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BDS undermines efforts to end the occupation

Published: April 15, 2011
Section: Opinions


Debate on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is almost never void of emotion. In a struggle where both sides play the victim of wanton aggression, opponents often engage in polarizing discourse aimed to delegitimize the other’s claims. The same rhetoric can be found in arguments surrounding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

If 10 years of studying the conflict have taught me anything, it is that behind every slogan and movement is an argument that can either be justified or rebuffed by facts and, if you earnestly seek the truth, then you need not fear becoming informed on other viewpoints. It was with this mentality that, to the best of my ability, I analyzed the validity of the BDS argument and concluded that the opponents of BDS were correct indeed. Although I remain highly critical of the traditional pro-Israel advocacy groups’ disregard for Palestinian suffering and anti-democratic forces in Israel, I believe it is high time for the BDS movement’s efforts to be exposed as both morally reprehensible as well as ineffective (if not counterproductive) to ending the occupation and finding a just solution to the conflict.

The first faulty BDS claim to examine is that Israel is an apartheid state like pre-1993 South Africa and that, just as BDS worked in South Africa, it should somehow work in Israel. For the treatment of minorities in Israel proper, there is no comparison. Despite widespread discrimination against them, Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens still enjoy the benefits of a democracy, including the right to vote, a free press and even an independent judiciary. The fact that an Arab judge recently sentenced an Israeli (Jewish) president to several years in prison serves to prove that the Israeli democratic system, although still below the standards we hold in the United States and Western Europe, is far from apartheid.

Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is more complicated but the verdict is the same. For one, apartheid is a system based on discrimination of race; the occupation was initially the product of regional territorial disputes following the Six-Day War and has, since the First Intifada, been premised on security concerns in the absence of a two-state solution. Yes, Palestinians deal with daily racism in what is clearly an ethno-nationalist conflict but Israel did not, for example, blockade the Gaza Strip because it believes Arabs need to be subjugated; it did it to stop the thousands of rockets that Palestinian militants were firing at Israeli civilians.

Overlooking such a central component to Israeli mentality as security is reckless. This approach by BDS supporters is not surprising, however, given the nature of the movement. With South Africa, the goal of BDS was clear: to end apartheid. The BDS against Israel camp, on the other hand, is much more fractious, featuring organizations who share clashing objectives—from merely the end of the occupation to the dissolution of the state of Israel. Without a clearly defined objective, all BDS participants, even those who truly believe they are punishing Israel for its own good, are indirectly abetting those who could care less about the safety of Israel’s citizens. To find an example of this collusion, one need not look far. On April 13, Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine—a club that does not take a stand on how a final settlement to the conflict should look—brought prominent BDS leader Omar Barghouti to campus. It is no secret that Barghouti calls for a Palestinian (or at least a bi-national) state to replace all of Israel.

Just what is the problem with a bi-national state? Given the decades of conflict over Jewish and Palestinian nationalist claims and the support among the majority of both groups for a two-state solution, the bi-national option unjustly ignores the will of the people most affected by the fighting. Although bi-nationalism worked in South Africa, let us not forget the closer, regional examples of the bi-national experiment: the cases of Lebanon and Iraq. The years of unresolved religious and ethnic conflict in those countries serve as a reminder of what happens when outside powers impose territorial “solutions” at the expense of the local inhabitants’ aspirations.

Israelis and those who support the two-state solution have good reason to be weary of the BDS movement’s implicit and sometimes overt advocacy for a so-called one-state solution. As J Street points out, BDS groups, “fail explicitly to recognize Israel’s right to exist and they ignore or reject Israel’s role as a national home for the Jewish people.” Moreover, as liberal Zionist writer Bernard Avishai mentions, by boycotting international companies that do business in Israel, they “will be forced to understand that selling to Israel will carry a price …The implicit premise here is that the occupation flows from the fact of Israel itself.” Even BDS efforts targeted solely at international corporation services in the settlements will precipitate this reaction. Starbucks, for instance, pulled out of Israel altogether after it was condemned for establishing cafes in the settlements. On a related note, while calling for companies and governments to sever ties with the Israeli military may on the surface sound like a reasonable attempt at promoting non-violence, Israel uses this same military equipment as a deterrent against external threats such as Hezbollah, which currently has 45,000 rockets (some with the capability of hitting Tel Aviv) in its arsenal.

