A Progressive Response to BDS

This essay comes in three parts. It begins with a brief statement on the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then presents my take on boycotts generally, and finally offers an analysis of BDS’s mode of operation and its vision for the endgame of the conflict. 

Assessing the situation

Reasonably well informed people, averagely sensitive and equipped with an intuitive sense of justice, find it increasingly difficult to remain indifferent to Israel’s conduct. The occupation, now nearing its 50th year, has turned Gaza, and to a lesser extent the West Bank, into de facto detention zones. It humiliates millions of Palestinians, robs them of meaningful citizenship, and violates their human rights on a daily basis. The consistent refusal by official Israel to recognize the tragic consequences of 1948 for the Palestinians and the continuous disregard for the refugee problem are unacceptable.

The notable drift in Israel’s public sphere towards essentialist thought patterns with obvious racist elements underwrites disturbing policies which resemble those practiced by the Apartheid regime of South Africa. The inferno of Gaza, in which Israel is a willing collaborator with Egypt, is untenable. So are the periodic outbursts of violence initiated by Israel against Gaza, which are grossly disproportionate to any damage caused by missiles launched by Gazans at Israeli targets.

All this amounts to unacceptable intrusions on the part of Israel beyond the pale of reasonable behavior, common sense and natural justice.

This assessment of the situation in Israel and Palestine is not radically different from those offered by spokespersons for BDS – the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement behind the current call to boycott Israeli universities. I also agree that BDS has dramatically enhanced global awareness of the situation in Israel and Palestine, successfully propelling a realization in the West of the urgent need for meaningful change.  

My unease stems from the leap of faith and logic associated with suggestion that descent people who are enraged by the situation and seek justice for Palestine must boycott Israeli universities and cultural institutions. I find this leap not only misguided and flawed in logic, but also cynical and fundamentally dangerous – to Palestinians, to Israelis, to the Middle East and to world peace.

Boycotts 101

Boycotts and sanctions are legitimate forms of political brinkmanship that can be inspiring and effective. Captain Charles Boycott, the heavy-handed manager of an estate in 1880s Ireland, evicted 11 tenant families for petty debts. Outraged parishioners got organized and declared that until he reinstates those families, no one would work for the state or trade with it. To save the summer’s harvest, Boycott hired farm workers from another parish. At the end of the summer however he discovered that, the costs of transporting and protecting his replacement work force exceeded the harvest’s worth. To cut the estate’s losses, he then reinstated the evicted families.

Countless instances of boycott have taken place since. Famous ones include the boycott of British goods in China in retaliation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902; the Jewish American boycott of Henry Ford in the 1920s; Ghandi’s boycott of British goods in the 1940s; the Montgomery bus boycott during the American civil rights movement in the 1950s; and the economic and disinvestment movement against South Africa in the 1980s.

To be effective, a boycott must fulfill four criteria:

A. Those boycotted must be primarily and directly responsible for the injustice (Charles Boycott was the manager who instigated the eviction),

B. Those boycotted must be capable of rectifying the injustice as soon as they resolve to do so (Boycott could re-instate those evicted at will, and eventually did),

C. The conditions set for lifting the boycott must be clear, uncontestable and doable,  

D. Those boycotted must trust the boycotters to truly want their conditions to be met, without fear of any hidden future stipulations down the road.

The call for an academic boycott of Israel, as reflected for example in the resolution carried at the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) on 20 November 2015[1] fails miserably on all four accounts.  

First, Israeli universities are not directly or primarily responsible for the occupation and the violation of Palestinians’ human rights. Second, these institutions cannot, even if they wanted to, rectify the situation.[2] Third, the condition set for ending the suggested boycott (“until such time as [Israeli universities] end their complicity etc….”) is deliberately murky.  I want to invite the reader to perform a mental exercise. Think of a university you know. Now consider the following three questions:

  • In 2015, is this  university currently more or less complicit in the US-led invasion of Iraq that it had been five years ago?
  • Is it more or less complicit in US drone attacks, social inequality or police treatment of minorities than the university down the road?
  • How would you go about determining the answers to these two questions?

If you are having difficulty producing sensible answers, do not despair. These questions have no obvious answers. I bring them here to illustrate that the pivotal condition of the AAA’s 2015 resolution cannot be met.[3]

Failure on criteria C of course leads to failure on criteria D. Those boycotted - and here I speak for myself and virtually every Israeli academic I conversed with on the boycott, including friends positioned on Israel’s far left – interpret the impossible conditions as proof that BDS has no interest in any Israeli university ever qualifying to have the boycott lifted. As the report of the AAA’s own Task Force on engagement with Israel and Palestine states, the initiative to boycott Israeli universities could potentially lead to an indefinite ostracization.

An indefinite boycott is deplorable not only because it is too harsh or too extreme. It is unacceptable because it defeats the purpose which every sanction ever deployed for political brinkmanship strives to achieve: to motivate the boycotted party to redirect its conduct and induce positive change. Why do anything when you think that however hard you try, you will never really qualify to have the sanction lifted?

