Zionist BDS

12.20.13

Liberal Zionism in the Era of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement

Three comments on the recent landmark decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and to express solidarity with the global BDS movement:

First, most readers, even sophisticated readers, have never heard of the global BDS movement. But this will no doubt change if there are more New York Times front-page articles about the movement’s successes. 

Second, even fewer readers have read the anti-boycott reactions appearing in the media in the last few days, written by the usual suspects, i.e., the Zionist baby-boomers whose views of Israel crystallized in the late ‘60s, and who have been repeating their “I-am-against-the-occupation-but-we-cannot-delegitimize-Israel” mantra ever since. Perhaps we should now call them the Ari Shavit generation (for an excellent review of Shavit’s book by a member of a younger Israeli generation, see here).

Third, the almost total silence in academic circles about the ASA decision outside the pro-Israel chorus is deafening. Only the anti-academic boycott absolutists, like the American Association of University Professors, have criticized the decision. But that organization criticized the boycott of South African universities during the apartheid era.

So, on the one hand, the BDS movement is small but growing. On the other hand, the critics of BDS don’t seem to be expanding their circle outside the Zionist “seniors” orbit.

I would like to think, as one who is deeply disturbed by the turn that Zionism took when the State of Israel was established, and the way it was established, including the forced expulsion of the majority of the inhabitants of Palestine, the expropriation of their lands, and their transfer to Jewish hands, that the successes of the global BDS movement represent a growing delegitimization of the Israeli state until it comes to grips with its illiberal legacy. But that is wishful thinking, at least for the present. As the recent position paper published by Molad, the Israeli center-left think tank, shows, Israel’s legitimacy is taken for granted by most of the world.

What fuels the current dissatisfaction with the State of Israel is the ongoing control of the lives, land, and resources of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It is not the failure of Israel to allow significant numbers of refugees to return to their homes. Nor is it the systemic and foundational discrimination against the Palestinian natives in violation of their human and citizen rights (not to mention the Balfour Declaration). These two failures are addressed in the global BDS movement, but I cannot help but feel that were a Palestinian state to arise, the other issues would not motivate anybody but the Palestinians and maybe some of their supporters to continue the fight.

So one would expect that liberal supporters of Israel would bracket their differences with the global BDS movement and join hands with them over the one thing on which they agree—the need to end the occupation, since the movement will probably be ineffectual otherwise. Yet, if Peter Beinart is at all representative, liberal Zionists can’t even agree with the global BDS movement on the meaning and conditions of the end to the occupation, such as the demand to return the Golan Heights. Liberal Zionists like Beinart appear to be prepared to continue the Israeli occupation if the Israelis and Palestinians do not agree to land swaps. He would be willing to keep the Palestinians under permanent occupation if they failed to agree to grant Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall. Were Israel to annex the West Bank and grant Palestinians Israeli citizenship, even remove the settlers, would he continue to call for Zionist BDS?

Perhaps he would, but it doesn’t matter. Malgré lui, and to his credit, Beinart has effectively joined hands with the global BDS movement, at least in the sense that he calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against companies that directly aid the settlers. If that places him with Mahmoud Abbas rather than Omar Barghouti, dayyenu, it’s enough for us. The important thing is that he doesn’t stand with official Israel on this matter.

Let’s face it: the history of progressive Zionism, like the history of labor Zionism, or socialist Zionism, has been a history of ethnic nationalism and tribalism trumping liberal values (and sometimes masquerading as liberal values.) It has also been remarkably ineffectual, continually steamrolled by what Israeli journalist Hayim Baram calls Israel’s “chauvinist center.”

But now there is the modest growth of the BDS movement, first in Europe, and now in the U.S. Who know? Since liberal Zionists have failed to end the moral scandal of the occupation, perhaps “salvation will come from other” quarters, working in parallel to, if not in conjunction with, liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart.

For my part, I would join hands with most any group of Palestinian civil society to end Israeli control over Palestinian lives, liberty, and property, even if I did not agree with all its motivations and aims. As it so happens, I actually agree with the three ends of the Palestinian BDS call, which, if implemented, would at least allow for a genuinely democratic and Jewish state rather than the ethnic-exclusivist Jewish state that Israel is today.