevolent core of the Israeli state – in its pre-1967 boundaries – and the malevolent policies of occupation and settlement. While opposed to the BDS movement, they use the threat of boycotts and sanctions that target the occupation to reinforce their own calls for a more moderate and conciliatory foreign policy. Such a policy would retain the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, but would show readiness to withdraw from the majority of the occupied territories and dismantle many of the settlements, in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Some of these centrist forces have come up with their own calls for boycotts and sanctions that target settlements and their products, referred to – at times in a supportive and at times a derogatory manner – as Zionist BDS. The problem with this approach, however, is that the settlements do not fund, arm and legislate themselves into existence. They are being actively supported by the Israeli state and society as a whole. To target the settlements on their own, without dealing with the vast political, military and financial infrastructure that makes them possible, is to fail to correctly identify the problem and address it. At the same time, the BDS movement with its three goals makes a broad front – united by opposition to the occupation – difficult. Many potential supporters of the anti-occupation campaign are reluctant to join an initiative that requires support for all three goals of the movement, and particularly the right of return of refugees.

How can we square the circle then? A focus on boycott and sanctions campaign that targets the 1967 occupation and all the institutions that sustain it (whether based in the occupied territories or within Israel ‘proper’) could unify the disparate efforts around a core slogan: putting an end to the occupation. It would not require support for other demands (and thus scare away those opposed to them), and would not limit itself to the settlements (and thus shield institutions based in Israel itself, which play a crucial role in entrenching the occupation and the settlements). It would build on the broad global consensus in opposition to the occupation, which unites most of the international community and the Arab world with the Palestinian people, and sections of the Israeli-Jewish population and Jews elsewhere.

Crucially, such a united front should not prevent refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel from continuing to campaign on their issues, but without having to use the same vehicle to convey their concerns and wage their struggles. The BDS movement clearly gets something right: the 1967 occupation is not the first or only problem facing Palestinians. Rather, it is the entire machinery of colonial control that is the problem. But a single, overall problem does not necessarily get solved by a single, overall campaign. Forming specific alliances to address specific components of the situation may be a better way forward.

Related:
Will boycott ‘work?’
The boycott isn’t economic warfare, it’s psychological
Stephen Hawking’s message to Israeli elites: The occupation has a price

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    1. Bar

      If the problem is occupation, Ran, then all you need to do is guarantee to Israelis that if they leave Judea and Samaria (mostly, like for example to the 5% line defined in the Barak and Olmert peace offers), they won’t be attacked as they have been from Gaza.

      Easy, peasy!

      By the way, as you note, since BDS is clear that it’s not about ending the occupation unless occupation is defined as the existence of the state of Israel, the problem you face isn’t that you need to find a way around this issue, it’s that the Palestinian leadership has indicated that it is aligned with these goals (see Abbas’s three No’s to Obama last week). In other words, no matter how you view it, the ultimate goal of Israel’s opponents is the destruction of Israel itself.

      Therefore, all you (and people such as Beinart) do with this attempt to focus on 1967 borders, is obfuscate the real meaning of the conflict and these boycotts.

      Reply to Comment
      • Not so easy, Bar. When they come, they did not give any guarantee. Anyhw, this is not the Palestinian’s argument, what they are searching for is Justice, Dignity, Peace.

        Reply to Comment
      • Monir

        Bar,
        I don’t know ow you and many other Jewish supporters of Israel find Ok and acceptable ,that Israel have worked and seemed and mostly achieved the demise of the Palestinians for the last 65 years, at least, yet you have such a huge issue with the BDS wording of their three items? That is beyond me and my understanding of how the Jewish mind and conscious works! I don’t see their common sense of logic to express their sense of justice and humanity without being tented with the bias toward the will being of Israel and Jews only, and a total disregard to the dispossession, expelling , jailing, killing, and besiege of the Palestinians under brutal occupations to the point of wishing them to vanish as to satisfy Israel, Zionists, and many Jews of the diaspora ! How cold any one still say that Israel ever seek peace with the Palestinians after all these evidence on the grounds in devastating what ever is Palestinian?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          It is really pretty simple. We start with the basic premise that the Jewish people started in their homeland – Israel. Then we proceed towards an obvious corollary that the Jewish people should be allowed to return to their homeland in Israel. From there we move on to the attempt and failure by the Arabs and Palestinians to prevent this via violence and massacre. And then we end up where we are right now – a prosperous and democratic Jewish state trying to make peace with Palestinians and Arabs that continue to insist that they will not be satisfied until Israel is destroyed and Jews are driven out.