Not only is BDS against Israel morally repugnant, but also it is ineffective, if not counterproductive, to fostering peace in the region. For starters, it encourages Israeli recalcitrance in the peace process because it makes Israelis, who are already hypersensitive to global pressure, feel like they are being victimized. Proponents of BDS often contest that this international isolation will force Israelis to “see the light” and take a serious approach at ending the occupation. This train of thought is just as arrogantly misguided as the Israeli government’s reasoning for blockading Gaza, namely so that Palestinians would learn to view their Hamas overlords as the culprit for their collective imprisonment. To the contrary, even after Operation Cast Lead, Hamas remained in power and Gazans still blamed Israel for their suffering. Furthermore, Israel’s decision to ease the blockade in the wake of the Flotilla Incident nearly bankrupted the Hamas-owned underground tunnels once Israel started flooding Gaza’s markets with goods. The lesson learned here is that a resolution to the conflict requires creative thinking, not simplistic campaigns of coercion.

If the effects of BDS are felt in Israel, a number of trends are much more likely to happen. First, as we are currently witnessing in Israel, right-wing members of Knesset are willing to curb basic democratic freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of where to live—in order to protect its Jewish character. If they will go to this extreme because some Israeli humanitarian organizations, like B’tselem, criticize the occupation, imagine what they would do in the face of an international BDS campaign. Second, many Israeli moderates will not be helpful in ending the occupation either. Forty percent of Israelis are secular and cosmopolitan, and make up the large majority of center and center-left voters. Due to Israel’s large high-tech sector (a $25 billion industry), thousands have left Israel and permanently resettled in more capitalist countries, mainly the United States. Israel’s wars have catalyzed this trend of emigration. Why would the impact of BDS, which affects these Israeli livelihoods, be any different? Third, as J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami notes, because BDS punishes all Israelis regardless of political affiliation, right-wingers and leftists alike will ask themselves, “How can we make concessions for peace when everybody’s against us?” For example, even the left-wing Meretz Party, which itself has recently called for a boycott of locally-produced settlement goods, had supported Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (invasion of Gaza) just days after Hamas refused to renew a ceasefire.

BDS is also harmful to the Palestinian economy. A large sector of Palestinian society relies on Israeli employment (although the Israeli economy does not rely on them), and therefore categorically opposes BDS, which if successful would put their own jobs at risk. Likewise, the Palestinian General Trade Union stands in opposition to BDS, preferring instead to work with the Israeli Histadrut (trade union umbrella). Indeed, economic cooperation of this nature increases Israeli-Palestinian interaction and the more their economies are interdependent, the less attractive factors on the ground that perpetuate violence on both sides become.

One last reason, albeit perhaps the most important, on why BDS will prove ineffective is that it is highly unlikely that it will garner enough support in the United States—Israel’s biggest trading partner and closest ally—to make an impact. The United States profits immensely from Israel in the economic realm, among other areas; Christian Zionists have millions of dollars invested in Israeli projects, including cooperation initiatives with the settler movement; and American Jewry, which is closely engaged in developing a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, is too acutely aware of the Palestinians’ share of culpability in the absence of peace to support a campaign that, by its very nature, is one-sided against Israel.

In writing this column, I was hoping to provide fuel for people seeking to challenge BDS against Israel. At this point, however, I feel morally obligated to reiterate that while its tactics are deplorable, the plight of the Palestinians is very real and must be ameliorated. If you care about Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state, and if you truly desire—as I do—to see Israel fulfill its destiny as a light unto the nations, then you must struggle to fight for a comprehensive two-state solution in which Palestinians can be free with a state of their own. Even now, anti-democratic forces in Israel threaten to destroy any window of a peaceful future and to lead Israel into a spiral of unrelenting violence. For those in the Jewish community, our parents’ generation helped Israel become the affluent, modern nation it is today, but they failed to nurture the appropriate conditions for peace. It is on our generation to find a sustainable course for peace, and to affirm that the celebration of our people’s nationhood is not contingent on the oppression of another people.

I would like to end with an appeal. I come to you as a member of J Street, but I appeal to you earnestly when I call on everyone to adopt these points if they want to help bring about a genuine resolution to the conflict. Generate an open dialogue featuring all points of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Teach your friends and family about the different narratives in the conflict. Lobby the United States to be a more engaging mediator. Support the Israeli and Palestinian organizations that foster cooperation and coexistence.

And finally, believe in peace.