A Leftist's Critique of BDS

Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images

What do you call a movement that polarizes and even penalizes the progressive community, increases the intransigence of ordinary Israelis, and provides political cover for the most extreme right-wing ultra-nationalists?

These days, progressives should call that movement Global BDS.

A predictable tempest roiled Philadelphia last month when the University of Pennsylvania reluctantly sponsored a public conference on boycott, divestment and sanctions. More recently, a highly-charged argument over Israeli seltzer and organic paprika has made a battleground of the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, a progressive organization that provides world-class training to social change leaders is being forced to fend off attacks for daring to bring its expertise to Israel.

More than two years ago, I wrote an op-ed explaining why the New Israel Fund doesn’t support BDS. We found that while boycotts, divestment actions, or sanctions in general may be legitimate tactics for change, the Global BDS movement targeting Israel is counter-productive and inflammatory. (Boycotting goods and services coming from the settlements, however, is another matter.) Moreover, Global BDS, even when it succeeds, tends to penalize collectively academics, artists and others who actually oppose the occupation, while leaving untouched those responsible for Israel’s most destructive decisions.

Since that time, the movement has accomplished very little. Major corporations have not stopped doing business in Israel or the territories; the exception that proves the rule was a pullout from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv light rail project. Universities and churches are not divesting. A few European pension funds have changed their investment policies. A few singers have cancelled their concerts. That’s about it. Meanwhile, the reality of occupation and the continuing erosion of Israel’s democracy remain unchanged.

But the damage from Global BDS also continues, and we can’t just dismiss its activists as modern-day Don Quixotes tilting at windmills.

That’s because the BDS bogeyman allows the proponents of the status quo to deflect pressure for change by pointing to the imminent danger to Israel posed by this so-called giant delegitimizing force. Count how many times settler organizations and other right-wing ultranationalists cite BDS as evidence that the world is just anti-Israel, period, giving them cover for continuing to push the same odious policies. In this way, both the BDS proponents and their arch-enemies get what they really need—publicity way out of line with the actual impact of the movement, and fodder for their own propaganda machines.

The folly of Global BDS activists is compounded when they target the institutions and organizations that promote peace and justice.

This was borne out recently by a BDS attack on the Rockwood Leadership Institute. RLI is a well-respected training institute, headquartered in Oakland, with a long record of providing top-notch leadership training to progressive organizations.

Rockwood is also funded by NIF, and it partners with our action arm SHATIL to bring leadership training to progressive civil society leaders in Israel. And for this, the Rockwood leadership has been called to account by BDS proponents, who demand that this organization—which empowers the most open-minded Israelis—take political positions regarding very divisive issues, come out in favor of the Palestinian right of return, and stop “enabling the occupation.”

Seriously? These BDS proponents remind me of a teenager who, afraid to take on the real bullies from the jockocracy, persecutes the geeky kids who make easier targets. In this case, the geeky kids at Rockwood, true to their mission, are patiently listening to the case made by global BDS proponents because they actually believe in discourse and dialogue to move forward productively.

I admire their restraint. I cannot emulate it.

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It’s obvious whom Global BDS attracts. There are those who naively believe the situation can’t be changed until Israel is being beaten, metaphorically or actually, with an international club. Some of those people are well-intentioned, horrified by 44 years of occupation and human rights abuses, and stand ready to use anything they can for leverage. Others clearly intend the end of Israel as a recognizably Jewish entity, and they hold Israel to standards that no other nation in its circumstances could meet. This group reminds me of the radical Israeli ultra-nationalists who will not accept any challenge to Jewish hegemony over the entire Land. Both are maximalists whose all-or-nothing ambitions continue to collide to everyone’s detriment.

There is another way. Those of us who truly care about Israelis and Palestinians must support the beleaguered Israelis working to defeat the status quo. We must encourage groups like Rockwood, the Presbyterian church, and European pension funds to operate and fund in Israel, with the long-term goal of empowering pro-democracy and anti-occupation forces. We must engage, rather than disengage.

Anyone who cares about Israelis and Palestinians can play a productive role in ending this prolonged conflict. We can support political leaders and organizations, in the U.S. and Israel, with a demonstrated commitment to democracy and a two state solution. Let’s do that, and relegate Global BDS to the trash-heap of failed strategies, where it belongs.