          There is no shame in defeating people that wish to see you dead. Had the tables been reversed there would have been not a single Jew left in the land of Israel, with laws preventing Jews from stepping foot in their homeland.

          The Palestinians however take that a step further. They know that Israel doesn’t wish to see them dead, yet continue to demand its destruction, celebrate the murder of every Jew and treat the murderer as a hero. And in this ‘progressive’ goal they are supported by the useful idiots of BDS who think that putting lipstick on the pig of the genocidal Palestinian desire to destroy Israel they can make it pretty enough for Western audiences to support.

          When the Palestinians are ready to live in peace in their own state next to a secure Jewish State of Israel there will be peace. As of yet there are no takers among the Palestinians for such a proposition. So far as far as the Palestinians have been willing to go is that they are willing to accept their own state only if they are allowed to continue the struggle to destroy Israel and it would take one dumb Israeli moron to accept that kind of ‘peace’.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Bar

      Jose, then making peace should be simple. After all, the Israelis are simply searching for justice, dignity and peace as well.

      If, however, the Palestinian notion of justice, dignity and peace involves the demise of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, then I’m afraid that is a recipe for one-sided justice.

      Here are a couple of ways that the Palestinians could come to realize that there is already an avenue to achieve peace, justice and dignity: view the 80% of Mandatory Palestine that has become Jordan and the additional 7% that will end up in their hands as Palestine as a significant accomplishment; and, recognize that there has in effect been a population exchange where Jewish refugees from Arab lands have lost homes, property and communities and Israel has provided them with a refuge.

      It seems to me that if to these two points you add Palestinian statehood, a reparations fund, control over Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and all Christian and Muslim holy sites, as well as the increased and improved trade relations and economic capabilities of the Palestinian state, that the requirements the Palestinians seek according to you will be met.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        “Israelis are simply searching for justice, dignity and peace as well.”

        Do not write those things when I am drinking tea, that is dangerous. “Justice” is one of Israel’s biggest fears.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Peter Feld

      Totally disagree, I’d rather collude with Israeli right to conflate 67-based pressure with support for the broader goals than pivot to a 67-based strategy that hangs refugees and repeal of discrimination out to dry. My way leads to one state and equality, yours leads to two states at best and more likely endless doomed negotiations.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bar

        Your way leads to perpetual conflict and, at the very best, a Syria/Lebanon/Iraq type of internal fighting. Please go focus your warmongering efforts on other parts of the world, I hear the Ukraine needs your help.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Bar

      Not at all. You need to open your mind somewhat. Perhaps a book by Bertrand Russell will help you? Alternatively, you can watch a Marx Brothers movie.

      600,000 Jewish refugees of the 850,000 who left Arab and Muslim states because of this conflict, which was launched by the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine together with several Arab states, moved to Israel and they and their descendants comprise about 50% of Israel’s Jewish population. The value of their properties lost is far greater than what Palestinian Arabs lost, and old (in some cases ancient) communities were destroyed. People had to move to an impoverished, war-stricken, undeveloped country in order to start again, in most cases never recovering their former status or communities. Why exactly do they deserve less “justice” than Palestinians?

      And do try not to be mocking in your answer by suggesting they may “return” to their former countries and lands. Silly answers make tea dribble down one’s chin.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        An open mind is a good thing. In the case of Israel that means listening to the overwhelming evidence from respected sources like Amnesty, HRW, the ICRC and ICJ that Israels actions are against international law and bring injustice. This is about ROR but it is also about what happens now.

        Instead of one liners I could write a whole report, but that would be useless. I think you are not stupid you know the inconvenient truth. You are just here to hide and to distort it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Nope, I didn’t see your mind opening there.

          Since I am somewhat intimately familiar with the Jewish refugee history, I’m afraid you’re going to have a tough time convincing me that justice is served by damaging Israel or putting it in danger. You’re also going to have a tough time convincing me of the seriousness of organizations that singled out Israel at Durban. That’s the problem with this extreme anti-Israel bias, it tarnishes and taints because people can turn around and point to the unfairness. Take a look at how nobody respect the UNHRC.

          Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            Bar,
            It is not unfairness of UNHRC but simply the opinion of all but a few countries.