The Political Context of the Current Call for Boycott

Boycotters are a diverse crowd. They have no official leadership and cannot be held collectively accountable for anything. But based on my observation of Palestinian politics for many years, I can say that amongst the leaders of BDS many dream of a future without Israel. Some of them have held this view for decades. Others joined the drift more recently. But that is clearly the dominant sentiment amongst them.

Others in that diverse camp (and many potential supporters) may see a future for Israel, perhaps even through a two state solution. But rather than clarifying this crucial point, BDS’s leaders deliberately obfuscate it. The standard line is that the movement ‘has no position’ on the endgame – it is strictly focusing on human rights for Palestinians.

This position is deeply unconvincing and unsettling. BDS’s leaders do have a position. But since the notion of a future without Israel is hard to sell, they do their best to mute and to embellish it. An attempt to undo Israel is thereby camouflaged as an attempt to reform it. And a boycott designed to isolate, marginalize and silence Israeli moderates pretends to be a quest to reduce academic complicity as part of a larger struggle for human rights.

To be clear, I do not wish to trivialize the struggle for human rights, to which I have been committed throughout my career in academia and as part of Israeli and international civil society. But in the case in point, calling to boycott academic and cultural institutions as a means to promote human rights is decontextualized and misguided. Its real intention is to instrumentalize universities in Israel and academic associations abroad to achieve a broader, much more sinister objective.

This is the seed of wrath in BDS - its original sin. A boycott and sanctions campaign cannot work if it denies its target a future. It can only work if those boycotted can expect a brighter turn once they comply with the boycotters’ demands.  Applying boycott in a situation where the actual goal is to eliminate your opponent’s existence will result in die-hard unwillingness to compromise.

This is why BDS has never focused on attempts to pressurize Israel economically.   Economic sanctions are carrot-and-stick ploys, forcing those under pressure to do things against their will now in exchange for an alleviation of the pressure in the future. BDS, which strives to eclipse Israel altogether, has no carrots for it. That is why it has neglected economic sanctions, leaving them to sporadic  action  by  committed student activists  on US campuses who operate with little intervention, supervision or direction from BDS’s leadership.

An academic and cultural boycott, on the other hand, is a perfect fit for those who seek a future without Israel.

The Netanyahu government’s uncompromising and violent conduct in recent years brought international sympathy for Israel to an all time low. BDS now hopes that this fall from grace could soon be followed by Israel’s ultimate collapse. They see an opportunity for them to play an active role in this process: demonize Israel as a radically essentialized epitome of evil, and you might expedite its ultimate demise.   

This strategy finds willing partners on the Israeli right, where politicians thrive on cultivating an ethos which suggests that ‘the whole world is against us’.  Moreover, it is a strategy which cannot tolerate Israeli moderates. A vibrant intellectual milieu, where academics and artists embrace complexity and nuance, subverts BDS’s essentializing mission. Israelis who openly criticize the occupation and the government, who stand in solidarity with Palestinian farmers against settler violence, who work with Palestinian whose villages with no electricity to install solar panels, wind turbines and rainfall water systems – such Israelis have no place in BDS’s cosmology.   

Israelis whose actions and integrity complicate BDS’s over-simplified, self-righteous, monolithic tale of evil colonial oppressors versus angelic indigenous victims must be marginalized and silenced. Stakes are even higher when it comes to people like my friend the late Edward Said and like Daniel Barenboim, whose West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings  Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to play classical music together, was declared ‘boycottable’ by BDS in 2012. In fact, as far as BDS is concerned, the more amenable to dialogue we are, and the more prominent we might become, the more ‘boycottable’ we must remain. 

Those convinced that Israel should not have been created in the first place, or that it no longer has the right to exist, are entitled to their opinion. But they have obligations, too. They must come clean about seeking a post-Israel endgame. They must own up to the highly stereotyped, dichotomized incitement they pursue. They must develop detailed plans for what the new post-Israel reality might look like, with particular attention to the process they think might lead there. And they must openly acknowledge the terrible price both Palestinians and Israelis might have to pay for an attempt to force this vision onto Israelis who, apart from a tiny group of academics, are unable to imagine such a scenario even as an intellectual exercise. In short, they need to heed Noam Chomsky’s warning, in a 2014 article in The Nation, that BDS and its supporters must be careful what they wish for.

The conversation I am proposing here will be tense. It will take place far outside the comfort zone of those amongst the BDS leadership who have so far controlled its discourse. But it will be a more honest one. Most importantly, it will allow stakeholders and observers to form opinions and decisions based on real positions, not deceitful manipulations.

This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here


[1] The issue will be put to an electronic ballot by the entire membership of the AAA between April 15 and May 15 2016.

[2] A nested argument which I will not develop here is that ‘complicity’, of which Israeli universities are repeatedly but not convincingly accused by boycotters, is an irregularity for which boycott is not necessarily the best remedy.

[3] This by the way is not a first. In 2014, many anthropologists signed a petition calling to boycott Israeli universities which had a different condition, equally impossible to meet: that Israeli universities ‘call on Israel’ to comply with BDS’s blueprint for normalization (above). It is impossible because universities do not, cannot and must not, as institutions, take sides in political debates that split the societies in which they operate down the middle.