Open Zion

02.07.13

What's So Wrong With BDS?

Controversial speakers appearing on campus are as American as apple pie. So why are critics riled up about an event organized by the Brooklyn College chapter of Students for Justice for Palestine, where Prof. Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti are explaining and defending the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel?

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz complains that the event is co-sponsored by the political science department, which is inappropriate for an academic unit, unless it sponsors all sides of a controversial issue. For him the co-sponsorship implies an endorsement of a political view that may have a chilling effect—indeed, an adverse career effect—on opponents of that view within the department.

I can sympathize with the claim that academic units should not co-sponsor events with student groups, although many universities, including Harvard, permit it, and I am not aware that Prof. Dershowitz has spoken out against this practice on other issues besides the Middle East. As the director of a Jewish Studies program that houses Israel Studies, I have instituted a policy against co-sponsorships with student groups (although we occasionally contribute modest sums for refreshments, which is what student groups are often looking for anyway).

But forget the co-sponsorship issue: What if the political science department had on its own initiative invited Butler and Barghouti to explain the aims of the BDS movement to its faculty and students? Prof. Dershowitz doesn’t just object apparently to a department “endorsing” a controversial speaker. He also objects to a department even sponsoring a controversial speaker unless opposing views are presented—an unusual and impossible demand for departments.

I suspect that the real reason for the Brooklyn College brouhaha is the belief among mainstream Israel supporters that those who support BDS belong to the extremist, loony fringe of Israel-haters. Free speech may require that they be allowed to speak on campus when invited by student groups, and, indeed, they appear regularly not only at colleges like Berkeley and San Francisco State, and but also at Penn and Harvard. But a respectable institution should publicly disavow their positions and relegate the event to a room in the crowded Student Union.

The real issue here is not freedom of speech for controversial ideas but rather the presentation of the BDS movement as beyond the pale.

I have written elsewhere about why liberal Zionists should consider supporting the global BDS movement. To the claim that the BDS movement is anti-Israeli I pose the question,  “Was the BDS movement in South Africa anti-South African?” For many whites and most Afrikaaners, and the South African government at the time, the answer would have been yes. For them, apartheid was an essential part of the South African regime. Dismantle apartheid, and the country, no matter what its name, would never be the same. Yet it was possible for those who opposed apartheid to contemplate a better place for all South Africans, blacks, whites, and colored. For them the BDS movement against apartheid was not directed against the South African people but against the policies of its government.

The global BDS movement has adopted three goals (rarely mentioned by its critics):  ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the separation barrier; granting full civil rights and equality to the Arab minority within Israel; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194. The three goals correspond to the three main sectors of the Palestinian people today. There is no goal of the abolition of the State of Israel, or even its transformation into one secular democratic state. In fact, those who support BDS against Israel have somewhat similar aims as those who supported BDS in South Africa. Both groups wanted and want to bring about fundamental changes in their respective societies in a non-violent manner.

One can disagree with the desirability or the consequences of some of these goals. Certainly one can disagree about the utility or efficacy of BDS as a tactic. But there is nothing odious or despicable about the goals or the tactic.

Some opponents of BDS will object, “We have no problem with criticism of Israel, as long as it is constructive and recognizes Israel’s legitimate security needs. But BDS aims not only to weaken the state, itself an immoral goal, but also to delegitimize its very existence. Indeed, many who endorse the BDS movement are in favor of replacing the Jewish state with a secular Palestinian state. That’s what places it beyond the pale of respectable discourse at universities, and what makes it deeply offensive to some students, even if it is protected by free speech.”

Arguing in this manner is troubling for two reasons. For one thing, it insinuates that the supporters of BDS hide their real agenda, the destruction of the State of Israel and the subjugation or exile of its Jewish inhabitants, under the cloak of human rights and international law. Second, it reads the desire to see a better regime or regimes for both Israelis and Palestinians as the wish to relegate the Jews to a second-class citizenship in a secular Palestine.

The question at stake here is not whether extreme positions should be allowed to be heard but rather whether BDS or One State advocacy are extreme positions. Prof. Dershowitz opposes the BDS advocate on one extreme and the radical settler zealot on the other. But the settler’s opposite counterpart is not the advocate of BDS, nor even the advocate of one state for Palestinians and Israelis, but rather one who would deny Israeli Jews any place in Palestine—just as the opposite extreme from the white supremacist in South Africa was not those South African blacks who wished to replace the apartheid ethos with the belief that blacks and whites should have equal rights in a shared society. In the Israeli-Palestinan conflict, the “middle” is not the domain of the two-staters but rather of all those who see both sides as entitled to control over their own security, lives and liberty, whatever the political arrangement, one state or two. “Neither to rule, nor to be ruled” as the old socialist Zionist slogan went.

This is why it is important that discussions and debates over BDS go mainstream and are not marginalized by the self-appointed arbiters of the acceptable and the unacceptable. The boundaries of discussion on Israel/Palestine are changing, albeit slowly. The longer the Palestinian people are deprived of their rights, the harder it will be to justify the current boundaries of discourse. The New York Times correctly complains that “the sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country.” But the terms of reference for such a discussion should not be limited to what is acceptable discourse in Israel. The diverse voices of the Palestinian people and their supporters, not to mention the supporters of the civil rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, should be heard in this country—not just in alternative media but in the public sphere.