            If you look at Israel resolution votes in the UNHRC (a few less would do) you will notice the usual pattern.

            example:
            22/28.
            Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem

            Votes for 46 to 1 (USA)

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Indeed. When China votes in favor of a resolution against Israel, the angels weep.

            But you would quote this vote as an indication of some greater truth about Israel. Considering that this body includes or has included Russia, China, Cuba, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, I would suggest to you that all you’ve proven with your comment is how right I am. This body has zero credibility and it is precisely because it has permitted itself to be corrupted on behalf of one side in this conflict.

            Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            The key fact is the 1. You can vilify some members, have a discussion about some others but not all. I’ll make it easy for you:

            46 to 1.

            Angola, Argentina, Austria, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile,
            Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia,
            Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy,
            Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania,
            Montenegro, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Korea,
            Republic of Moldova, Romania, Sierra Leone, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand,
            Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            There are a handful of countries on that list that don’t embarrass the UN mechanism called the UN Human Rights Council, especially as it sits in judgement of Israel. What motivates these few countries diplomatically is unknown to me, but one of the problems Israel faces in this body and in the UN generally is that it is one tiny country with a relatively small economy and international footprint. Especially in the age of Obama, the US doesn’t give a shit and isn’t doing much to give Israel cover. It’s very possible that some of the countries that happen to be true democracies are making cynical calculations about cost/benefit on these votes. There are 57 countries in the Muslim Bloc and 120+ in the Non-Aligned Movement group (which includes and is heavily influenced by the Muslim Bloc), so it’s very possible that a Spain or an Italy is doing some simple calculations. It costs them nothing to vote against Israel but it might cost them something to vote with it.

            Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      Typical. “The value of their properties lost is far greater …. ”

      The difference is that Jewish refugees from Arab lands had a country and a passport waiting to greet them, Palestinians had, and 66 years hence still have, neither. The comparative value of their properties is not a factor for the Palestinians, it’s one for the individual Arab countries from which the Jews came. Why don’t you take your campaign there and return to the subject in hand?

      Put on a bib and consider this:
      “It would build on the broad global consensus in opposition to the occupation, which unites most of the international community and the Arab world with the Palestinian people, and sections of the Israeli-Jewish population and Jews elsewhere.

      Crucially, such a united front should not prevent refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel from continuing to campaign on their issues, but without having to use the same vehicle to convey their concerns and wage their struggles. The BDS movement clearly gets something right: the 1967 occupation is not the first or only problem facing Palestinians. Rather, it is the entire machinery of colonial control that is the problem. But a single, overall problem does not necessarily get solved by a single, overall campaign. Forming specific alliances to address specific components of the situation may be a better way forward.”

      Well?

      Reply to Comment
      • Tzutzik

        ” …. and sections of the Israeli-Jewish population and Jews elsewhere.”

        A very small section. A tiny itsy bitsy very small section …

        If only I could understand why you are so anti the self? I can only liken you to AIDS, a case when the immune system turns on the organism that it is supposed to protect. A malfunction of the immune system.

        But, Sh, we humans are ingenious. We already have ways of dealing with AIDS. And in the future, we will find a cure for it. In the same way, we will find ways to restore your brain function and will cure the few of you from your your mental illness. You and us both will be the happier for it.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Bar

      “The difference is that Jewish refugees from Arab lands had a country and a passport waiting to greet them”

      I didn’t know you were an advocate for Zionism. Very good!

      “Palestinians had, and 66 years hence still have, neither”

      Dude, millions and millions and millions of refugees around the world have been resettled during this period, including Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi, the Gulf States, Kuwait, etc. have such vast lands, and in some cases wealth, that the claim the Palestinians couldn’t have been patriated is a sad joke on the Palestinians and all of their supporters.

      And indeed, the same countries which did not absorb the Palestinians and made life miserable for their Jews and launched the war against Israel in 1948 bear a great deal of responsibility for what happened. But so do the Palestinians. Remember 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-39, support for Nazis during WWII, 1947, 1948 and countless terror attacks subsequently? Why do you claim Palestinians have no agency? They have had a government for 20 years now!

      There is nothing you can do to change the history and the history is clear that the Arabs local to Mandatory Palestine joined forces with Arabs in surrounding areas and states and launched wars on the Yishuv and then Israel. They lost and now they want to turn the clock back as if they never attacked, while pretending that half of Israel’s population which is there precisely because of their actions should be disconnected from any final outcome.

      Reply to Comment